Different Kinds of "Strength" for Girls in YA

I'm taking a short break from all of the post series that I normally do and opening up on a topic I feel really strongly about: "strong" girls in YA. A lot of the hyped-up books these days make too many people think that writing girls who are fighters is the only way to go. To that part of the book world I say - let's agree to disagree. Girls are people. We're much more complex than that.

Below are some recommendations I have of books featuring girls who are a different kind of "strong". Hopefully this inspires you to both read and write more layered heroines and to appreciate the undoubtedly strong girls and women in your lives!

Incidentally, a few of these are great diverse picks, too, so I'll be highlighting those as well. (Look for the "diversity alert"!)

girls who are strategists

In this category, girls can be wickedly cunning. They know what they want and how to get it, how to maneuver around people while maintaining reputations of steel. They understand society and at times, they can turn the tables without lifting a finger.

Kestrel Trajan of Marie Rutkoski's The Winner's Curse is just that - a winner, through and through. Despite her very unremarkable fighting skills, Kestrel can blackmail, cheat, and steal her way out of any predicament, being fabulous all the while. She's secure in her own skills and can keep the upper hand for as long as she needs to. Even when her life is a tenuous game, Kestrel uses jagged strategy to come out on top.

(NOTE: The Winner's Curse is the first book of The Winner's Trilogy.)

Lucero-Elisa, or just Elisa, as she's normally called, is the beyond-amazing protagonist of Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns trilogy and a queen in every positive sense of the word. Her character growth is extraordinary - she goes from being a frightened, dumpy princess to a powerful leader comfortable with her own body and abilities. Plus, most of the prominent characters are people of color, Elisa is anything but your "typical" thin heroine, and everything about this series screams GIRL POWER.

(Diversity alert! Setting based on Spanish culture, most major characters are Latino/a.)

Suzume of Zoe Marriott's Shadows on the Moon is different from the vast majority of female protagonists in that she is very vengeful. She's cruel and she knows it. She may be the heroine of a Cinderella retelling, but this is Cinderella given power and the drive to carry out what she wants. Also, this fantasy world is based on medieval Japan, and it features characters from a country based on African civilizations.

(Diversity alert! Setting based on medieval Japan featuring another country based on Africa.)

girls who find the silver linings in their "flaws"

There are so many ways one could go with this. Who is a character without flaws? Who is a person? But this category is more about a character's "flaws" as they're defined by society rather than by the character herself. 

Terra Cooper of Justina Chen Headley's North of Beautiful was born with a port-wine stain on her face. It's a prominent birthmark that mars everyone's view of her and even earns her the nickname "pretty ugly" from her own father. However, she comes to accept and even love herself over the course of the book. That takes a kind of strength that is quiet and universal, and I really admired that about this heroine.

girls who are technologically savvy

...because let's face it, some of us totally are. This is for the girls who talk to machines (sometimes more than people), for the girls who could dismantle a security system faster than you could think, for all the girls out there today who are working in STEM fields and kicking butt.

Linh Cinder is a mechanic. Cress Darnel is a hacker. (Scarlet Benoit is plain awesome, too.) They're the heroines of The Lunar Chronicles. So it seems that here we have a duo of girls, both brilliant with machines and not afraid to flaunt it as an important part of their respective skill sets. Best of all, their skills are acknowledged by the majority of the cast of characters. 

Emily is by far my favorite character in Kady Cross's Steampunk Chronicles series, although she's not really the heroine. (The third book of the series, which is the only one with a cover that features Emily, is pictured here.) She's whip-smart with a good amount of heart to back her up, and she isn't afraid to discipline her peers if they're being foolish. 

Maddie Brodatt from Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity (which I'm currently listening to as an audiobook) proves time and again that she can do just as well as - and frequently better than - the boys. She has the training and determination to go far, and her skills as a pilot, among other things, are recognized by even those who doubt her at first. Verity, the main character, is also a wireless operator and very good with both technological and interpersonal maneuvers.

girls who find strength in their relationships as well as their own selves

Sometimes romantic relationships can be a source of great strength, and YA doesn't let that happen a whole lot - or at least, not very effectively. All too often, one-half of the couple becomes just an accessory for the other or loses all of their substance in order to make the other half look good. Balanced relationships are about loving one's partner AND oneself, and these YA girls know how to do that.

Kaede and Taisin, the heroines of Malina Lo's Huntress, are a) SO shippable because ahhh and b) two girls with tremendous power in very different areas. They build a sturdy kind of love (not a spoiler, because the blurb kind of gives it away) that rests on trust and respect. This allows them to each take comfort in the other while knowing their own talents and limits.

(Diversity alert! Setting based on Chinese mythology, plus girl/girl romance.)

Alina Starkov, starring in Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy, has to discover that she doesn't need to pine after a boy before she can truly fight for what she believes in. Everyone's telling her she's the "chosen one", as the Sun Summoner - the most powerful Grisha in existence. So she comes into her own power while discovering that love is really an important source of its own magic.

Despite not really being a YA protagonist, Celia Bowen of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus is definitely worth mentioning here, especially since The Night Circus could easily appeal to YA readers. Weaving through a forest of intricate, heartbreaking prose and thorny emotional threads, this book allows Celia to come into her own in an organic way. She defies fate and the rules set for her by her father - plus, her magical powers are fabulous.

Kate "Puck" Connolly, one protagonist of Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races, finds a quiet sort of power in her achingly lovely romance. It wraps around her softly and a little dangerously - though she can be reassured with the knowledge that she herself is perhaps even more dependable.

Do you have any more suggestions? By all means, leave them in the comments! And go forth and enjoy these girls and these books!
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  1. Girls who make changes in their little world? Like Tris, Katniss, Clary, etc.? That popped up in my mind as soon as I read this. :) Nice post! Ooh, and Code Named Verity! Is it any good? I have to read it for my book competition and need to know which books to prioritize.

    xoxo Morning

    1. Hey, Morning! Thanks for stopping by and commenting :) it means a lot! Strong female characters are very close to my heart - and yes, some of the notable examples are the ones you listed!

      And Code Name Verity is ABSOLUTELY PHENOMENAL so far. I'm normally not a huge fan of historical fiction, but this is very character-driven and emotional. It makes my heart hurt. (Get the audiobook if you can, because the narrators are a-ma-zing.)

  2. Ooo, I've never thought of it like this! Typically, when I think of strong female characters I think of mental / physical strength.
    I like to think of Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice as a strong female character. No, she doesn't have much physical strength, nor does she change the world. But she has the strength to say no and deal with the consequences that come from that.
    {and she sasses Mr. Darcy and I really enjoy that :p}

    1. Hey Madeline! Thanks for your wonderful comment! Yes, I've been trying to change my notions of strong female characters as well, and this is one show of my efforts. And I totally agree about Lizzie! Her Darcy sass is unparalleled. I was going to put her on here, but I wasn't sure if Pride and Prejudice was really a YA-labeled book.

  3. Ohh, this is such a lovely post. I have a lot of thoughts about the "Strong Female Characters" trope that has become so popular recently...especially since it's often so narrow in its own way. I think it's great that there are books for girls with fighters, but I hate that it seems to be pitted against traditionally feminine traits and characteristics. Like "she's strong! she's a warrior! she isn't like those other girls!" Like you said, women are people, and women are complex, and every type of strength should be celebrated.

    These are some really wonderful suggestions! I've been meaning to read The Lunar Chronicles for ages now, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. They sound seriously awesome, though. (Same with the Steampunk Chronicles! Ugh, so many books on my list.)

    In my experience, it honestly seems like middle grade stories almost do a better job showcasing different kinds of strength. The Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente comes to mind. It's just a girl being brave and smart and great, and doing the right thing, and making mistakes. It's fantastic.

    Don't get me wrong, I have a huge soft spot for every Tris and Katniss out there - I like ladies who really, physically fight. But I like ladies who fight in other ways too. And we need more of those.

    1. Hi, Kristianna! Thank you for coming over to read this. I totally agree with you on the "strong female characters" trope opposing traditionally feminine traits. Personally, I get really annoyed by the idea of "she's not like those other girls" because all those "other girls" also have strengths that should be appreciated.

      Also, for book suggestions - if you like fairy tales at all, then the Lunar Chronicles is definitely for you. I love it so, so much. Plus, if you liked Daughter of Smoke and Bone (I just kind of stalked your Goodreads shelf so I could recommend stuff, haha) most of the fantasy stuff here will be your thing. Especially The Night Circus if you're looking for beautiful prose ;)

      I mean, I love girls who fight, like you said - but other strengths should be recognized too. I'm hoping this post brings more of that to people's attention.

    2. ohh, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is one of my absolute favorites! I haven't read the rest of the series yet, but the first one was absolutely gorgeous :) And good morning lovely recommended The Night Circus to me ages ago, but I haven't gotten around to it either.

      (This is clearly a recurring theme in my life. "Hey! That book! It sounds so pretty and amazing and wonderful and...yeah, hopefully I can read it sometime in the next thousand years.")

      I'm inching my way through Howl's Moving Castle right now, and it's breathtaking. I can definitely get into a fantasy that's full of pretty, sparkly prose, so I'll check some of these out!


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