Friday, 30 March 2012

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, right? Er… hang on a minute - where have all the strong girls gone?

Let’s face it, we all need a hero. Whether you’re the girl being cornered at school, or the girl going home to a less-than-perfect family, or sod it, just having to get through, it’s nice to have someone to show you how it’s done. Yet if you asked a reader to name their top five YA girl protagonists, I’d bet anything that they’d all be from fantasy or sci-fi books – girls placed in extraordinary situations, rather than extraordinary girls. There’s been a hell of a lot of scrutiny of this in YA books recently, the girl at the top of the hit list being Bella Swan, the insipid, pass-the-bucket ‘heroine’ of the Twilight series. I don’t remember there being any girls like that in books I read as a teenager – and believe me, I wasn’t exactly reading Dostoyevsky.

So where have the true heroines gone? ‘Strong girl’ now seems to go hand in hand with the ability to swing a sword and save the world – in other words, a strong girl equals a superhero. Where are the girls who simply live, without needing to be the centre of a love triangle in order to feel valued? Where are the girls who can’t change the world, or don’t want to; the girls who don’t do anything extraordinary other than be themselves? They are out there, though, these girls, and instead of ranting on for an entire blog (which wouldn’t be difficult), I thought I’d list some of my personal favourite contemporary kickass YA girls.

1 Hilly – Sisterland, by Linda Newbery. It’s rare to read about this kind of girl. She isn’t popular, but she isn’t unpopular either. She does her homework, cares about school, loves her family and is equally exasperated by them. She’s not especially feisty, but she knows what she wants, and she deals with what she can when it comes along. When her home dynamic is unsettled by the arrival of her Alzheimer-suffering gran, Hilly changes. She discovers that people aren’t everything they seem, but that what they are is largely out of her control. It’s watching Hilly allowing her world to change around her whilst making sure she’s still firmly part of it, that makes her fantastic.

“I keep thinking about my map of the world – how it’s changed, and still changing. It’s bigger and it’s smaller than it used to be.”

2 Daisy – How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff. Daisy is a bit of a one-off. I know I blogged on Meg Rosoff last week, but Daisy herself is absolutely worth a monition here. She’s full of weakness. She’s stroppy, mouthy, is filled with self-doubt, and has no idea how to fit in with people. But she’s also brave, in the way only teenagers really can be – she has a way of leaping into things other people would talk themselves out of. As war breaks out, Daisy doesn’t have any thoughts of saving the world – she barely stops to think about who they’re at war with – all she does is the best that she can, and when she needs to, she settles with what she’s got.




“…I was coming round to the belief that whether you liked it or not, Things Happen and once they start happening you pretty much just have to hold on for dear life and see where they drop you when they stop.”



3 Jem – Numbers, by Rachel Ward. First off, I will say that this book is AMAZING. I love it, and Jem is far and away one of my favourite ever characters. She’s just awesome. On the surface, this is a fantasy book – the premise is that Jem can see the date on which people will die in their eyes. But I’ve included it here because Jem doesn’t rise to the plot – she’s entrained by it. Jem is unbelievably strong. She’s street-smart, people-smart. She’s spent her whole life keeping herself to herself, which means you can’t look away when she finally decides to let someone in. Jem perfectly encapsulates that feeling of teenage isolation, and she’s just fantastic. (Apologies for the photo - this is actually book 2, because I can't stop lending people the first one...)




“Made me feel lonely, seeing a snapshot of other people’s lives. They were warm, secure, there were cooking smells wafting out, soon be dinner time, they had people, they belonged. I made myself move on – no good thinking what other people had…”


4 Neesha – Falling, by Sharon Dogar. Neesha has a complicated life – she’s mute, for a start, and her family are anything but supportive. She’s often left to the hand of superstition and tradition, with her mother busy arranging a husband for her ‘odd’ daughter. Neesh feels helpless, but she is a quiet fighter; she wants something good for herself. As Neesh tries to get what she feels she needs, she is aware of the consequences of her actions on her family and friends, and spends a lot of timing weighing up her options – she’s considerate and generous in the face of undeniable adversity, which is what I love about her.




“Suddenly it doesn’t feel funny any more. It feels dangerous, like the sun suddenly dropping out of the sky. Like a light going out. Like when Dad left and everything changed, and my voice fell out of my body because it had nothing left to say any more.”

5 Caro – This Is Not Forgiveness, by Celia Rees. This Is Not Forgiveness is a recent release, and it brings the teenage girl protagonist to the forefront with some serious power. Caro is calculating. She’s striking, she knows it, and she isn’t afraid to go after whatever she wants. Like a lot of teenagers, she feels like it’s up to her to tackle the world’s problems, but unlike a lot of fictional teenagers, she has to act within the constraints of her life. In other words – as much as she might want to change the world, and as tough and fierce as she is, she’s a kid, and that proves to be her biggest battle.




“He rakes a hand through his dirty blond hair. It won’t be long before he checks himself in the mirror. There he goes, quick look to see that his hair’s OK. Boys like him are obsessed with themselves. More than girls. Narcissism repels me. He goes on my list.”

I’m sure there must be loads out there that aren’t on this list – who are your favourites?

14 comments:

  1. Hi Jo, Good on ya for adding a fresh perspective to the girl power debate. Fantasy is what it says. It's easy to make your girl feisty as you like: sword wielding, bow twanging survivor against all odds, saving the weak along the way. Don't get me wrong, I love the daughters of Zena, but it's a lot harder to be tough and strong in real life and that is where the hardest battles are fought.

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    1. Glad you liked it Celia. I think you're exactly right - anyone can be strong in an extreme situation. Doing the same thing in everyday life is a hard thing to pull off. (Although Caro seems to manage it with ease!)

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  2. Fascinating post and very poignant for me as I am writing a novel with a strong female main character so it gave me something to aim at. Thank you

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    1. Good luck with that Ness - it's a tough challenge!

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  3. The heroine (do we still use that word?)of the Hunger Games is an example of a modern, strong, female protagonist. Though two of my favourite strong girls/ women are Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett... soooo old school

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    1. Hi Nicola. I'd bet anything that Katniss Everdeen would be at the top of most people's lists. I did like her in the first of the trilogy, but this post was in part sparked by fighting my way through the final book, which I thought demoted her to Bella Swan with a bow. It seemed to be all about her and the two boys, and very few of her actions were deliberate or positive. Wound me right up! Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett are two of my faves too - also Jo from Little Women - I grew up wanting to be her!

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  4. Hi Jo! Hope you're doing well. There is this:
    http://bitchmagazine.org/100-young-adult-books-for-the-feminist-reader
    which is a great list but quite American. It would be fun to do a UK YA one-will go off and have a think.
    It's so interesting looking at children's and YA literature with a feminist eye-should heroines be butt-kicking Katniss Everdeens? Or is that just subscribing to macho values...so many issues!

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  5. May I add Isabel from Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, Rifke from Gabby Halberstam's The Red Dress, Timna from Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean, Symone from The White Darkness also by GM, and Shell from the magnificent A Swift Pure Cry by the late Siobhan Dowd. Great list, Jo! (I wanted to be Jo March as well but you have the advantage of being her namesake!)

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  6. Ooh, thanks Candy. Swift Pure Cry is next on my reading list (I don't know how I missed it! I thought I'd read all of Siobhan Dowd's books!). Gita - it would be interesting to build a list of Brit YA girls. I wonder how many we could come up with?

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  7. Sol Loreto-Miller1 April 2012 at 22:17

    XD So I came here ready to list some heroines after only reading the summary, and then realised you weren't talking about sci-fi/fantasy, which comprises most of my bookshelf... gah, foiled!
    Great post btw, I've only read two of these but I'm glad you picked Hilly from Sisterland! She has more of an inner strength about her than a feistiness, which is just as important but perhaps not so often touched on. And Caro from This Is Not Forgiveness is such a brilliant character, how could you not!
    Also, one recommendation that I did manage to come up with – I'm not sure if it counts as YA so much as children's fiction though – Esperanza from Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. It's set in the '20s in Mexico and South America, and her personality and the way she changes through the book shines through, it's a beautiful read. :)

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  8. Cheers Sol. I've never read Esperanza Rising - I'll have to go check it out, thanks for that! I have to say, I generally love Linda Newbery for her girls! She writes some fantastically quiet, strong girls. Much better than being armed with a sword!

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  9. Great selection Jo. I'd like to add Tris from Divergent by veronica Roth. Good to see a girl taking unecessary risks just for kicks, fighting, having tattoos and piercings as part of her initiation into her faction in her dystopian world (where else!) I found it v refreshing to see an author in this genre allowing her heroine some unpleasant and unladylike character traits. As Patrick Ness said in a talk I went to a while ago, teens need to be alllowed to explore the dark stuff in lierature, so they can process it and think it through for themselves.

    Don't think it counts as teen fiction but I always loved the teen character Katherine in Germinal by Emile Zola. She had to work down a french coal mine!!

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  10. Thanks for these amazing recommendations! When I grew up, my choices were Sweet Valley High, Baby-Sitters Club or Nancy Drew. None of these girls really lived in my world at the time. So I quickly moved on to adult books by the time I was 12. One series that I love, is by Ally Carter, and its more pre-teen, but its a girl series, where they're all smart, and strong, and training to be spies. I love the humor and the plotlines, and was so happy to read something teen without supernatural tendencies.

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  11. Glad you liked them, Heather! I also grew up on Sweet Valley High (for at least a year, the main question every girl at school wanted to be asked was 'which sister do you think you are?'!) and Babysitter's Club too. I think I still have a copy of that one somewhere! I've never read Ally Carter - is it the Heist Society? I'll have to get myself a copy.

    This list was hard, because there are so many good ones, but having just read Kill All Enemies by Melvin Burgess, I think Billy would have to feature on this list somewhere. What an amazing book.

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