Today we honor the International Day of the Girl Child, first declared by the UN in 2012 to promote gender equality and advance the opportunities for girls around the globe. Since there is perhaps no better way to empower not only our children, but ourselves, than with the influence of literature, I am grateful that there are so many books out there with amazing, young female characters that we can all look up to, knee-high though they may be. We could devote a whole month (or more) to talking about some of the incredible child-heroines of the page, but today my mind keeps returning to one of my all-time favorites—the resilient Mary Lennox from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
Mary is the hero of her own story, and ultimately, the stories of everyone around her. True, in the beginning, she may be kind of a brat. She’s a little stuck up, a little rude, perhaps a little unfeeling. She’s not exactly someone you’d want to play hopscotch with, but that’s what makes her growth all the more compelling. We can’t help but feel for her when we take into account that her wealthy parents want nothing to do with her, passing her off to the servants to deal with. She is unloved and, in turn, unloving, but after a cholera outbreak claims the lives of the entire household and she is found alive and alone, we know that this one is a survivor—and that is where her true journey begins.
Unlike some other orphan tales, when Mary goes to live with her uncle at his grand estate, things don’t magically get better overnight. In fact, everything about Misselthwaite Manor and its people is sad, sad, sad. Most of the rooms are locked up. Her uncle, Master Craven, has been grieving his wife for ten years. There are mysterious cries from a far-off room that turn out to be from Mary’s cousin, Colin, who has been hidden away for his “own benefit” (as everyone believes he is an invalid) and because he is too strong a memory of his late mother. Oh, and there is a secret garden that sounds pretty great, but it’s been locked up for a decade and the key has been buried, so that’s off the table.
What makes Mary a great role model for readers is that she is the agency of her own change. Yes, her life has been kind of awful, and she could very well continue to be a mean and miserable little girl, but she decides to rise above it and live. She finds her way into that garden. She discovers the beauty of nature. She makes friends. She even connects with a bird. She flourishes, and the inner light that she finds makes its way through the house. Colin’s health miraculously improves. Master Craven’s heart begins to heal. It is a shining example of how infectious positivity can be. We should all sit up and take a lesson.
There is a reason that classics are classics. The Secret Garden is just as relevant, powerful and poignant today as it was in 1911, and Mary Lennox remains one of the greatest characters for readers to latch onto—not just girls, but boys, men and women alike. She’s a character that forever stays with us, reminding us on those days when the world is getting us down that we have two choices—we can frown and grump about it, or we can get out there, find that buried key, and see where it takes us.
Do you have a favorite fictional heroine from childhood we could all learn from? Share your thoughts below—and let’s celebrate the power of girls!