With the publication of my first novel, Greta and Boris: a daring rescue, I’ve been having a think about the books I enjoyed reading as a girl. Just like my book, most of the novels I devoured as a child featured interesting, strong and brave girl characters – girls set for adventure or overcoming real trials. With Greta I wanted to create a lead character who gets to do lots of “stuff”, who has a story of her own. And that’s not surprising when you consider who my favourite fictional characters were during my childhood. They were all girls who got to do stuff too – and do it well.
So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Feisty Female Heroes in children’s books. Not including Greta of course!
Maria Merryweather, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
This book was absolutely my favourite when I was growing up. It tells the story of Maria, an orphan who leaves London to live with her cousin in his grand castle, Moonacre. Maria is headstrong, a bit cheeky, prone to vanity but ultimately is ‘pure of heart’. She soon discovers that despite its beauty, all is not well in Moonacre and it is up to her to save her beloved home and its residents from a curse that has led to discord and upset for centuries. You see, she is not just Maria Merryweather – she is the Moon Princess.
This is such a magical novel with a colourful cast of wonderfully-named characters. Loveday Minette, Miss Heliotrope, Marmaduke Scarlet and Digweed to name just a few! With the help of her best friend Robin and the Moonacre animals, Wrolf, Serena and Zachariah, Maria goes on a stunningly imagined adventure to bring peace and harmony to Moonacre. And they all live happily ever after…
Meg, Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry
I have never met anyone who has read this book. It’s such a shame how unknown it is because it’s truly amazing. It follows the adventures of Meg, the youngest daughter of a 13th century ship builder and the youngest sister of Inge, known in her community as a witch. Meg is spirited, friendly, often clumsy and always full of fun and adventure.
The novel is set in a period of unrest in Scottish history. King Alexander is dead and his heir is the young Maid of Norway. However, the Scots Lords are not prepared to accept this wee lassie as Queen and are determined to make their own grab for power. As Meg joins the party sent to collect the young Princess from Norway, she finds herself caught in the middle of history as she battles to keep the child safe.
Witchcraft, boats, adventure, long journeys and wicked Lords and Ladies – Meg’s determination and indomitable spirit takes them all on in a wonderful novel.
Sara Crewe, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
She’s probably more famous for The Secret Garden, but this was always my preferred novel. It tells the story of Sara Crewe, a rich and petted girl raised in India who comes to London to go to school. Her father is disgustingly rich and she has everything she could ever want – however her good fortune hasn’t made her spoilt or mean. She’s always kind and polite and loves nothing more than making up stories to share with her friends, Becky the maid, Ermengarde and Lottie.
But then, tragedy strikes. Sara’s father dies and his fortune vanishes. The school headmistress, Miss Minchin – surely one of the most wicked women in children’s literature – moves Sara from her luxurious rooms to the rat-infested, freezing attic.
Sara faces many challenges in her new life. She’s bullied, starved and friendless. But she never stops hoping that one-day things will be different. Even when life seems at its most hopeless, she never stops remembering to be a good and wise person. And, of course, she gets her happy ending in the end.
Mildred, The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
Hapless, a bit hopeless but always lovely, I adored Mildred. I loved how she had a tabby instead of a black cat, I loved how she wasn’t great at being a witch but always tried really hard and I loved how she always came good in the end. I bought this for my friend’s seven year-old this year and she loves her too. The TV adaptations always tried to make Mildred better than she was, a bit prim and prissy. The books had a lot more honesty and heart.
Rose or Roe, A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian
More a YA novel than a children’s book, it has to be included in my list because it’s one that has inspired me throughout my life. The title is a bit soppy, but it’s a fantastic read about sex, writing and women.
Rose and her sister Diana have gone to live in Salmouth as their mother travels east to entertain the troops during WW2. Unchaperoned, the two girls revel in their freedom. However, when Roe finds the secret diaries of the cottage’s former resident, ‘Mad Hilda’, she discovers a terrible story set in the previous war, when Hilda fell in love with a soldier and ended up incarcerated in an asylum for having his child.
I loved this book because, like me, Roe wants to be a writer. As well as discovering what kind of life she wants to live, she’s also encountering sex and love for the first time. Plus Alec, who runs the local bookshop, is surely my first literary crush.
A Little Love Song was the first book I read that talked frankly about sex and the treatment of unmarried women who had children – a subject that still interests me today. This novel is a wonderful coming-of-age story that should be read by all teenagers wanting to grow up and be a writer.