ALAN v26n1 - To Tell the Truth: What Names Mean To Female Characters in Young Adult Novels

Volume 26, Number 1
Fall 1998

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 , 1987)

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 authentic, self.

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 becomes.

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 explains:

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, Voigt writes:

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 way.

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 someone else.
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.
Just that.
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 reasons.

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 school:

'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, "is Elizabeth".

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..."

Works Cited

Belenky, M., Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N. & Tarule, J. Women's Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Kerr, M.E. Deliver Us From Evie. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

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: Dell, 1987.

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: Scholastic, 1994.

Wilson, Budge. The Leaving. New York: Scholastic, 1990.


"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 character.

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.

Figure One

Book Title Character's Name---Early Character's Name---Later

1. Tiger Eyes
(Blume, 1981)
Davey becomes Tiger
Davey acquires the new nickname when she meets Wolf in the canyon and tells him that she is Tiger; he dubs her "Tiger Eyes."
2. Silver
(Fox Mazer, 1988)
Sarabeth (Sarabee) becomes Silver
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 beautiful!'".
3. Izzy, Willy Nilly
(Voigt, 1986)
Izzy becomes Isobel
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 Isobel'".
4. Don't Look Behind You
(Duncan, 1990)
April becomes Valerie
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
(Cooney, 1993)
Heidi becomes Heidi Lynn
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
(Cole, 1987)
Laura becomes Shadow
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
(Canon, 1992)
Gracie becomes 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
(Head, 1967)
July Greher becomes July 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
(Scoppettone, 1974)
Cam, Cammy, Camel becomes Camilla
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
(Guy, 1973)
Phyl becomes Phyllisia
Phyllisia's mother comments, " '...she called you Phyl, didn't she? I like the name'".
11. The Summer of My German Soldier
(Greene, 1973)
Patty becomes Antonia
Patty dreams of being a reporter, and has chosen Antonia Alexander as her exotic nom de plume.
12. Jacob Have I Loved
(Paterson, 1980)
Wheeze becomes Lousie
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 Award.

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.