Author Archives: Hunting for Heroines

This is Sadie


Sadie is a paean to the life of the imagination. It reminds the reader of the importance of stories to enrich and inspire our children.

‘Sadie’s perfect day is spent with friends. Some of them live on her street, and some live in the pages of books.’ Her life is never mundane because she constantly has a parallel reality existing in her head – one full of stories and adventure. Littered throughout Sadie are allusions to heroines from throughout the ages: Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Goldilocks, Alice, The Little Mermaid, Maid Marian.

Sadie is the kind of child that I’m sure a lot of readers of this blog can identify with. I always loved reading as a kid and the characters were just as real to me as my surroundings. If not more real. Whereas ‘real life’ is always in flux (new schools, new friends, new teachers) the characters in a book remain constant, in exactly the same position as when you left them and always there for you at a turn of a page. I sometimes used to finish a book and immediately turn back to the beginning because I wanted to spend more time with the characters.

Everything Sadie encounters is brought to life  – including clothes. When she chooses a dress to wear she whispers to it ‘”Don’t tell the others… but you are my favourite.”‘ I think the other dresses might suspect that this one would be the favourite because it is the perfect outfit for make-believe. The dress is medieval in style with a full green skirt and a red lace-up bodice; just right for riding a horse, diving into a swimming pool, flying over houses. Sadie reminded me how magical clothes can be to children, how a certain outfit can be enchanted with power. (I had a panda sweatshirt which I was adamant brought me good luck because I had been wearing it on the day my parents took us on a surprise trip to the cinema.)

Sadie is an active and fun book to read aloud due to the narrator constantly interacting with the reader – asking us to check to see if we have wings, questioning if we can hear Sadie. It is noteworthy that in a book which celebrates the world of the imagination the author employs metafiction – addressing the audience directly – thereby repeatedly reminding us that this is a storybook. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

Heroine rating: 4/5

I’m guest-blogging this post over at the wonderful Clothes in Books today. It’s a fantastic blog especially if you’re a fan of both books and fashion. But I warn you, the posts are so addictive to read that it is a good way to lose several hours…



Mog the Forgetful Cat


I think the Judith-Kerr-reading-world can be split into those who love Mog and those who love The Tiger Who Came to Tea. My sister always dreamed of tea parties with a tiger whereas I am firmly in the Mog camp. The books are so cleverly written with such humour and Mog is the perfect unintentional heroine.

For those who don’t know, Mog is a cat owned by the Thomas family. She has modest aims in life (to eat eggs, to chase birds) yet through a series of coincidences she somehow ends up saving the family from calamity (often calamities of her own making) and being labelled a hero.

There is a touching domesticity to the Mog books with glimpses of the reality of family life (the peas meant for dinner spilt on the floor, the crumpled window-box flowers.) Kerr based the Thomas’s on her own family. Thomas is her husband’s first name, the children are called Debbie and Nicky – Kerr’s own children’s middle names, and the house is based on Kerr’s family home in London.

Despite her obvious foibles Mog is a character with whom children can empathise. When she is feeling persecuted she runs out of the house and into the garden where she ‘sat in the dark and thought dark thoughts.’ What a perfectly concise way to capture that sense of wanting to run away and hide when emotions become too much.

The book is written with such a clever use of dramatic irony. Kerr’s turn of phrase transforms Mog’s forgetfulness into being truly hilarious. And it contains one of the best scenes in children’s literature. At the end of the story (*spoiler*) the burglar is seen being arrested by the policeman, but not before he’s finished having a cup of tea with the family. Redemption for all.

Heroine rating: 3/5

The Fairiest Fairy

The Fairiest Fairy-6471-3

This is a perfect antidote to all those fairy books aimed at girls who want to wear sparkly wings and look pretty. The Fairest Fairy is a joyful read that subtly questions which character traits are of true value.

The premise is that ‘Betty was a fairy who just never got things right’. She’s at fairy school where the other students find it easy to succeed where as she struggles with every task. She can’t perform spells, paint rainbows or wake flowers (who knew fairies had so much to do!) And part of the reason she isn’t very good is that she gets distracted; everywhere she turns there are animals who need help. She removes a thorn from a rabbit’s foot then gives him a cuddle, she gives a pep talk to a blackbird who is too scared to fly and cleverly untangles a butterfly’s laces. The fairy school students takes part in a contest to find the fairiest fairy in the land which Betty thinks she has no hope of winning but (*spoiler*) her newfound friends help her and, who’d’ve thought it, she ends up winning the prize.

This book’s message might sound like a bit of a pat on the head for the child who doesn’t do that well at school (and in the age of exams there will be plenty of kids who feel this way.) But I keep thinking about the world my son will be living in when he’s an adult and how increasingly intelligent technology will invert the qualities that we used to think were so important. Richard Susskind argues that in the internet age, knowledge (of the kind which is tested in schools) is not of much value. The professions (doctors, lawyers, architects etc) need creative thinkers, problem solvers and those with good people skills. So perhaps the future is very bright for the Bettys of this world. A heroine for an internet society.

(Also bonus point that Betty wears bright blue sneakers, not glitter stilettos.)

Heroine rating: 4/5




From her books you’d think that Kim Lewis was a born and bred English country girl so I was taken aback to learn that she’s actually from Montreal. But perhaps it’s not that surprising as Floss is all about the contrast between town and country and about moving to a new place.

At the beginning of the book Floss lives in a town with her owner and likes nothing more than spending all day playing football with the local children. Her owner’s son is a farmer and his dog is getting too old to work as a sheepdog – so Floss gets sent off to the country to take her place. The book has themes of the need to work versus the desire to play, the wrench of leaving behind the familiar and the struggle to be obedient.

Kim Lewis left Montreal to go to art school in London. She met her husband there and they moved up to Northumberland to farm. She started writing countryside tales when her son was young because she wanted stories that rural children could relate to and that city children could learn from. Her books capture the rugged beauty of the Northumberland countryside in detailed coloured pencil drawings full of movement and vitality.

When so often animal characters in books are the default ‘he’ it’s refreshing to have Floss as a ‘she’. A reminder that half the animal kingdom are also female. (Which you wouldn’t know from reading Dear Zoo where all eight of the animals sent are male. Which, you know, could just be a coincidence… I mean there is a 1/256 chance of it happening…)

My son is currently obsessed with dogs (or ‘duh’ as he calls them) so at time of writing this story is one of his favourites. And even with constant repetition Floss’s stoic hero(ine)ism doesn’t diminish.

Heroine rating: 4/5

Come away from the water, Shirley


Shirley extols the value of imagination. A simple interpretation of the book is that it is a story about a little girl’s trip to the seaside and the imaginary games that she plays there. But scratch the surface and there is a lot more going on

As is often the case in John Burningham’s work there are two parallel narratives. On the left hand page we have the parents. They are drawn in washed-out pastel colours and sit on their deckchairs ignoring their child except to chastise her and relay commands. These are the kind of parents none of us want to become; those who jab and pester their children to become part of their own joyless world.

The other narrative, on the right hand page, is Shirley’s make-believe adventure. She is drawn in vivid colours rowing out to sea, fighting pirates, finding hidden treasure. She has escaped to a dream world. Although, who would want to insist that Shirley’s world is the make-believe and her parents’ is the ‘real’ one.

In a conventional picture-book Shirley’s adventure with the pirates would be at the forefront, with illustrations backing up the words of the narrative. Yet here Burningham places the adventure to one side and narrates it purely with his pictures. The only words we read are the tedious sentiments of Shirley’s parents. This is a book in which language, or certain forms of it, is subtly accused of disenchanting the world. It asks us, and particularly those of us with the responsibilities of parenthood, to think about what we do with words.

The most chilling line in the book is ‘Your father might have a game with you when he’s had a little rest’, as if play can only be at a prescribed time in a fashion that is recognisable to adults. Shirley reminds us to re-enchant the world.

Heroine rating: 5/5

Fairytales for Mr Barker


Normally I wouldn’t refer to the achievements of an author’s parents in a review but Jessica Ahlberg is so directly continuing the family business that it is impossible not to refer to Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The heroine of Fairytales for Mr Barker travels through the worlds of fairytales as if they are movie sets (the colliding of characters much in the style of Each, Peach, Pear, Plum) where the next ‘set’ can be glimpsed through a cut away window (cf Peepo.) And Jessica’s illustrations do have a similar soft comfort to those of her mother’s.

Lucy is the heroine of Fairytales. She is strong headed and leads her fairytale companions out of danger of their respective nemeses (accompanied by her eponymous dog). It’s fast paced and fun and although it may not be very original it is very comforting. I also love how the story starts on the flyleaf before the ‘official’ beginning of a book as if the tale, and the heroine, are too important to be confined.

Heroine rating 4/5

Once There Were Giants


I challenge any adult to read Giants without getting a little tearful. It is a celebration of the everyday domestic life which is so often overlooked in literature and yet is the joy of having a family.

The book follows a girl from when she is a baby on the rug (and the adults around her seem like giants), to crawling, walking, going to playgroup and then school, getting married and then finally having her own little girl. I was given this book when my son was only a few weeks old and it is a joy to read it with him as he grows up and in turn achieves these different milestones. (At point of writing he’s almost walking to the park to be ‘the one in the duck pond’, but not quite.)

What gives this book top heroine rating is that the main character isn’t perfect. Like all children she does naughty things (‘I called people names and upset the water on Millie Magee’) and she fights with her older brother (‘I got big and strong and punched my brother John.’)

Reading an interview with the author, Martin Waddell, it comes as no surprise that he grew up amongst interesting women (his mother and aunt were actresses) as the female characters in this story are right in the centre of the tale. He also says that he aims to write great dramas in a way which relates to pre-schoolers (Hamlet for four-year-olds) which explains why Giants has the feel of an epic family saga crammed into 24 pages.

Heroine rating 5/5