Women’s History Month might be over, but I’m a firm believer in including stories with strong female characters in your regular reading rotation throughout the year, whether you’re reading with young girls or boys. Whenever I highlight picture books with female protagonists, people inevitably respond by telling me that they can’t wait to share them with their daughters or female students. That’s fantastic – it can be incredibly inspiring for young girls to read about women who triumphed over adversity and achieved their dreams. But it’s also important to share these kinds of stories with boys, and to surround them with examples of powerful, inspiring women. Boys who grow up with stories that respect and commend strong, independent, resourceful and successful women are more likely to become young men who believe that women can and should be seen as strong, independent and successful, and respected as such.
To help get you started, here are five fantastic picture books profiling strong, successful female athletes that I hope you’ll consider sharing with young readers whatever their sex.
Edith Houghton was born with a baseball in her hand. She had a passion for the sport that not even 1920s gender expectations could stifle, and at the age of just 10 years old she tried out for a professional women’s baseball team, the Philadelphia Bobbies. Edith quickly made a name for herself with her skill, passion and personality. Girls like Edith Houghton helped break down social barriers, opening doors for generations of female athletes to come.
Alice Coachman had dreams, and she wasn’t about to let poverty, racism or sexism keep her from achieving her goals as an athlete. She raced her way from her childhood in rural Georgia to the 1948 London Olympics, where she represented a nation that actively discriminated against her as an African-American woman. Coachman’s story is one of incredible, unwavering passion and determination, and is an inspiring example of perseverance triumphing over seemingly insurmountable odds.
The odds were never in Wilma’s favour. She contracted polio as a small child, which left her with a paralyzed leg. No one thought Wilma would walk again, let alone run, but Wilma refused to let anything stand in her way. When disability, sexism and racism threatened to kill her dreams, Wilma just put her head down and worked even harder, eventually becoming the first American woman to earn three gold medals in a single Olympic games.
This dual biography profiles Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, two of tennis’ greatest female players, and profiles the intense rivalry between them. Both women came from very different backgrounds and had markedly different playing styles, but their rivalry would eventually turn into a lasting friendship based on mutual respect. The fantastic true story of two strong, independent women.
In 1926, less than a decade after women were given the right to vote, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman, and only the sixth person, to swim the English Channel. She crossed twenty-one miles of treacherous, stormy seas, swimming against a strong current and battling both nature and exhaustion, and in so doing became an international sensation. Not only did Trudy make it across the Channel, she set a new record, beating out all previous male swimmers. A gripping story of a female athlete who challenged society’s gender expectations and found her own place in the history books.
It’s amazing how many books there are that celebrate strong, determined, passionate women who refuse to let anyone or anything stand between them and their dreams. We often tell young people to follow their dreams, and remind them that they can be anything to want to be, but the reality is that dreams don’t just become reality on their own. These incredible women are an inspiration for all young readers, and their stories should be shared with anyone who longs to achieve a dream, whatever that dream might be.