The Inimitable, Unforgettable Redheads of Fiction

The latest redhead in the headlines right now is Merida, the Titian-tressed heroine of the first Pixar movie to focus on the tale of a female protagonist, Brave. But what about her predecessors in Y.A. and children's fiction?

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The latest redhead in the headlines right now is Merida, the Titian-tressed heroine of the first Pixar movie to focus on the tale of a female protagonist, Brave. Whether you like the characterization of Merida as a fiery redhead (some, like Slate's L.V. Anderson, saying it's a stereotype past its time, or one that never should have been in the first place), she follows in a grand tradition of auburn-tressed protagonists. Far from the mean trope of the "redheaded stepchild," these girls with the flaming hair are awesome not just because of their hair color, but because they are audacious and spirited and kindred in some way or another beyond their locks. Though their hair color is pretty great, too.

I spoke to Elizabeth Eulberg, Y.A. author of Take a Bow, a novel about a group of students at a performing arts school, one of whom, Emme, is a redhead. (Eulberg, too, has red hair.) She talked about some of her favorite redheads on screen and the page, including Joan Harris of Mad Men, Little Orphan Annie, and of course the Weasleys, whom she describes as "the coolest family ever." She added, "If it wasn’t for Annie I might have had more issues!"

Take a Bow is Eulberg's fourth book, but her first with a major character who has red hair, she tells me. (In the course of our conversation she decided the main character of her next book will have auburn hair.) As for what makes redheaded characters different, Eulberg admitted that it does seem to stand as a sign of personality more than, say, blonde or brunette hair color. "Not all blondes in books are 'flighty,' for example," she says. But redheads, she says, are generally assumed to be characters who stands up for themselves and others, who are energetic, who have some version of the fire exampled by their hair color. Maybe this is a stereotype—but it does seem to be a pretty positive one, if so. Powerful girl characters come in all shapes and sizes and hair colors; is it wrong if the redheaded are often some of the most powerful?

As for the characterization of Emme in Take a Bow, says Eulberg, "She's not a typical crazy redhead; she has quiet confidence. She has fire, but she needs it to be lit more. Her best friend, Sophie, is a brunette, and you find out later that Sophie hates Emme's hair color because it makes her stand out."

In honor of Merida, Emme, and those before, here are a few more of our favorite redheads in children's and teen fiction:

Anne of Green Gables. One of the greatest redheaded characters of all time, Anne was smart, funny, spirited, sweet, and ever so relatable, but not only to young girls with her particular coloring. She hated her hair color, of course, and employed her powerful imagination regularly to think it different. She even tried to dye it, which of course ended badly. People commenting on her hair color (Gilbert Blythe calling her "Carrots!" for instance) led to much drama and fury on her side. But in the end, her hair grew to a very nice auburn color, or at least, that's what everyone said, and Anne realized, at any rate, that there were far more important things in life than what color her hair was. Eulberg said, of Anne, "It was great to have someone with my coloring like that. Anne was very talkative and adventurous; I really looked up to her. Being the fourth kid, I never really got to talk!"

Pippi Longstocking. Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking, the girl with the wacky orange protrusive pigtails! Pippi was a girl who lived on her own terms at the age of 9, possessed of superhuman strength, wisdom beyond her years, a pure heart, and a pet monkey and a horse. Lucky Pippi! Of course she got into all sorts of scrapes, often by schooling condescending, stupid adults. That made for great stories and only made us love her more.

The Weasleys. I agree with Eulberg, the Weasleys really brought the "cool" to red hair, with their great big ginger-ful family—Ginny, Ron, Fred, George, Percy, Charlie, Bill, Molly, & Arthur Weasley—their wonderful, magical abilities, and their fight for the right (Harry Potter, obviously) side of things.

Tacy of the Betsy-Tacy books. Calm, loving, loyal, yet a girl who marched to the beat of her own drummer, Tacy was best friend we all wanted, reliable, talented, creative, the one who would always believe in us and do the right thing—but who would also now and again surprise us.

Mallory Pike. The initially junior member of the Babysitter's Club had a head of bushy red hair, along with glasses and the typical accoutrement of awkward teen-ness. She loved to read and write, and wanted to be a writer; she was also great at taking care of children, including her 7 brothers and sisters. More internally than outwardly fiery, you still couldn't push her around; she's "very practical and level-headed."

And, don't forget about girl detective Cam Jansen, or Madeline, or Amelia Bedelia, or Caddie Woodlawn, frontier girl. Newer books featuring red-haired characters include Julianne Moore's Freckleface StrawberryThe Redheaded Princess, My Rotten Redheaded Older Brother, Kristin Cashore's Fire, and Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle trilogy, to name just a few.

Hair color is just hair color, of course; it doesn't mean everything and it might mean nothing. But you could argue in favor of the redheaded trope that at least redheads aren't seen as "flakey," "dumb," or "boring." Usually they're strong, independent spirits, maybe a little bit quirky, maybe, sometimes, afflicted by their inherent difference, which is having red hair, something they realize later makes them special and often come to love.  (Only some 1 or 2 percent of the world population is estimated to have red hair, which makes the representation of "gingers" in the media even more interesting, and adds to the importance of including them in children's literature: Girls with red hair want to read about people who look like them, too.)

Whether it's watching Merida, as I did at a screening last night, express her authentic, strong, redheaded self—or reading about one of my favorite literary characters of all time, Anne of Green Gables, it must be said that redheads have a little something special in the hair color panoply. And for that, this brunette both admires (and sometimes envies) them.

And as Eulberg told me, now that she's a grownup and has learned to love her hair, "It was one thing that made me so unique. You don’t want to stand out in high school, but once you get more confident you realize it’s important to celebrate differences. Now I’m mad because red fades the quickest. The worst thing someone can say to me is, 'You don’t have red hair.'"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.