I have to admit, I don’t judge books by their covers, but I did make the mistake once of judging a genre by its bad examples. I read an article that claimed there was a shortage of strong female characters in children’s literature, and I made the mistake of letting it influence my opinions on the genre. I don’t know who wrote it or why I read it, but I remember it. The problem was that at the time I had been reading some books with particularly poorly written female characters, so part of me bought into the idea that children’s literature was somehow lacking strong female characters. There was a certain level of gender bias in the literature chosen for a class I was taking, so I was reading a lot of books with poorly written female roles. Somewhere between the male protagonists and the female supporting roles, characterization dropped off. The females were too stereotyped to be realistic characters making for poor female characters and lower quality books. As a feminist and equal opportunity reader, I was quite upset that there was such a gender disparity between the boys and the girls, especially because children’s literature is so didactic. What I failed to realize was that the fault wasn’t with the genre, but instead with the books that the class had me reading. I’d made a huge mistake of judging the genre based on the lower quality books.
Now, my goal with this blog is never to bash a writer. I only want to celebrate great writers who are creating enjoyable children’s literature and because of that I won’t be talking about the books that I read that missed the mark. They’re not important to the aims of my blog. Instead, I want to use this week’s post to talk about the authors who pulled me out of the “bad-book-slump” of “faulty-female” characters into the world of well-balanced and well written children’s literature. I want to talk about three particularly awesome gentlemen who wrote three particularly fantastic females that I’d encourage any little girl bridging into the YA genre to read about.
To start things off, Gary D. Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is one of the greatest young adult books I have ever had the pleasure to read. I do not say that sentence lightly. The themes are complex and the symbols are beautifully drawn and scattered throughout the novel. The book deals with racism, religion, growing up, and grief through the story of Turner Buckminster and Lizzie Griffin. I warn you, it will break your heart in the bitter-sweet way that only the very best books can. Schmidt’s rock star female is none other than Lizzie Bright Griffin herself, a poor, sassy youth living on Malaga Island in Maine. Lizzie is smart and savvy with knowledge of the ways of the world that while youthful, make her timeless. What is her true strength, however, is that Lizzie is unfailingly loyal to her Island and is so in tune with the natural world around her. She is a character who will both inspires me and breaks my heart. There is a reason this book was named a Newberry Honor Book and was chosen for the Michael L. Printz Honor in 2005.
On a lighter note, Richard Peck is probably one of the heroic writers of children’s literature and if not, he’s one of my heroes for creating Grandma Dowdel and Mary Alice Dowdel. In Peck’s A Year Down Yonder, the Dowdel family is facing hard times because it’s 1937 and the Depression is in full swing. This historical novel follows Mary Alice, a city girl from Chicago, through a year living with Grandma Dowdel in the country. Four seasons pass and during that time Mary Alice learns about living in the country, a bit about revenge, and a lot about growing up. As a YA novel, Mary Alice is learning to deal with typical teenage problems but is also faced with post war reality and the hard times of growing up during the Depression. Mary Alice is lucky because her trip “down yonder” leads her to staying with the hilarious Grandma Dowdel. Grandma Dowdel is a gun-toting, pecan snatching, tough woman with a big heart. It’s a quick, funny read with characters who really showcase how fun female characters can be. It doesn’t surprise me that after having countless books published, it was A Year Down Yonder that finally snagged Peck his Newberry Medal in 2001.
The last female character I want to talk about today also has that fantastic, well-rounded appeal. Carl Hiaasen’s Chomp is also a YA book, but it’s set in contemporary Florida and follows the exploits of a boy named Wahoo Cray, his father Mickey, and Wahoo’s good friend Tuna. Tuna is quick-witted, snappy, and tough. She’s on the run from an abusive father and sees Wahoo and Mickey as a ticket to get away for a while. The father and son pair are working in the Florida Everglades as animal wranglers for an animal adventure show. Pandemonium ensues. The book is fast paced, filled with action, and a lot of fun. Hiaasen is a master at humor, and with characters like Tuna and Wahoo, he’ll have you laughing the whole book through. The themes are heavy, but the humor keeps the book light and makes for a quick read. I’m in love with the complexity of the characters, especially Tuna’s. Tuna is quirky and creative with a quick wit and the ability to memorize scientific names of animals like no body’s business. She’s a wonderful example of a contemporary girl dealing with life in smart, fun way.
These three books are just a drop in that water of children’s books with complex, well-rounded characters. There are thousands out there with equally awesome females coming alive between their pages, but it’s easy to stereotype a genre if a person keeps reading only one type of literature. I’m guilty of the mistake myself. What I’m truly glad for is that I was also introduced to these three really great authors who quickly dispelled me of my misconceptions and biases.
How about you, have you ever made an assumption about books or a genre that you’ve regretted in hindsight? Have you read any books with particularly fantastic characters, female or otherwise?
Books I’ve Mentioned in this Post:
Hiaasen, Carl. Chomp. 1st Edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Print.
Peck, Richard. A Year Down Yonder. New York: Puffin Books, 2000. Print.
Schmidt, Gary D. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. New York: Laurel Leaf Books , 2004. Print.