Princesses, Pink, and Physics – Breaking the Mold of the “Typical” STEM Character

When I began writing the first book in the DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS series, including a science element came organically. After all, my main character is a princess whose entire family has magical weather powers. You can’t have weather without science! As the book started coming together, I realized I had been given a fantastic opportunity to counter stereotypes about girls and STEM.

As an engineer and a longtime science-lover, I remember having a hard time reconciling the many facets of my identity as I was growing up. Society and mass media often sends girls messages that STEM is only open to people who look a certain way, dress a certain way, and enjoy “typical” STEM stuff. I remember suppressing my femininity when I was younger because I didn’t want to be perceived as weak or “too girly” to excel in the STEM activities I enjoyed. The reality is that STEM is for everyone – including children who love dress-up and tea parties.

We know that girls begin dropping out of the STEM pipeline around middle school. It’s not because they aren’t good at it. If girls believe that pursuing STEM conflicts with their identity and vision of their future selves, they are more likely to leave STEM behind.

With DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS, I wanted to write characters who are unabashedly awesome at STEM and also enjoy all the trappings of “traditionally feminine” pursuits. The characters came naturally because they are modeled off many girls I know in real life (including my own daughters!). These girls enjoy and excel at so many different things – including STEM.

Lina and her best friend love dancing, sleepovers, and science.

Happily, more books for young readers are now being published that celebrate STEM heroines who are multi-faceted and complex – just like the actual girls who will read them. Here are some of my favorite chapter books and middle grade novels that feature STEM-loving girl characters:

Little Robot by Ben Hatke – This graphic novel is nearly wordless, but tells a full and stirring story of friendship and perseverance. A little girl who seems very much on-her-own stumbles upon an adorable robot whom she must protect from other sinister robots. Even though the girl is quite small, she is also resourceful and knows her way around a wrench set. To save her new friend, the heroine employs all the ingenuity and problem-solving of a top-notch engineer.

Jada Jones, Rockstar by Kelly Starling Lyons– This is the first book in a wonderful series about a fourth-grade girl navigating relatable challenges with friends, school, and family. Jada loves rocks – but she loves her best friend even more. When the book starts out, Jada’s BFF has moved away and she has to find a whole new group. Jada’s interest in STEM feels reflective of real kids I know. Yes, she loves geology, but that’s just one facet of her total personality. By the end of the book, she finds a creative way to include everyone in the class in her rock appreciation.

Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray by Jess Keating – Nikki Tesla is a genius. I love that this is stated matter-of-factly and unapologetically right off the bat! But even though Nikki never downplays her supreme smarts, she has a hilarious self-deprecating sense of humor about all the conundrums she gets into. Author Jess Keating has an infectious love of science and curiosity about the world, which shines through in her videos and web resources for kids. It’s great to see another series from her that’s sure to inspire more girls to follow in her STEM footsteps.

Lights, Music, Code! by Jo Whittemore – This third book in the Girls Who Code series reminds me of the Babysitters Club with a STEM twist. The main characters are friends who are working together to code the music and lights for their school’s winter dance. I love that the book shows both the challenges and triumphs of a group of girls working together on a project. Many stereotypes of people who work in STEM is that they’re loners, toiling away in a lab. In reality, one of STEM’s greatest perks is getting to collaborate with awesome people!

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi – This middle grade novel counters the stereotype that people who love STEM are purely analytical. Ebony has an imagination so vivid that the lines often blur between reality and her make-believe worlds (as someone who spent most of third grade imagining she had been kidnapped to an alternate dimension, I can relate). Ebony loves science fiction, a passion shared by her grandfather, who was one of NASA’s first Black engineers. When Ebony moves to Harlem for the summer, others try to push her to fit in this or that box, but she stays true to her unique and awesome self.

Photo by Sam Bond.

Christina Soontornvat grew up behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant in a small Texas town with her nose stuck in a book. She is very proud of both her Thai and her Texan roots, and makes regular trips to both Weatherford and Bangkok to see her beloved family members (and eat lots and lots of Thai food!). In addition to being an author, Christina holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Science Education. She spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science. She is passionate about STEM (science, technology engineering, and math), and loves learning new things. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two young children, and one old cat.

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