From Scout Finch to the Wildlings, heroines to savour in Children’s Literature
Shalini Srinivasan is our kind of girl. She likes science-fiction and strange sea creatures and The Good Wife. She names her first full length novel after her sister’s abandoned middle name (‘it is too good a name to waste without a story’), and she adores plucky young heroines. If you want to get a funny, clever and delightful book for a young adventurer look no further than her debut novel Vanamala and the Cephalopod. Pray that she finishes her PhD soon so that she can give us further adventures of Vanamala, and find your next reading suggestion from her selection of favourite heroines in children’s literature!
Ten of my favourite heroines in children’s books with some minor cheating, some spoilers, and in no particular order:
Dido is in a bunch of books by Joan Aiken. Black Hearts in Battersea and Dido and Pa are the best. Dido is everything you could want from a fictional character – she’s funny, sneaky, smart-mouthed, and has an awful but entertaining family. She lives in a fabulous alternate history full of peculiar characters, strange lands, and lots of people trying to blow things up.
Charlotte‘s a spider but she’s both female and heroic. E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web is one of those books that make animals look far far cooler than humans. Charlotte spends most of the book plotting to save her friend Wilbur the pig from being eaten. Wilbur may have charm and personality, but Charlotte has brains, determination, and piles of kindness.
Matilda has mean and uninterested parents at home and awful Miss Trunchbull at school. Like lots of other Roald Dahl characters she has a nasty sense of humour to help her think up good ways of dealing with the nasty and the villainous.
Moyna is The Why-Why Girl in a beautiful picture book by Mahashweta Devi. She has a mongoose! She asks questions! The pictures by Kanyika Kini are delightful! I won’t say more because it needs to be read and savoured.
Sophie from Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle is just fantastically competent. She cooks, she cleans, she sews, she deals with people. She gets turned into an old lady, but continues to get things done. She’s also a powerful magician, which eventually comes in handy.
Scout who narrates Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is pugnacious, clever, and faced with very real demons – racism, injustice, and mob violence. Reading through the development of Scout’s determined individualism, and her growing sensitivity to the world around her (it helps that she has fiction’s best father) is a truly lovely thing.
Anne Shirley, in a series of books by Lucy M. Montgomery, is one of those characters who is very easy to identify with if you’re a kid who reads. Anne spends a lot of the books in imaginary worlds. Between bouts of fantasy she grapples with real-er worries about her clothes, her friends, her red hair, and her studies. Anne lives with her adoptive parents in Avonlea which is full of all kinds of delightful and eccentric people.
Marigold Green in Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater is possibly my favourite fictional teenager. She’s cranky, intelligent, angsty and full of rage. She is also darkly funny, and her adventures are excruciatingly uncomfortable in a way that is all too real.
Coraline who gives her name to a book by Neil Gaiman, is impatient, sneaky and hugely fun. She finds her way into a sort of parallel home, presided over by the creepy Other Mother who wants to sew buttons onto her eyes. Like all the best fairy-tales, Coraline is always strange, frequently exciting, and often scary.
Beraal and Miao and Mara are cats. They are also three separate characters, but I couldn’t pick just one. Miaow is wise and kind; Beraar is smooth and fierce; and Mara is so powerful and so innocent that she seems completely unfit for the messy urban world of the book. They’re part of the Nizamuddin cat clan in Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, and they’re three different kinds of wonderful, each essential to the story.