Top 5 – Female characters in children’s fiction

This month’s top 5, an issue  I think is very important – children’s books that get it right when it comes to female characters. As I’m sure a lot of girls will attest to it is disheartening as fuck when the characters who are meant to represent you are always portrayed as wimpy and annoying, relegated to a side character to fawn over the male hero or, even when given the title role, have a character arc that consists of silently putting up with all sorts of crap so that they can win the heart of a rich and handsome man they’ve barely even had a conversation with before. Not that there’s not a place for those stories – there is strength in traditional femininity and for some women finding a husband and starting a family is the most important thing,  and there’s nothing wrong with that – but it’s not true of all women and it shouldn’t be the sole characterisation of all women in literature either, especially that aimed at children in their formative years. So this month I’m going to celebrate a few authors who do something more with their female characters.

Actually, I think these days children’s books get it right more often than adult books when it comes to portraying women as something other than an object to be either won, overcome, or jerked off to. In fact, I ended up temembering so many awesome female characters that I decided to split this into two parts and do a top 5 female characters in illustrated books for smaller children next month.

Most of these books are pretty modern for the simple reason that I avoided the children’s classics that were marketed towards girls like the plague when I was a child precisely because I wasn’t a girly child, and the ‘boys own’ classics I did read didn’t have many female characters at all. This sort of marketing is actually something I would love to see change –  girls should enjoy Robin Hood and Treasure Island and boys fairy tales or Black Beauty without being made to feel abnormal for it. I’m sure there are strong female characters in older books though and I don’t mean any slight by not including the girl from ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘Little Women’ or whatever – I simply haven’t read those books. I’ve also tried to keep it ‘children’s’ and not cross too far into  ‘teenage/young adult’ – so no Tamorra Pierce here (who does do a good job of portraying women of all personalities as strong, even if I think her plotting and worldbuilding are pretty shit) or Katnis from The Hunger Games (which I haven’t read and don’t really have any intention to). Also not included are any ‘girl disguises as boy’ plots where the reveal is meant to be a big surprise, that’s just spoilery. I’ll have to sneak that awesome heroine in through in another top five instead.

Matilda from Matilda by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake

By no means an action girl, Matilda Wormwood is a child prodigy who teaches herself to read aged three and is reading the classics by five, but to her ignorant, neglectful, and crooked parents she’s just a nuisance and they would rather devote their attention to their thick son instead. As a kid who liked to read I obviously loved Matilda, she was clever, and brilliant, and never ashamed of her intelligence or passion for reading. She also, despite her childhood neglect, had a strong sense of right and wrong but wasn’t above childish ‘vigilante justice’ whenever her parents did anything particularly heinous – retaliating with a series of hilarious pranks (such as pouring her mothers peroxide blonde hair dye into her father’s shampoo bottle). At school Matilda is confronted with even more abuse in the form of the main villain of the book, the headmistress Miss Trunchbull (also a stong female character – though not in a nice way), a vicious bully who can grab a girl by her pigtails and shotput her over the school wall and is a fan of brutally karmic punishments for any child caught breaking school rules. In the end it’s purely through Matilda’s considerable mental powers that a happy conclusion is reached and Miss Trunchbull sent, practically crying, from the school.  Matilda is quiet, calm, clever, and a stone cold badass. Try to fuck with the people she loves or abuse a position of power over the vulnerable and she will destroy you without even lifting a finger or  considering violence. And did I mention that she’s only five?

Roald Dahl so expect the usual; utterly hilarious dark humour, truly loathable villains, surprisingly adult themes accompanied by brilliant illustrations by Quentin Blake.

Lyra Belacqua from, the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman

Heading into the slightly older age range, Lyra is a heroine who couldn’t be more different to Matilda. Rash, impulsive, and half-wild, Lyra was raised among Oxford scholars  with very little female influence in her life. She’s violent, feisty, an expert liar, and not above thinking herself better than other people or throwing temper tantrums. But she’s also brave, clever, and incredibly loyal and will travel to the ends of the earth to rescue her best friend when he’s kidnapped by the mysterious ‘gobblers’. Her world – a slightly steampunk, victoriana alternate universe where polar bears talk and people’s souls are physically manifested in their ‘deamons’ – is a brilliant invention, but it was Lyra that I really loved when I read this as a child. I envied the incredible freedom she had in Oxford to wander the streets with gangs of children waging war on each other, stealing narrow boats, and having fun, and I understood  her later longings for real adventure, to travel the world and explore the antarctic because that was exactly what I wanted to do too. I also appreciated the nice touch in the second book, where, because of the society she’s grown up in, she is scandalised by the thought of wearing trousers instead of a skirt. She’s a tomboy in spirit but that doesn’t mean she’s not happy being a girl or doesn’t want to look pretty on occasion or envy it in others.

My main disappointment with the series was that, after Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in America), which is by far the strongest of the books, she became less of the focal character and began to share protagonist duties. By the third book, as she neared adolescence, she was occasionally disappointingly portrayed as having ‘female strength’ to Will’s ‘masculine strength’ rather than them both being strong in different ways unrelated to gender. But putting that personal interpretation aside, the first book is a beautiful and poignant story with an unconventionally flawed and imperfect female protagonist.

Holly Short from the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer

The only adult heroine on this list, Holy Short is a fully fledged action girl. She’s also a fairy, and not a fluttery flower fairy either. Holy is in fact the first female officer ever accepted into LEPrecon – the Lower Elements elite Police force. So expect stun guns, flyboy piloting skills, and one hell of a punch. Ok, she gets kidnapped in the very first book, but she does do a better job of resolving the situation than any of the superior male officers on the outside and she gets given plenty of opportunities, both before and since, to prove her action girl status by taking on trolls, goblins, and every sort of ‘bad guys’ the series has. She’s funny, clever (but not in that clumsy way that just makes all the boys around her really thick in comparison), unlike a lot of action heroines isn’t a hardassed bitch to everyone she meets (just those who annoy her) but is actually quite personable and fun to be around. Every day she has to put up with the rampant sexism of the fairy world and occasional sexual harassment by overflirty colleagues but that still doesn’t stop her from standing up for her beliefs and calling them out when she thinks they’re doing the wrong thing. Sure, she’s not the main character, but she’s certainly the main foil to Artemis Fowl and by a few books in they’re on almost equal footing with him respecting her as both an adversary and an ally.

Eoin Colfer obviously has a thing about gender discrimination (as well as environmentalism) because not only is a big deal made of her position as a ‘test case female’ but the main supervilain of several later books is a beautiful female fairy who became twisted, in part, because of society’s early refusal to see her as anything but a ‘beautiful female’ and appreciate her technical and financial genius. It’s a little heavy-handed at times but sometimes you need to be – if it gets children to accept that girls can be action heroes and that bullying someone for being a girl is wrong it’s hardly a bad thing. What I would say about these series of books though is that from number 2 onwards they get progressively worse and worse – with 5 and 6 being particularly terrible.

Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Here, however is a series I can fully and unreservedly recommend from start to finish. And it has a brilliant female protagonist too – even if she is only a ‘sidekick’. I’m not sure I even need to go into too much detail here – Hermione is the brains of the team, everyone knows that, Harry and Ron wouldn’t last five minutes without her intelligence and crazy knowledge. As the ‘muggleborn’ of the group Hermione is also the most curious and inquisitive (seriously, Harry doesn’t even bother to ask what his parents did for a living) and also the most likely to react to the inequalities and injustices of wizard society that everyone else is too used to to care about. Sure she goes about S.P.E.W the wrong way but at least she’s noticing how horribly corrupt wizarding society is and trying to do something about it – she just needs to learn to listen to what the oppressed societies actually want, and that’s a very believable flaw for an outspoken teenage girl. She doesn’t care too much about prettying herself up – her hair is bushy and big and she has no problems with that – but she can when she wants to (the Yule Ball, the wedding in book 7), takes pleasure in looking nice. Although she still has some typically teenage hangups about how she looks (particularly her teeth) it is never a major insecurity or all she ever talks about (a la Bridget Jones and her calorie counting). The girl knows her priorities and understands them better and acts more maturely than a lot of women in adult books. But when she’s immature…boy is she immature, sulking, refusing to speak to people, lashing out with violent enchanted bird attacks – I don’t know about anyone else but I can shamefacedly say I did the exact same thing in my mid-teens (well without the bird attacks but there was a definite slap). She’s brilliant but flawed, and flawed in realistic ways that make sense – she’s so academic she gets irritated with other people’s more relaxed attitude to schoolwork, so focussed on theories she forgets to think emphatically on occasion, even grilling a friend about a pets death just to prove a point, so devoted to bringing about social justice she dismisses the group she’s trying to protect when they say that they’re happy. Like all Harry Potter character’s she’s exaggerated but fundamentally believable – her role is not just ‘token female friend who is the brains of the team’, she’s a fully fleshed out character with her own traits separate from the story demands of providing Harry with information. And she slapped Malfoy, that’s enough to get anyone on a top 5 list.

Jennifer Strange from The Last Dragonslayer trilogy by Jasper Fforde

For anyone familiar with Fforde’s Thursday Next series for adults it is no surprise that in his first children’s/young adult series he gets the portrayal of a female protagonist dead on. Jennifer’s world is a strange, alternate history where the UK stands for the Ununited Kingdoms and is made up of many smaller countries ruled by their own kings – more important than that though is the bizarre magical system and the stuff that’s just too weird for me to even try to explain. I’ll just say that it’s an unconventional, barmy, and hilarious read. It’s narrated by 15-year-old Jennifer Strange, an overworked foundling who almost singlehandedly manages a magical services agency and who finds out in the first book that she has been chosen as the next dragonslayer. With the last dragon in the Ununited Kingdoms residing just next door, Jennifer immediately finds herself under pressure to get started on the Dragonslaying from the public, the local King, and a large Walmart-esque corporation that wants to sponsor her and then purchase the Dragonlands once she’s done. And she manages to stand up to all of them, even when she risks arrest or worse, with simple common sense. She does things her way and doesn’t give into corruption or greed or fame. She’s badass enough to be comfortable with her role as dragonslayer and to carry out those duties if needed, but down to earth enough not to let it get to her head, jump to conclusions, or feel the need to prove herself. She’s  smart, brave and highly competent. She has the potential to be a grear  action girl if she wants but she’s a strategist at heart and will alway sand her being female is something that’s totally incidental to all of her other character traits.


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