My top ten children's book heroines
So, it was International Women's Day last week. That apparently triggered this article in the Guardian, lamenting the sad lack of adventurous, swashbuckling heroines in adult fiction. I agree, and it's an ambition of mine to write something that makes a tiny attempt at helping to redress this balance. After all, I grew up reading children's books that were full of inspiring female characters, and I am firmly convinced that those girls helped me become the woman I am today. So, in the spirit of it being, er, just-over-a-week-since-International-Women's-Day, here's my Top 10 female characters in children's literature.
1. Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Longstocking,by Astrid Lindgren)
When I was about five or six, my mother and I used to read Pippi Longstocking together, and Pippi immediately became my idol. A little girl with superhuman strength, she lives alone with her horse (which she can lift with one hand) while her pirate father sails the seven seas, and her presence invariably invokes anarchy wherever she goes. I loved her sense of humour, her outrageous lies and her cheerful ease with her own outlandish appearance - unmatched stockings, a patchwork dress and bright red hair in plaits that protrude horizontally from either side of her head. I particularly loved the scene in one chapter where she sees a sign in a pharmacy window asking 'Do you have a problem with freckles?' and marches into the shop to say that she doesn't. 'But... but... you're absolutely covered in freckles,' the assistant points out. Yes, Pippi agrees... but she likes them, thanks, and thinks it's terribly rude that anyone might suggest they were a problem.
Pippi's refusal to be patronised, sidelined or controlled made me love her then and I still love her now. A cracking role model for all little girls who want to live alone and be a pirate when they grow up.
2. Nancy Blackett (Swallows & Amazons by Arthur Ransome)
Swallows & Amazons always strikes me as being the thinking child's Famous Five. Much like the Famous Five, the Walker children are allowed absurd freedom, and sail their own boat, the Swallow, to an island in Windermere and camp there alone for the entire summer; their father having given his permission for this in a telegram that reads "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS. IF NOT DUFFERS, WON'T DROWN", and to put this into perspective, the youngest Walker is six years old. Unlike the Famous Five, however, they make their own entertainment rather than stumbling across some nasty unshaven working class men who are up to no good - and that's where the Blacketts, Nancy and Peggy come in. The Walkers see themselves as empire-building explorers or Royal Naval officers, but under Nancy's captaincy the Blacketts have positioned themselves firmly as pirates. Nancy is tougher, stronger, more dynamic than John, the captain of the Swallow. Her boat, the Amazon, flies the Jolly Roger and, taking control of her own identity, she refuses to be known by her real name, Ruth - pirates, of course, must be 'ruthless'. Nancy is the daring one, the decision-maker, self-reliant and independent. John Walker, ever-sensible, dismisses her suggestion that they could live on Wildcat Island all year round, but as a reader, I always got the impression that Nancy could manage it perfectly well. Apparently Ransome named one of his own yachts The Nancy Blackett, as she was his favourite of all his characters. I say good call.
3. Mildred Hubble (The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy)
Clumsy, untidy, hapless and rarely in the correct school uniform, Jill Murphy's Worst Witch and I had rather a lot in common when I first encountered her as a little girl. Attending the cold, blustery mountaintop boarding school, Miss Cackle's Academy For Witches, Mildred and her plump tabby cat, clinging spreadeagled and yowling to her broom like a furry limpet while the other cats sit upright with elegance and poise, stumble from catastrophe to disaster on an almost daily basis. Inept though Mildred is, she always does her best, always sticks up for her mates and loves her ridiculous cat to bits. The splendid illustrations of Mildred, dark hair escaping from its plaits, shoelaces trailing and a perpetually worried expression on her face could easily be me aged nine; like Mildred, no matter how hard I tried, I was a dyspraxic klutz who tripped, dropped things, got lost in corridors, was incapable of holding on to my own possessions and looked like a Victorian urchin by morning play-time. Mildred helped me remember that there's more to being a girl than neat hair and dainty deportment... and that you don't necessarily have to be Little Miss Sporty or Action Girl either. And for that, I am forever grateful.
4. Mary Lennox (The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett)
Small, thin, sour-faced, spoilt and 'as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived', Mary Lennox might not seem like an appealing character in the least at the start of The Secret Garden. Her sense of entitlement is high and, orphaned in India after the death of her frivolous and largely uninterested parents, she struggles to adjust when she is dispatched to the crumbling Gothic manor house on the Yorkshire Moors under the 'care' of her mostly absent uncle Archibald Craven, a widowed hunchback rendered helpless with grief by the death of his wife some years previously. But her tight-lipped stubbornness gives her a natural survival instinct, and her curiosity about the odd goings-on in the house and the walled-up, overgrown secret garden she discovers, abandoned for a decade, shape the rest of the story and ultimately, repairs the relationship between a neurotic, emotionally-neglected, hypochondriac little boy and his father. Mary herself learns many a lesson during the course of the story, thanks to the kindness and patience of some of the people she meets, but this contrary, obstinate little girl also changes life at Misselthwaite Manor for the better.
I must give Mary extra credit, too, for appearing in one of the most terrifying opening chapters to any children's book I've ever read. All credit to the Edwardians: I can't imagine a book aimed at 9 year olds today opening with a little girl discovered waiting patiently for someone to come and look after her in a house populated solely by the dead victims of cholera.
5. Cassandra Mortmain (I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith)
I was not a teenage girl who read romance. Ever. If more romances were like I Capture The Castle, I might have, though, because from the very first line ('I write this sitting in the kitchen sink...') I was charmed and captivated at the age of 14 or so by this novel's cast of well-meaning eccentrics. But it was Cassandra, the 17-year-old narrator, who really won me over. Cassandra loves her unconventional family but never shies away from their many flaws - and she rarely shies away from her own, either. She's practical and resourceful and not above scheming, but ultimately, her heart is in the right place. When I was her age, I felt like I could be friends with her; now, in my 30s, I feel like I want to look after her, to give her a break from her endless quest to keep her impoverished family's heads above water. Either way, I admire her, and the dignity with which she accepts the bittersweet ending to her story is admirable and touching.
6. Jo March (Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo's Boys by Louisa M Alcott)
I'll admit right now that I ploughed my way through Little Women wanting to slap three out of the four March sisters. Meg is a boring goody-goody, Beth is a saintly invalid and Amy is a spoilt brat. Jo, on the other hand, is another matter. A cheerful tomboy who hides in the attic and writes stories wearing a special hat on which to wipe her leaky fountain-pen, she's the only sister with an ounce of personality, turns down a marriage proposal from a rich and handsome young neighbour, and sells her own hair ('her one beauty', as Amy points out) to a wig-maker when the family is short of money. When she eventually agrees to marry, it's to a stocky middle-aged German academic who can darn his own socks. I couldn't fail to salute her.
7. Sally Lockhart (The Ruby In The Smoke, The Shadow In The North, The Tiger In The Well and The Tin Princess by Philip Pullman)
OK, so I wasn't a child when I discovered Sally Lockhart; I was well into my 20s. That didn't stop me wanting to be her. Aged 'sixteen or so' at the beginning of the first book, Sally doesn't let patriarchal Victorian society get the better of her. She makes an independent living as a sort of financial advisor; she forms lasting and loyal friendships with men and women alike and most importantly, swashbuckles with the best of them. Never far from intrigue and adventure, Sally is clever, tough and resolute, occasionally unscrupulous and refuses to be bound by the conventions of her time - she bears an illegitimate child by her murdered lover, for instance, and goes on to marry a Hungarian-Jewish socialist. That's pretty much where Sally's story ends... but you just know that she has more adventures to come.
8. Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series by JK Rowling)
If I'd had Hermione in my life when I was eight, I'd have been a happier girl. Not only a strong female character, but also a geek? Why, JK Rowling, you are really spoiling us. I doubt there's much to say about Hermione that hasn't already been said, but she's one of those children's characters that I can absolutely believe in. Fascinated by everything around her and always wanting to know more, Hermione is, of course, known for her intelligence, but there's so much more to her than that. She has a natural and admirable tendency to root for the underdog, a dry sense of humour and a wholly realistic vulnerability with which she fights a constant battle. When girls are being presented with the hideously anti-feminist Bella Swan as a role model in popular literature, we need more Hermiones in our multi-million-selling book franchises, please.
9. Anne of Green Gables (Anne of Green Gables series by LM Montgomery)
Anne of Green Gables is my mum's favourite book and I always associate it with her, so I'm a little biased towards it for that reason, but I must say, Anne is a cracking heroine. Without parents, she spends the first 12 years of her life half-starved in an orphanage or neglected in foster care, but her spirit remains unbroken. Perhaps it's this resilience that persuades Marilla and Matthew, the middle-aged brother and sister who think they are about to adopt a boy to work on their farm, not to return her on the grounds of her gender, but either way, they decide to keep her. Anne has an unfortunate tendency to get into scrapes, a raging temper - in one of my favourite moments, she breaks a slate over her rival's head in the schoolroom when he laughs at her red hair - and an appealing tendency to day-dream with which I could always identify. What she lacks in foresight, however, she makes up for in brains - she ultimately goes on to win a scholarship to a prestigious university. Cheerful though she is, she's certainly no Pollyanna. She's just as prone to moods as the rest of us, and her tearful despair when she inadvertently dyes her hair a fetching shade of green (lesson: do not buy beauty products from door-to-door salesmen) is convincing to any teenager who's ever thought their life would be ended by a bad haircut.
10. Bonnie Green (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken)
Well, yes, she's a bit spoilt and stroppy. She is also, however, feisty, adventurous, sharp, determined, protective and cunning, is chased by wolves, and spends months surviving with her adored but frailer cousin Sylvia in their friend Simon's goose-cart in this atmospheric alternate-history tale of villainy and adventure. Frankly, what's not to like?