Girl Power: Female Role Models in Young Adult Literature

Certain books just find you at the right time.  They are the perfect book for that moment in your life and, no matter how your tastes evolve, those books remain permanent favourites.  I will never forget the day, at age twelve, that my friend Andrea lent me Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure.  The next day I was banging on Andrea’s door, begging her to lend me the rest of the series.  Alanna was, (and, if I’m honest, still is) the character I wish I could be.  These days I spend a lot of time thinking about why Alanna was so important to me and I think it’s to do with how few strong female characters there are in books for teens.

I am an avid reader of Young Adult literature (YA) and most of my favourite YA novels involve a main female character who defies conventions, breaks the rules, and generally kicks butt in some fashion.  In fantasy and science fiction, this butt-kicking usually comes in the form of combating the forces of evil.  Particularly close to my heart are the characters that combat evil using skills that are typically considered masculine.  Alanna is the perfect example of this kind of character; believable with her imperfections and dedicated to accomplishing her goals.  Also, she’s good with swords.

I am beginning to suspect, however, that while a fantasy novel gave me the strong female character I needed to encounter at age twelve, some young women won’t experience that same connection unless the character is in a realistic setting.  Some people (and I feel like a traitor to my favourite genre saying it) just don’t like reading fantasy.  It’s as if the fantastic setting undercuts the female heroes; like someone in the background is saying “Well, sure, it’s possible for this stupendous woman to exist in a world where magic is prevalent.”

But, there is a trade-off for setting.  The protagonists of realist YA fiction are usually less literally heroic (in the sword vs. dragon sense of the word) than they are relatable.  The best of these potential role models are the ones who struggle with character flaws such as shyness, impulsiveness, or temper.  These young women show that, while we all have faults (and won’t necessarily get the chance to prove our mettle against the forces of evil), we can still be the heroes of our own lives.  Women characters like this have been a hit for teens since Alcott’s Jo March and Montgomery’s Anne Shirley.  Non-sci-fi/fantasy strong female characters, like Jo and Anne, are among the rarest of YA creatures.  Thankfully, some authors are still creating them (Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Dairy Queen, Maureen Johnson’s Bermudez Triangle, Robin Brande’s Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature, E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens).

I’m positive that if Jo March or Anne Shirley lived in Alanna’s world these women would also take up the sword.  And a modern-day Alanna would certainly fight just as fiercely for her ideals (except, maybe, minus the sword).  I guess my point is this:  realist or fantastic, science fiction or science fact, we need as many strong female characters as we can get in our YA.  Every young woman (and man, for that matter) should have the opportunity to find their Alanna; the character that becomes the role model for their lives.  There are no readers or book characters that are perfect people, but there are perfect combinations of the two.  And when that combination happens, well, it’s a beautiful thing.

by Liz Gillett, vicbooks

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6 thoughts on “Girl Power: Female Role Models in Young Adult Literature

  1. Two books from my teenage years and their female heroines: ‘Harry’ from ‘The Tricksters’ and ‘Laura Chant’ from ‘The Change-over’ both by the wonderful Margaret Mahy. Harry is the secret writer, changing the world with her pen. Laura the brave sister who rescues her brother from the evil Carmody Braque by becoming a powerful Witch. Both were huge in shaping my life!

    Of course I read all the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon books by LM Montgomery too. – Thanks for the post, I’m going to look up the Alanna books now!

    Cheers,
    Penny 🙂

    • Robin McKinley is definitely fantastic. Though, of her heroines, I have to admit I always loved Harry Crewe from The Blue Sword the most.

      • I almost liked Harry Crewe more, BUT Aerin has an interlude with a Dragon. She also never allowed herself to be kidnapped by some pompous romantic interest…..

        Alanna is fantastic, but I fell for Kel. She kicks butt magic free!!

  2. I can’t remember if Anastasia Krupnik by the wonderful Lois Lowry ticks all the boxes for a modern day female heroine but I remember her with much affection. I seem to recall she was pretty feisty…

  3. I also think that there’s a tendency for the female protagonist to have to undergo a physical transformation to beauty that occurs in a lot of these books. I think Anne is a fantastic role model. Some of the other characters create unrealistic expectations. I’ve been writing a little about that in my blog.

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