A Look at Young Protagonists in Literature

With the school year underway, kids are on the minds of many — including book lovers. So, our subject this week is literature’s most memorable young characters (from babies to teens).

I just finished Elsa Morante’s History, and Giuseppe in that magnificent/heartbreaking novel is one of the most adorable, engaging, precocious, well-drawn kids I’ve ever encountered in fiction. This is especially amazing because he was conceived when a German soldier raped his Italian mother Ida — after which she and Giuseppe spend the rest of World War II suffering additional privations such as the loss of their bombed home, near starvation, and Ida’s constant fear that her half-Jewish ancestry would be discovered by the Nazis. (All that horror, combined with a hereditary condition, does eventually affect Giuseppe’s psyche and health.)

Obviously, the vast majority of young people in literature don’t have to go through those things. Readers can enjoy the innocence of many kid characters, hope those characters turn out okay when older, cringe if they get jaded or go bad, and be reminded of their own childhood and/or their own kids and grandkids.

Another unforgettable child in fiction is Anne Shirley, who’s an 11-year-old orphan when we first meet her in Anne of Green Gables. Brainy, friendly, funny, needy — Anne has captivated readers since L.M. Montgomery’s novel was first published in 1908. Heck, a late-in-life Mark Twain said Anne is “the dearest, most moving, and most delightful child since the immortal Alice.” That of course being Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland-visiting Alice — another enduring kid in lit.

Montgomery created a second memorable girl in her semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy, whose title character becomes a writer.

Among the many other young females who strongly resonate in literature are the four diverse sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; the bright, frustrated Maggie Tulliver, who’s initially nine years old in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss; the mistreated, resilient Celie when a teen in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple; the neglected, loyal Florence in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son; the iconic Dorothy in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; and the offbeat, perceptive Pearl — daughter of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The young Owen Meany is also offbeat and perceptive in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Other compelling boys in lit include Charlie, the beleaguered teen son of a semi-crazy dad in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast; Twain’s entrepreneurial, bossy, annoying, sometimes admirable Tom Sawyer; and the more likable Huck Finn, a secondary character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer before taking the spotlight in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Speaking of annoying, the kidnapped boy in O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief” story is so grating that the kidnappers have to pay his father to take him back! Now that’s a memorable young character.

Other great literary creations include the intelligent, buffeted-by-tragedy fraternal twins — impulsive Rahel and mute Estha — in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things; and the destined-to-meet Yuri Zhivago and Lara during their adolescent years in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.

The seven Harry Potter books are of course chock-full of distinctive young people: the brave Harry, the brilliant Hermione Granger, the affable Ron Weasley, the hilarious Weasley twins, the spacey Luna Lovegood, the spoiled Dudley Dursley, the often-brutish Draco Malfoy, the at-first-downtrodden Neville Longbottom, etc.

Children’s books also have tons of interesting kid protagonists, but that could be the subject of a whole other blog post. So The Cat in the Hat‘s Sally and her brother get only a brief Seussical mention here.

Who are your favorite young characters in YA or grown-up literature?

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I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering/meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson, among others.