Very few things please me as a reader more than an unlikely hero who can win me over.
There’s nothing much to like about Saba, the narrator of Blood Red Road by Moira Young. Not at first. She’s possessive of her twin brother, Lugh. She’s mean to her nine-year-old sister, Emmi. She blames Emmi for the death of their mother and for the light that’s gone out in their father’s eyes. And she doesn’t hide that from Emmi either. You wouldn’t want to have to fight Saba for the last loaf of bread. She’d probably kill you for it.
Yet the fact that she’s so direct, scrappy and winner-take-all makes her a survivor. She can’t read or write, but she remains teachable, as we discover when she meets Mercy, her mother’s friend. Mercy shows her a different point of view, and Saba considers it. She’s not close-minded. And her reluctance to trust serves her well as she moves into the larger world of this post-apocalyptic novel where people are mostly takers.
Saba got me thinking about other characters who’ve won me over, or at least, won my sympathies over the course of their stories. Katherine Paterson’s Great Gilly Hopkins is the one that leaps to mind. But books for teens teem with them, too--the best friends and narrators of The Pigman by Paul Zindel; 16-year-old Steve Harmon, the Monster of Walter Dean Myers’s title; the misfit stars of Stoner & Spaz by Ron Koertge; Brent Bishop, protagonist of Paul Fleischman’s Whirligig; and, of course, Katniss from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. You wouldn’t want to fight her for the last loaf of bread either.
Most of these young people have to experience something dire in order to develop a feeling for others—and, sometimes, compassion for themselves. That foray into testing adulthood, trying out ideas that are contrary to the ones that have been handed down by parents, teachers, and other adult guides, is essential to growing up. Some enter that wider world by choice, others by necessity—like Saba and Katniss. These books allow teens to try on other personas without having to live through their experiences.
Who are some of your favorite unlikely heroes? Which unlikable protagonists wound up winning you over?