I’ve been thinking about how what you read can shape who you are; your worldview. As an adult reading a good book can change my perspective on a lot of things. But this change isn’t exclusive to my adult self. As a child there were girls in the books I read who seemed to jump off the page. So full of life they felt like real friends. Their stories and adventures became part of my story; part of who I am. Below I wrote about five of these heroines, what they meant, to me and why I carry them with me long after I first read them.
Ramona Quimby: The Ramona Series by Beverly ClearyThe illustration of Ramona in the series I had was the first time I remember thinking “Mine…me” She had straight thin dark hair that looked like barrettes would slide right out of it. Her knees were knobby and her mouth took up most of her face. I fell in love with her instantly. She was a child who had anxieties. I don’t think I had ever read a book with an anxious child as the protagonist before I read the Ramona books. Her father lost his job and she worried. Her kindergarten teacher corrected her and she worried her teacher didn’t love her. She got sick at school, had to be driven home in a taxi with her mother and worried the whole way that she would add to her humiliation by throwing up in a taxi. Her father smoked and she lay awake at night worrying the the cigarettes would kill him. I recognized the worry and anxiety in her. I felt it myself over both the mundane and the large.
But my love of Ramona didn’t just stem from seeing the similarities between us. I loved her because she was full of anxieties but simultaneously so full of life and spirit. She got lost once trying to find the end of the rainbow. She ruined a whole bushel of apples by taking one bite out of each and throwing the rest away (because after all the first bite of an apple is always the best part). She made a crown for herself out of burr balls and imagined herself starring in commercials. She called herself the baddest witch in the world on Halloween because “worst witch” while grammatically correct was boring. She named her doll Chevrolet because she thought it was the most beautiful name in the world. When she lost her temper she really lost it; banging her heels on the wall of her room and saying the worst word she could think of (guts). Ramona took her worries and anxieties about the world and didn’t let them keep her inside. She opened her mouth and yelled until the worry seemed not as worriesome anymore. I loved her with all of my heart. She seeped into the story of my own life adding herself to a tapestry of girls I admired and hoped to be a little bit like.
Favorite Quote: There are so many I had a hard time picking just one. But the anger Ramona feels in this moment so spoke to me as a child that in re-reading it for this post I immediately flashed back to moments in my childhood where sympathy from authority infuriated rather than placated me.
“Now, never mind,” Ramona heard her mother say. “Poor little girl. She’s upset. She’s had a difficult day.” Sympathy made things worse. “I am not upset!” Yelled Ramona and yelling made her feel so much better that she continued. “I am not upset! I am not a little girl, and everybody is mean to laugh at me!”
Madeline: The Madeline series by Ludwig Bemelmans
The first red head protagonist I loved. The books that made me obsessed with Paris, and boarding schools. A girl who had no fear. When bad things happened to her she made the most of it. Her appendix has to be taken out? Voila! Look at her scar! Everyone in the boarding school gets sick right before Christmas? She’ll make enough soup for everyone with a smile on her face and still have time to be nice to the stranger at the door. (Spoiler alert he turns out to be a magician who cures everyone and gets all the girls home in time for Christmas). Madeline was brave and clever. Loved by her friends and her teacher Miss Clavel. Her exuberance was what they loved the most about her. And for an exuberant child growing up in New Jersey, that was a lovely thing to read.
Favorite Quote: Madeline was not afraid of heights. She loved winter, snow and ice. To the tiger in the zoo…Madeline just said “pooh pooh”
Matilda was a reader. She was obsessed with books. She read every book in the library. In a family obsessed with television she was obsessed with Oliver Twist. Reading Matilda describe the feeling of getting lost in a book I felt instant recognition. Most of the protagonists in books I read were too busy having their own adventures to read. But here was Matilda. A protagonist who read voraciously and also made stuff happen! She was a crusader for justice. When the adults in her world treated her or her friends poorly, she took action and got results. Matilda taught me that adults were not infallible. That the truly good ones knew this and the ones who didn’t admit to this infallibility were ones you stayed away from. I was also super jealous of her telekinetic powers. Now those would have been great to have.
Favorite Quote: It was quite pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons…she traveled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.
Elizabeth Bennet: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I came to Elizabeth a bit older than any of the other heroines previously mentioned. In high school English I found her waiting on the pages for me. Full of life with her “fine eyes” and quick wit. As a romantic 16 year old what drew me to her most was the way she confounded Mr. Darcy…the way they made each other better. She softened his pride, and he taught her to look beyond her prejudices. I found in their story not an unrealistic expectation of romance, but rather the ideal that one should strive for in a partner; someone who accepts you just as you are and yet makes you a better version of yourself than you could have ever imagined.
Favorite Quote: (Elizabeth asks Mr. Darcy when he first fell in love with her. His response begins this quoted passage)
“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It was too long ago. I was in the middle before I realized I had begun.”
“Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”
“For the liveliness of your mind I did.”
“You may as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little else. The fact is you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused and interested you, because I was so unlike them.”
Anne Shirley: The Anne books by Lucy Maud Montgomery
I have written extensively on my love for this character. If I could have only one character on this list it would be Anne spelled with an E. Dreamy and wistful. Short of temper and big of heart. Anne was first introduced to me before I could read by myself. I grew up with her. Found something new in her every time I visited. Perhaps if I loved her less I could write about her more. But writing about Anne is almost like writing about myself. Too difficult because I’m too close it. I am Anne and Anne is me. She is the character in literature with whom I most identify. If you took all of her books away from me it wouldn’t matter. She is written on my heart never to be forgotten.
Favorite Quote: “Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive-it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything would it? There’d be no scope for the imagination then, would there? But am I talking too much? People are always telling me I do. Would you rather I didn’t talk? If you say so I’ll stop. I can stop when I make up my mind to it, although it’s difficult….and people laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas you have to use big words to express them don’t you?”
These five heroines of literature barely scratch the surface of characters who had influence on my childhood. When I started working on this post I asked my friends on to tell me some of their favorites and the responses were wonderful and plentiful.
Corrie Ten Boom
Harriet the Spy
They kept coming. More and more comments and thoughts. And if I didn’t know it before I knew it now. Reading is important. A girl who reads. A girl who is read to. A girl who meets these heroines. Grows up to be a woman who knows she is capable of great things. So I am thankful for these girls. These women in fiction. They are part of the fabric that make me who I am. Someone ready for adventure, ready to take the world by storm. And I’ll make sure to pass their stories on to the girls in my life. So the circle never breaks. And the sisterhood grows in numbers. Let’s go ladies. You’re the heroine of your story; get writing.