Active Heroines in Folktales

Sisters’ Choice Home for Storytelling, Music and Activities for kids

In most familiar folk tales with female protagonists, the woman or girl plays a passive role, waiting to be rescued or, at most, helping her male rescuer by her special knowledge of her captor. Women with power tend to have secondary roles: wicked stepmother, fairy godmother. Some folk tales in which the central female character takes an active, positive roles are listed here, In three of the stories, “Umai,” “The Wood Fairy” and “The Sweet Porridge,” there are no male characters.

This index to women taking roles not well-represented in traditional stories is an update of a list I annotated for my book, Just Enough to Make a Story: A Sourcebook for Storytelling (Sisters’ Choice Press, third edition 1992). The annotations are mostly descriptive. Political or literary analysis is left to you, as is the selection of stories you find both non-sexist and good for telling. These stories can be found in collections published for children or in picture books; the collections of folktales for adults I leave to someone else to search, mentioning only The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book edited by Angela Carter for the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library (1990). However, most of the stories listed here can be told to adults.

Since this list was first compiled, several books of folktales with active heroines have appeared, and one, The Skull in the Snow by Toni McCarty, has come into and gone out of print. The first to appear, Rosemary Minard’s Womenfolk and Fairy Tales (Houghton, 1975) is still readily available in libraries and stores, and is an indispensable resource for any storyteller. Ethel Johnston Phelps has edited two collections, Tatterhood and Other Tales (Feminist Press, 1978) and The Maid of the North, Feminist Folk Tales from Around the World (Holt, 1981.) She does more cleaning up of sexist tales than I am comfortable with--I want the tales I tell to represent a tradition of uppity women. I will change sexist language or minor incidents, but not plots or characters. Jack Zipes has collected some non-traditional feminist fairy tales in Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England (Methuen, 1986). None of the stories from these five books are annotated here; all are worth looking at.

Margaret Read MacDonald has listed some good stories about women and girls in her Storyteller’s Sourcebook. Some likely numbers to look under are H506.12, H551.0.1 through H561.1.2 and H582.1.1, and J1545 through J1547. The index to Let’s Hear It for the Girls by Erica Bauermeister and Holly Smith (Penguin, 1997) lists about twenty more active-heroine legends and folktales published as separate picture books. If you know of other stories in folk tale collections for children (or separately published for children) that seem to belong on this Active Heroines list, please e-mail descriptions and sources for the stories. Also if you know in-print versions of stories that only have out-of-print sources listed here, please e-mail them in.

Ashpet, in Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase. Houghton, 1948.
A Cinderella variant in which Ashpet is a hired hand, earns the grannylady’s magic help, shucks the shoe on purpose, and generally takes things into her own hands. Appalachian.

Atalanta in Free to Be...You and Me by Marlo Thomas. McGraw, 1974.
A modern retelling of the myth in which Atalanta and Young John tie in the race and become friends. There are also traditional versions in which Atalanta becomes an athlete because her father wanted a son, and it is only with the help of love that any man can win a race against her.

Baba Yaga in Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome. Viking, 1975.
The little girl sent to the witch’s house uses thoughtfully everything she finds on the way, and thus makes her escape.

The Barber’s Clever Wife in Fools and Funny Fellows by Phyllis Fenner. Knopf, 1947, o.p.
She dupes a pack of thieves on four occasions and finally bites off the tip of their captain’s tongue. From Tales of the Punjab.

The Beggar in the Blanket in The Beggar in the Blanket and Other Vietnamese Tales by Gail B. Graham. Dial, 1970.
A woman’s audacious plan convinces her husband that his poor brother is worth more to him than his rich friends.

Bimwili and the Zimwi retold by Verna Aardema. Dial, 1985.
Playing at the ocean with her sisters, a girl makes up a song about a seashell. On the way home she remembers her shell and returns for it alone. When captured by a loathsome ogre, the girl uses a variation on her song to signal for help. Tanzania.

The Black Bull of Norroway in More English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs. Dover, 1967.
Three sisters go out to seek their fortunes; the third rides the black bull and rescues her true love from an evil spell.

Boadicea...The Warrior Queen, in The World’s Great Stories: 55 Legends That Live Forever by Louis Untermeyer. Lippincott, 1964, o.p.
The legend of England’s ancient heroine.

Brave Martha and the Dragon, by Susan L. Roth. Dial Books for Young Readers, c1996.
A young girl captures the dragon that has been terrorizing the villagers of Tarascon. Based on a Provençal legend of Saint Martha.

The Brave Woman and the Flying Head, in Iroquois Stories: Heros and Heroines, Monsters and Magic by Joseph Bruchac. Crossing, 1995. Also in Children Tell Stories by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss. Richard C. Owen, 1990.
A quick-thinking woman saves herself and her small child from the hungry monster.

Clever Gretchen by John Stewig. Marshall Cavendish, 2000
In order to win Gretchen’s hand in marriage, Hans signs a pact with a goat-footed dwarf; seven years later, Gretchen gets him out of it.

The Clever Wife, in Sweet and Sour: Tales from China by Carole Kendall and Yao-wen Li. Houghton Mifflin, c. 1979.
Fu-Hsing boasts of his wife’s cleverness, the Magistrate sets her tasks, and she solves them by turning them back on him.

The Dragon’s Revenge, in Magic Animals of Japan by Davis Pratt. Parnassus, 1967, o.p.
A young man breaks his promise to the woman who loves him; she turns into a dragon and burns him to a crisp.

Elijah’s Violin, in Elijah’s Violin and Other Jewish Fairy Tales by Howard Schwartz. Oxford University Press, 1994.
The youngest daughter asks her father to bring her Elijah’s violin, which summons a prince when she plays it. Her jealous sisters drive the prince away, but with the wise woman’s help, she rescues him.

The Fairy Frog, in Black Fairy Tales by Terry Berger. Macmillan, 1974, o.p. Tombi-Ende is buried alive by her jealous sisters, but she keeps crying out, “I am Tombe-Ende, I am not dead, I am alive like one of you,” and an enchanted frog hears her and saves her.

The Farmer’s Wife and the Tiger, in The Magic Umbrella and Other Stories for Telling compiled by Eileen Cowell. David McCay, 1976, o.p.
The tiger demands the farmer’s bullocks. The farmer promises his wife’s milk cow instead. The wife tricks the tiger out of both. As retold by Ikram Chugtai in Folktales from Asia, Cultural Center for UNESCO. Pakistan.

The Five Eggs, in Ride with the Sun: An Anthology of Folk Tales and Stories from the United Nations by Harold Courlander. McGraw-Hill, 1955, o.p.
Juan begs money for five eggs. Juanica cooks them. Each stubbornly claims the right to eat them. Juanica says she’ll die, Juan says go ahead, and the grave is dug before she gives in. But when they get home, she eats three eggs. From Stories From the Americas, collected and translated by Frank Henius. Ecuador, probably of European origin.

Flossie and the Fox, by Patricia McKissack. Dial, 1986.
The neighbors’ hen house has been cleaned out by a fox, so Flossie Finley is taking them a basket of eggs. When an arrogant old fox chats her up along the way, this self-possessed African-American girl uses her quick wit to drive him to distraction. Author’s adaptation of a family story.

A Fox Who Was Too Sly, in Magic Animals of Japan by Davis Pratt. Parnassus, 1967, o.p.
The fox tries to trick an old woman but she tricks--and cooks--him.

The Gay Goss-hawk, in Heather and Broom: Tales of the Scottish Highlands by Sorche Nic Leodhas. Holt, 1960, o.p.
An English lady, prevented by her father from marrying her Scottish laird, carries out a bold plan to rejoin her true love. Retold from a ballad.

The Ghost’s Bride, in The Rainbow People by Laurence Yep. Harper Collins, 1989.
A brave and clever mother saves her daughter from being the bride of a ghost. China.

The Girl and the Moon Man: A Siberian tale, retold and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. Pantheon Books, c1984.
A lonely moon unsuccessfully tries to carry a young girl off into the sky. She and her faithful reindeer fend him off, then capture him and win many timeless gifts in exchange for his release.

The Girl Who Overpowered the Moon, in The Man in the Moon; Sky Tales from Many Lands by Alta Jablow and Carl Withers. Holt, 1969, o.p.
A Chuckchee tale in which a reindeer herder is pursued by the moon. She keeps tricking the moon until he is exhausted and promises to give her people light at night and to measure the year for them. Siberia.

The Goblin’s Giggle, in The Goblin’s Giggle and Other Stories by Molly Garret Bang. Peter Smith, 1988.
A bride stolen away by goblins is rescued by her mother and a nun. When the goblins drink the river to catch them, they escape by making the goblins laugh. Japan.

The Husband Who Was to Mind the House, in East of the Sun, West of the Moon by P.C. Asbjornsen. Dover, 1970, o.p. Also in Times for Fairy Tales, Old and New by May Hill Arbuthnot.
A farmer finds that his wife’s work is not so easy as he thinks.

I’m Tipingee, She’s Tipingee, We’re Tipingee Too, in The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales by Diane Wolkstein. Knopf, 1978.
Tipingee organizes her friends to dress like her, so the old man who has come to take her away won’t be able to pick her out.

The Khan’s Daughter: a Mongolian folktale, by Laurence Yep; illustrated by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng. Scholastic, c1997
A simple shepherd must pass three tests in order to marry the Khan’s beautiful daughter. The third test is set by the daughter, who wants something besides the strength and bravery her parents demand.

The King’s True Children, in The Beautiful Blue Jay and Other Tales of India by John W. Spellman. Little, Brown, 1967, o.p.
Jealous older wives send the youngest queen’s two children down the river, where they are rescued and raised by a fisherman and his wife. When grown, the brother follows a quest to a sacred spring, but looks back and is taken by demons. His sister sees that the milk he left has turned blood red and goes to rescue him. She succeeds, and her fame brings her a reunion with their birth parents.

The Lad in Search of a Fortune, in Cap o’Rushes and Other Folk Tales by Winifred Finlay. Harvey, 1974, o.p.
A farm lad sets out to find a rich man’s daughter and rescue her, but is himself rescued by a wise country lass instead.

The Legend of Bluebonnet, retold by Tomie de Paola. Putnam, 1983.
The Great Spirits told the Comanche People to sacrifice their most precious possession to end a drought that had killed many, including the parents of one little girl. When the little girl sacrificed a doll made for her by her mother, the Spirits covered the hillsides with bluebonnets and ended the drought. Comanche legend.

A Legend of Knockmany, in Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs. Dover, 1968.
Fin M’Coul is afraid to fight Cuhullin, a bigger giant, so Fin’s wife, Oonagh, tricks Cuhullin. Ireland. Also in a picture book version by Tomie de Paola, Fin M’Coul, the giant of Knockmany Hill. Holiday, 1981.

The Lion’s Whiskers, in The Lion’s Whiskers: Tales of High Africa by Brent Ashabranner and Russell Davis. Little, Brown, 1959, o.p.
A woman tames a lion in order to win the love of her little stepson. An antidote to all those bad-stepmother stories and a hint about why they exist. Ethiopia.

The Little Daughter of the Snow, in Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome. Viking, 1975.
For once it is a daughter, not a son, who is longed for. The girl that the old couple make out of snow is active and independent.

The Little Porridge Pot, in Children Tell Stories by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss. Richard C. Owen, 1990. In More Tales from Grimm by Wanda Gág as “The Sweet Porridge.” Coward-McCann, 1947, o.p.
A wise woman gives a poor girl a magic pot. Her mother forgets the words that make it stop producing porridge, and the town is inundated before the girl arrives to stop it. Germany.

Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story from China, retold by Ed Young. Philomel, 1989.
A girl uses her wits to kill a wolf dressed up as Po Po, her grandmother. The author’s dedication thanks “the wolves of the world for lending their good name as a tangible symbol of our darkness.”

The Magic Wings: a Tale from China, retold by Diane Wolkstein. Dutton, 1983.
The goose girl is determined to grow wings, and after all the women in the country become involved, she does. Also in Joining In, compiled by Teresa Miller (Yellow Moon, 1988) with instructions from Diane on doing it as a participation story.

Malindy and Little Devil, in Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales told by Virginia Hamilton. Blue Sky, 1995.
Malindy is too little to get the best of the devil the first time they meet, but when he comes back for her soul, she is grown up and fools him with a pun.

Mary Culhane and the Dead Man, in The Goblin’s Giggle and Other Stories by Molly Garret Bang. Peter Smith 1988.
Mary keeps her wits about her even under the power of a dead man, and wins three pots of gold. Ireland.

Mirandy and Brother Wind, by Patricia McKissack. Knopf, 1988.
A turn-of-the-century African-American girl is set on dancing with magical, high-steppin’ Brother Wind at the junior cake-walk contest. After confiding her plan to catch the wind to the clumsiest boy in town, she sees there’s another way the wind’s magic can help her. Author’s adaptation of a family story.

The Moon Princess, in The Beautiful Blue Jay and Other Tales of India by John W. Spellman. Little, Brown, 1967, o.p.
Princess Radha rejects all her suitors; they are vain or stingy or talk about food all the time. She wishes for a husband as beautiful as the moon. The Prince Moon’s emissary comes for her, her grandfather argues with him and the little man starts to pull him up to the moon. Radha goes to his rescue and they all end up on the moon, perfectly happy.

The Moon’s Escape, in Once in the First Times, Folk Tales from the Philippines by Elizabeth Hough Sechrist. MacRae Smith, 1969, o.p.
A princess fights a giant crab who wants to eat the moon.

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, by John Steptoe. Lothrop, 1987.
A snake is well treated by a young African woman who knows he is good for her garden. He turns out to be a handsome prince.

Mutsmag, in Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase. Houghton, 1948.
An Appalachian tale similar to “Mollie Whuppie” in which a girl steals a giant’s treasure, but Mutsmag wins gold, not husbands.

A New Year’s Story, in Tales from a Taiwan Kitchen by Cora Cheney. Dodd, Mead, 1976, o.p.
The young widow Teng saves her child from the terrible dragon ghost; a legend that explains New Year’s customs.

The Nixie of the Mill Pond, in Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm. Various editions. A brave wife rescues her captive husband with the aid of a wisewoman. Germany.

Odilia and Aldaric, in The Giant at the Ford And Other Legends of the Saints by Ursula Synge. Atheneum, 1980, o.p. Also available on Milbre Burch’s cassette, Saints and Other Sinners (Kind Crone).
A warrior rejects his blind daughter and she is raised in a convent. At baptism she regains her sight. Then begins a contest of wills between equally stubborn father and daughter. Alsace.

The Old Jar, in The Rainbow People by Laurence Yep. Harper Collins, 1989.
An old woman hangs onto an old jar despite difficulties and seemingly better offers, and the jar supplies her with rice for the rest of her life. China.

The Origin of the Camlet Flower, in Ride with the Sun: An Anthology of Folk Tales and Stories from the United Nations by Harold Courlander. McGraw-Hill, 1955. Retold from Poesias y Leyendas para los Niños, by Fernán Silva Valdes.
A white girl drowns while trying to save an Indian child. The Indians bring a message from their god that the girl will live on as a water-flower blue as the girls eyes, and it is so. Uruguay.

The People Who Hugged the Trees: An Environmental Folk Tale, adapted by Deborah Lee Rose. Roberts Rinehart, 1990.
Amrita loves the trees that protect her desert village from sandstorms. When a ruler orders the woods cut, she runs to hug her favorite tree and the other villagers do the same. The ruler is adamant until a sandstorm comes and he sees that the trees are more useful as trees than as a fort. India.

Princess Maring, the Huntress, in Folk Tales from the Philippines by Dorothy Lewis Robertson. Dodd, 1971, o.p.
The princess falls in love with her father’s enemy while hunting.

The Prisoner, in The Arbuthnot Anthology of Children’s Literature by May Hill Arbuthnot. 3rd ed. Scott Foresman, 1971,o.p.
A huge fish swallows Rangi when she refuses to marry him. She cuts her way out through the thin flesh of his throat, which is why all fish have gills today. Rarotonga.

The Rajah’s Rice: A Mathematical Folktale from India, adapted by David Barry. Scientific American Books, c.1994.
When Chandra, the official bather of the Rajah’s elephants, saves them from serious illness, she uses the Rajah’s own chessboard to exact from him a reward more costly than he realizes.

The Samurai’s Daughter: A Japanese Legend, retold by Robert San Souci. Dial, 1992.
A samurai is banished for an affront to the Mikado. His daughter, seeking him, slays a sea-serpent and finds near it a long-lost statue of the Mikado and restores her father to favor. Also in Animal Folktales around the World by Kathleen Arnott (Walck, o.p.) as “The Slaying of the Sea-Serpent.”

Savitri and the Lord of the Dead, in The Buried Moon and Other Stories by Molly Bang. Scribners, 1977, o.p.
Savitri, knowing that her husband will die, fasts and meditates. When the Lord of the Dead comes, she can see him, and by her wisdom and cleverness forces him to give back her husband. Also in Homespun: Tales from America’s Favorite Storytellers as retold by Laura Simms (edited by Jimmy Neil Smith for Crown, 1988).

The Serpent-Slayer, in Sweet and Sour; Tales from China by Carol Kendall and Yao-wen Li. Houghton Mifflin, c. 1979.
Li Chi lures the maiden-eating serpent with rice-balls; it scalds itself in the boiling honey-syrup and she slays it.

The Shell Woman & the King: A Chinese folktale retold, by Laurence Yep; paintings by Yang Ming-Yi. Dial Books, 1993.
To save herself and her husband from an evil king, Shell agrees to bring him three wonders. The third lets us know that she is clever as well as magical.

The Skull, in The Book of Ghosts and Goblins by Ruth Manning-Sanders. Dutton, 1973, o.p.
An orphan girl de-haunts and wins a castle by defending a skull from the skeleton that wants to steal it. I prefer to leave the little girl with the castle, playmates and servants she has won from the skeleton. She doesn’t need--and the story doesn’t need--the promise of a prince later. Tyrolian.

Slue-Foot Sue and Pecos Bill, in Larger Than Life: John Henry and Other Tall Tales by Robert San Souci. Doubleday, 1991.
Slue-Foot rides a giant catfish, but when she tries wearing a bustle she gets into trouble.

Spin, Weave, Wear, in Heather and Broom: Tales of the Scottish Highlands by Sorche Nic Leodhas. Holt, 1960, o.p.
This starts like Rumplestiltskin, but the lass pays in advance for the magic, and strikes a better bargain.

The Squire’s Bride, in Children Tell Stories by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss. Richard C. Owen, 1990. Also in Norwegian Folk Tales by Peter Asbjornsen. Pantheon, 1982. Also published separately, o.p.
The wealthy squire won’t take “no!” for an answer, so the farmer’s daughter makes him look ridiculous. The Children Tell Stories version leaves out the ageist aspect.

The Story of Oskus-ool and His Wise Wife, in How the Moolah Was Taught a Lesson and Other Tales from Russia by Estelle Titiev and Lila Pargment. Dial, 1976, o.p.
Oskus-ool wins wealth and a wife from the old wolf. The wife’s beauty draws the envy of the Khan’s son, but her wisdom and knowledge of magic protect her. Tuvin.

Strega Nona: An Old Tale, retold by Tomie de Paola. Simon & Schuster, c. 1975.
The good witch’s apprentice uses the forbidden pot and inundates the town with pasta. The townspeople want to string him up, but Strega Nona says, “Let the punishment fit the crime,” and makes him eat all the pasta. Italy.

The Talking Eggs, retold by Robert San Souci. Dial, 1989.
The sister who shows neither fear nor amusement at the old woman’s magic is rewarded. African-American.

Tamlane, in More English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs. Dover, 1967.
Burd Janet rescues Tamlane from the fairies by holding him as they change him into one frightening thing after another. Retold from the ballad. British Isles. Also separately as Tam Lin: an old ballad, retold by Jane Yolen. Harcourt, 1990.

This Time, Tempe Wick, by Patricia Lee Gauch. Coward, McCann, 1974.
During the American Revolutionary War, a girl named Tempe Wick helped Washington’s army as best she could. But hungry soldiers eventually mutinied, and tried to steal her horse. Tempe responded with cunning, then with force, to keep what was hers. Based on a legend from Jockey Hollow, New Jersey.

The Three Little Eggs, in Black Fairy Tales by Terry Berger. Atheneum, 1969, o.p.
In this Swazi tale from South Africa, a woman takes her two children and leaves the husband who mistreats her. With the advice of magical eggs she finds, she defeats monsters and finds a new home.

The Three Spinners, in More Tales from Grimm by Wanda Gág. Coward, McCann, 1947, o.p.
An unskilled girl is forced to spin. Three old women offer magic help if she promises to invite them to her wedding. She does, and they explain their various deformities as the result of spinning. The groom forbids her to spin. Germany. There is also a Scandinavian version.

Three Strong Women: a Tale from Japan, retold by Claus Stamm. Viking, 1990.
On his way to wrestle for the Emperor, Forever-Mountain tickles a young woman he sees on the road. She won’t let his hand free. Her mother and grandmother are even stronger, and he learns a bit about wrestling. Also retold by Irene Hedlund as Mighty Mountain and the Three Strong Women, Volcano Press, 1990.

Two Old Women’s Bet, in Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase. Houghton, 1948.
They bet on which one can make a bigger fool out of her husband. One convinces her spouse he is dead, the other makes hers a suit like the one in “ The Emperor’s New Clothes. ” Appalachian.

Umai, in The Inland Whale by Theodora Kroeber. U of California Press, c. 1959.
A Yurok legend in which the lake girl canoes to the ocean and meets the shining girl of the sunset. Native American.

Vasilisa and Prince Vladimir, in Tales from atop a Russian Stove by Janet Higonnet-Schnopper. Whitman, 1973, o.p.
Vasilisa, disguised as a man, wins her husband’s freedom by beating the Prince’s troops in wrestling and archery and the Prince in chess. Version in Andrew Lang’s Violet Fairy Book (Dover) has queen rescuing husband by playing the lute.

Vassilisa the Wise: A tale of medieval Russia, retold by Josepha Sherman; illustrated by Daniel San Souci. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, c1988.
A clever and beautiful woman uses her wits to get her husband out of Prince Vladimir’s prison.

A Weave of Words retold by Robert San Souci. Orchard Books, 1998.
A prince’s proposal of marriage is refused by a young peasant woman because he doesn’t know a trade and can’t read. He comes to her for weaving lessons, learns to read, and after their marriage teaches her to ride and use a sword. When the prince is kidnapped by a monster it’s his ability to weave that saves him from immediate death and his ability to write that allows him to get word to his wife of his whereabouts. She dons armor and leads the palace soldiers in battle to defeat the monster and save her husband. Armenian. Thanks to one of our site visitors. I’d heard it before, but didn’t know it was out in a picture book. Good story, and I like the class angle as well as the feminist message.

Wild Goose Lake in Heaven’s Reward: Fairy tales from China, retold by Catherine Edwards Sadler; illustrated by Cheng Mung Yun. Atheneum, 1985, o.p.
A girl sets out to find the key that will unlock the waters of the mountain lake and end the drought in her valley. She gets it by singing.

Wild Robin, retold by Susan Jeffers. Dutton, 1976.
Willful Robin gets a well-deserved scolding, runs away, and falls under the spell of the fairy people. A dream shows his sister Janet how to save Robin, and she does so. A “Tamlane” for younger children. British Isles.

Wiley, His Mama, and the Hairy Man, in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales by Virginia Hamilton. Knopf, 1985.
A brave boy and his calm and tricky mama fool the Hairy Man three times.

Winter Rose, in The Milky Way and Other Chinese Folk Tales by Adet Lin. Harcourt, 1961, o.p.
Two sisters, searching for rose petals to cure their sick mother, fall into the clutches of a wizard, but trick him and escape with the roses.

The Wise Old Woman, in The Sea of Gold and Other Tales from Japan by Marianne Yamaguchi. Creative Arts, 1988.
The lord of a village orders all people over seventy-one killed but a farmer hides his old mother and it is she who solves an invader’s riddles and saves the village. The lord removes his edict. Also a picture book, McElderry, 1994.

The Wood Fairy, in Favorite Fairy Tales Told in Czechoslovakia by Virginia Haviland. Little, Brown, 1966, o.p.
A wood fairy entices a girl to dance and the girl’s neglected work is done by magic.

The Young Head of the Family, in The Fairy Ring by Kate Douglas Wiggin. Doubleday, o.p.
A Chinese story of a girl who knows how to carry fire in paper (a lantern) and wind in paper (a fan). Her widowed father-in-law designates her head of the family and she leads it to prosperity. Different versions in The Milky Way by Adet Lin (Harcourt, o.p.), With A Deep Sea Smile by Virginia Tashjian (Little, 1974) and Tales People Tell in China by Robert Wyndham (o.p.). Not all have the head-of-family conclusion.


The Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies include many well-known stories about goddesses. Here are a few from other cultures.

The Buried Moon, in More English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs. Dover, c. 1904. Also published separately in a retelling by Margaret Hodges. Little, Brown, 1990.
The moon rescues a man from the Evil Things in the Carland Bog, but is herself captured. With the Wise Woman’s guidance, the villagers rescue her.

The Fairy of Hawili Falls, in Folk Tales from the Philippines by Dorothy Lewis Robertson. Dodd, 1971, o.p.
The “fairy goddess” of the woods falls in love with a man who sees the beauty in nature.

The Living Kuan-Yin, in Sweet and Sour: Tales from China by Carol Kendall and Yao-wen Li. Houghton, c.1979.
The goddess answers three questions for each pilgrim, but the generous Chin Po-wan promises three answers to those he meets along the way. How will he get an answer to his own question?

Song of Sedna, retold by Robert San Souci. Doubleday, 1981.
The legend of an Inuit woman becoming goddess of the sea.

Animal Tales

The Cock, the Mouse and the Little Red Hen, retold by Lorinda B. Cauley. Putnam, 1982.
The hen rescues her lazy housemates from the fox.

The Five Little Foxes and the Tiger, in Animal Folktales from Around the World by Kathleen Arnott. Walck, 1971, o.p.
Mrs. Fox saves herself and Mr. Fox from the tiger by using her wits, and brings her conceited husband down a peg at the same time. Bangladesh.

The Little Red Hen, retold by Margot Zemach. Farrar, 1983. Another version retold by Paul Galdone. Houghton 1979. English/Spanish edition by Letty Williams. Prentice, 1969.
She will not share the bread with those who refused to help make it. England.

Nine-in-One Grr! Grr! A Folktale from the Hmong People of Laos, by Blia Xiong. Children’s Book Press, 1989.
“That’s terrible!” squawked Bird. “If Tiger has nine cubs each year, they will eat all of us!” What can Bird do to preserve nature’s balance?

Two Donkeys, in The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales by Diane Wolkstein. Knopf, 1978.
Two donkeys change themselves into people for better treatment, but the jenny gets absorbed in housework and forgets to become herself again.

The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids, in Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm. Various editions.
The mother goat saves her kids and kills the wolf.

This list was revised and annotated by Nancy Schimmel, but many others have contributed information: Camille Pronger, Marion Callery Morter, Dolly Larvick Barnes, Kendall Smith, Fran Stallings, Claudia Morrow, Northern California Association of Children’s Librarians--Social Concerns Committee, ALA-ALSC Discussion Group on Sexism in Library Materials for Children, University of Wisconsin School of Library and Information Studies Storytelling Class, Summer 1977 and 1981, University of California Graduate School of Library and Information Studies Storytelling Class, Summer 1979, UCLA Graduate School of Library and Information Science Storytelling Class, Summer 1982-4.

Active Heroines in Folktales for Children is updated from Just Enough to Make a Story: A Sourcebook for Storytellers by Nancy Schimmel (Sisters’ Choice, 1992) and may be reproduced in its entirety only, including introduction and credits, by any library, school or other non-profit organization, without permission. (Remember to use recycled paper.)

Related site: Brave, Active and Resourceful Females in Picture Stories Sisters’ Choice Home for Storytelling, Music and Activities for kids