With all these posts about Females in YA, I think it’s about time I offered up some reading recommendations for books that I think have female characters who are worthy of reading. Naturally, this list is limited to what I’ve read, which means it’s subject to my personal reading tastes, and is probably skewed to certain genres (like fantasy). Hopefully you all will offer up your own recommendations in the comments section. 🙂 I aimed to choose characters with varying types of personalities and above all those who are dynamic and complex.
(Note to readers: I’ll try to avoid any big spoilers, but it’s hard to talk about these characters without risking a little bit of spoileryness.)
Let’s start with some classic literature. Granted these aren’t technically YA (since the age designation didn’t exist back then), but I think they have the right kind of YA sensibility to be included in the list.
- Fanny Price from Mansfield Park by Jane Austen–though pretty much any of Jane Austen’s novels will offer up some worthy female leads and usually a few females who aren’t exactly role-model material, I wanted to highlight a lead that wasn’t among the most well-known (i.e. a character other than Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice). Fanny is a great example of a female who doesn’t fall into the whole “strong female character” trope. She is extremely shy, often fearful, and has a weak constitution, yet she shows an inner strength of character in her morals, she is intelligent, and as she grows, she gains confidence and self-esteem.
- The March sisters from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott–this is one of my favorite books of all time (of course, as I’m so partial to stories about sisters). Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are so different from each other despite being sisters. Meg, the oldest, is beautiful and a bit vain but also loving and dotes on her younger sisters. Tomboy Jo, the principal lead and second oldest, is a passionate, willful, and outspoken. The next sister Beth is a lot like Fanny Price in that she is shy and has a weak constitution, and it is her unselfish and giving personality that is so compelling and ultimately tragic. Yougest sister, Amy, is something of a brat as a child but grows into a talented artist who appreciates the beauty around her and more often than not gets what she wants. What I love about the March sisters is that even when readers identify most with one particular character, it’s easy to see parts of themselves in each of the girls.
- Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee–Scout’s young age would peg her more as a middle grade character, but the subject matter of the book and what she is dealing with is mature in nature, so I think it’s fair to include her in this YA list. A tomboy like Jo March, Scout is also highly intelligent, confident, introspective, and moral. Despite facing the evils of the outside world for the first time and losing much of her childlike innocence, Scout maintains an optimist outlook on life at the end.
Honorable Mentions: Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
YA speculative fiction is getting its own category here, in part because it’s one of my favorite genres to read, but also because it’s full of great females characters. Though many females in speculative fiction fall into the stereotypical “strong” female role, I think each of my examples offers something more.
- Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins–do I even really need to mention this one? Probably not, but for those of you who may not have read The Hunger Games books (and even if you’ve seen the movies, I still recommend actually reading the books), Katniss is female character to be reckoned with. She is physically strong, mentally tough, a skilled hunter, independent, and a survivor. Yet she is often clueless when it comes to reading emotions and has a narrow world view for a good part of the series, not realizing her own role in the revolution until long after it was evident to many others.
- Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore–though possessing many of the same characteristics as Katniss (“What’s with all the ‘K’ names?” I ask with irony because the name of the main character of my own novel starts with a “K”), Katsa is one of my favorite female characters of all time so I had to give her a shout out here. She is intense, independent, a natural-born killer (her special talent, called a Grace, is killing), skilled in combat, brave, and a leader. And yet another female character who is somewhat clueless about not only her own emotions but of others’ as well. As you get deeper into the story, you find there is more to Katsa’s Grace than she thinks and it ends up softening up her personality a bit. I found her views on sex refreshing as well.
- Beka Cooper from Terrier by Tamora Pierce–pretty much any female character written by Tamora Pierce is worthy of this list. I chose Beka because she is a more recent creation among Tamora Pierce’s long list of characters and is one my favorites. Born into poverty and adopted into a better life, Beka has just joined up with the Dogs (the nickname for law enforcement members). She is skilled in fighting and brave, but interestingly she is also very shy and has a hard time talking to strangers and even reporting back to her superiors. Despite her shyness, she is very confident in her abilities, bordering on arrogant. Beka also has a strong sense of right and wrong and fights very hard for justice.
Honorable mentions: Alina from Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Elisa from The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Quintana from Quintana of Charyn by Melinna Marchetta, Tris from Divergent by Veronica Roth
Let’s now take a look at contemporary YA.
- Hazel Grace from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green–this is another one of those “duh” choices that I’m not even sure needs a mention. Frank about her cancer and prognosis, Hazel approaches life and the inevitability of dying young with a realistic attitude and a dose of humor. She doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but she still maintains a wonderful sense of innocence, particularly as you watch her fall in love. With a fervent love of reading, Hazel is also highly intelligent, attending college classes at the age of sixteen.
- Lennie Walker from The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson–I love, love, love this book and Lennie. Mourning the sudden death of her sister, Lennie is a hot mess for a good part of the book. A talented musician and poet, Lennie comes from a quirky family and has some adorable quirks of her own. Even with the emotional turmoil she is feeling, she maintains a much-needed level of humor. It’s her realness and her flaws (she makes some truly ill-advised decisions in the story) that make her so wonderful. Ultimately she is able to see that she has flaws and has made mistakes and tries to make amends for that. Seriously, I can’t recommend this book enough.
- Lia from Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson–suffering from anorexia and having recently lost her best friend to the disease, Lia is a heart-wrenching character. She tries so hard to overcome her crippling body image issues, but keeps sliding down the self-destructive slope that is anorexia. You root for her to succeed and cry for her when she doesn’t. She is a frustrating and beautifully flawed character, so desperate for love yet also almost incapable of accepting it.
Honorable mentions: Melinda Sordino from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Anna from Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Hannah Baker from Thirteen Reason Why by Jay Asher, Caitlin from Hold Still by Nina LaCour
And finally with all the discussion in the kidlit world lately about diverity, I thought I would include a section devoted entirely to diverse female characters in YA.
- Ash from Ash by Malinda Lo–in this Cinderella retelling, Ash lives half in a fairy tale world of the fairies and half in the human world. Very much a dreamer and with little ties to the human world, she is challenged to stay there by another great female character in Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. The most rewarding part of Ash is her transformation throughout the story, which is largely due to her relationship with Kaisa, who is not only a skilled huntress but brave, beautiful, strong, and confident.
- Ai Ling from Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon–never one to be defined by the men who have rejected her, Ai Ling is another wonderfully independent female character in a fantasy novel. On a quest and faced with challenge after challenge, Ai Ling’s bravery, ingenuity, and powerful inner self rises to the occasion again and again. It was also so refreshing to read about how much she enjoys food because there are some girls who, ya know, actually like eating.
- Dellie from The Trouble With Half a Moon by Danette Vigilante–though this story is a little more on the middle grade line than most of the other examples, I think it’s worth being on this list because of Dellie. Despite having to face down the dangers in her neighborhood and her own personal grief, Dellie’s big heart shines through. She is courageous, curious, kind, and not afraid to defy her mother’s protective ways take a chance to help a young boy in need.
So that’s my shortlist of females in YA, though I know there are many more worthy of reading. Now it’s your turn to share who’s on your list…