To Tell the Truth:
What Names Mean to Female Characters in Young Adult Novels
Caroline S. McKinney
|That was the year I pretty much hated everything:
my mother, my looks, even my name: Chelsea Olinger. I hated that
name. Chelsea? It wasn't even a name. Nobody had it. It was a place
in England mom had picked up from a book. Mom again.
(from Princess Ashley, by Richard Peck,
Adolescence is a time for trying on identities and discovering
one's self. The movement from childhood to adulthood includes a
time of coming of age, during which the development of self is a
primary task. In order to construct knowledge that will help them
understand the world, adolescents must become involved in two
endeavors which may at first seem contradictory: the exploration of
other possible selves, and finally the discovery of one's true, or
Self-Discovery and Names for Oneself
Part of self-discovery involves naming oneself. Although we have
no choice about the name we receive at birth, how we hear that name
when others say it has much to do with our own self-concepts. The
names others use for us are the first labels we ever have. And yet,
as the years go by, names take on meanings and connotations which
may define us in seemingly subtle ways. Often the names given at
birth are affectionately reduced to a nickname or some other
derivation. Grandparents, siblings, teachers, and friends may also
make changes to the original name. Many adolescents 'play' with
their names and write them in various forms on notebooks, journals,
and on their desks. Girls have traditionally practiced writing
their first names with the last name of a boyfriend. How would it
be, they may wonder, if I married him and took his name?
For a young female, the development of self-concept may include
a rite of passage, which is a physical or outward journey, like
developing rounded hips or choosing her own group of friends.
However, it is the inward journey that demands reflection,
examination, personal definition and the development of voice. What
a girl calls herself often determines who she is and what she
Part of that examination involves a stretching of the confining
boundaries and defining labels, which have been an integral part of
the girl's childhood life. As girls seek to learn who they are,
many try to expand their repertoire of possible selves. This is
only part of the journey of self-discovery. Cultural and social
conditions define roles and expectations for girls, which
adolescent girls often act upon in destructive and unhealthy ways.
As a girl struggles with so many competing voices and demands, she
may feel like many 'selves' and not a whole person. She is likely
to ask herself questions such as these: Which name fits? Which name
sounds right? Which name is not only accurate, but also respectful,
meaningful and worthy? Which name really "tells the truth" about
who I am and who I want to be?
Mary Pipher, in her best selling book,
Reviving Ophelia (1994), describes the result of the great cultural
pressures put on girls as they move into adolescence. She
|With puberty, girls face enormous cultural
pressure to split into false selves. The pressure comes from
schools, magazines, music, television, advertisements and movies.
It comes from peers. Girls can be true to themselves and risk
abandonment by their peers, or they can reject their true selves
and be socially acceptable. Most girls choose to be socially
accepted and split into two selves, one that is authentic and one
that is culturally scripted. In public they become who they are
supposed to be.
As a girl seeks to establish both an independent self and a
connection with others, an inner voice may rebel against her old
name and require one more fitting of the person she now believes
herself to be. A close reading of young adult titles that feature
female characters uncovers this small but important motif of
seeking the appropriate name.
Some young adult female protagonists deal with extremely
difficult circumstances. For example, in Cynthia
Voigt's When She Hollers (1994), the main character, Tish, is
sexually abused by her stepfather. She is driven to desperate
measures when she realizes that no one is going to help her. She
threatens him with a knife, but she still feels powerless and she
despises him for her what he has done to her. Early in the novel,
|Even when she was little he'd tease her about
that, about how if you rearranged the letters of her name you got
shit; and she'd get all worked up and angry, and crying, and he'd
be laughing. Mom'd be laughing until she had to laugh herself at
the way Tonnie'd say her name Tish, out in public and she had to
know the word he was thinking, what he was getting away with. It
was their secret, until she was having such a good time, and it was
so exciting when Tonnie got away with stuff- even though she wished
he wouldn't, she wished he wouldn't say her name that laughing
For Tish, the way her stepfather says her name is an additional
abuse. Recognizing the extraordinary power of his words to define
her, she knows they have become his greatest weapon. Blasting out
of his smirking mouth, words have the force of bullets, and the
most brutal wound is delivered by the cruel and hateful distortion
of her name:
|His voice was much stronger and easier to believe
than the little high whiny voice, from deep inside her where she
was hiding curled up, whimpering. The little voice, like some dying
siren, some winding down wind-up siren. Saying it wasn't true what
he was saying.
His constant taunting drives his words deep into her innermost
being where she struggles to deny them. As horrible as his actions
are, and as much as she despises his touch, it is his words which
cause her to question herself. To protect her fragile identity,
"She left the outside skin of herself where it was, but she
detached from it". This survival skill allows her to escape the
physical suffering, but she has no defense against his verbal
attacks. Furthermore, Tish recognizes that her own weakness is that
she can't find the courage to use words against him. She believes
that, "Everyone would believe his lies and not her truth".
Ultimately she finds her power and strength when she seeks help
from a lawyer and uses her words to take legal action.
Gary Paulsen's Hermanas (Sisters) (1993)
begins with a description of fourteen- year-old Rosa who is only
able to survive by being a prostitute. She is an object to her
"customers" and they call her by many names:
|Even when they cried they said things, many thing,
and told her things she would never understand, didn't care to
understand, and called her pet names, false names to make her into
Names of others the men used for her that meant nothing to her and
she suspected meant only little more to the men- soft names, loud
names, grunted names, sighed names.
She called herself Rosa.
Rosa. She is fourteen years old.
In Hermanas, Paulsen tells two stories which feature very
different female characters. Written in both Spanish and English,
this little volume is a study in contrasts, bound by one
similarity: both protagonists are judged and valued for superficial
In Norma Fox Mazer's stunning recent novel,
When She Was Good (1997), the main character, Em Thurkill, is
abused by her older emotionally ill sister. Living on their own,
together, is a nightmare for Em, who finds herself essentially
helpless and voiceless. She is the perfect fictional manifestation
of what Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and
Tarule (1986) have defined as the "silent knower". Not only
does she have to forge some kind of identity for herself, one which
is separate from the brutal labeling of her sister, but she must
first garner the courage to create her own voice. This is no small
task; there are few others in her life to help her construct
another perspective and to give her words. Early in the novel she
painfully remembers what it felt like when she used to attend
|'I remember walking the halls, my name muttering
in my head against the whispers. Em-Em-Em-Em-em-em-em-mmm, the e
disappearing, only the whining murmur of "mmmmm" in my head and the
fear, the fear that that, too, would disappear.'
Like so many "silent knowers," she wishes to stay invisible so
that she can avoid pain, and yet, fears becoming so invisible that
she no longer even exists.
This realization that a name has enormous significance, that it
speaks a kind of truth which is critical to the owner of that name,
is beautifully illustrated in Budge Wilson's
powerful story "The Leaving," (1990) from her popular anthology of
the same name. The adolescent narrator, Sylvie, begins her story
with these haunting words: "She took me with her the day she left".
She then describes the life-changing journey that they took in
1969. Both mother and daughter developed new understandings through
this shared experience. Sylvie describes a portion of the trip: "'I
guess that six-mile walk had shunted me straight from childhood
into adolescence, because I did an awful lot of thinking between
Annapolis and Halifax' ".
Taken for granted and mistreated by her family, Sylvie's mother
secretly decides to leave her husband. She wakes Sylvie at 3:00 in
the morning and together they quietly slip out of the house,
leaving behind Sylvie's four brothers and her father. By way of
explanation, Sylvie's mother says, "I plans t' do some thinkin'."
They take a train to Halifax and spend three days seeing the city
and talking. To Sylvie's surprise, her mother tells her that she
has read The Feminine Mystique and the book "...was a real
troublin' book. But she was good". Distance allows her mother to
reflect, make resolutions and gain a new strength. When they
return, Sylvie's mother is somewhat tentative, but when her husband
yells and calls her "woman", she stands up to him: "My name, she
began, and faltered. She cleared her throat and ran her tongue over
her lower lip. "My name, " she repeated, this time more steadily,
It is a beginning. Although her sons and husband mock and tease
her for her proclamation, she doesn't back down. Gradually she
creates small changes, and one day her husband begins to address
her by her given name. This seemingly small victory speaks loudly
for her worth and dignity. In some young adult novels the female
character has already developed a strong sense of identity and
inner voice, but family and friends won't support her. This is what
happens to the title character in Deliver Us From Evie, by M. E. Kerr (1994). Evie has known for a long time that
she is a lesbian, but her family and community are unwilling to
accept it. Early in the novel, her brother describes an incident
when students in his new school tease him about having another
brother, Evie. Although Kerr infuses the novel with some of the
sharp wit for which she is well known, she treats the loneliness
and isolation of lesbianism seriously. In other novels (Dinky
Hocker, Little Little, Fell, If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever?)
she has provided her readers with thoughtful or humorous word
plays, names, and labels, often based upon qualities of her
characters. However, in this novel, Kerr writes from personal
experience about the loneliness and confusion endured by adolescent
females who are lesbians. In one of the most disturbing passages in
the book, the boy Evie has been pushed into dating attends church
with her. Evie's brother, describes this incident:
|'Once, when he'd gone to St. Luke's with us and we
were all saying The Lord's Prayer, he said in this loud voice,
"Deliver us from Evie," instead of "Deliver us from evil," and he
laughed and nudged Evie, who gave him a sharp elbow in his ribs,
her face flushed for a moment.'
The fact that her name can be so easily interchanged with the
word "evil" is an intensely cruel message to receive in her church.
It is one of many such messages signaled to her by those around
her. Not only does she have to contemplate the implications of
failing her family by what she is, a lesbian, but also that what
she is is evil. In this novel, Kerr goes beyond exploring how parts
of society may treat those who are considered different. She moves
into the darker issue of what happens when someone is perceived of
as different and bad.
The preceding examples are from novels in which the protagonists
are fighting for personal survival. They are extreme and
disturbing, but many other young adult novels include small, but
important moments when the female character realizes something
about the meaning of her name.
The following columns contain passages from some of the most
popular young adult novels of the past three decades featuring
female characters. These examples demonstrate the meanings that
individual characters attach to their names... or that others
attach to them. Cute names or nicknames are sometimes replaced with
more mature or grown-up sounding ones. Childhood names that had
been given to the girls by their parents are sometimes rejected as
descriptors or labels of a past self. By shedding these labels the
girls are able to make a strong gesture that indicates a
willingness to have a more authentic label. Defining authenticity
in their own terms is one of the most important steps toward
developing inner voice and self esteem that adolescent girls can
take. Pipher describes the importance of this
kind of authenticity this way:
|Authenticity is an 'owning' of all experience,
including emotions and thoughts that are not socially acceptable.
Because self-esteem is based on the acceptance of all thoughts and
feelings as one's own, girls lose confidence as they "disown"
themselves. They suffer enormous losses when they stop expressing
certain thoughts and feelings.
Girls are given so many kinds of names. As children they are
often called "precious" or "honey" and sadly, when they become
adolescents they may be called horrible names, such as "bitch" by
their peers. Many young people find power in name- calling.
However, it takes a strong girl to throw off those negative names,
and to name herself. It is one of the ways in which a girl may take
charge and make herself whole.
Some years ago there was a very popular and long running quiz
show on television called "To Tell the Truth".
At the beginning of the show three contestants would each claim to
be the owner of a particular name and occupation. Two were
impostors trying to fool the celebrity panel and the television
audience. Only one of them was authentic. At the end of the
questioning, the host would ask, "Will the real (name) please stand
up?" For adolescents, finding an identity frequently includes
trying on new identities, exploring roles, seeking reactions or
affirmations from family and friends, and then refining,
transforming or reconsidering their choices. For many of them the
most basic labels, the names by which they are addressed, may
require a change; sometimes a slight alteration, so that it has the
power " to tell the truth".
Memorable young adult female characters who develop voice; the
ones we come to care about, are able to do that- to stand up and
sometimes with a whisper and sometimes with a shout they proclaim,
"My name is..."
Belenky, M., Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N.
& Tarule, J. Women's Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic Books,
Kerr, M.E. Deliver Us From Evie. New York:
Mazer, Norma Fox. When She Was Good. New
York: Scholastic, 1997.
Paulsen, Gary. Hermanas (Sisters). New
York: Harcourt Brace, 1993.
Peck, Richard. Princess Ashley. New York:
Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia. New York:
Ballantine Books, 1994.
Rylant, Cynthia. The Old Woman Who Names
Things. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994.
Voigt, Cynthia. When She Hollers. New York:
Wilson, Budge. The Leaving. New York:
"To Tell The Truth" is a good activity for
an in-class project. Students can present three contestants who
pretend to be a young adult character. In order to fool a panel
successfully, the students will need to thoroughly research the
During a presentation about children's picture books for older
readers at the ALAN Conference in Chicago, 1996, Ruth Cline, Judy
Volc and Elizabeth Poe shared with the audience
Cynthia Rylant's The Old Woman Who Names Things. This poignant
story is an excellent introduction to a discussion about names and
labels. The old woman in the story has named virtually everything
in her life, but when a stray dog comes, she is reluctant to give
him a name. Naming gives life and means commitment.
|1. Tiger Eyes
|Davey acquires the new nickname when she meets
Wolf in the canyon and tells him that she is Tiger; he dubs her
(Fox Mazer, 1988)
|This change occurs when her friend says to
Sarabeth, " 'You know what? I think I'll always call you Silver
from now on. It suits you. Your eyes are sort of silvery. They're
|3. Izzy, Willy Nilly
|After losing one leg to amputation, the formerly
light-hearted Izzy says, " 'I looked at my name for a minute and
then I realized what was wrong. I crossed out Izzy and wrote in
|4. Don't Look Behind You
|This change occurs when Valerie declares that her
name " 'has bad vibes' " for her and asks, " 'Why can't we choose
our own names?'".
|5. Flight 116 is Down
|Heidi had been called by nicknames all of her
life; they include "Horse," "Honeybunch," "Heidi-eidi-O," and her
father's name for her, "Heidi Lynn"; however, at boarding school,
"nobody had called her anything".
|6. The Goats
|Laura spontaneously creates her own new name: "
'That's not my real name... You promise you won't tell? Then its
Shadow. Isn't that a weird name? It's on my birth certificate and
everything.' He laced his fingers over his stomach, considering.
'Shadow Golden.' He pronounced it very carefully. 'I think it's
kind of neat'".
|7. Amazing Gracie
|Gracie's friend introduces this new name when he
says, " 'You know you are pretty amazing, Gracie,' " then vows to
call her Amazing Gracie " 'from now on' ".
|8. Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones
|July's last name changes when she gets married;
she does not tell Horace that she is married when she lets him
write to her, addressing his letter using her maiden name.
|9. Trying Hard to Hear You
|Cam, Cammy, Camel
|Cammy insists that new acquaintances use her
formal name. Despite the fact that her family and close friends
call her "Camel," she states, " 'I think it's very nervy of people
to nickname you when they've just met you'".
|10. The Friends
|Phyllisia's mother comments, " '...she called you
Phyl, didn't she? I like the name'".
|11. The Summer of My German Soldier
|Patty dreams of being a reporter, and has chosen
Antonia Alexander as her exotic nom de plume.
|12. Jacob Have I Loved
|Louise decides that her childhood nickname,
Wheeze, sounds less like a girl's name and more like a " 'disease
symptom,' " and insists that she be called by her real name.
Caroline McKinney teaches children's and young adult
literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is an
active participant of ALAN, and has given presentations at ALAN
Workshops. She is a former recipient of an ALAN Research Foundation
Reference Citation: McKinney, Caroline S. (1998). "To Tell the
Truth: What Names Mean to Female Characters in Young Adult Novels."
The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.