Cover of the 1922 edition of Heidi
Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith.

What is it about losing a parent or growing up an orphan that makes a lasting formula for coming of age girl books? We all remember our favorite Swiss girl, the orphan Heidi, running around the Alps, learning to read and write and eating the wholesome goat cheese alongside her only family, her grumpy Grandfather. Heidi comes out as a tale of little blessings amid grief, in a poetic rendition that often mimics life. And nor have we forgotten Sara Crewe of A Little Princess fame who continues to believe she is a princess even as her world comes crashing after the demise of her father. Sara believes in a fairy tale and her belief becomes one. The feisty red head Anne Shirley comes as a breath of fresh air to Prince Edward Island, adopted from an orphanage into the lives of an uptight Marilla Cuthbert and her brother, Matthew, of Green Gables. And we fall in love with the orphan girl Judy Abbott’s letters to her unknown benefactor in the book Daddy Long Legs. It takes a sense of wonder to appreciate her words that ring of, at times, of an embarrassing honesty and a joy for life. These among the long list of books baptized by time are about triumph in the face of grief and hardship, about seeing the glass half full rather than half empty. The rise after the fall becomes the larger subtext of these simple girlhood reads. Hermione Granger voluntarily gives up her parents towards the end of the Harry Potter book series to seal protection over them. And to mention Jane Eyre, lest we forget the orphan girl, who is a victim of charity. All of these and more of these celebrate girlhood in infinite ways, the spirit of resilience and perseverance, of small acts of charity in the face of despair and the lasting balm of a forgiving love. These girls are not only brave but also don a certain gratitude towards the small blessings that come their way. All of them have lost parents, and yet they stand to gain a life. In a way of mirroring the suffering that is a reality for most of us, these stories, sometimes fictional, other times inspired from true tales, shine a light through the cracks of a lost girlhood.

-Heena Khan
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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