What We Talk About When We Talk About “Strong” Heroines in Young Adult Fiction

Katniss. Katsa. Tris. These seem to be names most commonly offered as examples of strong heroines in young adult fiction. Katniss, the protagonist of The Hunger Games, volunteers to take her sister’s place in the deadly Hunger Games, where she uses her intelligence and hunting skills to survive. Katsa, the hero of Graceling, is graced with the power to survive against all odds, making her the very definition of strength. Tris, the main character from Divergent, conquers her own fears and joins the Dauntless faction, where physical strength and courage are the paramount values.

These characters are all strong, in their own way, and their stories are all compelling and exciting. When so many forms of media are dominated by men and masculinity, I love that in the world of young adult fiction, there are so many examples of strong female characters. It’s awesome there are so many action-packed novels where it’s the girls who are saving the day.

Katniss, Katsa, and Tris are undeniably excellent examples of strong heroines in young adult fiction. But they aren’t the only ones. In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to offer some suggestions of contemporary, realistic, and historical young adult fiction with strong female protagonists.

  • If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman (2010 Amazing Audibooks, 2010 Best Books for Young Adults)
    Mia is gravely injured in a car accident that claims the life of her parents and brother. Faced with the decision to “stay” or “go” while she’s in a coma, she decides to live, despite her terrible loss. Not only does Mia survive, she is determined to regain her strength and skill enough to attend Juliard and study cello and follow her dream.

  • Out of the Easy by Ruta Septys
    Josie has had a difficult life. As the daughter of a prostitute who isn’t keen on being a mother, she’s had to fend for herself from a young age. Not only does she support herself, she actively seeks a way to fulfill her dream of studying at an elite college, no matter what it takes.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
    Eleanor lives a precarious existence as a survivor of abuse, poverty, and bullying. Not only do daily activities like bathing pose a challenge for her, she also has no one to count on or turn to for help — until she meets Park. Letting herself have feelings with Park requires Eleanor to move outside her comfort zone, and leaving him when her home life gets unbearable requires even more. For Eleanor, both loving and letting go require immense strength.
  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth (2013 Morris Award Nominee)
    Growing up gay in 1990s Montana isn’t easy, but Cameron can’t be any other way. Being true to your own identity can take as much strength as overthrowing an authoritarian government, and Cameron has that kind of strength in spades.
  • Endgangered by Eliot Schrefer
    When war comes to the Bonobo sanctuary her mother runs, Sophie flees with Otto, a Bonobo she rescues. As she seeks to be reunited with her mother, she exhibits unbelievable strength, not just in her struggle to survive in the Congolese jungle, but in her compassion, too.

When we talk about strong heroines in young adult fiction, let’s celebrate the quiet(er) strength of realistic characters as well as the dramatic, death-defying strength of sci-fi, action/adventure, and fantasy heroines. Strength is more than physical prowess or fighting skills. There’s no universal way of being “strong,” and a character’s weaknesses are often what allows a reader to relate to him or her.

In my opinion, strong heroines are dynamic: they struggle, and through those struggles, they change. They are agents of action, rather than passive or reactive. Female characters can fall in love and still be strong. They can be bold or reserved. They can be feminine or they can be tomboys. There is no one way of being strong, just as there is no one way to be a girl. When we talk about what it means to be a strong heroine in young adult fiction, let’s make room for all the ways girls can exhibit their strength.

What do you mean when you describe a young adult heroine as “strong?” What realistic or contemporary stories do you think have strong female protagonists?

— Molly Wetta, currently reading Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill

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Molly Wetta

Molly is the Senior Librarian for Youth Services, Programming, and Marketing at Santa Barbara (CA) Public Library. She is a former member manager of YALSA's The Hub.

13 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About “Strong” Heroines in Young Adult Fiction”

  1. I was putting together a list of “Strong Female Characters” this week and had a really hard time coming up with non-fantasy. Even a lot of the realistic fiction I had wasn’t really realistic (books by Ally Carter.) The only one that I really had was Does My Head Look Big in the This?

    I wish I had thought of these books!!

    1. Hi Jennie,

      I love your lists! I just looked the books I’ve recently read to compile this list…I think when you start looking, they are easy to find, but the *way* we think about “strong” seems to favor those less realistic scenarios rather than the everyday strength. I don’t think one is necessarily better, just different.

  2. There many things that make a strong female character, but I think it’s easier to determine what makes a weak female character. Some that come to mind are: whines a lot, is passive, doesn’t have her own opinions, only cares about that special boy and nothing else.

    1. It is often easier to define something by what it is not, but I think it’s more productive to highlight positive examples than negative ones.

  3. So, here’s my question. Why do we label them “strong female characters”? Why not just “good” female characters? I love Callie in Drama. But there’s no great hurdle she’s overcoming, there’s not necessarily the “strength” that is referred to with all of these other characters. But Telgemeier’s writing is strong. And I’ll take Callie any day over Tris, whom I don’t see as a strongly written character (I put Tris only one notch above Bella in the “Characters I don’t want the young women I know to emulate” or “Characters I don’t want the young men I know to seek out for dating” lists).

    I have rarely, no, make that never, heard any discussion about “strong male characters.” Or, do we choose to recognize strength in our female characters because it somehow plays against the “type” of being female? And still, I haven’t ever been involved in a discussion of “sensitive male characters.”

    How about we just focus on well-written characters?

    1. Amy, I think that’s a totally valid question. There are tons of great, well-written characters that don’t come off as strong because of the type of story that they are a part of, and Callie is a great example. (I’ll also say that I’m not a huge Tris/Divergent fan personally, but it is one that is widely popular in general and with teens at the library where I work).

      I do think it’s a worthwhile discussion to have, though, and part of that discussion should be why we feel it’s important to talk about it at all. I think there is value in discussing what makes a strong character, whether male or female, but I think there should be variety within that label. I don’t think focusing only on well-written characters captures the inspirational component that draws so many people to young adult literature. Some of the most well-written characters in my opinion are the villains!

      I have discussed sensitive male characters before, because they are some of my favorites–Charlie from Perks of Being a Wallflower and Shadow from Graffiti Moon come to mind.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Great post. You’re right that being a strong female character is deeper than physical strength or endurance.

    I wanted to point you to Girls of Summer, a curated reading list for strong girls. You can find it at http://www.girlsofsummerlist.wordpress.com.

    Gigi Amateau and I started this annual list three years ago. From June to September we feature our favorite books (old and new) for strong girls of every age. There are weekly author interviews, giveaways, etc.

    Our 2013 list will be unveiled online on June 10, and the live launch event (free and open to anyone) will be on June 18 at the Richmond Public Library in Richmond, VA. (It was a really fun party last year!) Until then, you can go to the site and check out the 2012 picks and what we had to say. If you’re in the mid-Atlantic region, come on out!

    We’d love anyone interested in books for strong girls to follow the blog, send us ideas for next year’s list, come to the event.

    Thanks again for this post.

  5. Emer Morrisey in The Dust of 100 Dogs plays against type throughout the story. I love her as well as many of the characters in Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens.

  6. Hooray for this post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot; we made a display for Womens’ History Month called “Tough Girls, Strong Women, Smart Ladies” — here’s a corresponding list from our blog: http://cplteenlounge.blogspot.com/2013/03/10-fierce-reads-for-womens-history-month.html

    Since then, I read two books with female protagonists that really rocked me. The first is USES FOR BOYS by Erica Scheidt and the other is THE SWEET REVENGE OF CELIA DOOR by Karen Finneyfrock. I think identity, self-reliance and self-respect are so important for being a strong, well, anybody! and these two books demonstrate how difficult that can be.

    I also think it’s interesting that people tend to think of “Graceling” before “Bitterblue”. I think Bitterblue is just incredible — she isn’t a fighter, she has to convince people that she’s a LEADER. Which is certainly a role for women that is getting a lot of press lately from Hillary Clinton to Sheryl Sandberg.

  7. I like that you mention “Out of the Easy.” My personal favorite YA genre is historical fiction and there are quite a few books that feature strong female characters, who are mostly just trying to get through the day (some of them are like the warrior women of sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal). Some of my favorite YA historicals featuring strong women are:
    – “Flygirl” by Sherri L. Smith
    – “A Northern Light” by Jennifer Donnelly
    – “Uprising” by Margaret Peterson Haddix (my all-time favorite historcal fiction YA novel)
    – “Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys
    – “The Year We Were Famous” by Carole Estby Dagg
    – “Sarah Bishop” by Scott O’Dell (an oldie but goodie)

  8. It’s great to find a post about this subject. We have a friend that has her daughter enrolled in Shari Whyte’s Stelladaur Academy. Whyte has authored the Stelladaur series and we have just finished Finding Tir Na Nog the 3rd installment. The books are fantastic, and Whyte uses them in her online academy which teaches Character Development, so maybe there is hope that some strong YA’s learn to create strong “Heroine’s” and not just in Fantasy but in all genres. Whyte’s Academy info in at stelladaur.com and also info on the book series, it is fantasy as well, but it was a really good read!

  9. I have only read The Hunger Games and Divergent. And while I agree that both Tris and Katniss are strong characters, I wouldn’t say that I felt “connected” to them or their story.
    I guess strong, kick-ass characters are just not my kind of people…
    BUT The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Out of the Easy sound like my kind of books. I’ll have to check them out :) Thanks for the suggestions!

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