The 10 Best Literary Heroines for Girls

Girls' booksThere is a certain amount of fascination wth princesses in my house, Cinderella and Belle being the most oft-mentioned names. We have several princess costumes, cups, hairclips, backpacks and other paraphernalia. Now I know that many would think I’m doing my girls a disservice by exposing them to women who survive by having feet small enough to fit into glass slipers. But my motto is balance. Let them have their princesses so long as they also spend time with girls whose lives depend less on having the right footwear and more on their wits.

My girls are age 4 and 6 now and so they are not as caught up in having me read only books with pictures to them. They’ve learned to appreciate the power of their imagination to create pictures in their mind to accompany whatever story the words on the page conjure up. And this has given us access to a lot of wonderful literary girl heroines.

I thought I’d highlight some of the books we’ve either read or are yet to read in case you’re on the lookout for good books for girls whose main characters are bold and creative and smart with not a hint of delicate footwer in sight.

1. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. Katy is certainly naughty, but she also spends years unable to leave her room after injuring her back in a swing accident. She pouts about this for a while, but she emerges a stronger and more resilient girl at the end.

2. The Railway Children by Edith Nesbitt. Who can forget Bobbie (Roberta) bravely waving her red petticoat flags in front of the train to stop it from having a terrible accident. She does faint afterwards, but given she’s almost been run over by a steam train, I think we can forgive her for this one lapse into princessly behaviour.

3. The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton. Elizabeth Allen begins this series as a spoilt and rude girl but of course she sees the error of her ways. I like this series because Elizabeth doesn’t become a goody-two-shoes; she’s still a bit naughty but she’s also smart and brave while trying to work out how to do the right thing.

4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The March girls are amongst the most marvellous of literary girls. Yes, they do all (except poor Beth) find their prince in the end, but not before they do something worthwhile for themselves.

5. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. You’ve got to love a girl who accidentally dyes her hair green but who is also clever enough to gain her teaching license in one year instead of the usual two. It’s unusual to see a girl heroine so focused on study and work, which is why this is such a great book.

6. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. Normally it’s the boys in the books who are the strong ones, but not in this series. Pippi can pick up a horse with one hand and she also tells some amazing stories.

7. Eloise by Kay Thompson. Eloise does have a very priveleged life – she lives at the Plaza Hotel in New York and she has a stream of servants waiting upon her. But she is not afraid of an adventure and she charges into all corners of life, gatecrashing weddings with her pet turtle. And she always helps the maid change the bedsheets.

8. The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary. Ramona is age 4 when the series starts and in Grade 4 by the time it ends. She starts off scribbling in library books and pulling hair and ends up standing up to bullies, and helping her dad stop smoking.

9. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner. Judy is a fabulous Australian girl, always outside, on the run from dusk till dawn and in plenty of mischief. She runs away from school and it takes her a week to walk home, she falls deathly ill but bounces back and then – well the end is an absolute tearjerker.

10. The Billie B Brown series by Sally Rippin. This is a series of early reader chapter books for girls and Billie is a tomboy whose best friend is Jack. One of these books made my 6 year old want to wash my car so that’s a very impressive achievement!

Who have I missed? I’m sure there are other wonderful literary girl heroines out there. I almost included The Wizard of Oz because Dorothy does pretty well after finding that she’s killed a witch and is alone in a strange land with only a lion, a tin-man and a scarecrow for company, but she does have to rely on a pair of shoes for rescue, so she came off the list. I’m sure there are others who should join the list so let me know!

8 comments

  1. What a lovely post, Natasha! My girls are a bit younger and the 3 year old is only now getting into ‘chapter’ books so it’s great to have a reminder of some great books to read as they grow. For now, we’re pretty stuck with Cinderella, Belle, Aurora, Jasmine, Ariel…

    • We still have plenty of Cinderella, Belle et al. But I was really pleased to see that, even though they were and are very obsessed with princesses, they are drawn to a range of different stories too. My eldest has just been telling me that her dolly has hurt her back on a swing accident, just like Katy in What Katy Did, and has had to stay in bed for six months and that she has to look after her. So I find that if it’s a good story, it will take hold of their imaginations and the princesses will be ignored, for a while at least!

  2. Glen Hunting

    I confess to having a thing for Anne Shirley when I was little; it was Megan Follows who did it for me. My father was greatly amused by my affection for her, and even now he occasionally teases me about it.

    I read The Railway Children too, but although I enjoyed it, my recollection is that I found Bobbie a bit too obviously ‘girly’ and Peter a bit too obviously boyish i.e. rude. But yes, kudos to all for the petticoat rescue. A lot of my enjoyment of the book came from my interest in steam locomotives, which has continued to this day.

    The girl who lived two doors down from me when I was growing up was a big fan of the naughtiest girl. We would swap Enid Blyton books with each other. We both liked Mr Meddle, Mr Pink-Whistle, and Mr Twiddle. They all gave me a three-piece suit fetish that took many years to eradicate. Not to mention pipe smoking…my mother was horrified…

    And if your six year old would like to earn some pocket money washing MY car, she’s more than welcome…

    • Sounds like you read through all the same books as I did when I was a child. I definitely had a passion for Enid Blyton books and must have read almost all of them – and there were plenty! I just think it’s good to see that the libraries still have copies of these great classic stories and so we can still get hold of them and read them. Second hand book sales have been great to find some lost childhood classics too!

  3. What a lovely collection. I would have to recommend the inclusion of Norah Linton from Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong Series. The mother-less daughter of a cattle-station, she is equally as comfortable in the saddle as her Father’s right hand man as in the kitchen baking with Brownie the cook/housekeeper. I grew up reading these and wished I had access to such experiences so I didn’t have to imagine (with envy) the pleasure of Norah’s life.

  4. Pingback: Writers Ask Writers: What Books Changed You? | While the kids are sleeping

  5. Pamela

    A vote for ‘Ivy & Bean’ to add a modern series to your list of fabulous classics.

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