Three Great Girls from Three Great Guys

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.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster BoyTo 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 A Year Down Yonderthe 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 Carl Hiaasen Chompmaster 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.

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5 thoughts on “Three Great Girls from Three Great Guys

  1. Your “equal opportunity reader” description made me giggle. Your voice is just as strong in this post as in your others. You don’t cut corners or fail to give each part of your posts they’re own time to shine, which makes each of your posts strong, particularly this one, where each book gets a very generous amount of the post to go into detail with. You use just the right number of pictures by having only the cover of each book.
    One thing I would like to see is your own attempt to write a children’s lit book. Even just the first few pages or so of the book would show us what these authors have taught you about writing children’ lit.
    ~Sam

  2. Every time I read your blog its clear to me that you spend a lot of time with each post, polishing it and taking time with each part. This post was no exception to that, you were able to tell us about three different strong female characters and give us a little synopsis on each book. You really manage to capture my attention with each paragraph about each book, and you make me interested in actually taking these books out and reading them.

    Before I knew anything about children’s literature, I thought that I wouldn’t enjoy any children’s books because they were supposed to be made for children. After taking the Children’s Literature class here I realized that Children’s books and young adult books are actually enjoyable to read, even as an adult.

  3. I think this is a great post and although your format is not really different, you admit that there are some books you dislike and that you have some dislikes about specific genres. Once again your short synopsis of each book allowed me to imagine the book in my head and made me want to pick up all three and read them. I also liked that you were able to give us descriptions for all of the female characters in each and in turn you were able to talk about how you think they were strong female characters. I think a lot of people have misconceptions about certain books or genres because of books that have appeared before. Many people dislike the thought of the Harry Potter series, the Twilight series and the 50 Shades of Grey series because of other books they have read of things they might have heard. While not all of these books are the best written books ever published, they are extremely popular. And maybe if these people who do judge stop believing they know how the book will be before they read them, they will find they actually really enjoy them. Great post.

  4. Strong post as always! I loved your honesty in discussing your first reaction to the genre. I also found it interesting that your favorite female characters were actually crafted by male authors. I’m a firm believer that an author’s gender doesn’t necessarily dictate their ability to tell a story from the viewpoint of another gender, so I enjoyed that part very much. Maybe you could have a post focusing on female authors who have really mastered the “male voice”?

    I’ll admit that as a young reader I tended to avoid books with male protagonists, believing that they were “boy books.” Have you read Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin family series? I’d recommend “A Ring of Endless Light.” The main character/narrator, Vicky, was one of the most complex characters that i read as a child. (There was a Disney Channel movie based on this book, too, but in comparison with the novel the film is pretty terrible, in my opinion.)

  5. Your posts are always so well written and well thought out. Each one has been enjoyable to read and I honestly learn something new each time. I swear, I’ve been ready history books since I was probably five (my dad is a history nerd, had to keep up). Not that I didn’t mind it, but I feel like I missed out on all these classics you discuss in your blogs. Let’s just say, I have a summer reading list started 🙂

    I did, however, read “A Year Down Under” for school actually. I can’t remember the year I read it, but I do remember Mary Alice and Grandma! I also remember falling in love with the cover of the book. There was something about that scenery that was peaceful. Great post!

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