Sugar and spice, and everything nice: Is that what little girls are made of?

This post from Virago about the lack of strong heroines for young girls in film and television compared to those in children’s literature made me think about which characters I looked up to when I was a child.  Like a lot of little girls I had my fair share of Barbie dolls and loved Disney princesses, but I was also a tomboy who insisted on having my hair cut short and wearing boys’ clothes.  Of course I was too young to question the apparent dichotomy between the two, unlike now where my heart is torn between the feminist literature on my bookshelves and the pretty dresses in my wardrobe, but I digress.

As a near insatiable reader in my formative years, a few of my favourite childhood heroines sprang immediately to mind:

Matilda by Roald Dahl

'By the time she was three, Matilda had taught herself to read by studying newspapers and magazines that lay around the house'

I can vividly remember the first time I read Matilda, and how I read it over and over for many years, completely in awe of the little girl who was able to read every children’s book in the library, and then with the guidance of Mrs Phelps, the librarian, start reading books written for grown ups too.  I loved the later chapters in the book when Matilda is able to use her powers to terrorise her parents and Miss Trunchball, but the bits that really captured my imagination were her trips to the library.

‘The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.’

'You seemed so far away,' Miss Honey whispered, awestruck. 'Oh, I was. I was flying past the stars on silver wings,' Matilda said. 'It was wonderful.'

I read Matilda again rather recently, and putting aside the glorious feelings of nostalgia, I found it still had the ability to make me laugh out loud, perhaps more so than it had when I was seven years old.

‘Fiona has the same glacial beauty of an iceberg, but unlike the iceberg she has absolutely nothing below the surface.’

“Here it is,” Nigel said.
‘Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs LTY. That spells difficulty.’
‘How perfectly ridiculous!’ snorted Miss Trunchbull. ‘Why are all these women married?’

George from The Famous Five by Enid Blyton

The first American edition published by Thomas Y. Cromwell in 1950, illustrated by Vera Neville

Enid Blyton’s books have been famously frowned upon for various reasons over the years, often justifiably so, but as a child I obsessively read nearly everything she had written and I think it likely that the tomboy George (or Georgina as the terrifying Uncle Quentin would call her!) was the major influence on my choice to have short hair and wear boys’ clothes.

Feminists now criticise the somewhat clumsy gender stereotypes portrayed in Blyton’s novels, citing the fact that the female characters could only be girly girls or pretend to be boys, with no balanced option in between (which isn’t actually true, but I’d have to get into some serious Blyton geekery to prove them wrong).  As a child the issues of gender stereotypes, along with every other questionable part of Blyton’s books were not noticed by me, but what I did notice was the fearless girl who was able to row a boat when her male cousins couldn’t and wasn’t scared to be the first one to climb down holes or explore caves, whilst Anne was still preparing their picnic.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Growing up in a Welsh coastal town that mined its tenuous link to Lewis Carroll’s tale for all it was worth, I have always felt a special affection for the precocious Alice.  She is a great heroine and a wonderful role model for little girls; thoughtful, always willing to speak her mind and never over-awed by her fantastical adventure.  As a child I loved her ability to recite poetry (‘How doth the little crocodile…‘) and how clever she appeared to be (‘I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?‘).

'At any rate I'll never go there again!' said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. 'It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!'

As an adult the book is tainted by questions of Lewis Carroll’s relationship with the young girls he photographed and seemingly adored, but to children it is just the story of a headstrong young girl and all the strange characters she meets.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

‘She was nine years old, and she lived there all alone.  She had no mother or father, which was actually quite nice, because it meant no-one could tell her that she had to go to bed just when she was having most fun.’

A beautiful recent edition illustrated by Lauren Child

Super-strong, self reliant, owner of a pet monkey and horse, with great hair and a dress she has made herself, which little girl wouldn’t want to be like Pippi Longstocking?  As a child I loved the idea of being able to wear odd socks and have plaits that stuck out at right angles to my head!  Pippi’s appeal comes from her ability to make fools of adults that look down on her whilst always being a loyal friend to those who can see past her scruffy hair and questionable manners, which is a good lesson in my book.

'Don't worry! I can always look after myself.'

Which fictional heroines did you admire during your childhood?

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1 Comment

Filed under Books

One response to “Sugar and spice, and everything nice: Is that what little girls are made of?

  1. We grew up reading the same books and I feel pretty much exactly the same way as you about them (on a side note, I am also terribly torn between my feminism and my floral dresses).

    I think that children are more sophisticated readers than we often give them credit for. I grew up playing with dolls and read a lot of books that didn’t have the best female characters or ‘role-models’. While I do think that books influence us, I also think we can tell the difference between fiction and fantasy game-playing and acting out those roles in real life.

    (On another side note, I dressed up as Pippi last Halloween!)

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