The Atlantic‘s List of Greatest Girl Characters in Literature: Really?

So a few days ago The Atlantic printed their list of the Greatest Girl Characters of Young Adult Literature. And, well, apart from the factual errors here and there on the list, as you might be guessing, I have one or two problems with the list. And the essay, now that you mention it.

No, not that the list doesn’t include a single Oz book (although that’s sad, too.) But primarily something that was mentioned by other commentators on the article: most of the books listed here do not fit the category of “young adult,” or “teenage.”

Some are arguable — L.M. Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables with an adult audience in mind, and became distressed when later critics relegated her to the “girls books” category. Her fiction books, including those very specifically written for an adult audience (The Blue Castle, A Tangled Web) is currently marketed to teens and older children, in part because the elements considered too shocking for teenagers in the 1920s (unwed motherhood and alcoholism in The Blue Castle, swear words, marital separation and other issues in A Tangled Web) are considered fine for contemporary teenagers. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was also written for adults, and would not have featured on the “approved” list for most teenagers in the 1940s, but like Anne of Green Gables, features a teenage protagonist and is suitable for most contemporary teenagers.

Other books on the list were written very specifically for children, not teenagers. The Ramona Quimby books feature the adventures of a child, with simplified language and sentence structure. Beverly Cleary could and did write books for teenagers as well, as in Fifteen and Sister of the Bride, adjusting her language accordingly, but the Ramona books are not in that field. (Meanwhile, can I note, Beverly Cleary is on this list — and not Judy Blume? How did that happen?) The subversive Pippi Longstocking books were written to entertain a young child, and include picture books aimed at very young readers. Harriet the Spy was aimed at ten year olds. And so on.

I suppose we can argue about the last of the Little House and Betsy-Tacy books. Both series begin with the stories of very young children and follow their protagonists into marriage. But the first books of both series are clearly intended as children’s books, meant to be read out loud to children as they (hopefully) fall asleep, organized with one story per chapter. These Happy Golden Years, the last in the Little House series, does not exactly linger on the romance. Betsy’s Wedding does, since Maud Hart Lovelace assumed her readers would grow up along with Betsy and Tacy. (I didn’t, and found my first reading of Betsy’s Wedding to be incredibly boring. It reads better for an adult.) Nonetheless, I’m not convinced either series can be classified as “young adult.” (I am also having big problems comparing the comfortable, happy middle class lifestyle of the Betsy-Tacy books with the very different world Katniss inhabits, but let’s move on for now.)

That leaves us with only A Wrinkle in Time and — possibly — The Book Thief as the only novels on this list written with a young adult audience in mind. Alas, The Book Thief was arguably published too recently to have any effect on The Hunger Games, except perhaps to help convince Scholastic, if they needed more convincing, that teenagers would read more than just Harry Potter books.

Which leaves us with a couple of mindboggling questions: how can a list supposedly discussing young adult books not include actual young adult books? And perhaps more importantly: how can anyone possibly discuss influential, independent minded teenage heroines without mentioning Jo March?

While I’m complaining, one other note: the Atlantic article is responding to a discussion of teenage girls in American films. So, what exactly are the Swedish Pippi Longstocking and Canadian Anne of Green Gables doing on this list? Montgomery, certainly, would be annoyed, as she saw herself first and foremost as a Canadian author helping to develop Canadian literature, and probably knew of the two American books similar to hers: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, probably, Pollyanna, certainly. (She and Eleanor Porter, the author of Pollyanna, corresponded about their mutual distrust of their Boston publisher.)

This is particularly odd because of every heroine mentioned in this list, Pippi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables are (again, arguably) the best representations of the “the individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry….” models discussed in the Atlantic and New York Times articles quite well. Montgomery, at least, was well aware of this model: Anne of Green Gables, that saga of an adorable orphan, is also in part the saga of how someone emancipated from history and bereft of ancestry can join society.

And right there is perhaps a major difference. Anne of Green Gables, Jo March, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ramona, and Harriet the Spy all must learn to repress their very real anger against the world, in order to live in society. It’s not that they don’t challenge society — Anne stands up against unfair gender behavior; Jo protests constantly about the pointlessness of social rules and behavior; Ramona protests everything; and Harriet argues against the hypocrisy she sees around her. But in the end, the girls change in order to fit in (or in Harriet’s case, learn to lie.)

This is not because their writers thought that society was perfect as it was. Far from it. But they spoke to the very real isolation that children and teenagers can feel, since they had all known this themselves. At least three of these writers had themselves grown up feeling alienated from society, unable to speak against the parents that had failed them in one way or another: Montgomery’s father abandoned her to relatives; Alcott’s father, although brilliant, was a financial and societal failure; and as the Little House books demonstrate, Wilder’s beloved father, however loving and musical, also could not keep a job or a stable house for his children.

The other two also lived through periods of alienation. Beverly Cleary reportedly struggled in school after moving from an isolated farm to a city in elementary school. Louise Fitzhugh’s parents divorced while she was still young. They dreamed of acceptance, of fitting in, of having a stable home, and they wrote about what girls might do to achieve this, even if it took, in Ramona’s case, several books.

Not that this happens to every girl protagonist in the books in this list: Nancy Drew doesn’t seem to have any anger to repress; Betsy Ray is a full and beloved member of her society, so, ditto; and although Pippi Longstocking certainly goes into rages, she, like Peter Pan, never changes. Oh, and while they weren’t mentioned? (And why not?) The girls in the Oz books get to go on kickass adventures without any of those personality changes. I’m just saying.

I don’t have the space or brain left to list everything overlooked, care to help me out in the comments? I’ll go ahead and start with some quick and completely incomplete additions:

For girl detectives: Trixie Belden and her best friend Honey Wheeler. They might lack the absolute perfection that is Nancy Drew’s lifestyle and every action — okay, change “might” to “do” — but they’re both far more human, and more real, and when Trixie is in danger, you have a moment or two of really wondering if she’s going to be okay.

And for truly unrealistic girl detectives, let’s all take a moment to bow in acknowledgement of hot tempered George of The Famous Five. She can ski, swim, cook, clean, camp, hike, AND catch criminals, solve mysteries, find hidden treasure AND stand up to every lower-class bad guy her creator Enid Blyton could invent. At the age of eleven, guys. ELEVEN. And she has an awesome dog, Timothy. Go George!

Not that I can actually recommend any of The Famous Five books to adult readers — they’re poorly written, plus, bonus sexism and deplorable attitudes to lower class people. Still. Go George!

For a kick-ass girl in general: Lucinda, in Ruth Sawyer’s Roller Skates.

For kick-ass fantasy heroines: Tamora Pierce’s Alanna comes to mind — especially the last book, where Pierce switches the traditional ending. Aerin, in Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. Irene in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, although the major protagonists are men. Numerous books by Diana Wynne Jones. White Jenna by Jane Yolen. Eleret in Patricia Wrede’s The Raven Ring. Mickle in Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark series. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but Nita in Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard series.

And how was this list written without at least ONE mention of Hermione Granger? Granted, she may not be the protagonist of the Harry Potter series, but does anyone think he would have survived the series without her? That’s what I thought.

For a slightly less kick-ass fantasy heroine who does buck the social structures of her world: Tenar, in Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan.

I’ve left lots out. Your turn!


Mari Ness lives in central Florida with two cats.

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