“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their…well, Inspirations and Influences. The best part about I&I posts? Writers are given free rein so they can go wild and write about anything they want: their new book, series or career as a whole.
We continue our awesome week of interviews, guest posts, and reviews with Claire Legrand’s Cavendish Blog Tour! We are thrilled to have the lovely Claire over to talk about middle grade fiction and her favorite heroines – gutsy gals that have inspired her own writing, including the wonderful character of Victoria Wright herself.
Please give it up for Claire, folks!
My Favorite Middle Grade Heroines
There’s something special about the heroines of middle grade books. Maybe it’s because these are girls only just beginning their journeys to badassery, and it’s always fun to watch people recognize that about themselves — that they have the potential to be, and will someday be, and already kind of are, an unstoppable force. Or maybe it’s because, in the land of middle grade books, these heroines for the most part haven’t yet discovered romance; they know it’s there, sure, and they may be developing a crush for the first time, but it’s not yet the all-consuming element that it often is for their young adult cousins.
Whatever the reason, there is an innocence to these girls, a strength tempered with the wide-eyed wonder still lingering from childhood. These girls have ferocious, gender-blind friendships, and they themselves are ferocious because no one has yet suggested to them that such a thing is unladylike. Even if they get into trouble, break the rules, rebel against the status quo — and maybe especially if they do these things — these heroines have a purity to them. Their stories are only just beginning. They could be anything and anyone, and they are just starting to recognize that beautiful reality.
I love these girls.
Don’t get me wrong — I also love Katniss and Karou, Katsa and Fire and Bitterblue, Tris and Alina and Elisa. But these younger girls, these middle grade heroines, hold a special place in my heart, and I’m here today to talk about some of my favorites. All of them influence my writing and were inspiring to me as I developed the character of Victoria Wright in The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls.
So, without further ado . . .
Matilda Wormwood from Matilda
I’ve read this book so many times I’ve lost count. Especially when I was younger, I would pick it up on a rainy day and read about Matilda and her intelligence, her calm in the face of circumstances that would drive most people out of their minds, and her power. Yes, Matilda has power. She is, in fact, telekinetic, and uses said telekinesis to wage war against her school’s tyrannical headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. But Matilda’s real power lies in her plain old non-telekinetic intelligence.
Among other things, she devours advanced books and can accurately solve outrageous math problems in her head — math problems! As someone who always struggled in math class, this ability of Matilda’s was especially awe-inspiring. Matilda’s intelligence mystifies and infuriates her narrow-minded parents, who choose to ridicule their daughter rather than praise her.
Through all of this — the emotionally abusive parents, the physically abusive headmistress — Matilda keeps her cool. She hones her powers, carefully and patiently, and fights back. And, after she has set her world right, her telekinesis disappears, leaving her with her fierce intelligence as her only weapon. I always loved this as a child, and often imagined being as self-assured about my own intelligence as Matilda was. She was never arrogant about it; she just knew her own smarts, embraced them, and never tried to hide them, not even when people literally tried to beat it out of her.
Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden
Whenever I think of The Secret Garden, my heart fills up with what I think you would call “the warm fuzzies”, and a lot of that has to do with one Miss Mary Lennox. At the beginning of The Secret Garden, Mary is sour, bad-tempered, and doesn’t love anyone or anything. She is not a likeable heroine, much like Victoria is not too terribly likeable at the beginning of Cavendish.
But then Mary discovers her uncle’s secret garden, untended and unloved (much like herself), and thus begins one of the most beautiful character transformations I’ve ever read, still to this day. Because along with that sour disposition comes an indomitable will. Mary tends this garden, pulling weeds and clearing away the rubbish. She takes in the fresh air and learns about animals from good-natured Dickon, the maid’s brother. And she helps her ailing cousin Colin walk again, when no one else could. No one else was stubborn and patient enough. No one else could understand a sick, sad spirit like she could.
At the end of The Secret Garden, Mary is just as stubborn and sometimes difficult as she ever was. But she has also learned what it is to love, to really care about something other than her own troubles. I thought about Mary a lot when writing Cavendish, because, like Mary, Victoria also has a lot to learn — although I think she would say that Mary had it easy compared to her. “Gardens and red-breasted robins?” she would say. “Please. Fight an army of evil beetles and then get back to me.”
Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time
Oh, Meg. Meg, Meg, Meg. How much do I love Meg Murry? At the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time, Meg is what so many of us (including myself) felt like at the age of 13 — hopelessly awkward, hopelessly ugly, not smart enough, not clever enough, eclipsed by much cooler friends and family members. Meg feels all of this to the extreme — her parents are brilliant scientists, her mother is beautiful, her twin brothers are popular and athletic and normal, and her baby brother is basically a child prodigy. What’s an intelligent, neurotic, painfully self-conscious girl to do with all that working against her?
Save the universe, of course. And Meg does, with the help of baby brother Charles Wallace and schoolmate Calvin O’Keefe (my first literary crush). It isn’t all smooth sailing, either. Meg is frightened a lot, and confused a lot. She gets overwhelmed and cries and stresses more quickly than her companions. But she is so, so very brave. She is perhaps the bravest of all her companions, simply because she has so much more to overcome. It is Meg who is brave enough to go back and rescue Charles Wallace from the evil IT, Meg who loves deeply enough to break Charles Wallace away from IT.
I remember, when first reading A Wrinkle in Time, I thought, “So there is hope for us mousy-haired, impossibly awkward girls.” I looked up to Meg because she somehow, despite not thinking much of herself, found the courage to be extraordinary. I still look up to her. I probably always will.
Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series
I love all incarnations of Hermione Granger. Book Hermione, Movie Hermione, even Fanfiction Hermione (well, for the most part). But my favorite Hermione Granger is the true middle grade Hermione, from the first two — possibly the first three — Harry Potter books. This Hermione still has buck teeth and wild, bushy hair. She is unabashedly obnoxious in class, always waving her hand about and making eager noises to catch the professors’ attention. She doesn’t hide her intelligence or her studious habits; in fact, she goes a little too far the other way and flaunts them.
But oh, middle grade Hermione. Before you appeared at the Yule Ball with your Sleekeasied hair and your normal-sized teeth — how I love you. I love you too, older Hermione, who is a little more mellow and a little less prone to wild hand-raising. But you, the younger, more oblivious Hermione — I adore you. You make me unbelievably happy because, God help me, I was you. I had the too-big glasses and the hair that flew every which way, and I was smart and didn’t hide it. I was too bossy and too worried about grades, and school stressed me out way too much, and I cared deeply about what people thought of me, even though I seldom showed it. Sometimes I cared too deeply, and I’d sit in front of the mirror and cry over my hopelessly wild hair, or I’d futilely wonder how I could go about being the elusive “cool.”
So when I read about you, middle grade Hermione, I recognized a literary soulmate. A sister. And I loved how you didn’t apologize for who you were. In fact, I think you kind of knew what an insufferable know-it-all you could be, and you didn’t care. You were proud of how hard you worked, of your grades, of your hard-earned compendium of knowledge that saved your less studious friends in a pinch. And you should be, Hermione. I loved that about you. I think we all did—and do.
P.S. Hermione, Victoria would think you were pretty much the coolest chick ever, but she would still claw your eyes out (in an academic sense, of course) to get that top of the class standing.
Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials
And now, for my favorite middle grade heroine, and perhaps my favorite heroine of all time: Lyra “Silvertongue” Belacqua. My love for Lyra knows no bounds. She’s so stubborn and brave and flawed and passionate that just thinking about her brings tears to my eyes.
In a lot of ways, Lyra is quite similar to Victoria. Her best friend goes missing. So do a bunch of other kids. And she goes on an epic adventure to unravel the mystery behind it all. But, unlike Victoria, Lyra could care less if her hair is perfectly curled. In fact, she prefers to run around the rooftops of Oxford University like a wild creature, with only her daemon, Pantalaimon, for company. She talks back to the adults in her life, even the scary, intimidating ones like Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel. She manipulates an armored bear king with hardly a flinch. She uncovers — and fights back against — a religious conspiracy that could determine the future of the cosmos.
I don’t know what else to say about Lyra. She loves deeply and without shame. If you cross her, you’ll be sorry. I think about her when I face problems in real life, when I feel lacking in strength or need an extra push of determination to get through a difficult day. I think of her crawling across the ice bridge with Pan in the far North, freezing cold and terribly afraid. I think of the moment when she pauses to shake and cry, to tell Pan that she doesn’t think she can’t do it—and then I think of when she takes a deep breath, knowing that she can’t do it, and continues on to do it anyway.
Like the rest of my list — and like Victoria herself — Lyra is difficult. Prickly. Uncompromising. Not always likeable. Passionate. Intelligent. And unbelievably brave. These are the heroines I think about when I don’t feel strong and need to feel stronger. These are the heroines I think about when I write, the kind of strong female characters I want to create in my own stories. These are the heroines I looked up to when I was a girl, and I know I’ll continue looking up to them — and re-reading their stories — for the rest of my life.
About the Author:
Claire Legrand is a Texan living in New York City. She used to be a musician until she realized she couldn’t stop thinking about the stories in her head. Now a full-time writer, Claire can often be found typing with purpose on her keyboard or spontaneously embarking upon adventures to lands unknown. The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is her first novel, due out August 28 from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. Her second novel, The Year of Shadows, a ghost story for middle grade readers, comes out August 2013. Her third novel, Winterspell, a young adult re-telling of The Nutcracker, comes out Fall 2014.
Make sure to check out the rest of the Cavendish Blog Tour here!
To win a hardcover copy of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, fill out the form below! Contest is U.S./Canada only. Contest ends September 20th.
Good luck, and make sure to stick around to check out our review of the book later today!