Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Talk - Strong Female Characters in YA Fiction

Today's Book Talk post is by Christina T from Reading Extensively.  Christina is a librarian who loves YA and Historical Fiction.  She has been blogging for about 5 months and if you haven't been to her blog yet, you should definitely go visit. 

When I was a little girl I loved stories with princesses who were rescued by brave and handsome princes. My personal favorite was Sleeping Beauty. As I grew older however I slowly became disenchanted with that type of story. I think it partly had to do with my own experiences with the boys I knew-none of them seemed to have "prince potential". They seemed to be more like frogs! I also hated being physically weak (like I felt in gym class) and I didn't like when I was made to feel inferior because I was a girl. Then when I was a teenager one of my English teachers introduced me to Aerin, the dragon fighting heroine of The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. In some ways, Aerin changed my life. I began to realize that I didn't want to be rescued-I wanted to be strong myself and I wanted to read books about intelligent women who made things happen instead of being passive.

What makes a strong female character? It isn't necessarily physical strength. For me this definition can also include characters that are intelligent, brave, or determined. Strong female characters face all kinds of challenges but they don’t give up.

 Here are some books that feature characters with great physical, mental, or emotional strength.

Historical Fiction

A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Mary Quinn is rescued from the noose by a teacher at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls-a special school that is also home to The Agency, a secret organization of female detectives. The Agency recruits Mary and she is soon assigned her first undercover case, posing as a lady’s companion in the home of a wealthy merchant suspected of smuggling. A Spy in the House is the first book in the Agency series. Book two, The Body At The Tower will be published in August.

What makes Mary a strong female character?

She is intelligent, resourceful, and brave as an undercover spy trying to stop a smuggler. Mary rises above her circumstances as a convicted pickpocket to become a successful detective. She faces prejudice as a woman and as someone of Asian heritage but she doesn't let that stop her.

Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

After her parents Cleopatra and Marc Antony are defeated by Octavian and commit suicide, Selene and her brother are taken to Rome to live with Octavian’s sister. They don’t know what fate awaits them.

What makes Selene a strong female character?

Selene shows courage in the face of adversity and great loss. In a time when women had very limited choices Selene is incredibly well educated and she uses her skills to make a new life for herself. She also does her best to fight the injustices she sees around her.

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

Ida Mae Jones has always wanted to be a pilot like her late father who taught her to fly. After her older brother enlists during WWII, Ida Mae decides she wants to do her part too. She applies for the newly formed Women's Airforce Service Pilots program but they don't accept African Americans so she must "pass" as White. Even though she gets into the program there is a lot of prejudice against women and she is also afraid that someone will find out the truth about her.

What makes Ida Mae a strong female character?

Flying is dangerous, some of the instructors do their best to keep the women from succeeding, and Ida Mae has to keep her real identity a secret. She could easily have given up but Ida Mae is brave and determined to follow her dreams to be a pilot.

Contemporary Fiction

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

DJ Schwenk works really hard on her family's dairy farm. Since her father's injury she is the one who does most of the work. Then DJ is asked to help train the QB of the rival football team since she used to help her older brothers with their training. She enjoys it so much that she decides to try out for football herself even though she knows she will face plenty of opposition.

What makes DJ a strong female character?

I admire DJ because she has strength of character as well as physical strength. She has an amazing work ethic and doesn't give up even with all the obstacles in her way. She is there for her family and she fights for what she believes in. This is the first of three books about DJ, followed by The Off Season (my personal favorite) and Front and Center.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Frankie Landau-Banks is a student at Alabaster Preparatory Academy. As she heads into her sophomore year Frankie suddenly becomes popular when she catches the eye of senior Matthew Livingston. Matthew is a member of a long standing boys-only secret society, The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. When Frankie accidentally finds out about the secret society, she thinks it is unfair that it excludes girls so she decides to infiltrate the club.

What makes Frankie a strong female character?

Frankie is intelligent, creative, and cunning. All her life she has been seen as this sweet little girl and she isn’t taken seriously by anyone. She could have just enjoyed her newly popular status and coveted boyfriend. Instead she decides to do something about the injustice of the male-only secret society to prove to Matthew and others that she is smart and capable.

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You by Ally Carter

The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women on the surface appears to be like any other all girl prep school but in reality it is a school dedicated to training female spies.  The main character is Cammie Morgan who is a talented spy but has difficulties in the boy department. The Gallagher Girls series features female characters that are highly intelligent and capable. I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You is book one in the Gallagher Girls series.

What makes the Gallagher Girls strong female characters?

The girls are incredibly intelligent, brave, true to themselves, and their friends. Cammie sometimes wishes she could have a normal life but serving her country as a spy is more important to her. She has endured the loss of her father but she chooses to train for active spy duty even with the dangers it entails.

The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg

After Penny Lane's heart is crushed by a boy she decides to stop dating until she graduates from high school and forms The Lonely Hearts Club, named in honor of her favorite musical group, The Beatles. This club isn't about hating on boys though. It is about helping girls to see that they have to live their own lives instead of being caught up in being what a guy wants them to be.

What makes Penny Lane a strong female character?

She uses her pain to make a positive difference in the lives of other girls. Penny stands up to the challenges of other students who criticize the club and to the boy who broke her heart. She shows strength by being true to herself and eventually giving love another chance.

Speculative Fiction

Cybele's Secret by Juliet Marillier

In Cybele's Secret, Paula accompanies her father on a trip to Istanbul to buy a rare artifact. Their pursuit of the artifact brings them into danger and it is up to Paula to save the day. This book follows Marillier's other YA novel, Wildwood Dancing, which is about Paula's older sister Jena.

What makes Paula a strong female character?
Paula is a gifted young scholar although some underestimate her since she is a girl. I admired Paula's bravery, intelligence, and her dedication to learning. She goes through many dangerous trials to save those she cares about.

Daughter of the Flames by Zoe Marriott

Daughter of the Flames is the story of Zira, a scarred young woman who is training to be a warrior. Zira is a Ruan and her people have been subjugated by their enemy, the Sedorne. When Zira saves the life of a young man being attacked by bandits she is surprised to find he is a Sedorne lord. While he turns out to be kind and pledges to help Zira if she is in need, her rescue sets off a tragic chain of events for her own people.

What makes Zira a strong female character?

Zira is physically strong and brave but she also has to become a leader to her people. She shows emotional strength and determination in the face of loss. It isn't easy to make decisions when you are being criticized and your actions could have heavy consequences. I found Zira to be a flawed but admirable character.

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

Eon has been training for years in the hope that he will be chosen to be a Dragoneye, apprenticed to one of the twelve dragons of good fortune. But Eon has two things against him: he is lame and he is actually a sixteen year old girl named Eona hiding her identity since only boys are permitted to train.

What makes Eona a strong female character?

 Eona faces a lot of challenges on her way to being a Dragoneye including physical pain, competition from other stronger contenders, and dangerous enemies. If it is discovered that she is a girl she could be put to death yet she continues to train.  This is one of my favorite fantasy novels.

Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

Vampire Academy is the first book in a series about mortal vampires with magical abilities called Moroi and Dhampir, their part human/part vampire bodyguards. Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir and the best friend of Lissa Dragomir, a Moroi vampire princess. They attend a special school where Rose is in training to be a Guardian, one of the Dhampir elite who are assigned to protect the Moroi from their immortal enemies, the evil Strigoi.

What makes Rose a strong female character?

Rose is blessed with physical strength, a lot of courage and a lot of attitude. While her headstrong ways at times get her into trouble, Rose is very protective and loyal towards those she loves. She isn't afraid to make hard decisions or to stand up to those who are in the wrong. Rose has really matured throughout the series as she faces greater challenges.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

In The Hunger Games, teens are forced to battle to the death in a televised event all for the viewing pleasure of the Capitol. When Katniss's younger sister Prim's name is called, Katniss steps forward to take her sister's place. The sequel to The Hunger Games is the riveting Catching Fire. The series concludes this August with Mockingjay.

What makes Katniss a strong female character?

When I think of strong female character the name that immediately comes to mind is Katniss Everdeen. She is brave, fierce, and determined to survive. Katniss protects and provides for her family. In the face of the horrors of the Hunger Games she somehow holds on to her humanity. 

These are just some of my favorite YA books with strong female characters.
Do you agree with my list? Which characters do you admire?

A big Thank You to Christina for this great Book Talk! 

If you have an idea for a future Book Talk post please fill out this form.


  1. This is cool! I agree with Rose and Selene being extremely strong protagonists. Their personalities as a character never changes...just grows =) That's what I like about them!

  2. I love this post! Most of my favorite books have strong female characters. I'd have to add Harry from The Blue Sword, Katsa from Graceling, Fire from Fire, Attolia and Eddis from the Queen's Thief series and of course.

  3. I agree with Chachic, I'd add Katsa and Fire to the list. I loved both those books! Great post!

  4. Great post! Nice to see a list of these great books! :)

  5. Totally agree with Katniss and Rose, but now I've only read about those two among the characters above.

  6. Awesome guest post! I've read most of the books (and loved the heroines) mentioned, especially Mary Quinn, Katniss and Frankie :) I would add Hanna from Bleeding Violet and Ai Ling from Silver Phoenix too.

    I need to read Vampire Academy, Graceling and Fire!

    So glad you realized you don't need to be rescued, I hope all girls learn that =) I love your reviews.

  7. Excellent post. Strong female characters have always been my favorite characters (I get upset and bored with whiny self-absorbed girls).

    Alanna from Tamara Pierce's series song of the Lioness is another character that would fit into the category of strong females. In fact all of Pierce's female show strength.

    Thanks for featuring Christina I agree that her blog is well worth visiting, and her reviews are consistently enjoyable and well-written.

  8. Awesome post!! I LOVE Katniss, Frankie, and Rose -- such incredibly strong characters, and all in their own way. A weak, passive female protag who doesn't grow as the story progresses ruins the reading experience for me. There are a lot of books in this post that I'll be adding to my TBR pile. (The frog part at the beginning made me laugh, btw.) Thanks, Christina!

  9. i'm sad I've only read like 3 of these. But I agree, Rose, DJ, and Katniss definitely belong on the Strong YA females list! I also particularly like Katsa from graceling :) Weak passive famale characters have the ability to destroy a book for me, which means i better start reading the other books on the list! haha, great post!


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