Nothing is more unnerving to the truly conventional than the unashamed misfit.
– J K Rowling, Salon (31 March 1999)
The best heroes in fiction don’t fit in. When I was a child, I was obsessed with the hero’s quest – where a young misfit went on a journey and gathered a band of unruly misfits along the way. Together, they took on fire-breathing dragons and saved the world.
The quest wasn’t without danger – far from it. Giant spiders, and trolls and monsters lurked everywhere. But, without this dangerous journey, the misfit couldn’t have grown into the hero – or found the community of misfits in which he fit.
So yes, Bilbo Baggins, Frodo and Sam were a big part of my childhood. And today Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger are a huge part of my daughter’s. I love that she identifies with a clever Muggle-born witch with a prodigious capacity for spells, a boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs unaware that he is a wizard, and a red-headed boy in odd knitted sweaters.
Hagrid: I remember when I first met you all. Biggest bunch of misfits I ever set eyes on! You reminded me of myself a little. And here we all are, four years later.Ron: We’re still a bunch of misfits.Hagrid: Well maybe. But you’ve all got each other.
The misfit hero is everywhere in children’s literature. Take the nonconformist Pippi Longstocking, the child prodigy Matilda (in fact, any of Roald Dahl’s heroes, for that matter), delinquents Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the orphaned Anne of Green Gables, and the unconventional Jo March from Little Women.
Other characters are removed from their normal lives and thrust into situations where they don’t fit in. The orphans in Lemony Snicket’s adventures, the evacuated Pevensie children in the Narnia series, the displaced Grace children in the Spiderwick Chronicles. But when they are displaced, they discover exciting new worlds that change them forever.
We are clearly drawn to the misfit, the child who feels strange or out of place, and their journey towards self-acceptance. The triumph of good over evil is one thing, but the triumph of the scared little self over adversity is the stuff that makes our spirits soar.
By making the misfit our hero, there’s a message for children. Not fitting in isn’t a problem. If you are brave enough to put one foot in front of the other, it can be the beginning of a wonderful adventure.