Best Books You’re Not Reading: Girls Being Awesome Edition
Right now, it’s Women’s History Month, but I love reading about strong female characters any time of the year. However, I also feel like it can be easy to take a narrow view of what it means to be strong — that it means being physically tough, emotionally stoic, a warrior. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s important to show that girls and woman can and do have those qualities, and I love Katniss and Alanna of Trebond as much as the next person. But since this is a column where I highlight less buzzed-about books, I also wanted to talk about some less obvious ways to be a “strong female character.”
Addie McNeal, the main character in the The Jewel and the Key by Louise Spiegler, is a nurturer. Being a supportive family member, friend (especially to her best friend Whaley, an angry musician who has lived with her family since his stepmother kicked him out), and member of the community is a huge part of who she is. She worries about them all: about Whaley’s recent obsession with joining the army and going to war, about Mrs. Turner’s health, and about the welfare of her dad’s bookstore.
However, Addie’s nurturing doesn’t make her a doormat or cause her to give a lower priority to her own dreams; she loves the theater and pursues acting with a passion even though the dominant theater clique at her school never recognizes her. When an unexpected earthquake rattles the city, Addie’s first thought is to help Mrs. Turner check on a friend; in the process, she unwittingly comes loose in time, sent back to 1917 when our country was on the brink of a different war and a beautiful theater called the Jewel was in its heyday. And the director wants Addie to rehearse with them!
In the present day, the Jewel is a broken-down wreck, while Addie’s friends in the past are threatened by the injustice of state reprisals against war protesters. Can saving the Jewel help bring about justice in both worlds and help Addie realize her dreams?
In A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, Rosalinda (Rose) Fitzroy has been asleep for a long, long time. Frozen in stasis for many years, she missed the apocalypse, the post-apocalypse, the recovery. She awakens from cryogenic stasis into a world that is utterly unlike the world she knew. At first, she’s overwhelmed and frightened, leaning heavily on Brendan, the boy who rescued her, for support and comfort. She’s the only inheritor of her parents’ vast business empire, and so many people seem to want something from her.
But when her life is threatened, Rose begins seeking answers on her own, trying to decipher the present in her own past. In the process, she discovers that her most difficult challenge may come from within: accepting the truth about her supposedly perfect family and past life. As she sorts through half-truths and lies to find out what’s real, Rose gains a new confidence to make choices and live life on her own terms.
This novel is both science fiction and a fairy tale retelling, but I loved the way that the heart of it wasn’t worldbuilding, action, or romance (there is some, but doesn’t turn out the way you think) but was instead the main character’s inward journey to emotional self-discovery. That inner resilience can be just as important as outward toughness and strength.
I have to admit that I’m a sucker for books that present activism and counter-cultural ways of living and learning in a mostly positive light. That’s what drew me to This Girl is Different by J.J. Johnson, but I stayed for the awesome main character, Evie. Evie’s lived her life having adventures, exploring, following her own path. She’s been homeschooled all her life, but has recently decided to take on a new adventure: senior year at the local public high school. It’s a mixed bag: new friends and opportunities for discussion are countered with with arbitrary rules and clique-y social stratification.
When she and her friends start an anonymous blog meant to promote justice and empower students, everything is great at first — until it snowballs and people start using it for bullying and other purposes she never intended for it. And Evie herself is losing her best friend, her boyfriend, and her confidence in her mother’s honesty and openness. Will she be able to turn things around?
Her witty first-person narration makes me feel like I’m right beside her through the ups and downs of the activist life. Here’s the first paragraph to give you a taste:
I manage to grab the snake, but not without twisting my foot and falling butt-first into the creek. When I stand, lightning shoots through my ankle.
I take a long, deep yoga breath, an Ujjayi ocean breath, to be calm. Steady. Strong. Hopping on one foot, I hold the wriggling snake and scramble over to a large rock. As I unshoulder my backpack, the snake flicks its tongue at me. It must think I’m crazy.
I can think of worse things. Better crazy than mild. Or timid, or meek, or boring.
The Submarine Navigator
All of these takes on the strong female character are great, but sometimes I just want to read about girls being tough and having the kind of adventures that might involve fighting, shooting people, piloting spacecraft (or submarines in this case), and generally having the opportunity to kick some butt. It’s definitely not the only way to be strong or heroic, but sometimes it’s really, really fun.
If that’s the mood you’re in, I recommend checking out Katya’s World by Jonathan Howard for some action-packed hard science fiction. Katya’s planet, Russalka, is almost all water, and immense storms roam across its surface. Colonists descended from the original Russian community that settle the planet live in underground habitats, except for a brave few that maintain surface docking stations. Russalka is beset by piracy and still recovering from an intensely fought war with Earth. Katya walks into this environment as a brand-new navigator, hoping to prove herself.
Here she is entering her uncle’s submarine for the first time as a navigator:
Katya watched them chat and thought, one day I’ll be able to talk like that, to know everybody. There goes Katya Kuriakova, the best navigator on the water, they’ll say. She concentrated on making her blue eyes steely, her chin determined, her nose … her damned nose. She was just going to end up looking sweet and, in all likelihood, adorable. It always happened. She could drown a hospital and they’d still let her off for being in possession of a button-nose.
Her first mission is supposed to be routine, but when an officious Army officer transporting a pirate prisoner commandeers her uncle’s submarine, things start to go wrong very, very fast. She’ll lose everything, be drawn into a cold war between the pirates and the Army, and finally face the most dangerous enemy of all, a rogue artificial intelligence called the Leviathan, whose only goal is to kill them all.
This is just the tip of the iceberg; there are are so many more amazing girls in books that are a little below the radar, including Vespa Nyx in The Unnaturalists by Tiffany Trent, Cassandra in Shadows Cast by Stars by Catherine Knuttson, and Kay Wyatt in Carrie Vaughn’s Voices of Dragons, to name a few. Who are your favorites?
— Erin Bush, currently reading City of A Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster