This week Biblibio posted on one of my favorite topics: strong female heroines in young adult literature. The post refers to a list published by The Atlantic on “the greatest girl characters of young adult literature” which includes Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pippi Longstocking, Harriet the Spy, Betsy from Betsy-Tacy, Ramona Quimby, and a few others. The article argues the fairly obvious point that modern heroines like Katniss Everdeen have their roots in strong female characters like Laura Ingalls and Anne Shirley. Okay, but is that just because they’re female? What makes this particular group the greatest?
Mari Ness from Tor.com responded with an article criticizing this list on a few fronts: first, it sticks mainly to traditional, classic literature rather than including other genres like fantasy. Second, it fails to differentiate between children’s literature and young adult (although arguably that can be a tricky line to draw). Characters like Laura Ingalls and Anne Shirley grow from children to adults in their books, and others like Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking clearly fall in the domain of children’s literature, not young adult.
Personally, the question of where to draw the line between children’s, young adult, and adult literature doesn’t phase me too much, because I think it’s all worthwhile. Just look at a writer like Maurice Sendak, who sadly passed away on Tuesday (rest in peace, Mr. Sendak). Sendak wrote picture books with more depth and creativity than most adult novels. And strong heroines at every age are important.
The huge flaw is that there are so many wonderful girl heroines not included in the Atlantic’s list. Ness mentions my favorites, the Oz books, which are FULL of adventurous, strong girl characters. She also mentions an obvious omission, Hermione Granger, although Hermione isn’t the lead character in her books.
Ness also points out that most of The Atlantic‘s heroines have to learn to fit into society and ultimately do conform to expected societal behavior (with the possible exception of Pippi Longstocking). You can argue that’s the nature of classic literature, except the girls of Oz never stop having adventures, and in fact most of them don’t go home either. One of them ends up running the place.
Ness throws out the question, who are your favorite girl heroines? The one heroine on both lists is Meg Murray from A Wrinkle in Time. But today, thankfully, there are plenty of others, thanks to great YA fantasy writers like Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, and others. In fact, some of my favorite heroines have been created by male writers: Sabriel and Lirael (by Garth Nix), Tiffany Aching (by Terry Pratchett), Lyra Belacqua (Phillip Pullman) and Tally Youngblood and Deryn Sharp (Scott Westerfeld).
I think the list posed by The Atlantic has some merit; you won’t hear me complaining about most of the characters chosen. But I think there are enough strong girl characters that we can define our terms a little better. What does “the greatest girl characters” even mean? Are these characters who are brave, courageous, who challenge societal norms, who accomplish great things? Are they the kindest, the best friends, the most moral? Are we talking about girls or teens, classic fiction or contemporary? To publish a list called “The Greatest Girl Characters” and come up with just a handful doesn’t cut it, even if Meg Murray is included.
Thanks to Biblibio, for giving me a chance to ponder one of my favorite subjects. And please comment: Who are your favorite girl or young adult heroines?