Spunk and Determination: Real and Imagined

Because March is Women’s History Month, I’d like to highlight some fictional female characters who exhibit the kind of smarts, energy, and determination that could’ve made these girls historical stand-outs if they were, you know, real. I enjoyed matching characters with real-life heroes whose achievements dovetail with the characters’ stories and personalities, but your interpretations of these characters and their historical counterparts may vary.

JULIA GILLIAN (and the Dream of the Dog) by Alison McGhee with pictures by Drazen Kozjan.

IndieBound description: Sixth grade is proving to be less than dreamy for Julia Gillian. Worst of all, her beloved dog, Bigfoot, is getting old. Soon, Julia will learn that no matter how hard she tries, she cannot prevent the inevitable.

Julia Gillian loves her dog with a fierceness that brought tears to my eyes, and I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to believe Julia Gillian might have grown up to be Ellin Prince Speyer who in 1906 founded the Women’s Auxiliary to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. by Kate Messner

Indiebound description: Gianna Z has less than one week to collect, identify, and creatively display 25 leaves for her science project—or else she won’t be able to compete in the upcoming cross-country race. As the deadline for her leaf project draws near, life keeps getting in the way. Some things are within Gee’s control, like her own procrastination, but others aren’t, like Biana Rinaldi’s attempts at sabotage and Nonna’s declining health. If it weren’t for her best friend Zig, Gee wouldn’t have a chance at finishing. His knowledge of trees and leaves in their rural Vermont town comes in very handy, as does his loyalty to Gee. But when Nonna disappears one afternoon, things like leaves and cross-country meets suddenly seem less important.

Obviously, there’s a whole lot more going on in this story than just running, but as a fellow runner, I appreciated Gee’s exhilaration when she was out on the trails, and I believe Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph would’ve understood it, too.

THE INVISIBLE RULES OF THE ZOE LAMA by Tish Cohen

IndieBound description: If you are one of Zoe’s friends, you know her invisible rules for school survival, from what to wear to which boy is the Most Vile. Ever since the day Zoe neutralized the playground bully, she has been the go-to gal for classmates and teachers alike. When a new girl comes to school with a reputation, Zoe decides to help her fit in. But who will save Zoe when her coaching backfires completely?

Zoe most definitely juggles lots of responsibilities so I first searched for a famous woman circus performer as her historical counterpart, then decided Zoe’s character could be considered a match with household efficiency expert, Lillian Evelyn Gilbreth, who raised 12 children while working as an engineer and industrial psychologist.

OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon M. Draper

IndieBound description: Eleven-year-old Melody has a photographic memory. Her head is like a video camera that is always recording. Always. And there’s no delete button. She’s the smartest kid in her whole school—but no one knows it. Most people—her teachers and doctors included—don’t think she’s capable of learning, and up until recently her school days consisted of listening to the same preschool-level alphabet lessons again and again and again. If only she could speak up, if only she could tell people what she thinks and knows . . . but she can’t, because Melody can’t talk. She can’t walk. She can’t write.

Melody has cerebral palsy which affects her in multiple ways. Like Helen Keller, Melody is filled with frustration as she struggles to communicate with others. And, most importantly, like her historical counterpart, Melody’s spirit and determination help her smash the barriers keeping her alone in her own mind.

ELLIE MCDOODLE – NEW KID IN SCHOOL by Ruth McNally Barshaw

IndieBound description: When Ellie’s family moves to a new town, she’s sure she won’t fit in. Nobody else likes to read as much as she does, and even the teachers can’t get her name right. But when the students need someone to help them rally against unfair lunch lines, it’s Ellie to the rescue—and if shorter lines and better food prevail, can friendship be far behind?

Student organizer, Ellie McDougal, meet Mary Harris Jones (also known as Mother Jones), labor organizer.  Mother Jones worked hard to expose the evils of child labor and in 1903, led a 125–mile march of child workers from the Pennsylvania mills to President Theodore Roosevelt’s vacation home on Long Island. My guess is Ellie would’ve joined in solidarity.

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY by Adam Rex

IndieBound Description: When twelve-year-old Gratuity (“Tip”) Tucci is assigned to write five pages on “The True Meaning of Smekday” for the National Time Capsule contest, she’s not sure where to begin. When her mom started telling everyone about the messages aliens were sending through a mole on the back of her neck? Maybe on Christmas Eve, when huge, bizarre spaceships descended on the Earth and the aliens – called Boov – abducted her mother? Or when the Boov declared Earth a colony, renamed it “Smekland” (in honor of glorious Captain Smek), and forced all Americans to relocate to Florida via rocketpod?

In any case, Gratuity’s story is much, much bigger than the assignment. It involves her unlikely friendship with a renegade Boov mechanic named J.Lo.; a futile journey south to find Gratuity’s mother at the Happy Mouse Kingdom; a cross-country road trip in a hovercar called Slushious; and an outrageous plan to save the Earth from yet another alien invasion.

Tip traveled via hovercraft and explorer Mary Henrietta Kingsley traveled to Africa in Victorian clothing, yet both were courageous in the face of different worldviews. Tip battled aliens who abducted her mother and Mary fought off cannibals who tried to eat a traveling companion. I’d say they’re kindred spirits.

So, Mixed-Up Files readers, those are my thoughts on Tip and a few other middle-grade females. As Women’s History Month winds down, I invite you to take a moment to share your ideal pairings of fictional characters and their historical counterparts in the comments. Bonus points for the most infamous match-up!

Tracy Abell has given up her dream of Olympic gold in track and field, and is instead working hard to create timeless middle-grade fiction.

 

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