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. You know the ones: girl characters judged by how pretty they are; boys teased if they’re not big and strong; boys and girls dissed for being overweight or having freckles or the “wrong” color hair or skin; good-looking protagonists who 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 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 our 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:
- 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.
- Flora and the Flamingo, by Molly Idle, age 4+. This charming, wordless picture book features a spunky yet graceful little girl. Flora has a pear-shaped body, yet does a pas dedeux with a flamingo. 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.
- Firebird, by Misty Copeland, age 5+. A young girl who wants to be a dancer but has a low self-image and almost gives up before ballet great Misty Copeland inspires and mentors her to reach her full potential. This exuberant picture book emphasizes hard work and self-discovery.
- Freckleface Strawberry, by Julianne Moore and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, 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, it’s that people are happier when they accept who they are and what they look like.
- Ivy + Bean, by Annie Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, 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 individuality and imagination.
- Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child, by Maria T. Lennon, age 8+. Charlie is comfortable with her out-of-shape body (while trying to make healthy food choices) and confident in her bold sense of style in this light middle-school tale. In the sequel, Watch Out, Hollywood!: More Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child, she tries out for a TV show and kids tease her about her body, but the TV people admire her for being comfortable with her shape. It’s a refreshingly positive body-image message to find in a book about middle school.
- The Littlest Bigfoot, by Jennifer Weiner, age 8+. A lonely human girl strikes up a friendship with a girl from a secret Bigfoot tribe in this light fantasy about two girls who feel like outcasts in their families. It has strong messages about respecting people who seem different and appreciating that they have unseen strengths and struggles.
- 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, by Judy Blume, 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, by Jeff Kinney, age 9+. Middle-schooler Greg Heffley goes through puberty in this series installment and suffers the indignity of teeth-fixing headgear. 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.
- 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, by Rae Carson, 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 a girl of any size can be a respected and capable leader.
- In Real Life, by Cory Doctorow, age 12+. This exciting graphic novel portrays girls as skilled online gamers. Main character Anda is a teen 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.