Five Books About…

Five Fantastical Heroines in Great Children’s Books

My first children’s novel, Candy, is out now from Scholastic UK, and forthcoming soon in several European countries. This is as surprising to me as it must be for anyone who realises my last book in the UK was about Adolf Hitler, but there you go! Candy is about a 12 year old girl detective, Nelle Faulkner, in a world where chocolate has been made illegal and children now run the candy gangs…

Which got me thinking of some of the classic heroines in children’s books that continue to have such a resonance to this day, and who must have been in the back of my mind as I was writing! No doubt I’ve missed many—Meg from A Wrinkle in Time? George from the Famous Five? Anna from Mister God, This is Anna? Dorothy? Hermione? You tell me!—but these five in particular stood out for me as I was writing.


Momo, from Momo by Michael Ende

Momo fantastical characters great children's booksLast year I went to Bavaria, and I got to visit Ende’s home town. There’s not much there now—a small plaque on a building marks where he was born—but there is a lovely little public park filled with his creations, including the very amphitheatre from Momo, and the giant turtle, Cassiopeia.

Most English-language readers probably know Ende from The Neverending Story, but his books, which are rich, surrealist fantasies, are much more than that. Of all of them it is Momo I keep going back to, about the little girl who has to fight the Men in Grey who steal people’s time…

Like the very best children’s novels, Momo packs philosophical and moral questions into a fantastical framework of danger and excitement. And as the adult world is slowly corrupted by the Men in Grey, it is Momo alone who stands for what’s right, a moral compass in an unjust world. I think I definitely drew on that idea for Nelle, and that same sense of the adult world as a place of moral compromise for Candy. Like Momo, Nelle in is determined to do the right thing, whatever the cost.

Ende himself, of course, knew better than most how fragile childhoods are. Growing up as the Nazis rose to power, he joined the resistance movement as a teenager, fighting the SS. His subsequent books, I think are, even at their lightest, informed by the knowledge that the “Nothing” (as the plague threatening the land of Fantastica in The Neverending Story is called) is never far away, and that it takes courage and imagination to fight it.


Pippi Longstocking, from Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Longstocking fantastical characters children's booksA beloved childhood classic, Pippi lives alone in a big old house, eats messy spaghetti whenever she wants, has a pet monkey, superhuman strength, and treasure from her father, a sea captain lost at sea. Together with Lindgren’s Master Detective Kalle Blomkvist, the two have definitely shaped my ideas on how stories work, and combining them seemed like a perfect opportunity.



Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird Scout fantastical characters children's booksScout, as everyone probably knows, is Harper Lee, and Dill is Truman Capote. What inspired me here was not just the book, which I love, but the actual life of (Nelle) Harper Lee. Nelle in Candy is named after her, of course. I first came across the idea of Lee as a detective of sort in the films Infamous and Capote, which weirdly came out around the same time, and both concern the writing of Capote’s In Cold Blood. Lee, his childhood friend (and before publication of her seminal novel), joined him on his investigation into the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Lee is wonderfully played in the two movies by Sandra Bullock and Catherine Keener, respectively. So “my” Nelle is very much intended as a homage for the young Scout/Harper Lee herself.

It’s probably worth saying Mockingbird is, of course, very much not a fantasy novel, though I don’t know! Boo Radley’s as gothic a character as anything out of Shirley Jackson, and—hold on, can we make this list six characters? Because Merricat, in Jackson’s incredible We Have Always Lived in the Castle is just such a wonderful—if wonderfully disturbing!—character in her own right…

(Incidentally, it once occurred to me to wonder what would have happened had Capote and Lee took a wrong turn and ended up investigating a murder in Innsmouth instead of Holcomb. It’s in a story called—you guessed it—“Cold Blood,” in an anthology called Innsmouth Nightmares… But I digress! Needless to say, though, the manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird Lee is writing turns out quite a bit different than in our own reality.)


Little My, from the Moomin books by Tove Jansson

Moominland MidwinterI love all the Moomin books, but I have a special love for Moominland Midwinter, the one where Moomintroll wakes up from hibernation in the middle of winter and finds the whole world transformed. The Moomin books can get quite dark, and this one does read a little on the noir side, perhaps, with the appearance of the Groke, the endless night, and the mystery of the Dweller Under the Sink… So this one definitely fed into Candy, too, I think.

My favourite of the Moomin characters is Little My, the irrepressible, fearless—and nosy!—Mymble, who of course stays awake for the long winter. I’d like to think there’s a little of My in Nelle, though Nelle is more serious—and far less mischievous.


Veruca Salt, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Veruca SaltAs much as I’d like to talk about the book, I can’t help but think Veruca will always be defined by her portrayal—by Julie Dawn Cole—in the classic 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I actually read Cole’s memoir—I Want It Now!—a few years ago (it’s a lovely memoir), and I adore Veruca’s single-minded determination to, well, have it all and have it now. For some reason she’s supposed to be a terrible person! But I’d like to argue for a rethink of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Veruca is the real hero, for being ambitious and going for what she wants. Charlie, let’s be honest, is a bit of a wet blanket… So I’m Team Veruca Salt all the way. Nelle in Candy isn’t really like her at all, but I think maybe she’d secretly like to. Go Veruca!

Lavie Tidhar CandyLavie Tidhar is the author of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning and Premio Roma nominee A Man Lies Dreaming (2014), the World Fantasy Award winning Osama (2011) and of the Campbell Award winning and Locus and Clarke Award nominated Central Station (2016). His latest novels are the forthcoming Unholy Land (2018) and first children’s novel Candy (2018). He is the author of many other novels, novellas and short stories.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.