You Are What You Read by Martha Cecilia Ovadia

10298689_10104523891581853_7256973903379376739_nWhen it comes to my family, I’ve always felt different. One of my earliest memories from when I was really young was being told that I felt things too passionately—that I felt too much. What was never said but was implied was that I felt dissent too much, too often, too vocally. It made people uncomfortable. It made my family uncomfortable. When it came to understanding my faith/religious path, my family and I started diverging early on, never really meeting again—at least not for now.

When I was about five, I remember asking why women could not be priests. My mother brushed it aside and said we could be nuns. She was blind to the inherent misogyny behind the same Church that so many of her female family members had built (we come from a long line of nuns and Jesuits). I thought maybe someday I could be a woman priest. I would change it all. I would be Pope Joan. 

When I was thirteen, I started noticing the wealth involved in the Roman Catholic Church, the opulence of the lived Catholic life. When I asked my parents why the Church did not lead in example and live in poverty using its wealth to actively live the gospel, I was told, “ This wealth is a gift to humanity. It is there for all of us, a patrimony to those who open their hearts.” I wasn’t talking about art, I was talking about the RCC’s gold assets—valued in the billions —but it didn’t matter. I’ve seen my family donate to Church building funds my entire life—buildings that were then sold off to pay for the Church’s offenses later on. Still, I thought if I became more involved, with the “right kind of Catholics”, I would be able to change the Church from within. 

When I was 25. I walked away from the RCC all together. The culture of secrecy and abuse surrounding the child abuse scandals, along with the day-to-day misogyny the Church encourages became too much for me to shoulder. When I told my family that my loved ones and I had been involved with a Catholic youth group that had abuse at its core and that the Church had failed to do anything about it, my family defended the Church. They defended my abusers. They still do. Every Sunday that they sit in those pews and deny what happened to all of us, they say to the Church that what they did and continue to do is ok. 

I’ve often wondered what has allowed me, from an early age, to question authority. What allowed me to accept that I was “different” and that it was ok to stray from my traditions if those traditions did not make me comfortable as a person or if they inflicted harm on others? Why me and not my family? Why am I alone on this island? I study children’s literature and religion, mostly feminist theology. One of the most interesting things I have noticed in my studies within children’s literature is that we are very much formed by what we read as children. As I have gone back through the books that I read and re-read as a child, I have found a blueprint for the woman I have become, all within the books that sat in my faded pink bedroom from my youth. Recently I was shocked to see how forward-thinking and feminist the icons of my childhood were and how much who they are continues to mold me even today. There are shades of feminist theology, liberation theology, and just plain awesomeness on all of the pages of my favorite books—like tiny badges of honor letting me know that I have been who I am all along—I just didn’t know it. They are also reminders that I was never alone.

I thought I would share some of my favorite characters and quotes from my childhood books, in hopes that you will do the same. It would be nice to see who inspired you at a young age and who helped mold you before we all ran into our feminist mothers later on in life. The women in these books are almost like family to me, so I introduce them with pride:


Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables (Series), L.M. Montgomery

Does she really need introduction? Most of us have read and reread this redhead’s story, but it was only recently that I stumbled across this exchange again and it warmed my heart.

“Why can’t women be ministers, Marilla? I asked Mrs. Lynde that and she was shocked and said it would be a scandalous thing. She said there might be female ministers in the States and she believed there was, but thank goodness we hadn’t got to that stage in Canada yet and she hoped we never would. But I don’t see why. I think women would make splendid ministers. When there is a social to be got up or a church tea or anything else to raise money the women have to turn to and do the work. I’m sure Mrs. Lynde can pray every bit as well as Superintendent Bell and I’ve no doubt she could preach too with a little practice.” Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables

I see so many of my loved family members in this small quote, having given their lives to a Church who does not recognize their ministry or potential…

I should also mention that Anne’s love of learning and books is only matched by one other lit girl, and she is on this list…


Juniper, Wise Child (Series), Monica Furlong

This series is incredibly special. Monica Furlong was a Catholic theologian and unfortunately for us only wrote this one set of children’s books. I love them. They introduced me to the world of Dorans (witches), the goddess, the problems with Augustine and more—all at the age of ten! These books are a treasure and a must read for any feminist of any age. It is hard to even pick my favorite quotes.

When Wise Child asks Juniper, (her mentor, a Doran) why the local priest hates her so much, this is her response:

“Why does he hate you so?”

“I think he misunderstands. He thinks I am working against the new religion, but it is not so. I love and revere Jesus as he does—how could one not? But in the new religion they think that nature, especially in the human body, must be fought and conquered—they seem to fear and distrust matter itself, although in the Mass it is bread and wine that is used to show how spirit and matter are one. They think that those like the dorans, who love and cherish nature, must be fought and conquered too. Jesus did not tell them this—it is all of their own invention because they fear nature, their own and that of others. “Juniper, Wise Child


Hermione, Harry Potter (Series), J.K. Rowling

It is no secret that I love this series. While it has issues from a feminist perspective, Hermione is not one of them. Many things stand out to me about Hermione:  a) her willingness to accept that she is different from everyone she grew up with and that it is good to accept her difference b) her relentless love of learning. The wizarding world owes her their lives 100x over and its because she is smart and constantly learning and never afraid to be herself and c) her constant desire to better the world around her—as evidence by her relentless quest to fight for house elf rights in the series. While most wizards are blind to the plight of those they have always seen as “inferior”, Hermione never gives up fighting for house elves. While a minor storyline in the books, it defines who she is—and it is vital to my generation. There isn’t a kid anywhere really (well—unless they were the book burning type–and even they snuck a copy or two)  that hasn’t read Harry Potter and grown up hoping they could be like Hermione.

“You know, house-elves get a very raw deal! It’s slavery, that’s what it is! That Mr. Crouch made her go up to the top of the stadium, and she was terrified, and he’s got her bewitched so she can’t even run when they start trampling tents? Why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?” Hermione, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Hermione doesn’t wait for change. She becomes the change. She doesn’t wait for her elders to change their tune about house elves or their status as persons deserving dignity (this resonates so much in our world today). She embodies the bravery that being a Gryffindor is all about.

So, your turn! Who are you literary heroes? Who are your literary sisters, mothers, grandmothers? Who was your companion if you ever felt alone on this journey?

Martha Cecilia Ovadia is an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Student in Feminist Theology and Children’s Literature at Claremont Graduate University.  She holds a MA in Religion, Ethics and Culture, focusing on Catholic Sexual Ethics and a BA in Religious Studies. She has written extensively on Revisionist Catholic Theology and has dedicated quite a bit of her studies to her very special interest: Harry Potter. Her proposed dissertation is on feminist writers and emerging young adult dystopian literature. She currently works with academic journals in the publishing industry in Los Angeles. When she is not working on her dissertation or editing journals, she can be found working on her debut novel or cuddling her two ferocious Pomeranians.

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28 replies

  1. Your opening line about feeling different brought me back to my meditation in a cave in Crete a few weeks ago. After letting go of “the pain of difference,” I found the phrase “one of these things is not like the others” playing in my mind. My brother used to mock the song, but in the meditation, I found myself raising my hand and saying “I am” when the song asked “tell me which one is not like the others.” I was embracing my difference rather than trying to fit in. This has been a lifelong journey and not an easy one as I was too smart, too tall, too sensitive, too outspoken… and much more.

    I loved Heidi. Some years ago I realized that she was a female savior figure–she saved Grandfather, the Grandmother, Peter, and Clara. Recently I have come to see that there was a negative side to this insofar as it made me feel I could save everyone too if I loved and cared about them enough … when in fact I could not.


    • Carol, thank you so much for your reply. Embracing the difference really is a lifelong journey– and one that, while aided with community, feels very solitary to me. I don’t even know if I know what it means yet, after nearly 30 years of working on it, chewing on it, sitting on it. It is a journey. I always appreciate your posts on depression because they have made me feel less alone in what has been an up and down ride.

      I was thinking about your comments about Heidi. I study the hero journey quite a bit. The grand narrative and hero are the primary basis for most children’s (and adult) literature. I actually agree with you that it can be very subversive to sometimes not have the savior narrative in literature. It is a growing trend and one that I hope continues–while I enjoy the stories sometimes (particularly in fantasy), characters like Anne have always rang more true to me. Maybe I enjoy the day to day life, the struggle, the mundane? Mandalas instead of straight lines with a prize and reward at the end? You gave me so much to think about.


      • At least in Heidi there was no violence, she saved by the power of love and understanding. I discovered Anne when I was over 40. Loved the books and the series on tv.


        • That TV series is so great! If I ever catch it, I just stop what I am doing and watch.

          And you are right, there is something different in Heidi’s narrative as a savior with non-violence. A call to action (as seen in today’s popular books) doesn’t bother me from the perspective of breaking gender norms, but as a pacifist I like highlighting heroines who live by principles of non-violence. They are more and more rare, sadly.


      • Yes as against violence I also despair that girls are being seduced into the myth of destroying the evil enemy. Even my one-time heroine Doris Lessing’s later books fell into that.


  2. Perfect timing to read this post . I left the RCC years ago and confronted my Catholic family in Melbourne – especially mother and 2 brothers over my own sexual abuse within the family unit…. result shunned by them and the church (of course many years ago) – the priest 35 years ago that heard of this crime – the sexual abuse to me ( from my abusive brother in confession) did nothing about it . Been verbally and emotional dumped on by the other family members and especially by devout Catholic Mother …. yesterday ( Tuesday ) at 95 she was buried….. I and my own family unit did not attend ( live interstate0 but said our goodbyes in a honest and heartfelt way by attending a RCC service and honoring her traditions and her long life… and had a lovely morning tea afterwards ….blessed be . In grief today your post Martha is comforting as I know that been different – all of what you wrote about I so resonate with – I questioned and challenged the thinking and beliefs of my family and community for 4 decades now and I know that been different is what makes all the difference to bringing change into our community …. the Cinderella story – retold by Pinko Estes in her book “Women Who Run with the Wolves” transformed my view of self and to see children’s story in new ways


    • Tess, your reply means so much. Sometimes united voices make for beautiful sound, no? I am sorry for the loss of your mother, but also for the pain you have been through. So many stories, so similar, so often. I find it beautiful that you honored your mother’s traditions. I still struggle–and it gives me hope that someday I may find a way to build bridges. I thank you for that.

      I will look for this Cinderella story! Fairytales retold are my favorite. Rosemary Reuther encouraged us in her classes (when I was at Claremont) to take old scripture or traditional stories and to create a sort of feminist midrash with them. One of my favorites was done by a student with Snow White. I wish I had kept it. It was a reclaiming of female sexuality that I still return to from time to time.


  3. Unfortunately, the author of this article severely UNDER-estimates the significance of misogyny.

    It is not merely a trivial matter. It is incontrovertible evidence of a *fundamental* perversion of Revealed Truth; ONE Revealed Truth which is a specifically FEMININE Truth: Understanding that “the resurrection” is a Doctrine of ‘Rebirth’ is a Feminine Truth because it is based upon the grounded-in-reality revelation of the memories of previous lives (referred to by Jesus in Chapter 20, verse 36 of the Gospel of Luke as the “angels in heaven”) rather than in the *imaginations* of masculine, misogynistic metaphysical philosophy. (Evidence of this misogyny is found even in the Gospel of Mary, in which Knowledge Revealed through the Vision of the “Son of man” is characterized as “strange ideas” by the apostle Andrew.)

    There can be NO superficial ‘reform’ of such a *fundamental* Doctrinal error: the Pharisaical “synagogue of Satan” DISinterpretation of “the resurrection” as the raising of dead bodies from the grave in SPECIFIC contradiction of the Teaching of Jesus on “the resurrection”.

    It is the SAME Doctrinal error which resulted in Christian anti-Semitism & the slaughter of millions of Jews in some 1500 years of European history.



  4. Lately I’ve been thinking I might need a break from commenting on the Internet, too much self-analysis depressing me, but seeing your blog this morning, thanks so much, Martha Cecilia! I decided to delay.

    I’ve read some of the Harry Potter books and totally loved them. Hermoine is perfect for the series, especially all that “relentless love of learning.” But when a friend mentioned that she had run out of books by her favorite mystery authors, and had not a clue what to read, not knowing how she’d react, I ordered some old-time teenage mystery stories featuring Nancy Drew and gave them to her as a gift. My friend leapt into the challenge and has now read I think 18 of them (there are 64 books in the series, all still in print). Here’s the opening scene from THE CLUE IN THE CRUMBLING WALL, originally published in 1945 by Carolyn Keene, fabulous the “jagged lightning” —

    “‘Hurry, Nancy!” Hannah Gruen called anxiously. The Drews’ housekeeper held the front door open as jagged lightning cut the sky. Nancy raced from her car madly toward the door, her reddish blond hair flying in the wind. “Made it,” she gasped, laughing as great drops of rain pelted the driveway. The attractive, eighteen year old girl stepped into the hall and stopped in surprise. Behind Hannah stood a slender young policewoman in a blue uniform.”


    • Sarah! It is lovely to see you! I kid you not– Nancy Drew is probably responsible for my insatiable love of books. I used to start one and then move right on to the next one, worried about when we would head to the library again to pick up more. She was (is) so inspiring–smart, fun–the epitome of who I wanted to be when I grew up.

      I used to get so sad when I would see the children’s TV shows on tv (and the accompanying books)– they are all geared towards being famous. The ultimate goal in life: fame. There is even a show called, “Dog with a Blog.” Even pets can’t avoid the draw. What makes me more hopeful is that there has been a resurgence in children’s literature and young adult literature unlike anything that the publishing world has seen (thanks in part to Rowling’s push almost 20 years ago now). Very smart women (and men) are writing great things and inspiring a whole new generation.

      I think we are seeing a renaissance in children’s writing– and that bodes well for future adults. :)


  5. My first brush with a spiritual journey, “I had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew” by Dr. Seuss. I’m not sure if the central character was male or female- that is the wonderful thing about Dr. Seuss books, many of the characters lack a defined gender.
    “So I said to myself ‘I’ll just have to start
    to be twice as careful and be twice as smart
    I’ll watch out for trouble in front and back sections
    By aiming my eyeballs in different directions.”

    – and then the very disturbing and impossible picture of the ‘careful’ stance. Ahhhhh.

    In terms of ethics, with “Yertle the Turtle”, “The Star Belly Sneetches”, “The Lorax”, “Horton Hears a Who”, and imagination “On Beyond Zebra”, Seuss is my spiritual guide. His books are on the easy-to-access part of my bookshelf. His use of language makes him darn fun to read aloud,too.

    So new parents, if you want to raise a spitfire of a child, school them in Seuss.


  6. All the Oz books were way ahead of their time. Dorothy on her fearless adventures. Ozma who ruled her kingdom wisely and all the witches good and bad. All were strong and inspiration to this 3 year old who found she could read herself in those wonderful pages.


    • Every time I read any of the Oz books, I find a different layer, a different meaning or whisper that I didn’t see before.

      “All were strong and inspiration to this 3 year old who found she could read herself in those wonderful pages.” This is so beautiful. It reminds me of the George R. R. Martin quote: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, The [wo]man who never reads lives only one.”

      I plan to live as many lives as I can. :)


  7. I love Dr Seuss too! And so many of the books/authors mentioned…tho I never heard of Juniper before and it looks like a fun book to read. I’ve discovered these books as an adult rather than as a child. Talk about weird! I read Companion to the Summa in the eight grade! First paycheque from first job went to buying a Bible which I read cover to cover a few times. But I’ve always been the family rebel who hated hearing people speak with distain of others, or treat others as inferior. Rather than forming me as a child, these books, and films, affirmed me as an adult.

    The abuse I endured also came from within my family but the support came from the Sisters in school. Back in 1955, abuse of children was a “family” matter, more than a police matter. I don’t think people knew what to do then, and there were no support systems in place. The Sisters simply gave me a place to go and were always welcoming. They didn’t judge me, while my mother blamed me for “seducing” my step-father. I had a place where I felt loved.

    Now, it’s been decades since I’ve been to the parish church. A friend and I were talking at lunch the other day – we are both from homes where “religion mattered” We are both “the child who went a different way” from the rest of the family. We both embrace the mystery of the “why” we are who we are.


  8. Thanks for this post. Neil Gaiman said, “Books are important. And children’s books are the most important of all.” To the wonderful list above, I’d like to add Ken from My Friend Flicka. Well, he was a guy, but he was different — he lived the life of the imagination in a world where he was expected to be practical and tough, like his brother heading off to military school. He fell in love with a wild horse and tamed her not by “breaking” her the traditional way, but by giving his heart to her. He was so determined and brave and he stubbornly insisted on loving fiercly, even when everyone around him told him his love was wrong, and this saved Flicka’s life and brought him to maturity. This book was a classic when I was a kid in the 1960s but seems to have been almost forgotten. Too bad!


    • Neil Gaiman is one of my heros. He always speaks to children with such respect!

      I love My Friend Flicka. And it is not forgotten friend! It is still very popular in libraries and assigned in elementary schools! :) Such a great addition!

      Animal stories were so instrumental in my life (and in other bloggers on here as well–it is a constant theme). My dogs have been very healing for me. I didn’t have pets growing up, but when I was 23 I got my first puppy and she has been a constant source of comfort, joy, happiness, companionship, and just plain love in my life (I have two now, our other pup is just a loon–but I love him). During my lowest lows, she has been my constant. No words could describe her sweet beauty. I remember reading books like Flicka when I was younger and longing desperately for that type of love and companionship. Animal books–Flicka, Black Beauty, Where the Red Fern Grows–they are such an important part of the lexicon and of the growth that happens in children. I am so glad you brought them up. You also bring up the fact that companionship and community comes in all shapes (breeds) and sizes.


  9. “We both embrace the mystery of the “why” we are who we are.” Barbara– I really appreciate you phrasing the why as a mystery– it makes it something sacred and beautiful. I hope I am explaining this well– for me–the why is always clouded (at least has been) with loneliness and failure to BE what I should have been. It been such a journey of acceptance for me. I have forged a new place of community with friends, my studies, and my puppies–but there is still sometimes that lingering why that is not a place of comfort.

    The idea of looking at the why as a mystery is so healing, so beautiful, so full of the sacred. I really appreciate it.


  10. Love this post! Let us not forget Jo March of Little Women. And Lucy was the most valiant of all the children who went to Narnia. Polly and Jill no slouches either. I also read The Outdoor Girls of Deephaven as well Nancy Drew, Sue Barton, and Cherry Ames series. I loved books by E. Nesbit as well. The Five Children and It. Writing in too much haste but with much gratitude. Island of the Blue Dolphin? Does that ring a bell with anyone? And yes I read Anne of Green Gables over and over.


    • You have so many greats in this list Elizabeth! Jo, Lucy, Polly!

      I also have a special place in my heart for E. Nesbit, particularly The Five Children and It. Rereading it about a year ago was just as wonderful as when I was a child.

      Island of the Blue Dolphins is still assigned in schools and very popular in libraries :) Its funny– Classics are classics for a reason!


  11. I,too, escaped the abuse and misogyny of my church and family. I pushed out the fear and abuse, and replaced it with courage and trust at 15. The church rallied behind my abuser and branded me all kinds of nasty names. Luckily the judicial system is not infected by quite as much misogyny. Now, nineteen years later, I’ve learned a lot about honesty, acceptance, and respect based on love instead of fear.

    My favorite childhood book was “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The young protagonist Mary was a spoiled little girl until she lost everything, and found something outside of herself worth fighting for. She is, first and foremost, her own hero. Mary delivers herself from suffering and helps her uncle and cousin find their way to the light. Here’s a few lines from the novel:

    “To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live… surprising things can happen to any one who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place…”

    Martha, thank you for this post!


    • “She is, first and foremost, her own hero.”

      This is everything Storybrook! So often we are told the very opposite.

      I too love The Secret Garden and Mary (quite contrary). I always felt close to her.


  12. I must confess I loved Dr Seuss and read The Cat and the Hat and The Cat and the Hat Comes Back for hours on end to my baby brother. However, there are few female heroines (are there any?) in Dr Seuss and Naomi Goldenberg reads him as (just) another myth-maker who denies the Mother.


    • This tradition is all too common, Carol. Male heros with male gods is the name of the game in children’s stories.

      This is the reason I love and gift Juniper and Wise Child so often. They are just wonderful and were the first books that introduced me to the idea that I was only being sold one story, one gender, one power. I would never have even give the mother, nature, or the idea that you could be a hero through being a pacifist a shot if I had not stumbled across those books at my public library (YAY PUBLIC LIBRARIES and sneaky librarians!)


    • “Daisy-Head Mayzie” last book he ever wrote, although he did not illustrate it.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you, all, for reminding me of my childhood reading. I loved Nancy Drew and, of course, Jo March. I come from a family of 4 daughters, just like the Marches, but each one of us wanted to be JO!!! And Heidi!~ I loved Heidi! I think I wanted to BE Heidi.

    Neil Gaiman’s most recent book _An Ocean at the End of the Lane_ is a great read for any Goddess woman. I LOVE IT (but I read it within the last year).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have An Ocean sitting on my nightstand Nancy! This makes me so excited to read it.

      There really is no way to explain how much Jo March means to so many (and the many other woman that have been mentioned here). It was such a lovely experience to see everyone posting there literary mothers, sisters, and heras!


  14. I’m with you on this one. I totally agree about the church. I witnessed first hand how the church did nothing to protect young people from its abuse, and there is no place for women in the church. I have found comfort in reading books that highlight women’s power and show us another way to live in this world. Thanks for this post.


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