Four Young Adult Books with Strong Female Leads

4 Feb

I’ve wanted to add book reviewing to my resume since my senior year of college, when I sent in a request for books to an editor at the SF Chronicle who visited our elective science fiction course at UCONN. Though he never responded to me and my plea for free books and a forum (preferably paid) to vent my non-expert opinions on trashy sci-fi novels went unanswered for many years, I now have the perfect platform for sharing my book knowledge: this illustrious blog. Take that, unresponsive editor.

As the one time winner of most books read over the summer in a middle school library contest, I am clearly an expert in Young Adult literature. Moreover, since I somehow failed to identify with male characters despite living in a word where the majority of main characters are male, most of my favorite books had strong lady leads. I’d like to note that by strong, I mean strongly written and complex.

Over the years, I’ve passed along my favorite childhood books to friends, read them over and over again, brought them with me to graduate school, and used them as foil for the terrible female-scrubbed YA books out there. But the time has come to share my knowledge with the rest of the world.

I personally guarantee that these books will:

1. Make little girls more independent and awesome

2. Make little boys respect women and their ability to make choices

3. Inspire adventure, a love of literature, and a propensity for swordplay

These books are the best possible things I could have read as a child, even if they did make me long for dragons and enchantments and further reinforce the millennial fallacy that I can do ANYTHING (even defeat the most powerful magician in the world!)

Eherm. Anyway, these books are great not only for children, but for adults, too. So read my reviews, and then go support writers writing strong female characters by buying these books!

1. The Golden Compass*

Lyra is a strong, albeit masculine female protagonistThe Golden Compass is inevitably on the top of any list that claims to feature books with strong female YA leads. The wild, independent orphan-child, Lyra, is often depicted as nearly male, perhaps reflecting the author’s own belief in the inherent savegeness of children.

The first scene illustrates her androgyny in memorable fashion: Lyra throws mud pies at street urchins, engaging in an illicit and elaborate warfare game. Her aversion to bathing and primping is well documented, as is her love of climbing roofs and exploring tombs.

After the abduction of her (male) best friend and her own exodus from the college to live with her mother in a world devoid of mud pies, Lyra embarks on an epic adventure to save her friend and put an end to the strange abductions happening all over the country. Through ingenuity, a propensity for lying and storytelling, and fierce loyalty, Lyra ultimately destroys organized religion and proclaims that her next adventure will be to build the “Republic of Heaven.”

The political message was, in my mind, always secondary to the relationships that Lyra made. Throughout her travels from world to world, she mingles with people of every nationality and class. Her openness and eloquence wins her many friends, and she cho0ses which to keep based off intuition and a good sense of character. These relationships ultimately enable her success– Lyra has no qualms about using all her resources or asking for favors.

Lyra is never afraid to say no. Or, when she is afraid to say no, she’ll say yes but not really mean it. That’s one of the things I love about her. She trusts that tiny part of her brain that says, “Something is funky here… I probably shouldn’t go with that creepy lady.” She doesn’t simply follow the rules (listen to adults! don’t lie!) because she realizes that morality isn’t a zero sum game– she uses her judgement about what’s right and wrong and learns from her choices along the way.

(Major Spoiler! Don’t read if you’re planning on reading the series!)

The best part about Lyra? She doesn’t end up with her true love. Perhaps what separates a true epic from a feel good novel is tragedy. Lyra, who loses everything to help everyone (without even really meaning to be a hero), must remain separated from the one person she loves the most.

When Lyra parts ways with Will, I cried buckets. It was literally sadder than when Laura Ingles Wilder’s dog died in the Little House on the Prairie. But Lyra and Will made the right choice, even if it was hard, and it was a mutual choice. Young women need to see more examples of this. Sometimes, no matter how much you love someone and they love you, it can’t work out. And your life will go on and you both will accomplish amazing things, separately. Whether Pullman did this to leave room for a sequel or because he’s a masochist and knew how much the lack of closure would torture his readers, no one can say.

Another interesting sidenote about The Golden Compass is that it’s one of the few novels written by a man from the perspective of a woman. Props, Phillip Pullman! Even if I did hate your most recent book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

2. The Lioness Quartet

the lioness quartetAlthough this review is only of the first quartet in the Tortorall kingdom by Tamora Pierce, she has many other amazing stories written from the perspective of girls. All feature unique and fascinating women, both strong and weak in their own ways. Collectively, her work creates a rich tapestry of female experience. Though her characters are seamstresses, knights, magicians, veterinarians, and spies, she makes sure to develop characters with unique– and heroic– personalities.

Alanna The Lioness is, at first, a girl with a dream to be a knight despite the fact that her realm has not seen a lady knight in over a hundred years. She disguises herself as a boy and trades places with her twin brother, enlisting in years of page training to earn her shield.

Although her novels are set in a fantasy world, Pierce strives for reality in so many ways. As a child, I remember being awed and impressed by how difficult training to be a knight really was. Alan(na) was weaker than her fellow pages, not a natural swordswoman, and severely alone with her secret. She was exhausted all the time, but she would still wake up an hour early every day to do extra exercises so she could keep up with the boys.

Alanna had her weaknesses, some of which she never overcomes. She is terribly insecure, and always worried that people will think she isn’t good enough to be a knight. That’s part of why she worked so hard as a page: she had to be the best in order to prove to herself that she was good enough. She’s also pretty controlling. But that’s part of what makes a strong female lead– a balance of weaknesses and strengths.

Another amazing thing about this series was the way it treated relationships. Alanna had three flings in her life, two of which ended. Even though she liked both men as people, they were incompatible and there was no way the romances would last. Alanna had the clarity to see this and end the relationships, even if it was really difficult. She cried, but ultimately she was happy for the time spent together and secure that she made the right choice. And she stayed friends with both of them! Now there’s a realistic depiction of the majority of relationships.

3. Dealing with Dragons

Dealing with Dragons is a flippant, cutting reversal of traditional fairy tale tropes– smart, relevant, and daring. In the first chapter, the princess contrasts her blonde, domestic sisters and their dashing husbands with her own love of learning, straight black hair, and unladylike height.

Finding trouble marrying her off and stressed by their daughter’s insistence on masculine pastimes like sword fighting and latin, her parents arrange a marriage. So Cimorene runs away and becomes the personal assistant to the King (who is a female) of the Dragons.

Cimorene is an organized, unsentimental, and no nonsense princess. She organizes the dragon’s treasure, masters magical artifacts, and cooks ginormous portions for dragon-sized parties.

Unfortunately, her father sees this as an excellent opportunity for a respectable union and offers the traditional half-the-kingdom reward for his daughter’s rescue. Cimorene fights off persistent suitors as well as magic-stealing wizards with a trusty frying pan, reclaiming feminine objects and the domestic space as powerful and important.

In traditional fairy tale fashion, Cimorene meets and marries her first love, a tall, absentminded master-magician and King of the Enchanted Forest. Although later in the series Cimorene is unable to save her husband and must wait for her son to grow up and reunite the family, the novels do have several unconventional  female protagonists struggling to live their own lives in a severely prescriptive society.

4. Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted coverPerhaps I was a dull child (and if that was the case you probably shouldn’t be reading my book reviews), but I didn’t realize Ella Enchanted was a Cinderella story until the movie came out (which was horrible by the way).

The novel is straight up brilliantly written, and nuanced to the point of being unrecognizable as the original fairy tale.

Ella is cursed with the gift of obedience. She must do whatever anyone orders her to do, no matter what. In a world where women and children are praised for being compliant this may seem like a boon, but obviously the compulsion is really quite dangerous (and often scary). It means that Ella’s life is controlled by the people around her.

When that person is Ella’s mother and fairy godmother, the curse isn’t so bad. Though the well-meaning orders are annoying and demeaning, at least they’re benign. But when Ella’s mother dies, she’s placed in a series of untenable circumstances. Evil stepsisters, a terrifying father, and exacting school mistresses force Ella to alter her voice, her dress, even her manner of eating. She must gift her mother’s treasures, wear rags, and finally, give up true love.

Throughout the novel, Ella finds ways to be herself despite the curse while developing a dismal knowledge of the selfishness of most people. When Ella realizes that the adults in her life will never help her, she embarks on an adventure to remove the curse. However, it isn’t until her true love offers to marry her that Ella breaks the curse, inverting the traditionally masculine I-can’t-marry-you-because-I’m-dangerous theme by declining Price Charmont’s proposal  in order to protect him.

Ella’s charms include stubbornness, humor, a gift of tongues, and ingenuity. Unfortunately, these charms are stifled by her curse, which one could say alludes to our own world, which narrowly defines “feminine” qualities and silences women.

So there you have it! Four brilliant Young Adult novels with strong, complex female protagonists. If you’re still hankering for more YA (I’ll admit I wasn’t terribly creative in this list, but I did want to share my all time favorites), check out these titles: So You Want to Be a Wizard,  The Other Side of the Island, Mandy, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and A Wrinkle in Time.

Have you noticed that The Hunger Games isn’t on this list? Good. That’s because I think it’s a cheap copy of The Other Side of the Island, and the brilliant prose and character development in said novel starkly contrasts with the sparse development of Katniss in the Hunger Games, whose actions almost always seem confused and vague. I was going to write a whole post on it, but I realized that I simply didn’t want to spend more of my time thinking about that series. End grump.

*I should mention that I am purposely not including his Dark Materials, as The Subtle Knife introduces and narrates from the perspective of Will.


3 Responses to “Four Young Adult Books with Strong Female Leads”

  1. Feliza February 12, 2013 at 9:08 am #

    I’ve read almost all of these! Ella Enchanted has long been one of my favorite books – though I’d say it’s not really young adult and actually middle grade. Ella’s a great role model and despite being based on a not-so-strong female character in a fairy tale, the author did an amazing job making her real and strong.

    And Alanna the Lioness? I’m naming my firstborn daughter after her. (When I have those things to worry about.)

    I’m also SO GLAD I’m not the only one who thinks Katniss makes a terrible role model. She never seemed like a real person to me because she’s so – emotionless. And The Hunger Games is a crappy rip-off of Battle Royale from 1997.

    Fantastic post! Although many of your titles were middle grade… I’d love to see your toplist for middle grade heroines as well!

    • Caitlin Garzi February 14, 2013 at 10:12 am #

      Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person in the world that doesn’t like Hunger Games. I’m so glad someone else agrees with me!

      I have no idea what the differences are between middle grade and YA, but I’m interested in finding out! I feel like publishers have a whole different lexicon when it comes to genre. In English programs, the distinction is usually Literature and *Children’s Literature,* with a Children’s Lit class encompassing anything from The Hungry Caterpillar to Harry Potter to the Secret Garden. Movement from YA to Literature seems amorphous and undefined… Is David Copperfield YA because of the age of the protagonist? Or not, because of the topics covered? Does Harry Potter start out as Children’s Lit but become YA? Ah, to be back in grad school.

      So… tell me all you know! What’s the difference between middle grade and YA?

      PS. I read your blog and I’m loving Girls in Capes. What a great idea!

      • Feliza February 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

        I’m actually in grad school for publishing, so we talk about that a lot! Young Adult technically started with the publication of S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” which was the first book written for teenagers instead of either children or adults.

        Middle grade fiction is usually for ages 10-14, whereas YA is aimed at 14-18. Harry Potter is technically middle grade, but David Copperfield was written wayyyyy before young adult was even a thing – the Victorian era actually marked the beginning of children’s literature with books like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, which were kind of groundbreaking. (Before the Victorian era, people thought of children as tiny adults.)

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