An image of classic books featuring girl heroes on top of a blue background with pink doodles

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice belongs to Elizabeth Bennett – the fiery, spirited protagonist with a quick-witted mind of her own. Elizabeth is the second eldest of the five Bennett sisters and is encouraged to find a husband by their pushy mother. While Elizabeth is stubborn in her judgements of others – through the course of the story – she learns to recognise her own flaws too. Even when a certain Mr. Darcy crosses her path, Elizabeth remains an independent and gutsy heroine, a hero from the past who was very much ahead of her time.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

Meg Murry always felt she was different. And when she finds herself travelling through space and time to rescue her missing father, she must use her courage and strength to overcome the odds. Accompanied by her little brother Charles Wallace and her school friend, Calvin, Meg hurtles across dimensions and planets to save her Dad from an evil force threatening to take over the universe. In this amazing story of dark and light, fear, and friendship, Meg emerges as a brave young hero, whose love for her family knows no bounds.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is set in Mississippi during the height of the Great Depression. Life is tough and especially so for those who are Black. Nine-year-old Cassie Logan is the narrator and heroine of the story, and throughout the course of the year, she and her family battle to keep their cotton farm whilst also dealing with the cruel and racist treatment they receive from the white townsfolk. Although naive and subject to frequent injustices because of the colour of her skin, Cassie remains outspoken, self-confident, and brave even in the face of adversity.

Kiki's Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono (1985)

Kiki is a trainee witch (which makes her a badass by default) and now that she’s turned 13, it’s time for her to set off on her own – accompanied by her witty black cat Jiji – and make a living using her powers. Problem is, Kiki isn’t very good at making potions or performing spells. However, she is very good at flying… Despite being pretty inexperienced, Eiko Kadono’s plucky heroine steps out into the world with a precocious determination to prove herself. And along the way, Kiki finds that magic can be found in the most ordinary of places.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905)

When Captain Crewe is stationed in India, his young daughter Sara is sent back to London. At Miss Minchin’s boarding school, Sara receives special treatment on account of her wealth, but her fortune soon changes when her father unexpectedly dies and doesn’t leave a will behind. With no money to her name, Sara is banished to the attic room and forced to work as a maid in order to earn her keep. In these difficult circumstances, Sara learns to cope and manages to be polite and generous to others, even though she is mistreated. One of literature’s great heroes, Sara displays bags of inner strength and dignity even through the worst of times.

Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter (1913)

In this classic story, a young orphan named Pollyanna comes to stay with her stern aunt in Beldingsville. Pollyanna lives according to her own philosophy, the glad game – which she learned from her father – and spreads her unrelenting cheer and optimism throughout the little New England town. Pollyanna finds a silver lining in every cloud and has an unbreakable spirit even in the face of terrible misfortune.

Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah (1999)

Chinese Cinderella is the harrowing true-life story of Adeline Yen Mah’s gruelling upbringing. Adeline’s mother died giving birth to her, so her family unfairly consider her to be a totem of bad luck. Things don’t get better when her father remarries and her stepmother is cruel and mistreats her. Adeline’s only solace is in books and in spite of the harsh circumstances, she eventually blossoms. In a world that continually tries to keep her down, this is a remarkable tale of a young girl’s survival spirit.

Annie by Thomas Meehan (1924)

It sure is a hard-knock life for Annie! In this beloved Depression-era story, 12-year-old Annie clings onto the hope that her parents will return to Mrs Hannigan’s orphanage and bring her home. Deciding to take matters into her own hands, courageous Annie heads out into the big bad world, where after a series of setbacks, she eventually finds love and comfort at a new home. Annie is the story of a remarkable little girl with a feisty spirit and an unshakable sense of optimism. Our favourite orphan is brave and bold enough for whatever life throws at her.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes is the classic story of the three fearless Fossil sisters, Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, who set out to follow their dreams – against the odds. Found and adopted as babies by Matthew Brown (Great Uncle Matthew), money runs out as they grow up, though the trio never loses faith. Determined to make ends meet on their own, the resilient sisters – each with different talents – decide to take to the stage. This is an unforgettable tale of triumph over adversity with plenty of girl power to boot.

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery (1908)

When feisty Anne Shirley turns up at Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert’s farm in the little island town of Avonlea, they get a lot more than they bargained for! Although the couple requested a young boy to help at Green Gables, the orphanage sends a chatty red-haired girl instead. But no matter – Anne soon wins the town’s affection with her big personality and even bigger heart. Bursting with imagination and spirit, Anne stumbles into adventure after adventure and charms her way out of any trouble. Anne’s zest for life is as inspiring today as it was when the book was first published.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton (1952)

Mary Norton’s best-loved tale follows a little girl called Arietty, who makes friends with someone she shouldn’t. In fact, Arietty is a very little girl as she is one of The Borrowers – the teeny tiny people who live in hidden spaces, such as beneath the kitchen floor. The Borrowers survive by filching bits and bobs from the ‘human beans’, who live above them. Although girls aren’t supposed to be Borrowers, Arrietty is an only child and she is the exception to the rule. As Arietty explores the outside world for the first time, she faces her fears and gains an appetite for adventure as well as a new friend. Nothing can hold this girl back.

The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye (1980)

In this smart retelling of a fairy tale, plucky Princess Amy proves that being yourself is more important than anything else. As a baby, the princess is bestowed the gift of ‘ordinariness’ by her cranky Godmother. When she grows up, Amy’s parents – believing her to be plain – try to formulate an elaborate plan to marry her off. In retaliation, Amy runs away to work as a scullery maid, eventually carving out her own route to happiness and acceptance. The Ordinary Princess shows that you can define your own future, no matter who you are and that inner compassion and conviction can be the most beautiful things of all.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

Mary Lennox is a spoilt and sulky little girl when she is sent to live at a rambling old manor in Yorkshire – that is until she makes friends with a little robin redbreast and the maid’s younger brother, Dickon. As Mary begins to explore the big house and its tumbledown grounds, she discovers the key to the secret garden as well as a sickly little boy named Colin hidden in a bedroom. Through nurturing the secret garden and tending to Colin, Mary transforms into an unlikely hero, who learns the importance of kindness, friendship, and being true to yourself.  

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is the adored story of the March sisters’ journey from childhood into adulthood. Despite the book’s emphasis on domestic duties and marriage, Little Women is really a study in personal growth as each of the sisters – sweet-natured Meg, strong-willed Jo, shy Beth, and sassy Amy – change remarkably over time. The March sisters are admired for their genuineness and their pronounced personalities at a time when women were seen as subservient to men. But most of all, Little Women is a tribute to the beautiful and everlasting power of sisterhood.

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