Lessons from Girls: Growing Up with My Favorite Fictional Characters

I am 10 years old when I meet Matilda. We are both curious, voracious readers. She is younger than me but so much smarter—and infinitely more powerful. Matilda inspires me with her courage and boldness. She makes me believe that I, too, can stand up to those who are bigger and stronger than me. (She also makes me believe that I will eventually uncover telekinetic powers, but that is a story for another day.) (Matilda)

Her name is Kristy Thomas. I meet her when I am 11. She is my first example of a female entrepreneur. That she is 13 only makes her cooler. Kristy is referred to as bossy (nowadays, I know this is sexist-speak for leader), loud (sexist-speak for has a voice), and tomboyish (defies idiotic gender norms). I grow up being labeled two out of three. Kristy makes me feel okay about it. Proud, even. (Kristy’s Great Idea)

Elizabeth Wakefield is, first and foremost, a reader and a writer. Has been since Lower School. This is by choice: with her brains, beauty, and privilege she could be anything. She could be like her twin sister: cool, popular, fashionable. But Liz chooses to embrace her studious and bookish nature. To be a nerd. I meet her when I am 12 years old, and, thanks to her influence, I am comfortable in my own nerdy skin. (Sweet Valley High)

summer sistersVictoria Leonard and Caitlin Somers teach me about the messy, powerful business of having a best friend. They educate 13-year-old me on compassion and perspective. They make me realize that so many of the questions I have are normal. Thanks to them, I open up to my real-life friends. And we become even closer. (Summer Sisters)

Pecola Breedlove opens my 14-year-old eyes. I had, of course, been lectured on the world’s ugliness before meeting her. On systemic racism, domestic abuse, and violence. On society’s association of beauty with whiteness. But there is theoretical knowledge – and then there is compassionate knowledge. Pecola gifts me the latter. For that, I will forever be grateful. (The Bluest Eye)

I am unimpressed by Juliet. She is introduced to me by my 9th Grade World Literature teacher, Mr. DeJohn. I am fifteen and it shocks me that she is even younger. This cannot be the celebrated, centuries-old love story referenced by the entire world. They are children. They barely know each other. Their outcome isn’t tragic—it is completely ridiculous. Illogical. I am too young to know that falling in love is to enter a dream state. That it has little to do with logic. (Romeo and Juliet)

their eyes were watching god by zora neale hurston coverAt 16, I meet Janie Crawford. She is 40 but, through flashback, she is also a child. Such is the magic of fiction. I bear witness to her story: from her first kiss to the trial she faces for murder, one with an all-white jury. She makes me feel it all: wonder, rage, love, regret. She teaches me about the resilience of the human spirit. (Their Eyes Were Watching God)

Clara del Valle comes into my life when I am 17. She is a child writing in her diary. I, too, keep a diary (I have since I was 11), though her record-keeping skills are far superior. Clara is an observer: curious, watchful, at times mute. I want to learn more about her quiet nature. Not to mimic it (I talk all the time, even in my sleep), but to tap into my own clairvoyant powers. (Have I mention that Clara is clairvoyant in The House of the Spirits?) My logic: Matilda’s telekinesis never kicked in. Maybe Clara’s clairvoyance will.

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