As a lifelong reader myself, I can say without a doubt that exploring the world of books at a young age helped me find my true self and encouraged me to empathize with people from different walks of life. Books can take us to faraway lands, show us how other people think, and allow us to dream beyond limits. A study published in 2013 in Science declared quite succinctly that “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” It goes on to explain, “Theory of Mind is the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires.” And if there’s anything we’ve learned in recent years of black superheroes and all-female movie reboots, representation matters. It’s important for children of all walks of life to be able to see themselves in the books they love.
So plant the seeds of acceptance and understanding early and encourage your children to read. Better yet, encourage your children to read books that empower and inspire them to embrace others of different genders, races, and backgrounds. Luckily, this is in no way a comprehensive list. We live in a time where children’s book authors are more focused than ever on creating books that encourage empathy in kids, but here’s a selection of some of the most beloved empowering books for kids.
Age range: 4-8
Co-written by and based on the life of YouTube personality, spokesmodel, television personality and LGBTQ rights activist Jazz Jennings, this heartwarming book explores the life of a transgender girl. According to one Amazon reviewer, “My daughter enjoyed the tale, and even though she doesn’t realize it yet, she’s learning an important lesson about life.”
For all ages
Do you have a spunky, creative, spirited kid on your hands? Good news: They’re going to love this book. The first novel in a series that spans the life of Anne Shirley, this book follows the 11-year-old OG orphan Annie as she navigates a new family, a new school and a new life in the fictional town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island in the late 1800s. The adventures of a girl with an indomitable spirit will inspire your kids well beyond childhood.
Age range: 5-7 years
Does your little one love to tinker? They’ll find a kindred spirit in Rosie, a little girl who dreams of becoming a great inventor but is too shy and afraid of failing to voice her desire. Until, that is, her great-great-aunt Rose visits her and proves that your first failure isn’t something to be ashamed of, but something to learn from! There are offerings from the same author and illustrator if your little one’s interests lean more towards science or architecture.
Age range: 4-8
Amazing Grace teaches little ones not to let anyone tell them what they can’t do. The book follows a little girl who loves stories and to perform, but when it’s time for her school to cast the role of Peter Pan for their play she’s discouraged from taking on the lead role. While her schoolmates discourage her from trying out because she’s a girl and Peter wasn’t black, our plucky Grace has her Ma and Nana to support her.
Age range: 8-12
Does your kid love a good mystery? Boys and girls alike can be inspired by the legendary and intrepid Nancy. Nancy Drew is a cultural icon, and women from Hillary Clinton to Sandra Day O’Connor have listed her as an inspiration. While it’s true the character isn’t perfect (feminist critics have debated whether she represents contradictory ideas about femininity and in the ‘50s her character was rewritten to be “less assertive”), but between the exciting mysteries and Nancy’s take-charge attitude, there’s something for every child to love.
Age range: 5-7
You’re never too young for feminism! These board books are perfect for little readers and are filled with colorful portraits of real, inspirational women from history. This set includes a book each on female artists, pioneers, leaders and activists. A fan on Amazon says about the books, “I love these books…these are essential reading for any child. PLEASE do not only buy this for your little girls—even though it is important for them to read about these women and see strong leaders that are women. BUT, our boys need to read these just as much as our girls. Half of the problem is that little girls don’t see or hear enough about women leaders, but the other half is that our boys do not—and thus learn a message that they repeat about what women are able to do.”
Age range: 3-7
As I’ve said, representation is important. This book, which will be published just in time to make a fantastic holiday gift for the little leader in your life, profiles 40 females leaders from black history. Trailblazing women like Sojourner Truth, Bessie Coleman, Shirley Chisholm, and more all get adorably-illustrated portraits and kid-friendly bios.
Age range: 8-10
It can be hard for children to fully grasp the extent that restrictive gender norms can hurt kids that feel their identity lies outside those norms. All I Want To Be Is Me is a great way to help younger kids understand the experience of a transgender child. With beautiful illustrations, this book comes from a place of love, acceptance, and inclusion.
Age range: 3-7
Unhei has just moved to the US from Korea, and like any new kid at school, she’s nervous about her first day. Anxious about how the American kids pronounce her Korean name, she tells her class that she doesn’t have one instead. The class decide to try out new names for her, and while Unhei tries to be Amanda or Laura, in the end she finds confidence in her heritage and chooses to keep her Korean name. An Amazon reviewer puts it beautifully: “[The Name Jar is] a wonderful book about embracing who you are and being a good friend to people who seem different on the outside. We are all more alike than we are different.”
Age range: 4-7
The only thing Morris loves more than using his imagination is a particular tangerine dress. When his classmates tell him that dresses are for girls, Morris uses his imagination to help him convince them that his uniqueness is what makes him special.
For all ages
When in doubt, turn to this excellent compendium of 450 books that champion girls. Once Upon A Heroine is an exhaustive list of books that celebrate the bravery of female characters. Drawing from every genre and with options for every age group, this book understands the need for representation. The authors based the list on recommendations from teachers, librarians, and more and is sure to be something you’ll turn to time and time again.
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