Inger Nilsson
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20 Classic YA Literature Heroines, Ranked


This week, The Book of Jezebel comes out, and you should order it immediately — which I say because I was one of its contributors but also because it’s great — a desk reference of every bit of feminist trivia you could want. In particular, I think it’d make a great gift for young teenagers who are still coming up and learning about feminist reads on popular culture. But let’s face it: no one starts with an encyclopedia, in evaluating these things; you start with the books girls are given as young’uns, and, troublesome lot that they are, those titles give you models of feminine behavior and independence to measure yourself against. It’s a testament to their formative importance that women, well into their adult lives, insist that these characters shaped the way they saw themselves and the world.

So for a bit of fun in ye olde Jezebel spirit, here are the classic girl heroines of literature, ranked, from a 2013 vantage. Rules: I tried, with only a couple of exceptions, to stick to one character per oeuvre or author. I also didn’t worry too much about what my take on these girls might have been as a kid; just looking at their stories now, I came up with their advantages and disadvantages.

20. Pollyanna, of Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna

Pollyanna is, well, a little too Pollyanna-ish for anyone’s taste. Too happy, too satisfied with her situation. That’s not what anyone wants in a girls’ book heroine these days, optimism.

19. Wendy Darling, of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

Wendy, at the end of the Peter Pan books, lamely decides to have a family and grow up. No pirate adventures for her, just the nursery and forever surrendering future daughters to Peter’s manchild charms. No one approves of this. NO ONE.

18. Sara Crewe, of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess

I was enchanted with her as a girl myself, mostly because she was described as “odd-looking” and yet she was also kind. But Sara exists in a racist universe, for starters, and was brought up much like Eloise, as a materialist snob who “had been used to seeing many servants who made salaams to her and called her ‘Missee Sahib.’” Also her eventual triumph over the cruel Miss Minchin involves her coming into an inheritance and living happily ever after as a rich girl. Not as inspiring as it seemed as a kid, frankly.

17. Nancy Drew, of Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew books

Investigator extraordinaire, the one who inspired Hillary Clinton and a generation of women a little older than the rest of us. Nancy, unfortunately, had only the most ordinary of relationships with Ned Nickerson, and so cut no new ground on the sexual revolution front.

16. Susan and Lucy Pevensie, of C.S. Lewis’ The Narnia Trilogy

This will be a controversial ranking. But here’s the thing: I do not fault Susan Pevensie for C.S. Lewis’ awful and sexist decision to cut her out of heaven on account of her being, and I quote, “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” But in a way, both Susan and Lucy lacked the kind of standing as moral agents to control the state of affairs in Narnia.

15. Eloise, of Kay Thompson’s Eloise books

Eloise’s chief recommendation, it seems to me, is that she is “ugly,” in the sense that other people insist she is. (I’m quite sure Eloise, like most ugly people, looked just fine in person.) Otherwise, I’m going to go all out and call Eloise a classist creation, a girl who fetishizes commodities like expensive hotels and room service. A girl, in short, who believes she deserves to be served, rather than to serve others. The Paris Hilton of the girls’ book heroine set, destined for future floozy-hood. Per Anna Quindlen, “When I think of Eloise grown up, I think of her with a drinking problem, knocking about from avocation to avocation, unhappily married or unhappily divorced, childless.”

14. Pippi Longstocking, of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi books

Pippi gets props for having irritated Swedish conservatives from the start. It wasn’t just her financial independence or even her idiosyncratic style of dress that got them; it was her refusal to actually behave. But her ever-sunny demeanor stopped speaking to girls after a certain age, I think.

13. Dorothy Gale, of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books

It’s hard to know what to make of Dorothy as an icon for little girls; she did, after all, start her adventure in Oz by engaging in a bit of girl-on-girl violence, as Jezebel commenters might once have put it. She dropped that house on that witch. But she ultimately pulls the curtain back on the grand patriarch, exposing the masculine cult of authority in Oz as a rule, so points for that.

12. Scout Finch, of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

The key to Scout is that she knows that something is deeply wrong with her world. She hates school not because it’s learning but because it bores her, and she feels, intuitively, that the world ought not to bore her. And it’s the way Atticus encourages her rebellious spirit that makes him one of the few dads in girls’ books worthy of the title. All of my favorite children have a bit of Scout Finch in them.

11. Hermione Granger, of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books

Hermione is a hard one. On the one hand she’s the figure of knowledge in the Potter books, always the one who knows the right spell. On the other, that means that Harry gets to use Hermione as a crutch for their heroic decisions. There’s not a lot of “be the heroine of your own life” in Hermione’s veins, as it were; she’s a handservant. Without her secondary role she might otherwise top this list.

10. Claudia Kincaid, of E.L. Konigsberg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

C’mon, choosing to run away to the Met is among the better schemes any young heroine has ever come up with.

9. Lyra Belacqua, of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy

Lyra, for all her wonderful intelligence, was destined to be (spoiler) the world’s second Eve. We know this to be a bum role, even in the pro-knowledge, pro-Serpent-in-the-garden-of-Eden worldview of Philip Pullman. Here it’s not because he posits Lyra as a believer in original sin so much as that she gets to be an allegorical archetype rather than a person; all the while, reading these books, it’s hard to imagine children relating to Lyra, per se.

8. Katniss Everdeen, of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games

People always point to Katniss’ battle skills as evidence of her greatness. But what appeals to me about her is really her ambivalence, particularly her ambivalence about the two boys who are shoehorned into her struggle. More girls’ books heroines should feel similarly dispirited by their choice of romantic partners.

7. Jo March, of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

All the usual tomboyish things are true of Jo: she cuts her hair short, her “only beauty.” She doesn’t go for the easy guy, preferring to hold out on him. She was never afraid of being too blunt in mixed company. And, as quickly became part of the template for so many girl-heroines that followed her, she wanted to be a writer.

6. Margaret Simon, of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

It takes a serious amount of intellectual investment to spend a year studying other people’s beliefs, for starters. But it’s her unabashed interest in periods – an interest, it must be mentioned, left unexplored by every single other girl-protagonist on this list – that made her the revolutionary.

5. Meg Murry, of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time

Meg has been called a precursor to Katniss, because she too is ambivalent about romantic love. And also, angry angry angry. Except Meg’s anger makes a lot of sense, because in her world she isn’t a celebrated champion, she’s a girl who can do calculus at a moment’s notice and doesn’t get a whit of recognition for it. Which is the more realistic situation for a smart young girl, as it happens.

4. Anne Shirley, of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books

I think it’s the “heedless and impulsive” part we like best in Anne. At least, it is for me. I like all the mooning about and the obsession with Tennyson, but that hotheaded temper was the thing that made her unique, so much more of a role model than the simpler Diana Barrys of the world.

3. Anastasia Krupnik, of Lois Lowry’s Anastasia series

We all wanted to be the kids of artists because of Anastasia. We also wanted to be the kind of listkeeper Anastasia was; she even kept lists of poems she planned to write. Imagine how much more of those dream projects you might have finished.

2. Harriet, from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy

Harriet is beloved the world over not just for her curiosity but for her unabashed displays of hostility towards other girls in her notebook. Having opinions on things, and writing them down, is a dangerous business! Harriet can be seen as a proto-Janet Malcolm, that way. (Just kidding, sort of.)

1. Emily Byrd Starr, of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon books

Emily might have been a kind of witch, or else just an aesthete from the moment she emerged from the womb. She’s so delightfully weird, in the way it’s sometimes hard to find in the more moralistic girls’ books, the things like What Katy Did or Christy. Emily doesn’t fit anywhere, she was raised to be the kind of girl who found a 36-year-old friend-of-her-father’s to be more relatable than her peers. That’s creepy, sure. It’s even disturbing in places. But it’s true to the thing that sticks out for me from the experience on being a bookish weirdo, growing up: the loneliness of it.