Strong Female Characters: The Quest to Find Diversity in Texts

One of my favorite parts of being a literacy coach (and when I was an English teacher) is that my job requires me to read, a lot. In addition to all of the professional reading I do, I am constantly searching for new books that my students will love (or at least are willing to read!).

Recently, I have been thinking more and more about the lack of diversity in the books that we use in our classrooms. Even when giving students choice, many of the books we offer or book talk are written by the same type of author or about the same types of people.

In choosing books to read , ones that I am thinking about sharing with students, I try to think  about race, ethnicity, culture, religion, and gender for ALL of the following:

  • What lens is the author taking in his/her writing?
  • Who are the characters represented in the text?
  • Who are the characters left out of the text?
  • What genre is the writing?
  • Where is the text taking place?
  • Which characters’ voices are heard the most?
  • Which characters’ voices are heard the least?
  • What format is the writing?
    • narrative
    • graphic novel
    • diary
    • illustrated text
    • article
    • digital
    • picture book

Full disclosure: It is REALLY hard to keep all of this in mind when choosing books to read as we, as readers, are obviously drawn to certain texts due to our own interests and preferences. But, as teachers, we must be conscious of reading and offering texts that we might not always be drawn to for the benefit of our students.

I try to glance through as many book lists as I can. I have even started a list of books I want to read based on these lists, searching for a more balanced reading list for our school.

Most recently, I have been reading books with strong female characters written by (mostly) female authors. Here are some of my favorites:

Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie ThrashScreen Shot 2016-03-02 at 12.42.39 PM

I really enjoyed this memoir about a teenage girl’s experience with her first crush at an all girls sleep away camp. Maggie’s exploration of her own sexuality, the questions she asks, the reactions from her peers and the adults at camp are raw and real.  I love the content and format of this book because it makes the topic of sexuality accessible for mature readers of all levels.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 12.49.32 PMDumplin’ by Julie Murphy

This fictional account of Willowdean Dickson explores the role of body image in teenage girls. Willow has always been comfortable in her plus sized body, despite the fact that she does not feel supported by her mother, a former beauty queen who still runs the town pageant. As a result of the fallout from her first crush, she begins to question her confidence. In order to regain control of her strength, she decides to go against her beliefs and enter the town beauty pageant. I read this book in two nights. I could not put it down. It so perfectly captures what it feels like to be a teenage girl without being perfect.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 12.58.09 PM

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

As far as historical fiction goes, it does not get more action packed than this book. Based on the female pilots who flew for the Royal Air Force during WWII, this is a story of two girls who are best friends, and what happens when one of them has to save the other after a plane crash behind enemy lines in France. Before I read this book, I was completely unaware that women flew for the RAF, often in broken down planes, under the cover of darkness, without even instruments to guide them. They were as integral in the war as the male pilots, yet have been left in the shadows of the story.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Philip HooseScreen Shot 2016-03-02 at 2.21.04 PM

This nonfiction text challenges the perspectives about the Rosa Parks story and the Civil Rights movement. It is the story of a young teenage girl who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This predated Rosa Parks’ decision to take action through her involvement with the NAACP. This book is not a challenging text to read, but it is a complex text in terms of the ideas presented, especially because it challenges our assumptions about a very important event in the Civil Rights Movement and, even more so, the history of our country.

Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 2.24.32 PMThis fictional account tells the tale of a young girl who is the sole survivor of a tragedy. As the daughter of a Danish woman and a black G.I., she is thrust into a situation where she encounters racism due to being biracial. A great example of how literature can teach us empathy, this book explores the social constructs of race and class.





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