The Greatest Girls in Children’s Literature?

In honour of the UN International Day of the Girl on 11th October, here is a collection of some of the best written girls- often mighty, sometimes flawed, always memorable.

In previous generations, girls have had some inspiring role models in children’s classics.  Characters who acted within society’s expectations were balanced with others who subverted the norm: for the maternal Wendy Darling there was the pioneering and frequently disgruntled Alice in Wonderland; for the good and obedient Lucy Pevensie, there was the vocal and dramatic Anne Shirley.  But in recent years, there have been an abundance of brilliant girls.

One of the most skilful writers of female characters is Katherine Rundell.  Choosing between her protagonists is as tricky as choosing between your own children, with most of her novels centring around a strong, complex girl or teenager: exuberant, semi-feral Will from The Girl Savage; prickly, independent Con from The Explorer, and dreamy, determined Sophie from Rooftoppers.  But perhaps her greatest character is Feodora, the titular character from The Wolf Wilder.

As the daughter of Marina, a wolf wilder living in the icy forests of Russia, Feo has followed her mother’s example of strength- both physical and mental.  When her mother threatens violence in defence of her child, against the ruthless General Rakov, she is told that this is unfeminine and replies,

‘Not at all.  It seems profoundly feminine to me.’

After her mother is taken away to prison, Feo takes her wolves (her best friends) and sets off to free her.  More accustomed to animal than human company, Feo is seen by locals as being ‘socially malnourished’.  Her friendship with the teenage soldier, Ilya, began with her threat, “Get back!  I swear I’ll bite you!” and she knows little of human behaviour, far less etiquette.  But her fierce, generous and impulsive nature inspires many, including Ilya, revolutionary Alexei and a troop of village children, to join her in her dangerous mission.

Equally influential, and equally ill at ease in social situations, is Elle Bibi-Imbele Ifie from The Infinite by Patience Agbabi.  Elle is a Leapling, born on 29th February and gifted with the power to be able to leap forward into the future.

Again, Elle has been brought up by a powerful woman: her Grandma, who though is sometimes bedridden with arthritis, remains strict, perceptive and fiercely loving.  On her 12th birthday, Elle is permitted to make her first leap in time for a very unusual school trip to the future.  There she realises that other Leaplings have been disappearing, and she sets out to investigate the mystery.

Elle’s adventure, narrated by her as she navigates her way through an unfamiliar place and time, shows her strength and selflessness. Unusually for a central character, Elle is more of an introvert, with much of the dialogue we read coming from her own thoughts.  Her unique voice, as she processes her experiences as a neurodivergent protagonist, shows how reflective and understanding she is.  Though frequently unsure of herself and whether she is doing the right thing, Elle pursues the truth and risks the trouble she so greatly fears. 

Other characters are so self-assured and confident that they are utterly magnetic.  Joan Aiken’s finest creation, Dido Twite is one such character.  Proving so popular with readers and so full of life, Joan Aiken had to reverse her plans to leave her drowned at sea, and instead have her rescued.

From her first introduction in Black Hearts in Battersea, the ‘shrewish-looking little creature’ with ill-fitting clothes and covered in jam made quite an impression on visiting innocent, Simon.

‘”There’s nobody in but me,” she snapped.  “Whose donkey is that?”’

Impudent and wily, Dido’s curiosity frequently leads her into danger.  This is a quality that she never loses, though she becomes less spiky throughout The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence.  Her intelligence, evident from her first bartering conversation with Simon, is a driving force, though it is only when her edges soften that her true qualities show through.  Despite not being able to swim, she gamely sets off to float to shore in order to save her friend after a shipwreck.  And it is this combination of kindness and recklessness which made her (fortunately for the reader!) impossible to kill off.

As well as wonderful central characters, there are a wealth of girls in smaller roles who make books richer, more thought provoking, or more entertaining by their presence. 

In M.G.Leonard’s Beetle Boy trilogy, it is Novak Cutter, the daughter of the villainous Lucretia Cutter, who steals every scene she’s in.  Poised for stardom as an aspiring actress, she treats every conversation as a dramatic audition, complete with feather boa.

‘”Don’t pretend you don’t love me.” Novak clutched her hands to her chest as if her heart was trying to fly away.’

But behind her carefully cultivated persona of the pouting, foot stamping ingénue is a trapped, lonely girl, with the capacity for huge warmth and sacrifice.  (As long as the sacrifice doesn’t compromise her hair!)

In this year’s Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray, we are introduced not only to fearless inventor Ellie, but to her best friend Anna.  Bloodthirsty, argumentative and devoted, she is as likely to be distracted by passing handsome sailors as she is to focus on solving the mystery at hand.

Anna’s ears pricked up.  When getting Anna to run an errand, it was important firstly to never call it an errand, and secondly to dress it up with the promise of sailors.  And violence, if possible.’

Anna has a delightful and refreshing mixture of priorities, for as well as ogling men and seeking dangerous situations, she is a pragmatic, unsentimental best friend, and a maternal figure to younger children in the orphanage where she lives.

But for every noble girl on a righteous path, there is an ordinary girl- flawed and learning the hard way. 

For Miggery Sow from The Tale of Despereaux, fortune was never on her side.  Named after her father’s prize pig, motherless and sold in to service, all poor Mig wanted was to be a princess.  Almost deaf from ‘clouts to the ear’, she eventually becomes the princess’s maid, but betrays her due to her ambition.  Kate DiCamillo’s poignant, comedic creation eventually gets to wear a crown but finds disappointingly, ‘It’s a biggish thing…and painful-like.’

Mig finds her redemption, and a happy ending of sorts, when she recognises that true friendship is shown in the empathy of the princess and their shared loss.

And finally, to Lyra Silvertongue, one of the most iconic characters in modern literature.  First introduced in Northern Lights, she shows herself to be bold and anti-establishment when she trespasses in a private hall at Jordan College where she lives, and thwarts an attempted murder on her uncle, Lord Asriel.  For her efforts, she receives a twisted arm from her uncle, which ‘…might have been enough to make her cry, if she was the sort of girl who cried.’

Her significance within the world in which she lives is clear, and she is the focus of much attention from powerful forces throughout Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (and more recently The Book of Dust).  But it is not the witches’ long-standing prophesy about her, or the destiny ‘to bring about the end of destiny’ that she fulfils which make her so memorable.  It is the combination of her various contradictions. 

Academically lazy but incredibly bright; endlessly active but able to still her mind totally to read the alethiometer, a truth telling device; an artful liar but fiercely loyal.  Further contradictions are shown with her contrast to her dæmon (her soul in animal form) Pantalaimon.

Pan’s name in Greek means ‘all-compassionate’, providing a clue to Lyra’s true character.  Though superficially they are opposites (with his caution and patience in contrast to her impulsivity) they are both steadfast in their devotion to their friends, and to their choices, which they ultimately make for the common good.

For more information about International Day of the Girl 2020 and its theme ‘My voice, our equal future’ please see Unicef’s website:

https://www.unicef.org/gender-equality/international-day-girl-2020

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