Feminist license plates, by Liz Henry CC BY-SA 2.0

Geeky books for under 10s

This is a guest post by Katie Zenke. Katie has been writing about children’s books for almost ten years and occasionally writes about them in various places online. She even has a blog that she sometimes updates at Pixiepalace.com. For several years she also worked in (and was the lead of for part of that time) the childrens and teen departments of one of the largest bookstores in the midwest. One of these days she plans to officially work in the book world again.

Katie is lending her expertise to answer this Ask a Geek Feminist question:

Is there a good series of books for tech-loving less than 10yo kids that isn’t sexist?

The Zac Power series seems OK for what it is, apart from the fact that they have an unreasonable division of good characters being male and bad characters being female.
The main good characters are Zac and his brother Leon, while Caz and her sister Leoni are two of the main bad characters.

Another problem is that those books have a lot of anti-nerd propaganda, which has got to be bad for kids who are destined to be called nerds in high school.

Is there a geeky modern Enid Blyton out there?

It is sadly true that finding good books for kids that are feminist is far more difficult than it should be, however they absolutely do exist. I wanted to highlight some of the great books that we can share with kids that do have feminist themes and content.

The list is roughly organized by age, but keep in mind that kids are all different and one ten-year-old might be reading early chapter books while another is totally ready for the more dense novels to be found in the middle-school and high school lists. Kids also have their own individual interests and preferences (even little kids), so just as you might buy a mystery for your mom but never for your girlfriend, make sure the kid you’re getting the book for likes the topic or genre first!

Picture books

- Captain Abdul’s Pirate School by Colin McNaughton
This is the story of a little girl sent to Pirate School on a real pirate ship, where math is angles for shooting cannons and art is forging fake money. The problem is that the teachers are pirates, so of course they plan to kidnap and ransom the kids. The kids put a stop to that, however, and commandeer the ship for themselves!

- How to Make Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman
This book tells the reader everything you need for an apple pie – and where to get it! Sugar cane comes from Jamaica, butter comes from an English cow, wheat comes from Italy, etc. As the story progresses, the reader is directed around the world via various modes of travel to gather all the necessary ingredients until she is all ready to make her pie.

- The Elephant and Piggie Series by Mo Willems
This is a beginning reader series (although it also works well as a read-aloud picture book series for younger children) and tells the various everyday adventures of two friends – Gerald and Piggie. Although Gerald is a boy and Piggie is a girl, this is not made a big deal of and they play all kinds of games together from baseball to dress-up.

- Independent Dames by Laurie Halse Anderson, illustrated by Matt Faulkner
The Diary of a Fly by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Harry Bliss
Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
The Magic School Bus Series by Joanna Cole, illustrated by Bruce Degan
Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick

Early Elementary School Fiction (Easier Novels)

- The Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer
This series follows the investigations of Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister, Enola. She’s every bit as smart as her brother, but she has the disadvantages of being a kid, a girl, and having a busybody older brother. She solves great mysteries that largely revolve around women that her brother has, for the most part, either overlooked or deemed beneath him.

- The 39 Clues Series by various authors
This series is a giant historical treasure hunt. A sister and brother are sent on a world-wide adventure collecting and deciphering clues trying to find the ultimate treasure. Unfortunately, the rest of their extended (and I do mean extended) family is also on this quest and the competition is quite literally deadly!

- The Amelia Rules! Series by Jimmy Gownley
Amelia McBride and her mom move in with her former 80s rock star aunt after a divorce and Amelia quickly finds herself having to make new friends and adapt to a new school. As Amelia incorporates herself to her new neighborhood, making some eccentric (read: geek) friends. The series deals with some impressively heavy issues with grace and humor.

- The Lady Grace Mysteries by Patricia Finney
The Clemency Pogue Series by JT Petty, illustrated by Will Davis
The Babymouse Series by Jennifer L. Holm, illustrated by Matthew Holm
Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
The PS238 Series by Aaron Williams

Upper Elementary School and Middle School Fiction

- The Kiki Strike Series by Kirsten Miller
This series is Shadowrun with 12 to 14 year-old girls (Leverage would be another good analogy). A group of girls are pulled together by one very singular little girl in New York City to run specific missions. They each have valuable talents and so are able to run covert missions (with and without mishaps) that go more or less unnoticed by the rest of the world. Each chapter ends with a brilliant “how to” section (i.e. how to tell if someone is lying, how to tail someone).

- The Theodosia Throckmorton Series by R. L. LaFevers
Theodosia more or less lives in an antiquities museum in pre-World War I London (her parents forget to go home more often than not, so she ends up sleeping there). She can detect cursed objects in a way that no one else seems able to do, so when her archaeologist mother brings back extremely cursed objects from Egypt, it’s up to her to neutralize the curses before they fall into the hands of the Germans and/or plunge England into chaos.

- The Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi
When Emily and her family move into an old ancestral home, she goes exploring and finds a strange book and an even stranger amulet. Before long, a mysterious door appears and Emily and her brother find themselves on the other side in a world of bizarre magic and strange tech (including a talking bunny and cute but snide little robot who help them) trying to save their mother.

- Coraline by Neil Gaiman
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale
The Gunnerkrigg Court Series by Thomas Siddell
The Daisy Kutter Series by Kazu Kibushi

Teen Books

- The Gallagher Girls Series by Ally Carter
This series follows Cammie Morgan through the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women, a super-secret school for girls that trains them in all the skills needed to be a good spy. And Cammie is a very good spy. As they work through Covert Operations training and other high-level spy studies, she and her classmates also have to deal with the normal issues of being teenagers and the complications of not being able to tell anyone outside of Gallagher who they really are (or why they know what you ate for breakfast).

- Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern
This is, and I’m not kidding here, a book about LARPing. And not just normal, Murder Mystery kind of LARPing that regular people may have heard of – weekends in the woods where everyone is dressed in medieval garb the whole time. The story revolves around a girl who has never done this sort of thing before and is slowing drawn into to, only to discover that it’s a lot more fun to run around the woods in a corset all weekend than you’d think!

- Romeo’s Ex: Rosaline’s Story by Lisa Fiedler
Do you remember the girl that Romeo is pining for before he meets Juliet? Well, this book is the story of the play from her point of view. It turns out that she’s smart and sensible (no wonder she turned down Romeo), and a doctor-in-training as well. She spends much of the book using her medical training to patch up the other characters and trying to balance Juliet’s bubbly enthusiasm with down-to-earth logic.

- For the Win by Cory Doctorow
Ash by Malinda Lo
A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce
The Runaways Series from Marvel Comics
The Plane Janes Series by Cecil Castellucci, illustrated by Jim Rugg

This list only scratches the surface and, with the exception of a few of the picture books, is entirely fiction. There are lots more great titles out there to be found, especially if you look at the nonfiction that’s available as well! Most of the authors here have other books, but in an effort to keep variety I tried not to repeat too much. If you find something good, though, I highly recommend looking to see what else that author has written! Some even have books in a variety of age ranges.

The best resource for finding feminist books for kids and teenagers is the Amelia Bloomer Project, which publishes a list of fiction and nonfiction books in a variety of age and reading levels that “has significant feminist content”. Their blog posts the books that are nominated throughout the year, many of which don’t make the final list but are still well worth reading and usually which have strong female characters and feminist themes, just not enough or as much as those that were chosen.

27 thoughts on “Geeky books for under 10s

    1. Terri

      Thanks for the head’s up — that was my bad and they’re fixed now! (darned directional quotation marks!)

  1. Stella

    Another recommendation: Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville. Mieville’s only young adult book is the story of two girls who discover an alternate London, and need to save it. Endlessly inventive, and an excellent subversion of the usual hero/quest story. It’s a good read for adults too.

    1. Katie Zenke

      That’s another great one! It was actually on my long list (which was *way* too long to include all of here!). Thanks for mentioning it!

  2. Karen

    Phillip Pullman’s Sally Lockheart series follows a young woman in the late 1800s who becomes a financial consultant and semi-detective. She’s smart and tough and adventurous. The books deal with the difficulties of being an intelligent and independent woman during that time period, in addition to the mysteries and whatnot that she solves.
    Similarly, Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy features a girl, Lyra, as one of the two protagonists. She’s not geeky, exactly, but she is clever and tomboyish and spirited. If you’ve seen the movie of The Golden Compass, ignore it. The books are infinitely better. It gets a little judeo-christian in places, but in a subversive and interesting way.
    Both sets of books would be appropriate for late middle school/high school. The Lockheart books are easier reads than His Dark Materials.

    1. Katie Zenke

      Sally Lockhart is one of my favorites. There are actually some surprisingly good adaptions of the first two books from the BBC staring Billie Piper as well. I’d probably put that one pretty squarely in the teen camp because of the themes whereas His Dark Materials can be read younger without issue as long as the whole concept itself doesn’t squick out the parents involved.

      His Dark Materials is fantastic and definitely has a great protagonist is Lyra. It’s so controversial (especially in the US), though, you can get into a little trouble recommending it. It’s absolutely worth reading, however, and will be one of those series that becomes classic! Pullman is an amazing author.

  3. Ami

    I’d probably recommend Some Kind of Pride by Maria Testa. It’s been about 10 years since I read it (I was in 6th grade at the time), but it really made an impression on me. It’s about a girl who plays shortstop and is so good that she gets a little blurb in Sports Illustrated. Meanwhile, she’s struggling with the fact that, as a girl, she might never get to play in the Major Leagues like she’s always dreamed about. Deals with some heavy themes, but worth the read.

    1. Katie Zenke

      That sounds great! And thank you for mentioning a sports title. That’s kind of a big hole in my list (although there are some great sports titles out there about girls, most of the sports books tend to focus on boy athletes).

    1. sbvds

      * Solving mysteries isn’t as geeky as science fiction or anything but I think it’s still geeky, in a way.

    2. Katie Zenke

      Nancy Drew almost made this list, but since I’m guessing most people will already be familiar with her (at least a little), I ended up giving her spot to a less well-known book. Thank you for mentioning her, though! She’s one of my all-time favorites!

    3. Meg

      Nancy Drew not only has Nancy, but Bess & George too! In retrospect, Bess probably isn’t the best feminist role model, but at the time I found it kind of amazing that Bess was a chubby girl who openly enjoyed food, wasn’t ashamed of her weight, and was actually considered attractive. Not only were people -not- constantly ragging on her over her weight, she had a boyfriend just like George and Nancy. She wasn’t a joke character, and her weight was neither made invisible or made to be her whole character. Same for George and her tomboy ways. Being a chubby, inquisitive tomboy, I found a lot to relate to in all three. :P

  4. Pashupati

    I don’t know if it counts: Peggy Sue et les Fantômes by Serge Brussolo if you can ever find a translation. Well, that’s about a girl who sees “phantoms” who says they have created the world and have to repair everything they destroy, because they make plans on the depends of other humans who don’t see them. She is just called weird, but I think Americans would say she is a geek even if it is minor to the stories. Also, Sigrid et les Mondes Perdus by the same author, although it was a bit condescending to its intended readers (that’s to say, children).
    Also, John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. I think I read it at 11 and sort of identified with the characters. I don’t remember the sexism level, though.

    1. Katie Zenke

      John Greene is fantastic and An Abundance of Katherines is a book that I recommend frequently without reservation.

      I’m not familiar with Serge Brussolo’s books, but now I’ve added them to my list to look up! They sound fascinating! Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. John

    A couple of interesting non-fiction books for kids are reviewed here; they’re written by a woman engineer who’s probably quite a good role model too. And I find there’s something appealing about the idea of childrens’ books that get good reviews from the IEEE!

  6. Allison

    Diana Wynne Jones writes great fantasy books with both male and female protagonists and for a range of ages.

  7. Liz

    I remember liking the hero and the crown (slightly misleading title because the hero is actually a female). I would recommend the his dark materials just for older readers though, because the end is so tragic, I think it would have been hard for me as a younger teen to invest myself in a three book series and not have a happy ending. The series put one of my friends off reading for a long time because they were so disappointed with how it turned out.

  8. L. Pendragon

    Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series is delightful for middle school and up. Despite the fantasy title, it contains a lot of science and philosophy. It has a male and a female protagonist, is geek-empowering and non-sexist.

    There is TONS of girl-empowering fantasy for middle school/teens. Start with Tamora Pierce’s books and website. She and her author friends have re-written our fairy tales to have proud empowered princesses who save the world. Need more and don’t feel like doing the research? Try Shannon Hale, Patricia Wrede, Gail Carson Levine or Esther Friesner.

    1. Katie Zenke

      Young Wizards is another one of my favorites (and my husband’s!).

      And you’re right, there are so many great girl books for that age group. Another fantastic resource to start with would be ReaderGirlz (readergirlz.com), an online monthly book club aimed at middle school and teen girls and sponsored by a couple of great authors. They have a featured book each month as well as several additional related titles (both fiction and nonfiction) and a suggested service project or organization that ties in. Their backlist of featured titles is a treasure-trove of great suggestions!

  9. Meg

    The first Hunger Games book was pretty good. I don’t know if it’s too dark for most 10-year-olds (I was reading Jean Auel then but I got the feeling the adults didn’t approve) but the level of reading difficulty seems appropriate, it’s well-written and enjoyable, has a pretty awesome girl main character, and has a bit of a social justice theme going on. The protag is a 16-year-old girl. She’s not geeky, but she’s adventurous, clever, and hard-working. After her dad died she took up his bow and started hunting (illegally) to feed her mom and her little sister. But there’s this lottery that every child from 12-18 has to enter each year, and each year one boy and one girl are drawn from each district. The “winners” from all the districts have to fight to the death on national TV. Children from poor families can enter their names multiple times a year in exchange for food, and the lottery is cumulative. A poor kid might have their name in the hat a few dozen times by the time they’re 16, while a well-off kid will only have five. Most of the book takes place in the arena, so there’s a good split between girl and boy characters (one each from every district). I just read this book for -myself- a few weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

    1. Katie Zenke

      Yeah, I definitely put Hunger Games in the “teen” group for a reason. There are some ten year olds who would be ready for it, but mostly it’s a teen title!

  10. Amanda6

    I loved Madeleine L’Engle when I was younger (still do,) and A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door both deal with fantasy/sci-fi themes and have a really great female protagonist.

  11. Meg

    Picture Books:
    The Math Curse — the protagonist is male, but it doesn’t present math as something gendered (the girls in his class participate too, and the 4-year-old girl I was reading it to didn’t pick up on the gender.) In content, it is my favorite geeky kids book ever; it presents real-world applications of math, mixes in math topics that are guaranteed to be over young children’s heads, but in ways that every kid I’ve read it to loves.

    Chapter Books:
    The Green Book — I haven’t read this in years, but it was a science fiction kids book with a female protagonist. In content, it was suitable for younger kids.
    Seconding all of Diane Duane’s works.
    Juniper (and Wise Child, though it’s slightly darker) were my favorite fantasy at that age. They are pro-nerd in the “work hard and learn about the world around you, even if it makes people think you are weird” way.
    Dragon Singer/Dragon Song. They deal explicitly with sexism and are set in a sexist society, rather than being non-sexist. I identified highly with the female protagonist here.
    Sabriel, definitely. Garth Nix in general is slightly dark, but awesome, and it has a logically-consistent magic system.
    Horrible Histories. They present a sexist world, because they are histories, but some of them don’t ignore terrible things women have done or that were done to women (including because of sexism). They also present a more sociologically-informed view of history, which I think makes it more engaging. It probably takes some picking and choosing here, but I know I read some awesome ones.

  12. Scott W.

    Atomic Robo? My daughter has been enjoying it since she was about 6yrs old. But that could very well be only because I draw it. Haha!

    But one of our motivations for making this comic was our complete frustration with the sexism of mainstream comics. We have a lot of women readers, and our wives *appear* to be proud of what we’ve done.

    We’ve got some free comics on our website; http://www.atomic-robo.com

  13. Tyler Cohen

    Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity (teen) series is fantastic.
    Castle Waiting by Linda Medley.
    Picture books:
    Sally Jean the Bicycle Queen
    The Cowgirl Kate books

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