Children’s literature is filled with colorful characters we carry with us for a lifetime. From Jo March to Anne Shirley to Nancy Drew, the list runs long. As I was creating my comic-book loving superhero trio of Josie, Mae, and Akiko in Cape: Book 1 of The League of Secret Heroes, my mind was filled with the voices of other memorable girls. What follows are some of my favorite heroines—selected from recent books rather than the classics—who stand out for their hilarity, compassion, bravery, and brilliant thinking. They’re basically the girls we all want to be.
Lucy from Stacy McAnulty’s The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl
Lucy is a refreshingly original character, whose quirks are obvious and whose charms are incalculable. Lightning strikes will do that to a gal. Trying to keep her genius-level math skills in check, socially awkward Lucy has to figure out friendships, and that can be harder than any algebra problem. (“Life is like an equation and mine is perfectly balanced. Nana + Uncle Paul + Math = Happiness. Other people might need to add in friends or sports or money or something else, but my equation is already solved.”) Her courage in the face of classmates’ cruelty makes Lucy’s character linger long after we’ve finished this book.
Drest from Diane Magras’ The Mad Wolf’s Daughter
Drest wields a dazzling sword and a sharp conscience. Not only must she rescue her father and five brothers after they were taken prisoner by a band of invading knights, but ultimately she’s got to stand up to her own war-band and shatter a few family traditions. With a clear sense of right and wrong, Drest grows more self-possessed through each swash-buckling chapter. “My own wee lass? We trained you better than I knew,” she’s told. Her reply? “Maybe you did, or maybe it was just me . . .” Confident despite the voices in her head and clever beyond her years, Drest is a medieval marvel.
Jude from Jasmine Warga’s Other Words for Home
Jude flees Syria with her mother as war breaks out, leaving her dad and brother behind. Adjusting to a whole new life in Cincinnati—with a cousin who makes it clear she’s not interested in being Jude’s friend—proves challenging, and Jude must be all kinds of brave as she navigates school life and American culture. “Sometimes it feels like when I boarded that plane to fly to America I left my heart behind, beating and lonely on the other side of the ocean.”
Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern from Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer
Three sisters are transplanted from the East Coast to Oakland, where they spend their summer vacation at a camp run by the Black Panthers and wrestle with their emotions about their estranged mother. I can’t choose which sister I like best, so I’m sticking with all three of these beautifully written characters: stoic and level-headed Delphine, who keeps herself above the fray, sensitive and vulnerable Vonetta, and assertive and irresistible baby sister Fern. Over endless takeout Chinese dinners, the sisters learn sometimes painful lessons about family, community, and the world.
Cilla from Susan Tan’s Cilla Lee-Jenkins series
A little Junie B. Jones, a little Clementine, Priscilla “Cilla” Lee-Jenkins is as hilarious as she is earnest. Deeply committed to her writing (“I sat and looked at my story and tried to figure out where it could be more Serious and why it didn’t meet middle school Expectations.”), Cilla maintains a relentlessly sunny outlook. Blending two cultures, with her white Grandma and Grandpa and Chinese Nai Nai and Ye Ye, Cilla’s impressive writing skills means we enjoy vivid, thrilling storytelling. Confident, capable, and a keen observer, Cilla is all heart. Prepare to get misty with this delightful series.
Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong from Robin Stevens’ Wells & Wong Mystery series
These books are narrated by the obviously brilliant and Watson-like Hazel, who teams up with confident and clever Daisy, a self-pronounced Sherlock Holmes. These girl detectives use their keen intellects to solve the mysteries, with hilarious deadpan observations and great insights into the human condition. (“Murders, unfortunately, always come with murderers attached. In Daisy’s books, they generally get quite angry about being investigated.”) Like any delicious treat, you can’t stop at just one.
Mibs from Ingrid Law’s Savvy
All of us have our insecurities, but when your family has powers like producing hurricanes or creating electrical storms, it makes sense to feel a little worried about where you stand. Sweet, sensitive Mibs is on the cusp of everything as she reaches her thirteenth birthday, when everyone in her unusual family gets their magical powers. But when Dad gets into a car accident, Mibs’ big moment becomes a race to bring Daddy out of his coma. Mibs is fiercely devoted to her family (“I had to leave and I had to do it right then and there. I had to find Poppa and I had to use my savvy to wake him up.”), which I admire, and has an impressive can-do spirit. She’s the dive-right-in kind of friend I want to hang out with.
Sanity and Tallulah from Molly Brooks’ Sanity & Tallulah
In this gorgeously drawn graphic novel, spacegirls Sanity and Tallulah won’t back down from their science experiment, even after the three-headed cat they’ve produced goes missing. Fierce, uncompromising, and original, they have to tap their smarts and a good amount of courage to save their space station home from danger. Science-minded Sanity is a perfect balance to passionate, free-spirited Tallulah. “We’re not gonna be in trouble until we get out of the tunnels, so we might as well do everything we can now while we’re in here, so we don’t waste any mischief!” This is a pair I’d sit at the lunch table with any day.
Mia from Kelly Yang’s Front Desk
Kindness is the guiding force as Mia navigates the intricacies of American life. She manages the front desk of the motel where her parents work, as well as a tense relationship with the motel’s owner. Mia’s smarts and courage serve as a reminder that no matter how young and powerless we may be, every one of us has the power to help others who need it, to show compassion when we see suffering, and to pull people together in order to make the world a better place. (“What if we didn’t need one rich relative? What if what we needed instead was a lot of poor people? My mom said it herself—everybody could each put in a little.”)
Cape: Book 1 of The League of Secret Heroes is on B&N bookshelves now.