Recently, Julie @ mint & ink published a post called Four Badass Feminist Literary Heroes From My Childhood, and it got me thinking about my own female literary influences from childhood. So I’m using her idea to talk about my own girl heroes!
Now, a caveat (that Julie also mentioned) is that none of the writers of the following characters would identify as anything other than mainstream. All these books were written by white authors, and that says something about the publishing industry for sure. I am lucky to have found so many empowered girls that resemble me in the book I’ve read growing up, and I know that so many did not have that advantage. It’s humbling.
I am glad, however, that these following characters broke the proverbial mold of what is feminine and inspired myself and countless others to be more than what our modern society deems appropriate for nice girls. We need more like this, and luckily, more people understand this.
Anyway–to the characters 🙂
Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This is the book that I believe may have made me an Anglophile at heart. My wife has accused me of thinking that “everything British is better,” and even though I protest this, sometimes it’s true (ridiculous, I know!). I blame this book for spoiling me at the early age of 6 years old in what to expect from a good book.
Mary Lennox is a spoiled child living in India, daughter of colonial English elites who neglect her. Mary is surly and sickly and gets whatever she wants from the servants of the household–until one day she wakes up and everyone is dead or run away. Cholera. She finds herself orphaned and shipped off to England to live in her reclusive Uncle Archibald Craven’s home on the moors of England and is no longer catered to. She begins to grow in compassion and curiousity and respect for others, but why I love her is that she retains that fighting, proud spirit. She demands justice and equity and redemption. Her tyrannical nature at the beginning develops a softness without sacrificing the essence of what it is to be purely yourself in a world that has hurt you.
Claudia Kishi from The Babysitters’ Club series by Ann M. Martin
I picked up my first Babysitters’ Club book about halfway through second grade and immediately fell in love with the entire series. I wanted these girls to be my babysitters and begged my parents to move to Connecticut. Amused, my dad gently pointed out on a map that Stonybrook doesn’t exist and then mollified my rage and frustration by buying me as many BSC books as I could read (which was a lot!)
All of the characters in the BSC were girls to look up to. Kristi was stubborn and headstrong and a tomboy. Stacy was fashionable and street-savvy. Mary-Anne was meek and quietly strong. Dawn was a vegetarian and an individualist. But Claudia, well…Claudia was my absolute favorite.
You see, CLAUDIA READ BOOKS. And she didn’t quite fit in with the rest of her stereotypical “smart Asian” family. And on the outside she was so “exotic” with her Japanese heritage (this is how the author described her appearance) and a flamboyant dresser and seemed to have everything, but on the inside she was insecure and unsure. She found secret pleasure in junk food and Nancy Drew, and her favorite book was A Wrinkle In Time (you’ll see the influence soon). And I loved her, because even at ages 7-10, and then even more as I moved into my teenage years and was still reading this series, the way she navigated her world gave me courage as I faced much of the same emotional process. She will always be one of my favorite characters in literature.
Nancy Drew of Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene
Because of the way I devoured books as a child (and the grown-ups could never believe it), I developed a penchant for reading whatever was around me. When I was 8, halfway through my 3rd grade year, our family moved from Montana to California. While all the moving logistics and red tape was getting handled, my mother and sisters and I stayed with my mother’s parents in the Bay Area. And it was there that I discovered, at my aunt’s house, the delight of Nancy Drew.
Most of the pictures from ages 8-9 show me with Nancy Drew book in hand. Hahahaha. I was obsessed. And here’s why. First: Claudia Kishi of BSC fame read Nancy Drew. Thus, I loved Nancy Drew. Next: Nancy Drew was a freaking rock star. She was independent and spunky and drove a convertible and was raised by a single father (and her housekeeper, Hannah Gruen!) who wasn’t always doting on her or telling her that “girls shouldn’t go places alone” and all that crap. She (and sometimes her friends) SOLVED MYSTERIES. How cool. AND–no boyfriend. Yeah, yeah, she had that Ned Nickerson pal, and they were kinda dating, but it wasn’t serious, and never once did she struggle with, “Oh, my, it’s the 40s, I’m 18, and I don’t have a man!” or “should I give up what I love to get married?” or any of that other anti-feminist BS. Rock on, Nancy Drew.
Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Oh, Anne-with-an-e, you’re the best. Anne Shirley was an orphan and adopted by brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. They thought they were getting a boy to help out on the farm. But they received impetuous, fanciful, sensitive, earnest Anne instead. And she won their hearts.
Anne was everything I was when I read this at age 10+ (I love series!). She wanted to be taken seriously and have her ideas considered and her questions answered. She also wanted the freedom to dream of possibility and held onto the belief that people are good and that bosom friends and kindred spirits exist. As she grew up, she no longer needed the external validation and was able to accept herself more and make her dreams real. The whole series, even the ones that feature her children more than they feature her, is excellent and will always be a treasured favorite.
Aravis of The Horse and His Boy (Chronicles of Narnia) by C.S. Lewis
As an avid lover of Chronicles of Narnia I still can find fault with how the author treats the idea of “others.” The majority of the main human characters throughout are white, and the land of Calormen where the men have beards and wear turbans is not usually presented favorably. But one character in particular makes me a little more forgiving, and that’s Aravis.
Aravis is part of the Calormen nobility, a Tarkheena, dressed in men’s armor and fleeing to Narnia to escape an arranged marriage. She is privileged and selfish but also strong and resilient and clever. It is she and not Shasta (the white Narnian boy) that pushes them through their trials and keeps them safe with her quick thinking and flexibility. As the story progresses, she does learn a bit more humility and compassion. Sometimes I wonder about her, a girl of color from a foreign land who lives in Archenland (bordering Narnia) and perhaps one of the only Calormene girls in the court, how she must have changed and assimilated, but I like to think that she stayed true to the parts of her upbringing that helped form her into the strong and capable girl that escaped oppression and helped to stop a murder plot.
Meg Murry of A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’engle
When I was 12 or 13, maybe 14, I was at the library and saw it–A Wrinkle In Time, Claudia Kishi’s all time favorite book. Of course, I then had to check it out. I’ve read it nearly every year of my life since, and mostly for Meg Murry. She is a true diamond in the rough. REALLY rough. She’s surly and snarly in public, the oldest of the kids in her family, always feeling the need to protect her family’s reputation since her father off and disappeared. Her mother is a gorgeous woman AND a doctor of science. Her twin brothers are mainstream and popular. Her youngest brother is different and is called “retard” by village locals. And Meg is just….none of the above. She’s not pretty, doesn’t fit in, and isn’t special enough to garner much attention. She is head over heels in love with her whole family but resentful of herself. She really does hate herself and is full of resentment and self-doubt but shines when she forgets herself and is able to set aside her fears.
What I love is how flawed she is. She’s all over the map. Loving, fearful, doting, distrustful, angry, SO SAD, ecstatic, amused, cynical, you name it. She doesn’t have a life-changing experience and then automatically become a bright-eyed all-American girl. She struggles. She’s complex. And that’s what makes her so real. There’s a reason that author Madeline L’engle is one of my all-time favorite authors. Like, I own the majority of everything she’s written. She transforms characters into living, breathing people. Meg Murry is among the best of them.
So there they are. Who are your favorite female characters? Let me know!