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

hero6

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!

 

 

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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?”