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The Little Red-Haired Girl is an unseen character in the Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, and is a symbol of unrequited love. While never seen in the strip, she appears onscreen in several television specials. Her name is sometimes cited in these as Heather. She serves as the object of Charlie Brown's desire. He most often notices her while eating lunch outdoors, and often tries to get up the courage to speak to her, but always in vain. Anything touched by her or associated with her is precious to him. For example, in one strip he finds her pencil dropped in the hallway, notices that it has been chewed and declares, "She's human!" Presumably, this common habit makes her seem more approachable, but, typically, he is prevented from following through when Lucy snatches the pencil and returns it to the Little Red-Haired Girl with a brusque, "Hey, kid! Here's your stupid pencil!"
She also figures prominently in Valentine's Day strips, several of which focus on Charlie Brown's hope of getting a valentine from her (or anyone for that matter; typically Charlie gets nothing and Snoopy gets tons of valentines). Charlie Brown typically attempts to give her a valentine but chickens out at the last minute.
Charlie Brown first fell in love with her during a school lunch period on November 12, 1963 saying, "I'd sure like to eat lunch with that little red-haired girl..." Although he first catches sight of her during the November 19, 1961 strip, saying he would "give anything in the world if that little girl with the red hair would come over and sit with me."
In July 1969, a story arc ran depicting the Little Red-Haired Girl moving away. Charlie Brown despaired that he would never see her again. He saw her from a distance later that year while skiing. Peppermint Patty and Marcie encountered her at summer camp a few years later. Eventually, the Little Red-Haired Girl moved back to Charlie Brown's neighborhood, with no further mention of her ever having been away.
The fourth Peanuts animated TV special, You're in Love, Charlie Brown, revolved entirely around Charlie Brown's obsession with the Little Red-Haired Girl. After several failed attempts at making conversation with her on the last two days of school, she stuffs a note into Charlie Brown's hands as students rush past him to board the school bus. Thinking he has ruined his final chance at meeting her, he reads the letter, which states, affectionately enough, "I like you, Charlie Brown. Signed, the Little Red-Haired Girl." Ecstatic, Charlie Brown skips his way home, realizing he has triumphed against what he considers all odds. Throughout the entirety of You're in Love, Charlie Brown, the Little Red-Haired Girl is not seen once.
The 1977 animated TV special It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown brought the Little Red-Haired Girl back, making her first on-screen appearance. Linus states that her name is Heather, and that she is the Homecoming Queen. Once again, Charlie Brown becomes a wreck, trying desperately to impress her once he learns that he has been chosen to escort her to the dance after the football game. Heather appeared again on camera in the 1985 special Happy New Year, Charlie Brown!. Schulz did not consider these animated appearances to be canonical (although he wrote the screenplay himself). Officially, she remains unseen and unnamed.
The Little Red-Haired Girl was seen in the comics in silhouette once on May 25, 1998, dancing with Snoopy. When the storyline was adapted as part of the 2002 TV special A Charlie Brown Valentine, she was seen unshadowed (but oddly had a different design than suggested by the silhouette).
A third animated version of the Little Red-Haired Girl is briefly seen in the introduction sequence used in the second season of The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show. The shot used here was most likely to provide a visual for the line used at that particular point in the song's lyrics ("...maybe that Red-Haired Girl will come and dance with Charlie Brown").
A former coworker, Donna Mae Johnson (born circa 1929 in Minneapolis, Minnesota), was Schulz's inspiration for the character. A 1947 high school graduate, Johnson was working in the accounting department of the Art Instruction, Inc., a correspondence school where Schulz worked. Johnson and Schulz eventually became romantically involved and dated for three years, but in 1950 when Schulz proposed to her, she turned him down, saying she was already engaged to fireman Allan Wold. She married Allan on October 21, 1950. Schulz was devastated, but he and Johnson-Wold remained friends for the rest of his life.
Said Schulz of the relationship, "I can think of no more emotionally damaging loss than to be turned down by someone whom you love very much. A person who not only turns you down, but almost immediately will marry the victor. What a bitter blow that is." This experience became arguably the most poignant of all story lines for the entire Peanuts strip.
Only one known Schulz drawing (aside from the aforementioned silhouette) of the little red-haired girl exists. It was drawn in 1950, long before the Little Red-Haired Girl was mentioned in "Peanuts". The girl in the drawing strongly resembles Patty, a character who was prominent in the early days of the strip. A book containing the sketch also has a photo of Johnson with Schulz.
"I'd like to see Charlie Brown kick that football, and if he gets the little red-haired girl, that's fine with me", Donna said around the time Schulz announced his retirement in 1999.