girl from Ethiopia looking at the camera

by Marsha Rakestraw

There is no shortage of examples of how sexism continues to pervade our society. One recent example is this video of women actors reading casting call character descriptions (most of which are pretty demeaning) for female characters.

Numerous studies show how much gender imbalance continues to exist in business, politics, pop culture, and even children’s literature.

And they also show how important it is for both girls and boys to see strong (or at least prominent) female protagonists.

Girls and women and boys and men need to see girls and women in all kinds of meaningful roles. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are 14 picture books about real women changemakers.

1.  “Aani and the Treehuggers” by Jeannine Atkins
1995. Grades 2-5.
Aani and her community rely on the trees in their forest for their survival. When men come and start cutting down the trees, Aani takes drastic action to save the trees…and her village.

2.  “Through My Eyes” by Ruby Bridges
1999. Grades 4-7.
Infused with relevant photos and quotes, Ruby Bridges tells her own story about when “the civil rights movement came knocking at the door” and transformed the life of a six-year-old girl. Ruby’s journey as one of the children chosen to integrate her school in New Orleans in 1960 reveals a time of crisis, courage, and conviction.

3.  “Doyli to the Rescue: Saving Baby Monkeys in the Amazon” by Cathleen Burnham
2015. Grades 3-5.
Doyli and her family live in the Amazon rainforest, where they operate a sanctuary for orphaned monkeys. Sometimes the mother monkeys are killed for food; other times they’re killed so the babies can be sold as pets. Doyli tries to help them all.

4.  “The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever” by H. Joseph Hopkins
2013. Grades 1-4.
“Not everyone feels at home in the woods. But Kate did.” Katherine Olivia Sessions was the first woman to graduate from the University of California with a science degree. When a teaching job lands her in deserty San Diego, Kate begins a life-long campaign to find plants and trees that “liked hot, dry weather and steep hills and canyons.” Kate’s work transformed San Diego and the famous Balboa Park into “the lush, leafy city it is today.”

5.  “Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace” by Jen Cullerton Johnson
2010. Grades 1-5.
Wangari Maathai was raised to respect the trees in her community. When she’s given the chance to go to school, she uses her education to help her community and to restore the environmental destruction that has occurred in Kenya. She launches the Green Belt Movement and helps foster the economic security of women in Kenya and beyond. Despite much resistance to such a powerful woman, Wangari is elected to Kenya’s parliament and wins a Nobel Peace Prize.

6.  “Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909” by Michelle Markel
2013. Grades 1-4.
Clara came to the U.S. with her family, dreaming of a wonderful new life, but she found herself working long hours under unfair and dangerous conditions as a garment worker in New York. She began to encourage her fellow workers to strike and eventually led the “largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history.”

7.  “One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of Gambia” by Miranda Paul
2015. Grades 1-4.
Used to items that biodegrade back into the earth, the people of Njau, Gambia, just dropped their plastic bags whenever they broke or were no longer needed. Bags began to clog roads and waterways and bring disease and kill animals. Isatou noticed the harm all the bags were causing and decided to do something. She began gathering up the plastic bags, cleaning them, and crocheting them into purses. Soon Isatou taught other women in the village to crochet the plastic into new items, and they began selling them at local markets and beyond.

8.  “Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell” by Tanya Lee Stone
2013. Grades K-3.
Back in the time when girls “were only supposed to become wives and mothers. Or maybe teachers, or seamstresses,” Elizabeth Blackwell didn’t always want to be a doctor; but when she decided to become the first female physician in the U.S., she was determined. Despite the fact that dozens of medical schools turned her down — and that the one that accepted her did it largely as a joke — she persisted. Elizabeth graduated with top grades, became a respected physician, and opened the way for more women to become doctors … or whomever they wanted to be.

9.  “Irena’s Jar of Secrets” by Marcia Vaughn
2015. Grades 3-7.
Irena, born to a Polish Catholic family, was raised to extend compassion and respect to all people. When the German army occupied Poland during World War II, Irena began to smuggle food, clothing, medicine and other necessities to Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. Then she began to smuggle children out to safety.

10.  “Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers” by Sarah E. Warren
2012. Grades 2-5.
Dolores is a teacher who notices that her students are hungry and sick and don’t even have shoes. What she discovers about why leads her to stand up for migrant farm workers and their rights to fair pay and safe working conditions.

11.  “Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills” by Renee Watson
2012. Grades K-3.
As a small child, Florence discovers that everyone loves her singing – like a beautiful bird. As she grows older and launches a singing career, she uses her popularity to combat racism, promote civil rights, and help other African-American performers.

12.  “The Librarian of Basra” by Jeanette Winter
2005. K-4.
When war comes, the chief librarian does all she can to help save the library collection, which contains the history and culture of her country.

13.  “Malala: A Brave Girl From Pakistan” by Jeanette Winter
2014. 1-4.
This book uses simple phrases and colorful illustrations to tell the story of Malala, a brave activist fighting for education and freedom for all children. The story includes actual quotes from Malala and treats the violence done to her with care.

14.  “The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps” by Jeanette Winter
2011. Grades K-3.
When Jane was young she loved to watch “all the animals in her world, big and small.” Eventually her passion and persistence led her to Tanzania, where she studied chimpanzees and revolutionized how people see nonhuman animals. Jane’s discoveries also led her to become a passionate advocate for protecting animals and the earth.