by Georgia Luckhurst

This summer, we wanted to  celebrate the female protagonists who truly stood out for us as the most kickass, daring, courageous, and admirable. In this week’s Summer Reading series, SPARKteam activists will be discussing those heroines who matter so much to them personally – and why they should matter to you, too.  

Although nowadays I read any and every book I can get my hands on, there was a time when I was a more reluctant reader. These were the days before I’d immersed myself in the world of Harry Potter, or devoured everything Noel Streatfeild ever wrote. I could’ve picked a number of heroines I’ve adored and admired, from Molly Weasley of Harry Potter fame, to Phoebe Caulfield from The Catcher In The Rye. In the end, though, I had to pick the character who’d catapulted me into my current identity as a bookworm, from the less well-known children’s book, I, Coriander.

At first description, I, Coriander, by British author Sally Gardner, doesn’t much sound like a children’s story. Set in the seventeenth century, the book takes the ingredients of a traditional fairytale – elements we’ve all been endlessly regaled with, of stepparents, alternate worlds, and magic – and cooks up something wholly different to what we’d expect. The book stuck with me, and to this day it’s one of my favorites.

Starting sleepily, the story begins by painting the cozy, comfortable reality of Coriander’s life. A young girl living in 1650s London is an existence very different to our own, but Coriander’s life is not wholly unrecognizable: her parents are caring and seemingly dependable, and she leads an apparently idyllic and sheltered life. The only obvious tension comes in the form of beautifully embroidered shoes, silvery and with a peculiar pull Coriander cannot resist. A present from an anonymous benefactor, the shoes cause great concern, and her parents have harried, quiet discussions about Coriander’s right to own them, even locking them away for her own good – a precaution she not only doesn’t understand, but resents.

Her mother, a woman with a vast knowledge of herbal medicine, cares for women in the town not only in terms of health but as someone to whom they can talk and rely on. Her study is filled with concoctions Coriander is careful not to touch, and the house adorned with artifacts she won’t explain: a stuffed crocodile, a huge trunk. Eventually, despite her agonizing fears over them, she allows Coriander the mysterious silver shoes – and shortly thereafter dies.

From that short a description, the book doesn’t sound all that fascinating. The idea of dangerous footwear is pretty ridiculous, and Coriander, as of yet, hasn’t really been established as anyone’s idea of an inspiration – all she’s done so far has been to wheedle her parents into rewarding her with an item causing utterly inexplicable consternation.  But it’s in the next segment of the book that Coriander becomes a true heroine, as her father remarries and she gains not only a stepmother but a stepsister.

Often, children’s books are afraid to confront serious issues, or if they do, they don’t tackle them sensitively or in a way that presents the whole truth of the matter. I, Coriander features an account of horrible mistreatment Coriander is subjected to at the hands of her stepparent, so soon after her mother’s death. Her father, a shadow of his former self, fails to prevent it, and is eventually sent to prison for heresy, a result of his new wife’s religious fanaticism. Again, not an easygoing topic for a children’s book, and compounded by the arrival of an evil preacher who moves in to the house ostensibly to aid Coriander’s stepmother, but soon begins to enact his idea of morality, ordering Coriander’s long hair to be cut off as punishment for her supposed vanity and tearing apart the beautiful bedroom her mother had painted for her in better days. Throughout it all, Coriander’s defiance and strength never wavers, even as she attempts to support the stepsister she has come to love, Esther, who fears nothing more than her abhorrent mother.

The situation’s fragile existence shatters when Coriander’s attempt at rebelling results in her being locked in the long, heavy trunk that remains of her parents’ furniture, and is left there to die.

Yet she survives, for three whole years.

In that trunk, time becomes a fluid thing as Coriander is dropped into the world the trunk knows best, the world of her mother’s past life. Finding herself in a fairy kingdom, wrapped in the throes of a noble wedding, Coriander has to learn that this ethereal universe isn’t as picture-perfect as the grand marital ceremony makes it seem; everyone is petrified by the Queen Rosemore, and people seem to recognize her, and implicitly know of her purpose (even while she’s left in the dark). It’s time for Coriander to learn about her beloved mother’s real identity, the story of her parents’ first meeting, and, finally: where those silver shoes that so enthralled her came from.

I was never one for fantasy novels, but something about this story reeled me in: its main character. To many of the characters, Coriander is not easily likeable, she’s divisive. But she’s one of the most complex female characters I’ve been introduced to, her tenacity switching in a moment to inward reflection, her craving for knowledge and honesty infectious, and her kindness and humanity not gentle but as passionate as ever: she is fiercely defensive of the small group of friends she considers family, and even the boy with whom she falls in love doesn’t seem a cheap plot device – she sacrifices her wish, to be with Tycho, the prince, to do what is just, which is undeniably awesome. Yes, this is a book intended for children, but it is dark, and heavy, and I defy anyone not to just about fall in love with its protagonist.