Women’s History Month is celebrated every March. We love that this month highlights strong and brave women who have significantly impacted this world. It dawned on me that during this month, we focus on real-life women: doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, scientists, and even ordinary ladies who made courageous and monumental decisions in our history. These women inspire us, yet there are other females, literary characters, albeit fictional, that are strong and brave too. They elicit influence as well. This month, we are sharing 8 Novels with Strong Female leads: Women’s History Month that will inspire, motivate, and impact us.
We have made a list of 8 novels for upper elementary to middle school students that have strong female protagonists. By reading about these fictional girls, students can become inspired in a whole new way.
1. Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
In Esperanza Rising, we are taken on a journey of loss. Quickly into the story, the reader learns Esperanza’s loving and wealthy rancher father is killed at the hands of bandits. Esperanza, her mother, and their servants who are like a family must move. This is because their beautiful Mexican ranch is burned down by Esperanza’s uncle. They leave behind her abuelita, whom she was very close with, in a convent. The death of her father, separation from her beloved grandmother, and a series of events cause Esperanza to grieve and grow so much within a year.
Real history is detailed through the Mexican Revolution, the Dust Bowl, discrimination, immigration, Repatriation, migrant farms, the Great Depression, and labor strikes. During these major events, Esperanza must contend with losing all her material possessions, living in poverty, losing her father and possibly her mother, and growing up very quickly through the process. Students can see just how strong and brave Esperanza must be as she moves and works and cares for her sick mother. Students can be inspired by this strong leading protagonist who takes on brave things while also grieving.
If you are interested in teaching this novel, hop on over to our other blog post: 5 Activities for Teaching Esperanza Rising.
2. Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan
Another treasure by Pam Munoz Ryan is Becoming Naomi Leon. When I read this novel, I immediately noticed similar details to Esperanza Rising, but Becoming Naomi Leon had more modern elements. Similarities include the Mexican landscape, heritage, and food, as well as the journey of the female protagonist finding herself while dealing with trauma.
Naomi must contend with being abandoned by her mother, being raised by her eccentric grandmother, the fear of her alcoholic mother reentering her life to take her away, and the reality of it all coming to fruition. The book has so much heart and soul. You’ll find yourself rooting for Naomi all while holding your breath. Students can learn that trauma can propel you to rise up and face the world head-on and that it’s okay to be brave and to find your voice. It may just change the course of your life.
3. The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker
This historical fiction novel has everything you’d want to teach your students: history, complex characters, raw events, life lessons, heartbreaking and heartwarming scenes, and so much more. Ada, the main character, finds inner strength not only to physically walk away from her abusive mother all with a club foot that makes it difficult to walk but emotionally heal from the trauma her mother caused as well.
She learns to tackle fears about World War II, learns to trust an adult, and deals with anxiety, heartbreak, the daily results of trauma, and her physical limitations. Ada is simply awe-inspiring. Her caretaker, Susan Smith, a woman who is forced to take in Ada and her brother, is also a fierce female character to be reckoned with. This book is the definition of strong female leads.
If you’re interested in teaching this book, check out our blog post of 5 Activities for The War that Saved My Life.
4. Hummingbird by Natalie Lloyd
Natalie Lloyd is an author with a brittle bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). The main character of Hummingbird is also diagnosed with this disability as well. Natalie Lloyd knows what it is like firsthand to be a child with a disability. She used a wheelchair until the seventh grade, so her personal knowledge is carried throughout her latest novel. This is a newly published book, just coming out last year.
This novel teaches students that no matter their physical limitations, they can succeed at whatever they put their minds to. The strong female character, Olive, is passionate, brave, and persevering. Nothing can stop her from accomplishing her desires. This book also contains magic, whimsy, and imagination. I loved that it wasn’t constantly serious and heavy. It had so many uplifting moments that brought tears to my eyes.
Bestselling author Natalie Lloyd returns with her most personal book to date, a story about a girl who―armed with her trusty, snazzy wheelchair―refuses to let her brittle bone disease stand in the way of adventure. Twelve-year-old homeschooled Olive is tired of being seen as “fragile” just because she has osteogenesis imperfecta (otherwise known as brittle bone disease) so she’s thrilled when she finally convinces her overprotective parents to let her attend Macklemore Elementary. Olive can’t wait to go to a traditional school and make the friends she’s always longed for, until a disastrous first day dashes her hopes of ever fitting in.
Then Olive hears whispers about a magical, wish-granting hummingbird that supposedly lives near Macklemore. It’ll be the solution to all her problems! If she can find the bird and prove herself worthy, the creature will make her most desperate, secret wish come true. When it becomes clear that she can’t solve the mystery on her own, Olive teams up with some unlikely allies who help her learn the truth about the bird. And on the way, she just might learn that our fragile places lead us to the most wonderful magic of all…
5. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
Charlotte Doyle is the epitome of a strong, resilient, and courageous heroine. I first read this novel when I was in fifth grade and I remember it inspiring me way back then. It was the type of book that you just couldn’t put down. I read it late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping! It was intriguing, and had me on the edge of my seat! Charlotte faces being the only female on an all-male ship and the only child too. She endures thunderstorms at sea, a murder, and an action-packed mutiny. You’ll find yourself afraid for Charlotte, but rejoicing in her victories. Her heroism is captivating.
Thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle is excited to return home from her school in England to her family in Rhode Island in the summer of 1832. But when the two families she was supposed to travel with mysteriously cancel their trips, Charlotte finds herself the lone passenger on a long sea voyage with a cruel captain and a mutinous crew. Worse yet, soon after stepping aboard the ship, she becomes enmeshed in a conflict between them! What begins as an eagerly anticipated ocean crossing turns into a harrowing journey, where Charlotte gains a villainous enemy… and is put on trial for murder!
6. Nadya Skylung and the Cloudship Rescue by Brett Seymour, Illustrated by Brett Helquist
Looking for a fantasy book with a strong female lead in which the storyline is full of adventure and heart, without a sad undertone? Nadya Skylung and the Cloudship Rescue is what you’re looking for. Nadya is sassy, strong, and daring. This book is a wild ride of exploration, imagination, and battling against the odds. Nadya leads a team to rescue a crew and risks her life in the process, all while flying in the clouds on a pirate ship. I recommended this book to some seventh graders for their Independent Book Project. Soon, several of my students came back raving about this book. They wanted me to order the next one: Nadya Skylung and the Masked Kidnapper because they were hooked on the strong female lead, Nadya, and her adventures!
It takes a very special crew to keep the cloudship Orion running, and no one knows that better than Nadya Skylung, who tends the cloud garden that keeps the ship afloat. When the unthinkable happens and pirates attack, Nadya and the other children aboard–all orphans taken in by the kindhearted Captain Nic–narrowly escape, but the rest of the crew is captured. Alone and far from help, only Nadya and her four brave and loyal friends can take back the Orion and rescue the crew. And she’ll risk life and limb to save the only family she’s ever known. But . . . this attack was no accident. What exactly are the pirates looking for? Could it be Nadya they’ve been after all along?
7. Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
Just like True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I read Caddie Woodlawn in fifth grade. It is a book that sticks with you. Lighthearted and fun, but with a strong female protagonist, students will end up adoring Caddie. Caddie displays gumption and bravery when Native Americans threaten to attack their homestead. Caddie is tough, full of humor, and not afraid to be herself.
No one would accuse 11-year-old Caddie Woodlawn of being dainty and ladylike. In spite of her mother’s best efforts, Caddie is as wild as the wind, playing freely and rambunctiously with her two brothers in the Wisconsin backwoods. There are rafts to build and trees to climb and pranks to play. Caddie especially likes to watch her friend Indian John build birchbark canoes at the river. Every day seems wide with possibility – as wide as the frontier. But living on the edge of civilization has its risks, too. And when Indians threaten to attack the settlers, it is Caddie’s resourcefulness and bravery that save the day. The author, Carol Ryrie Brink – granddaughter of the real Caddie Woodlawn – based her book on the true stories her grandmother used to tell her about growing up on the frontier.
8. Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis
One of my favorite novels I’ve ever taught to sixth graders was this one. Written by the same author as Bud, Not Buddy, this book shows us how a strong family gets through the Great Depression and WWII while fighting poverty, racism, and so many other insurmountable odds stacked against them. Deza, the main character, is a strong young woman who takes it all in. She’s extremely academically gifted which helps her feel everything that is happening to her family even deeper. Deza faces prejudice from teachers. Deza’s teeth, wardrobe, and physical and mental health are all impacted by her family’s poverty. We are taken on a journey of Deza growing, learning, and being brave throughout it all.
We have a full novel unit on Mighty Miss Malone here. Check it out! LINK UNIT.
Click here to grab your unit today.
More Strong Female Leads
We would also like to mention four women from history who have books that inspire and impact readers every day.
Signs of Survival: A Memoir of the Holocaust by Renee Hartman and Joshua M. Greene
A third book about real-life events and real women is a captivating read.
This book does not contain fictional female leads, but it contains real-life women. These women lived during the Holocaust and had to endure atrocities as young girls. It is told in an age-appropriate manner and is recommended for grades 4-8. It is a memoir based on a true story written in a back-and-forth style with Renee and Herta. These sisters tell the readers’ their perspectives. This book shines a light on living with a disability during a war. It shows how this impacts survival, and how it ultimately became their strength. Renee and Herta are real-life female fighters with a courageous story to tell.
Meet Renee and Herta, two sisters who faced the unimaginable — together. This is their true story. As Jews living in 1940s Czechoslovakia, Renee, Herta, and their parents were in immediate danger when the Holocaust came to their door. As the only hearing person in her family, Renee had to alert her parents and sister whenever the sound of Nazi boots approached their home so they could hide. But soon their parents were tragically taken away, and the two sisters went on the run, desperate to find a safe place to hide.
Eventually they, too, would be captured and taken to the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Communicating in sign language and relying on each other for strength in the midst of illness, death, and starvation, Renee and Herta would have to fight to survive the darkest of times. This gripping memoir, told in a vivid “oral history” format, is a testament to the power of sisterhood and love, and now more than ever a reminder of how important it is to honor the past, and keep telling our own stories.
Malala Yousafzai and her autobiography I Am Malala
We have written about Malala Yousafzai and her autobiography I Am Malala in this blog post.
Anne Frank and her courage in Diary of Anne Frank
Additionally, we have a blog post about Anne Frank and her courage in Diary of Anne Frank.
With these 8 novels, learning about the bravery of women while being inspired to impact the world is something that doesn’t have to be relegated to Women’s History Month in March. Students should have access to strong female heroines in novels all year round. They become energized, encouraged, and excited to influence their corner of the world too.
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