Sometimes it feels like the deck is stacked against finding feminist-friendly children’s literature. A couple weeks ago—in this fine, modern year of 2013, mind you—I walked into a big chain bookstore. At the customer service desk, I asked about picture books featuring women scientists, women science teachers, and/or girl or women science nerds. The man at the desk shuffled me off with apparent relief to “our children’s literature expert.” But the children’s literature expert was unable to think of anything that fit the bill. To make matters worse, she paraphrased my request as “science books for little girls”—as though only girls could possibly read about women. Sigh.
While this was happening, I remembered my mother’s annoyance a few years ago when she went to another big chain bookstore to buy a collection of stories for a two-year-old. When she asked for help, the bookstore employee’s first question was, as always, “Boy or girl?”
And when I asked at our large, urban, otherwise-wonderful public library for help finding nonsexist chapter books, the otherwise-wonderful children’s librarian said simply, “I don’t think I can help you with that part. I’ve never really paid attention to that sort of thing.”
What’s a feminist parent, aunt, grandpa, friend, or otherwise child-nurturing humanoid to do?
Here are six strategies:
- · First, it’s a good idea to articulate your specific aims and requirements. It’s easy to say you want “feminist-friendly” or “nonsexist” children’s books, but what exactly does that mean to you? What’s important? What’s nonnegotiable? Asking librarians and booksellers (or searching online) for more specific characteristics sometimes yields better results. Even if that doesn’t pan out, the process of thinking about this stuff can help you make judgments. It can also make room for awesome conversations with the children in your life.
- · ‘Shop’ for a librarian and/or for a library if you live where this is possible. My family is lucky to live in a city with a truly vibrant library system and lots of branch libraries. Although we haven’t had much luck getting book recommendations at the main branch’s huge children’s room, the librarians at the system’s tiniest branch have gotten to know my family well and offer great ideas. After all, librarianship draws a lot of progressive folks who are into social justice as well as books.
- · Ask, and ask again. First, if you keep asking, you will eventually run into the right bookseller or librarian. Second, you may help librarians and booksellers get ready to serve future feminists. If people ask, they’ll eventually get the idea and do some research.
- · Keep an eye out for progressive independent booksellers. Some small bookstores have tiny but well-curated children’s sections. Their employees may be more aware of concerns about sexism and of great non-mainstream books to explore.
- · Read lots of short reviews. I use the book-centered social networking site Goodreads a lot and find the community reviews there really helpful. The site’s recommendations and lists are worth checking out, too. On Amazon, the very negative reviews are often the most illuminating (if only of their authors’ quirks). It’s also great to create a community of likeminded readers for yourself at Goodreads or in other online spaces.
- · Make the most of not-so-feminist-friendly children’s literature. Nonsexist children’s literature is important, but so is talking about gender stereotypes, sexism, and social change. When we read books that reinforce gender-based stereotypes, we have the opportunity to help our children question those messages.
And here are six resources to get you started:
- · Created by a bunch of feminist librarians, the Amelia Bloomer Project offers annual lists of excellent feminist literature (divided into fiction and nonfiction within three age categories: picture books, middle readers, and young adult). The project also has a blog. It’s all a component of the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association. Unfortunately, because of the age of the prize/organization, the lists only extend back to 2002.
- · A 2008 post at Feministe asked for—and got lots of—recommendations for feminist-friendly children’s literature. Tons of neat stuff to check out.
- · Here are two more lists, one of books featuring girls behaving nontraditionally and one of books featuring boys behaving nontraditionally (ditto). They’re old but potentially helpful.
- · Bitch has some ideas about feminist-friendly children’s literature, too!
- · Perhaps unsurprisingly, I review lots of children’s and young adult fiction from a feminist perspective at my blog, First the Egg. Try these posts for specific book ideas.
- · For young people who’ve moved past beginning chapter books and into the land of young adult literature, check out Bitch’s “100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader.”
p.s. And picture-heavy stories about women scientists? I did wind up finding a lot! There are also a couple great books about women scientists for slightly older kids: Dignifying Science and the Smithsonian’s webcomic series Women in Science.
Do you know other great lists or individual books? Please share them in the comments!
Photo credit: Andy Carter on Flickr.