Before Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior ruled the young adult genre, our literary role models were plucky preteens by the names of Matilda, Ramona, and Turtle. Instead of playing with dolls, these girls spied on their classmates, played pranks with magical powers, lived in the Metropolitan Museum, and unraveled murder mysteries. Yet, for how impressive they were, they were grounded enough that they felt like friends. Best of all, their coming-of-age adventures—even if they’re set on the Midwest prairie or another planet—never feel outdated.
The eponymous gifted child of Roald Dahl‘s beloved children’s book Matilda is a role model for bookworms everywhere. This precocious protagonist (figuratively) devours library books in bulk and is extraordinarily intelligent, but her parents are blind to her gifts. Matilda also possesses the power to move objects with her mind, using it to play pranks on her parents for their neglect. She’s a little vengeful, admittedly, but ultimately uses her abilities for good: She keeps her favorite teacher, Miss Honey, from being cheated out of her inheritance by the terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull.
Teenager Meg feels like a misfit, and isn’t thrilled about it. But she is different. In Madeleine L’Engle‘s classic A Wrinkle in Time, she travels to other planets via tesseract to rescue her father, who is being held prisoner on the planet Camazotz. Her love for her family is palpable, while her relationship with Calvin blossoms into a loving marriage later in the series. Ultimately, Meg is smart and plucky, and just trying to figure out how to survive her teenage years as painlessly as possible.
Harriet the Spy
We all wanted to be Harriet M. Welsch: We admired her spunk and bravery, but we also ached with sympathy for her attachment to her nanny and fear of losing her. And the part when her classmates find her notebook, with her brutally honest observations of them…! That scene still makes us cringe, because it was our worst nightmare. Harriet’s story marks the highs and lows of being a precocious kid while still living out every fantasy we scribbled in our notebooks at lunch.
In one of our classic childhood series, Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a fictionalized account of her family settling in the prairie in the American Midwest, casting herself as the protagonist. Despite being only five when the book begins, Laura is expected to pitch in to help her family prepare for the winter: preserving meat, gathering wood chips, and the “sugaring off,” where they harvest sap to make maple syrup and maple candy (by drizzling the hot syrup in the snow and letting it freeze). Laura works hard and clearly loves her family very, very much—her story is a cozy, comforting one.
First off, we have to applaud runaway Claudia’s resourcefulness for choosing the Metropolitan Museum of Art as her refuge. Who didn’t read this classic and envy Claudia and her brother Jamie their adventures holing up at the museum? She lives the dream we always wanted to—which gets even cooler when they use their extra access to the Met to help solve a mystery involving a Michelangelo statue.
Ramona is an energetic and spirited four year-old in Beezus and Ramona, and while she grows older in Beverly Cleary‘s series, she doesn’t lose her pluck. She also isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions: She exasperates her teacher when she insists that Mike Mulligan (of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel) must’ve needed to use the restroom while digging in the book, and insists that the author is leaving something important out. Ramona is persistent, lovable, and totally unafraid to be herself.
Without a doubt, Tabitha-Ruth Alice “Turtle” Wexler is the most compelling character in Ellen Raskin‘s mystery classic The Westing Game. In the group of idiosyncratic heirs to a mysterious fortune, Turtle is herself a weirdo, with her long braid and penchant for kicking shins. But this clever 13-year-old almost singlehandedly unravels the mystery of Samuel Westing’s murder and even comes out of her shell in the process. She’s like the manic pixie dream girl of middle grade, and we’ll always treasure our time with her.