Girls who have the audacity to be the heroes of books are likely to be labelled, or at least scrutinized, in two ways. In chapter books or middle-grade books, they will inevitably be described as “spunky,”and “feisty.” Those really are the two favorite words in the English language for describing the elementary-school protagonist. It is usually meant to flatter the hero and the book’s author, but it can also be used disparagingly. “Look,” a critic may say, presumably while rolling his eyes upward, “yet another girl child with personality.”
Spunky just means “courageous and determined,” while feisty means “lively, determined, and courageous.” And of course any book strong enough to get published will have a hero, you know, doing things and driving their own story line, and books for younger readers are likely to be bright and energetic, so there’s really no way to have a girl anchor a children’s book while being whatever the opposite of spunky and feisty is. Timid and passive? She’s going to have some moxie, is all, like any other character at the heart of a book, but other characters (except perhaps mice and the very old) will rarely be described using those two condescending words. They’ll be called courageous, or determined, or bold.
I would say a critical lens is narrowed by those two words. Once you’ve decided a girl hero is “spunky,” she becomes “yet another spunky heroine,” and you won’t see her in any other way. For example, Ramona, who inevitably bunny hops into any discussion of spunky, feisty heroines, is not especially “courageous” and in fact is often anxious about things, worried what others think of her, and unsure of herself. She is bright, curious, and inventive. She is occasionally brash. Neither spunky or feisty would be the adjectives that first come to mind, if I didn’t already have the idea in my head that she was a classic example of (even the reason for) a particular trend in children’s books.
I could take a sideways swipe here at the equally foolish trope of “strong girl heroines,” which I think means “has super powers, and/or a crossbow.” It’s another narrow lens. Many of the best girl protagonists from my childhood — Ramona, Harriet, Turtle, Fern — are not especially “strong,” but they are smart, resourceful, thoughtful, and perfectly good role models. They are sometimes brave and sometimes vulnerable. They are human and complicated. I never needed any of them to be “strong” to care about them.
Just let these girls exist in their stories and accept them on their own terms. It’s all any kid really wants.