The past twenty-plus years of reading have seen my tastes change from children’s literature to teen novels to dense assigned readings in college, and now, anything that captures my imagination. Even to this day, I can look back on books I read as a child and remember what it was like to read it for the first time. I remember how they made an impact on me. I remember who shared them with me and who I in turn shared them with.
My parents were the ones who started me on this journey, reading aloud to me long before I could stumble through on my own. I don’t know where I’d be now if they hadn’t led me to the Harry Potter series or The Chronicles of Narnia, or later to Gone with the Wind and The Joy Luck Club. They led me to books that contained lessons that I absorbed like a sponge.
I am not a parent, but I do believe that children everywhere are nourished by and come to model themselves after the stories that capture them. Young girls especially, who more than ever are growing up in an image-saturated, highly-pressurized world, can find respite in novels that model a stronger, perhaps messier view of womanhood. I would hope that, if I ever had a daughter, I would lead her to books that help her find a strength of spirit, one that she cultivates as she gets older. So for all those who are eager to share stories with the next generation of women, here are the five books that I’d like to share with my daughter as she grows up:
- The Book I’d Share with Daughter as a Child: The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
This book for elementary school-aged children follows the story of Parvana, a young girl in Taliban-era Afghanistan who must disguise herself as a boy selling wares on the streets to help feed her family. Through all her trials, Parvana remains true to her values, especially her love of learning. This book was world-opening for me, not least because I read it during one of the first few years of the War on Terror. Up until then, my only knowledge of Afghanistan came from adults who had the unfortunate task of having to explain 9/11 and its aftermath to children. But by getting into Parvana’s head, I was not only able to connect to a previously-unknown culture, but also to compare our own experiences as young girls living around the same time, though in very different situations. I would hope that The Breadwinner would teach my daughter that even little girls can be brave and resilient and that her circumstances are not her fate. I also hope that it dispels some of the mythologizing that can cloud one’s judgement, especially when it comes to encountering a new culture. The story continues in the sequel, Parvana’s Journey, making this an excellent pair of books for young girls who are just beginning their independent reading journey.
- The Book I’d Share with my Daughter in Middle School: Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech
Written as diary entries from the main character Mary Lou, this novel follows her life for one summer as she navigates first crushes, family secrets, and her summer-reading assignment “The Odyssey.” As the summer goes on, she comes to view her own life as a kind of odyssey, detailing the twists and turns of growing up. Mary Lou is one of the most relatable fictional characters I have ever encountered. She cares about school and her friends, gets annoyed at her siblings, and openly wonders if she’s doing the right thing. It is a book about a girl in her formative years who is coming to understand herself and her values in the context of the world around her. Sharon Creech’s writing is smart and full of charm, ranging from laugh-out-loud funny to contemplative and profound. This is a book I devoured when I first read it and have re-read many times since, even after I had outgrown its target readership. I want my daughter to learn from Mary Lou that it is okay to make mistakes, to change her mind, and altogether to embrace the process of growing up.
- The Books I’d Share with My Daughter in Junior High: The Books of Bayern Series by Shannon Hale
I often see this book series marketed to a younger readership, perhaps because because these books – on the surface at least – seem to conform to some children’s fantasy tropes: fairy-tale lands, kings and princes, women with magical powers, etc. And while, yes, I think these books might appeal to younger readers, a slightly older reader would be able to glean from these stories a more nuanced point of view. Each book is told from the perspective of a different character in a fantasy kingdom who discovers in themselves latent magical powers. As they hone these talents, they encounter political disruptions such as war, social stratification, and failed diplomacy. Through the allegory of princesses and magic, these books are able to tackle mature topics. The second book in particular – Enna Burning – is a favorite of mine, as it follows a poor girl from the forest whose ability to control fire is thrilling, though it threatens to consume her. The Bayern series captured my imagination from the first read, and has since left a lasting impression. I still find myself thinking about the lessons of these books, especially how they ask the reader to question the characters’ appearances and look deeper. Shannon Hale’s writing is lyrical and lovely, and she has a knack for witty, humorous dialogue. In the end, these books are about self-discovery, friendship, and working to build a more just society. I recommend these books to every girl I meet.
- The Book I’d Share with my Daughter in High School: Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
A deceptively fun read for young adults, Dairy Queen follows the story of D.J., a teenage girl living on her family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin. Since her father is injured and unable to work, D.J. takes on the responsibility of running the farm in addition to her school duties. She has to weigh her obligations to her family with her personal ambitions, which include trying out for the school football team. In a town where local football is almost a religion, D.J. has to confront gender expectations and overcome her distaste for the spotlight if she wants to join the team. This coming-of-age story deals with also deals with themes of privilege as D.J. befriends (and then develops feelings for) the well-to-do rival football star Brian, who himself experiences a kind of transformation as he comes to appreciate her work ethic and drive. The story also features a couple of LGBTQ characters and the circumstances coming out. Just like in Absolutely Normal Chaos, family and friendship relationships play an important role in the main character’s growth. In Dairy Queen and the sequels that follow, D.J. learns how to make independent choices about her future and learns how to be a kinder friend and family member. I believe that this character will speak to lots of young women on the cusp of high school graduation and all of the decisions that come along with it.
- The Book I’d Share with my Daughter as a Young Woman: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hossieni
Khaled Hossieni’s first novel, The Kite Runner, garnered a lot of attention for its frank, unflinching look at suffering in Taliban-era Afghanistan. His second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is similar in its premise, in that it follows two characters whose lives are deeply affected by the political changes in that region. But though it is a book that features much adversity, I find it to be an surprisingly hopeful testament to the strength of women. The main characters are Mariam and Laila, both of whom at some point in the story must marry the same abusive man. Other than this connection, the two do not share very many similarities. Where Mariam is quiet and thoughtful, having been raised in a turbulent family situation, Laila is an intelligent idealist, with an immense capacity to love. When they work together, Mariam and Laila learn from one another and make decisions to raise their family and to overcome their circumstances. Though there is no happy ending per se, this book ultimately demonstrates the sacrifice and resilience of mature women, the same resilience that Parvana demonstrated in its nascent stages in The Breadwinner. I can’t say for sure, but I do not know if I’d have been able to read A Thousand Splendid Suns with the same understanding if I had not already set out on this path with Parvana nearly a decade earlier. All I know is that with each book I read, I grow in my capacity for empathy and am able to examine the choices of many characters.
- The Book I’d Share with Daughter as a Child: The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
In compiling this list, I realized the books I want to share with my daughter are ones that feature women who value friendship and connection without losing sight of their own individual talents and desires. This is what I hope she will take away from this reading journey. My wish for my daughter is this: that through these books or whichever that she chooses to read, she will learn to be more accepting of her flaws, more deliberate with her choices, and more just in her actions. These are the kinds of women that the world needs today. These are the kinds of women that the world reads today.