I’m a Berkeleyan: Alumna Brittany Murlas on her children’s book club, Little Feminist

“I’m dyslexic and children’s books have always been a safe haven for me. When I learned that of children’s books published each year, just 31 percent have female central characters and in the last five years only 13 percent of children’s books feature a person of color, I quit my job to start Little Feminist.

two toddlers reading a book

Little Feminist, started by alumna Brittany Murlas, is a children’s book and activity subscription that focuses on diversity and gender equality that teaches kids 0 to 9 years old empathy and perseverance. (Photo courtesy of Brittany Murlas)

Little Feminist is a children’s book and activity subscription that focuses on diversity and gender equality that teaches kids 0 to 9 years old empathy and perseverance. Books of the month are selected by a team of educators, librarians and parents, who then create discussion questions and a DIY activity to go along with each book.

When I started Little Feminist, I thought Women’s History Month would be a rallying point for our staff and book club members. But to my surprise, I feel angry and sad.

Don’t get me wrong, I love celebrating women — where women have come from and what they’ve accomplished. When women flourished on election night last November, we celebrated just like everyone.

I’m a fourth-generation woman Cal grad — my mom went to Cal, my grandma went to Cal and my great-grandmother went to Cal. As a freshman, I took a class called American Cultures and it just kind of blew me out of the water. I came to realize how privileged I was — how whiteness is a huge privilege — and I learned about systemic racism. I just didn’t know before that. I’ve been working towards being a non-racist ally ever since. 

When it comes to Women’s History Month, it’s the “history” part that bothers me.

The Little Feminist team hold up books

Murlas (center) and the Little Feminist team. Murlas graduated from UC Berkeley in 2009 with a degree in economics and interdisciplinary studies. (Photo courtesy of Brittany Murlas)

By focusing on history, I worry that we’re setting a ceiling for the next generation. Most children’s books that feature women, and especially women of color, are historical stories of overcoming injustice. What possibilities are we really opening for our kids if most children’s books featuring a young female are about her fighting for her civil rights? Of course, we have to know and understand our history to shape a better future, but today’s children’s media landscape makes it look like imaginative stories about dragons, space and clouds made of cotton candy are reserved for white males.

The Little Feminist team and I have two years under our belts scouring the globe for the best diverse children’s books. And every day, we come back to the same frustration: why is it so hard to find books featuring females who are not about overcoming femaleness?

And while it’s difficult finding books that normalize strong female characters, it’s so much harder finding female protagonists of color.

Two girls holding signs smiling

“My goal is that Little Feminist not only sheds light on the inequities of children’s media, but also disrupts it,” says Murlas. (Photo courtesy of Brittany Murlas)

Yes there are more and more diverse children’s books published each year, but again, the majority of them are nonfiction. While white characters and male characters get to ride dragons and trains, women of color get to march… and occasionally play tennis.

My goal is that Little Feminist not only sheds light on the inequities of children’s media, but also disrupts it. As book publishers cite “low demand” for the lack of diverse children’s books, I have the privilege of my whiteness to use Little Feminist to hand the mic to authors, illustrators and characters of color.

I’m hesitant to celebrate women’s history because history is written by the people in power and, as Gloria Steinem and Favianna Rodriguez so beautifully pointed out when I saw them speak in February: ‘There are two things  —  history and the past, and they are not the same thing.’ HIStory only tells part of the story. HERstory only tells part of the story.

I want to celebrate Intersectional Women’s History month, but history is far from intersectional. For example, women’s suffrage leaders left out black women, and we don’t celebrate that Native American women have had political power for 1,000 years.

So, what can I, what can we, do with our families this month to celebrate not just women’s intersectional past, but also women’s future?

book cover of Drum Dream GirlFirst, we can celebrate Women’s History Month by reading stories about women and girls, written and illustrated by women of color:

And, we can read children’s books featuring women and girls who are playing and dreaming and being:

I didn’t expect Women’s History Month to be something I’d come to #resist. But maybe that’s exactly what this month is for — balancing the celebration of our past with the resistance we need to shape a more equitable future.

Hats of Faith book cover

Hats of Faith, written by Medeia Cohan, illustrated by Sarah Walsh and published by Hajera Memon.

Also, in the wake of the New Zealand Muslim terror attack, the Little Feminist team has selected our favorite nine books featuring Islam. We made a point of choosing books that show Islam in a positive, celebratory light. Now, more than ever, it’s time to confront Islamophobia at home by celebrating, normalizing and integrating Muslim faith and culture into our bedtime stories. It was important to us that each of our book picks are written or published by Muslim authors.”

Learn more at LittleFeminist.com.

This is part of a series of thumbnail sketches of people in the UC Berkeley community who exemplify Berkeley, in all its creative, scrappy, world-changing, quirky glory. Are you a Berkeleyan? Know one? Let us know. We’ll add your name to a drawing for an I’m a Berkeleyan T-shirt.