10 Literary Heroines All Girls Ought to Like

In Honor of International Girls Day

Girls in literature are a complicated bunch. Some of our oldest stories—from Eve in the Bible to Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty in fairy tales—cast girls in a bad light, as weak, submissive, romantic, or fatally flawed. But if we look hard enough, literature has plenty of positive examples to counteract those age-old stereotypes.

Today is the perfect chance to honor some strong girls in literature. November 14 is International Girls Day, a time to recognize and encourage girls we know, to help them dream big dreams and then pursue them. This special day was established by the Confidence Coalition, a group mobilized by Kappa Delta Sorority to help address some of the challenges that girls face in contemporary culture. Here are some sobering facts from the Confidence Coalition:

  • 74% of girls say they are under pressure to please everyone.
  • 60% of teen girls say they compare their bodies to those of fashion models.
  • 40% of girls ages 11-17 say they do not play sports because they do not feel skilled or competent.
  • 31% of girls ages 13-17 admit to starving themselves or refusing to eat as a strategy to lose weight.

If you want to read more about International Girls Day, the Confidence Coalition, and its #YouCan campaign, click here. (There is also a video at the bottom of this post.)

Then, read below to find 10 literary heroines all girls ought to like. In these books and series for readers ranging from preschool to teens, female characters prove time and again that they have powerful personalities and the ability to accomplish whatever feats they set their minds to. They don’t necessarily need anyone’s help, they don’t second-guess themselves (or, not for long, anyway), and they don’t let obstacles—whether demons, dragons, or men—stand in their way. They simply can.


The Paperbag Princess (Story Corner S.)

Princess Elizabeth in Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess—This very popular picture book turns ye olde convention of the prince rescuing the princess on its head. Here, it’s the prince who gets captured by the dragon, and Princess Elizabeth takes the situation into her own hands, putting on the first thing she can find—a paper bag—and setting off to save her soon-to-be husband. She does just that, but when Ronald finds fault with her non-royal outfit, she tells him to go take a hike.

Ella Enchanted

Ella of Frell in Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted—This award-winning novel for preteens does a good job of helping young readers recognize all the conventions and stereotypes from the fairy tales they grew up with, and then dismantling them little by little. Ella refuses to accept her curse to be “obedient,” and goes off in search of freedom and true selfhood. It’s sort of a grown-up version of Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess.

Mirette on the High Wire

Mirette in Emily Arnold McCulley’s Mirette on the High Wire—The roles of teacher and student get reversed in the course of this children’s story and 1993 Caldecott Medal winner. When Mirette meets a former high-wire walker at the boarding-house that her mother runs, she begs him to teach her his art. But the once Great Bellini is now overcome with fear, and Mirette has to help him gain his courage again before they can both walk the wire together.

Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins—Yes, this photo is from the movie and not the book, but the film version of Katniss really captures the spirit of Collins’s character, so it works. At the beginning of the story, Katniss grabs our sympathy when she falls victim to her society’s cruel reality-TV competition. But as the games progress, Katniss reveals more and more of her physical power and her inner strength. Sure, she spends a little too much mental energy on her two love interests, but she’s a model of girl power and grit in this fan favorite for teens.

Alanna: The First Adventure (Song of the Lioness, #1)

Alanna of Trebond in the Song of the Lioness series, by Tamora Pierce—This four-part series for teen readers tracks the progress of a girl trying to achieve knighthood. In the first installments, she is forced to disguise herself as a boy, but we like it when she is eventually able to reveal her gender and come into her own as a woman warrior.

Anne of Green Gables (Anne of Green Gables, #1)

Anne Shirley of the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery—This century-old classic is one that parents are still passing on to their preteen and teenage children, and Anne continues to find a friendly reception with today’s readers. She may not go on otherworldly missions or attempt to save the planet, but she charms us with her imaginative spirit and her ability to adapt to difficult situations.

Harriet the Spy

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh—Contrary to what you might think, Harriet the Spy is no Encyclopedia Brown, off to solve mysteries. Rather, the original Harriet novel, published in 1964, tells the story of an intelligent 11-year-old would-be writer who records her observations about her friends and neighbors in a secret journal. When her schoolmates find her notebook and recoil at the seemingly harsh things she’s written about them, Harriet is forced to come to terms with her own insecurities, her relationships, and her goals as a writer and “spy.”


Madeline, in the series by Ludwig Bemelmans—The Parisian schoolgirl has been popular with readers worldwide ever since she made her debut in her first picture book  in 1939. One of “twelve little girls in two straight lines,” Madeline aways manages to find ways to flout the conformity of her Catholic boarding school life. She’s smart, spunky, and occasionally disobedient, but her adventurous spirit makes us admire and adore her.

Eloise, in the series by Kay Thompson—Like Madeline, 6-year-old Eloise is a girl of the ’40s, but she has timeless appeal for elementary-age readers. She lives at the Plaza Hotel, where she finds no end to wonderful experiences, and her adventures in subsequent books take her to other destinations around the globe. In describing her heroine, author Kay Thompson wrote, “She is not yet pretty but she is already a Person.” In other words, she’s too young and spirited to be caught up in any feminine ideals of what a girl should look like, act like, or be. Though she lives a life of privilege and veers toward the overly precocious sometimes, young girls will admire her unpredictability and her resourcefulness.

The Anastasia Series

Anastasia Krupnik, in Lois Lowry’s Anastasia series—When you see the name Lois Lowry, you can rest assured it’s going to be good. The series about Anastasia focuses on the challenging middle-grade years of a thoughtful 10-year-old (her age when the series starts). Though she doesn’t always fit in, she finds ways to survive and thrive. Female readers of a similar age will appreciate this realistic, positive depiction of a girl going through some of the same issues they’re facing.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)

Lyra Belacqua in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series—This trilogy of fantasy novels casts orphan Lyra Belacqua in the ever-challenging role of moving between worlds, confronting demons, and saving loved ones. Her quest will appeal to tween readers, while captivating adult fans of fantasy as well.

This list doesn’t even scratch the surface, and I know I’ve left out some of your all-time favorite female characters. I didn’t mention Jo March, Nancy Drew, Pippi Longstocking, Mrs. Frizzle, Matilda, and so many more. Who are a few of your favorite spirited girls in books?  While you’re thinking, check out this #YouCan video in honor of International Girls Day.

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