Mar 29 2012 9:30am

Who’s the Teen Queen of Kick-Ass?: Strong YA Heroines

Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss Everdeen, in the film adaptation of Hunger Games by Suzanne CollinsToo often when I read a YA (young adult) book I am struck by how remarkably similar they are in plot and setup: The heroine is usually a quiet, socially lacking, economically poor but stunningly beautiful virginal young woman who is almost always the new student because of a tragic past. She meets and instantly dislikes the uber popular, stunningly beautiful, super-smart, messy-haired, sexually liberated hero. They fence with each other for a few weeks because they really don’t dislike each other. Oh, no. This is all love at first sight, but fictional teenagers aren’t able to handle love at first sight so they must react with hate and fear until the boy saves the female from a fate worse then death. Then cupid’s arrow hits them both right where it counts. BAM! What proceeds next is a merging of the heroine and the hero into one entity, like Bradgelina or Bennifer, and you can hear the faint strains of Helen Reddy’s “You and Me Against The World,” playing in the background for the rest of the book. Of course, there is the requisite mean girl(s) who hate the new girl for stealing their men and having the audacity to be beautiful not only on the outside but the inside too. But hey, when you have Helen Reddy on your side, you are pretty much invincible.

While I have no qualms with this storyline (Lord knows I read it often enough) I do like it better when I pick up a YA and meet an empowered heroine. When I make a recommendation for my child, I want her to know that the heroine doesn’t need a hero to balance her life. I want her to read about girls who can and do kick arse all on their own. They don’t need super powers but they do need to be strong, intelligent, and confident. I like when a hero and heroine are attracted to each other but the storyline doesn’t revolve around their relationship. It’s not a requirement for the heroine to have a boyfriend. We are able to watch the heroine not only work through her own problems, finding her own solutions, but can and does save herself and sometimes even the hero.

Here are a few YA books with heroines who are keepers.

Jennifer Estep not only writes some well received adult urban fantasy, but she also has a YA series with a strong and likable teenage heroine. The Mythos Academy, an urban fantasy YA series, revolves around Gwen Frost, a teenage gypsy with a talking sword and the gift of touch. Sent to uber prep Mythos Academy in order to learn more about her gift and train to be a warrior, Gwen feels like an outcast among the other rich and powerful teens. Gwen soon learns though that nothing is what it seems at Mythos and the role she plays in the coming war is far larger then anyone could have imagined.

Touch of Frost by Jennifer EstepThere are three books in this series (Touch of Frost and Kiss Of Frost) with the third book, Dark Frost, releasing May 29, 2012. What I love about this series is the humor and sense of realism that Ms. Estep imparts. Gwen is a normal snarky teen who isn’t super powerful or rich. She is an average person who uses her intelligence and sense of justice to achieve her goals. She’s not always nice and not always right, but she proves time and time again that she can more than hold her own in her madcap life.

I think most will agree that when they hear the words “girl power” they instantly think of Katniss from Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series. A major literary phenomenon that took the world by storm. First released in 2009, it wasn’t until a few years later that the book rocked the YA world and suddenly everyone had to read it.

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister Primrose, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to death before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that will weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

(For more of H&H’s Hunger Games series coverage, check out Rachel Hyland’s Hunger Games movie review, Christopher Morgan’s Peeta Power and Gale’s a Sociopath, Heather Waters’s Gale Is THE BEST and Peeta’s Pathetic, and After the Games: What to Read After Watching The Hunger Games)

I haven’t read the Hunger Games series (please, stop screaming) but I plan to. What has impressed me about this series is the number of readers who rave about the heroine’s ability to step up to the plate when in reality she is a most reluctant heroine. She enters the Hunger Games to save her sister and soon finds herself caught between two love interests and becomes a revolutionary who is forced through circumstances to change the world and those around her forever. From what I have gleaned from reviews and articles, it is not an adolescent book, but rather a book about war, written for adolescents. There are three books in allThe Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay.

Angelfall by Susan EeA friend and fellow book blogger harassed me into reading Susan Ee’s Angelfall and gave me a new heroine to love. First in her End Of Days series, Angelfall introduces us to human girl Penryn and fallen angel Raffe. The end of days has come to Earth with angels preying on humans. Penryn, with her mom and sister, hide and survive best they can, but times are tough and Penryn’s mom is not well. When Penryn’s little sister is kidnapped by the angels, Penryn turns the tables and kidnaps an angel in return, demanding he help her to save her sister. Upon arriving at the aerie where they are holding her sister, Penryn learns more then she wanted about Raffe, the angels’ overall agenda, and her destiny.

Penryn is a comfortable heroine who, like most, didn’t set out to be a hero but is forced into it by circumstances beyond her control. She steps up to the plate though and handles herself with dignity, intelligence, and enough humor to make this a new fav series of mine. I like she has skills but isn’t invincible. She makes mistakes and some questionable decisions, but everything comes from the heart. A faint love interest that enhances and tempts but doesn’t overwhelm the main plot or conflict.

The Harry Potter series and its heroine, Hermione Granger, always gets props from me. Hermione is a quiet, studious young lady who more than shows that while magic is great, nothing beats book smarts and common sense. She starts out strong in book one and stays true to herself and her friends to the very end. There are seven books in this series.

Tessa Gray from Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series: Tessa may be an orphan and unsure of what she is, but that doesn’t stop her from standing tall and strong as she matches wits and fights prejudice against vampires, warlocks, and mechanical assassins. There are two books in this series with the third coming next year.

What do you look for in a YA heroine and who do you think is the teen queen of kick ass?


Tori Benson, Smexybooks and at Twitter.

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1. MG
I read The Hunger Games series and had high hopes for a strong female role model in Katniss. But while Peeta keeps his compassion in the end, Katniss is consumed by hate and revenge in the last book, and it didn't seem to me like she really recovered.
Heather Waters
2. HeatherWaters
Love love LOVE kick-ass YA heroines! Fun post, Tori--I hadn't heard of Susan Ee's Angelfall, so I'm definitely going to pick that up.

Another heroine I'd add to the list is Tris in Veronica Roth's Divergent. She's a badass for sure.
Tori Benson
MG-I really need to read the Hunger Games series. Maybe this summer.

redline_ Thank you. Oh yes, Angelfall is wonderful. You must read it. I have Divergent on my tbr. Someday. lol
4. Mo
Sorry, but I seem to be missing something. I don't believe that a girl has to be kick-ass to be strong. I subscribe to the theory that "Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow."

Just my opinion. :)
5. LibrarianJessi
I love Katsa from Graceling - such an amazing woman and the story is truely about her struggle to come to terms with her own power and gain control of it. Mo - In contrast to Katsa in Graceling who is physically strong and must become emotionally strong, the prequel Fire features a heroine who doesn't happen to be all that good with weapons but she is such an awesome character who exhibits strength in other ways. It's true that you don't have to be kick-ass to be strong but girls with weapons are super fun to read about. ;-)
Tori Benson
Mo-And I agree. In each of the books I listed, our heroine were thrown into situations not of their making and rose above their fears in order to overcome whatever adversity they are facing. Their ability to fight injustice despite their fear is what makes them kick ass. You don't have to be kick ass to be strong, but being strong can make you kick ass.

LibrarianJessi-LOL I don't need my heroine's to use weapons either but it sure makes for some awesome fight scenes.
7. akajill
I second the recommendation for Katsa in Graceling. She is the very definition of kickass. The one I would add to this list is Bryn in Raised by Wolves and Trial by Fire from Jennifer Lynn Barnes. She has incredible confidence and strength that takes her to amazing levels. I love, love, love the series.
8. ReneeP
How are you missing Tamora Pierce? She was one of the first kick ass feminist fantasy writers. That's basically all she writes. My favorites are Alanna, who dresses as a man to train to be a knight, and Beka, a girl cop, in a world where girl cops aren't uncommon.
9. marindy
and, whats wrong with tessa? i think she can be a heroine
Tori Benson
ReneeP-I haven't read any Tamora Pierce or I'm sure I would have added her. :)
11. lu_89
I also read Hunger Games and The Mortal Instruments, and I have more 'respect' for Katniss than I do for Clary, the reason is that Katniss is a wierd girl, literally, and has a lot of issues to deal with, like personally and in the killing stuff, and yes she took some choices that are not so 'good' but if you know her you understand why she does it, and you would do that to. It doesn't mean that I don't like TMI I actually love it, and I'm eagerly waiting for the next book ^^
12. krazykavi
katniss (the hunger games trilogy)
beatrice /tris (divergent trilogy)
helen (starcrossed trilogy)
hermione (the harry potter series)

13. Martine12345
I feel about one hundred percent opposed to your direction here. I absolutely detest these heroines, as they are unrealistic, shallow, and often simple jerkasses. Being unpleasant and uncooperative know it all doesn't get better just because its not a in a male character. i teach my daughter a simple rule. If you think some mean thing a girl does is cool, turn the genders around. If its just as great when a guy does it to a girl, then fine. If not then you shouldn't like it.
Being obstinate, disrespectful and depending on brute force is no way to get ahead. Also, although in some ladies fantasy world men love girls who are high maintenance, in the regular world, they respect themselves too much to be bothered by such a partner.
14. MRC
Just throwing out a few more great kick ass heroines-
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas
And any Tamora Pierce books!
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