Time may be running short to find the perfect gift for your daughter, niece, or younger sister before Christmas, but fear not: Bookstores will never let you down. And the tween or teen girl in your life needs all the inspiration great books can give as much as ever, despite the world of smartphones and online games we live in.
Girls growing up today may be given more opportunities than in the past, but the pressure is still on to be feminine, attractive, and demure - not the qualities a glass-ceiling-shattering career woman will need to cultivate. And it’s not just Bratz dolls and pink onesies … it’s YA shelves packed with characters like Bella from Twilight, the ostensible heroine of her series, but in reality a passive, lovelorn damsel in distress who could have been plucked directly from the Dark Ages. I read many books as a tween that featured girls’ travails with dating, years before I had any personal interest in so much as talking to boys, or in which a girl played sidekick (and eventual love interest) to the male protagonist. These books, many of them great, nevertheless offered a fairly one-note view of girls: as foils to boys. Selfless, nurturing, and dainty to the boys’ adventurous, aggressive, and rough. Interested in the health of their relationships above all, while boys took their relationships for granted and focused on world-saving quests.
I needed something more, and I began to find it - largely on the shelves of YA fantasy, but also in classic books for girls and novels about contemporary girls breaking the mold. For every Twilight, there was a book featuring a strong, bold girl who took on the world with all of the fearlessness and reckless ambition of a traditional male hero. Who taught me to be confident, brave, and self-sufficient? Alanna the Lioness, Lyra Belacqua, Jo March and many other YA heroines who refused to let gender roles hold them back. And girls today are even luckier - there is a bounty of new books featuring empowered women and girls for young female readers to enjoy. Here are 14 books and series featuring kickass heroines every young girl - and, let’s be real, every young boy - should read.
The Paper Bag Princess - Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko
Let’s start at the very beginning, with a picture book that will encourage even very young girls to see themselves as the captains of their own destinies. When the titular heroine’s wedding to a prince is ruined by a dragon who steals away her betrothed, the princess replaces her burned up clothes with a paper bag and sets off to rescue him. That’s right - a princess doing the rescuing! I guess that makes her fiancé a gentleman in distress. Along the way, she learns about self-respect, independence, and being her own person. And for our pink-obsessed toddlers - the word “princess” in the title might tempt them to show some interest.
Ella Enchanted - Gail Carson Levine
This book also makes use of fairy-tale princess tropes - in fact, it’s a retelling of Cinderella. And yes, the heroine does fall in love with a charming prince. But in this book, Ella’s magical appearances at the royal balls comprise only a small part of her adventures. Cursed to be obedient, she spends the book struggling to overcome the enforced subservience that has defined her, and in the process must be rebellious, self-assured, and willing to break all the rules to find her own way in life. She tames ogres with her gift for speaking in tongues, and she refuses the man she loves because she knows he can’t save her from her curse. Actually, she saves his life with her quick wits, and he is the one who shows her tenderness and compassion. In the end, only she can save herself, and she has the force of will to do it. Ella is a funny, clever, brave protagonist who refuses to fit herself into the mold society has created for her.
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
Chances are high that any tween you know has already read The Hunger Games … and seen the two movies. But if not, now’s the time. Our heroine Katniss has taken over the role of breadwinner after her father’s death, and she supports her family in a way women are rarely shown to do - by poaching game from beyond the city’s walls. Her skills with a bow and knife come in handy when she is thrown into the arena for a brutal televised event in which teenagers from the poverty-stricken districts surrounding the Capitol fight to the death. Suzanne Collins does an admirable job creating a cast of characters among which gender is the least defining characteristic. All of the teens, especially Katniss, must find a footing somewhere between ruthlessness and compassion in order to survive. Her ability to fight for self-preservation, with a determination long reserved for male characters, is well-balanced with her humanity.
Divergent - Veronica Roth
The dystopian world of Divergent seems set up to eliminate traditional gender roles. Each person is given a chance, at the age of 16, to choose a faction in which they will spend their adulthood. Factions are defined by the virtue they most value -- courage, knowledge, love, selflessness, and honesty. It isn’t the women who are loving and selfless while the men are brave and honest; instead, each faction contains both men and women who exemplify these virtues. Our heroine, Tris, chooses Dauntless, the courageous faction, giving readers a daring, rough-and-ready heroine with action-hero qualities female characters are rarely given. She is adept with weapons, willing to undergo extreme physical pain in order to accomplish her goals, and, most importantly, always an agent. She’s not one to wait around for opportunities to pass by or for opponents to outmaneuver her, meaning she’s almost always in control of the situation.
The Lioness Quartet - Tamora Pierce
Tamora Pierce probably changed my life. She’s written a number of YA fantasy series about strong women, but The Lioness Quartet was the one that started it all. The heroine, Alanna, shatters the gender roles of her fictional world, Tortall, by conning her way into a position as a page in training for knighthood. When her sex is eventually revealed, her accomplishments are too great to deny, and she ultimately ends the restriction against female knights in her kingdom. Alanna is clever, strong, and able to take her destiny into her own hands - and while romance is never at the forefront of the series, the books grant her an unusual amount of sexual agency, which is still sadly uncommon even in books set in the modern day. Alanna’s freedom to experiment with romance and her sexuality is treated with responsibility, sending a great message about safety and protection while allowing her to be empowered to make her own choices.
Circle of Magic series - Tamora Pierce
Okay, just one more Tamora Pierce series! The Circle of Magic books are aimed at slightly younger readers, eschewing romantic subplots for straightforward adventure (and heartwarming friendships). The four protagonists, including three girls and two people of color (an unfortunate rarity in YA fantasy), spend the books learning to control their elemental forms of magic - and to use them to battle catastrophic threats to themselves, their loved ones, and even their society. These books emphasize the unique strengths each of us have within ourselves. I know I reread these books over and over, imagining what my special power might be. That’s a mental debate I want my daughters to have someday!
The Hero and the Crown - Robin McKinley
Robin McKinley has written a whole boxful of books perfect for young women - Rose Daughter, The Blue Sword, and Spindle’s End among them. But The Hero and the Crown was particularly inspiring to me. The protagonist, Aerin, is a social outcast despite being the daughter of the king. Her red hair makes her stand out, she can’t perform the magic other royals do naturally, and she hates needlework. But her penchant for more martial arts like sword-fighting ultimately makes her invaluable to the court that once gave her the cold shoulder. Aerin takes on potion-mixing and dragon-slaying over the course of the novel, eventually saving her kingdom from utter desolation. Though the book contains strong men as love interests, Aerin is the unquestioned heroine and leader of the quest - there’s even a fun role reversal in which the wounded princess is tended to after battle by a nurturing male companion!
Enchanted Forest Chronicles - Patricia C. Wrede
Like The Paper Bag Princess, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles turns the princess paradigm on its head by setting the royal heroine next to a dragon. In this version, Princess Cimorene is an independent-minded girl who hates being a princess - so she runs away to keep house for a dragon instead. Of course. Cimorene’s domestic duties showed me, a girl who loved baking, that girly stuff needn’t be entirely incompatible with courage and self-sufficiency. But more importantly, Cimorene is a badass who almost always manages to save the day - even the dragons need her protection! The books are written with a lighthearted wit that sets it apart from more melodramatic epics, making them welcoming to girls who aren’t established fantasy fans.
Caddie Woodlawn - Carol Ryrie Brink
YA novels set in historical times face an extra challenge: They must grapple with the very real restrictions suffered by women and girls in world history. Caddie Woodlawn features a tomboyish frontier girl who chooses a life running wild with her brothers rather than inside dipping candles. The Newbery-award-winning book inspires girls to question the gendered expectations that they live with and to embrace their adventurous, outdoorsy side. Of course, the historical frontier setting presents problems; Caddie’s ultimate need to “grow up” by becoming a subdued, presentable lady, as well as the deeply problematic representations of American Indians throughout the book, both require consideration, and an open conversation with your daughter about these troublesome aspects of the book might allow for a great learning experience.
Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
This beloved children’s classic has four heroines, three of whom don’t seem all that empowering (although we find them quite lovable nonetheless). However, the real protagonist, Jo March, is a real spitfire. Teased for being rough and mannish by her sisters and friends, Jo learns to embrace her bold and outspoken nature. Her ambition, which seems like an unlady-like distraction from domestic duties at first, makes her an asset to the family as she begins to earn money to support them with her writing, and while she somewhat tames her coltish tendencies as she grows into a woman, she never allows pressure to be feminine to change who she really is. As I grew into myself, I found Jo was increasingly my favorite of the little women - she embodies the empowerment we can find by celebrating the strengths and quirks that make us different from those around us.
Little House on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Little House books, written by the same tomboyish girl who stars in them, offer a window into life in the frontier West - and Laura’s adventurous spirit, like Caddie Woodlawn’s, means she’s always getting her apron dirty running around the prairie, the woods, or the shores of the lake. But she also knows how to help her pa mend a roof and how to get dinner on the table. Like Caddie Woodlawn, these books also speak to a troubled time in America’s history, as we can see in the often stereotypical, othering portrayals of American Indians which should be discussed with young, impressionable readers.
Emily of New Moon - L.M. Montgomery
I’ve documented my adoration for Anne of Green Gables, but there’s just something about Emily Starr, the heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-known YA series, that really inspired me. Like Anne, Emily is smart, imaginative, and a bit different. Unlike Anne, Emily keeps her career at the center of her life, devoting herself to her writing and eventually becoming a successful novelist. Emily’s character is believed to be semi-autobiographical, as Montgomery herself was (obviously) a career writer. Though Emily’s story culminates in romantic fulfillment, she never wavers from her true self: driven, independent, and strong. She doesn’t change herself for love, and she doesn’t set her dreams of personal glory aside. Instead, she sets out to achieve them with self-confidence, and she continually perseveres in the face of setbacks and easy outs.
A Girl Named Disaster - Nancy Farmer
Nhamo, our protagonist, manages to flee a frightening fate and forge a path through the wilderness to a new life in this engrossing novel. Facing marriage to a cruel man at only 11, Nhamo runs away from the village in Mozambique where she grew up to search for her father across the border in Zimbabwe. Utterly alone, she must overcome the dangers of a treacherous forest, where she ultimately wanders for months, with nothing but her own wits. Such a journey would push anyone to the point of breaking, but Nhamo’s strength and heart keep her alive and moving forward. As a girl who’d read Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain with fascination, it thrilled me to read a wilderness survival story with such a compelling female lead - even girls who hate camping (me) can engross themselves in stories of girl vs. nature.
The Golden Compass - Philip Pullman
Lyra Belacqua stands apart from most girls I read about as a kid. Lyra’s sly, deceitful nature allows her to stay alive throughout the dangers she encounters in the series, but it doesn’t make her morally admirable, or even likable. Reading about a girl who is distinguished by qualities other than her essentially gentle nature is a great reminder that girls, like boys, come in a wide variety of personalities, each with our own strengths and flaws. And Lyra’s scrappiness, will to live, and canny mind make her a compelling heroine to get to know in the course of three epic books every kid should read at least once.