It’s International Women’s Day on the 8th March, so today’s Top 10 Tuesday is all about female inspirations in fiction. I’m a big believer in children’s fiction setting an example for developing girls and young women, and seeing strong, independent female characters is a huge part of that representation in literature. Here are a few of the characters who inspired me when growing up.
10 – The Wrestling Princess – The Wrestling Princess by Judy Corbalis
I remember the Wrestling Princess as my earliest fictional role model. This was in the very early nineties, when I was just starting to read by myself and I wanted something a bit meatier to sink my teeth into. Cinderella and the other Disney princesses (with the exception of Belle) never really caught my interest as a youngster, but this princess did.
She’s smart, and strong, and she doesn’t like being ladylike or proper, and she has absolutely no interest in finding a handsome prince to settle down and marry. She loves dirty engines, and fixing things, and wrestling, and all the things that princess shouldn’t like at all. Exasperated by her behaviour, her parents decree that if someone can beat their daughter in a wrestling match, then she will have to marry them. Many try, many fail, until the Wrestling Princess finds and chooses her own husband: someone who she can respect exactly the way he is, and who respects her, exactly how she is.
Also she could throw grown men over her head. What’s not to like?
9 – Princess Cimorene – Dragonsbane by Patricia C. Wrede
“Princesses don’t fence.”
“But I’m a princess, and I do, so that means princesses do fence.”
Cimorene, like the Wrestling Princess before her, is a princess who refuses to be proper. She knows a bit of fencing, cooking, magic, and political science; all things her parents made her stop learning because it “wasn’t proper” for a princess to learn those things.
She’s intelligent, passionate, fierce and more than a little stubborn, knowing her own mind and possessing a strong dose of good sense. Unlike her six, silly, golden-haired sisters, Cimorene has no desire to toe the royal line, and when it is proposed she will marry the handsome but dim-witted Prince Therandil, she takes extreme measures to ensure that her wedding day never happens. When faced with an unhappy marriage to someone who bores you to tears, who wouldn’t choose to run away and live with a dragon instead?
The book Dragonsbane was the original title of what is now called Dealing with Dragons, which is the first part in a four-book series.
8 – Matilda Wormwood – Matilda by Roald Dahl
Matilda Wormwood, the girl who read. Who didn’t try to see if they had powers like Matilda growing up? Genius-level smarts, a strong sense of right and wrong, and a daring unparalleled (what child thinks to punish adults for doing wrong?), this girl is a little shining ball of independence and heroism.
Proving that you don’t have to be big to win the day, and an inspiration for all to expand their mind by reading anything and everything they can lay their hands on, Matilda is the heroine of small daily battles. She teaches us to stand up to our bullies, whoever they may be, and that our minds are always our greatest weapon.
7 – Sara Crewe – A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Sara Crewe is a confident, imaginative girl who is completely certain of her own self-worth. Originally, admittedly, somewhat spoiled by circumstances, she is nonetheless kind-hearted, and has her own sense of equality among women.
When disaster strikes, ripping her away from the comfortable life of privilege and wealth she has always known, she takes the knock to her status without bowing to the insistent pressure from her guardian to ‘admit’ she is to lesser than she is. Dressed in rags and forced to serve in a place that was once her home, Sara refuses to be cowed, daring to hold her head high and still believe that she, like every woman, is a princess.
6 – Sophie Hatter – Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Although Sophie is initially reserved and not at all confident, a timely curse changes all that. On her search for the cure, Sophie stops worrying about what other people think of her, and is less afraid to do things she wouldn’t have dared to before.
Sometimes impulsive, but always kind and considerate, Sophie is the character that represents our best selves; an antidote to the little voice in our heads that worries about how we’re perceived. Her example shows us that we should always be our selves, and not care what others think of us as long as we treat others the way we would wish to be treated.
5 – Lyra “Silvertongue” Belacqua – His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Lyra Belacqua is a wild cat of a girl. Clever, curious and independent, she is a natural leader among her peers. Unlike the other heroines on this list, Lyra’s education is patchy and noticably lacking in some places, due to her undisciplined upbringing in Oxford; she only ever applied herself to subjects that caught her interest.
Despite this, Lyra has an intelligence that cannot be taught, and a daring inherent. Upon finding out that other children are in danger, having been kidnapped by the General Oblation Board, she doesn’t hesitate to go after them and offer her help.
Oddly, one of Lyra’s most appealing qualities is one that not everyone would consider heroic. She is a skilled liar, earning herself the nickname ‘Silvertongue’ when she successfully tricks the bear king into fighting Iorek Byrnison. Although lying itself is not a heroic trait, her reasons for doing it and her ability to think on her feet, demonstrated repeatedly, are.
Yet, Lyra’s heroism comes not just from her acts of bravery, but her acts of sacrifice. The decision made at the end of the series – to put the safety of the world before her own personal happiness – is what truly earns her a place on this list.
4 – Ginny Weasley – The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
Note: This entry is about “Book Ginny”. I don’t feel the film representation of this strong Weasley woman deserves to be on this list. But “Book Ginny” definitely does.
The youngest child and only daughter of the eclectic and strong-minded Weasley family, Ginny has to contend with an army of brothers who are all as competitive and full of life as she is. Raised by an eccentric father and a formidable mother – both of whom are retired political protesters – Ginny carves a place for herself in the chaos and demands to be respected for that.
A talented Quidditch player and the wielder of a ‘Bat Bogey Hex’ that even has Fred and George Weasley running for the hills, she is a small but powerful package. Once possessed by Lord Voldemort, Ginny doesn’t let that experience define her, instead growing up to become one of the prominent members of Dumbledore’s Army. She fights for what she believes in and doesn’t take insult from anyone. One of the small group who faces Death Eaters in the Department of Mysteries, and a thorn in the side of Snape and the Carrows in the last book, Ginny isn’t afraid to put her life on the line for what is right, knowing that there is always something worth dying for.
3 – Hazel Wong – The Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries by Robin Stevens
Hazel Wong is, like Valkyrie Cain further down this list, a rather new role model for me, but no less inspiring for that. Having been raised on a diet of books like Nancy Drew, The Famous Five, Mallory Towers and Twins at St. Clare’s, discovering Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series last year was a double-hit success for me.
Hazel is smart, determined and sensible; three traits which rarely coincide in children’s fiction. The smart and determined factors are usual enough, but the sensibility tends to fall by the wayside.
Hazel is cautious and introverted, but she doesn’t shrink away from standing up for herself when it becomes necessary. Methodical and observant, she is obviously the best detective out of her and her otherwise ‘perfect’ friend Daisy, and her warmth, loyalty and logical approach to (the horrors of) life make you certain of just who, exactly, is the admirable heroine of this story.
2 – Valkyrie Cain – The Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy
Valkyrie Cain, be still my beating heart. Or not, because necromancy is pretty dangerous stuff and I’d rather not tempt fate.
Witty, brave and not a little reckless, Valkyrie Cain can talk the talk, walk the walk, and throw fireballs with the best of them. She has a sharp mind and tongue, a stalwart heart and unwavering loyalty to those that mean the most to her, whether they be skeleton detectives or her own parents.
Accidentally thrust into a world where danger could be lurking around every corner, Valkyrie has every opportunity to back down and back out, and return to her safe, mortal world with her eccentric father and caring mother. But she doesn’t. Because the dangers that she faces alongside Skulduggery Pleasant are bigger than just her safety; they could possibly spell the end of the world. And she’s not going to leave that to chance.
Yet, to all this bravery, Val lends a certain vulnerability. She isn’t some suddenly all-powerful sorceress; she doesn’t become immune to pain overnight (although Ghastly Bespoke’s clothes certainly help a little). When she gets punched, it hurts. If she loses a tooth, she might even cry – because she’s realistic, recognisable and human, like all the best heroines have to be. After all, how can you be brave if you never feel fear?
I’m new to the Skulduggery Pleasant world but Valkyrie Cain is fast becoming one of my favourite heroines. In fact, she’s only number two because I have yet to finish the series, and I feel it’d be unfair to knock our star heroine off her top spot without knowing all the facts first…
1 – Hermione Granger – The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Hermione Jean Granger. A young lady that needs no introduction because I’m pretty sure everyone expected her to be on this list. And why not?
The ‘smartest witch of her age’ comes to the magical world a complete stranger, and unfairly despised by some for her muggle-born heritage. She gives her all to her studies, soon streaking ahead of her peers even though it makes her unpopular. Hermione wants to succeed, and nothing will stand in her way.
But ‘books and cleverness’ are not Hermione’s only admirable attribute. Her bravery and loyalty, her stubborn and steady fight for the equality for all magical beings, be they muggle-born wizards or downtrodden house elves – S.P.E.W., anyone? – set her apart from the rest. She doesn’t let ridicule stop her from achieving her goals; when even her best friends (and house elves themselves) are disinterested in the situation, which is tantamount to slavery, she continues to reach out and raise awareness of their plight. Hermione is unafraid to fight for what she passionately believes is right, and applies her sharp mind to the problem of changing the world for the better.
Beginning her evolution with a troll in the girl’s bathroom as a first year student, Hermione grows from unpopular swot to fearsome rebel, never losing sight of what she wants in life (and school). Her personal priorities – a good education and a spotless record – are often set aside whilst she, say, sets fire to a teacher’s robe to save her friend’s life, or risks expulsion to learn how to fight against a growing darkness. She punches her bullies full in the face, she curses those who betray her friends, and she even erases herself from her loving parents’ memories so she can keep them safe whilst she joins the fight against the greatest evil the wizarding world has ever known.
She’s bold, fearless and formidable, entirely deserving of this number one spot.