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