Great Girl Characters For International Women’s Day
I was reading Archie and the Bear to kids at the Byron Writers’ Festival last year, when a mother asked: “Why have you chosen to write a male protagonist? You are a female. You should write from a girl’s perspective.” Other than spluttering on about the fact that I had a great girl character coming up (Tiggy), and I tend to write the story from an intuitive place, not thinking necessarily about the gender of the character, I had to admit, she had a point. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this ever since.
The recent Rebel Girls phenomenon called attention to the fact that:
– 25% of 5000 children’s books surveyed in 2011 study had zero female characters
– In the best 100 books of all time only 53 had females that spoke
– The majority of female characters did not hold dreams, aspirations or jobs.
Around the time, a friend also asked for recommendations of books featuring strong female protagonists. Not princesses, in need of rescue. Not just smart and amazing supporting female characters.
Turns out, I have lots of great girl characters on my book shelf. In fact, many of my favourite books feature strong girls, and many of my favourite characters are female.
But there are gaps. There are not enough picture books featuring strong females. Can you think of one off the top of your head? Other than Mem Fox’s iconic picture book characters, most animal characters default to male. Nor are there enough funny books, or adventure stories for older readers.
But with Rebel Girls and the wave of books out there bringing strong, active females back into focus, awareness is growing.
While it’s important historical females are being brought centre stage, I think it’s also important girls feature in fiction, and not just as fantastic side-kicks. This notion that boys might not read a book if it features a girl protagonist is so limiting, and I guess technically cuts out half your potential reading market.
But damn it, boys should read strong female protagonists. They are awesome. And girls definitely need to see themselves reflected in strong, courageous ‘hero’ roles.
We experience story on the shoulders of the main character. We see what the main character sees, and feel what they feel. So at least half the time, they should, by rights, be female, that way our young readers are going to have a more balanced view of their world.
But until the time that half our children’s books are written in a girl’s perspective, here’s a list of books featuring some of my favourite female characters.
Ronia The Robber’s Daughter, by Astrid Lindgren
A fan of Pippi Longstocking for many years, I was delighted recently to discover there was another (lesser known) female character created by Astrid Lindgren.
Ronia lives in a wild forest with her robber family. She’s the daughter of a robber chief, which I guess, in a way, makes her a princess archetype. But Ronia is strong willed, clever, talented, free-spirited, loyal and kind. She fiercely protects those she loves, yet is able to negotiate the harshness of the woods around her. I adore Ronia.
For 8-12 year-olds.
Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lingren
I’ve known about Pippi my whole life. But it wasn’t until I read the books to my girls a couple of years ago, watched the old Danish film, and immersed myself in Pippi nostalgia while in the Netherlands that I really fell in love.
Pippi is so wacky, isn’t she? She cracks eggs on her head. She keeps a horse on her verandah and a monkey on her shoulder. But she has a strong sense of morality and fairness, though her rules bend away from the normal curve. She is also kind and thoughtful, like that time she hid a present for Tommy in the hollow tree. Love Pippi.
For all ages.
The Girl Who Drank The Moon, by Kelly Barnhill
A friend recently introduced me to this magnificent tale of witchcraft, magic and love. There are two strong females here: Luna and her adopted mother, Xan. Luna is strong, wily and loving. She’s kind to all creatures, but can save the world from sorrow. Xan is also a fierce protector. To some, she is a misunderstood witch. To others she’s a best friend and mother.
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead
I read this Newberry Medal winner for education in great writing, and found myself falling for Miranda, the kid protagonist, who’s on a mission to solve a strange mystery. Like all great protagonists, Miranda is flawed. But her core is strong, sassy and kind. And very smart.
For 8-12 year olds
Violet Mackerel, by Anna Branford
This female character by Australian author, Anna Branford, is one of my favourites. These books are deceptively easy to read, and can be read to very young children, while gripping the heart of older children (and making adults cry). Violet’s world view, her family and her friends are so real. You feel like you know her. And her complexities and challenges are often quite subtle, yet so meaningful. I love Violet’s creative strategies, and out-of-the-box thinking, and her sensitivity. And again, she’s so kind, and so loyal to those she loves.
For 4-8 year olds.
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend
Jessica is another Australian author, who has created one of the most imaginative, vibrant books I have ever read. And her hero, Morrigan, has some surprising attributes. At face value, Morrigan causes mayhem, being cursed and all that. But as you get to know Morrigan, you realise that she’s so much more than cursed. She’s powerful, yes, but in a much more positive sense.
For 8-12 year olds.
Polly and Buster, by Sally Rippin
This is another series for younger readers, but Polly, the main character, will capture hearts of any age.
Polly is a clumsy witch. She makes mistakes. Gets it wrong. But everything is OK, because Polly has a good friend, who always makes her feel better. These books are very much about friendship, and the complexities of being different, and embracing difference. And Polly is a gorgeous character.
For 6-10 year olds.
Olivia, by Ian Falconer
Olivia is a pig. A hilarious pig. She’s entertaining. Sassy. Ambitious. She loves dressing up, dancing, and snoozing. Even though she’s a pig, every parent of a human toddler / preschooler will recognise so much of Olivia’s character. I love books that subvert naughtiness and cheekiness and make these characteristics loveable. I think Olivia fits this bill. And if your books can be made into a TV series, then you know you’ve created a great character.
For 0-5 year olds.
Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems
Knuffle Bunny is one in a series of picture books by Mo Willems, featuring Trixie and her Knuffle Bunny (Dutch for ‘cuddle’ bunny). Trixie loses Knuffle Bunny, finds Knuffle Bunny, grows up with Knuffle Bunny and away from Knuffle Bunny. Again, every parent will relate to that strong attachment a child has to their toy or special thing, and the lengths they will go to to make sure that thing is never lost. Trixie is loving, patient, dynamic. She also knows how to speak up when she’s not happy. My girls love Trixie. So do I.
For 0-5 year olds.
Wild, by Emily Hughes
This book only came on our shelves recently, but we all love this uninhibited wild character by Hawaiian artist, Emily Hughes. Named the contemporary answer to Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, Wild takes us on the character’s journey from wilderness to civilisation, and back again. As someone with a fairly free-range approach to parenting strong, and quite often, wild children, I love how wildness is embraced so positively here.
For 0-5 year olds.
Tiggy and the Magic Paintbrush, by Zanni Louise and Gillian Flint
Yes, I am going to put Tiggy here, not to blow my own horn, but simply because I really believe Tiggy is a strong and loveable girl character. She’s got pink hair, loves skateboarding and singing, and is a loyal friend. Her imaginative world is big, and her sensitivities often overwhelming. But Tiggy has inner strength, and the capacity to move through anything.
For 4-7 year olds.
Who are your favourite female characters? List them below in the comments! And make a point of reading a book featuring a female this International Women’s Day to yourself, and to your children.