11 Empowering Children's Book Characters Who Inspired Us

Be honest: how many of your childhood endeavors were accompanied by the mantra: " I think I can, I think I can ?" Pretty much all of them, amirite? That terrifying first launch across the monkey bars, that even more terrifying first trip to the dentist, that time in gymnastics class when you got stuck dangling over the high bar on your stomach and your gym shorts started to fall and you thought your instructor would never get you down. (Was that just me?)

If you were anything like I was growing up, every major milestone was an opportunity to summon the energies of The Little Engine That Could — and tons of other empowering children’s book characters — to help you conquer whatever seemingly insurmountable endeavor lay before you.

From The Little Engine who thought he could and did, to the incomparable Elouise who always knew that a lot of short-term mischief would equal a big payoff at the end, my days as a little girl were filled with inspiration garnered from empowering children’s book characters — inspiration that I still sometimes turn to today. (We all know “I think I can” works just as well at the office/on a blind date/driving in a snowstorm/in the dressing room as it did on the playground, after all.)

Ready for some ultimate #throwback inspiration? Check out these 11 empowering fictional characters from children’s books.

The Little Prince, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Coming all the way from asteroid B-612, all The Little Prince desires is a drawing of a sheep — oh, and to return home to his asteroid and his pet-like rose.

Before landing on Earth, the Little Prince wanders the galaxy, meeting a complex cast of characters from a fox to a king, a conceited man, a drunkard, a lamplighter, and more — all of whom demonstrate something to the already-adept Little Prince about the complexities of humanity. What’s so special about the Little Prince is his ability to understand the true nature of people, his willingness to help, his commitment to return to his pet rose, and the fact that he is alway one step ahead of everyone else.

Princess Elizabeth, The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

When a dragon destroys Princess Elizabeth’s kingdom — burning it to the ground, kidnapping her betrothed Prince Ronald, and leaving Princess Elizabeth with nothing to wear but a paper bag (hence The Paper Bag Princess ), this leading lady is forced to save the day. By outsmarting the dragon she manages to rescue Prince Ronald, who promptly rejects her because she looks disheveled and is wearing a paper bag. Well, this feminist princess is having none of that. Exit Ronald, stage left; enter independent, self-sufficient Elizabeth.

Miyax (aka Julie), Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Miyax is an Iñupiaq Eskimo girl struggling between wanting to live in modern Alaska (using the name Julie), while still maintaining traditional Iñupiaq traditions — and she isn’t sure she can balance both. When she suddenly finds herself an orphan, the path she chooses becomes even more significant.

Deciding to run away from Alaska entirely to move to San Francisco, Miyax sets off alone in the wilderness, learning to communicate with wolves, survive the elements, and find food and water. Julie of the Wolves is definitely one tough-as-nails survivor, with a soft spot for furry friends everywhere.

Valerie Felicity Frizzle, The Magic School Bus by Joanna Cole

Oh The Friz. Who didn’t love Ms. Frizzle? Her hair was amazing, her outfits were always on-point, her jokes made sense maybe half the time, and she was always up for an adventure. Not one to be afraid of the PTA or Walkerville Elementary school administrators, Ms. Frizzle never let a small crisis ruffle her feathers. A lizard wants to drive the Magic School Bus? No problem! The school bus turns into a speck of pollen, with the entire class inside? Great learning opportunity! Everyone accidentally ends up inside a fellow student's esophagus? Could happen to anybody! Nothing can get The Friz down.

Harold, Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Oh, Harold and the Purple Crayon . I love Harold. I want to be Harold. Harold demonstrates that all you need is a purple crayon and a vivid imagine and you can literally rule the world. Preach.

Annemarie Johansen, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

In Number the Stars , 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen is just a regular girl living with her family in 1943 Copenhagen when life suddenly changes irreversibly for herself and everyone she knows. As the Nazis rise to power during World War II, Annemarie risks her life to help her best friend Ellen Rosen, a Danish Jew in danger of being deported to a concentration camp. It doesn't get much braver than that.

Sassy, Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen

Sassy has long legs, huge feet, and a very opinionated voice. She also dreams of being a ballet dancer, and will do anything to make her dream come true. In Dancing in the Wings , when a famous choreographer comes to her ballet class she tries, and fails, to gain his admiration. But the persistent and determined Sassy, as her name hints, will not be denied her heart's greatest desire.

India Opal Buloni, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

When Opal discovers an abandoned dog at the Winn-Dixie grocery store she has no idea how much her life is about to change — all because of Winn-Dixie. With the help of Winn-Dixie, who needs Opal just as much as Opal needs him, she begins to warm up to the eccentric characters living in her new neighborhood, and starts to heal from the loss of her mother, who left the family when Opal was three. With an ear for a great story, and an eager, albeit tentative heart, Opal learns to make peace with her past and embrace her future.

Jack & Annie, The Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne

Characters didn't get much cooler than Jack and Annie, a brother and sister duo who discover their treehouse has the magical power to transport them into the setting of whatever book they are reading. In The Magic Treehouse series, these two survived great danger (dinosaurs, angry wizards, etc.) and made some crucial adjustments to history that result in the world being an all-around better place. They also inspired me to read even more than I was already. Now if only I could figure out how to build a treehouse.

Gaby Ramirez Howard, Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes

The heroine of Gaby, Lost and Found is Gaby Ramirez Howard, a sixth-grade girl born in the United States, but whose mother — an undocumented Honduran immigrant — is about to be deported. The prospect of growing up without her mother and being raised by her well-intentioned (but not so helpful) father seems almost more than Gaby can handle. But when she decides to volunteer at a local animal shelter, Gaby finds not only her own empowered voice, but helps to give voices — and homes — to abandoned animals as well.

Irene Bobbin, Brave Irene by William Steig

The appropriately-named Irene Bobbin is a dressmaker’s daughter; quick thinking and determined, brave Irene is destined to save the day. When her mother (who has just spent an exceptionally long time designing a ball gown for the duchess) becomes ill, Irene must brave the wintery elements to make sure the duchess receives her dress on time for the ball that evening. Irene hand delivers a dress box bigger than herself through a snowstorm with such skill that even Rachel Zoe would admit “that’s bananas.”

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