This isn’t a high-brow list of classic, literary heroines. Nor is it a kitschy ranking of popular femme fatales or women warriors. So before you say, “But what about …” understand that this is MY list, pretty much off the top of MY head, of MY favorite female characters.
Most of them are from books I read (or had read to me) as a child, but others are more recent discoveries. Together these unforgettable protagonists possess all the qualities I hold dear, including strength, honesty, humor, wisdom, kindness, passion, compassion and grit.
For whatever reason, their stories stuck with me. Their voices resonated. And now, they’re helping me develop my voice as a writer and creator of characters. Thanks, girlfriends!
- Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. Karana is a native girl who’s left behind on an island off the coast of California in the 1830s. To survive, she must teach herself skills that only the men of her tribe learn, including hunting and fishing and spear- and canoe-making. She also befriends the island’s animals, including the leader of the wild dog pack that killed her younger brother. Now that’s what I call an open mind. As a girl reading this book, I loved Karana’s bravery and resourcefulness (she makes her home out of whale bones!). It was only after reading this novel to my two boys that I found out it was based on the true story of Juana Maria.
- Jane Eyre in the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Plain, poor and not afraid to speak her mind, Jane Eyre would seem to have dim prospects in Victorian England, and that’s what makes her such a great heroine. She’s every bit Mr. Rochester’s intellectual equal. Their love is a meeting of minds and hearts, class differences be damned. Yet Jane’s strong principles force her to flee Thornfield Hall after she learns of her soul mate’s devastating secret. Me? I’m nowhere near that strong. Live in sin? Sure, I’ll run off to Paris with you. But that would have made for much less interesting story.
- Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Gardening and nature really are transformative! In this children’s classic, a girl left orphaned by a cholera epidemic is sent to live on her uncle’s English estate. Sullen and rude, she’s not a very likeable character until she gets outside, discovers the beauty of the Moors, meets a boy who talks to animals, and finds the key to a hidden garden. As she Mary finds joy, she ends up bringing life back to Misselthwaite Manor and all who live there.
- Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Over the course of this brilliant coming-of-age novel, Scout goes from being a tomboy who wants nothing more than to see her reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, to a girl forever changed by the racial injustice she witnesses in her Alabama town. In one of my favorite scenes, she breaks up a lynch mob by innocently addressing one of its members, a man she recognizes as the father of a poor, white classmate. I love Scout because she’s questioning, feisty, and, like me, would prefer not to wear a dress.
- Claudia Kincaid in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. Claudia is a bossy organizer who has an annoying habit of correcting her younger brother’s grammar, but you have to admire the audaciousness of a girl who runs away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and basically camps out there. She and her brother sleep in a 16th Century royal bed, bathe naked in a fountain (collecting the coins as revenue), and get pulled into a mystery surrounding a beautiful statue that may or may not be a Michelangelo. This story is every child’s fantasy.
- Delia Grinstead in Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler. Speaking of fantasies, who hasn’t imagined walking away from it all as an adult? Delia is a mother of three older children who’s taken for granted – imagine that! – so, during the family’s annual beach vacation, she takes off wearing only her bathing suit. She escapes to another town, buys a dress, lands a job, rents a room and begins Life 2, which turns out pretty sweet. I don’t necessarily admire Delia’s walking out on people she loves, but I like that she makes her own change at a time in her life when her path seems set.
- Liesel Meminger in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Liesel is a girl after my own heart. A foster child living in Nazi Germany, she literally steals back the words that are being destroyed and corrupted by Hitler. And discovers her identity in the process. (She eventually becomes a writer.) To me, this is a story about the power of words — and love –to overcome evil, and Liesel is an angel in the flesh. She captures the heart of a neighbor boy; nurtures the spirit of a Jewish man hiding in her aunt and uncle’s basement; and reads to her frightened friends and neighbors as they sit huddled in a deep basement waiting for the bombing to stop. She’s so special, even Death takes notice.
- Addy Shadd in Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens. Addy is another kind of survivor. The story begins when she is a lonely, old woman who agrees to take in a neglected young girl, Sharla, from her trailer park. One cast-off helps another as Addy relives memories of her tragic past. We learn about the heartbreaks and losses Addy has endured, including the traumatic events that forced her to leave her home of Rusholme, Ontario, a town settled by escaped slaves. For all the pain she’s suffered, Addy is gentle and patient, with love to spare for this unloved girl.
- The mother bunny in The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. I remember my mom reading this to me as a child and feeling so sorry for this poor mother bunny who loved her son so much that she would do anything to find him and bring him home: climb a mountain, become a tight-rope walker, even turn herself into a tree! I’ve since learned not to take this story so literally, but I still love it, and her.
If I had more time, space and energy, I’d add the following to this list: Charlotte, the spider from Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White); Muriel from The Accidental Tourist (Anne Tyler); Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series (Suzanne Collins); and pretty much any female character written by Louise Erdrich and Barbara Kingsolver.
So who’s on your list?