So now we have a baby daughter. Look how she slumbers. She doesn’t even know that I stay up at night worrying about her self-image. And, oh horrors! What if someday she wants to read Stephanie Meyer’s literary atrocity, the Twilight series? You know the one, the books featuring a non-descript female protagonist who, in addition to having no interests or talents of any kind (other than smelling delicious to a sparkly 100-year-old vampire), is helpless, boring, and basically suicidal when her 100-year-old sparkly vampire boyfriend breaks up with her? Yeah, those books. So, I’m coming up with a reading list containing female characters that could put a smack down on Bella Swan any day of the week and reveal what a real woman looks like.
1. The Anne Books by Lucy Maud Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables and the 7 sequels that complete the series were a staple of my childhood. Anne is fantastic. She’s clever, charming, resourceful, imaginative (to a fault), and hysterically funny. And she goes to college and gets a BA during the Edwardian era. So that’s impressive. I actually saw the miniseries first and read the books later. IMPORTANT: Anne of Green Gables the film and Anne of Green Gables the sequel (Anne of Avonlea) are wonderful but for Pete’s sake DO NOT watch Anne the Continuing Story. Pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s an absurd and wretched thing that dishonors the very name of Anne. Really. Part of you will die.
2. The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder: I was probably a little too obsessed with the Little House books in my day. I may or may not have worn lace-up black boots, braids, and read under an old-timey quilt next to an antique hurricane lamp most of the time between the ages of 6 and 8. File this one under the category of “capable women doing cool stuff.” Laura Ingalls is awesome, obvi.
3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: I have a distinct memory of finishing the last pages of Louisa May Alcott’s finest mere minutes before heading to the theatre to see the 1994 film on Christmas Day with my mom. What girl doesn’t adore the awkward and gutsy Jo March? I have to confess though that when I read it last year I realized I’m probably more like Amy—not because I have the slightest visual artistic talent but because we’re both selfish. I love that each of the four sisters are so different and yet each one exudes a positive kind of femininity, although, to be fair, Meg’s “I-don’t-worry-my-pretty-little-head-about-it” attitude isn’t quite what I have in mind for my daughter. Warning: after reading this I was rather bitter that I didn’t have sisters. Just a heads up.
4. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling: You’d be hard pressed to find a book series with better female characters. There’s a quote swimming around the internet attributed to Stephen King: “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.” I concur. I love that Rowling can depict a strong, brave, capable, intelligent, and compassionate woman in such a variety of characters: a middle-aged stay-at-home mom of seven, a pink-haired dark wizard catcher, an elderly spinster teacher, and an overachieving teenaged student, to name a few. If my girl emulates Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, Ginny Weasley, Nymphadora Tonks, Minerva McGonagal, or, of course, my beloved Molly Weasley, I’ll be a happy mama. And it doesn’t hurt that the whole plot pivots around the sacrifice of one amazing mother (Lily Potter) for her son. Anyone who’s down on these books can’t have read them.
5. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis: This complex book is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth and Orual, the main character (Psyche’s older unattractive sister), is an incredibly complex character. It’s not so much that Orual should be a role model, but her spiritual journey is worth reading and the book is sure to lead to some good discussions about what a good woman should be. It’s notable that Lewis had lots of help from his wife, Joy Davidman, when writing this book. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine how a man could be so amazingly insightful about a woman’s mind.
6. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: OK, so definitely not a girlie book (not that any book in this list has an exclusively female audience), and there’s very few female characters. However, the ones it depicts are fantastic. Galadriel? Eowyn? Yes, please. The book also exudes so many virtues that it seems hardly possible that having completed it your daughter will care two cents about Stephanie Whats-Her-Name. See? I can’t even remember because I’ve read Lord of the Rings. Also, it’s full of real men which is an important thing for a girl to be able to recognize. I’ll take Faramir, thanks.
7. Anything Jane Austen wrote: Want your daughter to know a thing or two about interesting women? Read all six of these novels to her. After reading them, one should know exactly what kind of woman to be and what kind of woman to avoid. Elizabeth Bennet has more clever things to say in one page of P&P than Bella Swan could mumble in her entire miserable existence. And none of Austen’s heroine’s decide to curl up and die when they’re “crossed in love.” Philosopher Alasdair McIntyre supposedly said, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like Jane Austen.” I quite agree.
8. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: A plain little orphan stands up to terrible relatives, survives a childhood of neglect and abuse, strengthens her mind with education, is the intellectual match of one of the most imposing and fascinating male characters in British literature, and makes the prettiest girl in the county look like a spineless nothing in comparison, among other impressive exploits. Supposedly, Charlotte Bronte bet her sisters (and fellow authoresses) that she could write a successful novel around a female character that was neither pretty nor charming. She won, obvi.
9. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter: Lesser-known book published in 1909, but a real treat. Stratton-Porter’s main character, Elnora Comstock, is so wonderful and endearing. Also she collects moths, so that’s cool (or at least Phillip Ammon thinks so). The prequel, Freckles, is also charming and delightful.
10. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset: This three-part saga by Norwegian author Sigrid Undset won the Nobel prize for literature and is one of the finest works you will ever read with a female protagonist rarely paralleled. Kristin is an amazingly human character with as much depth as any female literary character I have encountered. Her spiritual journey is fascinating and the saga is set in 14th century Scandanavia which makes it way more awesome to my medieval-loving heart. However, there are some sexual themes which might make it inappropriate for younger girls. Absolutely worth reading and discussing.
At three months, I don’t think Baby Lucy is ready to dive into these, yet. In the mean time, this mama will be praying lots of rosaries. Anybody else have so many more worries about raising a girl?
Did I leave anything out? What are your recommendations? Any advice on how to raise strong, capable, intelligent, compassionate, confident women? I’m all ears...
Update: You might enjoy this followup post: