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Girls To Be Reckoned With: Tremendous Heroines of Children's Fiction

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Do not, for even one moment, think that I had any difficulty in compiling a list of formidable heroines from children’s fiction. The redoubtable task I faced was in narrowing down that list.

Absent here, only because I’m certain you are well aware of their greatness, are some of my own favourite heroines. Lizzie Bennett, obviously, is a young woman of sparkling wit and wisdom. Jo Marsh and Anne Shirley are champions of bookish girls everywhere. Judy Blume alone has written a whole league of magnificent heroines, from Margaret Simon to Deenie Fenner.

My children have adored Jacqueline Wilson’s feisty protagonists, the historical Hetty Feather and more contemporary Tracy Beaker. Katniss Everdeen has inspired a craze of archery which has left my dog’s nerves in tatters. Hermione Granger, of course, has become the ideal role model of a smart, plucky, determined girl who wants to solve problems with brains, not brawn.

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The following is a list of slightly less famous, but equally powerful, heroines for children of all ages.

The Wee Free Men

Nine-year-old Tiffany Aching knew how to read words before she knew how to say them –my kind of heroine. She has lived, so far, a quiet life of tending sheep on The Chalk but now the Nac Mac Feegle, a clan of unruly wee men, barely six inches tall, think Tiffany’s a witch, just like her Granny. Tiffany wouldn’t mind at all being a witch, a proper one, with a pointy hat and everything, but she isn’t one yet.

All of a sudden, it’s up to Tiffany to defend The Chalk against the Queen of the Elves and all the monsters of Fairyland.

The Wee Free Men is the 30th book in Terry Pratchett’s phenomenal Discworld series. It is also the first in the Tiffany Aching sub-series which was written with younger readers in mind and follows Tiffany from childhood to her late teens. Pratchett once said that the Tiffany Aching books were the ones of which he was most proud and for which he would most like to be remembered.

Tiffany Aching is a smart girl, sensible and level-headed. She may not be a fully-fledged witch, but she is more than capable and determined to rescue her brother and save her home. When Pratchett made role-models, he broke the mould.

Recommended age, 10+.

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Rosie Sprout's Time to Shine

Rosie Sprout isn’t the best singer in the school. She isn’t the fastest runner or the fanciest dresser but, she might just have found her way into the limelight as the best gardener – if only her best friend Violet’s peas weren’t growing just a little bit taller than Rosie’s.

Rosie Sprout will reassure shy children that they really don’t need to chase the limelight and that they shouldn’t live their lives in search of praise or attention – they just need to be their best self.

Recommended age, 3+.

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Flygirl

Ida Mae Jones learned to fly crop-dusting planes at her father’s side. When the US entered World War II, Ida knew for certain that she wanted to be a pilot but for a black woman, any woman, in 1940s America, flying was an impossible dream. Then, the army formed a corps of women pilots and Ida had a chance – if she was willing to deny her family and her heritage.

This beautiful piece of historical fiction provides an accurate insight into the obstacles facing women and, moreover, women of colour.

Ida Mae is a model of grit and steely determination but she also demonstrates that what you do is ultimately less important than who you are.

Recommended age, 12+.

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The Paper Bag Princess

Not such an inspiring beginning, is it? But then, a fiery dragon wrecks Elizabeth’s castle and kidnaps her prince. Elizabeth must use her smarts to outwit the dragon and rescue Ronald who will, of course, be tremendously grateful, won’t he?

One of my all-time favourite stories, this is a must-read for every young prince and princess.

Recommended age, 3+.

'Elizabeth was a beautiful princess. She lived in a castle and had expensive princess clothes. She was going to marry a prince named Ronald.’

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The Book Thief

Liesel Meminger is a thief. She can’t resist stealing books. She steals a book from the gravediggers burying her little brother. Upon learning that it is because of Herr Hitler that her family has been torn apart, she steals books from a Nazi book-burning. She even steals books from the mayor’s wife.

“She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”

Liesel learns to read from her foster-father, Hans Huberman, who writes the words all over the basement of his home. When Hans hides a Jewish man in the basement, Liesel reads to him. Later, she reads to people waiting terrified in bomb shelters.

Liesel is sensitive and thoughtful, full of love and kindness, and frustration at the horrors that surround her. Through her stolen books she gains strength and wisdom and the words she need to tell her story.

An unforgettable story about the power of books and one girl’s ability to use it.

Recommended age, 12+.

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Harriet the Spy

Harriet M. Welsh is eleven years old and dedicated to becoming a writer. To that end, Harriet spies on her friends, classmates and neighbours and writes everything she observes in a notebook. Harriet writes with a keen eye and a sharp wit, and Harriet writes the truth.

Calamity arises when Harriet loses her notebook and her brutally honest commentary is exposed, hurting her friends and enflaming her enemies.

“Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

Harriet doesn’t defeat dragons or save the world but she is a model of how to navigate the sort of sticky situations in which we humans so often find ourselves sinking. Harriet learns that she can achieve her ambition without sacrificing friendship, that honesty is not the only policy and that people take precedence over pride.

Recommended age, 8+.

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Mists of Avalon

Heroic knights, a rightful king, magic and romance, is it any wonder that the story of Arthur and Guinevere has enthralled generations?

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s fantasy novel retells the legend from the point of view of the women in the story, in particular Morgan le Fey who is usually portrayed as an evil witch.

When Morgaine is eleven years old she is taken to the mystical island of Avalon where a community of priestesses harness the power of their Goddess. Morgaine begins her training to become the next Lady of Avalon but shortly after her initiation she is given in a fertility rite to the young king, her half-brother.

Meanwhile, Arthur’s queen, Gwenhwfar, believes that she will never conceive a child unless she can convince Arthur to outlaw the pagan practices held dear by Morgaine.

Populated with a whole cast of intelligent, thoughtful women, each with her own flaws and ambitions. Some might call this fantasy but it reads like real life.

Recommended age, 14+.

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Pippi Longstocking

Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmind Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking believes herself to be the strongest girl in the world and it is difficult to disagree.

She lives in Villakulla Cottage, completely free of adult supervision, with a small monkey and a big horse. She has a suitcase full of gold and the liberty to live just as she sees fit. Pippi breaks all the rules but makes excellent pancakes.

Astrid Lindgren imagined Pippi into being as a way of entertaining her seven year old daughter who was ill with pneumonia. As a parent, you might worry that Pippi is a disruptive influence but you’d be surprised how even the youngest children notice that Pippi is a little bit lonely and a little bit sad.

Pippi Longstocking is an adventurous free spirit, irreverent, irrepressible and seemingly invincible –we’d all like a small dose of her strength. More importantly, Pippi is a loyal and generous friend and very, very funny.

Recommended age, 6+.

“All the children sat looking at Pippi who lay flat on the floor drawing to her heart’s content.
‘But, Pippi,’ said the teacher impatiently, ‘why aren’t you drawing on your paper?’
‘I filled that long ago. There isn’t room enough for my whole horse on that little snip of paper.’"

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Clarice Bean, That's Me

Clarice Bean is no angel, and her family is absolutely NOT a model of good behaviour. What Lauren Child gives to young readers is a peek inside a chaotic family home which is probably just like their own, on a bad day. Mum is searching for her keys, Dad is on his phone, Big Sis is mooning over boys, Big Brother is all but lost to an adolescent funk and Little Brother, Minal Cricket is a whiny, name-calling pest. The only thing Clarice really needs is a little peace and quiet but she has to go to considerable lengths to get it.

The super-power modelled by Clarice Bean is the skill of taking all the hassle of everyday life with a nonchalant shrug and, whenever life offers the opportunity, just laughing your socks off.

Recommended age, 6+.

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Coraline

Driven by nothing more sinister than sheer boredom after her family’s move to a new flat, Coraline Jones opens a door she knows full well she’s not supposed to. The door leads to another flat, in another home, like her own but better. It has better food and better toys and better parents, who want to keep Coraline, just they have kept lots of other children, keep her and change her and never let her go...

Neil Gaiman is not known for holding back on the fear factor.

I was scared, but not Coraline. Coraline Jones is a heroine you can really believe in: quietly clever, tired of being misunderstood, stubborn, which is just a mean word for determined, and very, very brave. You’ll love her.

Recommended age, 8+.

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

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A note on recommended ages: The age guidelines are nothing more than a personal suggestion based on my own experience as a mother and a reader. Children vary greatly, both in their reading abilities and in their sensitivity to more mature themes. The Book Thief is an upsetting book , Coraline is a scary book and The Mists of Avalon is built on adult relationships. In my opinion, it is the books that push us out of our comfort zone, the books that shock us or scare us or shake up our beliefs, that make us braver, better people.

Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More

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