• Esther Harder

To All the Female Characters Who Raised Me

Beverly Cleary's death got me to thinking about how just the recall of Ramona Quimby's name gives me a particular feeling and a nostalgia for the particular time when I was reading Ramona and joining her laugh-out-loud adventures.

This got to me to thinking about which other characters I carry around in my head, particularly the girls. I grew up with brothers and around plenty of other boys because I preferred sweaty, tree-climbing, chasing games to the more laid-back, chatty games middle school girls seemed to enjoy. Discovering girls in books who also had constantly scraped knees and messy ponytails was a comfort, particularly in that awkward, everything's changing time of junior high where none of us knew who we were or how we would turn out. These girls in books seemed to be constantly in character. Maybe by studying them, I could figure out who I was.

Ready to meet some of my favorites?

Vesper Holly

I read everything Lloyd Alexander wrote. Everything. He mostly stuck to the fantasy and magical realm of things, but then there was the picture book The Fortune-Tellers, which truly caught my attention because of the illustrations of West African life; the pages pulled me right back to some of my earliest childhood memories in Burkina Faso. And then there were the Vesper Holly adventures.

Vesper Holly is an orphan from a wealthy family under the guardianship of an elderly couple. She runs about and solves mysteries all over the world back in the late 1800s. A female Indiana Jones. I remember her being described as knowing a lot of languages and being able to swear in all of them. She wasn't afraid to leave Philadelphia behind to hunt down another adventure. Mishaps and humor always ensued, and things got very tense and life-threatening, but somehow, Vesper made it out all right in the end, and usually finished ahead of the adults in the book in one way or another.

Poly O'Keefe

I also read everything Madeleine L'Engle wrote, but over a more extended timeframe than the Alexander books. L'Engle's work levels up into books for adults and covers genres from memoir to religious literature, so she different books have appealed more to me at different times of my life. Of all her books, the ones I keep coming back to have Poly O'Keefe in them.

Poly is a tween-to-teen character in some of L'Engle's Kairos novels. Poly is introduced when she's "just a kid" in The Arm of the Starfish, and is a secondary character, the eldest in her large family of siblings whose parents are Meg and Calvin of A Wrinkle in Time fame. Poly grows up on islands as her parents run research projects that benefit from proximity to water. She loves to swim, also speaks a number of languages as the family moved a lot, and is mature beyond her years.

Like Vesper Holly, Poly leaves her island to travel to other countries and even to other times. Whereas in Vesper, I was reading for the thrill of adventure, in Poly, I was reading for the connection to mystery. L'Engle is famous for interweaving science, religion, and morals, of posing hard questions in her work. I went to Poly when I wanted to work on the questions in my own life.

Pippi Longstocking

I think Pippi Longstocking was read to me. We're stretching back further in time for her. I remember several rounds of elementary school Halloween costumes being me as Pippi Longstocking. I admired her strength, her freckles, and her overall silliness. And she took care of herself without parents! What fun!

Arrietty Clock

Arrietty is one family member in The Borrowers, which was also read to us. I was utterly fascinated that there might tiny borrowers living in my house, under my floorboards and making miniature versions of home there! Arrietty, Pa, and Ma, all have to escape the house when they are discovered, and adventures abound for several books as they try to make a life for themselves outdoors. This is more of a survival story, in miniature of course, so the pace of "what will happen next" keeps it moving along.

Reflection

What I notice when I look at these four characters is that in my generation, red hair and freckles were synonymous with adventure, as most of these favored characters had some version of red hair!

I also very clearly notice that all of my favorite characters are white. My reading of authors from a wider variety of backgrounds has increased as I aged, but I have been pondering this selection while writing this post. We talk about children needing books that are mirrors and reflect familiar versions of their world back at them, books that are windows that open into a place they aren't familiar with, and books that are sliding doors that allow the reader to break through and discover that new place or idea with a generous guide. What I see here is a list of my mirror books for my awkward tween years, where the characters reminded me of who I was or wanted to be.

For example, Vesper Holly and Poly O'Keefe both represent young people who are adept at fitting in in new places. At the time I would have been joining them on their adventures, I would have just moved to a new state and a new school. I brought with me what felt like an awkward background of being a third culture kid, where I felt less connected to any one place and missed elements of lives I had lived before but could barely remember. Vesper and Poly would have understood.

All of these stories and characters value strength in women. At the time, I was questioning whether I could be female and value my physical strength. These girls also didn't seem to care particularly about what they were wearing, or if they did, it was more for function than style. These were my people!

I give thanks for writers like Beverly Cleary and the clouds of others who have offered us characters to be mirrors and guides, to comfort and to challenge. I still open books with great anticipation of just what characters I will meet in the pages. My wish for every child (and grown-up child!) is that they will find those characters to cling to and laugh with, just the very-right characters for their journey. Here's to all the characters who raise us!

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