By Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media book editor
We all want to find entertaining reads for our kids and tweens, but unfortunately, even some of the best stories reinforce body and gender stereotypes. Girl characters are judged by how pretty they are. Boys are teased if they're not big and strong. Boys and girls are dissed for being overweight or having freckles or the "wrong" color hair or skin. Good-looking protagonists often have a chubby or scrawny sidekick who'll never be considered cool or attractive. And so on.
But we've found some shining examples of books featuring characters who are comfortable with their bodies, no matter what their size or shape. They're appreciated for their talent, skills and integrity, and they don't trade on their looks to get ahead. Check out Common Sense Media's full list of body-positive books starring kids (and animals) who are at ease in their own skin -- or who learn that's the way to be truly cool. We've highlighted some of our very favorites here:
- Flora and the Flamingo and its sequel, Flora and the Penguin, age 4+. These charming, wordless picture books feature a spunky yet graceful little girl. Flora has a pear-shaped body, yet does a ballet pas de deux with a flamingo in the first book and figure skates with a penguin in the second. So many images in books, movies, magazines and ads feature young girls with slim bodies; it's nice to see an image of a girl with a round tummy who's athletic, graceful and creative.
- Brontorina, by James Howe and illustrated by Randy Cecil, age 4+. When a brontosaurus shows up at ballet class, some of the students insist, "You are too big!" But the open-minded ballet teacher decides the problem is that her studio is too small -- and moves the class outdoors. It's a lighthearted lesson about not letting your size or shape prevent you from following your dream.
- Freckleface Strawberry, age 5+. The main character feels self-conscious about her freckles, especially when other kids make comments and give her a nickname she doesn't like. The final message isn't that her freckles are beautiful, but that maybe they don't matter. More important, people are happier when they accept who they are and what they look like.
- Firebird, by Misty Copeland, age 5+. A young girl who wants to be a dancer almost gives up before ballet great Misty Copeland inspires and mentors her to reach her full potential in this exuberant picture book that emphasizes hard work and self-discovery.
- Ivy + Bean, age 6+. Two "opposite" 7-year-old girls become best friends in the first of a wonderful 10-volume series. Bean is a rough-and-tumble tomboy who wears pants and a T-shirt and gets dirty; Ivy wears dresses, thinks a lot and is always reading books. They appreciate each other's qualities, and the kids in their neighborhood appreciate them for their uniqueness and imagination.
- Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child and its sequel, Watch Out Hollywood!: More Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child, age 8+. In the first book, Charlie shows she's comfortable with her out-of-shape body (while trying to make healthy food choices) and confident in her bold sense of style. In the sequel, when she tries out for a TV show, kids tease her about her body, but the TV people admire her for being comfortable with her shape. It's a refreshing, positive-body-image message to find in a book about middle school.
- Harry Potter series, age 8+. Hermione is part of the triangle of main characters, and she's smarter and does better in school than Harry and Ron. Her looks are never a focus, even when the kids become teens, go to dances and start to have crushes. It's always about who she is as a person and her outstanding abilities.
- Randi Rhodes Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit, by Octavia Spencer, age 8+. Randi moves to a new town and becomes best friends with two boys who also are outsiders; one is bullied for being hearing impaired but is as passionate about martial arts as Randi is, and the other is lanky, into music and super smart. Together the diverse pals -- Randi's white, and her friends are Latino and African-American -- solve a mystery using brains and the occasional Bruce Lee move.
- Blubber, age 9+. An overweight girl is teased mercilessly by some classmates, and no one stands up for her in this brutally honest look at (pre-Internet-era) bullying among fifth graders. The novel doesn't spell out moral lessons but teaches kids by portraying repugnant behavior and showing the value of true friendship and courage under peer pressure.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth, age 9+. Middle schooler Greg Heffley goes through puberty in this series installment and suffers the indignity of teeth-fixing head gear. He deals with it all through humor and utter cluelessness, as always. He may not become more accepting of himself, but kids reading about his travails understand that everyone goes through this stage and that you can have a good laugh at the embarrassing stuff instead of being quietly embarrassed.
- Grace, Gold, and Glory: My Leap of Faith, by Gabby Douglas and Michelle Burford, age 10+. This moving memoir shows the Olympic gymnast's dedication in the face of homelessness, bullying and having a coach tell her she should get a nose job. Gabby stays focused, works hard and accepts herself as she is, even as she strives for greatness.
- The Girl of Fire and Thorns, age 12+. A plump princess is chosen by God (in a fictional religion) for a special unknown task. She begins the book as intelligent but insecure and afraid and ends it confident and powerful. Rising to challenges and having faith in yourself are big lessons here -- as is the message that any size girl can be a respected and capable leader.
- InReal Life, age 12+. An exciting graphic novel about a teen girl gamer who learns about harsh working conditions in other parts of the world. She's smart, competent, and compassionate, both in real life and as her online avatar.
About Common Sense Media
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