Plot: Step Two

After you’ve got a clear goal, this is the fun part…

One of the reasons I used Jackie Chan for my opening pictures last post was because his action scenes are well plotted.

Does that sound strange? They’re not just punching and kicking (although the punching and kicking is AMAZING). Jackie always uses the environment he’s in, both to create obstacles and to overcome them.

Count how many elements from a classic wild west bar he interacts with in this scene from Shanghai Noon.

I think I got eleven.

In writing for animation, these kinds of obstacles can be called gags. To build the scene, think about the characters and the setting. What properties are inherent? How can they be turned into obstacles and opportunities?

Check out what Tweety and Sylvester can do with a hotel.

I chose that one because it’s short. Virtually every classic cartoon can be used as an example. Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Donald Duck, etc.

What if your story is more about feelings than action?

Your plot will follow the same rules. What kind of characters do you have? Are they shy? What could make being shy more difficult? Are your young lovers on a first date at an amusement park? How could that setting enhance and then interrupt romance?

Your choices don’t have to be complex. Watch these kids try to eat their lunch in peace, while the other one tries to entertain himself.

Voila: tension, character development, and plot!


Plot: Step One

Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of writers who say they’re good at writing atmosphere, but don’t know how to write plot. They say they don’t even know where to start.

The basis of most plots is

1) Somebody wants something

2) They have obstacles

Jackie will keep the vases safe!

Oh no! People are trying to break the vases!

There are a lot of ways to make that more complicated (and more fun) but most of the writers I see struggling to make plot are struggling with step one.

In a lot of literary fiction, characters feel lost. They drift without having clear goals. This is intentional. It’s aiming to mirror the way people often feel in life. Most of the time, people don’t really know what they want.

But they at least have an idea. Lost in Translation is often held up as the artsy-feeling movie with no plot, but look at the tag on the poster. It still uses the word “want”: “Everyone wants to be found”.

Even without a clearly stated goal, characters can still have a desire for something. They might not be able to articulate it, and there might be more than one thing, but it’s there. Often it’s helpful to give them symbols.

Paradise Falls, from Up.

This is kind of like a MacGuffin, except according to Hitchcock’s definition a MacGuffin is supposed to have no meaning. I find it a waste to have anything in the book that has no meaning. So I think the MacGuffin should always DO something or at least make people THINK ABOUT something.

The Pulp Fiction suitcase doesn’t exert influence on the plot. Nothing happens because of the suitcase. We don’t even really know what it is. It’s the characters who cause action.

In contrast, the Green Destiny (the sword from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) does change the course of the story.

To reiterate: your character should have something that they’re trying to move towards. Now, to complicate, to mirror life’s uncertainties, maybe they should have another thing they want to move towards that takes them in the opposite direction.

Because, you know, choices.

Carl from Up, choosing between obligations to Russell and Ellie, symbolized by the sash and the chair.

Now that they want something, it’s time to put obstacles in their way! Next post continues onto plot, step two.

“I Want” Songs

Anti-Theme Songs are the ones that interest me most, but the most important song in a musical is usually the “I Want” Song. Described by Howard Ashman:

“In almost every musical ever written, there’s a place, it’s usually about the third song of the evening–sometimes it’s the second, sometimes it’s the fourth–but it’s quite early, and the leading lady usually sits down on something, sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon, sometimes it’s under the pillars of a garden in My Fair Lady, or it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors, but the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her, and then roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.” (Waking Sleeping Beauty).

Ashman famously had to fight Jeffrey Katzenberg for the inclusion of “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid. That song became one of the most memorable parts of the movie. It shows us who Ariel is and makes her instantly likeable.

From that point, almost all Disney musicals have had “I Want” Songs in the first act.



In fact, the step became a cliché. When Pixar set out to make their first movie, “I Want” Songs were one of the things they vowed to avoid. And then the studio told them to add one!

From Andrew Stanton’s TED Talk. Left side, what Pixar wanted. Right side, what the studio wanted.

In the end, Toy Story did not end up with an “I Want” Song. The clarification of Woody’s drive comes when he’s knocked off the bed, replaced by Buzz. It’s instantly clear how he feels and what he wants, without a song and dance.

But sometimes, a song and dance with a clear desire can be the best part of the story.

In the next post, I’ll discuss why a character’s desire is so important in driving plot.

The Anti-Theme Song

Hey folks! Novel manuscript completed, I’m back 🙂

Twenty years after The Lion King‘s release, many people still say “Hakuna Matata” as genuine advice. They usually don’t realize that was the OPPOSITE of the film’s message.

Consider the scene where Nala confronts Simba in the forest:

Nala: What wouldn’t I understand?

Simba: (Hastily) No, no, no. It doesn’t matter. Hakuna Matata.

Nala: (Confused) What?

Simba: Hakuna Matata. It’s something I learned out here. Look, sometimes bad things happen…

Nala: Simba!

Simba: (Continuing, irritated)–and there’s nothing you can do about it so why worry?

(Simba starts away from Nala, walking on a fallen tree. Nala trots back up to him)

Nala: Because it’s your responsibility.

Simba is similarly chastised by the film’s other mentor characters.

Mufasa: Oh, there’s more to being king than getting your way all the time.

Rafiki: Oh yes. The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it… or… learn from it.

Ignoring the past with “no worries” causes pain for others when Scar takes over. “Hakuna Matata” is the anti-theme of The Lion King, while the actual theme is about facing the past and taking responsibility.

Anti-theme songs are a useful too. A lot of musicals use this anti-theme of relaxing and inaction. They’re often the most popular songs in the story.

The most popular anti-theme song out now is “Let it Go” from Frozen. Elsa revelling in power alone, singing “turn away and slam the door” is in direct opposition to film’s real message of love’s importance, even using the opposite metaphor of “love is an open door.”

If these songs are the opposite of the stories’ messages, why are they so much fun? Two reasons.

1) Freedom. Is it really surprising that “no worries for the rest of your days” produces a more fun song than “face responsibility for the past?” Escapism has a strong allure. Other anti-theme songs are displays of power, since the characters don’t have to worry about the consequences of their actions.

2) They have to be. Stories are about choices. Eventually, the protagonist has to choose between the theme and the anti-theme. Unless the anti-theme seems attractive, it’s going to be an incredibly easy choice and the audience won’t care.

As I close, let me address a couple foreseen areas of confusion. How do you know the story’s real theme?

You need to determine the story’s value system. When do good things happen? When do bad things happen? What is shown as the path to victory?

The most obvious stories have the hero smack the villain on the head with an item that symbolizes one of their friends (Ex. Wreck-It Ralph). Other times, the hero is given a note or shouts a quote from a previous scene. One bizarre example is Jackie Chan’s last fight in Gorgeous, where he wins by smiling.

Another anticipated question: Well then, where are the real theme songs? You think “Love Is An Open Door” is a theme song? Fritz is a bad guy, sillyhead!

Sounds like a question for next time!

Emotion Cycles for Young-Adult Novels

In my post about Miyazaki’s pacing, I focused on the balance of fast and slow, but alluded to greater nuance in moments and feelings. Do you remember Scott Westerfeld’s “pace chart”, from my very first post?


This time I’ll include his definitions:

I distinguish among three levels of pace: ACTION, Tension, and “nothing.”

  • ACTION means fighting, pursuit, or any other sort of physical peril.

  • Tension means sneaking, arguing, or the revelation of horrible facts.

  • “nothing” means mostly conversation, exposition, and looking at stuff that may be wonderful, but isn’t threatening.

The new kind of beat here is tension, which we might have otherwise described as a “slow moment.” It’s true that if you just look at what’s happening, a “tension” beat looks slow. When you’re immersed in the story however, the moments are pins and needles.

I’d argue that a scene of somebody drinking coffee could be a “tension” beat, as long as the audience has somewhere else they want to be. For example, drinking coffee, boring. Watching somebody drink coffee when we know that any second a bomb will go off, TENSION!

Alfred Hitchcock has a famous quote on the issue.

Alfred Hitchcock was a master of “slow” pacing.

I have my own ideas about suspense, but the focus for this article is the way young-adult novels often use emotional swings as a pacing tool. First I’ll give two common cycles, then explain how and why they work.

angst cycle


love cycle

There’s an improv (theatre sports?) game I like where emotions are assigned to different areas of the stage. The actors naturally begin to move through these areas in patterns that make a story, pushing themselves through obstacles and often ending in the “positive” space–whatever’s given: love, hope, joy, optimism, etc.

The YA Emotion Cycles above are similar. We have one positive, and three kind of negative/in-betweenies. They function similar to Westerfeld’s pace chart with feelings of tension (paranoia, longing, wondering, etc) leading to moments of action and release (over-reactions and romantic bliss).

Looking at the emotions involved in the cycles, it’s clear how they’re connected and how they fit with teenagers’ experiences. What teenager isn’t paranoid and wondering about something? What teenager never over-reacts? While the stakes in the average teenager’s life may seem low to adults on the outside, that’s just another reason why the teenage experience is so intense. It feels like nobody understands. In young-adult novels, the rest of the world often actually doesn’t.

The Hunger Games uses both cycles repeatedly. It’s heightened and justified by Katniss’s predicament. She has some denied feelings for Peeta, then kisses him, then feels bad about Gale, then starts to wonder again whether Peeta was acting. She is paranoid that everyone is out to get her, furiously shoots an arrow at the gamekeepers when they ignore her, then regrets her action, sure that now she’s doomed. And on and on the cycle turns.

What have I done???

Teenagers’ experience the world in a way that is already built like a roller coaster. It’s unsurprising that fiction depicting their experience has caught on and become mainstream.

I’m nearing endgame for the novel I’m writing, so I’m going on hiatus from blog posts. I will be back in July. See you then!

Learning from Miyazaki: Pacing

Minor Spoilers for Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle

Miyazaki is often praised for the spell-binding nature of his films. Here goes John Lasseter in the introduction to Starting Point.

His movies have balance–both fast and slow moments. You can even go back to Castle of Cagliostro and see it. That car chase up on the hill is still one of my favorite scenes. Just before the chase, Lupin’s car gets a flat tire and swerves to the side of the road. He climbs up on the roof and just sits there looking up at the sky. The clouds are going by, the wind is blowing, we’re shown a field of grass… and then you hear this GHEEEEEE sound. Miyazaki-san allows Lupin to react with a “What was that?” look before a car roars past him. It sets up the chase so beautifully because of the quiet moment before. That’s pacing.

A big part of pacing is contrast. I’ve chosen two examples from Castle in the Sky where we have a seemingly unnecessary slow-down before a moment of “action.”

First, we see Pazu need help fastening the amulet before jumping off the roof. Sheeta helps, and he gives her a smile. Then, boom.

Later in the film, Pazu fires a cannon to burst open a wall. On his first attempt, the gun jams. This brings us up short for a moment, so our attention can catch up and anticipate the blast.

Pacing isn’t just for action. It’s also for characterization–of the characters and the setting. Lasseter speaks of needing a slow moment after Jesse’s story in Toy Story 2 to let the impact of her story sink in. Miyazaki does moments like these after major revelations as well, but what stands out to me more is the minor actions he has us watch early on.

These things take time and effort to animate, but Miyazaki thinks its worth it so that we can see how these characters move. In this example, Sophie brushing her apron shows that she’s tidy. 

It should be noted that part of why these moments don’t lose our attention is because Miyazaki keeps a string of danger and mystery pulling us along. Both before and after we see Sophie in the hat shop, we also see the wizard’s castle and strange flying warships.

Of course, all the magic of pacing can’t be summed up in “fast” and “slow”. It would take several more posts to discuss all the possible beats that Miyazaki uses.

Here are two more kinds of beats Miyazaki uses well…

1) In The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki, I came across the term “white moments”, coined by Daniel Neyer, to describe moments “when the heart warms and expands”. This is given as a unique feature of Kiki’s Delivery Service, with the example of her father asking when she got so big, but I think white moments exist in all Miyazaki’s films. (More here.)

2) In Starting Point, Miyazaki gives special weight to scenes where a character is running, striving for something. He says this is difficult in animation because of the number of frames, and how you often lose the height of the step. I could give screencaps from Miyazaki’s films, but I think the best example of a “running” beat I’ve seen comes from Mamoru Hosada’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

There are several kinds of beats available to writers. The key is how you put them together, how they contrast and compliment. Today we’ve mostly focused on fast, slow, and push.

Next post, we’ll look at emotion: the kind of push/pull that has made young-adult novels so hot.

Breakdown: Spirited Away

Spoilers! Obviously!

I could wax poetic about Hayao Miyazaki for ages. Today, building off last post on Flaws in the Disney Machine, I’m going to focus on two areas where Miyazaki excels over Disney, even over Pixar.

Character Design


In a 1996 interview, Hayao Miyazaki wondered,

“could we depict an affirmative character with a so-so looking girl? What we are doing is a show in a sense, after all. […] They immediately become the subjects of rorikon gokko (play toy for Lolita Complex guys). In a sense, if we want to depict someone who is affirmative to us, we have no choice but to make them as lovely as possible. But now, there are too many people who shamelessly depict (such heroines) as if they just want (such girls) as pets, and things are escalating more and more.”

In contrast to the Disney animator who complained that women were hard to draw because they had to be cute, Miyazaki set out to create a female protagonist who was ordinary. He gave her a snub-nose, awkward movements, and over-sized clothing because he wanted the audience to admire her for her personality rather than her looks. (I’m not just being mean; I got this from The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki. I hope it’ll expand more on this in Turning Point.)

I believe he carried this idea in choosing his next film as writer/director, Howl’s Moving Castle, where Sophie spends the majority of the movie as an old woman.

Ponyo is pretty cute though. As are the girls in The Wind Rises, from what I can tell. Perhaps Miyazaki wasn’t as bothered by this because of their age.

Miyazaki might not want us to identify with Sen/Chihiro because of her looks, but he does use appearance to draw us closer to other characters. Not beauty, but familiarity. Lin and Haku both look quite a bit more human than the other spirits.

Lin is a weasel spirit; Haku is a dragon/river. But they look like people.

Whereas most of the spirits have their proportions bent.

This affects the audience’s sympathies. The boiler man might have six arms, but his face is more proportionate than the other spirits as well. Pixar did something like this with A Bug’s Life.

The grasshopper, the bad guy, is the only one with six arms. This makes him less human, and moves our sympathies away. Well, Heimlich (the caterpillar) has a bunch of arms. And tiny eyes. But he’s comic relief–we don’t need to identify with him the same way either.

Miyazaki takes this further. Somehow the effect works and isn’t questioned. I’ve never heard anybody ask why Haku and Lin look like people.

Implied Themes

A story’s main theme usually mirrors the main character’s arc. I think of this as the stated theme. The thing the story is trying to tell you.

In any kind of communication, there is subtext. Things beneath the surface that are assumed, never said. I think of these as the implied themes.

Disney and Pixar focus the story quite well on their stated themes, and have the entire film working towards that one statement. But it lets us use our own assumptions to fill in the background, rarely pushing for complexity.

The stated theme of Spirited Away is simple. Sen/Chihiro’s arc is about not giving in, gaining confidence, trusting her gut, cooperation, etc. Depth comes from the multiple layers of implied themes.

The first implied theme is about greed. When they discover the abandoned amusement park, the father mentions that there used to be many of these all over the country, built without much thought. The spirit bathhouse can be viewed as another display of opulence.

Other displays of greed are more explicit. The parents become pigs. No-Face offers gold to the bathhouse workers, they go crazy for it. And the money turns out to be dust.

Let’s say the second implied theme is feminism, partially addressed above.

Next is environmentalism. This is present in almost all Miyazaki’s films, here evident when they have to pull gunk from the river spirit.

Finally, Miyazaki is the master of not having a true “villain.” The characters refuse to stay fixed as either purely “good” or “evil.” Haku, Lin, and the boilerman are all kind to Sen/Chihiro, but also have moments of hostility. Several characters physically transform to mirror their change.

Yubaba is the closest thing to a villain, but even she has a kinder side, helping in the bathhouse and mothering the baby. Then, when Sen meets the kinder twin, Zeniba/Granny, Miyazaki uses the exact same character design.

At the final test, Yubaba seems like she might back out when Boh says that he won’t like her anymore if she makes Sen cry. It is Sen (after calling Yubaba “Granny”) who declares that she’ll take the test, and Yubaba simply says “See if you can tell which of these pigs is your mother and father” without any further goading or threats.

I like the balance and layer of themes in Spirited Away but it’s this last one that makes me consider the film a masterpiece. Miyazaki jokes that he finds drawing evil characters unpleasant, so he simply doesn’t do it (22:20-ish). Really, this is an issue of point of view, as he’s alluded to more seriously elsewhere. The ability to see multiple perspectives. It’s not easy to write a story without a villain, but he’s done it repeatedly, making sure to humanize both sides.

I have a lot more to say about Miyazaki. The next post will focus on pacing.

Flaws in the Disney Machine

Hello dead horse. I am here to beat you. Because I think it’s important and there are some parts of you that aren’t really that beaten yet.

“Did you know Disney films have a history of racism and sexism!?”

There is so, so much to talk about, and a lot of it has already been discussed elsewhere. (The 9 Most Racist Disney Characters, Head Animator Says Women Are Hard to Draw Because They All Look the SameMerida’s Stupid Offensive Makeover, etc.)

I echo their horror; however, in the interest of original content, I’m going to focus on some areas that haven’t received as much attention. Before diving in, I’d like to note that I consider myself a Disney fan: Winnie the Pooh, The Lion King, Lilo and Stitch, etc.

Disney’s Globetrotting

One of Disney’s greatest possible strengths is the diversity of locations they use for their films.

Map by reddit user translucentfish

This could, if done right, bring a vibrant array of cultures to the screen. It could unite people and spread magic. If you listen to animators talk about their work on The Emperor’s New Groove during the documentary The Sweatbox, it’s clear that’s how they see their work.

However, Sting disagrees. In a candid moment after they’ve revealed the then-current ending as “Kuzco gets a waterslide”, Sting addresses the camera:

“It’s a real concern of mine that I’m allied to this organization that seems to want to take the best of different cultures and suck them up and then spit them out to make something that’s like a hamburger.”

I encountered another way of phrasing this criticism in Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. They discuss three ways to write about a culture that is not your own: as an invader, as a tourist, or as a guest.

Invaders arrive without warning, take whatever they want for use in whatever way they see fit. They destroy without thinking anything that appears to them to be valueless. They stay as long as they like, leave at their own convenience. Theirs is a position of entitlement without allegiance.

This is the way that Disney writes about other cultures. They send artists to scout locations, but then pick and choose the details of culture that work best for their films. The worst example of this is probably Pocahontas (although the distinction for worst portrayal of First Nations people still goes to Peter Pan).

That’s from 1953, and perhaps unfair to today’s animators and story people, but still.

Disney’s goal is not to widen acceptance or understanding of the cultures they write about. Their goal is to make a film that is well received by their market.


And what a market it is. This Christmas, when I went to Toys R’ Us to buy a gift for my niece, I was a little horrified at the gigantic Disney Princess display that devoured the front of the store. I don’t have a picture of the exact display, but it was similar to this picture from the Toys R’ Us website.

fun note: all white, blondes in centre

The depiction of Merida pains me particularly, but the marketing to children of this image of femininity bothers me as a whole. As other bloggers have noted, it undermines any positive female characters they manage to create in their films because they’re eventually going to get reduced into photoshopped wide-eyed princesses with sparkles shooting out of their ears.

The thing is… people buy these toys. Despite videos of some kids complaining…

…there are other kids and parents who fully embrace this image. Which leads into another larger conversation I’m not ready to dive into right now. Are they making this stuff because people want it, or do people want it because this is what has been made for decades?

How can we convince them that people are also willing to buy things that are different? Like a doll of Merida that looks like the Merida from the film?

Who is Disney? Who is their Market?

One of the things I try to remember when raging against Disney stories is that Disney is not one person. Disney stories are made by a whole bunch of people who flow between Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar. This makes it a little harder to blame all of past-Disney’s mistakes on current-Disney’s story team, which is actually improving.

There’s also a distinction between Disney’s filmmakers, and their toymakers, and their marketers, and their television shows. It’s unfair to expect any single person working at Disney to undo the entire Disney Machine.

Parts of the Disney Machine are producing pretty good stuff. Frozen is a solid step forward. It’s not where I want them to be yet, (see the article where the animator talked about trouble drawing women because they have to be cute) but I’m a believer that you have to reward steps forward in order to encourage further steps forward. It’s also a fun movie, plain and simple.

As another example, consider Disney’s current big shows for preschool:

Left: Jake and the Never Land Pirates. Right: Sofia the First

Jake and the Never Land Pirates has a diverse cast of kids! I feel like it’s one of the first stories set in the Peter Pan world that I actually support. It’s magic, it’s fun, it’s inviting. Sofia the First is… well, all the usual Disney Machine problems. I’m peeved it beat Bubble Guppies for the Annie Award.

The machine has already changed over time, and it’s improving. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’ll ever catch up to where I want it to be, because there are sections of the machine designed for a market that is very not me.

That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the things (or parts of things) the machine manages to produce that I like.

Next time I’ll look at someone who I think handled these issues (and others) much better, with a breakdown of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

On Diversity in Children’s Literature

A year and a half ago, NPR’s list of 100 “Best-Ever Teen Novels” was blasted by teachers and writers as being extremely white. Out of the 100 books on the list, only two were about characters of color: House on Mango Street by Sanra Cisneros and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Blame was laid on the editors of the list and the voters. Better lists have definitely been made. A lot of great books with diversity were ignored while the list contains many novels that are actually middle-grade or adult. They also repeat a lot of authors (ex. John Green five times).

However, the problem isn’t just with NPR or their list-making procedures. Literature for children and teens is pretty homogenous. Particularly fantasy, which, like adult fantasy, tends to be Eurocentric.

That’s not to say there are no good fantasy books starring other ethnicities…


I’m saying there still aren’t enough yet. The books above are all pretty recent. I think the situation is improving, but walking through a bookstore, it’s very hard to find covers featuring characters who aren’t white–especially in the middle-grade/young-adult fantasy section.

I don’t want to make too big a deal about the fact that the characters’ faces are obscured on The Savage Fortress and The Summer Prince because there are a lot of white characters who have their faces obscured as well. It’s a trend in cover art. I don’t want to make a big deal, but I feel like it is important. Both Liar by Justine Larbalestier and Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore feature black protagonists, but the original covers were blatantly white-washed. Outcry from blogs like Reading in Color eventually caused the covers to change.

Larbalestier objected to this cover. She didn’t want Micah’s face on the cover at all.

Reading in Color also has an interesting post on the new cover given to Cindy Pon’s paperback after initial sales for Silver Phoenix were slow.

The author’s response can be found here.

So yeah. Visibility is still a problem.

I find it hard to fault people for not knowing about books with diverse characters when I actively hunt for them and still have trouble finding the kind of stuff I’m looking for.

The books I’ve chosen to feature in today’s post are all fantasy books about people of color, written by people of color (except Justine Larbalestier, who I used for the first cover example). That’s an important part of racefail–that we need to hear from people with different voices, not just imaginings about them.

Straight white abled authors (like me) writing about diverse characters are also out there, and I think they’re doing good work. Still, the main point of my post today can be summed up as “It isn’t enough… yet.”

Next post will continue on mainstream treatment of diversity by tackling one of the juggernauts… Disney.

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.