When I was a girl, my literary idols were Anne Shirley, Jo March, and Lyra Belacqua. They were imaginative. They flouted convention. They were lovably outspoken. They always stood up for what they believed in, even when their convictions were at odds with society. In this triumvirate, I saw my own favorite qualities: spunky, courageous, unconcerned with what people thought of me. And then, I turned 11. And suddenly, I became very concerned with what people thought of me. In fact, it pretty much became all I cared about.
I still had my strong opinions and silly humor and firm morals, but it was all buried beneath my fear—fear of embarrassment, fear of being laughed at, fear at seeming odd and out of place. It was still secretly my greatest dream to smash a slate over the head of a cheeky boy. But even if the opportunity had arisen, I would have been too bashful to go for it. Okay, in hindsight that is probably one of the few positive outcomes of my overwhelming self-consciousness. But there was also the time I didn’t speak up for the girl picked on in the cafeteria; the time I joined in on bullying a classmate; the time I didn’t try out for the school play; the time I faked sick rather than face my classmates after a bad haircut. And even worse than my relentless anxiety was the certainty that I was betraying my idols. I was convinced that somewhere, somehow, Anne, Jo, and Lyra saw what I had become and were deeply disappointed in this newer, meeker, weaker me. I was out of the club; I was not a heroine.
I see now that these young ladies and their compatriots are the ideal creations of adults—girls as we hope they are and not as they actually are. In the real world, for every Hermione Granger, there are 99 other girls who are too scared of judgment to speak their minds. As an antidote to these perfectly unself-conscious heroines, the main character of my middle-grade novel-in-progress is, like most twelve-year-olds, more concerned with fitting in than morals. Unlike the Anne Shirleys of literature who are born with the ability to speak up in the face of injustice, my protagonist grapples with doing what is right when it goes against the group.
Most girls could use a road map to show them how to get from who they are to who they want to be. Or, in Little Women parlance, to get from Meg to Jo. In the end, perhaps girls who overcome their insecurities are braver than the Annes and Lyras, who never cared what anyone else thought in the first place.