53% of the world’s out-of-school children are girls and 2/3 of the illiterate people in the world are women. Gender inequality in education is an issue affecting million of children around the world. We can create awareness of this disparity in our young children through these children’s books about girls in school, fighting for an education from around the world:
Girls in School in Africa
Beatrice’s Goat, by Page McBrier (ages 4-9). In a small Ugandan village, a little girl desperately wants to go to school. When a fat, new goat is given to their family, they have milk to drink and sell, and soon sell one of the goat’s kids. Soon the family has enough money to send the children to school and build a stronger house. Based on a true story of a family who received a goat from Heifer International, this story is a heart-warming reminder that not everyone has equal access to education. (Read about the real Beatrice, hear her interview on radio, and watch an interview on TV here!).
Red Pencil, by Andrea Davis Pinkney (ages 9 and up). Twelve year old Amira has a wonderful life in a small farming village in Darfur, Sudan. The poems give us glimpses of her life, their traditions, her chores, a duststorm that passes through. One day the Janjaweed, “evil men on horseback,” attack and her family has to flee, ultimately living in a refugee camp. The second part of the book describes her new life in the refugee camp and her journey toward healing. A relief worker gives Amira a red pencil, which helps her work towards recovery and keeps her dream alive that one day she’ll be able to go to school.
Girls in School in the Americas
Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys, by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard (ages 5-10). After the Civil War ends, Virgie begs to go to school with her 5 older brothers. Despite the rough journey, they all make the 7 mile trip together and with a week’s worth of food and clothing in a bucket. The setting and story illustrate how we use education to ultimately achieve freedom.
Separate is Never Equal, by Duncan Tonatiuh (ages 7-12). Set in 1944, a family moving to California is not allowed to send their daughter Sylvia to the “white school.” Kids are outraged by the story, and angered over the way the community (adults and kids) treat Sylvia, but in the end see the victorious solution. Often we speak of integrating school as an issues between whites and blacks- but desegregation also affected Latinos, Asians, Jews, and American Indians. This is a wonderful, kid-friendly story featuring a Latina heroine and her family.
With the Might of Angels, by Andrea Davis Pinkney (ages 8-12). This fictional diary of a courageous girl is set in Virginia in the 1950s. After the Supreme Court ruling to desegregate schools in Brown v. Board of Education, Dawnie will be attending a previously all-white school. Most of the town is outraged, and the backlash is stronger than Dawnie expected. Fighting against racism and bullying and suffering family hardships, her diary exposes her challenges and triumphs during her first year.
Don’t Say Ain’t by Irene Smalls (ages 6-10). This picture books is set in Harlem, NY in the 1950s. A young girl named Dana scores high on a special exam that allows her to attend an advanced, integrated school. Kids at the new school make fun of her speech, while her friends at home tease her for being so smart. After a visit at home from her teacher, Dana learns how to hang onto her roots while succeeding at school.
Girls in School in Asia
Ruby’s Wish, by Shirin Yim Bridges (ages 4-8). Set at the turn of the century in China, little Ruby has an unthinkable dream: she is determined to attend university when she grows up, just like the boys in her family. Even as she does more and more household chores, she keeps up with her learning. One day, her teacher shows Ruby’s grandfather a poem she has written in calligraphy:
“Alas, bad luck to be born a girl; worse luck to be/ born into this house where only boys are cared for.”
We were on the edge of our seats wondering what her Grandfather would think when Ruby confides that her her wish is to go to university (imagine the context, the enormity of breaking the tradition at this point in history!). I had tears in my eyes when we see her years later at a New Year’s Day celebration, his red envelope includes a letter of admission to a university. The last page of the book reveals that it is based on the true story of the author’s grandmother, with a photograph of her at university. I was incredibly moved by this story, and believe the age level should be age 4 through adult!
Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, by Jeanette Winter (ages 8+). This story should be previewed by parents/teachers before reading due to its wartime setting. When Nasreen’s parents are removed from their home by the Taliban soldiers, her life is turned upside down. Because they forbid girls to get an education, a neighbor opens a secret school for girls. Nasreen makes a friend, and little by little begins to read and write and do math. Her grandmother says that with this knowledge, Nasreen will never again be alone, “the knowledge she holds inside will always be with her, like a good friend.”
Based on a true story, and set in contemporary times, this story highlights the struggle for freedom that some children face today. I think it is hard for kids to imagine that gender inequality and restricted access to schooling exists today, for their peers in certain countries around the world- my kids couldn’t believe that it was actually happening in the world today!
There are a couple of great books that have recently come out about Malala, a young girl in Afghanistan who spoke against the Taliban’s restrictions on girls in schools. She endured a gunshot wound to her head in an attempt to silence her, and has gone on to become the world’s leading advocate for equality in education. My sons and daughters believe she is the most important role model for kids that is alive today, and love listening to her speeches on-line.
I read them to my second grade children, but I would suggest previewing them since every child has different sensitivities related to violence and understanding. I would highly recommend them for 4th and 5th graders, who are beginning to comprehend inequalities, and will be drawn into the story and impacted by the bravery of young Malala.