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Heroic Heroines

Heroic Heroines
  • Anne of Green Gables (by )
  • Little Women (by )
  • The Secret Garden (by )
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (th... (by )
  • Heidi (by )
  • A Little Princess (by )
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and thr... (by )
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First, let’s consider the heroic tradition which arises from, well, tradition. Let’s be honest, tradition values strength and valor as masculine traits. Look at practically any fairy tale: Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty. They each display traits of traditional feminine ideals: diligence, kindness, generosity, physical beauty, fidelity, and not a courageous or aggressive bone among them.  

First, let’s consider the heroic tradition which arises from, well, tradition. Let’s be honest, tradition values strength and valor as masculine traits. Look at practically any fairy tale: Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty. They each display traits of traditional feminine ideals: diligence, kindness, generosity, physical beauty, fidelity, and not a courageous or aggressive bone among them.  

Female protagonists have waited a long time to break out from those socially imposed confines, but some authors realized the amazing potential of females in the heroic tradition and to pave the way for many of today’s kickass, weapons-toting heroines.
  • In 1949, Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s groundbreaking children’s novel Pippi Longstocking delighted readers and broke the traditional mold of the meek, mild, and obedient heroine with the title character of her book. Made into movies and published in over 50 languages, the series featuring a wildly unconventional and super-strong girl with a big heart and a penchant for getting into lots of trouble.
  • Published in 1908, Lucy Maud Montgomery delighted readers with the growing pains of a curious, 11-year-old orphan named Anne Shirley. Anne of Green Gables was followed by several more novels featuring the curious and irrepressible Anne from adolescence through early adulthood in turn-of-the-century Prince Edward Island in Canada.
  • Preferring to write blood-and-lust thrillers, Louisa May Alcott thought her classic story of four sisters, Little Women, boring. However, the author puts much of herself into the main heroine, Jo March, who exemplifies intelligence and depth and demands to be considered and treated as the equal of any man.
  • With a sense of the absurd and understanding the resilience of children, British author Roald Dahl created Matilda, which was not published until 1988, just two years before his death. This spunky heroine, ill-treated by her father and neglected by her mother, uses her precocious intelligence to play pranks in retaliation.
  • Just as the Women’s Liberation Movement gathered steam, Beverly Cleary published Ramona the Pest in 1968. The title character, Ramona Quimby, appeared first in Henry Huggins as the troublesome little sister of Henry’s friend Beatrice. The Ramona series follows our mischievous heroine from nursery school through the fourth grade.
  • Redolent of fantasy, The Secret Garden (1911) by Frances Hodgson Burnett features a coming-of-age story of a sickly, 10-year-old orphan who was born in India and sent to live with an irascible uncle in the moors of Yorkshire. The garden takes a prominent place as a symbol for rejuvenation and healing.
  • Predating the societal upheaval of the Women’s Liberation Movement by a few years, Madeleine L’Engle’s breakthrough fantasy A Wrinkle in Time (1963) centers mainly upon the adventures of a misfit girl whose father, a government scientist, goes missing. Accompanied by her brother, her friend, and three mysterious ladies—Mrs. Watsis, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which—they travel through dimensions and time.
  • C. S. Lewis used classical tropes of sacrifice and courage in his iconic Chronicles of Narnia, the second and most famous of which is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). Although the story features the adventures of all four children, the youngest, Lucy Pevensie, becomes the central character who demonstrates loyalty, truthfulness, and valor.
  • Swiss author Johanna Louise Spyri published Heidi in 1881, about a 5-year-old orphaned girl compelled to live with her grandfather and then, three years later, sent to live as a companion to a wealthy invalid. While the story does not deviate much from the traditional traits and role of the female protagonist, it does offer a glimpse into the expectations placed on children of the age who were required to work for their keep.
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett strikes gold a second time with A Little Princess (1905), which takes place in dreary Victorian England. A wealthy widower’s daughter, young Sara Crewe falls into harsh indentured servitude when suddenly impoverished by her father’s death. Again, the typical elements come into play with the heroine being sweet, kind, and generous who eventually reaps the just reward of her good nature.
  • Lewis Carroll’s classic of Alice’s in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1898) begin with a girl whom things happen to and evolves into a fierce, courageous heroine who makes things happen.
  • Aimed solidly at the “tweenage” audience, the Nancy Drew mysteries first appeared in 1930, published under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene and were ghostwritten by a series of authors. Bobbie Ann Mason described the wealthy, brilliant, and pretty teen sleuth “as cool as Mata Hari and as sweet as Betty Crocker.”
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder’s serial autobiography features her younger self, beginning with Little House in the Big Woods (1932). The series follows the author’s life, depicting a realistic protagonist who’s not the prettiest girl, not the most obedient, and filled with curiosity and independence.
By Karen M. Smith



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