Annually, schools and libraries across the nation celebrate Read Across America Day on (or near) March 2nd, the birthday of children’s author Dr. Seuss. The National Education Association’s (NEA) Read Across America program raises awareness about literacy and calls for every child in every community to celebrate reading all year long. In honor of National Reading Month, Women’s History Month, National Read Across America Day, Dr. Seuss Day, and the upcoming International Women’s Day on March 8th, we’re here to share a little bit of history on literacy and women’s history, plus 20 empowering books for girls and young women.
A Little Bit of History on Literacy and Women’s History
Historically, there have been persistent efforts to prevent girls and women from learning how to read, and reading what they want.
During the Middle Ages, girls and women had little to no chance of getting an education, especially if they came from a peasant background. Girls and women of the upper class could earn an education in some cases, but their learning was very limited and controlled, and was intended only to prepare them for being respectable wives and mothers. It’s no coincidence that many of the earliest women intellectuals were nuns, as these women were encouraged to further their education to understand biblical teachings. In 1608 at the age of 14, Sister Juliana Morell earned what is believed to be the first university degree earned by a woman in the Western world. (Speaking of inspirational women’s firsts, don’t forget to celebrate mathematician Sonia Kovalevsky this spring, too!)
It’s hard to determine even an estimate of how many girls and women in early-modern societies could read and write, but it is known that women’s reading was disapproved of and barred for a long time. When Gutenberg’s printing press made books easier to get ahold of in the 15th century, more and more women began spending time with them. Eventually, many men gave up on the idea of forbidding women from reading, and began publishing “helpful advice” books they thought would have a “good influence” on women. It’s also worth noting that many book publishers began putting out small, more affordable versions of books that women could easily conceal from disapproving husbands.
In these times, women writers were often considered to be foolish or insane, especially if they wrote about ideas that might be socially disruptive. Conversely, if their books seemed to make sense, many then believed the books were actually written, secretly, by men.
What exactly was it that men feared about women’s literacy? Early fearers believed reading could endanger a woman’s mental or physical health. More specifically, men feared women’s reading would lead them to think independently, imagine a different life for themselves, stand up against men, and no longer yearn for their approval. And all these things certainly did happen. The accessibility of literature via inexpensive magazines, “commercial lending libraries,” and well-located bookshops, plus the increasing spread of compulsory education, led to wider-spread literacy across both sexes, and the novel became hugely popular during the nineteenth century.
The Fight to Improve Girls’ and Women’s Literacy Continues
While progress has been made in our lifetimes (and by our predecessors) to improve literacy for girls and women, the journey is far from over. There are still more than 400 million women worldwide who can’t read. Fortunately, despite obstacles, educating girls continues to be at the forefront for many. For instance, after 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for speaking out on behalf of girls and their right to learn, she carried on fighting for that right. With her father, she established the Malala Fund, which is dedicated to giving every girl an opportunity to achieve the future she wants. In 2014, Malala received the Nobel Peace Prize and became the youngest Nobel laureate ever.
In December 2018, the Malala Fund released its Girl Advocate Guide, a resource developed in 10 languages to help teach girls how to take action for their rights and education. A few months earlier, in October 2018, girls’ education advocate and former first lady Michelle Obama announced the launch of an international program called Girls Opportunity Alliance, which aims to support those working to educate girls around the world. During a panel discussion on “The Power of an Educated Girl,” Obama said,
When I think about the 62 million girls not in school, I think of myself and my daughters—all my girls, all our girls. I think about where I would be in my life if I didn’t work hard in school and [hadn’t] had the opportunity to go to college and law school. I wouldn’t be here. It’s imperative—and it’s my passion and my mission—that every girl on the planet has the same opportunity that I have and my daughters have.
Empowering Books for Girls and Young Women
Literacy is essential to helping women maintain their independence and livelihood. And research shows that a woman’s reading skill greatly influences the academic success of her children, should she choose to become a mother. In a 2010 message from the United Nations, then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Every literate woman marks a victory over poverty.”
In the classroom (and at home), providing empowering books for girls is one great place to start building literacy skills early on. That being said, research shows that many children’s books perpetuate stereotypical gender constructions, so when adding empowering books for girls to your classroom library, look for inclusive books that encourage uniqueness, respect, diversity, self-identity, and empathy, and also feature characters of color and different abilities. Additionally, it’s just as important to provide these same books to boys, too, to further normalize images of girls and women as powerful, strong role models. The NEA says,
In our diverse and complex society, students need books that provide both windows and mirrors if we are going to create more readers, writers, and people who feel included and recognized, and who understand that the world is far richer than just their experiences alone.
To celebrate Read Across America Day and Dr. Seuss Day, here are some of Dr. Seuss’s most inspiring messages, plus 20 empowering books for girls, boys, and young adults that feature strong girls and feminine characters in leading roles:
Some of Dr. Seuss’s Greatest Messages:
- Sometimes given as a graduation gift, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! talks about facing adversity, overcoming obstacles, and doing great things—focusing on the notion that these are all tasks we’re well-equipped to achieve.
- The message in The Lorax, which warns of the dangers of harming the environment, is that anyone has the power to change the world: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
- Another often-gifted Dr. Seuss book, Happy Birthday to You!, celebrates individuality and hones in on the message that being unique is something to be proud of.
Empowering Books for Elementary- to Middle-School–Level Readers:
- Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and illustrator David Roberts: This bestseller was inspired by real-life makers Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, and champions STEM, girl power, and women scientists. (Check out Beaty’s and Roberts’s other STEM favorites, including Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer.)
- The Breadwinner: A Graphic Novel based on the original book by Deborah Ellis and adapted from the feature film directed by Nora Twomey: This 80-page graphic novel tells the story of 11-year-old Parvana who must disguise herself as a boy to support her family during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan.
- Cam Jansen series by David A. Adler: This series—of almost three dozen beginning-level chapter books—follows the adventures of fifth-grade super-sleuth Cam Jansen as she solves mysteries alongside her best friend, Eric.
- Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love: This story is about a young boy who discovers his passion for fantastical mermaids, imagination, and fashion design. “You may have a hard time not thinking long and hard about [this book] after you put it down.” —Betsy Bird, children’s book author
- Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison: This bestseller features the stories of 40 iconic and lesser-known women who “broke barriers of race and gender to pave the way for future generations.”
- Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai and illustrator Kerascoët: Malala carefully and thoughtfully shares the story of her childhood in a way a young audience can better understand, showing them insight into the worldview that gives her hope even in the most difficult of times.
- Matilda by Roald Dahl and illustrator Quentin Blake: This well-known book (and movie) features the story of an avid book lover with telekinetic powers, and encourages independence, individuality, and standing up for what you believe in.
- Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School by Janet Halfmann and illustrator London Lad: Lilly Ann, who was born into slavery, secretly learned to read and write, and then went on to secretly teach hundreds of other enslaved people, despite the great risks.
- The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi: When Unhei moves from Korea to the US and starts at a new school where students can’t pronounce her name, she struggles to fit in. She begins a quest to find an American name for herself instead, but along the way, she finds friends who help her be proud of her Korean name.
- She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History by Chelsea Clinton and illustrator Alexandra Boiger: This book tells the stories of 13 women who defied limits, broke barriers, and went on to change the status quo.
Empowering Books for Middle- to High-School–Level Readers:
- The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy’s Great Idea by Ann M. Martin: This bestselling series taught girls that they could turn their talents and passions into businesses, and that a group of women united is more powerful than being alone or against one another.
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson: This memoir is a collection of poems that span Woodson’s childhood as an African American girl in the 1960s and 70s, and is infused with a powerful sense of place, community, and family.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: This timely book (turned movie) teaches us a lot about finding justice, coping with loss, and struggling to find somewhere to belong.
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: Esperanza Cordero is a young Latina growing up in Chicago trying to figure out how she and her immigrant family fit into their surroundings and their new culture.
- I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai: Malala shares her inspirational story and the fight for girls’ rights and education that nearly led to her death, driving home the notion that anyone can change the world.
- Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz: Etta struggles to find a place where she fits in—she was kicked out of her clique because of her sexuality, and she doesn’t think she fits the stereotypical mold to become a ballerina. But then she forms a new friendship with a girl she meets in her eating disorder support group.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: This graphic memoir recalls Satrapi’s adolescence in Tehran, Iran during and after the Islamic revolution, providing a fascinating look at how incredibly different life can be for teenage girls around the world.
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: High school student Melinda has become isolated from her peers. This story reveals the trauma that altered Melinda’s behavior, and focuses on the importance of communication, compassion, and fighting back against sexual assault.
- A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls by Various Authors: This “thrill ride through history” showcases the stories of girls across America who have charted their own course. From bodyguards and barkeeps to screenwriters and schoolteachers, they all have a story to tell.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: In this sci-fi classic young adult novel, Meg Murry fights against dark forces to save her brother and father, and explores concepts of mathematics and quantum physics along the way.
These lists of empowering books for girls and young women barely scrape the surface of the incredibly vast and diverse library that’s out there. If you’d like to see even more, most of our top picks came from reading lists curated by multiple organizations, and those lists are available in our sources section below. A Mighty Girl also features over 3,000 empowering books for girls.
The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.
—Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
For further teaching resources, Edutopia has compiled lesson-planning resources for Women’s History Month, and here’s how you can empower girls and young women to pursue STEM.
Acocella, J. (2012, October 15). Turning the page. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/10/15/turning-the-page
Anderson, K. (2018, March 8). 28 empowering books with strong female characters. Today’s Parent. Retrieved from https://www.todaysparent.com/family/books/books-about-strong-girls/#
Chapman, E. (2015, March 4). 12 empowering children’s books to add to little girls’ bookshelves. Bust. Retrieved from https://bust.com/books/13817-12-empowering-children-s-books-to-add-to-little-girls-bookshelves.html
Doll, J. (2017, January 30). 11 young-adult books for stoking the feminist fire. The Strategist. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/strategist/2017/01/good-feminist-books-for-teenage-girls.html
Gardner, A. (2018, October 11). Michelle Obama is back and doing what she does best—standing up for girls. Glamour. Retrieved from https://www.glamour.com/story/michelle-obama-new-education-initiative-global-girls-alliance
Harrison, J. (2018, February 26). 4 life lessons I learned from reading Dr. Seuss books. Reading Partners. Retrieved from https://readingpartners.org/blog/4-lessons-dr-seuss/
Hess, A. (2012, October 11). A brief history of the beef against women reading. Slate. Retrieved from https://slate.com/human-interest/2012/10/a-woman-reader-by-belinda-jack-women-s-books-have-always-been-marginalized-from-the-roman-empire-to-chick-lit.html
Jarema, K. (2017, March 7). 15 empowering YA fiction books to read on International Women’s Day. Bustle. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/p/15-empowering-ya-fiction-books-to-read-on-international-womens-day-42508
Launching Malala Fund’s Girl Advocate Guide. (2018, December 7). The Malala Fund. Retrieved from https://www.malala.org/newsroom/girl-advocate-guide
Levy, R. (2016). A historical reflection on literacy, gender and opportunity: Implications for the teaching of literacy in early childhood education. International Journal of Early Years Education, 24(3), 279–293. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09669760.2016.1165652
Literacy has empowering effect on women, UN officials say. (2010, September 8). UN News. Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2010/09/350122-literacy-has-empowering-effect-women-un-officials-say#.Vt35v-bLlgx
Malala’s Story. (n.d.) The Malala Fund. Retrieved from https://www.malala.org/malalas-story
Marshall, A. (2016, March 8). Literacy is key to women’s equality. Seeds of Literacy. Retrieved from https://www.seedsofliteracy.org/literacy-women-equality/
Newman, S. (n.d.) Education in the Middle Ages. The Finer Times. Retrieved from http://www.thefinertimes.com/Middle-Ages/education-in-the-middle-ages.html
Pak, E. (2018, September 4). When women became nuns to get a good education. History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/women-education-medieval-nuns-church
Pardi, E. (2017, September 27). 3 Dr. Seuss books that contain profound lessons for your toddler. Aleteia. Retrieved from https://aleteia.org/2017/09/27/3-dr-seuss-books-that-contain-profound-lessons-for-your-toddler/
Read Across America. (2019). About the calendar. Retrieved from https://www.readacrossamerica.org/
Stiefvater, S. (2017, April 12). 10 books every teenage girl should read. PureWow. Retrieved from https://www.purewow.com/family/books-every-teenage-girl-should-read
Whaley, K. (2017, June 30). 50 crucial feminist YA novels. Barnes & Noble. Retrieved from https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/50-crucial-feminist-ya-novels/