The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes Novel Study

The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses is a middle grade American novel by Eleanor Estes, first published 1944. I consider this story a children’s literature sister of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Doll’s House“. The Hundred Dresses remains resonant with young readers today, and is happily still in print after winning a Newbery Honor. (The medal was awarded to Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson that year.)

The Hundred Dresses is illustrated by Louis Slobodkin in his usual loose watercolour and sketchy style. Slobodkin was a good choice, since he shared in common with fictional Wanda Petronski a non-Anglo last name in a more overtly racist era — a rare #OwnVoices before #OwnVoices was a thing.


I was 10 years old when my Year 6 teacher read us The Hundred Dresses. He said, “I normally read this book when I suspect bullying problems. I don’t think there are problems like this going on in this class, but I’m going to read it anyway.” I immediately wondered if he knew what was going on.

After he’d read The Hundred Dresses, I knew he had seen what was going on. He’d seen at least some of it. I knew it was a little about me.

This was the eighties. The ‘Mean Girl’ group started up in full force that year. The Mean Girls themselves were victims in a system which requires women and girls to look a certain way. They wore tan coloured pantyhose under their short skirts, even on hot days, because suntans were in fashion. There was a hierarchy regarding who had the most ear piercings. Some of the piercings extended right up into the painful cartilage area of their ten-year-old ears. They tied their hair in a whale spout fountain.

Debbie Gibson. Our Mean Girl looked a lot like this but ten or eleven years old with freckles.

I wasn’t one of those girls. Unlike in Estes’ book, this wasn’t about socioeconomic status. Our hierarchy was a kind of rich-poor inversion. These girls with the piercings and the whale spouts had the most permissive parents. They rode their bikes around the neighbourhood all evening in summer, unsupervised. Their families didn’t seem to have much money. The girls somehow found cash for pantyhose and stud earrings. But when they learned I’d been enrolled in karate (they turned up one evening on their bikes and peered through the dojo — classroom — window), they expressed their envy the following day. “How long have you been doing karate?” they asked, envious, because The Karate Kid was new out. I felt little bad for them then. Extra curricular activities were for ‘rich’ kids, like me. If my parents seemed rich to them it was because my folks were so very careful about money.

Case in point: The school photographer was bad at his job. He took a portrait of me with my eyes closed. I carried it home feeling the utmost shame. You weren’t supposed to blink for photos and I had been bad. Film was expensive. You were supposed to stare at the camera with a smile affixed to your face. If your eyes were closed it was all your fault. My mother was dismissive, borderline disgusted. “I’m not paying five dollars for that,” she said. “You can take it right back.”

Masking my shame, I had to return the stupid photo to school. The worst of it was, I was smiling as directed. Grinning with my eyes closed, I looked like a simpleton. I placed the portrait discreetly upon the teacher’s desk. But I was the only kid in the class whose parents didn’t pay the five bucks for their portrait. The teacher said nothing, thank goodness. But that afternoon, the girl with the most elaborate fountain of ponytail cornered me near my box. (We had boxes, not individualistic desks — our teacher was a Rudolph Steiner type). She said, “I know why your mum didn’t buy your photo. You’re too ugly.”

My mother did pay for the class photo, though not for the portrait. I don’t look at it much. Then, last year, as most of my class turned 40, someone tagged me in it on Facebook. It struck me how similar my ten-year-old self looked to that nasty girl with the most flamboyant fountain ponytail. Same height, same build, same freckled face. By any measure, our ten-year-old selves are identical on glossy paper. If this were fiction, she’d be my foil character.

Back in 1988, I believed what this identical-looking classmate said about me. To clarify, I knew ugliness had not been the reason my mother sent the photo back. But I suspected this girl was right, in a general way, about ‘ugly’. I had no piercings and a bad haircut, not quite long enough to tie up. I looked kind of like a boy (by design, actually). I was the youngest in my year. I (gladly) hadn’t hit puberty. I wore homemade, practical athletic clothes, sewn with love, if not by fashion, by my auntie who owned an overlocker and sold polar fleece jumpers at the Saturday Morning Market. These clothes were great for running around in, and when I wasn’t reading Ramona Quimby in the school library, I ran around a lot. But elastic is a precious resource, so my track pants featured two stripes instead of the superfluous Adidas triple, which marked the apex of Year 6 status at that time.

I wonder if our teacher overheard that insult by the boxes when he decided to read The Hundred Dresses to our class. He could’ve heard any number of others.

I do wonder what that girl is doing now. I’ll never know, because nobody tagged her in our class photo 30 years later. I left the town after Year Six, because my father was transferred to the city. I didn’t attend high school with that cohort, and had spent only two years with them in total. So I was surprised anyone remembered my name to tag me in a photo. I’d aimed for invisible.

Back in Year Six, Marie was the opposite of invisible. Fast forward three decades, I wonder if anyone else remembers her name at all.



Lately, lots of people are talking about the highly promoted TV series Killing Eve, which features a woman increasingly obsessed with another woman. The BBC’s Woman’s Hour podcast discussed other similar dynamics in fiction (at 31 minutes)and I thought immediately of Hundred Dresses as the children’s book equivalent of:

  • Eve and Villanelle in Killing Eve
  • Mrs Danvers in Rebecca
  • Barbara in Notes On A Scandal
  • Three women all obsessed with each other in The Favourite (2018)
  • The Bostonians by Henry James
  • Many French novels, usually set in school, usually someone younger who becomes obsessed.
  • Sarah Waters does it beautifully in Affinity and The Paying Guests
  • The Woman Upstairs by Clare Messud
  • The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante
  • Sleep With Me features a character who inspires obsession in others
  • All About Eve (1950)
  • Black Swan

In each of these stories there’s a possessive charge between each of these women and their objects, whether that’s sexual, intellectual or whatever. It’s about owning a piece of another person.

Why do audiences respond so well to this dynamic?

  • Despite all the examples above, we don’t see it all that often. There’s a current trend of writing ‘strong women’ who support each other. These stories are necessary too, but there are also conniving, devious, treacherous women. Audiences want to see all kinds of dynamic, not just the idealised ones.
  • The male gaze is default in narrative, so watching a woman gaze at another woman feels refreshing in a different kind of maybe-feminist way.
  • This kind of relationship is about identity and self-lack and not necessarily about the object in the way the gazer thinks it is. So the nature of the gaze is different. It’s turned inward.
  • In the past, authors have hidden behind the male gaze. Willa Cather is one example. (Cather wrote “Paul’s Case“.)
  • Women’s lust for power is rarely represented. It’s a new take on power dynamics. In the past it was more of a ‘woman catfight’.
  • The woman with the obsession is lacking something in her own life. She watches another woman from the sidelines, fascinated.
  • There’s a freedom that comes from watching another woman have the courage to do all the things you want to do yourself.
  • We rarely see two female leads on screen unless it’s this dynamic.

I have seen literary agents who represent young adult fiction lament the huge number of submissions they get about the viewpoint character best friend looking on at the life of the cool, interesting, sparky best friend. This probably speaks to a common pitfall for writers — both characters must be equally interesting in their own right.


We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human. One striking example of this blatant dehumanisation came from a brain-scan study that found a small group of students exhibited less neural activity associated with thinking about people when they looked at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, as compared with higher-status individuals. Another study showed that people who are opposed to Arab immigration tended to rate Arabs and Muslims as literally less evolved than average. Among other examples, there’s also evidence that young people dehumanise older people; and that men and women alike dehumanise drunk women. What’s more, the inclination to dehumanise starts early – children as young as five view out-group faces (of people from a different city or a different gender to the child) as less human than in-group faces.

The Bad News On Human Nature, Aeon


Many children’s stories (as well as stories for adults) begin in the iterative and switch to the singulative. The Hundred Dresses feels slightly unusual for its time because it begins from the very first word, in the singulative:

Today, Monday, Wanda Petronski was not in her seat.

Then, in small chunks, we get the iterative:

Usually Wanda sat in the next to the last seat in the last row in Room 13…


Wanda is ‘very quiet and rarely said anything at all. And nobody had ever heard her laugh out loud.’

‘She came all the way from Boggins Heights, and her feet were usually caked with dry mud that she picked up coming down the country roads. […] No one really thought much about Wanda Petronski’.


For everyone, the deep desire is identical — to have as much social capital as possible.

In a story there have to be outworkings. For Wanda, it’s the desire to have everyone believe that she has more than the one worn dress in her closet.

For Peggy and Maddie, it’s the Desire to have friends who are truthful and transparent, and in order to achieve this end they must ostracise those who they feel don’t follow the moral code of their community. They have been taught that lying is wrong; they will therefore punish liars. Since they are girls, they aren’t allowed to be outright mean, so they will do this is in a nasty-nice way.


Old Man Svenson is set up as the potential Baddie in this story.

People in the town said old man Svenson was no good. He didn’t work and, worse still,  his house and yard were disgracefully dirty, with rusty tin cans strewn about and even an old straw hat. He lived alone with his dog and his cat.

But we’re all used to the classic Girl Opposition, which contains archetypes:

  1. The popular pretty girl (Peggy)
  2. Her sidekick (Maddie) Is the narrator Maddie? The narrator has excellent insight into Maddie’s head — she feels guilty for being a bystander to ostracism.
  3. The unpopular girl (Wanda)
  4. Various other by-standers

Peggy was the most popular girl in school. She was pretty; she had many pretty clothes and her auburn hair was curly. Maddie was her closest friend.

A Hundred Dresses remains a standout book because of its treatment of bullying, as a system rather than a good kid, bad kid dichotomy, which is not how bullying works:

Peggy was not really cruel. She protected small children from bullies. And she cried for hours if she saw an animal mistreated. If anybody had said to her, “Don’t you think that is a cruel way to treat Wanda?” she would have been very surprised. Cruel? What did the girl want to go and say she had a hundred dresses for? Anybody could tell that was a lie. Why did she want to lie? And she wasn’t just an ordinary person, else why would she have a name like that? Anyway, they never made her cry.

Readers will likely sympathise with Peggy a little, or a lot. After all, Wanda appears to be a liar. If Magritte were about, he would say “This is not a dress.” (It is a picture of a dress.) It is a little baffling why Wanda won’t say that her dresses are pictures — this is lampshaded at the beginning with the description that she doesn’t say much. Her laconic way of speaking seems to preclude her from uttering the simple words “I have drawings of pictures.”


There is a kind of rivalry, as mentioned above, which is a more like a love-hate relationship. I appreciate what Roxane Gay has to say about the distinction between an ‘enemy’ and a ‘nemesis’. We tend to love our nemeses as much as we hate them:

There are many famous nemeses both real and imagined — Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, Professor X and Magneto, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Eve and Villanelle.

The most important thing to remember is that the rivalry must be tended to, nurtured. It is an eternal flame, the heat of which can warm you during dark times.

An enemy is a nuisance but a nemesis is someone for whom you harbor an abiding, relentless dislike. A nemesis must be a worthy adversary. It is far too easy for someone completely odious to be a nemesis. People often ask if, for example, the President is my nemesis but that would absolutely be beneath me. Envy is certainly part of having a nemesis but it is not quite jealousy because generally you and your nemesis are equals in some way, even if you are the only person who believes that to be true. A nemesis can give you purpose, can hone your ambition. What I am saying is that having a nemesis is motivational.

The Pleasure of Clapping Back, Gay Mag

But the way Eleanor Estes structures it: The opposition is kept as the final big reveal.


When there is a drawing competition at school Wanda takes this opportunity to reveal that the dresses are drawings of dresses. She enters every image into the competition.

After Wanda leaves the character focus shifts to Peggy and Maddie. Because they feel bad, their plan is to write a letter to Wanda as a friendly gesture. This will assuage their own guilt.


Wanda disappears. Her father says she has been bullied. The teacher gives the class a lecture. Wanda is basically the blow-in saviour trope, so now the Battle is internal, focusing on the psychology of Maddie. She feels guilt.


The first plot revelation is that Wanda was talking about dresses.

The second revelation is that Wanda drew the popular girls as models for her dresses.

What is not revealed is how the poor girl really feels about the rich one. Does Wanda genuinely admire Peggy? We are left thinking that, and as a child I did think that, but how does she feel, really?

I suspect this is a love-hate relationship from her side, and a nothing, you’re-less-than-nothing relationship from the other.

It is the rich girl who has the Anagnorisis — that even when you pay someone no mind, that doesn’t mean they feel the same about you. The moral? Treat everyone with respect, no matter how worthy you deem them. Everyone is worthy of your attention. Attention equals respect.


Peggy and Maddie have learned to be less passive aggressive in future because they have learned that Wanda is a rounded individual with feelings rather than a figure of fun.

It’s the first day of school, and Ruby is new. When her classmate Angela wears a red bow in her hair, Ruby comes back from lunch wearing a red bow, too. When Angela wears a flowered dress, suddenly Ruby’s wearing one, too. Fortunately, Ruby’s teacher knows a better way to help Ruby fit in–by showing how much fun it is to be herself!


Using The Hundred Dresses to teach philosophy to children

Lemon girl young adult novella


Home » diversity

How To Determine The Main Character Of Any Story

main character function diversity

Most of us writing about story pick one of the following terms and stick with it:

  • Main character — shortened to MC
  • Hero(ine) — the feminine form has pretty much died, though we still often say ‘actress’
  • Protagonist — which these days means ‘main character’

On this blog I use these terms at random, though I’ve started to drift away from ‘hero’ in favour of ‘main character’. When I learned that, correctly, ‘protagonist’ means ‘the character who starts the action’, I dropped it completely, because it bothers me to use a word ‘incorrectly’ even though language does change.

The more I reflect on this terminology, the more obvious the need for some clarity. We have entered an era in which it’s no longer acceptable to write the same stories about the same few kinds of people. It’s time we move past tokenism. Our main characters need to be as diverse as they are in real life.

But how do you say who is the ‘main character’ in a story? Any story? This isn’t as clear cut as it seems.


Much has been written about folk and fairytales. Here is a description of the hero of your typical folktale:

The hero is the character who directly suffers from the action of the villain.

To refer to the fairytale functions proposed by Vladimir Propp, the hero is the character who is suppled with a magical agent/helper and makes use of it.


But here’s the key question to ask of a contemporary story. It is simple:

Who changes the most over the course of the story’s telling?

There’s an important caveat here: Characters who are killed off could be said to have ‘changes’ the most because they change from a state of living to a state of dying.

Importantly, we’re not including characters who die. If we were to include characters who die, we’d have to nominate all of those dead mothers who kark it within the first five minutes of the story, or the girlfriends stuffed into fridges. Clearly, intuitively, the story is not about them.

Ask instead: Who gains the most insight into themselves and the ways of the world? Occasionally these characters die right at the end, but not until after all of this knowledge has been gained.

Pair this with guidelines shared by John August back in 2005: What’s The Difference Between Hero, Main Character and Protagonist?

I’m particularly interested in how these ‘functions’ of character can be useful when critiquing a story in terms of diversity. We’re never going to progress beyond faux-representation in narrative unless we start thinking en masse in terms of what John August calls ‘character function’.

This became crystal clear to me when I saw a Julia Donaldson picture book Zog.


Combining everything I’ve read about characterisation over the past few years, here is a more exhaustive list of character function. Some of it comes from screenwriting gurus, some from children’s literature academics such as Maria Nikolajeva and some is from the field of narratology. You can apply labels to these if you like, though the labels may also hold us back. I include examples of stories which would have been less terrible had their creators grasped a deeper understanding of character function. These are basically the questions writers should ask when setting out to tell a diverse story. They are the questions reviewers should ask when writing a review. They are the questions an audience should ask before recommending a story to a friend. We are all critics, at least.

Who do you see the most of on the page/on screen?

Possible labels: main character, hero, protagonist.

This is a simplistic way of working out who the main character is, but is a pretty safe place to start when applying the functions listed below. As John August wrote in his post, the Most-On-The-Page character is usually the one who you identify with/changes the most and so on and so forth.

Which character do you identify with the most?

John August calls this character ‘the hero’.

Here’s a rule of storytelling: The reader/audience tends to pick one character to identify with. In a TV series it may change from episode to episode, but even in an ‘ensemble’ cast, there’s one who stands out.

On the one hand, you can argue this is out of the writer’s hands. Every member of the audience brings their own unique life experience to a story, after all. I identified with Barb in Big Love, whereas a male viewer may well identify with Bill. Other women identify more with Margene. Depending on the episode, it varies.

In Breaking Bad I identified far more with Skyler White than much of the male audience seemed to. But when you take a close look at those stories you can easily see how manipulated the audience really is. Vince Gilligan went out of his way to make us empathise with Walter White. He had to. In order to create empathy for an antihero, a writer must go out of their way to engender empathy in the beginning, and he did a masterful job.

Here’s another truism of storytelling — an audience expects the first character they see to be the character they’re meant to root for. This is such a well-known phenomenon that an episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog is based on the ‘audience is like ducklings’ joke.

Beginner writers are not as skilled at manipulating an audience to root for one character in particular. It takes a lot of know-how to do it. But skilled writers take one character and create the following:

  1. a character who is empathetic (we understand WHY they act, not necessarily AGREE with their goal)
  2. we get to see this character’s vulnerabilities
  3. we get to see them ‘save a cat’ even though they’re significantly flawed (Blake Snyder’s trick)
  4. we get to see them being misunderstood by other characters (because we all feel misunderstood at times, it’s a failsafe trick)

If you ever see these tricks in use, the writer has meant for you to identify with that particular character. When Vince Gilligan blamed the viewers for their misogynist takes on Skyler White, he didn’t admit that he’d used every trick in the book to make us hate her. But if Gilligan’s team meant for the general audience to empathise with Skyler, this was a complete failure on their part. The writers gave us nothing to work with. Marie’s character was even less empathetic, together creating a gender bias for the earlier seasons of the show. It’s only when you take a close look at how the writers manipulated identification in Breaking Bad that you even see any gender trends inherent in the story. Even Gilligan couldn’t seem to see them after the fact.

Bear in mind that ‘character you identify with’ does not equal ‘character you’d like to drink tea with’. Not in the slightest. Ask, who were you rooting for? Who did you find yourself wanting to see win, even though you didn’t agree with their morality, necessarily? More simply, who was the most interesting character? Who did you want to see turn up on screen/on the page?

Who has the biggest scope of change?

John August uses the word ‘protagonist’ to mean ‘character who changes the most’. (Not related to its original Greek meaning.)

This is an important question for feminism and PoC. Female characters (especially in children’s stories) are very often mature at the beginning, mature at the end, undergoing no real change whatsoever. (This the Female Maturity Formula mentioned above.)

In the case of characters of colour, we have the trope of ‘magical negro‘, in which black characters are noble and strong but exist only to facilitate the character arc of white characters (most often male).

Bear in mind: ‘scope of change’ refers to psychological growth only. It does not refer to ‘changes in circumstance’. It does not refer to ‘from dead to alive’ (e.g. Million Dollar Baby) or to changes in fortune (rag to riches and vice versa).

Fangirl Jeanne reminds us to look at who gets to live and thrive inside settings. Also, who is redeemed? The theme of redemption has an especially non-diverse history within storytelling. It is almost always a white man who is redeemed, and people are murdered, brutalised and raped all around him in order for redemption to happen.

Joss Whedon’s body of work is worth an especially close look for a pattern in which the male characters get to live and thrive after redemption. This article makes me glad Firefly was cancelled after one season.

Who has the most noticeable anagnorisis?

Also called a ‘hallelujah moment’ (by Matt Bird). In a sit-com it’s unusual for any character to have a anagnorisis. Sit-com characters don’t grow. In didactic children’s stories like SpongeBob Squarepants, it’s often the audience who has a anagnorisis in lieu of the character. (Yes, SpongeBob is surprisingly didactic, when you do a close reading.)

Some characters completely change their philosophy between the beginning and end of the story. This is sometimes called a ‘reversal of values’.

This is intimately connected to ‘who has the biggest scope of change’, of course. This is simply an extra question to help you pick that character. The one who changes. Because it’s so easy to get blindsided by ‘changes in circumstance’.

Related to this is another important question:

If a character gets killed or raped, who has the anagnorisis because of it?

Ask this as a separate question because, too often, women and people of colour are killed in service of the character arcs of white men. That’s the only reason they’re killed. It is the only reason they exist in the entire story. That’s what the problem is.

Unless a critic understands this character function, it’s easy to fall back on a simple murder count to justify these murders and rapes. A simple count up will reveal more male characters killed in fiction than female characters, overall. But there’s a really important difference. When male characters get killed they most often have agency. Effectively, male victims are self-determined characters, even at moment of death.

The Women In Fridges trope was coined by Gail Simone after she read an issue of Green Lantern in which The Green Lantern comes home to find his girlfriend has been killed and stuffed in the fridge. In Thor: The Dark World (2013), a woman gets murdered, and that forces the brothers to work together and grow. And so on and so forth. There are many, many examples, and the trope is as old as storytelling itself.

Despite wide awareness of this trope, male writers who get a disproportionate amount of funding for bringing their stories to a popular audience seem completely oblivious to how they’re still using women and PoC in this way.

In 2016 we were assailed with Nocturnal Animals. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character undergoes a character arc while his wife and daughter are not only raped and murdered, but posed artfully dead on the screen for the audience to enjoy aesthetically. This review has said what I need not repeat here. In any case, this is what director and producer Tom Ford meant the film to be about:

“What spoke to me about it was that it’s really about finding people in your life that mean something,” he says. “And our culture has become so throwaway. Everything’s disposable. People are disposable. I think people have become a bit lazy with personal relationships. So this is a cautionary tale about what can happen when you do throw people away.”

Screen Daily

There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth. The film is about disposability of ‘people’, in general. With not the slightest awareness that his women in fridges trope does… absolutely nothing new, whatsoever. It is painful to hear his film hailed as an original masterpiece.

In 2017 Netflix offered up Godless. Writer Scott Frank says on record that he accidentally created a feminist Western:

It is a feminist Western but I don’t know that was my intention when I started writing it. I was trying to write about characters that hadn’t been written about.


Here’s the thing, though. White men in Hollywood don’t tend to be very good at ‘accidentally’ writing feminist stories. The history of anti-feminist storytelling is far too influential in our collective subconscious, and writers must make an active effort to research deep into the history of story and of oppression, immersing themselves in feminist thought and spend at least one decade of deep thinking before attempting such a thing. As far as Scott Frank’s concerned, the inclusion of rounded female characters is enough to make a feminist film. Yet every female character is either raped on screen or has been raped in her backstory. When the women are killed, it’s in service of the character arc and anagnorisis of a young white male character. This thread sums up the main problems with this series if you want a short read. Pair with this longer review: Godless is not the feminist Western you were looking for, which is a very generously titled critique.

The Revenant includes a rape scene which made me want to stop watching Hollywood films forever. It was especially hard for indigenous women to watch. The following reviewer correctly points out the character function of the one and only onscreen (raped, indigenous) woman:

What is The Revenant saying when all is said and done? What is it trying to communicate to audiences?

The closest I can find is the brutal nature of masculinity. Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald makes numerous remarks on boys and men and where the difference between them lies. But to really make that point you need a contrast. And what is the best thing to contrast with masculinity: femininity. So lets ask the pertinent question: how are women portrayed within the film? The reality of the film would have you believe there are next to no women on the frontier, despite the fact that the two most famous frontiersman in American history had been partially guided by a woman.

Legion of Leia
Who comes close to death without actually dying?

This is probably your main character.

If it’s a guy and he is killed, he’s probably your main character’s sidekick.

Who comes to the rescue?

If a character is the helper/mentor archetype, they are probably not a main character. Fairytales featuring a fairy godmother are not about the character arc of the fairy godmother.

In Monster House we have a trio of three kids, but the girl only turns up to help the boys. In ParaNorman a non-empathetic feminist girl does all the boring research work. I call this the Hermione Trope. While these girls often have their own mini character arcs (e.g. don’t be so uptight), their main function is the helper. This has real life consequences for how we view the role of girls (little mothers and secretaries) and also for how boys see trying hard at school (girly and undesirable).

Be very careful about loose use of the phrase ‘female driven’ narrative, because too often it means women and girls are doing all the organising for the men and boys.

Pippi Longstocking is an interesting example of a character who is very popular in Sweden and elsewhere. Maria Nikolajeva argues in her book From Mythic to Linear that Pippi is not a true main character, because she doesn’t change over the course of the novel, nor is she the focalising character. Rather, she is a ‘helper’ character, a source of trouble and mischief, and a mythical Progenitrix (female ancestor, mother earth) character who is generous with food because she has a never-ending supply.

The point here is that the main character is not always the title character. Nikolajeva argues that Peter Pan isn’t the main character either, since he doesn’t change and the audience doesn’t really identify with him.

So whatever is true of main characters is true — but main characters aren’t necessarily the ones we think they are, so different rules can apply.

Pippi Longstocking is certainly a ‘carnivalesque‘ character, however, which is the modern kid-lit equivalent of the traditional Trickster character.

Who comes up with the plans?

This is an especially important question for writers of children’s literature, because it’s too easy to have adult helpers swoop in and save the day. The children have to come up with their own plans to solve the story worthy problem.

The character who makes the plans is usually — but not always — your ‘main character’. When the writer has created a particularly apathetic, depressive type of character they will often need a dynamic, active side-character to spur the main character into action, though this is always hard to do because the audience is attracted to active characters over passive ones.

Who is telling whose story?

Morgan Freeman has been the storyteller in a lot of films. But whose story is he telling? He’s often telling the story of a white guy. Take Shawshank Redemption as an example. In Million Dollar Baby he narrates the character arc of Clint Eastwood’s character.

Sometimes when a character tells the story of another character, it’s the storyteller themselves who learns something via the very telling of it. In fact, that is often the main point of first person storyteller narrators. First person narrators are undergoing a transformation by telling the story. So it’s not enough to ask ‘Who changes the most?’ Because a story can be overwhelmingly about Character A, but because Character B is telling the story, they get the opportunity to reflect and end up having the biggest epiphany.

In narratology terms, hypodiegetic and metadiegetic narrators are the stars of their own story levels.

Bear in mind that because there is a history of white men undergoing the character arcs, if your storyteller character is a woman telling a story about a man, or a black character telling a story about a white character, you need to be asking the hard questions.

We all need to be asking the hard questions.


A few classroom moments remain with me from more than 16 years of teaching literature. One proved memorable not because it was singular but because it was typical. We were discussing “Iola Leroy,” an 1892 novel by Frances E. W. Harper — one of the first novels published by an African American woman — whose female protagonist is mixed-race but looks white.

I always take my students through a chapter focused on Iola’s work experiences in the North, where she secures positions based on skill and demeanor but loses them when those around her reject or attack her because of her race. She then takes a job as an in-home nurse for a 15-year-old whose health improves so much that her father rewards Iola with a position in his store. On her first day, he tells his staff that Iola has “colored blood in her veins” and they can leave if they object to working with her.

On multiple occasions, I’ve listened as students tried to find reasons other than race-based malice that might explain the behavior against Iola; often they go on to make a hero of the store owner who intercedes on her behalf. There’s nothing in the text to suggest these interpretations, primarily because these characters are not fleshed out beyond this chapter. They’re tangential, meant only to illustrate the protagonist’s — Iola’s — experience.

Stop Asking If “The Chair” Is Realistic by Koritha Mitchell at CNN
Lemon girl young adult novella


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Asian-Australian Children’s Literature

There are only a small number of Asian-Australian authors writing about Asia in children’s/young adult fiction and there are very few books where the first-person narrator or main character is Asian or Asian-Australian.

Also surprisingly, there are very few Australian works with Asian content that have been translated into an Asian language – translations are primarily made up of award-winning or well-known Australian authors (such as Pamela Allen and Mem Fox) and works that invoke iconic imagery of Australia such as the bush and the Anzac legend.

While anime and manga are growing in popularity globally, there are very few such works published in Australia or by Australian writers for children or young adults. Queenie Chan and Madeleine Rosca have written original English language manga, and Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest has been adapted into both anime and manga, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds with respect to these issues.

How Children’s Literature Shapes Attitudes To Asia, The Conversation

Here are a few examples:

  • The Little Refugee by Ahn Do
  • The Tale of Temujin by Sarah Brennan
  • Samurai Kids by Sandy Fussell

Representation and Inclusion Vs Diversity

three girls sitting

When talk of diversity expands beyond race it still ends up looking very much like a checklist of compartmentalized identities. Can we get a child in a wheelchair? Check. Can the doctor be African American, and a woman? Check and check. … For adults I often describe the difference between diversity and inclusion as the difference between entering a room and seeing folks who look like you, and entering a room and feeling like you belong. … For children, it’s the difference between opening a book and seeing someone who looks like you – understanding that this is the character your meant to feel connected to because of that one visually represented thing you have in common – and falling into a story as you are.

Latina Lista, Checking Boxes and Filling Blanks: Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Literature

Putting marginalized people in the very background of a movie so that they’re only visible for three seconds and never speak, isn’t progress. It’s par for the course, it’s taking crumbs and accepting it as feast.

Feminist Disney


If you’re buying a book for children and the characters are four boys plus one girl, you can almost guarantee the story will be sexist. A story with four boys and one girl is a version of the Smurfette Principle, in which the girl exists to be The Girl, rather than a human first and foremost.

The Smurfette Principle the Wikipedia explanation

See Also

The Minority Feisty from Reel Girl

The Female Maturity Formula In Modern Storytelling

Will Boys Watch Stories About Girls? from Blue Milk, which is about film, but could equally be about literature

Children’s Books And Segregation from The Society Pages

Stories Are Genderless from Foz Meadows

Boys read for pleasure as much as girls

The three to one ratio is typical across all of children’s literature, in case you are thinking Geronimo Stilton is a standout example. This podcast from The Book Show on ABC, features Janice McCabe, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, talking about her study on Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books. McCabe found that Little Golden Books, for which new stories were published between 1942 and 1993, depict an especially small proportion of female characters: 3.2 males for every 1 female.

Monsters Vs Aliens
Monsters Vs Aliens
Lemon girl young adult novella


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