Friday, 22 August 2014

Guest Post: Rachel Hamilton's Top 5 Bookish Young Heroines!

Quirky twelve year old Noelle Hawkins may be one of the brightest girls in her class but even she is completely miffed to explain how her dad, wacky scientist Big Brain Brian, spontaneously combusted while sitting in a portaloo. It's true that he was working on a new top secret Brain Ray machine and was on the point of a great break-through - could this have had something to do with his disappearance? Know-All is sure all is not as it seems and with the help of her sister Holly she is determined to find out what really happened to her dad!

The Case of the Exploding Loo is out now in the UK and is a great book for younger readers. Thanks to Rachel for writing this excellent post for me - hurrah for strong fictional female characters!


by Rachel Hamilton

As a children’s author, and mum to an 11-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy, I’m always on the lookout for great female fictional characters.

Things started badly with the Disney princesses. Poor Snow White spends the first half of her story cleaning up after everybody. Then she sleeps through the action, only to wake up and marry a bloke who goes around kissing girls in comas. Yuck. And as Sleeping Beauty’s title suggests, Aurora doesn’t fare much better. Beauty and the Beast was an improvement - at least Beast loves Belle for her actions and her intelligence, rather than because she looks pretty when she’s unconscious. However, he does kidnap her, lock her up and roar at her a lot. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather my kids didn’t grow up thinking Stockholm Syndrome is a good basis for a relationship.

The best remedy is a dose of Ella Enchanted, in which Gail Carson Levine mocks traditional fairy tale conventions by having Ella of Frell reject her ‘gift’ of obedience.

To be fair, there has been a move away from passive princesses, towards feisty, butt-kicking heroines. Which is nice if you’re a feisty butt-kicker, and I’m a fan of battle-ready heroines like Katniss, Tris and Annabeth. (In The Case of the Exploding Loo, Know-All’s sister Holly does her fair share of kicking, punching and chainsaw-wielding). But I have to admit Butt-Kicking Feisties are as alien to me as Sleeping Beauties. When danger comes, you’re more likely to find me running away, yelling, “Take them instead,” than grabbing a sword and heading into battle.

As a result, I’m a sucker for nerdy birds, whose strength is displayed in less physically exhausting ways. It’s hard to wittle my favourite Bookish Heroines down to 5 - Honourable Mentions should go to Meg Murry (A Wrinkle in Time), Mary Lennox (The Secret Garden), Yomiko Readman (Read or Die), Pandora Braithwaite (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole) and Amina Ambrose (Looking at the Stars) among others. But here are my Top 5 in no particular order:

Matilda Wormwood, Roald Dahl

By six, Matilda has read her way through the children’s books in her local library and embarked upon Dickens, Orwell and Austen.

I was just starting to venture into the adult section of the local library when I first read Matilda. So I immediately recognised Dahl’s description of the way “books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.” Like Matilda, I “went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad . . . to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.” I too knew how it felt to travel “all over the world while sitting in [a] little room in an English village.”

Sadly for Matilda, her parents don’t support her love of reading: “A BOOK?! WHAT D'YOU WANNA FLAMING BOOK FOR? . . . WE'VE GOT A LOVELY TELLY WITH A 12-INCH SCREEN AND NOW YA WANNA BOOK!”

Matilda’s cruel head teacher is another who finds Matilda’s intelligence more irritating than impressive, which is unfortunate, as Miss Trunchbull tends to fling irritating children out of windows.

But Matilda is not helpless in the face of adult bullying. Her genius is matched by her telekinetic powers, which she uses to wreak a creative revenge on Miss Trunchbull and her horrible parents. I was happy for my kids to cheer her on, just as I’d cheered her on decades before. Because Matilda contains some of the most horrible adults in children’s literature:

“With frightening suddenness [Matilda’s dad] now began ripping the pages out of the book in handfuls and throwing them in the waste-paper basket.”

If ever there was a man who deserved everything he got . . .

Hermione Granger, J.K. Rowling

No list of bookish heroines would be complete without Hermione Granger, whose love of literature shines through the Harry Potter books. "That's what Hermione does. When in doubt, go to the library."

I love Hermione’s pride in her intelligence and her willingness to leap up and answer questions regardless of whether it annoys the other students – or teachers.

"Five more points from Gryffindor,” Snape says coolly, “for being an insufferable know-it-all."

After teaching in a school where students would sneak their homework to me when no one was looking, for fear of looking too clever (horror) or too keen (even worse) I loved reading to my kids about Hermione’s desire to do well in class. A desire that is perfectly summed up when Hermione complains she didn’t get a turn to confront her fears with the boggart and Ron asks, "What would it have been for you? A piece of homework that only got nine out of ten?"

When a review of The Case of the Exploding Loo stated, “It’s not often that we see characters take pride and strength in their brains, and I liked that Know-All did,” I knew I owed a debt to Hermione.

Harriet Manners, Holly Smale

Harriet Manners is the eponymous heroine of Holly Smale’s hilarious Geek Girl series.

“My name," I tell Wilbur in the most dignified voice I can find, "Was inspired by Harriet Quimby, the first female American pilot and the first woman ever to cross the Channel in an aeroplane. My mother chose it to represent freedom and bravery and independence, and she gave it to me just before she died."
There's a short pause while Wilbur looks appropriately moved. Then Dad says, "Who told you that?"
"Annabel did."
"Well, it's not true at all. You were named after Harriet the tortoise, the second longest living tortoise in the world."

Brilliant. What I particularly love is the way these books capture the social awkwardness that often accompanies bookish intelligence. I’m a big fan of the message – be yourself and be proud of the quirks and eccentricities that make you different.

Being a bit of a geek (old) girl myself, I’m terrible at making conversation with people I don’t know. I got so nervous when I was introduced to Gordon Ramsay that all I could think of to say was that my husband suffers from delfiniphobia - an irrational fear of dolphins. So I can’t thank Holly Smale enough for convincing the world that reeling off random information at inappropriate moments is endearing and adorable, rather than a sign you’re a freaky weirdo.

At the YALC conference last month, Holly Smale explained, “There is so much pressure on women to be perfect. Authors don’t help if all their characters are shiny and perfect.” While her characters may not be “shiny and perfect”, they are original, convincing and brilliantly funny and Harriet Manners deserves a spot in any top 5.

Jo March, Louisa M Alcott

How could I fail to fall for a tomboy who hides in the attic and writes stories wearing a special hat she uses to wipe the ink from her leaky fountain-pen?

Like Harriet, Jo complains that “I always say the wrong things.” But that’s why she became an iconic figure for so many. Hers was the first voice that helped me understand what gender equality really meant. She declares, “I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.”

Jo March never allows the pressure to be feminine to change who she is. And Little Women shows how wise that is. In the early stages of the book, Jo’s writing is viewed as an unladylike distraction from domestic life, but as things change it becomes a source of much needed money with which to support her family.

Just as Matilda helped me demonstrate the power of reading to my kids, so Jo March helped me explain what it means to write: “Late at night my mind would come alive with voices and stories and friends as dear to me as any in the real world. I gave myself up to it, longing for transformation.”

Anne Frank

I appreciate it’s cheating to include Anne Frank, as her tale is sadly not fictional, but that’s what makes her such an inspirational character.

I can remember being amazed, reading about her as a child, that when Anne is told to pack her belongings to go into hiding, she packs “school books” with her education in mind. Despite being mocked by the adults, who don’t believe her opinions are worth listening to, she is dedicated to improving herself and studies every day because, “work gives satisfaction.”

She is bright and ambitious and is terrified of becoming a housewife like her mother and Mrs. Van Daan. One of the saddest lines in her diary is her declaration, "I want to go on living even after my death.”

It is devastatingly ironic that she gets her wish. Through her tragic death, Anne Frank has inspired women and men of all ages to love life and respect each other. What better role model to encourage children to make the most of their own lives and to think, hard, about what’s happening around them? Her idea that there are "bad eggs" in every religion, and that one person can destroy the image of an entire group seems more true today than ever.

So, while I continue my quest for fabulous fictional role models, it’s good to know that the greatest inspiration can be found among real life teens.

The Diary of Anne Frank and I Am Malala should be at the top of any reading list, for as Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who stood up to the Taliban and defended her right to an education, explains: “Our books and our pens are the most powerful weapons.”


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