Today I am hosting author N J Simmonds taking on Strong Girls in YA as part of the blog tour for her debut novel The Path Keeper.
STRONG GIRLS IN YA
We all love strong girl in books and on screen. From Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, to Katniss and Zélie, ferocious young women kicking arse and putting bad men in their place.
Except, there’s more than one way to be strong, and it doesn’t always involve shedding blood and high kicks (as much as I’m a huge fan of both too).
The depiction of women in literature has come a long way in the last twenty years, and never more so than in the Young Adult and Fantasy genres. Paving the way for important conversations, and creating role models for young readers, YA has always been in the foreground of strong young characters and formidable girl MCs.
When I started writing The Path Keeper, I wanted a female protagonist who had a voice. A girl that acted like the young women I know, and the young woman I once was. I didn’t know quiet, sullen, polite girls when I was growing up – I knew teens who fought back, who said what they thought and who acted. Sometimes they said too much, sometimes they were too impulsive, but for me that was more real than a simpering girl who needed to be rescued. So that’s how Ella came about – and she’s not the only woman in the series who struggles with her place in society and questions who she is mentally, physically and emotionally.
Strong girl protagonists are everywhere in YA, but they may not be holding a bow and arrow or have lightning shooting out of their fingertips. Here is my list of amazing female writers and their strong YA girls who in turn have helped teens understand themselves, and the world, better.
Let’s start with emotional wellbeing and mental health. This subject means a lot to me as I have had my own degree of ups and downs, and when I was growing up it wasn’t acceptable to admit that you were struggling. I read these books now and wish I could go back to fifteen-year-old Natali and tell her she’s not weird or weak for feeling the way she does, she’s actually totally normal and not alone.
Olive in Holly Bourne’s Are We All Lemmings And Snowflakes is a girl on the edge attending a summer camp with a difference – every attendee is suffering from various mental health issues. The underlying theme of the book is about being kind, but not just to others – girls are used to being told that – but kind to ourselves too. Likewise, Violet in Jennifer Niven’s All The Bright Places meets her love interest Finch on top of a school bell tower as they contemplate suicide. These aren’t easy subjects to broach in a novel targeted for a younger audience, but the girls are strong through their vulnerability – showing the readers that they too have nothing to be ashamed of.
Talking of shame, it’s refreshing to see a growing rise of body-positive female characters in YA. Gone are the days of Bridget Jones counting calories and noting how many pounds she’s gained in her diary – enter Dumplin (Dumplin by Julie Murphy), Eleanor (Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell) and Leah (Leah on the Offbeat, Becky Albertalli). These girls, so strong and powerful they not only appear in the title of their books but also on the covers, never once apologise for who they are and what they look like – in fact, their weight isn’t even the main point of the storylines – there’s no old-hat trope of ‘I was overweight, got thin and got revenge on my bullies’ here. These girls didn’t have to change the way they looked to get what they wanted, how they look doesn’t even come into it, because we love them for who they are.
And it’s not just being seen or understood that makes strong girls in YA so important, it’s also about being heard. Vivian in Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie fights the feminist fight at her school, and Starr in the award-wining The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas teaches readers about the importance of speaking out about what you believe in. Starr is under pressure from her community, friends and society to keep quiet and not rock the boat – but she goes on to do what teens in real life are finding the strength to do too. From Malala to the pupils of Sandie Hook Elementary School, social media and the press finally want to hear what teens have to say, and books like these are showing them how it’s done.
And finally, there are the young women who have been dealt a shitty life they never asked for. Sadie from Courtney Summer’s harrowing book Sadie is a force to be reckoned with, but she’s no traditional beauty – in fact she has a stutter and doesn’t care what she looks like. And Indigo in Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut is a feisty London girl brought up in the care system. She’s tough and she’s suffered – but she doesn’t need to be rescued. And looking outside of contemporary fiction to teen girls in YA fantasy, Inej from Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, and Sarai, in Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer are perfect examples of delicate girls who are tough as nails and forced to create a family out of the scraps left from their previous lives. Although they are forced to do bad they still remain good – because they don’t let what has happened to them define who they are.
As a proud feminist, as a YA writer, and as a mother to two ferocious, smart and bold daughters, it fills my heart to read books filled with strong girls, as well as having the opportunity to create my own unforgettable characters (wait until you meet Luci in the sequel Son of Secrets).
What makes a strong girl in YA? Not muscle, not money and not magic – what makes a strong girl is fortitude, grounding morals and all the other strong girls surrounding her. Goodbye damsels in distress and pretty girls who just want to be accepted – and hello girls like you, like me, and what the future deserves. Young women kicking arse and fighting the good fight with weapons made not from iron but from hearts, voices and unity.
Stay strong, girls. I see you.
Check out the rest of the stops on the blog tour so you can enter the competition!