Five (More) Kids’ Lit Heroes!

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


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 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, 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, 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.


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!


the Moribito Series by Nahoko Uehashi


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.)


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!



Five Great Kids’ Lit Villains

Villains can make or break a book. I’ve heard it said they’re especially important for sequels, when we want to see the heroes tested by something harder and from a new angle.

The ones I find most interesting are the ones who get inside protagonists, playing off an insecurity. It might be that they trigger an especially strong fear or hatred. It might be that they trigger tenderness at the same time, making the hero and reader unsure how to react.

5. Gwendolen Chant

(Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones)

from deviantart user kecky

It’s hard to list all the reasons why Gwendolen is so memorable without giving away major twists from Charmed Life. Suffice to say that she’s able to make Cat squirm in very interesting ways. She is a powerful foe, but it’s the way that she uses her power that create images and conflicts.

The picture above is kind of a spoiler already. Those who’ve read the novel will get the significance of the match. Those who haven’t read the novel, should.

4. The Other Mother

(Coraline by Neil Gaiman)

from Tabitha Raincloud on iRez

Gaiman has talked about how parents are often more creeped out by Coraline than children are. There’s just something incredibly disturbing about having the villain be a loving mother with buttons for eyes.

The Other Mother is perfectly designed to fit into what Coraline thinks she wants. She’s tempting because we all understand the want for love, and terrifying because we see there’s something off about what she’s offering.

She’s also difficult to vanquish, and even when it seems like Coraline is safe from her, she isn’t. The Other Mother breaks the usual rules of Magic Door Stories, by refusing to stay only in her world.

3. Goth

(Silverwing Trilogy by Kenneth Oppel)

image from Wikimedia Commons

Goth is a gigantic, fervently-zealous, cannibal monster who escaped from a zoo. Are you scared yet? Because that’s terrifying!

He’s a good match against Shade who is the runt of his litter, an especially small bat. Compared to humans, Goth might not be so bad, but on the scale of bats he’s a huge. There are several moments when Shade fantasizes about being as strong as the cannibal.

I’ve said before that I don’t like generic evil, and I don’t think Goth qualifies as that. He is an embodiment of fear and death, but he’s also manipulative and plays on Shade’s uncertainties, trying to rip him apart from his friends, and his hope.

2. Dolores Umbridge

(Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling)

from deviantart user *WayForge

We’ve seen this one before

so who took #1?

1. Long John Silver

(Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson)

from deviantart user vitorart

Long John Silver is not only an iconic character–the crutch, the parrot, the grin–he also gets deep inside Jim Hawkins.

Early in the novel, Silver is a father figure to Hawkins. This is a hugely important part of the relationship that isn’t always done well in adaptations. Long John Silver is cutthroat, but he’s also jovial. And Hawkins looks up to him.

A lot of Silver’s power comes from physical prowess, but it’s also from charisma. And it’s not just the other pirates that follow him. Readers do as well, to the point that we share Hawkins’s grim hope and relief that Silver escapes with money.

My personal fondness for the character is cemented by Tim Curry’s portrayal in Muppet Treasure Island. I would love to post his final scene, but that would be a spoiler, and I can’t find it on youtube anyway.

Instead, I’ll leave you with this…

Next week, I’ll tackle one of the most common questions that writers get asked: “Where do you get your ideas?”

Five Great Harry Potter Villains


I’ve seen Voldemort appear on bloggers’ lists of the greatest kids’ book villains of all time. Personally, I don’t think he’s even the best villain of the series that he’s in.

The Harry Potter series does have great villains, but Voldemort is one of the least interesting. He’s the generic evil problem I talked about in my last post. The more interesting characters are the ones with internal conflict, or the ones who make us angry because they remind us of people we’ve met.

Before I continue: a shout out to the deviant artists whose work I’m using in today’s post. I didn’t want to use movie screenshots because I was sure that fans could capture the characters in interesting ways, and help me keep this about the books. Clicking on images will take you to the artists’ pages.

5. Grindelwald

from deviant art user dreizehntredici.

I find Grindelwald a more interesting character than Voldemort for a few reasons. His motivation is similarly generic, but there’s more mystery and detail around him.

Really though, it’s because of his relationship with Dumbledore. Rowling has said that the reason Albus didn’t take a strong enough stance against Grindelwald is that he was enamoured with him. I like to take this a step further. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry asks Dumbledore what he sees in the Mirror of Erised. According to the mirror’s rules, it should be something that he longs for, but can’t have, and may actually cause him damage.

He tells Harry that he sees himself with a new pair of socks, an obvious lie. I like to think that he sees himself in a relationship with Grindelwald.*

4. Dudley Dursley

Image from deviantart user ~Gytrash01

I love the Dursleys. From the opening description of the first book, they’re hilarious and on point. The fact that Uncle Dursley works with drills is the perfect detail for his character.

Dudley is the one who makes my list because he’s the one who changes most over the course of the series. There’s a tendency in the series for the overweight characters to be lazy and stereotypically stupid (Uncle Vernon, Slughorn, Umbridge, etc.) Dudley still hits that note.

But he also gets a redeeming scene after Harry saves him from the dementors. He gets a little respect for his cousin, and actually stands up to his dad.

3. Draco Malfoy

from deviant art user Adyti

Like Dudley, Malfoy experiences internal conflict, and changes over the series. He also has to stand up to his dad. But for Malfoy, the struggle is a lot more intense. He gets dragged into a situation where he almost has to kill Dumbledore, and after he’s gone this far, it’s incredibly difficult for him to turn around.

He also works well on the level that a punk-brat villain should–he’s very easy to hate. When Hermione curses him, everybody is happy. The two-dimensional sneer isn’t that complex, but it’s highly effective.

In short: he’s a great rival when the series is acting as middle-grade, and he transitions well into a more tortured character when the series becomes young-adult.

2. Severus Snape

from deviant art user Violette-Kollontai

I don’t have Snape this high on my list for the reason that most HP fans adore him. I think his relationship with Lily is more creepy than heroic. I think it’s interesting, but I don’t think it redeems him, and I think it’s really weird that Harry names one of his kids after him.

I have him high on my list because I was never sure whether he was actually a good guy or a bad guy. I was so sure each way, and especially when he kills Dumbledore, I thought that was it.

For keeping me guessing, Snape is #2.

1. Dolores Umbridge

image from deviantart user *WayForge

I hate her so much!

And that’s great. There’s the description as toad-like and dressed in pink that makes her instantly iconic. There’s her repeated phrase, “Hem-hem”, annoying and evocative of character. There’s her meanness.

What really sells it is her restraint. The fact that she’s in such a position of power, and that she’s so stubborn, and that she dials it up slowly until we can’t stand her any more without ever tipping over the edge.

I really don’t think I’ve ever hated a character more. She made me want to throw the book across the room. In a good way.

Honorable mention to Gilderoy Lockhart. He was very, very close to stealing #5.

Next week, it’s another list of Five Great Things! I’m going to expand my focus and look at villains across all of children’s literature. Will Umbridge stay at #1?


*EDIT: Apparently Rowling has said what Dumbledore saw in the mirror: “He saw his family alive, whole and happy – Ariana, Percival and Kendra all returned to him, and Aberforth reconciled to him.” So I guess #5 should be Lockhart.

Five Great Story Concepts

Writers often say ideas don’t matter, that it’s all about the execution.

It’s true, a good idea written badly is not a fun read. It’s also true that a good writer can make the most ordinary stories beautiful and intriguing. Ideas aren’t as important as execution, but ideas still matter.

The thing about good ideas is that one isn’t enough. Books that deliver on good concepts do more than just perform the idea–they follow those ideas to their ends, dragging you farther and further than you could have dreamed on your own. To a lived-in world, with specific struggles and discoveries.

5. Watership Down by Richard Adams

A harrowing cross of fantasy and realism, Watership Down puts the reader in the mind of a rabbit. I don’t mean an anthropomorphic rabbit who wears a t-shirt and watches football. These rabbits are rabbits.

They’re also brave, clairvoyant warriors.

It would be easy to write this novel tongue-in-cheek, but instead we get vivid, gripping sincerity. Adams details the texture of grasses and the patterns of flowers. He creates words like “hrair” (which means a thousand, or actually anything higher than four, since that’s as high as rabbits can count) and “elil” (who are enemies that prey on rabbits). It’s not long into the novel before you start to feel twitchy, like a prey animal yourself, bouncing through the milkwort and fallen beech leaves.

4. Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston

Zorgamazoo is written entirely in rhyming anapestic tetrametre. The same rhythm as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. I’m sure that you’re already either thrilled or repulsed, but I’ll continue.

Katrina Katrell is a clever, observant girl (common traits) who is so observant that she notices the usually hidden creatures in our world (a neat twist). This leads to her guardian deciding that she needs a lobotomy (amazing twist). The adventure gets pretty crazy and exciting. This isn’t just a novel that rhymes. It’s a novel that uses rhyme to enhance the telling.

To build on the action, the words even change font and size.

It’s hard to do this justice until you see it on the page and read it out loud. Here’s a clip from the audio book.

3. Nate the Great Series: written by Marjorie W. Sharmat, illustrated by Marc Simont

With the first book in 1972, Nate the Great wasn’t the first detective for kids, but I think he’s the epitome of the genre. It’s the perfect fit for an early reader series. The short, snappy sentences help the tone and humour. Episodic adventures without violence let the series go on and on.

Furthermore, Nate the Great has attitude. He has rivals. He doesn’t want to take the case. He has a dog named Sludge. And in the necessary detective scene when he lays out all the clues–he eats a pile of pancakes.

2. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

People made a big deal about how The Graveyard Book was riffing on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book–which it absolutely is–but I feel like they ignored how awesome the concept actually was: a living boy is raised by ghosts.

It’s not just a good concept because it’s spooky. It’s a good concept because it inherently brings up interesting themes. Parenthood. Identity. Mortality. Loneliness. Regret.

And Gaiman takes them far. The Jungle Book is done with Mowgli after a couple chapters, and then we get seals, a mongoose, and an elephant trainer. We get to see Bod at different stages in his life, dealing with a wider array of problems. We also get more personal relationships, as other characters age too.

1. The Magic School Bus Series: written by Joanna Cole, illustrated by Bruce Degan

The original Magic School Bus Series is only ten books long, but that bus has a story engine that has churned out six other book series and a beloved television show.

The field trip is a natural way to explore science and connect to kids’ real lives. It creates a lot of possibilities. The iconic school bus’s transformations are adorable. We get to feel like a kid in the class. The final page that explains where, when, and why the story bent reality is a beautiful wrap-up.

And while it’s not exactly a part of the book, let’s not forget that killer theme song…

More Great Story Ideas: Go Away Unicorn, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, Flat Stanley, Uglies, The Keeper of the Isis Light, The Giver, Tuck Everlasting, The Hunger Games, Silverwing, Captain Underpants, Ella Enchanted, Bunnicula, The Hunchback Assignments, etc…

My next post will consider Pixar, and the studio’s ability to deliver great concepts and stories using an idea they call “simplexity”.