Books: caring boys and adventurous girls

Our friends at Letterbox Library have picked out some great books that offer an alternative to fighting and snot vs fairies and cupcakes. Which books do you love that show boys exploring their emotional side, or girls making their mark?

At Letterbox Library all our books are chosen by a team of volunteer reviewers: teachers and parents and children. We know that followers of Let Toys Be Toys will have their favourites so we’ve tried to introduce some lesser-known titles into the mix. (Ages are guidelines only)

Caring boys

The Big BrotherThe Big Brother

Stephanie Dagg & ill. Alan Clarke
Dara is expecting a new sibling and he wants to practise his nurturing skills on a doll. But no matter how many times he asks, nobody will get him the toy he wants. And then along comes a very cross girl. To her horror, she has been given a doll to play with…A heart-warming and funny challenge to gendered toys. Ages 5-7

howtohealabrokenwingHow to Heal a Broken Wing

Bob Graham
Nobody notices the pigeon fall, injured, to the ground- except a tender-hearted child called Will. Minimal text and inclusive illustrations from a much-loved Australian artist. An award-winning picture book, starring a sensitive boy for a wide age range of 3 to 7.

The King and the seedThe King & the Seed

by Eric Maddern & ill. Paul Hess
Nurturing triumphs over armed combat. In this retelling of a Chinese folk story, a king holds a competition to choose an heir. A bunch of knights gather, expecting to fight it out in a tournament, while a small boy, Jack, looks on. To their surprise, the king presents them each (including Jack) with a seed and challenges them to…sprout it! Ages 6-8

samuelsbabySamuel’s Baby

by Mark Elkin & ill. Amy Wummer
An absolute favourite of ours here and one we import specially. On Monday, Samuel announces to his classmates that he’s ‘expecting’. By Friday, all of the children- both girls and boys- are feeling a little broody. An endearing book which challenges, with bucketfuls of humour, the notion that wanting and caring for (and indeed having!) a baby is the preserve of girls/women. Age 4-7

thesunflowerswordThe Sunflower Sword

by Mark Sperring & ill. Mirian Latimer
A small knight demands a sword. To deal with a small dragon problem. But, his parent gives him a sunflower instead. Can a sword-wielder turn peace keeper? Age 3-6

Adventurous girls

KaveTinaRoxKave-Tina Rox

by Jill Marshall & ill. Sam Childs
Cavegirls fight back! Excluded from the Caveman Games, Kave-Tina sets out to flaunt her mettle. Described by one of our parent reviewers as ‘”a refreshing challenge to ‘girlie’ stereotypes”. Ages 4-7

rickshawgirlRickshaw Girl

by Mitali Perkins & ill. Jamie Hogan
A special, illustrated chapter book set in rural Bangladesh. Naíma is a skilled artist but she knows that she could earn more for her family by driving a rickshaw, something which she knows is forbidden to girls. But with enough courage… Age 7-11

superdaisySuper Daisy

by Kes Gray & ill. Nick Sharratt
One of the most joyful girl characters on the book market, now in superhero form. And with a new mission: to save the world form them pesky green peas. Age 3-6

theworstprincessThe Worst Princess

by Anna Kemp & ill. Sara Ogilvie
Forget the frilly dresses, the twit of a prince and the pink penthouse in the tower. Princess Sue wants fun, adventures, dragon rides and a spot of knight-baiting. From the team who brought us the equally wonderfully gender-subversive Dogs Don’t Do Ballet. Age 4-7

rubysschoolwalkRuby’s School Walk

by Kathryn White & ill. Miriam Latimer
A clever little tale in which Ruby beats her starting-school nerves by combating all sorts of fearsome red-eyed beasts and lurking monsters on her journey to school. Perfect for novice dragon tamers. Age 3-6

blackdog001Black Dog

by Levi Pinfold
The winner of the prestigious Kate Greenaway medal for 2013, this is a simply brilliant exploration of fears and anxieties. A HUGE black dog terrorises the Hope family…until a TINY girl, with bucketfuls of courage, calls him “guffin” and takes him on! Storytelling at its best. Age 6-9.

Getting hold of these books

You can of course buy any of these books from Letterbox Library. In any case, please do consider supporting an indie retailer or your local bookshop. Small independent booksellers are only able to do the careful sourcing and selecting they do if you support them through your purchases.

We’ve loved bringing you some of our top adventurous girls and caring boys. Look out for future blogs on alternative princesses, artistic boys & much much more.

Now… over to you: Who are your top caring boys and adventurous girl characters in children’s books? Add a comment below, or tweet us @lettoysbetoys

They could be old friends from your own childhood who you’ve shared with the children you know (Danny, the Champion of the World? Princess Smartypants?)

They might be new ones you’ve found in a shop, buried underneath the tractor and princess books and just fighting for airspace – here’s your chance to set them free!


  1. RichardY

    Well, Winnie the Witch needs no selling – feisty, independent and funny. Also, loads in the series, which is a big plus for longevity. Several compendiums now available, daughter loved them from 3yo and still does at 5yo.

    Bizarrely, the Greek myths can be good for girls, with a decent selection of goddesses (especially Athene – in charge of both wisdom AND war… cool) and some notable strong women (such as Atalanta, the fastest runner in the world). Not so hot on mutli-dimensional males, mind you. And quite bloody in places. My five-year old loves them; your mileage may vary. Age depends on the package you buy – we use Atticus the Storyteller: 100 Stories from Greece, which is explicit but not gratuitous.

    Sorry to be negative, but I rather dislike Shirley Hughes’s work, where achingly middle-class settings are compounded by clear second-string status for Annie Rose; but I guess Alfie is a reasonably sensitive boy, so there’s that. Various books to serve all ages.

    And I’m conflicted by Princess Spaghetti. You Can’t Eat a Princess is ultimately a tale of girlish derring-do, but it *is* wrapped firmly in a pink bow. Fun story with great illustrations, though, ideal from 3yo to 7yo.

    Finally, for older kids, Rapunzle’s Revenge by Dean Hale is a fairly weighty graphic novel that delivers a really punchy young female lead. I quite like Tangled (as Disney films go…), but even the agency Punzie has in that is nothing compared to the Hale version. My daughter enjoyed me reading it to her at 4yo, but it’s *much* better independently read by kids, so you’re probably looking at 8yo to 15yo as a range.

    (While I’m on the subject of strong female leads in traditional fairy story settings – and this isn’t a book, so apologies – but Hoodwinked is a brilliant film to watch with all the family. Ace male and female characters, very funny, works at different levels to amuse from 4yo to 74yo…)

  2. Laurel Stevens

    I’ve got a 41/2 year old boy who loves stories – some favourites are interactive ones like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and There’s a Monster at the End of This Book – both of which are pretty much gender-neutral and more importantly, laugh out loud funny and participative.
    Other ones he has loved: Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough, the Zigby series. Room on the Broom.
    The fantastic The Knight and the Dragon, which has as its conclusion the knight and the dragon deciding, with the encouragement of the princess librarian, that it’s pretty dumb to fight each other when they could instead work as a team to open a restaurant (tons of pictures, not a lot of text, but this story lasts a good while because we chat away through it, looking at all the pictures. Funny, too.
    Another favourite is the gorgeous Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers, which explores friendship and caring – it was made into an even more gorgeous film with the voice over by Jim Broadbent – a gentle, moving tale, beautiful to read and to watch.

    • RichardY

      Oh, yes, I can second Oliver Jeffers. Good call. And since you mentioned Room of the Broom, let’s add Zog – the male character decides he doesn’t like fighting and killing, the female character becomes a flying doctor and the monster is the cause of their coming together. Lovely!

  3. JD

    Ottoline and the Yellow Cat – Chris Riddell. Very popular with my two. Funny and adventurous.
    Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great non-stereotypical boy. His thoughtful, kind character is at the centre of the story.

  4. So happy to see five of our favourite books here – and they’re books that defy the rather rubbish fallback position some folk take on inclusive books that “They’re boring, stereotypical, not what kids want”

    “Black Dog” is our favourite, not just because it has a strong message about confronting and overcoming fear, but because the central character (loathe to use the term ‘hero’ for all the stereotypical images that probably conjures up) could be either a girl or a boy. The perfect character to appeal to both, and such a brilliant story anyway (I really can’t wait to see what Levi Pinfold does next).

    If we had to add to the list, we’d probably add “Sir Mouse to the Rescue” by Dirk Niedlandt and Marjolein Pottie for not only turning the whole stereotypical ‘brave knight rescuing princesses’ theme on its head, but wryly poking fun at the genre at the same time.

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