Since March is Women’s History Month, writers at Teen Writers Bloc wanted to honor the special theme by discussing strong, female protagonists in Children’s and Teen Fiction. When I visit the children’s and teen section in Borders or Barnes and Noble, I find myself climbing over middle school girls and their teen counterparts as they comb over book covers and discuss the “drama” in the texts. It is no secret that the children’s and teen book market is driven by girl readers (to the chagrin of our own Steven Shaw).
Girls like to read. Girls love to read. Girls crave the drama on the page. And the shelves boast wonderful selections for them. Growing up, my favorite time as a reader was from 4th grade to 8th grade (before the books in the kids’ and teen section became “reading for pleasure” and teachers assigned adult classics). I read books populated with middle grade girls that were spunky, loud, and strong who always seemed to land themselves in some sort of mischief.
For my March post, I’d love to focus on three great middle grade girls: a new kid on the scene Natalie Minks of The Boneshaker, Harriet of Harriet the Spy, and Turtle Wexler of The Westing Game. I adore all three protagonists for different reasons.
A new girl in the world of middle grade fiction, Natalie Minks of Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker, rides a Chesterlane bicycle and is brave enough to look evil in the eye as Dr. Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show rolls into her small town of Arcane, Missouri. Here is a summary from Amazon.com, “Natalie Minks, 13, likes machines—the way they make sense, the way all the gears and cogs fit together to make something happen. When Dr. Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show stops in at her father’s bicycle repair shop because a wagon wheel has fallen off and disappeared, Natalie knows that the man is not meant to fit into the machinery of her life. Her ailing mother has told her stories of bargains made with the Devil, and of besting wickedness by looking it right in the face. Limberleg has a collection of clockwork figures that work without being wound up and never seem to run down. When Natalie begins to have inexplicable visions of the malevolent forces facing Arcane, MO, she isn’t convinced that she is equipped to fight the evil at hand. Soon almost everyone is taken in by Limberleg’s promises of miraculous healing and snake-oil cures, and it becomes clear to Natalie that she is their only hope of survival. Enhanced by full-page drawings, this intricate story, set in the early 20th century, unfolds with the almost audible click of puzzle pieces coming together.”
I love this protagonist for so many reasons:
1. Natalie isn’t afraid to skin up her knees.
Natalie Minks must conquer her Chesterlane which is no ordinary bicycle. She eats dirt and gets bruised many times in the novel, but never gives up. I totally admire this.
As a kid my grandfather used to insist that I wear knee pads during almost all of my outdoor pursuits. He’d say, “You gonna skin up yours knees and get dark marks.” Mind you he was a biracial man from Mississippi who had his own hiccups about skin tone and color and lord forbid his yellowy granddaughter had dark knees. I skinned them up anyways but was given massive tubs of cocoa butter to correct my wrongs.
2. Natalie noses around in adult business.
Natalie Minks sticks her nose into the inner workings of Dr. Limberleg’s Technological Medicine show and ends up saving her town. If it weren’t for her suspicions and dogged determination to investigate the hucksters, everyone would’ve been toast.
Constant phrases I heard growing up were “Mind your business!”, “Keep your nose out of grown folks affairs!”, “Stay outta grown folks conversations!”. So I admire Natalie’s tenacity and as a kid I just loved listening in on adult conversations.
Another favorite girl protagonist of mine is Harriet from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. When I was given this book as a kid, I completely fell in love with it. Here is a summary from Amazon.com for those who weren’t blessed enough to read it as a child: “The fascinating story is about an intensely curious and intelligent girl, who literally spies on people and writes about them in her secret notebook, trying to make sense of life’s absurdities. When her classmates find her notebook and read her painfully blunt comments about them, Harriet finds herself a lonely outcast. Fitzhugh’s writing is astonishingly vivid, real and engaging, and Harriet, by no means a typical, loveable heroine, is one of literature’s most unforgettable characters.”
I love little Harriet for the following reasons:
1. Harriet is mean and snarky.
Harriet has little mean thoughts and observations that she writes in her notebook. She writes down these things and is able to put them somewhere. Of course, this eventually lands her in hot water. But nonetheless, I just loved her insights, feelings, and commentary.
I was a bit of a snarky child like Harriet. Or rather, I had little mean thoughts and observations (like most people) and needed a place to store them and work out why I was having them. While reading Harriet the Spy, I kept a journal and wrote down my observations of the adult world and the other kids around me. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be having these thoughts, but reading about Harriet, I understood that many others had these thoughts as well.
2. Harriet is a snoop.
Harriet gets in a dumbwaiter to go spy on Mrs. Plumber! Enough said! She was hardcore and willing to do break the law for her observations. She snoops around her neighborhood and attempts to gather the answers to the questions in her notebook.
Riding in a dumbwaiter is still on my bucket list.
Thirdly, I loved Tabitha Ruth “Turtle” Wexler of The Westing Game. As a middle grade reader, I was entralled with mysteries. From Clue mystery puzzles, the Where in the World is Carmen San Diego TV show, PBS’ show GhostWriter, to mystery novels, I couldn’t get enough of clues and solving crimes. So when my 5th grade teacher gave me Ellen Raskin’s novel, I read it over and over again. I adore Turtle Wexler because:
1. Turtle Wexler doesn’t mess around.
Everyone at Sunset Towers knows that if you pull Turtle Wexler’s braid you’re going to get kicked in the shins. I just loved this as a middle schooler. There were many people I wanted to kick, but I couldn’t just go around kicking people without serious trouble from mom, dad, and grandma. Turtle Wexler embodied my fantasy. She kicked boys as well as annoying old ladies (maybe not so nice!). She wasn’t afraid to take a dare and earn money from it. There is something endearing about a little girl who has a big ego and confidence. I wish this confidence remained as hormones and pre-pubscence set in.
2. Turtle Wexler is sharp.
She solves the Westing Game mystery. As many times as I wrote down the clues and tried to arrange them, I was never sharp enough to figure it out. I always overlooked something.
All three girls have the spark I look for in a great middle grade read. Girls who aren’t wrapped up in being ladies and ascribing to gender norms. Girls who just want to do their own thing: ride their bicycles, keep their journals, or wear witch costumes and solve mysteries. If I ever have a little girl, I hope she’d be just as spunky as these girls, even though as a parent, I’d be called into the principal’s office no doubt.
Photo Credit: Clarion Books, Puffin, Yearling, Rosie the Riveter Trust