Booklist: “Strong” Female Characters Who Also Embrace Aspects of Femininity

Female characters are getting stronger, wiser, and braver in young adult literature and while many are picking up weapons and symbolically wearing pants to counter the male characters’ image, elements of femininity remain in these evolved female heroines. This is a shift from strong female characters cutting their hair, changing their wardrobe, or going by a less feminine name.

A female can maintain aspects of femininity and still be seen as a strong and important major character. This redefines the stereotypical “strong female character” by offering female characters that are fearless, intelligent, flawed, and courageous – all while wearing dresses and exhibiting female pride. Wardrobe may not seem an important literary element, but it is important for authors to show not only a range of femininity in characters, but to show the struggles and strength of the protagonists. The topic of the variety of ways to be a “strong” female characters has been discussed before  here at The Hub, and it certainly is related to other topics such as gendered booklists.  March is Women’s History Month – let’s celebrate the strong and diverse females in our literary world!

Strength sometimes comes after a struggle. The phrase “rising from the ashes” exists to show that after a fall or hardship, we can survive and rise, whether in pants, a dress, with special powers, scarred, or rising to simply get out of bed the next morning. Strength means something different to everyone and we should encourage teens to read about strong female characters just as they read about strong male characters. People vary in personalities and society is motley. Let’s support authors who portray a full range of strong characters, a variety of femininity, and encourage readers to look outside of their world. Let’s enjoy the freedoms reading allows to see past definitions, stereotypes, and expected character development. Female protagonists exhibit a variety of traits, such as authenticity, accepting responsibility, helpfulness, and courage.  By showing honest emotions, these characters help portray empathy, that one can be brave, and that there is pride in all aspects of femininity.

feminine and strong characters in YA fiction
cc image via Flickr user Chris Alcoran

A Variety of Strong Female Characters from Recent Young Adult Fiction

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas (series 2012-present) Celaena is a fighter who must battle for a King she knows to be evil. She does his bidding to earn her own freedom and must eventually decide what is more important: her life or doing what is right. She is a strong assassin who also loves to buy dresses – a killer fashionista with intense fighting skills!

The Rose Society by Marie Lu (2015)

In this second novel of the Young Elite series (2014-present), many different people are fighting for power and two of the strongest contenders are Adelina and Maeve who both try to survive as Malfettos (people with special powers who the Queen and Inquisitor are trying to assassinate) and claim power. Important topics like discrimination, disappointments in life, and heartache are addressed. Not a sappy teen romance, but more mature heartaches from being responsible for a friend’s death to overcoming such obvious hatred and abandonment from a parent. I often recommend this series for bold characters like Lady MacBeth (William Shakespeare) or power hungry characters like in Game of Thrones (R.R. Martin). Lu covers loss, greed, and power struggles very well with the added maturity of the negative side of love and how a sense of revenge can lead to isolation and possibly madness.

Untwine: A Novel by Edwidge Danticat (2015)

Identical Haitian twin sisters and one of them dies. The other must heal not only physically, but emotionally after the death of her other half. There is even a little mystery to this story. It is beautifully written about the love between sisters and worth a few tears readers will shed. Overall, the family comes together among many generations and it is a lovely story of family, love, and surviving loss.

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King (2012)

Astrid is a 17 year old girl dealing with a judgmental mother, pot smoking father, and questioning her sexuality. The beauty to this story is how Astrid lays on the picnic table in her yard looking up at the airplanes as they fly by and sends love to the strangers. She also uses a school project to discuss placing people in boxes and how no one is perfect. In the end, she is courageous and kind as she sends love to strangers and finally finds some acceptance and peace for herself.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes (2015)

Minnow overcomes two very unusual and harming events: moving to a cult where women have no power (aren’t taught to read) and are forced to become child brides and later having her hands chopped off at the wrists for trying to run away. Oh, and she’s now in juvenile detention, but the positive side of this story is her curiosity, her will power (she both dresses herself and learns how to read) and a nice friendship with her cell mate, who helps Minnow in many ways. William C. Morris YA Debute Award Nominee (2016).

All The Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry (2014)

This novel begins with loss and a sense of sadness. Judith has returned after being kidnapped two years ago. Besides losing her innocence, she also lost half of her tongue. Her family treats her like a servant, her community doesn’t trust her, but with the help of a few friends she eventually finds her voice (figuratively and literally) and provides closure to another family and her town. 

Breathe by Sarah Crossan (2012)

In a world that survives in a pod because oxygen is no longer in the atmosphere, Alina is determined that breathing is a right, not a privilege and that all people should have enough oxygen, not just the wealthy. She is one of the characters more focused on social justice than other dystopian novels, she is amazingly brave and fair. Readers who love Katniss and Tris will certainly find a hero in Alina and this climate-based dystopian is full of environmentalism and action. (sequel: Resist) YALSA Best Fiction for YA.

All the Rage by Courtney Summers (2015)

Romy not only survives a rape, but survives being called a liar and overcomes the bullying inflicted upon her by accusing the popular, Sheriff’s son. When a girl goes missing Romy questions her worth and must face her past.  She struggles with “what ifs” and learns both to let her guard down and offer forgiveness to herself and a few bullies, but most importantly she finds her inner strength to seek justice.  This is a harsh telling of a culture that blames the victim and discredits young females when they go against a boys-club, small town mentality; however, Summers’ honest portrayal of sexism reads true for any town or city. Romy is a flawed, honest, and strong teen in this realistic fiction story of how our culture is so quick to label girls sluts and liars – a worthy read that can certainly lead to a worthy discussion.

Changeling by Phillipa Gregory (2012)

Gregory’s first YA novel, and the first in the Order of Darkness series (2012-present) takes on Gregory’s skilled research with her adult historical fictions, only these characters are not based on any real people. Thus, it’s not a true historical fiction, but it certainly fits into the genre with amazing detail. There are numerous portrayals of strong women, born in time period where women were not seen as equals, and also male characters who support and respect these characters.  (Series titles: Stormbringers, Fools’ Gold, and an untitled fourth).

A Girl Called Fearless by Catherine Linka (2014)

This is exactly as it sounds – Fearless. A regular girl finds herself in a horrible situation and survives. She also is physically strong and literally carries a male character when he is injured. Facing becoming a teen-bride, she decides to run and take care of herself. Sequel: A Girl Undone

The Archived by Victoria Schwab (2013)

Mackenzie is recovering from the death of her little brother in her life, but she also is a Keeper in an alternate world where she walks around the Narrows searching for recently deceased people who are stuck between this world and the next. Part fantasy and part realistic fiction, she struggles with learning how to grieve and resisting the temptation to going to The Archives to see or ‘wake up’ her brother. With an unrealistic temptation of course, how many people haven’t wished to see a deceased family member one more time? Full of mystery both in this world with a murder in her apartment building decades ago and a conspiracy within her own company of The Archives, she is emotional in her grief, brave, strong, and loyal. All qualities of a strong female character (Series titles: The Unbound, The Returned)

Lost Girl Found by Leah Bassoff and Laura Deluca (2014)

Poni lives in Sudan and this is a story full of struggle both as she walks to a refugee camp and then trying to survive in a refugee camp. This is for a mature reader as it is a real example of historic hardships and unlike dystopian when the fear is far-fetched, the issues of war and refugees is very current and Poni is a brave survivalist who wants a better future, one in which she does not fear for her life but also one where she gets to go to school. Such topics as rape, a child bride who dies in childbirth, and many deaths along the walk to the refugee camp are included. Still she is driven.  Poni finds a convent and not only proves herself as a hard worker in school, but eventually is sent to America for her education.   Unfortunately she lost her family, her village, and her innocence along the way.

Darkness Rising Series by Kelley Armstrong (2011)

Maya, a Native American, not only faces the typical drama of high school and typical topic of adoption, but she also faces the realization she is a shapeshifter and learns her biological parents kept her twin. Oh, and her best friend died the year before and company that runs their town is not entirely honest. (Series titles: The Calling, The Rising).

— Sarah Carnahan, currently reading Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard and This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp