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Ask A Mighty Girl: Finding Strength in Stories from the Celtic Tradition and Fantasy Worlds

We frequently receive questions from people asking for recommendations for specific types of books or movies. In our "Ask A Mighty Girl" feature, we anonymously share select messages that may be of interest to the greater A Mighty Girl community. All messages are shared with the permission of the questioner.


 

Dear A Mighty Girl,

I was wondering if you happened to know of any lovely books with a Celtic theme I could share with my little sister? She is eleven and I am fourteen. We recently had some trouble with the other half of our family that is English and they convinced my little sister that she is ugly and should be ashamed for being Welsh. I was hoping you might know of some titles I could read with her to show her how beautiful and noble the Welsh and Celts are in general to help her? I especially want her to learn about our people’s history, the ancient Celts. Many historians see them as warlike and vicious but that cannot be farther from the truth. Our ancestors were beautiful passionate people. They knew how to live life to its fullest and to honour the world around them.

If there aren’t any Celtic books maybe something then that would help her realize that she is special and beautiful just the way she is? Our daddy helped me so much to understand that but he died last year so I am trying to pass on his wisdom. Our family is half Welsh and half English so at times it causes some friction. Most of our English family are the most lovely and wonderful people you could ever meet but a few for some reason think they are better than anyone else.

Now the reason I told you all this is so you can better understand what is my little sister is facing. She is such a wonderful, beautiful, and brilliant young lady in the making. With your suggestions of the books I hope that I can read to her like our Daddy used to do every night and keep her remaining wonderful, beautiful, and brilliant. It is so hard at times. I do not know what exactly I need to do to help her. Daddy and Mummy used to make up stories with girls as the heroes and brave knights. I felt so wonderful when they would start to tell it because it made me feel like I could do anything in this life and just because I am a girl makes no difference!

Would you happen to know any books that could help me to help my sister? I wish I could properly thank you for taking the time to research and recommend books for my sister and I to enjoy. Thank you for reading this. I hope you have a wonderful and lovely day!

Sincerely,

Destiny from Wales, U.K.


 

Dear Destiny,

I have a few recommendations for your sister that I hope will show her how beautiful her Celtic heritage is! The books I found come from Celtic folk tales and feature brave, strong Celtic girls and women. One thing I learned while reading about these folk tales is that traditional Welsh story-telling involves a lot of everyday magic and magical creatures like elves and fairies who help humans with their daily tasks. Everyone called upon those magical beings to help them, but it was the women who were the keepers of the true magic and the community's source of power and goodness. As these folk tales were passed on through the generations, it was the women who became the keepers of the tales themselves, and helped keep the memories of their ancestors and their heritage alive with their story telling. As Caitlín Matthews writes in her introduction to Celtic Memories, "Modern stories ought to have enchantment in them to remind us to look for magic in our own lives...everyone needs some magic in their lives, however old they are." I really found the magic in these stories!

I loved Matthews’ collection of Celtic folk and fairy tales illustrated by Olwyn Whelan. It contains two Welsh stories ("The Lady From the Lake" and "The Mysterious Claw") in addition to four other Scottish, Irish, and Breton stories that have all been told for hundreds of years. They all have at least one example of a courageous young woman, although a few of those girls must face older, fearsome women before they triumph on their journeys. Those frightening old women always turn out to be teachers to the younger protagonists and aren't actually frightening at all. Some of the tales seem to primarily feature young men until we learn that the only way they can be successful along their journeys is with the help of women! In addition, after each story there is a beautiful traditional Celtic blessing, adorned with Celtic symbols and watercolor illustrations. The illustrations throughout the book by Olwyn Whelan are what make this specific collection unique, and I had to read each story twice so I could spend more time with the illustrations! Even though this is book is a picture book, the beautiful, rich language with which the stories are told will appeal to readers of all ages.

I think Lady Gwenhwyfar has to be the bravest, strongest, and most beautiful Celtic figure of all. Even though most people know her with the spelling Guinevere, she is originally from medieval Welsh literature. She is most notorious as the Queen in King Arthur's court, but books like Young Guinevere by Robert D. San Souci tell the story of how she became queen: she found magical powers and learned how to use them to survive difficult trials and prove herself worthy to rule the court. King Arthur respects Lady Guinevere's opinions and treats her as his equal, even though in traditional fairy tales she has to be rescued by her husband before they can rule equally.

I would like to recommend a book that will be more suitable for you now, and for you to share with your sister when she's a little older, and that is The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I found it in the adult section of my library, but that's most likely because it's quite long -- almost 900 pages! It is a fantastic book, though -- it tells the story of King Arthur's court from the perspective of the women, including Morgaine the enchantress and Gwenhwyfar. You will recognize many Celtic myths throughout the story and the magic the women have in their powers. Another book featuring Gwenhwyfar is The Dragon Queen by Alice Borchardt, and it's similar to Young Guinevere because it introduces the queen as a young girl before she was crowned, but it's much longer and geared toward older readers around your age.

I also highly recommend the following fantasy and science fiction novels for your sister, because they highlight strong girls who find themselves – willingly or not – in extraordinary situations and always manage to make the best of what befalls them. Forest Born by Shannon Hale focuses on young Rin who must venture outside the Forest of Bayern where she grew up to discover who she truly is as a young woman and citizen of the world. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley is a Newbery-award winning testament to the strength of girls. Aerin’s journey to learn the truth about her mother and her ancestry leads her across the kingdom and through battles with dragons and an evil mage, but she never gives up. Its sequel, The Blue Sword, tells the story of Harry Crewe, a young orphan girl who has been chosen to become a warrior. She surprises herself with her own strength, and fights in one of the greatest battles in the kingdom’s history.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett is the first of a four-book series about nine-year-old Tiffany Aching, who has decided to become a witch. Her courage, clear-sightedness, and competence in wielding a frying pan prove to the witches in Fairyland that she was indeed born a witch, and a powerful one at that. When the Fairy Queen steals her brother, Tiffany sets off through the Fairyland wilderness to save him and ends up in a face-off with the Fairy Queen herself. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is a captivating tale of the magical turn of events in September’s life after the Green Wind whisks her to Fairyland. September’s loyal friends—including a Wyverary (half-library, half-dragon) and a small boy named Saturday—help her negotiate Fairyland’s terrain and all of its rules in an unforgettable adventure filled with love, courage, and whimsy.

Beauty by Robin McKinley is a retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast tale. Beauty does not feel she lives up to her nickname and instead prefers her intellect and talent to her looks, and her genuine narration helps the reader understand her relationship with the Beast and the challenges it presents. Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamara Pierce is the first in a four-part series about Alanna of Trebond, who disguises herself as a boy so she can train for battle, and along the way she realizes that her true identity far surpasses traditional gender role expectations.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle is about a gifted family's adventures through time (by way of a tesseract, or the wrinkle in time) in their attempts to save their father. Meg and Charles Wallace Murry's parents are both physicists, and they each have quirky personalities and unique traits that cause Meg's classmates to tease her, but Meg learns to ignore her classmates' judgments as she harnesses her intelligence to save her father. This book helped me understand when I was young that being different shouldn’t make me an outcast, and reminds me that everyone thinks they're different in some way, which is precisely what makes each one of us special.

There are a few more books that I think will encourage your sister to realize how special she is, but these are not specifically Celtic or fantasy tales. 33 Things Every Girl Should Know, edited by Tonya Bolden, tells the stories of 33 women who embraced their special qualities to make a difference in other people's lives. The women in this book had to work hard to recognize that what made them different from other girls was also what made them strong and beautiful. The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye is about a princess who was given the gift of Ordinariness at birth, and even though she wishes she had a different, more exciting gift, she grows up to be happy and successful!

Destiny, I hope these suggestions can give you and your sister new stories of brilliant, gifted, beautiful girls to share with each other. Many of these books are close to my heart and the protagonists showed me strength and courage I didn’t know I had. I hope they can show you and your sister as well.

All my best,

Rachel Johnston

A Mighty Girl Special Projects Intern

 

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