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Jessica Pearce Rotondi

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Books For Girls: Madeleine L'Engle And The Heroines We Loved

Posted: 02/16/2012 10:47 am

I hope everyone had this moment at some point before age, oh, thirteen: You're reading a chapter book in the library or on the school bus or in bed with a flashlight after lights out, and suddenly you recognized in the heroine someone who thought how you thought and saw the world like you did. Whether she was Anne of Green Gables or Harriet the Spy, she, too, recognized the arbitrariness of grownup's rules and she also had big dreams that sometimes clashed with reality. The only difference between you was that she got to live in the world of the book, and you had to live with your family. She was, up to that point, the best thing that had ever happened to you.

For me it was Laura Ingalls (and yes, I had her little brown diary). For a lot of girls -- at least the fellow second-graders I met at Kate Gove's children's reading group at the GAR Memorial Library in West Newbury -- it was Meg Murry of Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," a book that turns 50 this year. L'Engle showed a generation of young girls that men weren't the only ones who could save the universe (or read or star in Sci-Fi).

Paying tribute to "A Wrinkle in Time," Pamela Paul wrote in the New York Times:

for almost a century and a half, girls have fluctuated between seasons of Amy and Meg and Jo March, imagining themselves alternately with blond corkscrew curls, eldest sister wisdom or writerly ambitions ... It was under L'Engle's influence that we willed ourselves to be like Meg Murry, the awkward girl who suffered through flyaway hair, braces and glasses but who was also and to a much greater degree concerned with the extent of her own intelligence, the whereabouts of her missing scientist father, the looming threat of conformity and, ultimately, the fate of the universe.

Probably no one has better cataloged the positive influence books like L'Engle's have on girls than Lizzie Skurnick. In "Shelf Discovery," her 2009 book-length love letter to the heroines of Young Adult fiction, Skurnick argued that up until the 60s, young women "were in the story, but you'd be hard pressed to say it was our story," and credited L'Engle and her generation with putting "girls in the center of our own adventures."

But literature's influence on young women isn't always a positive one, or so The Observer's Samantha Ellis claims. Ellis has written that she spent most of her life aspiring to be more of a daring Cathy Earnshaw/"Wuthering Heights" type over the more staid heroine of "Jane Eyre," but with age, found her loyalties shifting (I mean, look at how poor Cathy turned out). Ellis began revisiting the books that influenced her as a young girl and found some had had pernicious effects on her life:

Hans Christian Andersen's got a lot to answer for; "The Little Mermaid" made intense, messy, painful love seem the only kind there is. I wish I hadn't loved Scarlett O'Hara so much - I might have realised unrequited love is just deeply boring. The same goes for Anne in "Valley of the Dolls," who only gets her man after a lot of ugly scheming.

What do you think? Which heroines from your childhood and teen reading influenced who you are today? Which do you wish hadn't? Tweet @HuffPostWomen with hashtag #GirlBooks.

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