51m3bOq-yoL._SL160_“All her life she had longed for something else, for something to take her out of the humdrum world she knew – and now that it looked like it might actually happen, she didn’t have one clue what to do.”

Skulduggery Pleasant (re-titled Scepter of the Ancients in the paperback release) by Derek Landy is the first of a long series, but I have only read the first one – and despite it being a witty, fun book, probably will not commit to eight more of them!

Stephanie, 12, inherits her uncle’s estate, and is immediately attacked for unknown reasons, and saved by a mysterious man who turns out to be a living skeleton (named Skulduggery Pleasant). She discovers a whole hidden world behind the world she knows – filled with magic and strange people, and under threat of war. An evil man named Nefarian Serpine is trying to find a magical, deadly scepter, and thinks Stephanie knows where it is (because her uncle did). He keeps sending his henchmen after her.

Skulduggery is briefly captured and she must rescue him with help from other companions. There is a sort of betrayal by one of them. She briefly returns to home and normality but just as quickly embarks on adventure again (leaving a magical mirror-version of herself in her place to delay discovery). She chooses a new name, and discovers something special about who she really is. Toward the end, they all go underground to stop the adversary from getting the scepter. But in the final confrontation, while Stephanie briefly faces off against Serpine, she does not defeat him alone.

51Kba192q2L._SL160_This one is really just an Honorable Mention, but I’m featuring it because of how influential this series was to me when I was younger – I rediscovered it at the library recently, and realized it was, generally speaking, a Girls Underground story too!

Witch’s Sister is the first of three witch books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, written in the 70’s. Lynn believes her sister Judith is being turned into a witch by their mysterious old neighbor Mrs. Tuggle. She and her friend Mouse spy on Judith and see all manner of strange happenings, and Mouse begins reading an old book on witchcraft, and matching up the legends with Judith’s actions. It appears that the witches are specifically after Lynn’s baby brother, so like a typical GU she must rescue him. The climax of this particular book happens during a stormy night when Lynn’s parents have gone away, and she is left with the witches to defend her brother. She confronts them alone, and manages to foil their plans. But, things are obviously not over, and the story continues in the following books.

This book features the creepy little cantrip that I loved so much I memorized it, and still use it to this day:

From the shadows of the pool,
Black as midnight, thick as gruel,
Come, my nymphs, and you shall be
Silent images of me.

Suck the honey from my lips,
Dance upon my fingertips,
When the darkness tolls the hour,
I shall have you in my power.

Fast upon us, spirits all,
Listen for our whispered call.
Whistling kettle, tinkling bell,
Weave your web and spin your spell.

61ED-+5hvDL._SL160_“Tonight, young Rosenquist, you will find that some games are real.”

The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell is one of those wonderful Girls Underground stories that holds well to the plot points, but still has a unique voice and beautiful story to tell.

Lin Rosenquist, 11, has just moved to a new house with her distracted parents. Her beloved pet – a rescued wild vole named Rufus – has recently died, leaving her all alone. One day a mysterious package is pushed through her mail slot, addressed to Twistrose – her secret name for herself. It contains a key to the cellar of their rented home, and another, more extraordinary key. Going underground to the cellar, Lin discovers that the second key transports her to another world, called Sylver.

Sylver is populated by animals who have died, who were loved in life by a child. Most were pets, but some were wild. Lin is reunited with Rufus, and immediately informed that she was brought to Sylver to find a missing boy, a boy who must create a special gateway between the worlds – necessary for Sylver’s survival, but also Lin’s only way back home. Her entire adventure takes place in one night, although it is long, because time runs differently in a land governed by children’s hearts.

Lin acquires some other companions, although she’s not always sure who to trust, and there is a small betrayal at one point by someone they thought was on their side. The adversary is technically a shadowy figure called the Margrave, but mostly Lin deals with his primary minion, an evil cat, and other supporters. Although her final confrontation with the cat is not really alone, and requires her companion’s help, Lin does manage to find the boy and save the day at the very last minute. On the way there are magical wells, lots of great talking animals, scary trolls, thorn hedges, and other fairytale elements that are familiar and yet still create a distinctive story with characters that stick with you.

519+FRhnN+L._SL160_Storybound by Marissa Burt is one of those books that has all the right elements (it’s even about the Power of Story), but just doesn’t grab me for some reason. Reading the reviews of this book and its sequel, Story’s End, on Amazon, I found several other people who felt the same way. The writing just falls flat here – enough that I am not going to bother reading the sequel, though I assume it ends on a typical GU note since the rest of the story follows the plot points fairly well.

Una, 12, is a foster kid who’s never known her parents, and is an outcast at school. One day in the library basement, she finds a book with her own name in the title, and by reading it is transported to another world (specifically, she begins her journey in some underground tunnels). This place is Story, where all the characters from our favorite tales live. She immediately meets a boy, Peter, and a talking cat, Sam, who figure out that she’s been “Written-In” and is in terrible danger from the powers that be, who have closed off Story to anyone from the outside. Together, they start uncovering a web of lies about Story’s recent past, and pinpoint a set of increasingly dangerous Adversaries – the Tale Master, the mysterious Sorceress he’s working for, and the evil (and inexplicably male) Muse whom she loves, who is trying to come back to Story and take over.

There is no final confrontation with the major Adversary for now, since the story is continued in a sequel. But Una does battle the Tale Master alone, and reveals something important about who she really is.

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“I made myself grow up, and put away childish things. I thought the adult world was a prosaic sort of place where everything was clear-cut, everything was tangible; but it isn’t. It isn’t.”

Prospero’s Children by Jan Siegel hits almost every important GU plot point, and was very engaging… but the author made an abrupt shift in the second half that almost lost my interest.

Fernanda (Fern) is 16 when her family inherits an old house in the English countryside. Her mother is dead, and her father is often travelling and otherwise rather preoccupied, unaware of the strange goings-on that begin immediately. Fern and her companion-brother Will discover a mysterious connection to the lost world of Atlantis, meet a strange old tramp on the moors who knows all about it, and must race to find a magical key before it is used to destroy the world. Fern’s initial adversary is her father’s girlfriend, who is not what she seems. Other than Will and the tramp, Fern is also assisted by a wolf and a house goblin. The first part of the book is one of those GU examples that takes place entirely within a house. There is a betrayal by a companion, and a feint as to who the real adversary is. The initial adversary manages to destroy herself, but opens a crack in the worlds that Fern must journey to fix.

And then suddenly, we are shifted back in time to Atlantis, where our protagonist has forgotten who she is or why she is there, and yet must still fight the larger adversary and save the world. This second part is just as true to the archetype as the first, but it is a bit jarring to suddenly lose track of all the other characters in the story thus far, and have the main character not even know what’s going on. A daring device, which doesn’t entirely work, but I am glad I stuck with it in the end. Fern acquires new companions and helpers, is able to save all the worlds from being torn apart, and has a more satisfying final showdown with the arch-adversary. Against all odds, she is able to return home, although she is very much a changed girl from the beginning of her adventures.

51g5E9YAGrL._SL160_Dreamwood by Heather Mackey is set roughly 100 years ago in a slightly alternate version of the Pacific Northwest. Lucy, 12, has just run away from her boarding school to join her father in his explorations. He is a scientist specializing in clearing ghosts – however while ghosts are acknowledged by most people as real, they have begun to be dispersed by the use of electricity, and his profession is not exactly admirable anymore.

When Lucy arrives in the town of Saarthe, she discovers her father has disappeared into the wild forest of a place called the Devil’s Thumb. Helped along by a mysterious little man in a cottage, and accompanied by a boy named Pete, Lucy sets off in search of her father, as well as a cure for the disease that has been destroying the trees and everyone’s livelihoods.

With the help of a native girl, Lucy and Pete make it to the forest and begin searching for the miraculous dreamwood, a type of tree they believe will cure the rot, and hopefully lead them to her father as well, since he was also searching for it. But the forest is extremely dangerous, and they have to abide by strict rules. A sort of intermediary adversary emerges when Lucy is betrayed by someone she thought was a friend, who even has minions, but he manages to destroy himself without her help, and the real adversary is the last dreamwood tree itself, which has poisoned the forests in vengeance for the settlers’ logging activities.

Lucy ends up having to face the tree alone (although, being a tree, this final confrontation with the adversary is wordless), which has been feeding off her father in order to make its own magic. She makes a painful offering, and in turn manages to save her father and the forest.

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“You are who you are because you forgot who you were.”

The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby doesn’t feature a titular girl per se (although she is a “Wall” – you have to read the book to discover what that is), but the protagonist’s name is simply “Gurl” which is interesting in itself.

Gurl lives in an orphanage, abandoned as a baby with no name – so the unpleasant matron simply calls her what she is (no explanation of the spelling). She lives in a world much like our own, but where most people can fly to some degree or another, although Gurl cannot. One night she escapes to explore the city, and discovers two things – a cat (rare in this world) who follows her home, and the startling fact that she is capable of becoming invisible.

Gurl names the cat Noodle (strangely the second animal companion named Noodle I have encountered recently) and hides her away, but the matron captures her and uses her as leverage to make Gurl steal things for her. In the meantime, she begins making friends with Bug, a fellow orphan who discovers her secret. Together they rescue Noodle and escape, helped along the way by a crazy Professor and a mysteriously  helpful stranger. They find out that Gurl is being sought by a gangster named Sweetcheeks (the real adversary, more frightening than the matron) who wants an invisible girl for his crime business. His minions are the rat-like man-creatures who live in the sewers (although they turn out to have an unexpected soft spot).

There appears to be a companion betrayal, but it is complicated and he remains on her side in the end. There is a theme of the orphans forgetting who they are. There is even a “return home” in the middle, although Gurl doesn’t realize it. She does defeat Sweetcheeks, but not really on her own in a final standoff. However, in doing so she discovers her true identity, and her place in the world.

51CTRVEEHPL._SL160_While I’ve mentioned Princess Nevermore by Dian Curtis Regan before on this blog, I realized I never actually profiled it independently, so I’m correcting that now. This book is probably the best example of a “reverse” Girls Underground plot – one where the girl starts off in the magical otherworld and enters the real world – and in this case, the otherworld is specifically underground, so that’s perfect! (Check out the reverse tag for more examples.)

Quinn is Princess of the underground kingdom of Mandria, where all magical creatures live since fleeing our world long ago. Her parents exist but are never seen in the story and seem rather distant. Nearing her 16th birthday, Quinn must soon choose a husband and begin her royal duties – but she would much rather journey to the world above and have adventures. A magical mistake sends her to that world, but traps her there too.

Quinn surfaces near an amusement park called WonderLand (as I’ve noted before, Alice in Wonderland references are very common in GU books), and immediately meets an old man who mysteriously knows about Mandria, and his two grandchildren Sarah and Adam. The teens show her the ways of their world and become her companions to some degree. The adversary in this one is a bit anemic, a jock named Zack who lusts after Quinn and then covets her power once he sees her do some subtle magic.

Eventually Quinn must choose between the wonders of the world above – and her blossoming love for Adam – and the familiar joys of her home underground. She has a final showdown with Zack as he tries to steal her magic, before finally discovering the way back home.

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“‘I don’t want to be in a new world,’ Lillian said. ‘Maybe so,’ the crow said, ‘but you don’t want to go back to the old one just yet, because over there you’re a dead little snakebit girl.'”

The Cats of Tanglewood Forest – written by one of my favorite authors, Charles DeLint, and illustrated by one of my favorite artists, Charles Vess – is an expansion of their previous picture book, A Circle of Cats. It is perhaps just an Honorable Mention as far as GU plot goes (no overall adversary), but it’s a lovely book worth mentioning.

Lillian is an orphan who lives with her aunt on a farm far from anything else. One day while in the forest, she is bitten by a snake. As she lays dying, the wild cats of the woods gather around her and use their magic to transform her into a kitten – something that won’t be dying. With a fox as her companion and helped by other animals along the way, she visits the possum witch to regain her human shape. The witch undoes the events of the day, but with a warning that other things may also be changed – and when Lillian returns, she finds that her aunt has been snakebitten instead, and has died.

After weeks adjusting to her hard new life, Lillian decides to try to fix what she has inadvertently done, although by this time she believes it to all have been a dream. She seeks the counsel of a native elder, who sends her to the frightening bear people, where she serves the elder in hopes she will help her. (There is a man there who is somewhat of an adversary, but she never really confronts him and he’s not the final barrier to her goal.) But when she finds a potion that enables her to talk to animals, they (including her previous fox companion) help her figure out the truth, and she escapes the bear people to return to the possum witch again.

Once more a kitten, and her aunt alive, Lillian must find one more ally to help her return to her human life with everything intact.

51bsImxUyGL._SL160_“She had expected magic to be very clean and powerful, but instead it was messy and uncomfortable and full of decisions.”

Another “Titular Girl“! Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee is essentially a re-telling of the Snow Queen fairytale (as was Breadcrumbs, previously highlighted here), but manages to be its own story as well. Ophelia, 11, has just lost her mother to illness, and is taken with her older sister and her distant father to a faraway city where it always snows, so her father can work on a special museum exhibition of swords (his specialty). One day while wandering the museum halls, Ophelia finds a boy locked in a secret room, who wants her to help save the world. He tells her he was sent there by wizards 300 years ago to help defeat the Snow Queen, who will soon (in three days’ time) cover the world in ice and snow.

She must perform a series of dangerous tasks – all set in the museum, which means it’s one of those GU stories entirely taking place within a single building – to find a magical sword, and the person who will wield it, and free the boy. The frosty museum curator is, of course, the adversary, the Snow Queen herself (although it takes Ophelia a ridiculously long time to realize this), and she has minions including horribly monsters called “misery birds.” Once Ophelia frees the boy, he becomes her companion, but gets re-captured pretty quickly. She also must rescue her sister, who falls prey to the wiles of the curator.

Once Ophelia finally finds the sword, at the last minute, she realizes the identity of the one she’s been looking for (no surprises here, especially since it’s a GU story), and faces off against the Snow Queen in a sword fight, defeating her before the world freezes forever.

“The traffic flow from folklore to fiction and film has always been heavy.” - Maria Tatar, Secrets Beyond the Door

An exploration of story…

In which I describe examples of the Girls Underground archetype that I have discovered in literature and film. For more information regarding the concept, including its earlier incarnations in fairytales and mythology, visit the pages linked above. Here is a list of all the examples I have covered thus far.

Alice Days

Celebrate one of the primary inspirations for Girls Underground - Alice in Wonderland - with a holiday down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass! Check out the Alice Days page for party ideas, movie recommendations, and more.

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