Books as Guides to Identity and Compassion

Children's heroines come in all sizes and shapes, from all walks of life



By Mem Fox

Illustrated by Elivia Savadier

Mondo, unpaged

$13.95, Ages 4-8


By Diane Stanley

Illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Putnam, unpaged, $15.95

Ages 4-8


Written and illustrated

by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow, unpaged, $15

Ages 4 and up


By Elisa Bartone

Illustrated by Ted Lewin

Lothrop, unpaged, $16

Ages 5 and up


By Michael P. Waite

Illustrated by Yoriko Ito

Lothrop, unpaged, $16

Ages 5 and up



By Karen Cushman

Clarion Books, 195 pp., $13.95

Ages 10-14


By Ann Rinaldi

Gulliver Books/Harcourt Brace, 352 pp., $6 paperback,

$12 hardcover

Ages 12 and up


By Philip Pullman

Knopf, 399 pp., $20

Ages 10 and up



By Joanna Cole


by Bruce Degen

Scholastic, 48 pp., $15.95

Ages 6-9


Written by Joanna Cole

with Wendy Saul

Illustrated by various artists

Heinemann, 56 pp., $16.95

All ages


Written and illustrated

by Jean Craighead George

HarperCollins, 134 pp., $14.95

Ages 8-12


By Marian Salzman

and Robert Pondiscio


212 pp., $5.99 paperback

Ages 8-12

"We need strong young women characters as models for both boys and girls," says Newbery Award-winning author Karen Cushman. "But more than that, we need young women characters who are honest, wise, passionate, and compassionate. Just being strong is not enough." Here's a selection of new books featuring heroines who express a wide range of qualities - beyond moral, mental, and physical strength.

Picture Books:

Award-winning Australian author Mem Fox has penned a sweet ode to reading in A Bedtime Story. First published abroad in 1986, it is now charming young ones in the United States. Polly, the persistent little protagonist, slumps, slouches, wiggles, and fidgets as she waits for her story. Her parents, engrossed in books of their own, ask absent-mindedly: "Have you brushed your teeth?" "Have you got your pajamas on?" and "Are you all snuggled in and ready?" Young listeners, quickly picking up Polly's responses, will find this a rewarding read-aloud bed-timer. Color pencil, watercolor, and collage illustrations by Elivia Savadier are appropriately soft and mellow.

Written with a Texan twang, Saving Sweetness, by Diane Stanley is a rip-roarin' good book. It's got a passel of good guys and bad guys. Mean Mrs. Stump runs an orphanage; Coyote Pete is an outlaw on the loose; the big-hearted but incompetent sheriff drinks milk in Loopy Lil's Saloon; and our heroine is Sweetness, Stump's "ittiest, bittiest orphan."

When Sweetness runs away from the orphanage, the sheriff sets out to "save" her.

Time after time, Sweetness's courage and resourcefulness prevent impending disaster. Kids will giggle at the humor and delight in Sweetness's success. G. Brian Karas's inventive illustrations - whimsical characters drawn over photographed landscapes - add visual interest to this dynamite story.

In Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, readers find that heroines don't always behave. Mouse Lilly loves everything about school, from pointy pencils to fish sticks on Friday. But most of all, she loves her teacher, Mr. Slinger.

One day after shopping with Grammy, Lilly brings some new treasures to school.

Unfortunately, Lilly can't wait until sharing time to show them off, so Mr. Slinger is forced to take them away. Lilly is crushed and ultimately takes revenge, even as Mr. Slinger offers reconciliation. Lilly is inconsolable until she finds a way to say that she is really, really, really sorry.

The text rings true, and the lively illustrations practically dance off the page. Once again, Henkes has created a kid-perfect book, full of humor and pathos.

In American Too, by Elisa Bartone, the heroine immigrates with her family from Italy to the United States shortly after World War I. Enthralled with the Statue of Liberty and all things American, Rosina (now Rosie) wants to leave the old ways behind. When she's chosen to be queen at the feast of San Gennaro, she wants to rebel. But Rosie finds a triumphant way to meld the old ways with the new. Ted Lewin's realistic watercolors, lush palette, and accurate details capture the charm of New York's Little Italy.

Can a dog be a heroine? One certainly is in the ancient tale of Jojofu. Author Michael P. Waite bases this exciting story on a 1,000-year-old Japanese folktale. Jojofu - which means "heroine" - is a beautiful white dog who saves her master's life three times during the course of a hunting expedition. While this satisfying book will be a favorite with animal lovers, the tender hearted may want to know that a few of the dogs in Jojofu's pack are lost to the very dangers from which she shields her master. Artist Yoriko Ito adds drama and serenity to the story with elegant, traditional-looking illustrations.


Newbery Medal-winning author Karen Cushman has created another intelligent, strong-willed, female character in The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. Twelve-year-old Lucy is taken by her mother from their comfortable 19th-century home in Massachusetts to the rough-and-tumble California goldfields. Lucy's younger siblings don't object to this new life, but Lucy dislikes the dirt, hard work, and lack of civilization - especially reading material.

When not helping Mama run Mr. Scatter's boarding house for miners, Lucy spends her time complaining or scheming a return to her beloved Massachusetts. Despite the losses she suffers in the makeshift town of Lucky Diggins, Lucy makes some surprising discoveries about herself and what she's gained in the West.

Thorough historical research undergirds this novel. Cushman balances the natural beauty of California with the hardships that wore on "the forty-niners." Some parents may want to know that domestic violence, racism, and death are included in this moving adventure story, although they are sensitively handled.

While some readers will recognize Phillis Wheatley as the slave who became America's first published black poet, no one knows much about her personal life. Ann Rinaldi, an award-winning author of historical fiction, has given readers a window into the private world of the poet in Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons. Fact and fiction mingle in this compelling story, which describes some of the struggles Phillis must have endured in her short life.

Many troubles were imposed upon her from without: She was kidnapped into slavery, mistreated on the so-called middle passage to America, and exposed to smallpox (in a Boston epidemic). But Rinaldi also sketches a character contending with her own emotions.

This allows readers not only to appreciate and admire Phillis's literary accomplishments, but also to view with compassion a woman whose life choices were severely limited.

One of this year's most talked-about books is The Golden Compass, an adventure-fantasy by English author Philip Pullman. Fantasy mavens will recognize all the elements of the genre: a worthy quest, a struggle between good and evil, and highly developed characters. (Lyra, the young heroine, is as clever and willful as they come.) Readers unfamiliar with the genre may be put off by the sinister side of this tale - its dark other-worldliness, deceptions, and brutalities.

Plot and setting are well-crafted. In a richly wrought world reminiscent of turn-of-the-century England, children are disappearing. No one knows exactly why, but it has something to do with parallel universes and cosmic dust.

Lyra teams up with "gyptians" to rescue her best friend, Roger, and other kidnapped children. Traveling north, often under the eerie glow of the aurora borealis, Lyra and her friends navigate elaborate canals, open seas, and frozen lands. Along the way, they are alternately helped and hindered by witches, armored bears, and daemons. Here a "daemon" is a shape-shifting animal that is the soul-like counterpart of each character. The strong human-daemon bond adds depth and emotion to this novel, the first in a promised trilogy.

Informational Books

Fifteen million books in print and 10 years of awards and recognition attest to the overwhelming success of "The Magic School Bus" science series, written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen.

In The Magic School Bus Inside a Beehive, the wacky, weird, and wonderful Ms. Frizzle takes her science class on its eighth amazing field trip. This time their bus shrinks, they all turn into bees, and they enter a hive to see, first-hand, the workings of a bee community. Puns, humor, and just plain fun are sprinkled throughout this "honey" of a book.

Cole's text is imaginative, interesting, and accurate. She uses many techniques to keep the information lively: "reports" from the students, dialog between pupils, informational diagrams, and more. Degen's engaging illustrations bring students, bees, and even the bus to life.

On the Bus with Joanna Cole gives readers who enjoy the Magic School Bus series a real treat. Written by Joanna Cole with Wendy Saul, this memoir tells how Cole developed her interest in science and writing. Reflecting on a career that includes more than 50 non-fiction books, she discusses her curiosity, her writing process, and even her report-writing technique as a student. (She never copied simple facts from encyclopedias, but tried to answer a "how" or "why" question that intrigued her.)

The book is richly illustrated with photographs and many pages from previously published volumes. The most interesting visuals are "dummy" pages Cole designed for her "Magic School Bus" books. Readers see her original ideas and how they were adapted for publication.

The Tarantula in My Purse is the latest offering by Newbery Award-winning author Jean Craighead George. Readers will be educated, entertained, and amazed by this autobiographical account of George as a single mother with a house full of wild pets.

George really did carry a Tarantula in her purse, and for seven years had "crickets for the tarantula" as an item on her shopping list. She and her three children also had an owl in the shower, a bat in the refrigerator, and a skunk in the closet. The true stories in this book span George's lifetime, and give interesting insights into the way this noted author thinks about and deals with animals. George illustrates this retrospective with her own black-and-white watercolors.

Reports from the on-line industry indicate girls are using the Internet in increasing numbers. For instance, America Online recently reported that in May, 45 percent of its domestic users between 6 and 17 were female - a 5 percent jump from six months earlier. Responding to this trend, authors Marian Salzman and Robert Pondiscio are promising a book in November called "Going to the Net: A Girl's Guide to Cyberspace." In the meantime, girls and boys - even parents - can get Internet help from Salzman and Pondiscio's The Ultimate On-line Homework Helper. They tell how and where to do research for class projects, reports, and just good ideas. Lots of valuable sites are listed, complete with tips for using them. Note: the authors include information about safety on the Net, and they caution kids not to give out personal information, even in cyberspace.

**Children's Literature Sites on the Web**

Surf's up! Waves of valuable information are surging over the Internet. If you haven't spent much time on the Internet's World Wide Web, don't delay! Grab your board - keyboard, that is - and start surfing.

My favorite site is The Children's Literature Web Guide out of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. David K. Brown has created a remarkably comprehensive site that offers author and publisher info, actual stories, resource guides for adults, and more - much more. He's also developed a nice system of flagging what's new and what's particularly valuable.

I especially like his "particularly valuable" category because I almost always agree with him. Why not take a look yourself? The electronic Web address is

Here's a sampling of other sites worth visiting. Each can be accessed directly with its own address, or through "The Children's Literature Web Guide" via hypertext links.

An outstanding author's site is Virginia Hamilton's new one at com/bodeep/index.html/ She discusses her books and her life, and even includes pictures of her frog collection.

A terrific publisher's site is North South Books. Design, graphics, and content are excellent at:

Some of the books and authors mentioned in this roundup are featured on Web sites. In most cases you'll want to look for the publisher. For instance, you can get info about the Magic School Bus series (and related items for sale) by visiting http://

Sometimes it's tricky, though. For more info about The Golden Compass, access Random House (the distributor) rather than Knopf (the publisher) at http://www.

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