This year, the American Library Association has awarded books with many fine heroines. Each has something to offer in terms of female role models, and they all provide pathways to fascinating discussions.
Mac Barnett’s “Extra Yarn” (Balzer & Bray, 2012, ages 5-8), which received a Randolph Caldecott Medal for illustrations, features an extraordinary female character, Annabelle. Jon Klassen’s illustrations portray Annabelle’s stark world with monochromatic images until she discovers a magical box of endless yarn. Then she knits for everyone she knows and everything she sees, including barns and mailboxes. The colors of Annabelle’s creations are as understated as her manner. Nevertheless, against the bleak backgrounds, they show her as an active agent of change. She won’t be bullied, tricked or cursed by a greedy archduke who demands she knit for him. Her determination to do what’s right is a strong as her wish to cover the world in fibers.
Jacqueline Woodson’s “Each Kindness” (Nancy Paulsen Books, ages 9 and up), winner of a Coretta Scott King Author Honor award, has a complex main character, Chloe. When Maya, a new girl, enters Chloe’s class, Chloe notes she’s wearing ragged clothes and a shoe with a broken strap. Maya smiles at Chloe, but Chloe moves as far away as possible and continues this unkind behavior until her teacher changes her perspective. The teacher drops a pebble in a bowl of water to show how kindness “…goes out, like a ripple into the world.” Chloe is determined to change, but Maya never returns. Chloe (and the reader) is left with uncomfortable feelings that require discussion.
Katherine Applegate’s “The One and Only Ivan” (Harper, ages 8-11) won the John Newbery Medal for best novel. The main character of this free verse poem is a silverback gorilla imprisoned in a small cage in a failing mall, but both plot and tone are affected by Julia, the human “daughter of the weary man who cleans the mall each night.” Julia protests neglect that leads to the death of Ivan’s friend, an aging elephant, and cries out at cruel treatment of a baby elephant. Sensitive Julia understands Ivan’s plight and plan and provides him with the material and means to escape, modeling compassion and the courage to take action.
Elizabeth Wein’s “Code Name Verity” (Hyperion, ages 13 and up), winner of a Michael L. Printz Honor, is a historical novel with two heroines. “I am a coward,” Julie’s narrative begins, but readers will think otherwise. The wireless operator has been caught in Nazi-occupied France and is being tortured by the Gestapo, who want information about codes. She is sleep- and food-deprived, tied to an iron rail, near naked and bargaining for paper and ink to write her Shaharazad-like story to stay her inevitable execution. Her story is raw, heart-breaking, but her cheeky voice keeps readers buoyed and cheering for her. British pilot Maddie, Julie’s friend, narrates the wrenching ending. The voices and actions of these heroines shine like the medal that this book deserves.