14 Girls We Wanted To Be Back Then: Kickass Heroines From YA & Children’s Books Of Yesteryear

by riese & laneia

Once upon a time in a faraway land, an eight-year-old girl in overalls ran faster than the boys and straight into our heartspaces. We considered titiling this article “The Land Before Katniss,” but as you can tell, we changed our minds.

As this list is limited to books we chose to read ourselves as tiny humans, it’s definitely not all-encompassing or representative, so feel free to share your own memories in the comments!

 

14 Kickass Girls From Books We Read In the 80′s

 

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14. Jessie Alden, The Boxcar Children

For reasons which surely baffled our parents at the time, youngsters such as myself wanted more than anything to be The Boxcar Children — that is, to say, to be hungry and alone. Oh, youth! I was a big fan of Orphan Lit and wanted to live in a Boxcar, eat hobo stew and scavenge for loaves of bread, etc. Unfortunately, I was never orphaned, though I enjoyed building forts and pretending to run away from home. Honestly, my coping mechanisms haven’t really changed much since then.

 

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13. Heidi, Heidi

Heidi made it seem like living on a mountain with a grumpy old man wouldn’t be so bad. She taught that goat farmer kid how to read and helped Clara learn how to walk! I mean, c’mon.

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12. Molly McIntire, The American Girls Series

Listen, Molly just wanted to be the best version of herself that she could be. I really identified with her struggle to improve and set herself apart from everyone else. Also: wartime as a vehicle for coming-of-age will always be my favorite.

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11. Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird

What can you even say about Scout. She’s childhood tomboy patient zero.

“So it took an eight-year-old child to bring ‘em to their senses…. That proves something – that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human. Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children.”

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10. Juana Maria, The Island of the Blue Dolphins

Juana Maria is doing it for herself — the white men show up, kill all the sea otters, kill all the people, kill her Dad the chief, and then take the remaining islanders away on a boat, leaving Juana alone with her younger brother. So what does Juana do? She builds a house out of whale bones and hunts animals, motherfuckers! She does all the shit men used to do, all the shit women used to do, and then some.

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9. Fern, Charlotte’s Web

I think Fern is why I wanted to be a vegetarian at such a young age, because of the way she saved Wilbur at breakfast that morning.

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8. Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables

When the relationship with your adoptive family begins with them being disappointed that you’re not a boy, there’s really only one way to go and that’s UP! Anne was chatty and read all the books and had the best hair of anyone in any book ever (save for Pippi). She managed to be true to herself without being super disrespectful to Marilla, which couldn’t have been an easy feat.

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7. Cassie, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Cassie is next-level heroine, because not only is she a smart firecracker of a girl who challenges authority, she’s a smart firecracker of a girl who challenges the pernicious, terrifying, often deadly and completely legal racism that defined the era and she does so in a way that only a child can.

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6. Jo March, Little Women

Like Scout, Jo March is the tomboy prototype. I used to take classes at the Alcott House and imagine that I was Jo March. Fuck I wanted to be Jo March so bad.

“It’s bad enough to be a girl anyway, when I like boy’s games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!”

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5. Laura, Little House series

If I could’ve swapped lives with Laura Ingles, I would’ve in a hot second, even though I was pretty sure I’d die in her shoes. I especially remember reading The Long Winter at Pizza Hut with my family thinking, “I can’t believe we’re eating pizza AND THEY’RE STARVING TO DEATH IN A BLIZZARD!” It was just so romantic — the constant struggle and how fervently appreciated the small things and each other.

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4. Claudia Kishi, The Baby-Sitters Club

Claudia wore the craziest shit and had her own phone line which, along with Clarissa Explains It All, planted the seed that if I was ever going to have a real life, I was going to need a separate phone line. Also it’s just occurring to me that my job at AS is essentially the same as Claudia’s job for the BSC. Holy shit.

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3. Harriet, Harriet the Spy

via flickr.com/photos/calsidyrose

Harriet M. Welsch had absolutely everything in common with me: she fastidiously maintained a notebook of observations and quandaries, she always wanted to know more than anybody wanted to tell her and she hoped that all the time she spent observing other human beings could translate into a high-powered career! Her career choice, of course, was “spy.” I could do that. I could be a spy with my pencil and my don’t-fuck-with-me face. I could be Harriet the Spy!

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2. Pippi Longstocking

Pippi permeated my brainspace in a major way, like that time I strapped sponges to my feet and tried to clean the kitchen that way and my Mom said she was really glad I’d decided to clean the kitchen, but that I was just making it worse and needed to take the sponges off my little brother’s tiny innocent feet. Pippi always stuck it to the man, though, ’cause she grew up on the sea and had no manners. If only I’d grown up on the sea, I could be really sassy to grown-ups and have a pet monkey, you know?

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1. Ramona Quimby, Ramona books


To say I looked up to Ramona Quimby would be, in fact, incorrect. I did not look up to Ramona. I looked directly at Ramona, square in the eyeholes, and saw myself. She was fiesty and independent, curious, tomboyish, always getting into trouble, always not understanding the elements of the adult world that were closed off to her, or the tiring etiquette of everyday life. She cried too, and felt left out, and had crushes and got grossed out and smashed an egg on her head. I didn’t want to be Ramona Quimby. I already was Ramona Quimby. And still am, I think.

 

Avatar of Riese

Riese is the 32-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1732 articles for us.

261 Comments

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      Right?! Reading list just grew by 14.
      Also- where I live there is a toy/book store named Boo Radley’s, and next door a coffee shop named Atticus, and they have pages from To Kill a Mocking Bird covering one of the walls. It is the most happy tea-drinking spot because Scout is there.

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      It’s kind of hit or miss though, so beware. I recently went through this phase where I read a bunch of books from my youth. I was bitterly disappointed to realize that the Boxcar children and The Babysitter’s Club books were kind of shitty writing.
      Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables are worthwhile re-reads, though.

  1. Thumb up 3

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    When you said, “Once upon a time in a faraway land, an eight-year-old girl in overalls ran faster than the boys and straight into our heartspaces.” I thought you were talking about Leslie, from Bridge to Terabithia, but then it wasn’t on the list and I was confused.

    BUT ANYWAYS. There were/are so many fictional girls that I wanted to be. Also, Pippi Longstocking, Heidi, and Scout 100%.

  2. Thumb up 14

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    I was a pretty big fan of the Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce. Actually, I think that defined most of my childhood.

    Outside of the whole YA fantasy genre I was also obsessed with Little House on the Prairie and the subsequent books. Anyone else remember the whole wagon racing sequence when Amos won with the heavy wagon?

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    Definitely played “Heidi” as a child… you know like when kids play pretend or house or whatever… my friend and I would be Heidi and Clara.

    Also, I always loved Jo March. She was my favorite, especially cause she was a writer which I always wanted to be.

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    Seeing Heidi appear here is for me (I’m swiss!) somewhat special. Would’ve never thought that ‘our’ famous books is actually still _that_ famous!

    And on a sidenote: I now want to read all of these books! :)

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    Oh sweet cheesus. This is such a great encapsulation of my childhood. True story: I made a home movie with my neighbor girl around age 8 wherein I played Molly McIntire (I had the enormous glasses) and she was
    Samantha VictorianWhatsherface- it involved time travel and outstanding scriptwriting.

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    I will confess here to all of you: After reading Anne of Green Gables I went through a (far too annoying) phase where I called people I liked “kindred spirits” and asked all of the girls at school to be my “bosom friend”. Clearly the lesbian card was being played even then.

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    I read that same copy of the first Boxcar Children books in elementary school. I’m pretty sure I checked it out of the library after seeing the cover and thinking, “That girl in the pink is hot!” And then she turned out to be my favourite character, so I felt justified in my 9/10 year old objectification of a fictional character.

    After seeing the Harriet the Spy movie I made my parents buy me a Sherlock Holmesesque detective/spy kit. It was awesome.

    Also, at some point during my childhood, I may or may not have tried to float across a body of water in a wooden barrel. It didn’t turn out well. Thanks for the splinters Pippi.

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    Did anybody else read the Amelia Bedelia books? I don’t know that I wanted to be her but my middle name is Amelia and, as a small child when I said my full name I always said my middle name was Amelia Bedelia because in my small child brain I couldn’t say Amelia without the Bedelia.

    I mostly just wanted to actually be a boy when I was little. Like, me, but a boy. I did identify with plenty of the characters on this list though.

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      Yes I loved Amelia Bedelia! I always remembered her tea cake and wanted to eat that! I still think it sounds so good! Also I just didn’t understand what she was supposed to have done wrong, because clearly a tea cake should have tea in it! xD

      Also, even though I did love a lot of female characters in the books I read, I do think I also just really wanted to be a boy, or just plain didn’t think about the fact that I was a girl, when I was a kid, so it was really easy for me to identify with all the boy characters in books too, and it didn’t feel particularly more special or intimate if it was a girl character. For instance, I have always wanted, and still do want, to be Sherlock Holmes. Not a “girl version” of Sherlock Holmes. Just Sherlock Holmes, as he is in the books. That would be so cool. The gender thing was never much of a barrier to me, in that respect.

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    this is so perfect – EXCEPT- where is alana from tamora pierce’s books?? masquerading as a boy in order to become a knight, using birth control, not giving any fucks about who she slept with/married? all those things should qualify her. kel is also great if you go more into late 90′s/early 2000′s.

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    I can’t really explain how much I loved Harriet the Spy and Anne of Green Gables growing up. My friend and I continued to use the term “kindred spirits” for new people we liked well into high school (actually it still pops up in my vocabulary every now and then!). It was so bad ass when she broke her slate over Gilbert’s head! I totally would have fallen in love with her too.

    Also, re-reading Harriet the Spy really makes the queer subtext stand out to me. She is totally a dyke in training!! Here is an awesome article about queer Harriet: http://archive.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2005/jan05_horning.asp

    I recently got a new bike and named her Harriet the Spy.

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    Nearly all of these books were crucial to my growing up. (And what was it that made being an orphan/abandoned so cool as a kid?) Like I mentioned above, though, I’ve always latched onto sci-fi/fantasy women more. The ones I remember best from when I was 12 and younger were:

    Alanna (The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce)

    My fav female knight because she got to be tough, brash, pretend to be a boy, smart, magical *and* feminine without succumbing to gender stereotypes. I really, really wanted to be Alanna. Also I would totally live celibate for George.

    Eowyn (The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)

    My dad read this series to me when I was 6 and even then I latched onto Eowyn. I mean, come on, “I am no man!” Bam. My first really fantasy heroine feminist moment.

    Rachel (Animorphs series by K.A. Applegate)

    I love a tough blonde. Seriously. And Animorphs was my life for at least a couple years. Rachel was always my fav. And come on, her nickname was Xena. Obviously bait for a future lesbian.

    Polgara (From a ton of David Eddings books)

    Obviously I didn’t always stick to “age appropriate” literature. Polgara rocked my world. Super powerful, super magical, politically savvy and, again, allowed to be dominant and in charge while still loving dresses and fashion. I also loved political intrigue and banter and Polgara’s stories were always chock full of that.

    Claudia (Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice)

    Yeah. I got into the vampire thing hardcore in my preteens. I have no idea what I found so romantic about Claudia’s story, especially since it’s super tragic, but I think I was secretly dark and dramatic and the thought of being a tormented child vampire was appealing.

    Jeshikah (Midnight Predator by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes)

    Yeah, another “wtf?” moment in my childhood since not only if Jeshikah not a main character, but she’s a dominant vampire villain who runs a modern-day human slave complex. Maybe my first fascination with kink? I don’t know, but I couldn’t get her out of my head for a long time.

    Willow (Sisters Long Go by Peg Kehret)

    I loved a lot of Peg Kehret’s books, but I read “Sisters Long Ago” so many times I lost count. It’s the first time I’d heard of reincarnation and it fascinated me. And while I didn’t have a sister dying, my mom was often told she was going to die soon when I was young and I really identified with Willow. Runner up: Ellen from “Horror at the Haunted House” because she was playing Joan of Arc in the haunted house and I loved ghost stories.

    Meg Murray (Wrinkle in Time series by Madeline L’Engle)

    Because what baby lesbian doesn’t have a love for Meg?

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    I still have my copy of “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” from 4th grade. When that girl made Cassie walk in the street my tiny, angsty self was ready to jump into that book and start something.

    I also bought a second copy for my class library so I wouldn’t have to share…much like I did with everything else on my YA shelf.

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    I enjoyed reading as a kid, and I still do very much, but I was never really into books about “normal” kids. Judy Blume, Boxcar Children, Babysitters Club, Ramona Quimby…they just did nothing for me. The only books from this list that I’ve read are Island of the Blue Dolphins, and To Kill a Mockingbird (who HASN’T read TKAM?).

    I was a fan of Julie’s from Julie of the Wolves. I went through this wolf phase in elementary school, so I totally wanted to be Julie and be adopted into a wolf pack, even if I had to live in the frozen tundra.

    Also, Rachel and Cassie from the Animorphs series. Holy jaysus, I LOVED Animorphs. As fearless and tenacious as Rachel was, I wanted to emulate quiet and thoughtful Cassie. I love animals, and the fact that Cassie worked at her parents’ animal rehabilitation clinic made her seem like the coolest girl to be, or at least the coolest friend to have.

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      Julie of the Wolves! Ahhh I was obsessed with the idea of being adopted into a wolf pack. Also, did anyone else read Malu’s Wolf? I’ve never met anyone else who’s heard of it, but I LOVED that book. Also Malu was totally badass. Definitely wanted to be her, along with Alanna and Daine (especially Daine).

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      YES! Julie of the Wolves! I read that one so many times. And, true fact: when I moved to Colorado and went on a hike and saw (what I was pretty sure was) lichen, my first thought was, “well, if I get lost up here, I think I can eat these? Didn’t Julie do that on the tundra?” ….and I last read that book about 20 years ago.

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    All of these things <3 So in love with Jo March, I was so disappointed when she got married and as a preteen I didn't understand why.

    Can I also add Joey Bettany from the Chalet School series? Not only awesome herself but she had her own crush on Jo March.

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      I know right? The way Jo describes him in her letters, I thought she just liked him. I was really confused when it turned out there was more to it. It never seemed quite right somehow.

      I don’t know how many of you have read the sequels, but Nan seriously rocks. Like, she decides she will become a doctor and never get married and she actually studies really hard to be a doctor and turns people down and completely sticks with it. (so now in my head she’s gay and that makes me like her even more :P)

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    I love all of this list, so much so that I happened to be discussing the American Girls just last night with some of my camp cabinmates.

    But I’d also like to throw in a vote for Claudia of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Because who didn’t want to run away and live at the Met?

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      Seconding Claudia. Also, both main characters from the lesser-known “Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth,” also by EL Konigsburg, which is all about these two strong girls developing a quirky, intense friendship. LOVED that book.

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      I’ve been scrolling the comments waiting for someone to bring up Claudia from The Mixed Up Files. Girl was wicked smart — packing clothes in empty instrument cases was genius.

      When we read that book in school, my third grade reading teacher Mrs. Andrews turned our school into a fake Met. We had to hide from fake museum guards in bathroom stalls, and budget money and shit in the cafeteria. Most memorable school experience probs ever.

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    Caddie Woodlawn, anyone? A total tomboy, though *spoiler alert* she eventually gives into the social pressures to be more ladylike. I always skipped the last part because of that–I preferred it when she was out-butching her brothers and wandering the woods.

    Now that I think about it, most of the books with female protagonists that I loved as a kid centered around tomboys or girls who pretended to be boys: the Alanna/Lionness series, Daine in the Wild Magic series, Jo March, Scout…

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      I must have blocked out the part where Caddie Woodlawn becomes more ladylike, because I LOVED her but totally don’t remember that plotline. Very telling!
      Also, so true about tomboys/girls pretending to be boys — those were all my favorite characters too! They were always allowed to be/able to be a lot more badass that way.

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      Thank you! I was wracking my brain and couldn’t remember her name and was thinking red head, definitely had some encounter with a rattlesnake, chilled out with the Native Americans, and I think warned them when she knew white men were going to attack them. I ran around the woods pretending to be her all the time. I remembered the pressure for her to be more ladylike, yet I totally blocked that she gave in.

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    NANCY DREW!
    And the 4some from Enid Blyton, I forgot their name but they were always investigating something or other in weird places? The Secret of X? One of the stories had them in an island they managed themselves and I wanted to have my own island so bad.

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    Molly was ALWAYS my favorite American Girl. My sister loved Samantha because she was all classy, but I always loved Molly because she was a badass. Definitely love every book and character on this list though.

    I think the one that’s missing is Hermione! She was the perfect fictional character for every girl to look up to.

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      YES HERMIONE! I was going to chime in and say Potter but wasn’t sure if the age range was right – I started reading the series when I was 15.

      I was bummed when Rowling’s planned rival-to-Hermione didn’t pan out. She was going to be Ron’s cousin from the accountant who ends up in Slytherin and is as whipsmart as Hermione. My mum thinks I’m Hermione but I’m not as fond of exams as she is; I think I would have loved Mystery Rival Character.

      Also Luna Lovegood for being so comfortable in her own skin and being the epitome of No Fucks To Give.

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      I really, really wanted the Molly doll because she was all sassy and amazing. I had a couple of her books. But instead I got one of those boring ones that look like you except my hair was light brown/kinda blonde and mom got my the actual blonde one, and my hair darkened, and yeah.

      GOOD STORY. TELL IT AGAIN.

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    I totally spent a good part of my childhood wishing/searching for a boxcar that I could pretend was my own as a direct result of the Box Car series.

    And I still get really excited everytime I see a Baby-sitter’s club book. In fact, last time I was hope, my parents had brought down boxes of my old book, and I went through them and read the ones I could fine! Haha.

    All of these girls are awesome- except I always found Harriet the spy to be a little annoying.

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      I used to have almost all the Babysitter Club books (the ones written up to around 1996), in addition to the whole Saddle Club series, but when I went to college my mom threw them all away in an attempt to declutter!
      I was heartbroken.

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    I love this whole list, although somehow I have never read The Boxcar Children, Anne of Green Gables, or the Little House series (except for the first one and I liked Mary better). I also didn’t read To Kill A Mockingbird or Little Women until I was an adult. (Although I loved the Little Women movie when it came out when I was in high school, and I feel like I had a crush on all of them.)

    Ramona Quimby was one of my best friends for many years growing up. Reading about the ridiculous and awkward things that happened to her always made me feel better about the ridiculous/awkward things that happened to me.

    I’m so glad you put Molly McIntire on this list! No one ever understood why I chose Molly, because she didn’t have fancy dresses like Samantha and was not a pioneer (which was super popular) like Kirsten. But I picked Molly for 3 very specific reasons:
    1. She lived during WWII, which I was very into at the time.
    2. She wore glasses like me.
    3. Her last name is McIntire like Joey from New Kids on the Block. (Yes, this was legit one of my reasons at 9.)
    I think Molly is like Ramona in that she tries so hard and really wants people to like her but is also kind of awkward. (Hi, definitely me.)

    My modern addition to this list has to be Hermione Granger. Those books didn’t come out until I was almost an adult, so she wasn’t a character I identified with growing up, but I know for women just 10 or so years younger than me Hermione was a big role model.

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    As the 2nd oldest of 4 daughters in my family, I got way too much joy in pretending we were the March family because it meant I got to ‘be Jo.’

    So many of my other favorites have already been listed, but I’ve got to mention– Sara Crewe!

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    I loved the Babysitters Club! Can we talk about how Kristy was totally gay? Remember that one book where she kissed Bart in the movies and didn’t know if she should close her eyes? Super awkward. I am sure she ended up with Abby. Or Dawn. I loved Claudia, but she almost intimidated me. She was way too cool. But I fucking hated Mallory. Elementary school me used to get so fucking pissed off at Mallory for no real reason.

    Also, as the proud owner of six American Girl dolls, I need to mention Felicity. Totally badass. The entire series is based on girls being badass. Felicity rode horses and hung around with Ben the apprentice and shit, and got invited to a ball on Christmas. I was in love with it all.

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      I assume you have seen http://thehairpin.com/2011/05/how-your-american-girl-doll-shaped-the-rest-of-your-life/? [Also, not gonna lie, when I was a kid I was SO jealous of the girls who had a whole bunch of American Girl dolls. I begged for one for ages and finally my parents agreed we'd split the price three ways between them, me, and my grandma. I "earned" my portion by doing odd jobs around the house for a couple dollars at a time, which, lol, looking back I was probably actually useless.]

      Anyway, though, the bit about Felicity is so spot on: “You grew up to have an affinity for lovely things, a possibly inflated sense of your own uniqueness, a teensy hint of self-righteousness (remember how she refused tea when they raised the tea tax? “Thank you, I shall take no tea!”), and a latent familiarity with Colonial Williamsburg.”

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      My main memory of Kristy is when everyone painted their nails and she begrudgingly allowed them to do one coat of clear polish on hers. That was the moment I realized we were basically the same person (except I had Mary Anne’s timidness/overprotective parents. It’s weird feeling so much like two characters who are so different).

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      I had Samantha! Felicity came out when I was starting to age out of being the target group for American Girls… when I was growing up it was just Kristen, Samantha and Molly. I had Samantha ’cause I was really into a period of time I referred to as ‘the victorian time’ which was, in my head, the time Samantha was alive.

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      there is totally fanfiction dedicated to this, not that I know from personal experience or anything…

      also I could picture her with Dawn, the free spirit from California, she’d be into that

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    island of the blue dolphins! yes, this. similarly I wanted to be julie from julie of the wolves. living out in the wilderness with just myself and the animals still sounds good, except I might get cold.
    scout is one of my favorite characters of all time. if I ever have a daughter, I hope she’s like scout.

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    I was so obsessed with Little Women and Jo in particular for most of my life. I read the illustrated classics version in first or second grade and never looked back. I’m pretty sure I still own at least two copies of the book, a copy of Little Men, and two versions of the movie (it doesn’t get any better than Katharine Hepburn as Jo March). “fuck I wanted to be Jo March so bad” pretty much sums it up perfectly.

    Also I went through a brief phase where I wrote down everything about everyone in a secret composition notebook and pretended that I was Harriet.

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    In kindergarten my teacher used to read us The Boxcar Children, and my friends and I would play “Boxcar Children” on the playground. I actually was always Benny, which makes total sense now that I’m grown up but still dress like a 12-year-old boy.

    I really wanted to be Kristy from the Baby-sitters Club, yes she was totally a queermo. (Can I just point out that at the beginning of the movie [don't judge] she tucks her shirt into the front of her boxers?)

    Above all though, I think Harriet the Spy made me who I am today. Or maybe it’s because of all the Macgyver I watched in preschool…

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      I had SUCH a literary crush on Kristy as a baby lesbian. In the movie I think they do a good job at implying that she’s a baby queermo, too, or as heavily as they can for people who are supposed to be 13.

      Also, I must have watched that movie wAAAaaay too much, because it’s been about 10 years, and I know exactly which scene you’re talking about.

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    I love posts about nostalgia and books!
    I was a shy awkward kid with bad haircuts and welfare glasses. Books were my refuge. This list is almost perfect. I would echo everyone else and add Meg Murray and Charlotte Doyle.

    I was definitely obsessed with books about groups of girl friends like BSC and Friends 4-Ever, Saddle Club etc.

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      My best friend in primary school and I used to play Saddle Club in the schoolyard at breaktime, we would ride imaginary horses over jumps made of sticks and the boys from the year above would make fun of us but I got to be Stevie so zero fucks.

      I was pretty jealous when another friend who went to a private all girls school told me that everyone there played Saddle Club and there were no dumb boys to make fun of them, though. Same sex education all the way for me after that.

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    These were absolutely my favorite books/characters (I liked Claudia, but never read that one) circa 1998. I think there were years when I thought I WAS Laura Ingalls and ran around in prairie dresses climbing trees and spying. Thanks for this list!

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    As far as more recent Children’s/YA books go, I have to say that I love Meggie from the Inkheart/Inkspell/Inkdeath trilogy by Cornelia Funke. I really strongly relate to her absolute passion for reading and the idea of becoming lost in the world of the book. These books are so excellent.

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    You guys, can we get a count of all the little babygays who took to notebooks and pretended to be Harriet the Spy? Because I feel like it’s a lot of us.
    One. Obvs. I dedicated an entire summer’s worth of observations of my small little town to that black and white composition book.

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    This was a fantastic list to read. I’m Swedish, but since I lived in the U.S. as a kid this means that I’ve grown up with several of these books (that my Swedish contemporaries simply haven’t heard of). Well, EVERYONE reads Pippi, but that’s not the point ;)
    I loved The Boxcar Children to pieces, and Charlotte’s Web!, and The Little House in the Big Woods was one of the first books I read in English (at the age of approximately six). I was also a huge fan of all the boarding school books, be it St Clare’s, Malory Towers or the Chalet School (I still find them enjoyable because they’re so moralizing!). I didn’t however go for the BSC but rather the Babysitter’s Little Sisters :)
    After moving back to Sweden from the U.S. my mom actually took out a subscription for American Girl for me, and I loved the books as well. At one point I had quite a large collection. Don’t think I had the actual dolls, but I remember having the paper dolls for at least several of them (like Molly!).
    Some of these books I’ve discovered at a more advanced age, like To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s a good book, but not one of my childhood heroes. If I would sum up my early reading I would say orphans, hard lives, american, english, boarding schools and then from the age of eleven also huge amounts of fantasy. Btw, anyone else find it interesting that there’s always at least one token tomboy in Enid Blyton’s books?
    I’m sorry for the length of the post but I’m just happy to find people who can relate to my reading. Wheeee! :D

    (And I love Meg Murry. Now I’ll stop.)

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      I was definitely a Babysitter’s Little Sister fan for a while, but then I got older and kind of crazy about Kristy, so I segued on over to BSC for more of her. I did love Karen, though. We got glasses and bad haircuts and believed in witches at the same time!

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    Okay, it might be a horrifically middle-class British answer, but my favourite character will always be Nancy from Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. She’s so unapologetically strong (without needing any sort of conflict or trials to encourage it), even if you don’t consider that the books were written in the 1930s.

    A short clip from the film version: http://youtu.be/BnXMuAJKDv0?t=2m20s
    And the obligatory wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Blackett

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    I am also Ramona Quimby, and have been told so many times. My best friends grandma used to call me a ragamufin back in elementary school, and I think it might be the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.
    I also got a lot of inspiration from Lyra in the His Dark Materials(The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The amber Spyglass) series. She was such a strong, stubborn girl, and I totally looked up to her in my early teens.

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    This is pretty obscure, but does anybody else remember a book called The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig? It’s about a family that is exiled to Siberia, and the young daughter has to figure out how to support her family during incredible deprivation and harsh conditions. There’s one scene involving her re-knitting a sweater (and then the woman cheating her) that I will remember all my life. It isn’t a cheery book at all, but the girl was just so strong and brave – a real inspiration.

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      Ain’t no shame in that! YA is the shit. I recently read the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfield (who writes awesome fantasy/sci-fi YA), with a kickass female character who has to disguise herself as a boy to become an airman on a living steampunk-ish genetically-engineered airship…

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    Soooo, I came from a very blue collar family of teenage parents who barely made it out of high school. Meaning I’ve only actually read “Roll of Thunder” (for school in 6th grade) and the Molly books (because my grandma bought them) because my parents didn’t think a kid could actually enjoy reading…. but, when I came out to my mother she said she’d known since I was a kid because I always cried when watching Harriet the Spy (with Michelle Trachtenberg). And because I couldnt stop staring at the women in uniform on my brother’s military base, which isn’t relevant but whatever.

    So there’s that.

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    An excerpt about George from Nancy Drew, courtesy of Wikipedia:

    “She has short black hair and brown eyes. She is an athletic tomboy, and is not easily scared when involved in Nancy’s sleuthing.”

    Sup Fam.

    Also, what about Sally from the Encyclopedia Brown books? Also, wouldn’t Encyclopedia Brown be amazing if he was a really dapper gay lady? I would date Lezcyclopedia Brown so fast you guys.

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      Yes, yes, and yes!! This is now the third time I’ve mentioned Nancy’s friend George in these comments because she had *such* an effect on my childhood.

      And please. I never bought that shit about her dating Burt or whatever his name was. Never.

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    OK, this is going back a ways, but has anyone out there read the “Swallows & Amazons” books? Because one of the Amazons is named Nancy. Only her name is actually Ruth, but she goes by Nancy because you can’t be a ruthless pirate if your name is Ruth. She is awesome and I always wanted to be her. Also, there is a character named Titty, which is unfortunately hilarious, but she’s a total nerd and I love her.

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    Was anyone else really into the WWII/1940s time period as a kid? I loved this book called “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, it’s about a 10-year-old girl who lives in Copenhagen during WWII and how she and her family help her Jewish best friend escape after the Nazis invade Denmark.

    I also loved a book called “As the Waltz was Ending” which I think I’ve posted about on here before. It’s a true story of a girl who was studying to be a ballerina in Vienna when the war hits Austria.

    (Side note: All of these WWII-set books made me want to visit Europe a lot. When I went to Vienna on my post-college travels I had to find the opera house just because of As the Waltz was Ending.)

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    RAMONA HAD SUCH AN AFFECT ON ME. Hence the av. But I actually wasn’t much like Ramona in that I wasn’t too adventurous, and didn’t speak my mind all that much, and obeyed and was rather quiet. But then, I was awkward, and I had a lot of opinions, and bad things happened to me, and who couldn’t see themselves in Ramona in some ways? There are a lot of ways in which I grew up to be a Ramona, and I really do appreciate Beverly Cleary for giving that role model to me. And now I have to go contemplate getting a Ramona tattoo YET AGAIN.

    I will also mention – even though this is a bit after my time – that Junie B. Jones was an awesome little lady, too. My kid sister loved her, and I would always sneak those books to read in the car and just laugh my ass off. She was like Ramona, if Ramona was in a sitcom.

    And also Lyra from “His Dark Materials.” Just… super bad ass.

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    Island of the Blue Dolphins! RAMONA. Harriet the Spy! Man, my Harriet the Spy/burn book hybrid got me in so much trouble in the fifth grade. Worth it…?

    Also, did anyone else read “The Long Secret” aka the sequel to “Harriet the Spy” where Harriet and Janie hang out in Montauk one summer, Janie gets her period, Harriet solves more mysteries, and everything is AWKWARD AS HELL? I think I liked it more than the first book tbh, just for sheer weirdness.

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    Reading this article and the comments totally made my day. I used to spend soo much time reading all the boxcar children, babysitters club and little house on the prairie books. I remember I was in the French Immersion program in elementary school and I was only allowed to take out french books from the library but I convinced my mom to come in and speak to the librarian so I got special permission to take out 3 english books at a time!

    And I never got into the American Girl series, but I did read and manage to amass the whole collection of “Our Canadian Girl” books which were beautiful historical fiction hardcovers with ribbon page markers that, each told a story of a young girl and her family immigrating to Canada. Most of the stories spanned from the 1700s to the 1900s and were SO awesome to read because I got to learn about different cultures and could put myself in the place of these girls who were moving to a brand new country and trying to build lives there and it seemed like the ultimate adventure to me.

    Here’s a link to the site for that series if anyone would like the check them out and read character bios :)

    http://www.ourcanadiangirl.ca/

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    Menolly from the Harperhall Trilogy, especially circa Dragonsong. Yes. Tomboy who plays music even though it’s forbidden to girls, so she runs away and lives in a cave with some tiny dragons. What’s not to love?

    Also, it’s entirely possible that I wrote erotic Laura Ingalls Wilder fanfiction when I was a kid.

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      OH MY GOD YES. I didn’t know anyone else READ those! I loved Menolly and used to fantasize about being her all the time! I read all those books, including some Anne McCaffrey books I probably shouldn’t have been reading at that time… but oh what a fascinating world Pern was. God I want to read those again so badly… I’m so happy someone else was reading those too!

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    Nobody wanted to be Turtle Wexler from The Westing Game? She was clever and grew up to be an attorney who played the stock market. My other favorite was There’s a Bat in Bunk Five (the sequel to The Cat Ate My Gymsuit) because it wasn’t such a downer as the first book and was set at camp, which it made me want to attend…cough, cough. :) I imagined I was a kid in the bunk and Marcie Lewis was my camp counselor. I also thought I WAS Encyclopedia Brown. And I read a version of Two Years Before the Mast adapted for kids (required by the Girl Scouts) when I was 11 that made me think I was Richard Henry Dana.

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      marry me! i thought i was a GENIUS for being the only person on the planet (as far as i knew) reading The Westing Game! for One, i always imagined Vincent Price as the old man, because i loved vincent price mare than any small child not named “tim burton”. i remember HBO or showtime or some cable channel made it into a TV movie, i thought it would be awesome. i was disappointed, a recognizable faces but none of the intrigue that the book gave me. SUCH a great mystery. i need to reread it, add it to the list of movies i want to make one day

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    You forgot MATILDA!!! She was smart, sassy and developed super powers because of her impressive brain! She used her wits to deal with an abusive home Hand school situation and ended up with the mom of her dreams….another powerhouse lady in Ms. Honey :)

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    In addition to all the awesome girls mentioned up above, I always loved Lucy Pevensie from the Narnia series. I thought she did really well at being her own person, even if the others didn’t take her seriously. That was really important to me at the time.

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      I thought no one was going to mention Lucy Pevensie! To this day I still have dreams about opening my closet to find it leads to another world – or at the very least, a secret room. And we mustn’t forget Jill Pole!

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    Ramona is one of my all time (queer) heroes. Two life altering reasons. 1 not so gay and 1 rilly gay.

    One
    Ramona taught me that it was not within the realm of possibilities that I was alone on this earth. The you’re weird insults started in pre-school – I took it as a compliment from the stupids. Ramona was the first person I ever knew who shared this unconventional affliction with me. She was my very first compatriot (except for the part where she was very very stupid). Finding Ramona in a Published Book meant it was absolutely quantifiably impossible that I was alone on this planet. B’c Published Author’s must make monies from their audience – which must include other “weird” girls like me.

    Two
    Reading this article today, thru my new queer view, I can now see that Ramona totally had a crush on the girl with the blonde curls. AND it is now obvious to me that an older Ramona would have totally tried to get with the girl with the blonde curls. BOIIING!

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    The fact that you extracted all these books’ cover arts from my memory is so fantastic. This article is like a time machine.

    Also, I definitely played Boxcar children with my friends at recess. Nothing’s more fun than pretending you’re impoverished orphans :)

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    Amber Brown and Anastasia Krupnik forever! (Also, I shipped Anastasia and Henry Peabody like burning.)

    I didn’t read it as a kid, but Nobody’s Family is Going to Change by Louise Fitzhugh has a pretty amazing protagonist: Emma Sheridan, a fat, black, sarcastic eleven-year-old who wants to be a lawyer. Her seven-year-old brother Willie wants to be a dancer on Broadway, and since it’s the 1970s their separate ambitions make their parents’ heads spin. It may be the only YA novel I’ve ever read with the moral, “You can’t spend your whole life waiting for your parents to change and love you unconditionally – if they don’t love you the way you are, screw them.” Also look out for Emma’s friends Goldin and Saunders, who are all but explicitly stated to be a pair of baby lesbians.

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    My favorite childhood memories (I was a rather neurotic child, and definitely a loner) were of sitting wedged in the space between my bed and the wall, under my favorite blanket, with a stack of books to read. This is how I spent pretty much all my summer and Christmas school breaks. I can’t even count how many times I read and re-read the Ramona books, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Little House On the Prairie series.

  49. Pingback: Autostraddle — 14 Girls We Wanted To Be Back Then: Kickass Heroines From YA & Children’s Books Of Yesteryear | Per ogni generazione...

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