The fictional heroes who have helped shape our next leaders
From Curious George to Barbie, our brightest young voices celebrate the characters who helped them find their way.
If Greta Thunberg taught us anything, it’s that teenagers have plenty to say about the world they’re inheriting. In next month’s Teen Gala being staged by the Wheeler Centre, we’ll hear from some of our own bright young voices in an afternoon of storytelling and readings. The Wheeler Centre’s youth program manager, Bec Kavanagh, says it’s a chance for “the grown-ups” to keep quiet and listen.
“Every event I put together for the Wheeler Centre’s youth program leaves me blown away by the care, creativity and intellect of the teens we have on stage,” says Kavanagh. “Our end of year Teen Gala brings together some of Victoria’s best and brightest young voices in an evening of storytelling, poetry, oration and more.
“This year we’ll be sharing some of the best acts from Top Acts [a showcase of the state’s top young performers put together by the VCAA], alongside the winner of the Kill Your Darlings School Writing Prize, the winner and runner-up speakers from the annual Plain English Speaking Awards and more.
“I feel so lucky, and so hopeful, working with young people,” Kavanagh says. “They’re bringing creativity and storytelling, but also a sense of community engagement and political awareness that I could only have dreamt of having as a teen.
“This year’s pieces speak to the issues they care about – activism, feminism, mental health, community, access. It’s about time we passed the mic, because if we’re going to make it out of this in one piece, I’m convinced it’s these extraordinary young people who will be leading the way.”
In the lead-up to the event, participants were asked to write about the characters who helped them find their way. The results might surprise you.
Erin Kim, 19
There are many characters that I admire but the one that stands out is Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), about a 13-year-old girl going to another city for her witch training. She’s clumsy and naive but she knows how to fly her broomstick and decides to start a delivery service. When I watched this film as a child, I was fascinated by her ability to fly and venture on her own living independently.
However, now that I look back as an adult, I see this story in a new light. A young girl unknowing of her future who compares herself to others. She feels insecure with the pressure of making her family proud and not fitting in with girls her age. The delivery service is not always busy and mistakes are made along the way. Self-doubt starts plaguing her and her confidence drops, which results in her temporarily losing her powers. This part of her character resonated with me. Somehow I didn’t see Kiki’s struggles as a five-year-old, I only knew that she was sad and lost her powers.
Kiki takes a break from her delivery business and confides in her friends and realises that the powers don’t make her. I’ve learned from her that life isn’t always A to B; rather, it’s in a tree-like formation. As an artist, designer and animator I know I’m going to face challenges in my career, which I am prepared for. And sometimes taking a break from what I am working on can be positive for my mental health. I’ve always had a workaholic nature to prove that I’m productive and doing well for myself. Now I know that’s not true and thinking of Kiki made me realise that.
Red Brazil, 13
What fictional character inspired me most? These days my favourite show is Seinfeld, and there aren’t a lot of inspirational characters in that.
No, I think to find the answer I might have to go back into my favourite shows I watched as a small boy, way, way back, eight to 10 years ago.
Mr Maker, the man himself, this confident, fashion-forward, craft storage king, he made those crafts look so easy and in reality, they were very hard.
B1 off Bananas in Pyjamas, very sensible, rational, deliberate; there was no show without him, B2? I could take it or leave it.
Curious George, an obscure role in the TV series Curious George, he never talked but you could tell his screeches were profound.
I wanted to be inspired by Ben 10, a man I had a very strained relationship with; I pretended to the other kids at school that I had seen it, but I knew enough to know he was either very strong or very fast; it might surprise you to know I still have not seen the show.
Hoot from Giggle and Hoot, the affable sidekick of the grown-up baby man Jimmy Giggle, which played just before ABC Kids tuned into normal ABC at night, a classic if there ever was one.
Captain Barnacle, The Octanauts’ strong man, a born leader.
In Slugterra, people shoot slugs out of guns; it was the most badass show that was available to me on the artist formerly known as ABC 3, now ABC me.
I think all these shows influenced me in some way and made me the boy I am today: part talking banana, part non-verbal monkey, part green super hero, talking train, puppet owl, slug-shooting boy.
Rufaro Zimbudzi, 19
My whole life I have struggled with fiction. I have struggled to relate, struggled to understand, struggled to make sense of it all. Not because I didn’t enjoy getting lost in the beautiful fantasy of story books, but because I wasn’t allowed to. I spent my youth absorbed in tales of mystery, action and romance; a little girl with a magnifying glass and a talent for sleuthing, a young boy bitten by a poisonous spider destined to save the world, a lonely princess trapped in a treacherous tower who is saved by her one true love. Pretty words filled my brain but evaded my heart, because despite my desperate reading, I could not find what I was looking for.
That was until, on the cusp of adulthood I read Hair Love by Matthew Cherry. Who would have thought that in itching anticipation of my 20-somethings, a children’s book would provide me with unbridled joy and restitution. Zuri, a little black girl with hair like mine, skin like mine, a family like mine, actively grapples with pursuing hair love in the wake of an important ballet recital. Her journey is an outward portrayal of every black girl’s cultural battle.
The innate desire to fit in with a sea of white peers has oftentimes been enough to make me give up. Resignation is sweet, goes down easy, it is smooth like a good cup of coffee, but Zuri rejects this somber inheritance.
My admiration is as pure for this little girl as her smile, which concludes this technicoloured picture book. Blood, sweat and tears were poured into the recreation of one of her mother’s hairstyles; a coiled crown of success that in my eyes made Zuri more special than any ballerina, or fairy princess or snow queen. She is the character I turn to in times of doubt, and her story will be the first I tell my children.
Zuri is someone we can all admire.
Sunday Williams Starkie, 16
I struggled with this prompt because I don’t consume a lot of media with characters that are meant as a moral blueprint – soaring heroes who I am expected to project onto. My favourite characters are the ones who are a little bit stupid, maybe mean. Of course, I don’t admire them. It seems like I am expected to find some character who performs a certain way, and make them the north on my moral compass. But those heroes aren’t realistic, and most of the time, they’re miserable.
Controversially, the fictional character I most admire is Jake the Dog from Adventure Time, which seems contradictory, given he’s hypothetically a “hero”. But he’s also immature, impulsive, and lots of the time, kind of an idiot.
He’s a yellow cartoon dog with the power of stretchiness and a love of violence, which is not necessarily something I aspire to be (not to suggest I wouldn’t want to be a stretchy dog), but I still admire his commitment to changing (not just his shape, haha).
There are many times in the show in which he is tested, and is forced to grow up physically and mentally. He does not necessarily do either of these things with enthusiasm, but he still does it. He has to confront his own failings as a father and friend, and tries to do better. He teaches his highly strung brother, Finn the human, the value of loyalty and lightheartedness.
Maybe that’s what I admire about him most – he never loses his humour, even in dark moments. He knows sometimes, the only thing you can do is let things happen how they will, and that maybe we don’t always have to be in control. Maybe he shows us that while we have to grow up, we don’t have to become miserable people in the process.
Charlie Mackenzie, 15
Growing up with nerd culture, there were too many fictional characters I had embarrassing phases of obsession with. But there are very few I relate to like I do Robin Buckley from the Netflix series Stranger Things. Me and her, we hate normal interaction, because English is such a boring, one-dimensional way of communication.
For her, there are pieces missing when she is restricted to specific grammar and words, so she learns languages through her Walkman and is fluent in five! For me, if you ask how I feel the best I can give you is some lyrics, a melody, or my guitar.
You will learn more from listening to my music, than having a conversation with me because I truly suck at it. We truly suck at it, that’s why we both spend our school breaks hidden in rooms where we can’t get caught and given a detention (trust me, I am not that good at hiding, I’ve had too many). I write music, play guitar, or just scribble lyrics on my school books. It’s not because we’re lonely, I have amazing friends I love so much, but because it’s exhausting knowing exactly what you mean but not being able to just say it.
Honestly, it took me forever to write this paragraph because this is exactly what I am not good at, and I was very tempted to just submit a song instead. But it wouldn’t be much better because I can’t just put a song on paper with only words, you wouldn’t see the full picture. For kids like us, we can ramble on for 300 words and still leave our point unsaid, but we also have the gift of only needing one lyric: ″She waits and learns how to speak with the world, so that someday they will understand her.″
Fig Russon, 17
longing for aestheticism in mundane life (spell to be pretty)
in the books i like best
the girls are pretty all of the time
so i take the necessary steps
to find that thin line —
somewhere between acceptance
and utter self-loathing
but if strangers can desire you
at least you’re not lonely
follow below to be considered
something perfect, if an object
to be fawned over and yearned
(just don’t let it get to your head)
- dress up to go five feet
across the yard
- never cover your face
when you cry
- think about dainty things
like daisies and fairy rings
- conjure and manifest
so they know you’re committed
- drink wine
- dance like you know
what you’re doing
but act like you don’t
- keep your phone
beside your bed
just in case someone calls
- wear nothing underneath
- lay in bed for hours
without letting your mind wander
- breathe in like
you have been doing it
for your entire life
- and finally, please
never let them touch you
wondrous, ethereal being
you can’t let them touch you
you must keep going like this
at least until the men in your life
have bled your brain dry of substance
don’t let yourself down when you’re at your prime
you must realise that all you do
is for the stale gaze of another
and if you wanna know what i think
i think that’s more than enough
now that i have anointed you
the prettiest witch in the bog
(so long as you avoid
feeling too much)
i hope somebody looks at you
and decides you are all
that they will ever
Arshia Rana, 17
There are different things I admire about different characters. Some I feel are brave, others are wise and some are dedicated to their cause. But Scythe Anastasia, formerly Citra Terranova, from the Arc of a Scythe series, is one such character that always remains with me.
The Arc of a Scythe trilogy by Neal Shusterman is about a world that has beaten death. Technology has rid the earth of disease, accidents and pain. Government no longer exists, and instead the world is run by an omnipresent and omniscient AI called Thunderhead. In a world of immortals, to keep the population under control, only scythes are able to kill.
Citra Terranova is one of the new students who is recruited to be a scythe, training to be inducted into the scythedom and learn the art of “gleaning”.
Citra’s journey from being an aimless adolescent to being the wise and formidable Scythe Anastasia is one I find admirable. Her ability to control the weaknesses of the human brain and rise above them to act in a practical yet empathetic way is impressive. Neal Shusterman beautifully documents her raw pain and emotional confusion yet dedication to her role in society.
The further she ventures into the scythedom, Citra realises the politics at play and the immorality some carry their role out with. Her resolve to maintain the integrity of scythehood strengthens as she embodies the change she wishes to see, holding others accountable for their unethical practices.
It’s part of the reason she chooses the patron historic (assumed name) Anastasia as a Scythe, after Anastasia Romanov, the last Russian Duchess, whose family were killed following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Citra believes that “perhaps she could have changed the world and redeemed her family name”. She “vow[s] to become the change that might have been”.
Poppy Holden, 15
I read. A lot. To choose just one fictional character I admire feels impossible. So, here are three that have been on my mind recently. Each has a personality trait I relate to, or an insight I find aspirational.
The freckle-faced dreamer Anne Shirley, from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, sees the world in a fresh, new way. She believes that if you are going to imagine something, then “you might as well imagine something worthwhile”. Her passionate observation of small, ordinary details inspires me to find magic in the everyday. While her creativity is unmatched, she doesn’t set out to change the world.
Safiya Mirza’s goal is to do just that as editor of her school newspaper in Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed. In the process, she is belittled, dismissed, and threatened. She knows that “lies are what got us here in the first place”. Armed with this insight, she persists in finding the truth and exposing it. When others, including her school principal, jeopardise her voice, she grows louder. But not everyone can have such certainty.
Bao Nguyen isn’t at all sure about his future. He is surrounded by loud, conflicting opinions coming from every direction. Grappling with family and cultural expectations, he feels like he isn’t enough. He becomes involved with his school’s paper, reviewing restaurants, and he begins to find confidence in the words he writes. “I’m going to become a writer” is a declaration he makes tentatively to his mother in Loan Le’s A Pho Love Story.
Like Anne, I pay attention to the small things. Like Safiya, l want to search for the truth. And like Bao, I don’t know exactly what my future looks like yet, but I’m hopeful it will involve words. Lots and lots of words.
Audrey McKenzie, 17
It is unfortunate to think that in today’s society, we are still dictating a person’s ability to be admirable by their body. The case I am talking about here is the iconic figure of Barbie, a long-time figurehead of the Mattel brand, and long criticised for her unrealistic body proportions. Admittedly, this is the case! Good old Barbara certainly isn’t someone you would see in the streets of any major city – more likely on a highly edited Instagram post of a model. Despite this, I believe that Barbie is a figure of great importance to young girls today.
Launched in 1959, Barbie was an astronaut even before there was a man on the moon. Her employment history is unbeatable: in more than 60 years she has not only “acted” in an incredible amount of films and television shows, but also been a vet, a doctor, a musician, a pilot, a teacher, a nurse, a dentist, a detective, a firefighter and a judge, just to name a few. She has held more than 200 jobs, according to Mattel, a feat that really does show young girls everywhere that anything is possible.
Critiques of the ultimate girl-boss are commonly along the lines of “she promotes unrealistic physical expectations for females” but I think that could not be further from the truth. Her appearances in media, especially in the modern era, celebrate her not for her body, but for her exceptional intelligence, kindness and ambition, all traits that should be commended in young people today. It is especially important to promote that despite her feminine attributes, she is someone who can achieve just as much as the men in her life, and even more if she puts her mind to it.
Anna Blinks-van Broekhoven, 19
The fictional character I most admire is Snow White (specifically from the 1937 animated Disney film). Though many may assume that she is simply a damsel in distress, I admire her for three main reasons.
First, despite being raised in a traumatic situation, having both her parents gone and eventually being abused by her evil stepmother, Snow White remains kind and compassionate. When someone wrongs you, it is easy to take that out on others. Yet, Snow is continually kind to everyone she meets, animals and humans alike. She sings to the doves, and though the Huntsman is a servant of the Evil Queen, she doesn’t hold that against him and continues to treat him as she would anyone else, with kindness and love.
Secondly, she is hopeful. Nowadays it can feel like everything is doomed. With climate inaction and an unstable economy, it is easy to get lost in hopeless. Snow White shows us that it is still possible to be happy and optimistic in difficult circumstances. Even while in slavery, she finds solace and escape in her fantasies, staying positive when the world is against her and never letting it truly beat her down.
Finally and primarily, she is resilient. After being forced to run away from home, Snow gets frightened by the shadows of the forest and creepy eyes peering at her through the trees. She collapses, crying, in a heap on the ground. Yet, when morning comes, rather than continue to wallow in sadness, she picks herself up and gets to work. With nothing but the clothes on her back, she uses the skills she has to get herself a place to stay. When pushed to the ground and left with almost nothing, her resilience allows her to get back up and make it work.
The Wheeler Centre’s Teen Gala takes place on December 10, 5pm, at 176 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. wheelercentre.com
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