Each year, Rise: A Feminist Book Project seeks to recommend well-written, well-illustrated books for young readers with significant feminist content. Even as our understanding of feminism and of literary excellence is constantly evolving, we find it helpful to have some common criteria for our work. As we evaluate and discuss books, we consider three primary criteria:
- Does the book have significant feminist content?
- Is the book developmentally appropriate for and appealing to young readers?
- Is the book well written and well illustrated?
In this document, we express our common understanding of these criteria and provide some questions to consider when reading, recommending, and discussing books for the list.
Significant Feminist Content
Feminism works toward the equality of people of all sexes and genders with a particular concern for eradicating gender-based discrimination. Feminist work takes many forms and frequently intersects with other social justice work. We recognize that feminism is not a monolith or a single organized movement, and we value voices that expand and challenge our existing understandings of feminism.
Feminist books for young readers must move beyond merely “spunky” and “feisty” young women, beyond characters and people who fight to protect themselves without concern for the rights of others. Feminist protagonists call out and work to eliminate sexism and other systemic prejudices, actively shaping their destinies.They break bonds forced by society as they defy stereotypical expectations and show resilience in the face of societal strictures. People who are not women can also play an important part in questioning and defying gender and/or sex roles.
In addition, feminist books show women solving problems, gaining personal power, and empowering others. They celebrate girls and women as a vibrant, vital force in the world. These books explain that there is a gender issue; they don’t leave the reader to guess. A book with a strong female character that does not demonstrate that an inequality exists may not be a feminist book. Strong female characters may be plucky, perseverant, courageous, feisty, intelligent, spirited, resourceful, capable, and independent–but the book’s presentation may still not be feminist.
Some Questions to Consider:
- Does the book show an awareness of gender-based inequalities with action to change these inequalities?
- Does the book show an awareness of the intersections between sexism and other systems of oppression?
- Are traditional gender roles challenged or defied? If so, does the book point out that these roles are in opposition to society’s expectations and that the person is breaking new ground?
- Do girls and women blaze new trails for themselves and those who follow them? (Again, does the book point that out?)
- Do girls and women use power for purposeful action, empowering others?
- Does the book reflect opportunities (or the lack thereof), inequalities, and non-traditional roles for girls and women in the era in which the book is set?
- How does the protagonist grow over the course of the book?
- Is the protagonist the active party, or does she simply react to situations?
- Is the protagonist’s voice silenced? Does she become “squelched” between the beginning and the ending of the book? If so, does she ever regain her voice?
- Does the book highlight underrepresented/suppressed voices and perspectives in feminism?
- Do descriptions show the character of the person, or do they concentrate on attractive personal appearances?
- Whose stories, voices, and work are centered? What sources are trusted, and how does this affect the reader’s understanding of the truth?
- Is the word “feminism” used in the book? Is the approach positive to feminism?
- Does the book challenge and expand dominant concepts of feminism?
Appeal and Developmental Appropriateness for Young Readers
There are typically two levels on which the committee might discuss the age-appropriateness of a book. The list is for readers from birth to age 18, and any book on the list should appeal to some subset of that age group. Additionally, books should be consistent in their intended audience.
The committee is primarily concerned with whether a book is suitable for individual readers in this age bracket, not whether a book is suitable for the children’s or young adult section of a school or public library, or whether a book is suitable for a school curriculum.
Some Questions to Consider:
- Will this book appeal to readers somewhere between the ages of 0 and 18?
- Would a reader in this age bracket have the necessary background knowledge assumed by the text?
- Do the text, illustrations, font size, layout, etc., seem appropriate for the same age group? If not, is this juxtaposition intentional?
- Is the design inviting, and does it accurately communicate the utility of the book? (e.g. a reference book for a school project may not look the same as a novel)
- Does the format of the book support comprehension by the intended reader? (Are illustrations close to related text? Are captions clear and accurate? Is all text readable?)
- Is it apparent whether the book is fiction or nonfiction and whether information presented is factual or imagined?
- Do backmatter, tables of contents, etc., appropriately support the use of the book by the intended reader?
- Does the book respect the lived experiences and accrued knowledge of the intended reader, or does it “talk down” to young people?
- Is the book concerned with issues or experiences that are salient to young people?
Writing and Illustration
Literary quality can be very subjective, and committee members are reminded that “excellence” looks different through different cultural lenses. Committee members are encouraged to develop an understanding of the literary and cultural context of the writing and illustration styles of each nominated book.
Some Questions to Consider:
In All Books:
- How well is language used? (This could include metaphor, analogy, pacing, etc.)
- Is the use of language developmentally appropriate for the intended reader?
- Are there typos and other editing errors? Do they distract from the overall reading experience or the reader’s comprehension of the text?
- Is the characterization shown through action and dialog? Are the characterizations developed or flat?
- Are the transitions strong? Are there holes in the plot? Does the ending satisfy?
- Do all the scenes advance the plot? Is the plot overly predictable?
- Is the book authentic and consistent in its setting, characters, and plot?
- Is the information in the book accurate?
- How timely is the book? Will it retain its timeliness?
- Is the information presented accurate, or does the author provide subjects with feelings and attitudes that are not substantiated?
- Is there required supportive material (e.g., bibliography, sources, footnotes, endnotes) that robustly and properly cites the content, including all photos and quotes?
- Are first-person accounts properly attributed and recognized?
- Is the author successful in limiting the scope of the subject?
- Is the material presented in logical sequence?
Books with Illustrations:
- Are the illustrations accurate?
- Are the people in the illustrations uniformly white, able-bodied, etc.? If so, is this justified by the context?
- Do the illustrations demonstrate mastery of the artistic media being used?
- Do the illustrations depict girls and women as well-realized characters/subjects, or do they serve mostly to attest to a woman’s attractiveness?
- Do the illustrations support and/or extend the text, and vice versa?
Updated January 26, 2020