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Our favourite female heroes in children’s literature

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There’s been a lot of discussion in the news and on Twitter recently about gendered packaging for books and toys – describing books as being “for boys” or “for girls”, along with all the concomitant linguistic and aesthetic choices that come with those labels. We’ve written about gender and packing several times before (here, here and here, for instance) and so I’m not going to wade back into the debate today.

Today’s post is a more light-hearted one: the gender debate taking place in the news lead to a discussion here in the Nosy Crow offices of our favourite strong female protagonists in children’s literature who we felt would appeal unequivocally and equally to male or female readers. It quickly became a rather encouragingly long list, and we found that we were having to be stricter and stricter with ourselves in order to prevent this blogpost spiralling out of control (my protestation that I loved Little Women as a young boy fell on deaf ears). Of course, this list comes with a large caveat of subjectivity – and we’d love to hear your suggestions for heroines in children’s literature who’ve appealed as much to boy readers as girls. Here, though, are some of the books (and female heroes) who we thought have truly universal appeal:


Lyra Belacqua, His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)
Nevermind the shapeshifting daemons, the giant talking bears, or the knife that cuts holes in the very fabric of space and time: for me, Philip Pullman’s greatest creation is the hero of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra. Brave, kind, cunning and clever, she is that rare example of a brilliant child hero who doesn’t possess an ounce of the insufferable precocity or goody two-shoes-ness which so bedevils the archetype.


Matilda Wormwood, Matilda (Roald Dahl)
A champion of literature and a tireless defender of the underdog, it’s probably no surprise that Matilda is on this list. I think she is probably Roald Dahl’s most likeable (undoubtedly the least grotesque…) hero – certain to appeal to every young reader.


Sophie Maxim, Rooftoppers (Katherine Rundell)
Katherine Rundell’s young hero Sophie is a very unusual girl: orphaned in a shipwreck, she is found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel and rescued by an eccentric academic, Charles Maxim. The two form a wonderful (and unconventional) relationship, which eventually takes them to France to evade social services and search for Sophie’s thought-to-be-deceased mother. Beautifully and intelligently written, it’s also got plenty of adventure, derring-do, and a gutsy, brilliant hero with wits and bravery aplenty. We’ll be discussing Rooftoppers at this month’s Nosy Crow Reading Group – you can find out more (and come along, if you’d like) here.


Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
I was intrigued by this suggestion, as I remember Mary Lennox being quite unlikeable (she is described as being a “disagreeable-looking” 10-year-old). She does, of course, redeem herself, and her resourcefulness, curiosity and bad manners are universally appealing qualities to readers.


Coraline, Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
The natural descendant of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Coraline is very easy to root for: thrown into an uncanny, unsettling alternate reality, she manages to outsmart and prevail against the terrifying Other Mother. Gaiman’s clever, horror-influenced narrative is perfect for sophisticated child readers.


Penelope Tredwell, Twelve Minutes to Midnight (Christopher Edge)
The star of a fantastic trilogy of fast-paced, suspenseful thrillers, Penelope Tredwell is the bold and clever thirteen-year-old orphan heiress of the bestselling magazine, The Penny Dreadful. Her masterly tales of the macabre are gripping Victorian Britain, even if no one knows she’s the real author. The first book in the series, Twelve Minutes to Midnight, was the winner of last year’s Stockport School’s Book Award, voted for by children. The Telegraph described the sequel, Shadows of the Silver Screen, as “a serious (and playful) intelligent historical thriller for children”, and the final thrilling volume, The Black Crow Conspiracy, was published this January. Absolutely brilliant for 10+ readers everywhere, these are gripping, exciting mysteries with an incredibly strong heroine – perfect for fans of Sherlock Holmes. You can read the chapter one of the first book in the trilogy below:

Who are your favourite female heroes in literature? Do please share them in the comments below or on Twitter.

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7 Responses to “Our favourite female heroes in children’s literature”

  • Intriguing list. But where oh where is Boudica, the focus of Song for a Dark Queen, by Rosemary Sutcliff. I might be called biased (she was my godmother—Romie, not Boudica)) but not for example The Other Award in the 1970s, for contributions to promoting equality, anti-discrimination etc. …and many readers (An award that much tickled Telegraph-reading Tory-leaning Rosemary Sutcliff!)
    Anthony

  • My vote is for Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I loved her extraordinary and unconventional journey through life. My favourite female character (and actually my all-time favourite book).

  • I like the female characters in Garth Nix books, Sabriel & Milla. Emily Vole in Sally Gardners fairy detective series has been a recent hit with son

  • I welcomed my Darling Daughter into the world and we named her Matilda my wife’s long time love of the name and character in the book inspired her.

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