March is of course both Women’s History Month and National Reading Month both, and one of the many ways women have made a tremendous impact on the world is through their contributions to children’s literature.
Some of the most beloved children’s books of all time were written by women. From cherished 20th century classics such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit to modern titles like Brown Girl Dreaming, women have contributed so many of the books we loved to read ourselves when we were young, and now love to read to the children in our lives.
Let’s take a more in depth look at five fantastic female children’s book authors who push past boundaries to transform children’s lit and add joy and happiness to so many of our lives!
1. Beatrix Potter
Born in rural England in 1866 to a long line of gifted artists, and encouraged from a young age to pursue her own passions for nature and art, Beatrix Potter’s most famous work-and her career as an author and illustrator in general-came about entirely by accident.
In 1893, Potter began sending very short illustrated stories to her former governess’ children and in 1900, she took the snippets she’d written to them about an adventurous little rabbit into the first draft of the book that would eventually become published as The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. Potter would then go on to have an extensive and highly successful career, publishing two storybooks a year until about 1913, when she married and began focusing more on her love of farming and land conservation.
By the time of her death in 1942 at age 77, Potter had not only written 30 books, 23 of which comprised the beloved and best selling children’s book series that included the whimsical tales of Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten, Squirrel Nutkin, and Mr Tod, she also left 14 farms and over 4,000 of preserved natural lands to the British National Trust.
2. Jaqueline Woodson
Brooklyn-based writer Jaqueline Woodson has made it her mission to transform literature for Black children, young adults, and adults in her 25+year career, and that passion has made her one of the most respected and awarded writers publishing today.
Beginning in 19995 with From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, Woodson has penned over 30 powerful volumes of children’s literature, young adult fiction, and poetry dealing with everything from the history of slavery and segregation to interracial relationships, social class, and gender and sexual identity. In her renowned modern day classic Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson uses beautiful prose to create a fictionalized, young adult memoir of her own family’s experience with segregation in the south and is a superb example of what Woodson herself has stated is her writing goal: “I (want) to say to my young self “You’re loved. You’re beautiful. You’re complicated. You matter.” I know that by saying this to myself with each book I write, I am saying it to every reader who has ever felt otherwise."
Woodson’s books have won multiple awards, including the Coretta Scott King Honor, The Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a slot as a finalist for the National Book Award, and three Newberry Honors. Woodson has also served as a MacArthur Fellow, the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017, and The National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2018-2019.
3. Beverly Cleary
Although we know Beverly Cleary as a children’s book author, she actually began her career as a children’s librarian. It was during her tenure at the Yakima Washington public library that she encountered a little boy who would ultimately change her life-and the course of children’s literary history. As Cleary stated in an interview later in her life, the young child “faced me rather ferociously…and said, ‘where are the books about kids like us?’ And it changed my whole attitude.” That change in attitude served her especially well when she began writing, and to this day her books are renowned for being some of the first to deal with the real life issues children often dealt with, as well as their complicated relationships with the most mysterious aspect of their lives-the adults around them.
Her innovative storytelling and clear and direct style of writing were apparent and appealing even in her first offering, Henry Higgins, published to great success in 1950. The book also introduced her most famous character, the lively, clever, and creative Ramona Quimby. Often unfairly pegged as a pest and a troublemaker by some critics and readers alike, Cleary herself defended Romona as a fierce lover of the world around her, describing her in Romona the Pest as ”... a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next.”
After those early successes, Cleary went on to become one of the most prolific and beloved children’s authors in the world, penning over 39 award winning books that have been translated into over 14 languages and adored by children in more than 20 countries before her passing in 2021 at the age of 109. Her influence continues even posthumously: after first appearing in the book Romona age 8, Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) Day is now celebrated in schools and homes across the country on April 12th, in honor of Cleary’s birthday.
4. Grace Lin
Born in upstate New York to Asian immigrants, Grace Lin burst onto the children’s literature scene in 1999 with the gorgeously written and illustrated The Ugly Vegetables, the story of a young Chinese-American girl who learns the beauty of community and the value of all things, regardless of their appearance.
Since then, Lin has written twenty additional acclaimed picture books, early readers, and young adult novels, including Dim Sum for Everyone, A Big Bed for Little Snow, Thanking the Moon, and the Ling & Ting series. Her YA book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon won the Newberry honor and she has also won a Caldecott Honor, a Geisel Honor, the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, and has also been a National Book Award Finalist. In 2016, the cover of Lin’s YA novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was displayed at the White House, where Lin was also recognized as a Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling by President Obama.
Lin, who now lives in Massachusetts with her family, is also a podcaster, occasional commentator for New England Public Radio, and a reviewer for the New York Times. Her first and most enduring love however remains writing and illustrating because, as she has said, “books erase bias, they make the uncommon, everyday, and the mundane exotic. A book makes all cultures universal."
5. Meg Medina
It was not until she was in her 20’s and came across Sandra Cisneros’ novel House on Mango Street that New York Times bestselling author Meg Medina found a book character with similar life experiences as hers, inspiring her to focus her picture book and young adult fiction writing career on writing the kinds of stories she would have loved to have read as a child.
Of Cuban descent herself, Medina infuses every book she writes with her desire to represent Latino culture and young people in a joyful and celebratory way. Titles such as Mango, Abuela, and Me, The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, Burn Baby Burn, Elelyn del Ray is Moving Away, and Tia Isa Wants a Car showcase her lyrical and at times heartbreaking writing style and have won her several awards, including a Margaret Wise Brown Prize in Children’s Literature, a Crystal Kite Award, and a Pura Belpré Author Award. Her Merci Suárez series of young adult novels have also been awarded a Newberry Medal and the most recent installment, Merci Suárez Can’t Dance, was named one of the 50 most anticipated YA novels of 2021 by Kirkus Reviews.
In addition to her successful writing career, Medina works on community projects that support literacy, young girls, and Latino youth and is also on the faculty of Hamline University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Children’s Literature. She lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.
There are of course far too many wonderful women children’s book authors, past and present, for us to possibly list them all in one short blog, but these five are some of our favorites. Interested in learning more? Check out Brightly’s Authors Share Their Favorite Kids’ Books About Girls, Written by Women!