Every avid childhood reader remembers the heroes and the heroines that defined their young lives. They’re almost like close friends, those Lizzie Bennets and Lucy Pevensies and Harry Potters. They taught us how to laugh, to love, but perhaps most of all, how to be. How to be children and – to a great extent – how to be adults. How to be individuals, to be principled, to be strong.
But our heroes and heroines don’t just change us. To a large extent, we control them. We get out what we put in, and it’s hardly surprising that the best-loved books stay with readers throughout their lives, each time offering the reader something slightly different.
Heroes and heroines offer us a template for how to be – funny, brave, clever, whatever the author thinks is most important – but whether we, as readers, chose to accept these templates is a different matter altogether. This is perhaps particularly true of heroines, because the social roles imposed on women (mother, wife, daughter) are echoed in fiction, and reading anything published more than a few decades ago (and, regrettably, sometimes even just a few days ago) seems to offer women a pretty narrow scope of templates to accept. So there’s often a debate about whether we should give girls books like A Little Princess or Little Women, while offering boys Treasure Island is scarcely ever thought quite so problematic (presumably there’s no issue with giving girls Treasure Island, and no possibility of giving boys Little Women).