Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Greatest girl characters | The Atlantic, Tor, and myself

I came across this post by Jen Doll at The Atlantic about the greatest girl characters of young adult literature through Tor.com (my number one stop for procrastination when writing papers...), where Mari Ness criticized The Atlantic's article, pointing out the fact that the majority of books on the list aren't even technically designated for a young adult audience. But setting aside the technical problems Ness is so troubled by (which truly are worth considering), the premise of the list is deeply flawed.

Doll's article is built on the premise that Katniss (of The Hunger Games fame) may be a revolutionary character in American film, but not in literature. It's a noble (if altogether warped) premise, but the execution is clumsy at best. What I'm bothered by is the fact that Doll's list is almost exclusively comprised of very old characters, with only The Book Thief as a remotely modern book. Not that these choices are necessarily void because they're old, but this is certainly not the list that I would ever come up with.

At Tor, meanwhile, Ness unsurprisingly comes up with a different list entirely and opens the floor up to nominations. As I read through the list (and subsequent comments), I was struck by how different the two approaches are. Half of Doll's heroines live in a society of young women who seem forced to exceed society's expectations, while the other half are simply well-characterized girls. It's all very reality-grounded. Ness' choices and the majority of the choices listed in comments, meanwhile, predictably lean in the direction of fantasy. Many comments name one of my personal favorite characters Lyra Belacqua (of His Dark Materials), and Ness specifically addresses another unacceptable omission in the form of Hermione Granger, who despite not being the main character of Harry Potter is definitely a main enough character to justify appearing on any list of this kind.

These omissions - among many others - make Doll's original list very puzzling. While I don't deny that these are remarkable characters, these young women share very little with Katniss, who sparked the whole debate. Beverly Cleary's Ramona is a wonderful little girl, but she is no way the predecessor to Katniss. The whole matter is quite frankly bizarre.

I have my own lists of great characters (girls or boys). I've already discussed Leslie Burke, and I can certainly discuss Hermione or Lyra for hours at an end. And I have to admit that I was thrilled to see one commenter add Antimony Carver of Gunnerkrigg Court to the list, though she's only one of many wonderful girls in the story. Others: Ella from Ella Enchanted, Cimorene of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, obviously Meg from A Wrinkle in Time (thankfully included in Doll's original list), Coraline from Coraline, Tamar from Someone to Run With (my own addition), and many, many, many others. This seems like a field worth delving into further.


  1. Fantastic post! And I'm happy to find a new writer in Mari Ness, I can't wait to read her Oz book reviews. The Atlantic's list sounds incredibly traditional although I think Pippi Longstocking is a good one. You've mentioned a lot of other great heroines.

  2. I lit on this quite by accident and must now go off and read the original articles. One point I would make is that I think that Lyra changes as the trilogy develops. In the first book she is very much the driving force, but I always feel that her role is diminished once Will comes on the scene and that saddens me.


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