After the Bitch magazine brouhaha last week, I did some thinking about the women in books that impacted me when I was growing up. Ninety percent of what I read featured female protagonists or prominent female supporting characters, and while I wouldn’t rush to call this a list of feminist books (since an outlet like Bitch had such narrow parameters for what constitutes a positive feminist message), I do think that having characters like this helped define, for me, what girls are capable of. Put simply, these girls kick ass — and not necessarily with actual ass-kicking.
Notes: I’ve listed the books, as best I can, in ascending age order.
1. Bonnie Green, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. This was my favorite book when I was in elementary school. I don’t know how many times I checked it out of the library. Tomboy Bonnie is so brave, so bold; I wanted to be her. She’s a fierce young heroine, who saves her cousin Sylvia and herself from peril. She was so self-sufficient… I envied that! I also wanted a fowling piece thanks to Bonnie, despite having no inclination to hunt whatsoever!
2. Kit Tyler, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. Kit was one of the first girls who taught me that it was okay to question the status quo. Sure, she had a lot of lessons to learn, but I related to Kit and her flaws, and her whole growth process, and then I celebrated how brave she was. I love that she valued reading and freedom and flouting convention.
3. Turtle Wexler, The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. Spoiler alert: Turtle bests everyone. That floored me as a young girl. To see this whip-smart, amazing kid succeed because she was so smart and tenacious…? Turtle was the girl who taught me that you didn’t have to be the beautiful sister, the overachiever…you just had to have your wits about you! And an occasional kick to somebody’s shins never hurts either. ;-).
4. Vicky Austin, A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle. Vicky’s path in this book is an emotional and spiritual one. This is not an explosive book, it’s a quiet one, but it taught me so much about coming to terms with grief. And, like so many of the previous books, it showed me that there’s nothing wrong with having an extensive education and a cultural vocabulary. Vicky likes literature and classical music. It gives her, and the book, a timeless quality…but also says that you don’t have to be trendy to be accepted.
5. Meghan Powers, The President’s Daughter trilogy, by Ellen Emerson White. Meg is one of the funniest, most genuine heroines I’ve ever come across. And so ridiculously intelligent. She’s the girl who showed me the importance of humor and how it can often carry you through the most trying of circumstances. And I was also compelled by how Meg had this internal struggle with trying to live up to her mother’s accomplishments and carving out her own identity.
6. Cecily and Marian, The Outlaws of Sherwood, by Robin McKinley. This was the first time I encountered an instance of the Robin Hood myth where Robin wasn’t really a hero, but rather a young man caught up in circumstance. Sure, he rises to the challenge, but it’s Marian who has the real prowess with a bow and that intensely brash, heroic streak. And Cecily…? I loved that she, too, subverted gender stereotypes, and went after what she wanted. (Cecily/Little John 4-EVA!)
7. Vivian Gandillon, Blood and Chocolate, by Annette Curtis Klause. Vivian’s story is this gorgeous tale of accepting your true self. Through her literal struggle between being a girl and being a werewolf, I think the reader learns that you can’t deny who you are and what makes you strong. There’s also an element of blooming sexuality, and a message that a little aggression, a thirst and a passion for your partner, is not something to be ashamed of. Vivian learns to embrace all of herself. What’s a better message than that?
Who are some of the girls that stand out for you?