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(Yasmina Martin)-While at home, I’ve been trying to knock some books off my long list and explore my bookshelf before buying any new ones. Since I’ve taken my favorite books with me to college, my bookshelf is crammed with novels from high school literature classes next to Harry Potter and John Green books, with the occasional fantasy paperback from middle school: Artemis Fowl, Eragon, Inkheart and the like. Hunting for books as given me the chance to relive some of my favorite stories from my childhood and think about strong female leads and heroines in children’s literature. Not all of these characters represent “feminists” per se (that is up to you to decide), but they embody well-rounded and interesting representations of young girls and women.
Lyra Belacqua, the stubborn, determined and wily heroine of Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series, inspires readers with her adventurous spirit. As a dirty and “wild” tomboy, she breaks with conceived notions of how a 12 year old girl should behave. With her animal companion and daemon Pantalaimon by her side, she gets involved in armored bear duels, travels through different worlds and ends up being the second reincarnation of Eve.
Indeed, Lyra is the girl “destined to bring about the end of destiny.” She has a unique control of the Alethiometer (a compass-like “truth-meter”) and makes it her goal to figure out the secret behind the mysterious, conscious form of dark matter: Dust.
Although some of her actions may be reckless at first, throughout the trilogy (“The Golden Compass”, “The Subtle Knife”, and “The Amber Spyglass”) we see her develop from a young girl to a young woman—her new budding sexuality is embraced rather than shunned.
I’m not sure how many of you have read Lloyd Alexander’s “Vesper Holly” adventures (including “The El Dorado Adventure”, “The Drackenburg Adventure”, “The Illyrian Adventure” and more), but Vesper Holly is basically the female counterpart to Indiana Jones. The sixteen year-old pantaloon-wearing, banjo-playing adventurer with her “marmalade” hair was part of the reason why I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was younger. My worn out copy of “The Illyrian Adventure” with the cover that’s been taped on at least 3 times can serve as a testament to her greatness. “Miss Vesper Holly has the digestive talents of a goat and the mind of a chess master,” describes her guardian and friend Brinnie.
In “The Illyrian Adventure” Holly sets off for Illyria to clear her father’s name and discover an army of potentially magical warriors. Throughout the book, she has to dodge villain death traps but manages to escape sticky situations with relative ease and doesn’t let anything get in the way of her never-ending curiosity. Although most of her books read like adventure films, 9 year-old me was captivated by her sass and intelligence.
The young, precocious protagonist of Roald Dahl’s novel (and star of the well-known film) won hearts with her drive to learn and her clever way of finding justice in an unjust world. Matilda lives with a horrible family; her father is a crook who scams people with his used car business, her mother doesn’t seem to care about her well-being. She’s always called names and teased by those who are supposed to love her. She regularly eats TV dinners and has to keep her book obsession secret. Despite this, the telekinetic bookworm manages to trick and prank her family, getting vengeance for how cruelly they treat her. Matilda develops her telekinetic powers and helps her schoolteacher Miss Honey gain her inheritance from her cruel, abusive aunt and headmistress of the academy, Miss Trunchbull.
Roald Dahl was a master at depicting adults in a ridiculous fashion, allowing children to take the lead and showing that sometimes age doesn’t exactly correspond with responsibility and moral standing. Mrs. Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents are treated as villains, while Ms. Honey and Matilda rise as young heroines. Dahl gave hope to young girl bookworms everywhere; yes, one day you will be just as cool as Matilda! In the end, Miss Honey receives her inheritance thanks to Matilda’s actions and the two live happily ever after.
This sleuth of childhood literature and counterpart to The Hardy Boys still represents a heroine who embraces her femininity while being a fantastic and intelligent detective. Nancy Drew first appeared in 1930 and
her stories have been written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene ever since. The original Nancy was very bold and eager to speak her mind, something early readers appreciated. After 1959, the series was re-done to remove racist stereotypes. Unfortunately, Nancy’s character changed as well; she became more docile and less likely to “talk back” to authorities. The Nancy of the 80s and 90s became more vulnerable and interested in men, which brought some ire from critics as well–yet new Nancy was less “perfect” and had more of a personality. However, from a child’s point of view, I thought Nancy was a pretty clever example of how women could be Sherlock Holmes without having to give up wearing skirts. It’s a simple notion that means a lot to young girls.
Nancy Drew has inspired high-ranking officials such as Hilary Clinton and Sandra Day O’Connor.
Enough has already been said about Hermione Granger of Harry Potter, known by the entire fandom as the “brains” of the trio (which includes Ron Weasley and Harry Potter.) Hermione is brilliant and loyal to the end. Her mastery of the time-turner allowed her and Harry to rescue Sirius Black and Buckbeak in “The Prisoner of Azkaban”. In “The Order of the Phoenix”, the young witch also protected the renegade group Dumbledore’s Army from being discovered by the authorities with complicated charms and spells. The daughter of two dentists struggles with normal teenage girl issues as well; she’s continually teased about her large teeth and bushy hair. In book 4 (The Goblet of Fire), eager to change her image as a “smart girl”, Hermione changes her teeth and hair for the Yule Ball. Even though her slight awkwardness made her more like-able to young girls, through the course of the series we watch her grow into an intelligent young woman who doesn’t care what others think. She always puts her friends before her and manages to get them out of trouble every single time.
As this Ms. Magazine blog article points out, Hermione also has a clear activist streak. She organizes S.P.E.W (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) to fight for equal rights for house elves who are continually mistreated and kept as slaves by witches and wizards. Although her attempts are shrugged off by Ron who insists that the house elves actually enjoy being slaves, Hermione continues her efforts to help the oppressed group. All in all, Hermione is most like the female heroine of children’s literature of the past two decades.