Five (More) Kids’ Lit Heroes!

Continuing from my last post, let’s do five more! Actually, what the heck, let’s do six!

Marco

Animorphs by K. A. Applegate

Marco is the reluctant, smart-aleck hero of the animorphs. He knows the world is at stake, but he feels it isn’t fair to his father for him to keep fighting. What if his father lost him, like how they lost Marco’s mom?

This choice, along with his sense of humour, sets Marco away from the other animorphs. It isn’t until the fifth book, after we get into his perspective, that he changes his mind. And it’s not just because he sees that fighting is the right thing. He’s given a reason to fight, in a huge twist, and it gets us rooting for him that much harder.

Ella

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Ella grows organically from the novel’s concept–the “blessing” of obedience to a child from a fairy. She’s fun to watch, and Levine makes wonderful use of internal dialogue to show Ella’s anxiety and wishfulness.

She is heavily involved in a romance plot, but girls are allowed to like boys. (Climb aboard the third wave!) The letters between herself and Charmont give her more time to show other interests as well. She cinches her designation as a hero at the climax of the novel, where like all good modern princesses, she saves herself.

Tatterhood

Tatterhood, collected by Christen Abjørson and Jørgen Moe

Pictured: Cosplay of Tatterhood by deviantart user Tatter-hood

A hundred and fifty years before Balsa and the Paper Bag Princess, there was Tatterhood. A princess wearing rags who uses a gigantic wooden spoon to lay the beatdown on hags and trolls.

She’s brave. She’s fearless. She doesn’t have to be beautiful! Well, actually, that changes near the end, but it happens under her own power. I’d still file this one under early feminist fairy tales.

Ronia

Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren

Although Pippi Longstocking is the more popular of Lindgren’s heroes, I find Pippi somewhat shallow. Ronia has more depth, and the choices she makes show more courage.

Basically, she goes against her father, the Robber King, to create peace with the other band of robbers. A classic example of embracing the other. And further, like many of the women on my list, she’s allowed to be wild and passionate and free.

Peter Pan

Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie

Peter Pan is magical. Not just the novel/play (although it is) but the character himself. The first mention of him is when Mrs. Darling is cleaning up the children’s minds to prepare them for bed. Talk about surreal! The same chapter has a dog acting as a nanny, tucking them in.

Then we go for a ride, chasing a shadow, flying through the air, fighting pirates, romancing mermaids. The whole time there’s this weird selfishness that makes Peter mesmerizing.

Although I love the character, Peter Pan (the novel/play) is one of the best examples of why we still need new children’s books today. It’s an amazing, enchanting story full of adventure. But it’s also full of toxic ideas–from the noble savages, to Tinkerbell’s hissyfit, to Wendy’s depiction as a nurturer who spends her free time knitting socks.

We need to write stories just as thoughtful, energetic, and seductive that carry more progressive ideas. And so, in a way, I see Peter leering down on children’s literature from a century back, acting as both one of its heroes and one of its villains.

Arnold Spirit Jr.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

If I had made this post as a list, Arnold would be a contender for #1. He stands up to his entire community by leaving the reservation to go to a white school. As a result, he loses his best friend.

Like  the Logan family, it’s unfair to expect Arnold to overcome systemic problems. It’s enough that he chooses a different path and fights the system on his own. Interestingly, similar to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the first heroic action is a reaction to an out-of-date textbook.

What makes Arnold memorable are the traits that make him unique. Not just his circumstance and disabilities, but his amazing sense of humour. He’s one of my favorite characters, full stop.

In making this list, it was very clear what my next post needed to be: diversity in children’s literature, particularly fantasy.

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Five Great Kids’ Lit Heroes

Today’s list was the hardest one so far. It highlights just how much I still haven’t read. So for this list there’s no real order, and I’ll continue with five more in the next post. Here we go!

Children’s literature is full of curious kids who are blandly brave. They’re almost interchangeable. Rather than the focus of the story, these protagonists are nearly invisible while we are immersed in the books’ worlds. It’s not always a bad thing–often the world is quite interesting–but these characters are more spyglass than hero.

Characters are determined by the choices they make, so a hero character to me is one who makes heroic choices. My favorites are those who forward a new theme, aside from simply “doing the right thing” in situations where “the right thing” is obvious. I like characters who question their surroundings and stand up to things that are difficult. For me, Neville Longbottom ranks much higher than Harry Potter.

And sometimes, a strong enough idiosyncrasy is enough to carry a hero and make them memorable.

Winnie Foster

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

For most of the story, Winnie Foster is one of the curious, brave, precocious children we see everywhere in children’s literature. What makes her special is the choice she makes, revealed in the book’s epilogue.

The pacing of the book gives her time for reflection, and us along with her. Ultimately the book is about what kind of life is worth living, and the inevitability of change. This is a much more difficult theme than the usual ones in children’s fantasy: “Never Give Up,” “Evil Never Triumphs,” and “Accept Your Responsibilities.”

The Logan Family

The Logan Family Saga by Mildred Taylor

Yeah, I’m listing the whole family. They all work together in the fight against the real villainy of Mississippi racism in the 1930s. I could go character by character, from Little Man to Mrs. Logan to Cassie to Stacey to Mr. Logan listing off brave actions and moral choices, but then I’m just giving you a plot summary.

This is an incredible example of characters being more notable for what they try to do than for what they accomplish. In order to be heroes, the Logan family does not have to wipe out racism. They do not have to free the land from oppression. It’s more than enough to stand up where and when they can.

Furthermore, this is an important series that portrays oppression from the point of view of the oppressed. Children’s literature needs more books like these.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl

Not every story needs a deep theme. Fantastic Mr. Fox stands out by being hilarious. Wes Anderson managed to read a lot of pathos into Mr. Fox and his lost tail and his family, but the original story is just a great example of repetitive humour and escalation.

No matter what’s wrong–superb confidence. Keep digging! Dig until you are digging faster than bulldozers! Dig until you have made a gigantic loop to the surface!

Balsa

the Moribito Series by Nahoko Uehashi

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Balsa has sworn to work as a bodyguard-for-hire until she saves eight lives, in atonement for the eight people killed on her behalf when she was a child. Despite this noble work, her character is complicated by the statement that the reason she fights is that she can’t stop herself. It’s a compulsion and obsession.

The strongest insight into her as a hero comes from Chagum, the prince who she has sworn to protect. A water spirit has planted its egg in him. He can feel how desperately the egg wants to live, but he still can’t bring himself to risk his own life for it. In contrast, Balsa leaps in front of assassins and demons to save him on several occasions.

It’s become common to see female warriors as characters, but most are still wrangled into romance plots. Balsa is allowed to have other ambitions and drives.

(It should be noted that Balsa is 30 years old. A bit old for a typical children’s literature protagonist, but hey, that’s how this book is marketed.)

Elizabeth

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

A notable reversal where the princess goes off to save the prince. What’s more, she does it without glamor, walking down the road in a simple paper bag.

She is clever enough to trick the dragon, but who cares. Heroes are always clever when it comes to tricking dragons. Much more impressive, she is clever enough to dump the prince when he insults her paper bag. This book has one of my favourite final spreads:

“They didn’t get married after all.”

Want more? Check out the next post in the series!