How to bring great women (and girls!) to life through books

Once in grammar school, I stood, embarrassed and alone, in front of a class while reading an essay on a woman I would most like to emulate. My heroes at the time were Margaret Mead, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Judy Blume. I was a good girl, a smart girl, a kid who got As, a student who wanted to be a writer, an artist with doodles all over my notebooks. I played guitar and went to church and had lots of friends. But in that essay, I told 32 other students that I wanted to live out the glamorous life, be married multiple times, have a big job that earned me lots of money and have cars and fur coats. I was quoting a song, recalling a fancy relative who I adored and ignoring all of those instincts and inspiration that whispered inside my mind while I wrote the words I thought would impress my classmates.

They laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. And they were right. I liked fancy stuff, which was as fine then as it is now, but I knew better. I knew myself  —and the work of women who moved me, who made me think, who changed the world  — better. I slunk into my seat, crammed the essay into my notebook and tried to forget the humiliation I felt. But I haven't. 

Years later, I wrote another essay, this time as a part of high school applications, about the ways Margaret Mead's work made me think differently about my life as a girl growing up in Chicago. Years after that, I made women the focus of my graduate studies, then taught it at two different colleges. And in those classrooms and texts, I learned about many more women whose lives have opened my thinking even more, whose works have pushed me forward in being a woman and a scholar and a person unafraid to claim my heroes.

I don't give myself a hard time for that glamorous life essay anymore. But I do bring it to mind when I think of all the ways I can prepare my own children to say aloud which women have stirred their souls, made them laugh, sparked their thinking, made them proud and humbled, caused them to question and cry and shout out. I want the library of women who they admire to be on hand at all times — in the books on their nightstands and in their backpacks, in our conversations, on their minds and, eventually, in the essays they write and read aloud. 

Here are some ways I hope we can all make amazing women main characters of our stories and inspiration. 

Get to know girl heroes.

All inspiring stories have a beginning. Help your child connect to girls and young women who have taken bold steps or are changing the world, all during their early years. Fill a basket with biographies and memoirs about girls who show us all it is never too soon to be an activist, leader, dreamer and doer. Get started with I Am Malala (Young Readers Edition), The Story of Ruby Bridges, The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Stone Girl Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Sacajawea, Clara Schumann: PIano Virtuoso, Gabby Douglas' Grace, Gold and Glory: My Leap of Faith and Pocahontas

Be inspired by brave women.

Last summer, when a certain megastar got married, it wasn't his name that was splashed on every single wedding announcement. One female-focused site caused quite a stir with the much-shared headline, "Internationally acclaimed barrister Amal Alamuddin marries an actor." It was cheeky, yes, but also a reminder right there in our Facebook feeds of how often we still refer to women as an accessory to men's accomplishments, earnings, paparazzi following or just their last name. Putting women back on center, shining a light on their great works, not only validates their accomplishments and efforts, it also shows our kids how important each of them are. It shows girls how much they can do, and it underlines the work that women are doing and have done to open possibilities for girls being raised up right now. Alamuddin-up your child's bookshelves with biographies on women who: won the vote in the United States, were real Rosie the Riveters, have made ingenious inventions, were Founding Mothers, propelled Civil Rights, created masterpiece art, lead nations and movements and companies, flew to the edges of the earth, stood up for basic rights, and wrote the words that stir souls

Read and reread great girl characters.

The story goes that JK Rowling was asked by publishers to reduce her byline from her given name to initials so that her books might appeal to a wider audience that included boys. There was concern that seeing her female first name might turn off half of the potential readers of the Harry Potter series. And just last week, I read a so-not-for-kids article about what the series would have been like had Hermione been the main character, with Harry playing a supporting role along with Ron. Because we want our kids to grow up engulfed in beautifully crafted novels written by authors who don't have to hide behind initials, and because we want all of our children to identify and cheer on and understand many, nuanced main characters of both genders, we have to share stories that include girls.  Find books with strong female characters, talk about what makes them strong, flawed, fearless, savvy, loving, hilarious, happy, questioning, quirky, compelling — Annabeth from Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Addy, Flea from the Alvin Ho series, Harriet the Spy, Ramona Quimby, Julie, Jo, PacyFrancie Nolan, Meg Murry, Sheila the Great, Hazel and Willimena are just a few. 

Walk in a historic woman's shoes. 

Use creative play to get to know women who've use their pens, politics, art, speeches, drama and smarts to make a mark. As pretty as books of paper dolls are to page through, they are even more fun to cut apart (crazy!). Create scenes and stories with the dolls, act out what might happen if Susan B. Anthony and Shirley Chisholm met up with Condoleezza Rice today, imagine life as Mae Jemison, gather a council to make new laws or the next great film, or peek at how women's clothing has evolved as their rights have.  Have Michelle Obama interview everyone! Older children can write scripts or transcribe the plays on to paper to be read again or tucked into an accompanying biography that is already lovingly dog-eared. Famous African-American Women, Legendary American Women, more Notable Women,  The Obamas and more are ready for your kid's scissors, Scotch tape and big imaginations. 


Make a movie of an amazing lady's life.

Once the memoirs are read, the characters are revered and the lives have been imagined, hand over a phone or camera so kids can make a movie of their own about an inspiring girl or woman. Based on a true life or made up in the big, beautiful brains of the girls who are writing, directing, starring and editing this film, press play on bringing big moments to the smallest screens.  Roll credits for the women who've come before and the young ones with big dreams? Absolutely. Movie premiere complete with red carpet? Of course! 

Need more ideas for parents and by parents on sparking a love of reading with your kids? Find fabulous resources on the NEA's Parent Page. 

This post reflects a collaboration with the National Education Association’s Raise Your Hand for Student Success campaign. All thoughts and opinions are, of course, my own.