8 of the most inspiring real-life women in children's books

Last updated: 03-12-2019

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8 of the most inspiring real-life women in children's books

Children's fiction and non-fiction alike is full of vivid accounts of women who were complete pioneers and paved the way for girls today. Author Harriet Whitehorn picks just a few of her favourites. 

Recorded history is a little short on female sword fighters like those in my debut novel The Company of Eight – but, luckily, it still features plenty of courageous women.

Here are eight of my favourite fiction and non-fiction titles for children that profile some of the world’s most inspiring women, or are written by them.

Since I’m writing this on the same day as a statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett is being unveiled in Parliament Square, I think I had better start with her as my first heroine. An inspiring feminist and campaigner, she was instrumental in securing the vote for women in England in 1918. David Roberts’ wonderful new book, bursting with his amazing illustrations of the Edwardian suffragettes, is out at the end of May and should be a must for any young feminist.

In a similar vein, I’ve always admired the politician Barbara Castle, who was a driving force behind the Equal Pay Act. This carefully curated collection highlights those who have achieved significantly in their fields, including a number of female politicians to women in sport, science and the arts.

Doreen Lawrence is an amazing woman. Her patient determination to seek justice for the murder of her son has had a profound impact on the police, and on wider society as a whole. This collection, focusing on key black men and women from history and the present day is an inspiring collection of people who have achieved, campaigned and persisted.

Read our book review of Young, Gifted and Black

On lighter note, I’ve always had great admiration for the iconoclastic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who not only makes beautiful clothes but is great campaigner too. This wonderful little book (illustrated by Kate Pankhurst, a descendent of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst) tells the story of Rose Bertin, dressmaker to Marie Antoinette among other French nobility, who is generally considered to be history’s first fashion designer.

Read our book review of Rose's Dress of Dreams

As a female writer with a penchant for detective stories, I think I have to tip my hat to Agatha Christie, who holds the title of the best-selling novelist of all time – quite an achievement. The Little People, Big Dreams series features an array of great historical women and is a fab place for young children to find out about their heroines.

Read our book review of Little People, Big Dreams: Agatha Christie

I watched the film version of Born Free at school, which is the story of naturalist Joy Adamson and the lioness Elsa, which Adamson rescued and then set free, causing Elsa to be the first lioness successfully released back into the wild. The films about her made a huge impression on me when I watched them at primary school, both in terms of her work in nature conservation but also as a woman living life as she wanted. Joy isn’t included in this book, but it’s full of amazing women that weren’t afraid to be pioneers, just as she was.

Read our book review of Girls Who Rocked the World

There are many amazing women in children’s literature but I wanted to end with two of my favourites. The first is Judith Kerr, who, having escaped the Nazis, went on to write about the experience in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, as well as giving us such delights as The Tiger Who Came to Tea. 

Read our book review of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

Finally, Edith Nesbit was not only a ground-breaking children’s author – who had a huge influence on everyone from C S Lewis to Eva Ibbotson  –  but she was also an important campaigner for social justice. The Railway Children is a timeless look at friendship and family and how the children cope with an absent father, and it's as touching as it ever was.

Read our book review of The Railway Children

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