Astonishingly, I have seen multiple articles recently lamenting the dearth of good, independent female characters in literature to serve as role models for young female readers. Excuse me? No good female role models in literature? Are you dim? This isn’t Hollywood! Whoever says that there are no good female role models in literature for girls clearly hasn’t been reading books.
Now that I have gotten over my initial flabbergasted shock at seeing such preposterous claims in print, I have decided to create my own list of excellent female role models for young girls in literature. Please keep in mind, this is a list geared toward young readers, so no inclusions of the myriad of Game of Thrones characters (Arya, Daenerys, others whom I have not yet met but were recommended by Ben, my brother–NOT Sansa, though…don’t get me started), Skeeter from The Help by Kathryn Stockett, any Jane Austen heroine you might want to include, or that original queen of women’s lib, Lysistrata, among others. (Do, however, check out the delightful and hi-LAR-ious translation of Arisophanes’s Lysistrata by my beloved Classics professor, Dr. Douglass Parker.) Additionally, this list is not exhaustive. For every character I include, there are tens more that I missed, characters that you connected with that I never met or didn’t think of until after posting this or left off to include a different character particularly important to me. So, please, feel free to add to my list in the comments! Who do you think is a great female literary role model? And, finally, it has been quite a while since I read some of these books, so the details may be fuzzy. The reason some of these characters and their books make the list, however, is that while plot details may have vanished from my memory, the character has stuck firmly in my consciousness.
And now, in no particular order: 13 Female Literary Characters who Are ABSOLUTELY Fantastic Role Models for Young Girls
1. Ella from Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
None of you should be surprised by this choice. Ella Enchanted is, of course, a retelling of Cinderella, and you know how I love fairy tales. But Ella was more than just a version of Cinderella for me. Ella was the smart, quirky girl who never quite fit in. She befriended the people who needed friends and placed more value on doing good than being popular. She was brave and independent and enjoyed having a boyfriend but also understood that her boyfriend was not everything. She made her own destiny. In short, Ella was me and who I wanted to be. (Still trying to be as brave as Ella is.) The story was more than Cinderella, and it earned a place on the very short, almost non-existent list of books that I try to read every year.
2. Emily Starr from Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery
Yes, I am a fan of Anne of Green Gables. I own and have read all the Anne books, and I watched those made-for-tv movies multiple times as a child. But Emily is the character of Montgomery’s that I really connected with. My grandmother gave me the Emily books (only three to Anne’s seven or eight), and I thought, “Oh, another character like Anne.” Not at all. Though both girls move to a new home after losing their families, Emily’s spirit and sense of adventure never grow tiresome, and her rag-tag group of friends and dealings with mean girls still ring true. She yearns to be a writer and works extremely hard to do so. Considered to be the most autobiographical of Montgomery’s characters, Emily was much more grounded in my experience than Anne ever was, making her a lifetime favorite.
3. Meg Murray from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Many of my former students might protest this as L’Engle’s famous novel proved a difficult read for them in school. However, for me, Meg, Charles Wallace, and the others’ adventures was a gorgeous and heart pounding introduction to fantasy and science fiction. The beauty of L’Engle’s story was creating something fantastic out of very real circumstances, and Meg’s coming into her own through an awful situation turned terrifying struck a chord. She is a wonderful example of what we can do when we stop doubting ourselves.
4. Flavia DeLuce from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
I have written of my love for Flavia before. An 11-year-old chemistry genius with a penchant for poisons and plotting revenge against her vain and horrid older sisters, Flavia is a spitfire of character, bravado, and hilarity. She turns her small, mid-century British village upside down as she and her trusty bicycle, Gladys, solve murder after murder in the apparent crime wave that is crashing down upon them. All the while, she is struggling to understand her mother’s premature death, her sister’s apparent hatred of her, her father’s emotional distance, and the rapidly disappearing family finances. Bradley creates a wonderfully accurate portrayal of an intelligent and authentic eleven year old who is still very much a child.
5. Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
So people always seem surprised when I tell them that I’ve read many of the Oz books. Yes, I did, in fact, watch the famous film starring the one and only Judy Garland every day for at least a year as a child, and yes, I did, in fact, say every line and sing every song along with the actors when my mom took me to see the stage show, and yes, I did, in fact, have ruby slippers (silver in the books) that I wore around the house a lot. But my other grandmother had several of the Oz books at her house, and I read as many of them as I could. Dorothy is a classic, pure and simple. Everyone knows her story from the film, but the books really expand and bring her story (and the stories of the other characters) to life. Dorothy earns a spot on this list to encourage people to look beyond the (truly excellent) film to the books on which the film is based.
6. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Some of you were getting worried that I wasn’t going to include Katniss, weren’t you? Fear not. I am a fan of Katniss, both in the books and in Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in the films (some of my favorite film adaptations of a book, btw). You will not find Veronica Roth’s Tris (from the Divergent series) on this list, however. The two characters are born out of the same young adult dystopian future literary moment. What separates Katniss from Tris and most of the other heroines created in the same mold, however, is that Katniss does what she does to protect her friends and family. Sure, she is trying to survive herself, but her self-preservation is other-focused, first on her family, then on her friends, and finally on the oppressed people of the Districts. As the series progresses, she understands that her survival has become a symbol of survival for the Districts, and, though she fights the pressure of that role, she never wavers in her fight against injustice. And sure, there’s a love triangle involved, but that is never her main focus, despite what legions of fans will say. I envision The Hunger Games being a series for the ages, much like Harry Potter.
7. Hermione Granger and Ginny Weasley from the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Speaking of Harry Potter, here we are with two, count ’em, two role models from J. K. Rowling’s epic saga of good versus evil, wizards and magic, and just trying to navigate the wild dangers of growing up. I am a die-hard Harry Potter fan. I am an original. I am the generation that started reading the books around age 11 and grew up with Harry, Hermione, and Ron. My students look at me like I am Fluffy when I begin to wax rhapsodic about the brilliance of this series. But one of the great things about this series is the female characters. I could have included any number on this list, but I thought Hermione and Ginny deserve special mention. Hermione, of course, is one of the core characters of the series. She easily could have devolved into the stereotypical smart girl, but Rowling molds her into a complex, nuanced character with the same kinds of desires, fears, and doubts that many of us Muggle readers have. Hermione is our conduit to the Wizarding world, and she handles the role with aplomb. And Ginny makes the list because of the person she grows into. Barely a blip in the first book or so, Ginny grows into not just a viable love interest for Harry but a fiercely brave, outgoing, intelligent, and useful character. Honestly, I’ve always felt that Bonnie Wright’s bland portrayal of Ginny doesn’t do Rowling’s character justice. Ginny is the spitfire that Hermione is not, and her outgoing personality is refreshing. Well done, Ms. Rowling!
8. Matilda from Matilda by Roald Dahl
Matilda makes the list at the request of my husband, Michel, as Roald Dahl is his favorite childhood author. (I didn’t enjoy Mr. Dahl’s books nearly as much, but I do agree that Matilda is an excellent character.) Matilda is a smart, capable character who successfully overcomes significant abuse at the hands of the evil Miss Trunchbull. She fulfills every child’s dream of besting those awful adults around them and does so in an extremely entertaining way. (It’s been about 20 years since either of us read the book…can you tell?) Michel would also like me to point out that Miss Honey is an excellent adult role model, and Miss Trunchbull is quite the formidable villain. So options for no matter what path you decide to take in life!
9. September from The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
September is a girl forced by war to grow up too fast. She stumbles into Fairyland and has marvelous adventures with her Fairyland friends, takes down an evil Marquess and a destructive shadow, learns lots of lessons, and still maintains her sense of self. Fairyland allows her to recapture some of the wonder of childhood that was taken from her when her father went off to fight and her mother went to work in the airplane factory and to navigate the perils of becoming a teenager. September is the girl trapped between being a child and being asked to behave like an adult, something to which we can all relate, and deals with it in a way that many of us dreamed about: escaping into her very own magical world. Her internal dialogue and pep talks are endearingly familiar to many of us, even if their contexts are not. Yet through it all, she remains intelligent, determined, and self-possessed. Would that we all could keep our cool when scolding a moon-Yeti!
10. Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkein
Another of Michel’s picks: Theoden’s niece, she yearns to be a warrior, but due to her gender, she is not allowed to fight. Ultimately she disguised herself as man and totally destroys the Witch King, killing him, with the help of Merry, in an epic scene in both book and film. Whether she declares, “No living man am I!” (book) or “I am no man!” (film), Eowyn is kick-ass. ‘Nuff said.
11. Liesl Meminger from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I wrote about Liesl and The Book Thief on this blog earlier this fall. I think it is a gorgeous book, but Liesl merits a spot on my list because she is a girl with gumption who learns to love in a time and place of great hate. That may sound cheesy, but it is true. And that is a lesson that we all should learn as early as possible.
12. Miranda from When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
I read this book a few years ago when it first came out at the urging of one of my teaching mentors. It was his view that this was one of the best middle grade books published in a long time. He was absolutely right. There is a hint of fantasy, but what makes the book and specifically Miranda so compelling is that everything Miranda deals with is so real, so familiar to every one of us. We’ve all dealt with a friend pushing us away or being blamed for something we didn’t do or the stress of knowing something is stressing our parents without knowing what. Miranda is a girl just like us: no special powers, no unique setting to live in, no magical friends. She lives in our world and handles our problems in a really wonderful way. She is a most recognizable role model for young readers.
13. Jean Louise Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Jean Louise Finch, aka Scout, is the ultimate female literary role model because she has the ultimate, ultimate role model of any gender in all of literature as her father: Atticus Finch. Scout’s coming of age in Great Depression era small-town Alabama throws her headfirst into conflicts dealing with gender politics and racial tensions, the personal repercussions of her father’s professional work, and the truth behind her mysterious and reclusive neighbor. Lee creates a brilliant and realistic character who learns important lessons from truly grisly events, and Scout’s growth through the story, guided by Atticus’s unfailing moral compass, is an inspiration for any reader.
Other Fabulous Examples:
Claudia from From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, Turtle Wexler from The Westing Game by Ellen Rasking, Harriet from Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, Alyce from The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman, Isabel from Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, most of the heroines in Ann Rinaldi’s historical fiction novels, most of the heroines in Robin McKinley fairy tale re-tellings and her Blue Sword novels (really, she’s a fantastic author), and I could go on and on and on…
Please note that above are only “Other Fabulous Examples” because my list is becoming quite long, and both you and I will get bored if I keep writing about each character. However, sufficed to say, I’ve made my point: There are plenty of amazing, strong, and inspiring female characters for young and young adult readers to look up to and be inspired by. The way you find them? Go read their books.