Young Characters in Literature

Credit: Amor Towles/Penguin Random House

There are many memorable kids and teens in literature, and I’m going to discuss a few of them in a blog post so young it was born on January 29, 2023. πŸ™‚

A terrific non-adult character I most recently encountered is 8-year-old Billy Watson in Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway, which I read and very much enjoyed last week. The precocious Billy is smart, bookish, lovable, and adventurous while navigating a life that sees his 18-year-old brother spend time in prison, his mother abandon the family, his father die, and more. He often acts like a mini-adult yet is still charmingly boyish in certain ways.

Towles is obviously masterful at creating and depicting young people as supporting characters, because he also featured the unforgettable girls Nina and Sofia in his wonderful novel A Gentleman in Moscow that I read last year. They are mother and daughter, but both appear as children in different parts of a book that spans decades.

Then there’s the charming Giuseppe in Elsa Morante’s novel History (he’s the son of a beleaguered single mother in Italy during World War II); the feisty Maggie Tulliver as a girl in the first part of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss; the brainy, studious, ambitious Francie Nolan of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; the conflicted teen John Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain; the brave teen Starr Carter, whose male friend is murdered by police in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give; the wise-beyond-his-years Ponyboy Curtis of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders; and only child Jody Baxter, who co-stars with a fawn in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ 19th-century-set The Yearling.

Taking place WAY before that, in prehistoric times, is Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear and its amazing young protagonist Ayla. 

Some fictional young people are so iconic that one doesn’t need to say much about them. They include Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane as a girl in the first part of Jane Eyre, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, Harper Lee’s Scout Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles Dickens’ Pip (Great Expectations) and Oliver Twist, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland-visiting Alice, L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, and Louisa May Alcott’s Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy of Little Women.

Obviously, readers of the novels I mentioned and the many kid-or-teen-starring novels I didn’t mention see plenty of great and sometimes fraught interactions between young siblings, between young friends, and between young people and adults. Readers also might remember their own childhoods, or, if they’re still young themselves, currently relate to the characters — providing that the adult authors make those characters believable and interesting enough!

Also, we’re of course interested in what young people in fiction will be like when they grow up. In those novels that span enough years, we find out. πŸ™‚

Your favorite kids and teens in literature?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — which includes the latest about a proposed redevelopment, an expansion of bus service, and more — is here.

154 thoughts on “Young Characters in Literature

  1. Most interesting post about the amazing books.I feel so sad that I could not read those.I have only a Russian novel based on a teenaged character-Crime and Punishment.In my city,no library and book’s shops are not.purhaps ,I try to read all those books at online.you are most lucky for having much intresting book,dear Astor!!β£οΈπŸ™πŸ»β£οΈ

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  2. Wow! I’ve read every book in paragraph 6.

    I immediately thought of Amy in “Little Dorrit” by Dickens.
    Then Carrie in the novel “Carrie” by Steven King.
    Jim in “Treasure Island by R.L. Stevenson
    Harvey Cheyne Jr. in “Captains Courageous” by Rudyard Kipling.

    OH and Griet in “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracey Chevalier. (Where is that book of mine?)
    Sometimes I have nothing to offer, but now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa! Nice that you’ve read a number of the books mentioned. πŸ™‚ And I appreciate your excellent “list” of young characters in mostly older books. “Little Dorrit” is definitely one of Dickens’ somewhat-lesser-known gems, also including great novels like “Dombey and Son.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lol! Most of the books are older because I did lots of reading when I was younger. Still, they were older books then. It’s what my parents’ let me read.Thank goodness for mom’s secret book closet.
        I thought I knew all of Dickens’ books, but I’ve never heard of β€œDombey and Son.”
        Dickens’ must have been the Steven King of his time.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, there are older books and then there are OLDER books, like Dickens’ novels. πŸ™‚ “Dombey and Son” was published in 1848, and I’ve wondered why it isn’t better known. Definitely one of his better works. And, yes, Dickens was Stephen King-like prolific, producing a huge amount in his 58 years.

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  3. Two of my favorite young characters are Lyra Belaqua and Will Parry from “His Dark Materials” series by Philip Pullman. Lyra is a feral child and a liar, but she is faithful to her friends. Will is self-sufficient and honorable. They both persevere in the face of challenges. Good qualities.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Almost all my childhood friends already covered, I was introduced to the Green Knowe series later, captivated, at once, by Lucy M Boston’s lonely and often displaced children, Seven year old Toseland’s lost almost everything, mother dead, remarried father in Burma/Myanmar, scary stepmother too, discovers that true friendship knows no barriers, of time or in A Stranger At Green Knoiwe, even between species.
    Tom Oakley, ‘ Mister Tom’ – recognises the horrific abuse evacuee William Beech has experienced – a powerful love story. ,
    Not the kind of books I enjoyed, but long series like E J Oxenham’s Abbey books present close relationships between girls and young women – ( Lots of these, grandparents’ copies)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther! I like your phrase “childhood friends.” πŸ™‚ Characters can indeed seem that way. πŸ™‚ And I appreciate all the excellent mentions, and your descriptions of them — whether the situations were fraught or more uplifting.

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    • Thank you, Suzette, for the great mentions! I read the three “Hunger Games” novels, and there are definitely some memorable young characters in that trilogy — Katniss Everdeen, etc. Never got to the “Twilight” series for some reason. And, as you did, I really liked “The Secret Garden.”

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  5. HI Dave, I read all the comments so I won’t double up on books already mentioned. I will add I am David by Anne Holm, Fattifpuffs and Thinifers by AndrΓ© Maurois, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore, The Coral Island by RM Ballantyne (have you read it – a splendid book – the opposite of Lord of the Flies.) and Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter and Mary Poppins by PL Travers (lots of people don’t know there is a book and it is much more involved than the film. There were also two more children – twins). Oh, and lastly (again) all the E Nesbit books (The Railway Children, Five Children and It, etc.)

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Dave latest of Lee Child and Andrew Child`s ” No Plan B ”

    I find it different from other Lee Child`s books. The book has several subplots. Thrown into the mix featuring a runaway teen who is determined to get to the same prison for a completely different reason.
    The teen was determined to get away from his foster care, but was very honest. Had some dollars with him and left hime to find his father who was in Prison for some crime he did not commit. On his journey he was extremely cautious because cops were going to hunt him down.

    It shouldn’t be much of a surprise when Reacher and the young man’s paths cross, and their mission becomes one in a highly unexpected way.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Hi Dave,

    I can definitely play this week as I’ve just started reading “The Neverending Story” about ten year old Bastian who doesn’t have a lot of friends and uses books to escape reality. In the book, he’s reading a book called “The Neverending Story” about young Atreyu, the hero of the book who has to save the dying world of Fantastica. Nobody can quite figure out what’s wrong with the world, but they know the fate is tied in to the illness of the Childlike Empress. So young people everywhere. Some probably more important to the story than they realise…

    I’m enjoying the book so far, but I LOVED the movie as a child and I think in a few days I’ll be able to add it to your blog about acclaimed adaptations.

    Of course, it’s easy to have young characters in books for young people, so I’ll mention Stephen King who is pretty good at having young characters in adult settings. Danny Torrance from “The Shining” immediately comes to mind. He’s been through quite a lot in his young life, though not quite as much as Jake Chambers from “The Dark Tower”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan!

      “The Neverending Story” sounds fascinating! Never read it or saw the movie.

      Definitely true about Stephen King having some memorable young characters; his novel “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” and its 9-year-old, lost-in-the-woods protagonist Trisha also comes to mind.

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  8. You mentioned most of the ones that popped into my head Dave! πŸ™‚ And I also would like to mention I’m re-reading Rilla of Ingleside at present – part of the Anne of Green Gables series and also featuring a younger character. Although it’s more of a YA chapter book, I’d also like to bring up “Hatchet” – a short novel about a young boy who gets stranded in the Canadian wilderness when the plane he was riding crashes. It was one of my absolute favorite books growing up, along with the beloved Ramona Quimby books. And finally – does Calvin and Hobbes count? πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

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  9. Shirley Jackson wrote a number of short stories with children as main characters, eg The Witch, Charles, etc. and, of course, her novels re: her own children, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, etc. Then there is the Glass family by JD Salinger, Frannie and Zooey, as well as Holden Caulfield in Catcher In The Rye although as I recall they’re more teenagers than children. Was reading the comments and you mentioned your cat’s name, and I have to say I recently adopted 2 abandoned kittens. One I named Wiley. When I told my 5 y/o grandson what I named him, he asked, “Like Wiley Jones?” Have no idea where the Jones part came in, but every cat, according to TS Eliot, is supposed to have 3 names. This is the first time I got close. Wiley Jones and Muppy. Great theme, Dave. Thanx, Susi

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susi! Great Shirley Jackson and J.D. Salinger mentions! I read Jackson’s compellingly spooky “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” relatively recently, and the kid element was memorable.

      Wonderful that you adopted two kitties desperately needing a home!!! I LOVE cats. πŸ™‚

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      • Thanx Dave. I have been listening to a lot of audiobooks because of my vision, and Shirley Jackson’s fiction is the easiest on the ears. I
        think it must be her style since imagery and descriptiveness seem rather limited in favor of a matter of fact approach toward the characters, the plot, etc, which is surprising, indeed, considering that it is spooky and perhaps spookier because of it. Her short story, Summer People, is my favorite.

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  10. Pingback: Young Characters in Literature | BLISSARENA

  11. In answer to your challenging post I would like to contribute a little summary of a book, which was known to everybody when I was a child and is calledβ€œHEIDI”, by Johanna Spyri (1827-1901). She was an orphan taken to her grandfather, who lived in the Swiss mountains. Her grandfather wasn’t very enthusiastic at the beginning, but he immediately took care of her. Life wasn’t full of material richness, but the nature must have been great. She also had a friend called Peter with whom she looked after the animals. Her aunt later takes Heidi to Frankfurt, where the girl becomes a friend of the paralyzed Klara. Despite everything Heidi gets very homesick, because the servant of the house has no comprehension for her. She therefore goes back to her grandfather, who is so happy that he even goes to church again! Later Klara comes also to the alp and there, thanks to the help of Heidi and Peter she starts walking again. Despite the fact that this book my have been too romanticized it shows as many precious sides of life. Thank you very much, Dave, for giving us soo much input:)

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Hi Dave, The more I think about this then the more depressing the stories are that come to mind! Ha! Just shows how manipulative authors can be πŸ˜‰ So my first thoughts were the two children, Flora and Miles, in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James; the young boy Jamie in ‘Empire of the Sun’ by JG Ballard and Bruno in ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne. I think I might stop there!

    Some favourites have already been mentioned – ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘The Outsiders’, ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’. One that hasn’t been mentioned yet is Leo the young boy in ‘The Go Between’ by L P Harltley. Such a wonderful story.

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  13. Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Oliver Twist remain memorable child characters for me. I also remember Ralph and Piggy from Lord of the Flies by William Golding since we had to study the novel in high school. The most memorable character I’ve read in a novel recently is the seven-year-old protagonist Rita in the The Far Away Girl by the Guyanese-born novelist Sharon Maas (2021).

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  14. I just met a young character I really liked in a new book by Barbara Kingsolver: his name is Demon Copperhead. His story is based on that of Dickens’s David Copperfield, but Demon is very much his own person. I recommend checking him out, if you haven’t already. He’s brilliantly drawn and manages to be very funny, even in terrible adversity.

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    • Thank you, Kim! I like Barbara Kingsolver’s work a LOT; I’ve read all most of her novels, and some of her other writing, too. Being a fan of hers and of Charles Dickens and “David Copperfield,” I will definitely look for “Demon Copperhead” at my local library. Your description of it is excellent.

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  15. There are probably enough young characters in fiction to fill up Yankee Stadium, some that I’m familiar with include Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Natasha Rostova from “War and Peace”, Tom Sawyer, and Huckelberry Finn. Not to mention characters from children’s and young adult books.

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    • Thank you, Anonymous! So true! My post could have been the length of the “War and Peace” novel you mentioned when naming various memorable young characters. πŸ™‚

      And, yes, I barely mentioned characters from children’s books and YA books.

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    • I’ve never read Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” but I’m quite familiar with the plot. Prince Edward and Tom Canty are almost iconic child characters in literature.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Definitely worth mentioning, Anonymous! As are the also-“switched” young characters in Mark Twain’s later novel “Pudd’nhead Wilson.” When I read both books, I definitely saw some story similarities, even as the novels were quite different in various ways.

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    • There are also young characters in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales such as the poignant Little Match Girl and the headstrong Karen in “The Red Shoes”.

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    • Natasha Rostova in “War and Peace” went from being a vivacious, charming, fickle adolescent with plenty of admirers to a heavy, somewhat dull wife and mother who was only interested in her family by the end of the novel. Quasimodo and Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” were also notable adolescent characters in fiction. Quasimodo was not thought of as young because of his extreme deformity but he was about the same age as the sixteen year old Esmeralda with whom he was switched at birth.

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  16. You have the best β€œpriming the pump” posts that allow me to explore my relationship to books, to stories, to the authors and characters. I am currently reading β€œThe Chosen” by Chaim Potok. This quote will give you a glimpse of the wisdom held in the pages.

    β€œYou can listen to silence, Reuven. I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it….You have to want to listen to it, and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes – sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen to it then. But you have to.” Chaim Potok, The Chosen

    The Chosen is an iconic novel of Jewish life in Brooklyn during the 1940s. It tells the story of two boys, Reuven and Danny, who become friends despite their vastly different backgrounds. Reuven is a traditional Orthodox Jew, while Danny is a Hasidic Jew, a more conservative sect of Judaism. Through their friendship, the boys learn about each other’s cultures and beliefs, and ultimately come to understand the importance of tolerance and acceptance.

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  17. You named so many, Dave! I also can’t wait to see others in the comments. Four came to mind. Laura Ingalls of “The Little House on the Prairie” novels; the children working in the coal mines and their teen-aged advocate in “Coal River” by Ellen Marie Wiseman; the children in Louise Erdrich’s “LaRose”; and the orphans of “Before We Were Yours” by Lisa Wingate.

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  18. Great descriptions of all the young characters in literature. I also loved the children in “The Lincoln Highway.” Plus, in the other books you mentioned, Jane Eyre, Scout, and Ponyboy. I took a stab at writing my own young character in “Plover Landing.” His name is Dimitri – he’s kind of like Billy Watson but is more oriented toward animals and the environment. He’s one of my favorites. I hope to revisit him some day in a sequel because I miss him!

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    • Thank you, Marie! Those are indeed memorable characters we both like. πŸ™‚ And great that your own Dmitri creation has some Billy Watson-like qualities — while of course being uniquely his own person. I hope you can indeed revisit him in a sequel.

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  19. Three characters immediately come to mind: Sarty Snopes in Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” because he set me on the path of becoming a writer, Buddy in Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” because of Sook’s love for him, and Jeffrey Cartwrite in Steven Millhouser’s Edwin Mullhouse because every word out of his mouth is so pompous, deluded, and absurd.

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  20. You’ve mentioned most of mine, Huckleberry Finn, Scout, Dorothy, Anne Shirley. Francie Nolan. I also liked Chas from the Machine Gunners and Sarah Crew from A Little Princess who never quite lost her dignity despite the downturn in her life.

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