Rule-breaking Female Characters

Admittedly, I was a little unsure of what I would write about when Nathalie suggested this for our theme this week.  I sat at the desk in our basement office, hoping for inspiration but instead re-arranged the pens in their various glass holders and stared at the blank wall in front of me trying to decide which would be a better fit: a mirror or an oversized framed print.

When I am stressed or anxious I like to lose myself among my shelves of books.  In comparison to most serious book lovers, say for instance Nathalie, my collection is modest but I find something soothing about running my fingers along the spines of books, some of which have been with me for nearly two decades.

In an effort to procrastinate, I pulled my favourite chapter books from my girlhood and arranged them on the floor at the foot of my reading rocker.  My thoughts did not go to a possible post for this topic, instead I started thinking how I should suggest to my 11-year-old nieces that they read these classics.

Earlier this month I had been browsing the aisles of the bookstore looking for Christmas gifts for the girls, and I was dismayed to see that many of the books marketed to tweenage girls come off as a watered-down episode of Sex and The City.

Looking at the pile at my feet, I came to the realization that although the classics were published decades ago they continue to be relevant in part due to the strong female characters that carry the novel but also to the boundary breaking authors whom penned them.

At the risk of sounding like Sarah Palin, these classics about girls breaking the rules opened a world of possibility to young female readers because the authors themselves were mavericks.  Like their female leads, these authors pushed the limits of social convention and their tales have stood the test of time.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

I remember ripping the wrapping paper off this book on my 10th birthday.  I creased open the cover a few days later and finished it that same day.  It’s the first book that I read cover-to-cover.  It’s the first book that brought me to tears.  It’s one of the few books that can still bring me to tears.

Leslie Burke is a smart, creative and out-going tomboy who connects with Jesse Aarons, after her family moves into the neighbourhood.  Leslie is anything but a typical girl.  She runs races to win them, studies to ace her tests and takes chances others would ignore.  She is less concerned with fitting in with the girls than she is about creating a magical land of make believe where she and Jess are free to be themselves.

I read this book to my class when I was teaching the 5th grade.  Katherine Paterson’s words held the attention of even the most fidgety student in the room but what was most exciting for me, was to see how her character Leslie reached the girls in a non-conventional way.  Leslie was not about what clothes were trendy or boyfriends, backstabbing friends or dysfunctional relationships.  She was an outcast among the popular clique but the focus of the story isn’t about that, it is about her imagination and creativity.  Her tomboy persona is not available for a makeover, it is what sets her apart and makes her special.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The copy I have was printed in 1956 and I picked it up a garage sale when I was eleven years old.  The pages smell musty and are brittle.  There is no telling how many hands have held its hard cover or turned its pages to follow every move of the four March sisters.

My friends and I used to debate whom was the “best” sister.  Most of them voted for Amy, the youngest sister who captured the heart of Laurie.  A few chose Meg, the mother hen, but I always was drawn to Jo.  Outspoken Jo who fought to keep her family together, found love in an unlikely place, and pursued her passion with a vigor that few Victorian girls would have had the gumption to do.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

I can’t think of a stronger female character that defied social convention than Anne Shirley.  Anne (with an “e”) Shirley, orphaned at a young age, took on the Avonlea school bullies, the bossy and opinionated Mrs. Rachel Lynde, and never wavered from her dream of becoming a school teacher even when faced with the devastating loss of Matthew and the steady stream of Pringle girls who stood in her way.

Instead of pining over Gilbert Blythe, Anne was quick to break a writing slate over his head when his teasing went too far and resisted his persistent attempts to woo her until she had realized her own dreams to her full potential.

Like her heroine Anne Shirley, Lucy Maud Montgomery was also trailblazer.  She penned short stories and the Green Gables series even as she received rejection letters from various publishers, cared for her mentally ill husband and battled her own depression in a time when women were restricted by both conventional social laws and the laws of the land.

Over a century later, more than 50 million copies of Anne of Green Gables have been sold worldwide.  I like to think that they’re millions of girls being inspired by Anne to break the rules, follow their hearts and to never settle for anything but what they deserve.