There are books from our long-ago yesteryears that we still haven't completely shaken. As kids, we idolized their scrappy and adventurous heroes and heroines. As adults, well—we still kinda look up to them. Though time has passed, we're still taking our cues from the likes of Nancy, Scout, and Anne.
Harriet the Spy
I cried first time I saw the trailer for the movie version of Harriet the Spy. Not because I was so excited, and not because I was so happy to see my favorite literary heroine memorialized on the big screen. I was simply furious I hadn't been cast to play Harriet. Of course, this was ridiculous—I wasn’t an actor. I’d never even heard about this movie, much less auditioned for it. But my 10-year-old self so identified with Harriet—had connected with her so deeply—that I was shocked the studio hadn’t intuited my likeness and plucked me from obscurity to play her.
In many ways Harriet was my first best friend. She was nerdy, mischievous, clever, an aspiring writer (ahem), and handled her status as an outsider with so much more whimsy and grace than I did. Her downfall was her spy notebook, where she thoroughly and brutally observed and described everyone around her. When her notebook was discovered and shared, she was the class pariah. But still, she pushed on—maybe not always in the right way—but never afraid or swayed by the needs and whims of the school mob.
Harriet can seem misleadingly silly, but she embodies a unique sort of female lead. Harriet’s emotional and wild, but she’s also intelligent and layered. Most importantly, she’s a tomboy who isn't constrained by any idea of what a little girl should be. Looking back, I had far less in common with Harriet then I thought I did—she’s much smarter and braver than I ever was. But she’s definitely still who I want to be when I grow up.
Poor Nancy Drew. Even her name seems like a relic of a bygone era. Today, the girl who solved mysteries in smart pumps—with nary a hair curler out of place—and guided her convertible roadster through a fog of casual racism seems altogether quaint.
Drew was always a product of sorts. Publishers designed her to be a female answer to the Hardy Boys, though she was also presented as a smart-girl's Barbie who was conveniently too good at everything. On top of that, a series of ghost writers penned her tales, which led to some outrageous characterization. Professor James P. Jones culled some of Drew’s descriptors, reminding us that she was alternately “clever, capable, popular, athletic, unusually pretty, friendly, attractive, skillful, kind, modest, good, brave, poised, keen-minded, plucky, self-reliant, unforgettable, distinctive, forceful, wise, splendid, observant, healthy, responsible, remarkable.” Phew! No wonder he dubbed her the “Wasp Super Girl of the 1930s.”
Writing for The Paris Review, Isabel Ortiz also highlighted how Nancy was the ultimate (and unattainable) Renaissance Woman: "[Nancy Drew was] “a scholar of ancient languages and an amateur archaeologist; a flawless cook, an expressive painter, and a dynamite prom date. She can dance in a corps de ballet and scuba dive fathomless depths. On separate occasions, her friends have walked in on her tap dancing, learning Morse code, and tap dancing in Morse code.”
All this superfluity can make Drew seem like more paradigm than person. Yet in the 1990s—60 years after Nancy Drew picked her first lock—I devoured every single volume and fell in love with her copious good qualities. In retrospect, her perfection may seem silly or off-putting, but it makes perfect sense in the world of children’s lit, a place populated by magical creatures and princesses.
Of course, Drew never lounged on a chaise or waited for a prince. She was polite but fearless, kind but adventurous, disarming but intrepid. She was self-taught—always learning, experimenting, and thinking a few steps ahead. Though her mid-century domesticity may be cringeworthy to 21st century readers, Nancy remains a fierce, smart, feminine role model for kids everywhere.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout carries the world on her shoulders. One of the most memorable and important narrators of American lit, Scout is the lens through which we view an entire town and a grievous crime against personhood, race, humanity, and empathy. The fact that we lean on Scout so heavily, and that we trust her perspective so completely, is monumental in itself. Marvelous, too, is Scout’s unexpected presentation: she’s scrappy, she’s a tomboy, and she’s got a tough exterior but a heartbreaking interior life. She bucks against the stereotypes and traditions of her small Southern town as much as her father.
As a storyteller, Scout is nuanced and credible. She’s incredibly sensitive, observant, and analytical about the new—and often disturbing—information she learns. Her initial instinct is to lash out against naysayers and detractors, but she learns to internalize, cope, and accept things beyond her control. This is done with a very adult sadness.
Though the book leaves her at eight years old, it’s easy to believe that Scout will grow into an even more powerful version of her outspoken self. Ultimately, it’s comforting to pin our hopes for the future on her version of morality.
Who didn’t want to trade childhoods with Eloise? The most glamorous of little girls, her life is spent riding room-service carts and deceiving doormen in New York’s Plaza Hotel. Eloise—who’s rumored to be based on a young Liza Minnelli—seems to be living a princess party that never ends.
With absent mother and absent-minded nanny, Eloise epitomizes upper-crust mischief and elite caprice. Wandering the halls unsupervised, Eloise is an affluent annoyance, a knee-socked nightmare, and a ruffled ragamuffin. But she is also a cautionary tale. Though she can be an amusingly horrible, she is also incredibly imaginative and deeply lonely. She makes up endless games—some charming, some destructive—and interacts with grown-ups in the sincere, weathered way of someone who’s ready for a cocktail.
Eloise’s distinct voice brings us into her wild little brain. Her books are all written from the perspective of a six year-old, with imperfect sentences running together with breathless enthusiasm. She’s something of a female Tom Sawyer—scheming and manipulative, but ultimately lovable. She has a certain self-awareness that is beyond her years. Though she’s been called “fiendish” and a “monster,” Eloise also stands for independence, self-reliance, and the idea that there’s never an excuse for being bored.
There is a shared feistiness among these young women, and Anne Shirley is no exception. Though days on Prince Edwards Island can be agrarian and slow, Anne finds an opportunity for fun at every turn. Her happy-go-lucky demeanor and inquisitiveness is even more remarkable by the fact of her circumstances. An orphan until she was eleven, she finds her adoptive family by mistake after an orphanage snafu. The tragedies of Anne's early life could have inspired a very different tale, but Anne’s optimism triumphs. She never wallows in the bleakness of her origins, but happily embraces her new home, friendships, lessons at school, and even the school bully (who calls her “carrots” and is almost certainly in love with her).
L.M. Montgomery's story was so popular that she published a series of sequels—writing six books in all—that follow Anne’s life through college, marriage, and motherhood. Though we have to imagine the adulthoods of the heroines we mentioned above, we have the privilege of witnessing Anne's fully-realized life.
Featured photo: Cover of "The Clue in the Crumbling Wall," by Carolyn Keene