Apr 17, 2012

My Favourite Bookish Protagonists

There are few things I love more than coming across a book whose protagonists is a reader. First of all, it gives me an immediate jolt of recognition. I know it’s na├»ve to assume that just because a character is fond of books I’ll have a lot in common with them, but I just can’t help it; I still feel close to them right away. In addition to that instant sense of connection, I love the fact that bookish heroes and heroines defy the idea that there’s an insurmountable divide between reading and life; that bookish people are dull and don’t have things happen to them. With this in mind, I thought I’d share some of my favourite bookish protagonists with you today.

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne JonesCharmain Baker from Diana Wynne Jones’ House of Many Ways: As you might remember, I met Charmain very recently: this was actually what gave me the idea for this post. Charmain is certainly an example of someone whose love of reading goes hand in hand with an ongoing attempt to keep the real world at bay, but this attitude of hers changes over the course the novel. Charmain becomes involved in an adventure of her own, and yet her love of books remains.

I particularly loved the scenes where she and the King of High Norland sit companionably side by side in the Royal Library, cataloguing old books and documents. These scenes reminded me of my own work back when I was an archivist, and I can’t say I’d ever come across a novel that did that.

Fly By Night by Frances HardingeMosca Meyers from Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge: Mosca Meyer is such an interesting character. She’s a smart young girl who particularly values reading because she’s been starved for words for most of her life. In Mosca’s world – as in ours – literacy is deeply connected to power and opportunities; her desperate and fierce desire to have access to more words, more thoughts, more ways to perceive and organise and discuss the world around her remind readers not to take this connection for granted.

Inkheart by Cornelia FunkeMeggie Folchart from Inkheart by Cornelia Funke: Unfortunately I wasn’t a big fan of this novel overall, but it still wouldn’t feel right to leave Meggie out of a list like this. I did love Cornelia Funke’s premise and her celebration of the pleasures of getting lost in a good book. Meggie’s love of story despite the very real dangers books pose in her world was an absolute pleasure to witness. Her father, Mo, deserves a mention as well, of course. Here's one of my favourite quotes from the book:
If you take a book with you on a journey, an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it... yes, books are like flypaper—memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.
The Neverending Story by Michael EndeBastian from The Neverending Story by Michael Ende: The shy, geeky, isolated Bastian is the first bookish hero I ever remember coming across. Like many other children of the 80’s, I watched the movie version of The Neverending Story countless times, and some years later I was able to get my hands on the book. When I was in middle school I could really relate to Bastian’s school experiences; to the way he took refuge in books and saw them as a lifeline. It was such a comfort to see that someone like that could be at the centre of a story. (On a side note, I think Atreyu was my first ever literary crush.)

Lirael by Garth NixLirael from Lirael, the second book in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy: I’ve been actually thinking of rereading this trilogy lately – I only hope it lives up to my memories of it. When I started Lirael, the second book in the series, I was actually very disappointed that it wasn’t going to focus on the characters from Sabriel; but within 20 pages I was already irrevocably attached to Lirael, the series’ new protagonist. She’s a librarian at the amazing Clayr’s Library and likes nothing better than to get lost in its dark, cobwebby, mysterious corners. What’s not to love?

Northanger Abbey by Jane AustenCatherine Morland from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: Catherine is a reader of novels at a time when they were yet to gain respectability. She’s a little apologetic about the fact and sometimes buys into all the negative associations between novels and her gender, but as the story progresses she really comes into her own. I love her interaction with Henry Tilney here:
“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”
“You have been abroad then?” said Henry, a little surprised.
“Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?”
“Why not?”
“Because they are not clever enough for you – gentlemen read better books.”
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days – my hair standing on end the whole time.”
Now that I think of it, Henry Tilney also very much belongs on this list.

Little Women by Louisa May AlcottJo March from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott — Jo is a writer as well as a reader. I have my qualms about the ending of her storyline (who doesn’t?), but I still love the way her presence in the story illuminates the extent to which reading and writing could be acts of subversion for girls and women in her position. Regardless of how things turn out for her, the fact that the indomitable Jo was allowed to exist for a large part of the story is very significant.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. LockhartFrankie Landau-Banks from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart — Oh, how can I even begin to explain why I love Frankie? She’s smart, passionate, unwilling to compromise when it comes to being treated as a human being, and a reader of Dorothy Parker and P.G. Wodehouse. She certainly belongs in any list of favourite protagonists I make, bookish or not.

(If TV series were included here, this is where I’d mention Rory Gilmore. I’m up to season six of Gilmore Girls [yep, this is my first time watching it; I never said I didn’t live under a rock] and more I more I daydream about locking Rory and Frankie in a room so they could have a nice long talk. I have a feeling they’d have plenty to say to each other.)

 Madeleine Hanna from The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: I probably don’t need to tell you again how much I loved this novel, do I? Unlike some readers, I felt much closer to Madeleine than to any of the other point of view characters. She felt completely real to me, and her love of books, particularly of Victorian literature, was certainly a part of what drew me to her right away.

Matilda and Roald DahlLast but not least, there’s Roald Dahl’s Matilda Wormwood: It’s been many years since I last read Matilda, but how could I forget its heroine’s voraciousness when it comes to books? I’ve heard that the Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin musical does some very interesting things with this theme. I so hope I’ll have the opportunity to see it someday.

What about you? Are you also a fan of bookish protagonists? What are some of your favourites?


  1. I agree with several of your choices—Jo!—but I think my favorite bookish protagonist is Mor from Among Others. I feel like a lot of bookish protagonists aren't terribly specific about what they read, but Mor goes on at length about the books she loves and how those stories have seeped down into her soul. (There's this great moment where she unwittingly compares Tolkien to Scripture.)

    I'd also mention Hermione Granger, because her bookishness will save us all, but, alas, it's not Hermione Granger and the Big Thumping Books, is it?

  2. Some great choices! Although some of them I'm not familiar with (something I'll have to change soon!)

    I've been trying to think of my own list. Jo and Matilda would be on there I think. I also remember The Little Princess being a good storyteller, does that count?

  3. Clare: I absolutely can't believe I forgot Mor! Insert huge facepalm here :P And I'd so read Hermione Granger and the Big Thumping Books *daydreams*

    Annalisa: Yes, Sara Crewe definitely counts! Her love of stories is mentioned several times :)

  4. Oh Meggie and Lirael are two of my favorites as well :)

  5. I've only read one of these! (Frankie). But that doesn't dismay me; it just means there are some great books out there just waiting for me to read!

  6. I love reading about bookworms!

    As you know I just finished reading Sabriel by Garth Nix, now you've said that Lirael is about a bookworm I can't wait to read the next one even more!

  7. This is such an amazing post! I really love the idea of it and it really makes me want to pick up some of those books that you've mentioned. I'm ashamed to say that the only book I've read from those ones is Matilda. That'll soon change though ;) Great post!

    New to your blog!

    Stephanie @ Stepping Out of the Page
    P.S. Don't forget to enter my latest giveaway!

  8. Lirael is one of my favorite characters, even. You've made me want to go back and read that trilogy again!

  9. Oh...now I know what books to read for the rest of the year! Can't believe I haven't read any of the books in your list. But I've watched the Matilda movie and I liked the scenes where she's reading and surrounded by stacks of library books.

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  11. But Ana, here is the real question: did you ship Bastian and Atreyu? Did you write terrible fanfic about them either in your head or on paper? Or will I continue standing in the Shame Corner by myself?

  12. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is the pick for book club next month - I'm looking forward to finally seeing what all the fuss is about :)

  13. I just bought The Marriage Plot yesterday - my book club will be reading it for our May meeting.

  14. Of these I can only speak about Bastian and Matilda since these are the books that I have read. I love these characters so much and their ability to inspire me to read more and other things. I was so happy when my son, who is now 18, enjoyed The Neverending Story too!

  15. Matilda, Jo, Meggie, Catherine, Madeleine, I love your list! There are so many great booksih characters out there. I'd add Margaret from The Thirteenth Tale and Daniel from The Shadow of the Wind. I agree, as soon as I know a character is a reader I feel an instant bond with them. I'm sure most authros realize this, because they're probably readers too!

  16. Such a good list AND with a bonus shout-out to Henry Tilney, by far my favorite Austen hero. I feel that Henry Tilney is very underrated.

    Jo March also! Not that she's underrated -- everyone rightly loves her -- but just that I love her so much forever. I was sad that she rejected Laury (the hell, Jo) but loved every other single thing she ever did. I can't think of another heroine who meant so much to me as a kid, except maybe Jane Eyre.

  17. I love this post! I agree with most of your characters you've picked too - Jo of Little Women was such an inspiration for me,even though - and you are so right about this - she sold out her aspirations for love in the end. I agree with Meggie from Ink Heart, as well as why you liked her and the bookish part (I had problems with the book too). I'd add Emily of New Moon and Anne of Green Gables - Emily because she is a writer, and she was the first character who described what it was like to get lost in writing, like I did and do; and Anne because she made Tennyson and poetry and King Arthur come alive. Both by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I would also agree with Morwenna from Among Others, that's one of the most wonderful creations in recent literature.

    I'm now busy thinking of other books I've read, where the protagonists love books :-)
    And adding the Diana Wynn Jones to my to-get list, it's one I haven't read yet.

  18. Oh, and Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney! He's so down-to-earth and fun, isn't he, and a hero who reads :-)

  19. Have you read The Thirteenth Tale? Another wonderful book where the protagonist is a bookworm!

  20. Does Emily Dickinson count? She did write 'There is no frigate like a book'… ;)

    But otherwise, I have to nominate Stephen Dedalus with my embarrased bits of shame at mentioning it. And Francie Nolan.

  21. Yes! to Matilda. I loved that book when I was a kid and was in awe of the adult books she mastered while still so tiny.

    Also, yay for Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney.

    One of my favorite bookish protagonists:

    Mary Russell from Laurie King's mystery series. IIRC, she had her nose in a book when she stumbled across Holmes while out on the moors.

  22. I've been meaning to read Northanger Abbey, and now I feel even more intrigued by it! What a wonderful passage.

    And re: Jo and her writing, I have NEVER forgiven Amy for burning Jo's stories...

  23. Mr. Tilney is awesome. I also think Harry Potter is a great protagonist, and Vicky Bliss from the Elizabeth Peters novels.

  24. Charmaine was a fantastic character! I haven't read The Neverending Story but I did love Bastian int he movies.

    One of my new favorite bookish protagonists is Elend Venture in the Mistborn series.

  25. I would like to echo what Jenny says about Jo March, and add that the best part of reading Inkheart was discovering The Borribles books from the epigraphs to each chapter in that book. (You would like The Borribles, by Michael Larrabeiti.)

  26. I loved Madeline too, but for me, Mitchell was the character that I felt the closest to. This was such a great list!

  27. What a great post! Of the books I have read I entirely agree! The others I just need to get around to...

  28. Oh, Jo March! I read Little Women in 3rd grade, just in time to learn that it was okay for girls to be smart. I owe Jo a giant debt, and, just for the record, I always thought she was wise to reject Laurie. She didn't want to live like Laurie - she wanted a different kind of life altogether, a life where she needed to work. I loved Bhaer for being all over that.

  29. Oh, Jo March, how she illuminated my youth with her strength, vitality and smarts!

  30. RE: Jo, it wasn't so much the Laurie thing, but the fact that she disowned all of her previous writing after meeting Bhear. I don't know, I can't help but think of sensation writers from that same period; people like Mary Elizabeth Braddon who were writing novels that were widely considered trash and had a strong economic motivations to do so. And yet their writing is still full of interesting ideas and questions about women's position at the time. I've heard there'some of that in Louisa May Alcott's early novel as A. M. Barnard, which I imagined were kind of the equivalent to Jo's stories, so it makes me sad to think of her seeing it all as a waste of time. But obviously I still love Jo, and didn't mean to sound like a jerk who thinks there are no other valid ways to read her :P

  31. Such a fun post! (I only wish that I loved Frankie as much as you did: the ending niggled me. Maybe I was in a rotten mood or something!)

    I echo the suggestion of Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables, who got in trouble for hiding Ben Hur behind her school-book because she just had to find out how the chariot race turned out. And Francie Nolan, who introduced me to the idea of reading alphabetically through the library (which I failed at miserably).

    And the kids in Edward Eager's Half Magic are reading E. Nesbit's stories aloud on their way home from the library and all the next day when the book opens, and I still love that part of the series, though parts of it are very much "of its time" too.

    The edition of The Neverending Story that I read as a girl, which has red ink for one world and green ink for the other, sparked the serious collector in me for the first time; I so desperately wanted *that copy* of that book that I'm now surprised I didn't just steal it from the library!

  32. Just catching up on my blog reading and I'm so glad I saved this one for last tonight. It's a wonderful post that has made me smile even though I'm tired. I love Charmain! Bookish protagonists are quite awesome. :)

  33. Yes to Henry Tilney, I know he was written by a woman who had much to say and was therefore an aid in it, but he's still awesome. Catherine Morland is great too though. I like the way you can at once really like her and find her a bit silly.

    My personal list would have to include Lyra from His Dark Materials. The events she witnesses are terrible but she stays strong and doesn't let it phase her. A good mix of maturity and childhood innocence.

    I only ever watched the film of Neverending Story, how does it compare to the book?

  34. Matilda was my first experience of a charaetr who liked books so much I think and I must have read that book 20 or 30 times when I was little. I always love the bit where she reads through the childrens library and moves on to Dickens, because it makes me want to be enthusiastic about reading more Dickens.

    And so many new bookish protagonists for me to check out now. Thanks for sharing, this was a super fun post idea.

  35. I've always loved the opening scenes of Jane Eyre where she sneaks behind the curtains to read some of her favorite books.

    Plus, I LOVE The Book Thief, and Liesl is definitely a reader.

    Great list! Some of these I really need to read.

  36. Max and I read Matilda and it was fantastic! I'm glad you included Matilda in your list.

  37. Great post! I'll second both Catherine Morland & Henry Tilney, my new favorites. :) My oldest favorites are L.M. Montgomery's Emily & Anne, then later also Hermione Granger, and Liesel from Mark Zusak's The Book Thief. I haven't read The Marriage Plot yet, but am really looking forward to doing so soon.

  38. What a fun post, Ana! Lots of characters that I don't know but several that I do as well. I always kind of joke when I say that I'd love to be BFF with Bridget Jones as her character is such a bumbling, pitiful, sometimes idiotic mess, but I appreciate her innocence and honesty.

    And guess I need to read the Marriage Plot! I've heard mixed things about it but know you think very highly of Eugenides (still need to read Virgin Suicides).

  39. Oh, I love that Inkheart quote! There are so many books that remind me of where I was when I read them. I think we should start a "Where were you when you read _____" blog.

    Love your list! I would add Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird, to the list. Love her to pieces.

  40. Oh, Ana! I've only read one book on this list. So many bookish narrators to catch up with. I tried to convince my book club to read Frankie Landau Banks, but The Book Thief won instead that month. I guess I will have to read it on my own. Matilda was probably one of my first bookish role models, but through the movie, not the book. I eventually read the book, of course, but I adored the movie as a kid.

  41. Oh, I'm so glad you're watching Gilmore Girls, it's one of my favorite shows ever. I loved how like Rory Frankie was too, loved that book.

    I'll have to look into some of the others on your list, Fly By Night sounds especially fascinating and I've never heard of it before.

  42. I agree! I just finished The Marriage Plot -- didn't love it, but I did *like* it. I didn't really enjoy Madeleine... but I am totally with you on Jo March and Bastien and many of your others.

    Also: Hermione!

  43. Atreyu was my first celebrity crush! I named my eldest son after him (the actor's real name)! Ha ha. I haven't read the book, but have been searching for a used copy of the book for years. I want to find the perfect cover, is why, OC me. Like you, I've seen the movie with my (elder) sister countless times. Have you tried watching it now? Everything looks so fake! But I still love it.

    I agree about Inkheart's Meggie. Didn't totally love the series but I really did love the first installment because, literally living inside books, how could you not, right?

    Jo March would surely be on my list, too! And Matilda, though I haven't read it yet, adored her in the movie. My (younger) sister was obsessed with that movie.

  44. Great list! Most of mine are on it already, but I'd also add Juliet from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Francie from A Tree Growns in Brooklyn and Corso from The Dumas Club.

    I know it probably doesn't count, but I'd still also include Helen Hanff from 84 Charing Cross Road and Belle from Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

  45. So many great ones on this list. I read my first Diana Wynne Jones (Howl's Moving Castle) and loved it! I can't wait to get to House of Many Ways.

    I used to watch the The Neverending Story over and over as a child. I was really young and it absolutely terrified me in parts, but I couldn't stop watching it! Ahhh, fond memories. I've never read the book, though, and completely forgot about it. I'll have to find a copy and share it with my kids.

    I really am hankering to read Northanger Abbey again. I think I missed so much the first time around focusing on the plot.

    I've read many of the Roald Dahl books to my kids, but we haven't done Matilda yet. I'm not sure why because it was one of my favorites. Luckily we have a copy on the shelf!

    Melissa already mentioned Margaret from The Thirteenth Tale. I love all of the descriptions of how they care for the books.


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