Category Archives: young adult female protagonists

Charlotte’s Web: a tiny, humble hero

I have a lot of fictional female heroes and truth be told, many of them are from television: Tami Taylor, Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon, Brenda Leigh Johnson.  Of course others are from books like August Boatwright in The Secret Life of Bees, Hermione Granger in Harry Potter Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables.  This week I started taking a class called Literature for Older Children and we were assigned to read Charlotte’s Web.  For a few years, the 8th grade curriculum included a unit on rereading childhood favorites, and Charlotte’s Web was one of the texts, so I’ve become closely reacquainted with it–and what I believe is E.B. White’s perfect writing style.  

Most of all, though, I truly love Charlotte and found a kindred spirit role model in the tiny protagonist.

She is quiet, fierce, unapologetic about who she is, and yet so kind.  She is a fellow introvert, not afraid to tell Wilbur when she is tired and needs to be alone.  I love White’s description of her on page 41, after she has shocked Wilbur with the description of her eating habits: “Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.” Sigh.  

What the teacher in me loved the most were the words that Charlotte spoke into Wilbur’s existence that came true.  No one else saw Wilbur as radiant or humble or even as some pig–and yet those things become truth by story’s end.  It reminded me of the power of words and the opportunity that adults have to speak good truth into a child’s sense of self.  I will never forget a time early in my teaching career when a struggling student had an amazing piece of insight during our poetry unit and I just shouted without thinking: “Brilliant! Did everyone hear that? Brilliant!” In that moment I saw the student change: his posture, the look on his face–and as a 23 year old teacher I saw the power of words and encouragement at work.

Of course, in this story I mostly think about sacrificial love—Charlotte possessed the wisdom to know that she was not going to live as long as Wilbur, but she gave so much of herself and her time to prevent him from becoming Christmas dinner, and in turn, for him to see some of the true value in living.  When the reader leaves Wilbur at the end, he is far from the spring pig we met at the beginning:  “But you have saved me, Charlotte, and I would gladly give my life for you—I really would,” (164).  The way that he protects Charlotte’s egg sac and loves her children is when we see that Charlotte’s love has come full circle.

I hear White’s wisdom in the closing statements of “Last Day” on page 171: “Nobody, of the hundred of people that had visited the fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.”  Sigh.  And then it’s so heart wrenching that “No one was with her when she died”—and yet, I feel confident knowing that she was strong and secure.   It never ceases to amaze me how much meaning can be packed into a children’s book.  And as I look out on a snowy Brooklyn thinking about my upcoming move to not only a new apartment and new chapter of life, I believe I will finish my coffee and reflect a while on all that White had to say in the story about seasons.  Sigh.  

"I put it down on paper and then the ghost doesn’t ache so much."

About a million years ago, a good friend of mine mailed me a copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and said it would probably change my life. He was right.  This book holds everything I love about literature inside of it–and really, a blog post isn’t enough–you should read it and then we should meet for coffee to talk about it.

 It is a collection of snapshots that chronicles the coming of age of Esperanza (in English, hope), a girl growing up in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.  Cisneros’ use of vignettes instead of a standard narrative structure captures stolen moments and insights that together create a portrait not just of Esperanza, but of longing and small beauties, anger and angst.  Though short and incredibly readable, this story is complex.  Her poetic style brings the beautifully tragic peripheral characters of Mango Street to life, each desperately seeking freedom, each desperately breaking and inspiring my heart:

Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life. 

Alicia, whose Mama died, is sorry there is no one older to rise and make the lunchbox tortillas. Alicia, who inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness, is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university.  Two trains and a bus, because she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin.

Cisneros gives Esperanza an eye for tiny details and a writer’s heart that carries the weight of her neighborhood.  She writes a poem:

I want to be
like waves on the sea
like clouds in the wind
but I’m me.
One day I’ll jump
out of my skin. 
I’ll shake the sky
like a hundred violins. 

Esperanza, who is not beautiful, but is smart.  Esperanza who is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, a tiny thing against so many bricks, who looks at trees.” I love picturing this girl gathering her strength and her pen and shaking the sky with all of her might.

Toward the end of the novel, her aunt almost prophesies over her:

You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free.

As a person who writes often, and especially as an English teacher, I have spent a lot of time wondering what exactly this means.  For Esperanza, it helps her to channel her emotions and her anger:

I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.  

This is why I love writing–and introducing students to writing.  I have found that the times in my life that I feel most at peace–even if life is swirling in a thousand directions–is when I am writing.  Most of the time it is nothing important, and often words I may never reread.  But just like Esperanza, once I’ve thought through my life with pen and paper, whatever ghost was haunting me doesn’t ache so much.

Esperanza reminds me of so many of my students–trying to figure out what it means to be a young adult, what it means to love, where to put anger, how to be themselves.  They all come from different places, and yet I think that there are vignettes of beauty inside each of them–and that somehow life would make more sense if they understood that.  I’m trying to remember if coming of age novels meant anything to me when I was their age or if I love them now in hindsight after surviving adolescence.

I realize it is naive to think that the world could be saved by writer’s notebooks. But perhaps we’d all be a little more emotionally healthy? Free from the demons that eat at us, free from the insecurities that plague us, because we’ve written them away rather than having them wake us in the morning and whisper to us as we try to fall asleep.

Young Adult Female Protagonists: Nancy Drew

I am among the throngs who couldn’t get enough of Nancy Drew mysteries when I was younger.  It fed into my obsession with Mary Higgins Clark in 7th grade and is probably the foundation of my love of too many mystery television shows.  I’ve been trying to read a lot of young adult books with female protagonists to get some insight into why we love certain ones, why we need certain ones (or why we should hate certain ones).  I found a copy of The Secret of the Old Clock for a dollar while shopping with my mom this summer and just re-read for the first time since…1988?

I couldn’t get enough of her when I was younger.  In fact, I think I wanted to be her: driving around in a blue convertible, solving mysteries for all my neighbors, a blond beauty.  I’m pretty sure she was the impetus behind the “Mysterioso Club” I formed with my best friend, when we tried to find mysteries to solve in our midwestern neighborhood.  Maybe it was a combination of her cunning and her “smart” outfits that got me. (What are “smart” outfits, anyway?)

Generally, I am a fan of female protagonists who are imperfect–girls a reader could see herself in (the Judy Blume response is coming soon…).  Nancy Drew is so creepily perfect in behavior…and very stereotypical suburban, upper middle class and white that I doubt any of my students could see themselves in her. If I had read the book for literary and cultural study alone (without my nostalgic childhood dreams of fighting crime), this post would be very different.  But I find myself incapable of betraying Nancy like that.  And, it is interesting to me that such an independent, teenage girl character was published only ten years after women got the right to vote.

All that to say, that despite the unfortunate nature of its literary style and characterization, I am still a fan of Nancy’s adventures–their vintage nature is perfectly delightful.