Our 7 Favourite Picture Books With a Female Lead

To commemorate International Women’s Day we’ve selected some of our favourite books featuring strong female protagonists. These books are full of wonderful stories and beautiful illustrations, but most importantly they feature some amazing inspirational heroines.

Jill and the Lion by Lesley Barnes

Jill and the Lion tells the story of Jill, a daring little girl who loves to read. One day, Jill is dismayed to find that the pages of her favourite book are dripping with tears. Out from the book comes the tearful voice of a lion who has been kidnapped by a circus master who forces him to drive a toy car in endless circles. Eager to help and with little trepidation, Jill and her dog jump right into the book. Together they set out to help the lion regain his rightful place as king of the jungle.

Lesley Barnes’ illustrations are amazing to look at and are packed with colour and texture. Many of the patterns and varying fonts are reminiscent of retro funfairs and old fashioned circuses which add to the overall feeling of Jill being immersed in her book. The images of the lion are particularly expressive, showing his misery at being captive and his glee once Jill sets him free.

Throughout the story Jill is compassionate and brave. She lands in a dangerous part of the book but is undeterred from her mission and uses her courage and cleverness to help her new friend. The metafictional elements of the story - the book within the book - will ignite children's imaginations and may spark many conversations as they consider what they might do if they could jump into one of their favourite books. 

Molly and the Stormy Sea by Malachy Doyle and Andrew Whitson

Molly and the Stormy Sea by Malachy Doyle, illustrated by Andrew Whitson

Award-winning Irish author-illustrator duo Malachy Doyle and Andrew Whitson bring us this tale of hope and bravery. Told in a style similar to traditional fables, this story reverses the conventional role of the male hero. Molly awakens one morning to find that her father has not returned from fishing on the stormy seas. In an act of hope and selflessness, Molly takes her most treasured possessions down to the shore and offers them up to the sea in the hopes that it will safely return her father and all the other fishermen.

Whitson’s illustrations bring this story to life in rich, vibrant colours. He captures a real sense of movement which adds to the suspense and excitement. The stunning images convey the power and immensity of the stormy sea while also reflecting Molly’s state of mind. As she makes her way to the shore the swirling skies and churning waves represent her fear and sadness. As she throws her prized possessions into the sea the rays of light that burst through the clouds evoke a sense of hope.

Little Pearl by Martin Widmark and Emilia Dziubak

Little Pearl is a captivating and refreshing story of how a young girl rescues her brother. Martin Widmark combines elements of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen to create this surreal and fantastical tale. When Grace's brother goes missing she sets out to find him and tumbles into a strange new land where she is the as small as a bug. In this new world she makes friends with the other insects, who speak in a comically confused rhyming language. However, when she is captured by an evil crab she needs all her courage, leadership and intelligence to save herself, the other children, and her brother. 

In addition to its intriguing story this book is a work of art. Emilia Dziubak’s coloured pencil illustrations are utterly spectacular, creating an eerie, dreamy atmosphere. Her use of natural imagery excellently depicts the mysterious world Widmark has created. Other more surreal images, such as the one of a tiny Grace sitting crying on the end of her brother’s flute, represent the strong bond between these siblings.

The Dangerous Journey by Tove Jansson

In The Dangerous Journey Tove Jansson takes her readers on a remarkable adventure through Moominvalley. The protagonist, Susanna, is tired of her quiet life and longs for something exciting to happen. When she puts on a strange pair of glasses she finds the world around her has completely changed. Everything is dark and unfamiliar, but Susanna’s thirst for adventure takes over and she sets out into the unknown. 

Translated into English by renowned poet Sophie Hannah, the playful rhyme scheme adds a sense of momentum to this exciting adventure. Jansson’s artwork is beloved all over the world and this book, like all her others, is irresistibly beautiful. Contrasting her signature black and white woodcuttings, the vibrant water-colours that splash through this book make it a joy to look at and perfectly depict the howling snowstorm, sputtering volcano and roiling waves Susanna encounters on her journey.

Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O'Hara

Hortense is a kind, brave, intelligent girl but she finds herself at war with her very own shadow. It follows wherever she goes and she desperately tries to get rid of it. Eventually she succeeds by slamming a window and shutting it out, but not forever. On a cold night in the woods a group of bandits jump out at Hortense and she realises just how much she needs her shadow.

Drawing on classic folktales and incorporating the darkness of the Grimm’s fairy-tales, the O’Hara sisters succeed in creating a story that is simultaneously classic and contemporary. The lyrical cadence of the text combined with Lauren O'Hara's ghostly illustrations, done in sparkling winter tones, creates an eerie and mystical atmosphere that makes this book a delight to read.

Like many traditional fairy-tales, this story has an important message. Hortense must learn to love and accept her shadow, showing readers that we all have dark sides but we must not shun them. Like Hortense, readers are encouraged to accept their whole selves because they will be stronger for it.

Madame Badobedah by Sophie Dahl and Lauren O'Hara

In her exciting debut as a children’s book author Sophie Dahl celebrates the friendship between two tremendous characters. Mable is a daring, inquisitive young girl and Madame Badobedah is a formidable, glamorous older lady. With her growly voice, heavy suitcases and toffee-apple-red hair, there is something very suspicious about Madame Badobedah and Mable is determined to find out more about her. Over the course of her investigation Mable learns about the amazing life Madame Badobedah has led and an unlikely friendship blossoms between the two.

Illustrated by Lauren O’Hara in washes of soft greens and blues you can practically feel the sea breeze wafting through the pages of this beautiful book. The images of Mable are wonderfully expressive, clearly presenting her as a strong-minded, independent little girl who knows herself. Madame Badobedah is equally strong-willed and her strength of character is presented through her commanding manner and glamourous appearance, captured in vibrant reds and deep dark blues.

Adventure Stories for Daring Girls by Samantha Newman and Khoa Le

Each of the stories in this collection feature kind, strong-minded, courageous heroines who strike out on their own and will inspire young readers to dream big. In addition to being a great representation of inspirational female characters, this book is a celebration of diversity, featuring stories from numerous different countries and cultures including China, Denmark, Maori New Zealand, Colombia and Russia. 

It is not only brimming with exciting, inspiring stories, it is also absolutely gorgeous! Khoa Le's use of strong lines and shapes with rich, vibrant colours sets the tone for the stories and reflects the strength and independence these heroines embody. 

In this book, children can read retellings of classic stories such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland while also discovering other less familiar stories like Chimidyue and the Butterfly or Princess Kaguya’s Great Adventure. Whether it’s Gerda rescuing Kay from the clutches of the evil Snow Queen, Hua Mulan taking her father’s place in the war, or Hinemoa bravely swimming across Lake Rotorua to be with the man she loves, children can take inspiration from the courage, independence, wit and wisdom shown by these wonderful protagonists. 

Happy International Women's Day!