“Your New School Library” is a new column of book reviews that will highlight the expanding role of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and strong female characters in literature for children and young adults today. Once a month, we’ll tell you about books that help young girls be awesome.
The first Hunger Games movie is almost here. Are you pumped? I am pumped. I’m pumped for all the reason I was pumped when I read the books. It’s a harrowing, heart-pumping story whose themes could be debated just as validly in academic classrooms as on online message boards. The actions of the characters are often horrifying, yet you need to find out what happens to them. The characters tug at your heart strings — but they tug in all different directions.
In other words, while The Hunger Games is YA lit, it has that same quality that Harry Potter first had eons ago: it’s a good story that transcends age, that has people from middle school students to business people on the subway gobbling up Suzanne Collins’ words.
And then there is Katniss. The most badass teen female protagonist to grace the pages — and now the screen — in years. While Katniss is far from a cold-hearted monster — even if it may seem like she’s sometimes portrayed as one — her refusal to be weak, her commitment to survival and reason above sentimentality and emotion, is a world away from the Bella Swans of the world. I don’t think I could personally ever be Katniss. I would probably be the one running in circles flailing my arms and crying the moment I was left in the arena of the Hunger Games (a fact that has nothing to do with my gender), but I am glad she exists.
In honor of Katniss, I thought this month I would highlight some other strong female leads from the YA world in recent years, specifically in the world of fantasy or dystopian tales, for those of you who are done with Mockingjay and need more.
The truth is, while the ladies are still outnumbered in literature in terms of badass protagonists, YA or otherwise, there are a delicious, thrilling options out there these days. These three titles are just three I’ve had the pleasure of reading and enjoying in the last year or two — but I know there are many more. Please, let me know which ones I’ve missed.
Graceling, Kristin Cashore, Houghton Mifflin (2008)
While this is a few years old, it’s simply too good to not have at the top of my list. If you liked Katniss, you will like Katsa. While their names are weirdly similar, and they share many of the same characteristics of brutal bravery, their worlds are vastly different. While Katniss’ world is dystopian, a future America gone awry, the world created by Cashore where Katsa resides is fantasy at its finest — one of those books where you constantly have to refer to the map included at the beginning to keep track of the lands your mind is crossing.
In the Seven Kingdoms of Graceling, you are “graced” when you are born with a particular, unnaturally heightened skill. Katsa’s grace? The ability to fight and beat any opponent, in many cases ending in death. Understandably, Katsa has mixed emotions about harnessing this grace, a grace she didn’t ask for, particularly since she’s under the care of her uncle, who also happens to be the king of her kingdom. A tyrannical ruler, he uses Katsa to do his biddings, to kill or injure his enemies or those who threaten him for him, to punish and manipulate at his will. Let me tell you: this guy is a real bastard.
The only way Katsa can stay sane under her uncle’s abusive control is the Council, a group of others she has brought together who secretly — and dangerously — carry out altruistic acts, helping the citizens that suffer from the government’s corrupt power. In other words, not only can our lady kick some serious ass, she also fights injustice. It’s my favorite win-win combination.
And then there is Po. Po is Graceling’s Peeta (although I probably should stay away from the Peeta/Gale debate here).We first meet Po, a graced prince from another kingdom, when Katsa is on a mission to save his kidnapped grandfather. While Po’s grace eventually proves to be more complex than he first indicates, we are introduced to him being graced in strength and combat.
In other words, Katsa finally has a formidable opponent. While she first regards Po the same way she has learned to deal with most people in her life, with a weary mistrust, their relationship slowly and wonderfully builds until you cannot wait for them to get it on.
Seriously, the way they spend most of their time together in the book is by honing their combat skills on each other. They spend a lot of time beating the crap out of each other—and most of the time, enjoying it. It feels surprisingly—or okay, maybe not so surprisingly—intimate and exciting and awesome. I could feel the Katsa-Po sexual tension in my fingertips when reading this novel.
It is on missions for the Council that Katsa starts to learn more about ways other rulers are using graces for evil beyond even that of her uncle, in ways that threaten all of the kingdoms. Hence—dun dun dun, surprise!—she and Po start on a long and dangerous journey to stop it. This is one of those novels where when more and more of the plot is revealed, there comes a point where you literally cannot. stop. reading.
Graceling was followed up with Fire, a tale that takes place in the same time period but with different protagonists. I was hoping to read Fire before this column, but I ran out of time; however, I’ve heard equally good things about it. And on May 1st of this year, Cashore will release the third installment, the wonderfully titled Bitterblue.