Morrigan, Hermione and Alice – feminist heroes in children’s literature by Cayt Mirra
It was with great excitement that I read Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. It was getting a lot of buzz and sounded like the kind of thing I would enjoy. I was right. But what I wasn’t expecting was how completely I would fall in love with the novel’s protagonist, Morrigan Crow. When the sequel, Wundersmith, came out in October, I devoured it in a way I rarely have time for – the way that I used to read before I had kids.
In the world of children’s literature, there are a lot of princesses in towers waiting to be rescued, and it is always exciting to find another young woman in fiction who completely kicks ass. We learn from the novel’s opening that Morrigan is cursed; bad things happen around her, and everything that does happen is automatically thought to be her fault. She grows up in a house full of coldness and neglect. But Morrigan is bold and sassy and intelligent. She takes risks, she loves openly and she deals with her own private insecurities in a way that is very real. Morrigan is drawn to people who are a bit odd and is driven by a desire to belong. And despite being thrown about by many forces beyond her control, she makes her own decisions. She takes risks, including a fairly momentous leap of faith off the top of a building. She listens to her mentors but is also guided by a strong sense of fairness. Throughout the first novel, she grapples with the fear that she is not special, and throughout the second, the fear that she is not entirely good. After a childhood of being told repeatedly that there is something wrong with her, Morrigan needs to learn to love herself, and this is a journey she takes the reader on. She has been failed so badly by so many of the adults in her life that I find myself feeling very protective of her, while at the same time admiring her determination and grit.
The love I felt for Morrigan made me reflect on the other young women in children’s literature who have had a profound effect on me, and why I consider them feminist heroes.
The first is Alice, of Alice in Wonderland. Growing up, this was always one of my favourites. I like the absurdity and the adventure. And in contrast to the Disney princesses with which she is often placed, Alice stands out. Firstly, she is not a princess. There is no prince, and love and marriage are not her goals. She is not presented as being beautiful like Belle or kind like Cinderella or compliant like pretty much all of them (or in the cases of Aurora and Snow White, literally asleep); Alice is curious. Her goal is adventure and excitement. She is not rescued; in fact, the people and animals she meets are actively unhelpful. She is optimistic and brave and honest. She finds wonderland because she is bored, and she is entirely responsible for finding her own way out. The fact that Wonderland is a creation of her mind is testament to her imagination and wit. Ultimately, she is teaching herself about the way the world works – about rules and order and power and language and what’s really important. These are big concepts that she is sorting through in her own mind. Alice in clever and polite and considerate, but also not afraid to stand up for herself when she is being treated unfairly.
The other character I feel I need to mention is Hermione Granger. To me, Hermione is the hero of the Harry Potter series, despite not being the titular character. Without her, Harry would have failed at almost every turn. Where he would run towards danger with no plan, Hermione would think it through, she would do the research, she would cast the spell and deal with the consequences. She is pegged early as the brainy one, but Hermione proves again and again that she is just as brave as her friends. She also proves herself just as loyal and loving, demonstrating a selfless care for others; it is Hermione alone who helps Hagrid prepare for his court case, and who rallies for rights for house elves. Hermione’s sense of social justice drives her to do what is right even when she is afraid. She is proud of the face that she works hard and proud of her academic achievements. And we see her intellect save the day when she solves riddles, brews potions, translates runes and generally provides her more impulsive friends with sound advice. And for someone who loves rules, she is also a badass: she forms Dumbledore’s Army, breaks into a bank disguised as Bellatrix Lestrange, rides a thestral (that she can’t even see) to break into a government building, battles death eaters and – most importantly – punches Draco Malfoy in the face.
It will not surprise me at all if Nevermoor is labelled as a children’s classic alongside Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter. For me, little Morrigan already has a place in my heart as one of the heroes of children’s literature.