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31 Days of Teens’ Top Ten Butt-Kicking Babes Without Bows

Teens’ Top Ten is a “teen choice” list,where teens nominate and choose their favorite books of the previous year! Nominators are members of teen book groups in fifteen school and public libraries around the country. Nominations are posted on Support Teen Literature Day during National Library Week, and teens across the country vote on their favorite titles each year. Each day during the month of May, The Hub will feature a post about Teens’ Top Ten. Be sure to check in daily as we visit past winners and current nominees!

Lately, I’ve been thinking about imaginary girls the girls who dramatically and colorfully fill the stage of teen literature. Mia Cabana’s excellent blog post of a few weeks back mentioned the emerging “noteworthy trend in butt-kicking girl heroines” like Katniss from The Hunger Games and Katsa from Graceling. It’s great to see the girls in teen literature coming into their own and being seen as powerful characters, but, as a hippy peacenik myself, I often wonder if the focus on martial strength in these books is entirely healthy. Can a teen-lit heroine be strong and capable, without being a grim and gritty action girl? Of course she can! This post will spotlight the variety of heroines in TTT books, whose power comes from other sources than bows and kung fu skills.

1. The Girls: Nancy Kington and Minerva Sharpe from Pirates! by Celia Rees 2004 TTT Winner

Nancy and Minerva are both trapped – Nancy by her impending marriage to a rich but cruel Brazilian, Minerva by her place as a slave on Nancy’s father’s plantation. The usual course of action for a girl in the 1700’s would be to give up and make the best of a bad situation, but Nancy and Minerva decide to buck the norm and run away together to become pirates.

The Power: As pirates Nancy and Minerva do their share of pistol-shooting, sword-brandishing, dueling, pillaging, and the rest – but the girls’ true strength is not in their ability with weapons. It’s their bravery in going into the unknown, their determination to pursue the lives they want instead of accepting the lives they were given, and their loyalty and love for each other as friends. It’s like the ultimate bromance story, but with girls. What would that even be called? Sistermance?

2. The Girl: Poison from Poison by Chris Wooding  2006 TTT Winner

Like Nancy and Minerva, Poison refuses to accept the status quo. Life in Poison’s village in the Black Marshes is nasty, brutish and short. Death by lung rot, goatfish or poisonous spider is accepted with dull resignation. When Poison’s little sister is stolen by phaeries and replaced by a changeling, she is advised to accept it and get on with her life. Instead, Poison leaves home and goes to challenge the Phaerie Lord himself for her sister’s freedom.

The Power: Poison’s strength is her mind, not her muscles. She asks questions that others don’t, and notices patterns that others can’t. Her unique perspective helps her to think up creative solutions to problems on her quest. Plus, Poison is tough. She’s snarky, cynical, and doesn’t take guff from anyone, not even the lords of the phaerie realms.

3. The Girl: Aya Fuse – Extras by Scott Westerfeld – 2008 TTT Winner

After Tally Youngblood brought down the old order in Specials, an explosion of creativity and innovation swept the world. Now Japan is structured by the “reputation economy.” Those who create new things, develop new trends or break new stories are famous, powerful and influential, with perks to show for it. Aya is a “kicker” – basically a blogger – and is determined to kick a good enough story to catapult her out of obscurity to fame. While pursuing a story about a mysterious, group of thrill-seekers called the Sly Girls, Aya finds more than she bargained for – a story that could make her career, but cost her life.

The Power: Aya’s power is ambition. She combines drive to succeed with a Lois-Lane-esque nose for a good story. Aya is an absolute bulldog when it comes to getting to the bottom of a mystery — and she faces nerve-wracking risks to do so. In this book, it’s especially interesting to see Aya juxtaposed against Tally – who has become one of those grim and gritty action girls over the course of her own adventures. Tally’s transformation into a Special has given her amazing fighting abilities, but in the end, it’s ordinary Aya who really saves the day.

4. The Girl: Lia Marrigan Overbrook from Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson 2010 TTT Winner

Lia wrestles with powerful inner demons. No matter how thin she gets, she wants to be thinner — the thinnest girl in school. Her former friend Cassie shared Lia’s goal with her, even after they stopped being friends. One night, Cassie calls Lia 33 times. Lia doesn’t answer, and the next day Cassie is found dead in a hotel room. Soon Lia’s precariously balanced world begins to fall apart, and in the end, it will take all of Lia’s remaining strength to choose between embracing life and destroying herself.

The Power:I know it’s a little odd, and maybe even controversial, to call attention to an anorexic character as an example of strength. The question to consider is this: Is a strong person the one who never falls, or the one who picks herself up after falling? Lia comes back from the absolute rock bottom of her life. She is literally on the brink of giving up everything, and she chooses to come back and live, knowing that she’ll still struggle with the same issues and feel the same pain. I hope that I could have that kind of strength if I ever need it.

5. Your choice!

There are many, many more awesome girls in TTT books. Far too many for me to write about all of them! Dear readers, choosing girl number five is up to you. Which girl of the many wonderful TTT books do you think is the strongest? Tessa from Before I Die? Sinda from The False Princess? Alianne from Trickster’s Choice? Make your case in the comments!

-Maria Kramer, currently reading El Palacio de la Medianoche by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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Maria Kramer

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One Comment

  1. Mia Cabana Mia Cabana

    I love this post! The breakdown of The Girls and The Power that makes them extraordinary is brilliant. It’s true that there are so many forces of power besides the physical, and I think the inclusion of Lia from Wintergirls is so absolutely neccessary. I do believe that a strength girls hone at an earlier stage of developement than boys is the sense of self-awareness– in Lia’s character we see how that can become an obsessively critical demon, but it is also what gives a young woman the power to recognize her autonomy and rise above. And so important for teens to have examples of that to read! I think this is such a great conversation, and thanks for the shout out to my post, too :) An interesting question that your post made me wonder about is how much as readers we’re used to seeing female characters survive and succeed because of things like their wits and ability to forge relationships that are advantageous, and their courage and morality. But I think the reason that heroines like Katniss stand out is that a woman who embraces the same anger, violence, and impulse we’re used to seeing in male characters is still novel. (For the record, I’m pretty much a hippy peacenik too!)

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