Holding Out For a Hero(ine)

Why are the best YA heroines in fantasy books?

Katniss Everdeen, arguably the strongest female character in contemporary young adult fiction, acts: she volunteers, she sacrifices, she fights. She is such a strong character–some might say a masculine character–that NPR blogger Linda Holmes asked, What Really Makes Katniss Stand Out? Peeta, Her Movie Girlfriend.

And in YA fantasy there are others, of course. Famously, there’s Lyra Belacqua of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and a newer arrival (1998) is the interesting character Ti-Jeanne from Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, who I mention because Ti-Jeanne is not only a young woman of color but she is also a young mother, so Hopkinson has brought a really interesting heroine to the table.

Photo credit Melanie Lamaga

But in much of the contemporary literary YA fiction I’ve read recently, the young women are mired in romance, not action, and they always have the wherewithal to be eloquent and insightful. They’re supposed to be “normal” teenagers, but, frankly, normal teenagers are rarely eloquent or insightful. In fact, I’d hazard to say that they’re only eloquent or insightful 2% of the time. And that’s being generous.

Normal teenagers fumble their way through things. They aren’t quip-y or witty at every step of the way. But too often, writers of YA literary fiction, especially those books with female protagonists, write their young women this way. And it’s a mistake. Even Hazel Grace in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was just too poetic for a teenager. Yes, she was sometimes strikingly honest, and it was refreshing to read about a young woman fighting for her life in a real world instead of a post-apocalyptic one. But it wasn’t enough.

Is there too much pressure on authors to write young women as smart, as paramours of wit? Must they be so clearly, so smartly beautiful on the inside so that when the young Prince Charming comes along and realizes that they are beautiful outside as well, we readers are satisfied?

I want stronger contemporary YA heroines. I want them to screw up, to fumble, to not say perfect things. I want them to screw up and maybe, just maybe, not get the guy in the end, because that’s what happens. We usually don’t get the guy. And not getting the guy makes a better story. In fact, I don’t even want there to be a guy. But that might be too much to ask.

I want a female Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I want an awkward, uncomfortable, fractured kid who finds a place and finds himself. Herself.

Have I just not read this book, this heroine? I haven’t read every YA book out there, and I might be deficient in a number of books that feature this very young woman I’m looking for. I don’t want a Katniss. I love Katniss, but she doesn’t live in my world. I want a Perks girl. Where is she?

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