From Elizabeth Bennet to Katniss Everdeen, we love our strong literary heroines. These are memorable, often times singular women who are blessed with clever wit and nerves of steel. Except they’re not really blessed, are they? They are brought to life and suffused with a character that makes us wish they would jump off the page and drive around with us, blasting Taylor Swift and talking about life. And who could invent such awesome girls/women but other like-minded ladies? It takes one to know one. Behold, a list of real live women who are as cool as the c they made up:
The heroine: Claire Randall, the 20th century British Army nurse who disappears through a standing stone while on holiday with her husband and suddenly finds herself surrounded by kilted 18th-century Highlanders. The protagonist of our favorite feminist time-traveling television show, Outlander, was bringing her smart, professional, modern-day sensibility to ye olden times in a book long before the Starz series.
The writer: Diana Gabaldon has never time-travelled, but she holds three degrees in science, including a Ph.D. in quantitative behavioral ecology. I’m not quite sure what that is, but Gabaldon could probably explain it to me, because she also spent a dozen years as a university professor before she began writing novels. AND she used to write comic books for Walt Disney. If we were friends, I don’t know what I’d want to talk about first: the potentially damaging Disney princess narratives or quantitative behavioral ecology! Hmmm…
The heroine: Marina Dukovskaya is the teen ballerina at the center of Elizabeth Kiem’s genre-bender, Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. But just as this book is more than simply a spy adventure or a love story or a paranormal thriller, Marina is more than a dancer at Juilliard. She goes up against KGB spies. And she’s not your typical fearless, kick-ass heroine. She struggles to summon her empowerment, like so many of us do, which make her victories so much sweeter.
The writer: Although not a spy herself (that we know of…), Kiem worked as a journalist for CNN, NPR, and Reuters, and was a communications consultant for UNICEF. And she’s even ghostwritten a book about the underground bioweapon market. Note to self: Bone up on the last couple of issues of the New Yorker before meeting with Ms. Kiem.
The heroine: There are so many, but Leah Price in The Poisonwood Bible is my favorite. We watch her grow up in the Congo and battle her father, her beliefs, and malaria. She loses her faith but she finds herself, as well as love and a home worth fighting for.
The writer: Like Leah, Kingsolver spent part of her childhood in the Congo. She’s also established her own foundation, which awards prizes to literature that addresses social injustice. And she’s in a rock band called the Rock Bottom Remainders. Maybe you’ve heard of a few of her bandmates: Amy Tan, Scott Turow, and Stephen King? Yeah.
The heroine: How I love Mia Thermopolis! Not only does she affirm my belief that we’re all just one blow-out away from becoming Kate Middleton, she is the perfect blend of girl-power feminism and sparkling femininity. To quote Zooey Deschanel: “We can’t be feminine and be feminists and be successful? I want to be a f—ing feminist and wear a f—ing Peter Pan collar. So f—ing what?”
The writer: Cabot, like Princess Mia, spends much of her time doing good, writing for a variety of causes like War Child and Book Wish Foundation, and acting rather royal herself. In 2009, she held a tiara auction (!!!) to raise funds for the New York Public Library, with headpieces decorated by Julie Andrews, Julianne Moore, and Vera Wang, to name a few. I curtsy before her.
The character: Estrella Alvarez from Estrella’s Quinceañera is my kind of teen heroine—smart, bookish, romantic, and mixed-up. She’s basically a Latina Judy Blume character, which needs to exist (and more on Blume later). Like so many girls, she struggles to be true to herself, rather than bowing to the pressures of what others want her to be. And I love that this book centers around a quinceañera, which is basically a festive sweet 15.
The writer: Malín Alegria doesn’t just write. She can also bust some serious moves—she’s been an Aztec dancer for 11 years. Alegria says that she’s always been a storyteller, because she grew up in a house without a television. When people who are this talented say that, it kind of makes you think twice about owning a TV, doesn’t it?
The heroine: I would hate to think what would have happened to Harry Potter if not for Hermione Granger. Seriously. She saved his hide, and everyone else’s, more than once by being the smartest wizard in the room and unafraid to speak her mind. She’s also loyal and courageous and loves to read. Magic.
The writer: Do we even need to explain who she is? Since penning the Harry Potter series, which happens to be the best-selling book series in history, Rowling has become a household name. Before she even picked up a pen, she worked as a researcher and bilingual secretary for the human rights group Amnesty International. Since then, she’s overcome poverty and the struggles of being a single parent and is now the most successful female writer of this generation. And when she’s not busy writing the next bestseller, she’s speaking out in the media and on Twitter on behalf of gay rights and feminism and against religious bigotry. She’s a real-life heroine.
The heroine: Come on. Stephanie Hirsch, Katherine Danziger, Deenie Fenner, Sally J. Freedman, Margaret Simon. I could go on. These curious, sexually adventurous, smart, outspoken, scared, vulnerable, confused, beautiful people are the heroines of my adolescence, and they’re still speaking to young adults decades later. The New Yorker calls them Judy Blume’s “magnificent girls.” I call them friends.
The writer: Blume is a legend, not only in the world of young-adult literature, but also in the fight against censorship. Not surprisingly, when an author is this frank and this on-to-something (in this case, young women’s inner worlds) there are people who don’t want her out there for their children to discover. Over the years, there have been countless attempts to ban her books from libraries and classrooms. Blume responded by joining forces with other writers and the National Coalition Against Censorship and continues to work tirelessly to protect the freedom to read. Right now is as critical a time for the freedom of expression as ever. Are you there, Judy? It’s me, Teri. Just wanted to say: Thank you.