From Laura Ingalls and Alicia Florrick to Elizabeth II: literary and historical women as role models

The more time I spend reading, writing, volunteering at the library, and exploring what I want to do with my life, the more I’ve learned that what I read and who I read about has influenced who I am and who I want to be. While I love Dickens, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Shakespeare, my heart is with Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, Lucy M Montgomery, and Jane Austen. Half Pint (Laura), Jo March, Anne Shirley, and Elizabeth Bennett are some of the strongest, imaginative, passionate, and soulful characters in literature – determining their place and path in life while remaining devoted to family, friends, and love. In history, I nerd out over the family wars and power struggles during the times of Henry VIII and Richard III, but it’s the reformations and revolutions and sea changes that Anne Boleyn, Katherine Woodville, and Elizabeth II brought about despite the opposition that really resonate with me.

Even when I think about the TV shows and movies I enjoy, it comes back to the women. Sure, Mad Men’s Don Draper is a fascinating look at the flawed man, but Peggy, Joan, and young Sally Draper are prime examples of women finding their way in a world dominated by the opposite sex. And while the Earl of Grantham may hold the keys to Downton Abbey, Ladies Cora, Mary, Edith (yes, even Edith!), Sybil, and Rose, and servants Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, and Anna set the stage for the changing role of women in the first half of the 20th century. On The Good Wife, Alicia Florrick adapts to and then owns her circumstances, making us question what “good” really means. And in Game of Thrones, perhaps the most exciting character development lies with Daenyrus Targaryen, Sansa and Arya Stark, and (begrudgingly) Cersei Lannister.

When I was younger, I may have thought that I just liked that Laura Ingalls got to help her Pa make hay and then go buggy-riding with Almanzo. I may have been jealous of Anne Shirley’s red hair and her smart and witty friend and future husband, Gilbert. But what I think was really going on was that I admired their fiery spirit, their continued desire to learn and explore, and their fierce loyalty to home, family, and self. One of my favorite book series is one that centers on how a young white woman and her (later freed) slave and best friend get through the Civil War and years afterward, both dealing with their own set of obstacles, but both also remaining adamant about who they are and how to fulfill their dreams. Dare I say that these are the very reasons I have had a lifelong love affair with The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz? Beyond the singing and the rainbows and ruby slippers, these are also the stories of women and girls who overcome their fears – of the unknown, of the world beyond their doorstep, of those who challenge their beliefs – and take a journey to find their calling, or to find what matters most, even if it is right in their own backyard.

There are many out there that have applauded the arrival of newer young female “heroines” and role models in literature, such as The Hunger Games’ Katniss or Divergent’s Tris. While I support new stories and inspiring characters, we weren’t lacking in the first place. Stories of females fighting back against societal pressures and life’s ups and downs and tragedies is nothing new – all you have to do is pick up the Little House series, The Diary of Anne Frank, or Little Women. A 16-year-old pioneer girl braving her first teaching assignment in the middle of nowhere sounds pretty brave to me. So does the story of a young girl hiding from the Nazis in an attic, and another of a young woman cutting off her hair and secretly writing stories under a pen name to provide for her family.

This is no great epiphany of course. We read what we like, and we read (and watch) what connects to us, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. And as I continue to determine my next steps and explore who I am beneath the surface, I’ll keep in mind my heroines from the page, screen, and history, that I have loved from the first moment I met them.

Who are your heroines from books, tv or film, or history? Why?

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An ode to the books of our youth

I’m one of those people that can never have enough books. I buy a new one or two or three every couple of months to add to my collection, even though I probably have  20 to 30 still unread. It’s like I’m afraid I’ll wake up one day and suddenly have nothing new to read. Highly unlikely, but I’m sure other book lovers know this feeling all too well.

When packing up my apartment to leave DC, I sent about 15 boxes of books ahead in USPS flat rate packages. I was amazed at how much I had, even after trying to clean out a few. I ended up giving away or throwing out probably only a small stack, and it was even hard to gift the ones I had about Rose Wilder Lane’s childhood to my colleague for his daughter.

Little House books
Photo credit: lynn.gardner on Flickr

My collection varies from classics like The Crucible, Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath, to all of Jane Austen’s novels, to historical fiction from WWII and the Civil War, to books on journalism and by journalists, to some guilty pleasures from Nicholas Sparks and Philippa Gregory.

But some of my most beloved books are the ones from my youth: the Anne of Green Gables series, a few from the Little House collection, three or four children’s books with great sentimental value. Their covers are worn and the bindings bent and stretched from multiple readings, some of them five times or more. There are dog-eared pages a plenty, and on the inside covers, my name scratched out and rewritten after my adoption went through in high school. I know them all nearly by heart, and years ago stopped saving them for the children I would have someday, but instead held onto them just for me.

Like some people keep their first music album or baseball jersey or Barbie doll, I treasure these books. They may be of little or no value to anyone else, but they are of immense value to me.

Photo credit: adwriter on Flickr
Photo credit: adwriter on Flickr

I spent hours, days, weeks, and months of my childhood reading. I was reading chapter books in kindergarten, ahead of my classmates, and devouring entire Book It! reading lists. I would fill my backpack with at least 10 new treasures at the library every couple of weeks, and blow through half in a weekend. Instead of camp or summer sports, up until high school, I was probably inside reading. I learned of the joys of an Amazon wish list early on, and my parents fed that fire at birthdays and Christmas, quenching my thirst in between with trips to Barnes & Noble on Friday nights after dinner a couple of times a month. I’d walk the aisles writing down all the titles to add to my reading list, overwhelmed by the possibilities, yet always revisiting books I already knew and loved.

These days, I love new books as much as I did then. I blew through the Game of Thrones series in less than a year, and am halfway through Wolf Hall after a few days (admittedly, downloaded via Kindle to my iPad), eager to move on to Bring Up the Bodies. But nothing gives me more joy sometimes than revisiting old favorites. I could easily read Pride & Prejudice once a month, and I have a hankering to go back to my Little House books and relive Laura and Almanzo’s romance and Pa’s struggles through the long winter. In her book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about how for a long time, she hid the fact that she still loved reading kid lit, until she discovered other adults just like her, and formed a couple of reading groups just for that purpose. She embraced the idea of reading what made her happy, and I do, too.

We love these books from our youth for so many reasons. They remind us of a rainy day inside, or our first meeting with a beloved character, or when we knew we had discovered our favorite author. They fulfilled the promise of young love, best friends, loving families, and adventures in unknown lands overcoming obstacles from man and beast. They gave us happy endings, surprise endings, and choose your own adventure endings. They remind us of simpler times before reality TV and video games, when we got hooked on a girl growing up on a prairie, a horse’s journey through life, or a brother and sister traveling through time together.

Memories may fade and TV shows may come and go, and we may read on tablets instead of in print, but these stories of our youth will never fade. They stand the test of time and are waiting for us to return to them again and again, and we are thrilled once more, just like the first time.

What are your favorite books and authors from your childhood? Here are some from friends and others online:

@smheffern: Misty of Chincoteague, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
@Tammy: Anything Beverly Cleary
@TWangDC: The Book Thief
@Courtside: books by Melina Marchetta, Cath Crowley, Megan Whalen Turner, Jaclyn Moriarty, John Marsden
@Katyray: A Wrinkle in Time
@brianneburrowes: Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, The Baby-Sitter’s Club
@washingtina: The Phantom Tollbooth
@arlusk: Shel Silverstein
@jesserker: Wayside School is Falling Down