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21 May

The Femininity in Fiction Reading List (Kids Edition)


It will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent more than an hour with me that I am a big fan of reading lists. Odds are, if we’ve ever sat down to coffee and discussed any topic that I have even a mild interest in, I will have recommended multiple books on the subject to you and then said, ‘oh, I’ll just send you a reading list.’ This is partly because I believe to the very depths of my soul that there is nothing in the world that isn’t made better by books (well, stories in general, but let’s stick to books here; my film/TV/video lists are also very extensive, but I’ll come back to these), and partly because I am a recovering academic/teacher and a forever nerd, and that means that I try to put everything into either a) a lesson plan, or b) a research agenda (or, in the very best cases that fill my heart with joy, both!) Reading lists intersect both of those things, so there’s a permanent but ever-evolving database of lists lodged very deeply in my brain. (And in my heart — reading lists are one of my love languages, so know that if I offer one to you, I like you.)

And as I’ve been out in the world talking about MY book and the topic of femininity — specifically, the topic of reframing feminine stereotypes as powerful — I’ve found myself saying to approximately a bajillion people, ‘oh, email me and I’ll send you a reading list.’ There is, as it goes, a reading list included in the book — I could not write a book and not have a running reading list going — but of course I have since expanded it many times over and sub-divided the expanded list into multiple sub-lists organized by sub-topic and by audience. Also, with every new person I speak to I think of a new suggestion based on their unique take on the subject so there are now also customized sub-groups and it’s basically a whole library now.

So I thought, why not just start sharing these and getting them at least partly out of my head and my Word files?

This particular list is inspired by Asha Dornfest, who asked me in an interview for her podcast what books or films I’d recommend for kids, based on the subject matter of The Feminine Revolution, which set me off on a mad, happy scramble through my brain-library. What resulted was a list of books for kids that I think do a great job of characterizing both female and male characters in ways that represent femininity really flexibly and adaptively — that is to say, that have complex characters of both genders, who challenge conventional stereotypes of femininity (and, for that matter, masculinity). The books on the list are all books, I think, that both girls and boys can find inspiration in — and see strength and assertiveness modeled in nuanced ways that invite them to see the power in their own complexity. Of course, I believe them all to be great stories for grown-ups to read as well; the best children’s stories, after all, are the ones are just great stories, full stop. The list below is a partial version of that longer list (lest this post be 20,ooo words), organized in no particular order. (Links in the titles if you cannot help but seek them out; Amazon links are affiliate, FYI.)

Behold, The Femininity in Fiction Reading List for the Young and the Young-at-Heart:

  1. Little Women. I think that everyone should read this book. I think girls should read it; I think boys should read it; I think YOU should read it, if you haven’t already. It’s such a detailed picture of the dynamics of sisterhood, girlhood and womanhood, with a cast of female characters who collectively represent a really rich tapestry of feminine experience (the influence of Pilgrim’s Progress is only very thinly veiled — each character represents a feminine characteristic. Whether these are virtues or vices are up for debate; stay tuned for my Femininity in Literature reading group, which list is headlined by Little Women.) And it’s a work that really explores the dynamics of home and household — the traditional domain of the feminine — in a deeply nuanced way. It’s been subject to no small amount of feminist criticism, but I am (no surprise) of the school that this is a richly proto-feminist work, and a must-read — for boys and men as well as girls and women (Little Men is a topic for another day. Spoiler alert: it’s not essential reading.)
  2. A Wrinkle In Time. Meg is one of the great heroines of contemporary kid lit, of course, but I include AWIT here for its characterization of the family relationships, especially that between Meg and her brother, Charles Wallace. It’s a relationship that is truly lovely, and the two characters really demonstrate the power of sensitivity, emotionality, and intuition, among other feminine-coded characteristics, both as individuals and as a pair. And, of course, the Mrs. Whatsit, Who, and Which, all of whom embody their own feminine powers in thrilling ways. There’s a beautiful graphic novel version if your kids prefer that (I am a firm believer that cultivating love of stories is more important than cultivating love of specific media for story delivery — novels are, after all, just another medium, and were once upon a time considered just as corruptive as screens, a topic for another day. Let your kids read stories in whatever form they prefer! Also, many graphic novels are brilliant works of art in their own right [there’s another list attached to this idea; I warned you.])
  3. The Hunger Games Trilogy. We tend to think of Katniss as a badass, and she is (or becomes one), but she’s also vulnerable, and has to grapple with her very real fears, in a way that should ring true for most girls and boys. And she’s a deeply compassionate, even nurturing heroine — her love for her sister is a core part of the narrative (and who can forget her tenderness with Rue?) But Katniss, aside, there’s also Peeta — a teenage boy who is defined by his likability and his sensitivity, and who is saved more than once by Katniss, but is characterized no less powerfully for it. He’s a favorite male character of mine, because he’s just so unrelentingly lovely (except when he gets brainwashed into being bad). And he’s a BAKER.
  4. Any Peanuts compilation. This may seem an odd recommendation, but hear me out: you will find no more diversely characterized group of kids in any other classic work of fiction. Lucy is the very embodiment of the ‘controlling’ feminine stereotype, but nonetheless represented in a wonderfully celebratory way (I aspired to Lucy’s self-assuredness); Linus and Schroeder and — of course — Charlie Brown are boy characters who are wonderfully nuanced and, arguably, deeply ‘feminine’ in the sense that they showcase characteristics that have historically been coded female (sensitivity, vulnerability, dreaminess, etc.) And Peppermint Patty is probably the first non-binary character in contemporary kid lit (yes, comics can be kid lit) and one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. (If you love Peppermint Patty, find a collection — like the one linked — that includes volumes published after 1966, which is when she was added to the gang. Yes, I know these things. #nerd)
  5. His Dark Materials Trilogy (Philip Pullman). Hands-down one of my favorite fiction series, so I could give you a thousand reasons to read it (I could have said, ‘give it to your kids to read,’ but no. Read it yourself AND give it to your kids, if you haven’t already.) But I’m including it here for the characters. This is another tale in which traditional gender expectations for characters are subverted — Lyra, the heroine, is rebellious and spirited (and a brilliantly talented liar), while Will, her companion-in-adventure, is sensible, responsible, and deeply morally conscious. (And I always love a story with a great female villain.)
  6. The First Rule of Punk (Celia Pérez). Because femininity isn’t about dresses and lipstick and tea parties — it’s about defining for yourself what your female or female-identified experience and identity are. Malú is the kind of girl I was (and still try to be), exercising her femininity through a rock-and-roll eccentricity that is, frankly, awesome.
  7. Any work by Judy Blume. Duh. (I could do a whole reading group on Unpacking Femininity Through the Work of Judy Blume.) (Maybe I will sometime.)
  8. Fairy tales! One of these days I will share my Fairy Tales For Feminists study guide (it’s tied to my next book, so you have to wait a bit), but for now I’ll say this: despite the prevailing opinion that fairy tales teach girls to be passive, most versions of these stories actually have very powerful pro-girl messages, even (especially) in their representation of so-called feminine stereotypes (one day I’ll also share my Princess TED Talks; Cinderella’s stacks up against the best of them.) And I’ll make note of my very favorite fairy tale: The Snow Queen (the story on which Frozen was very loosely based), because it’s a wonderful tale about a beautiful friendship between a girl and a boy — in which the girl saves the boy — and because contains one of my favorite lines in all of folklore: ‘“I can give her no greater power than she has already,” said the woman; “don’t you see how strong that is?”’ Gerda’s feminine power is all that she needs.
  9. Oh, and special fairy tale mention for Neil Gaiman’s version of Hansel and Gretel (gorgeous illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti.) Any version is great, but his brings forward the old woman’s witchiness in a really interesting way, and connects it to Gretel’s discovery of her strength and cunning. It, like The Snow Queen, is at the very top of my Fairy Tales For Feminists reading list!
  10. Additional special fairy tale mention for Grace Lin’s Where The Mountain Meets The Moon, which was inspired by Chinese fairy tales and has the most delightful young heroine, whose strength of character carries her through an amazing adventure.

As I said, this is only a partial list; the longer list also includes Anne of Green Gables (not just because I’m Canadian and obligated), the works of Beverly Cleary, the Nancy Drew series (with caveats), The Babysitters Club series, Persepolis, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (the whole trilogy is great, and yes, you should watch the Netflix movie), a smattering of mythology, one or two books of the Bible, and (with tongue only slightly in cheek) the Sweet Valley High series. Yes, you would want to be part of that reading group/book club. If I do one, I’ll invite you.

(And if you want the original, grown-up reading list from the book, well, you’ll need to get the book, or wait for me to publish more reading lists that draw from it. But I’d rather you buy the book, and of course, you’re going to want to read it anyway, so that you know what I’m on about with FEMININITY THIS and FEMININITY THAT. It’s on Amazon, and at a bookstore near you.)


Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash