Apr 10 2012 11:00am

The Atlantic’s List of Greatest Girl Characters in Literature: Really?

So a few days ago The Atlantic printed their list of the Greatest Girl Characters of Young Adult Literature. And, well, apart from the factual errors here and there on the list, as you might be guessing, I have one or two problems with the list. And the essay, now that you mention it.

No, not that the list doesn’t include a single Oz book (although that’s sad, too.) But primarily something that was mentioned by other commentators on the article: most of the books listed here do not fit the category of “young adult,” or “teenage.”

Some are arguable — L.M. Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables with an adult audience in mind, and became distressed when later critics relegated her to the “girls books” category. Her fiction books, including those very specifically written for an adult audience (The Blue Castle, A Tangled Web) is currently marketed to teens and older children, in part because the elements considered too shocking for teenagers in the 1920s (unwed motherhood and alcoholism in The Blue Castle, swear words, marital separation and other issues in A Tangled Web) are considered fine for contemporary teenagers. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was also written for adults, and would not have featured on the “approved” list for most teenagers in the 1940s, but like Anne of Green Gables, features a teenage protagonist and is suitable for most contemporary teenagers.

Other books on the list were written very specifically for children, not teenagers. The Ramona Quimby books feature the adventures of a child, with simplified language and sentence structure. Beverly Cleary could and did write books for teenagers as well, as in Fifteen and Sister of the Bride, adjusting her language accordingly, but the Ramona books are not in that field. (Meanwhile, can I note, Beverly Cleary is on this list — and not Judy Blume? How did that happen?) The subversive Pippi Longstocking books were written to entertain a young child, and include picture books aimed at very young readers. Harriet the Spy was aimed at ten year olds. And so on.

I suppose we can argue about the last of the Little House and Betsy-Tacy books. Both series begin with the stories of very young children and follow their protagonists into marriage. But the first books of both series are clearly intended as children’s books, meant to be read out loud to children as they (hopefully) fall asleep, organized with one story per chapter. These Happy Golden Years, the last in the Little House series, does not exactly linger on the romance. Betsy’s Wedding does, since Maud Hart Lovelace assumed her readers would grow up along with Betsy and Tacy. (I didn’t, and found my first reading of Betsy’s Wedding to be incredibly boring. It reads better for an adult.) Nonetheless, I’m not convinced either series can be classified as “young adult.” (I am also having big problems comparing the comfortable, happy middle class lifestyle of the Betsy-Tacy books with the very different world Katniss inhabits, but let’s move on for now.)

That leaves us with only A Wrinkle in Time and — possibly — The Book Thief as the only novels on this list written with a young adult audience in mind. Alas, The Book Thief was arguably published too recently to have any effect on The Hunger Games, except perhaps to help convince Scholastic, if they needed more convincing, that teenagers would read more than just Harry Potter books.

Which leaves us with a couple of mindboggling questions: how can a list supposedly discussing young adult books not include actual young adult books? And perhaps more importantly: how can anyone possibly discuss influential, independent minded teenage heroines without mentioning Jo March?

While I’m complaining, one other note: the Atlantic article is responding to a discussion of teenage girls in American films. So, what exactly are the Swedish Pippi Longstocking and Canadian Anne of Green Gables doing on this list? Montgomery, certainly, would be annoyed, as she saw herself first and foremost as a Canadian author helping to develop Canadian literature, and probably knew of the two American books similar to hers: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, probably, Pollyanna, certainly. (She and Eleanor Porter, the author of Pollyanna, corresponded about their mutual distrust of their Boston publisher.)

This is particularly odd because of every heroine mentioned in this list, Pippi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables are (again, arguably) the best representations of the “the individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry....” models discussed in the Atlantic and New York Times articles quite well. Montgomery, at least, was well aware of this model: Anne of Green Gables, that saga of an adorable orphan, is also in part the saga of how someone emancipated from history and bereft of ancestry can join society.

And right there is perhaps a major difference. Anne of Green Gables, Jo March, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ramona, and Harriet the Spy all must learn to repress their very real anger against the world, in order to live in society. It’s not that they don’t challenge society — Anne stands up against unfair gender behavior; Jo protests constantly about the pointlessness of social rules and behavior; Ramona protests everything; and Harriet argues against the hypocrisy she sees around her. But in the end, the girls change in order to fit in (or in Harriet’s case, learn to lie.)

This is not because their writers thought that society was perfect as it was. Far from it. But they spoke to the very real isolation that children and teenagers can feel, since they had all known this themselves. At least three of these writers had themselves grown up feeling alienated from society, unable to speak against the parents that had failed them in one way or another: Montgomery’s father abandoned her to relatives; Alcott’s father, although brilliant, was a financial and societal failure; and as the Little House books demonstrate, Wilder’s beloved father, however loving and musical, also could not keep a job or a stable house for his children.

The other two also lived through periods of alienation. Beverly Cleary reportedly struggled in school after moving from an isolated farm to a city in elementary school. Louise Fitzhugh’s parents divorced while she was still young. They dreamed of acceptance, of fitting in, of having a stable home, and they wrote about what girls might do to achieve this, even if it took, in Ramona’s case, several books.

Not that this happens to every girl protagonist in the books in this list: Nancy Drew doesn’t seem to have any anger to repress; Betsy Ray is a full and beloved member of her society, so, ditto; and although Pippi Longstocking certainly goes into rages, she, like Peter Pan, never changes. Oh, and while they weren’t mentioned? (And why not?) The girls in the Oz books get to go on kickass adventures without any of those personality changes. I’m just saying.

I don’t have the space or brain left to list everything overlooked, care to help me out in the comments? I’ll go ahead and start with some quick and completely incomplete additions:

For girl detectives: Trixie Belden and her best friend Honey Wheeler. They might lack the absolute perfection that is Nancy Drew’s lifestyle and every action — okay, change “might” to “do” — but they’re both far more human, and more real, and when Trixie is in danger, you have a moment or two of really wondering if she’s going to be okay.

And for truly unrealistic girl detectives, let’s all take a moment to bow in acknowledgement of hot tempered George of The Famous Five. She can ski, swim, cook, clean, camp, hike, AND catch criminals, solve mysteries, find hidden treasure AND stand up to every lower-class bad guy her creator Enid Blyton could invent. At the age of eleven, guys. ELEVEN. And she has an awesome dog, Timothy. Go George!

Not that I can actually recommend any of The Famous Five books to adult readers — they’re poorly written, plus, bonus sexism and deplorable attitudes to lower class people. Still. Go George!

For a kick-ass girl in general: Lucinda, in Ruth Sawyer’s Roller Skates.

For kick-ass fantasy heroines: Tamora Pierce’s Alanna comes to mind — especially the last book, where Pierce switches the traditional ending. Aerin, in Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. Irene in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, although the major protagonists are men. Numerous books by Diana Wynne Jones. White Jenna by Jane Yolen. Eleret in Patricia Wrede’s The Raven Ring. Mickle in Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark series. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but Nita in Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard series.

And how was this list written without at least ONE mention of Hermione Granger? Granted, she may not be the protagonist of the Harry Potter series, but does anyone think he would have survived the series without her? That’s what I thought.

For a slightly less kick-ass fantasy heroine who does buck the social structures of her world: Tenar, in Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan.

I’ve left lots out. Your turn!

Mari Ness lives in central Florida with two cats.

1. pCiaran
Meliara in Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith.
2. pCiaran
Oh and Jamethiel in the Kencyr books by PC Hodgell.

And Jill in the Deverry Cycle by Katharine Kerr.
3. MegO
Lyra from His Dark Material is one of my favorites of all time. Totally badass.

Also, Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) must be on the list unless the fact that she exists in more adult fantasy (despite her age) excludes her. And even still, she totally belongs. >.>
4. euphbass
Pretty much any of the female characters from Tamora Pierce's books, not just Alanna: Daine, Kel (especially Kel, since she doesn't even have magic), Beka, Tris, Sandry, Daja, Alianne, etc., etc..

Also Sonea (The Black Magician Trilogy, Trudy Canavan), and how could they forget Lyra Belaqua!
Rob Munnelly
5. RobMRobM
Eilonwy from Alexander's Prydain series.

Both Annabeth and Thalia from Riordan's Percy Jackson series.
Scott Silver
7. hihosilver28
Didn't mean to double post. Stupid browser.
8. DJordan
I will second (third?) Vin from Mistborn. Actually, many of Sanderson's female leads are amazingly awesome.
9. DJordan
I will second (third?) Vin from Mistborn. Actually, many of Sanderson's female leads are amazingly awesome.
10. SKM
I have to second Meliara, Lyra, and Eilonwy, and add Sabriel to the list.
11. mutantalbinocrocodile
Second for Robin McKinley, though I'd pick Harry from The Blue Sword over Aerin. And while I see the point about Sanderson and female characters, I really wouldn't class Mistborn or any of Sanderson's main series novels as YA. Accessible to teenage readers, but not YA definitionally.
12. Robert Sparling
I'm not sure Vin can count as the original list was characters from children's books (aimed at the YA market specifically). Notable leave-outs

1. Lyra Belaqua His Dark Materials
2. Tiffany Aching Discworld
3. Violet Baudelaire Series of Unfortunate Events
4. Coraline Coraline

I think the list also is rather vague. "greatest girl characters" isn't the best descriptor to build criteria for, and the writer's own use of the American Adam model doesn't even fit with half the choices she listed. Is Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind excluded from this list because she bows to the society she is in (a very restrictive muslim one) or does she get points for even contemplating running away from an arranged marriage? I would disagree with it, but by pure selling power Bela Swan could be considered "greatest" or Nancy Drew.

It's a crap list thrown together because Hunger Games continues to generate buzz and editorial space always needs filling. It's the same reason Joel Stein is allowed to mouth off about nothing; YA is a hot topic, so anything with it in the title will drive traffic to the site.
13. Slydiad
Rose Rita Pottinger from John Bellairs's Lewis Barnivelt series, especially the couple of books when she and Mrs. Zimmerman go off and have adventures on their own.

Candy Quackenbush in Clive Barker's Abarat novels.

And I strongly second Lyra Belacqua & Tiffany Aching.
Rob Munnelly
14. RobMRobM
OK - for a Sanderson book aimed at YA or younger, let's do Bastille from the Alcatraz books.
Joseph DeAgostino
15. Kernan
Lirael and Sabriel from the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix.
Mari Ness
16. MariCats
@Robert Sparling -- You're right; I should have been more clear. In my defense I typed this up in a hurry.

The original Atlantic article brought up an argument from the original New York Times article that was discussing Katniss in the context of American literature. The Atlantic tried to counter the idea that Katniss is new in AMERICAN young adult literature by bringing up Swedish and Canadian books -- and worse, one written for distinctly younger children (Pippi Longstocking) and one written for adults. That was my perhaps not all too well expressed point.

I should have added in my post, though, a sentence saying that since the Atlantic had left the U.S., suggestions here could as well. You're right about the vagueless of the original definition, too -- one reason I had issues with the article -- but that doesn't excuse my own ambiguity here.

For everybody -- Lyra was left out by me because I was in a hurry to get this posted. I can't tell you why The Atlantic left her out, unless they were also in a hurry -- they managed to get Claudia Kincaid in there, after all.

For everybody -- Mistborn and A Song of Ice and Fire were written for and marketed to adults. Not denying that Arya and Vin are kickass characters, but even if the Atlantic went a little off track there, my point was that they shouldn't have. Let's try to stick with books written for teenagers. And keep those suggestions coming!!!!
17. Triona Guidry
I'll second Eilonwy, plus Trixie and Honey. I'll throw in Menolly from Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger trilogy and Kit Tyler from The Witch Of Blackbird Pond.
18. redheadedjen
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favorite novels of all time. I read it at 12 and still love it at 38. Francie has my vote for a great girl in YA literature.
19. Kvon
Cashore's Katsa and Graceling are strong girls. Also Pat Wrede's YA books--Eff of Thirteenth Child and Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons.
20. hawkido
where are ANY of the supergirls from the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan? Hello, Egwene pretty much nails down the empowered lead female! Nyneve, for strength. Elaine, for courrage. Min, for knowing how to properly find power and respect through knowledge and wisdom. Moiraine, for staring into the mouth of death and walking into it, knowing it is what must be done.

Granted that the mastery of these female's cause most readers to alternate between calling them awesome and bitches with alarming frequency (Min excluded), but that is indeed life.

Also Hermione, WTF guys she rocks... Female nerds always rock!
Andrew Mason
21. AnotherAndrew
I'm afraid I can't add to the list of heroines, but I'd like to make a side-comment: there seems to be a growing tendency, of which the Atlantic list is presumably an example, to refer to all books whose intended audience is under 18 as Young Adult - I've seen many books which were published for children, and which, if still in print, are still marketed to chidren, described in that way. Perhaps it's felt that calling something a children's book is disrespectful - 'this can't be a children's book: it has depth!' - which is annoying both to actual chidren and to those adults who unashamedly read children's books.

This makes me rather uncertain just what the limits of YA fiction are. Mari, obviously rightly, rules out books that were actually writen to be read aloud to younger children, but I think she is still letting in some books that are marketed to the 9-12 age range - notably Harry Potter (which, to be sure, follows Harry and Hermione into their later years, but quite definitely started out as a children's series and is still sold as such - though it is also sold to old adults). Likewise A Series of Unfortunate Events is sold as 9-12 - the author, Daniel Handler, has recently completed what both he and his publishers regard as his first YA novel, Why We Broke Up, and clearly thinks of ASOUE as something else - and yet people keep calling it YA.

This also leads to some uncertainty about how far back Young Adult books go. Often, when someone suggests that YA publishing is something new, people will try to defend its antiquity by pointing to what are clearly children's books - I've seen Alice in Wonderland referred to as an example. I'm sure that, for a long time, people have indeed written books with teenagers in mind, but I get the sense they weren't so firmly defined as a category in the past, and it's not always easy to tell which they were.

So yes, Hermione and Violet, and indeed Coraline, are heroines of note and great exemplars, but they seem to me to belong to a very different field from The Hunger Games.
22. A.C. Wise
I'd add both Nix and Lilah from Jonathan Maberry's ongoing YA zombie series (Rot & Ruin and Dust & Decay, so far, with the third book Flesh & Fire on the way), as two recent/current examples.
Mari Ness
23. MariCats
@hawkido -- Hmm. I know that there was a push to start marketing the Wheel of Time books to teenagers -- at least the first one, but I still think of them as largely shelved and marketed to adults?

(Everyone should feel free to correct me here.)

@AnotherAndrew -- That's a fair point with Hermione Granger, especially since I went after the Atlantic article for including the Betsy-Tacy books, which start at an even younger age than the Harry Potter books do.

I'd say that the young adult book market started in the 18th century, with didactic books written specifically for teenagers, as opposed to children. The 19th century continued this trend -- books aimed at young children, older children and finally teenagers. Most of these books, however, have fallen out of print/favor since they tended to be didactic or boring. Indeed, probably the most revolutionary part of Alice in Wonderland is that it was aimed at children -- and yet avoided preachiness, morals or any examples of proper child behavior.

The 19th century Little Women was written specifically for teenagers -- and more specifically for teenage girls -- to fit what its publisher saw as a major need, as were many of Alcott's later titles, including An Old Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom. What Katy Did, What Katy Did Next and the rest of the Katy titles were also aimed at teenage girls, rather than children. I didn't include them because Katy rapidly changes from kickass to angelic/boring after a convenient accident.

The more problematic books are the ones written that featured teenage girls or children as main characters, but were intended for adults when they were written. In this category are Anne of Green Gables, Daddy-Long-Legs, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Huckleberry Finn. Interestingly, when these books were written by women, they often ended up getting shelved as "young adult" or "children's" fiction. This becomes particularly interesting when you look at their sequels: Anne's House of Dreams, for instance, is a study of marriage, motherhood, and entrapment, not exactly what we think of with either children's or young adult books, and Dear Enemy is a study of the social and economic issues involved in running an orphanage -- told, not from the point of view of the cute orphans, but from the director. It's definitely an adult book.

Interestingly, I'm noting a related trend in the comments -- if it has a teenage/girl heroine, it's Young Adult! This probably reflects actual reading habits -- as I said, I have no doubt that teenagers are reading Mistborn and probably reading Wheel of Time -- but it doesn't necessarily put them in that nebulous category of children/young adult.

But you are right: many of these books were not as sharply defined as categories in the past.
24. Earl Rogers
"For a slightly less kick-ass fantasy heroine who does buck the social structures of her world: Tenar, in Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan."

Tenar, who ends up leading a very sedate, conventional life that she herself dismisses as "nothing much important" in her middle age empty nester years? Eehhh.
25. CHS
Cimorene from Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles. The girl cooks dessert for dragons, fights her own battles, practices magic, melts wizards with buckets of soapy water, and manages to stay and active heroine AFTER she gets married and starts having kids.
Joris Meijer
26. jtmeijer
Sally Lockhard from the Philip Pullman books, although only a girl in the first one.

Alice, in alice in wonderland.

And for a bit younger audience
Matilda, in the Roald Dahl book, or Sophie by the same author in the BFG.
Brian R
27. Mayhem
This is hard for me, because I read pretty widely when I was that age, so Childrens/YA/Adult fantasy kind of blurred.

Also, echoing calls for Tiffany Aching and Menolly.

Definite candidates:
The Amazons from Arthur Ransome's Swallows & Amazons series
Elspeth, from the Obernewtyn series, Isobelle Carmody
Talia, Arrows of the Queen, Mercedes Lackey
Kerowyn, By The Sword, Mercedes Lackey

Wren Ohmsford, Elf Queen of Shannara, Terry Brooks
Indigo, Indigo series, Louise Cooper
Mara, Daughter of the Empire, Janny Wurts & Raymond E Feistt.
Paksennarion, Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Elizabeth Moon (borderline)
Brent Longstaff
28. Brentus
I second Rose Rita Pottinger and Tiffany Aching.
29. Tehanu
I second lots of these, especially Trixie Belden, Eilonwy, and Tiffany Aching. I'd add Jill Pole from the Narnia books too - a girl who rises to the challenge of crossing a wilderness and takes no guff from anybody, least of all her boy companion.
Mari Ness
30. MariCats
@Earl Rogers -- Point about Tenar, but if you look just at The Tombs of Atuan, in that book, by defying her world's rules, she literally leaves her world in ruins, struck by a major earthquake. It's a change.

What happens later -- well, at least she got to choose that.
31. WhitK
I nominate Alfreda (Allie) - Katharine Kimbriel's heroine in Night Calls and Kindred Rites - a unique teenage character in a unique setting.
32. Tigertina
Zoey - from The House og Night series.. And several other girls from those books as well..
Adam Miller
33. AdamM
How about Zoe from Scalzi's Zoe's Tale?
34. DHMCarver
Thanks for the post -- it was espeically interesting as I am working on my first YA/fantasy novel (first draft completed), and it features two early teen heroines. Your post and the comments it engendered provide plenty of food for thought.
35. AuttieB
Vesper Holly from Alexander...you don't get much more badass then the girl Indiana Jones
36. Horza
Sabriel and Lirael from Garth Nix's Old Kingdom trilogy.

Antimony Carver from Tom Siddel's Gunnerkrigg Court. Yes, it's a webcomic, but it's YA, and available in print form.
37. Earl Rogers
"What happens later -- well, at least she got to choose that. "

I wouldn't mind her choosing to get married and have a family...many women do that. Who am I to begrudge them their personal way of finding purpose and joy?

But in Tenar's case, it seems throughout all of "Tehanu" that her husband might as well have not existed for all that she thinks (or doesn't) about him, and her children are little more than something to contrast her own attitudes against.

Plus, the notion that she doesn't truly seem to feel alive again until she's in a romantic relationship with Ged, well...one of many problems I have with her fate in the series.
38. LeighCC
Ella from Ella Enchanted! She was my role model when I was growing up. The book, obviously, not the horrid movie.
39. Cairs
My daughter is currently enjoying Seeing Redd, and Alyss definitely sounds like a take-charge girl.
40. wanderingdream
I would like to make a comment about the Young Adult classification. I feel that Young Adult is not just specifically 13-18, especially in today's market where children are maturing faster than ever. As the article itself says, when some of the books were released there was no way that they were acceptable for teen/tween consumption but now are standards. Therefore, I argue that books like Harry Potter that start at age 11 are part of the Young Adult genre, because when I think of Young Adult I think of the situations that teen/tweens start to face that are also very real situations that adults face, especially when concerning making decisions about their lives, dealing with life/death, understanding the long-lasting consequences of decisions, and romance. While I immediately cringed when typing the word romance because I think we all want to be able to associate kickass women with them kicking ass in life, I don't think we should shy away from the romance side as well and I feel that would be a criticism of my mentioning romance. That being said, romance is an important part of adult life, and I'm using romance to mean a variety of things from crushes to significant others to the (starting out) simple lusts of wanting a kiss from someone. Therefore, I'd say Young Adult does start at about age 11, and so books like Harry Potter or even Matilda (who I was very upset wasn't mentioned and who deals with very important life issues including how to handle damaged adults and trying to find a family where they actually fit, and understanding that family doesn't have to simply be (or be at all) blood relation.

Basically, I think the Young Adult genre should be about books that deal with teens/tweens facing adult situations for one of the first times and navigating those situations and pitfalls. Therefore, books like Matlida and Harry Potter absolutely qualify.

That being said, I also think that the way the book is written also plays a part. What I mean by that is if it's simplistic sentences or concepts (like Matilda can be, especially when it comes to the ideas of the adults in her life) then it shouldn't be considered Young Adult.

That's my 2 cents and I'm sticking to it. Also, I never read enough fiction as a kid so a lot of the books you guys are mentioning I'm making a mental note to now check out. I wholeheartedly agree with Lyra, and I didn't read all the comments and I've only seen the show but I would also like to throw out Elana from Vampire Diaries. If her book self is anything lie her show self, I think she's pretty awesome. She gives up a lot for a guy but doesn't sacrifice herself unless it's for the good of everyone, she walked away from the guy when he became abusive, she takes care of her younger brother, and she handles life and death situations pretty calmly once she accepts her life has turned completely upside down. I wish I had been as cool and collected and smart as her when I was in high school. And maybe that I had known a witch or vampire or something.
41. UnionJane
This is a little obscure, but Gerald Morris's reworking of the Arthurian tales for young adults has several kick ass ladies (and some of them are even protagonists).

Also, where is Tiffany Aching from The Wee Free Men, etc. by Terry Pratchett?! I loved her as a kid. I know there are SO MANY I'm forgetting.
Richard Wills
42. pedestrian
When our grand-daughter was about twelve, she saw that I was reading a library book {titled: something -King Arthur -something, I don't remember it better then that}. She was really getting into the teen-girl-fantasy at that time and so she started reading it.

Now it's a collection of modern versions of the Arthurian Mythology Canon by an assortment of authors. Some of the stories were of rather mature even overtly sexual themes. No, she hadn't asked if she could read it. So I discussed it with her, that modern fantasy fiction has many historical and factual errors. Her grandmother discussed with her the emotional and sexual themes.

We determined that she was, in general, comprehending the material at her age and education level and permitted her to continue. When we returned to the library, she wanted to renew it. When she took it up to the counter, the Librarian, who evidently understood that this was a mature level book, questioned if it was appropriate for her to read this book. But after talking to my wife and I, she was satisfied that the girl's literacy ability was mature enough for the material.

And this is important, that the loco parentis put in the effort to communicate with the children about what they are reading and why they want to read that specific material. I can sympathize with people who feel that their twelve year olds should not be reading this book. Some those parents are probably correct but not all of them.
43. Wendigo Mountain
Nancy Drew? Not only did she catch more evil-doers than the RMCP, but she did it book after book. No, not great "litrachoor," certainly not up to the standards of the illustrious Atlantic, but she did capture the imagination of generations of aspiring young detectives.
44. Valerie V.
Diana Wynne Jones was mentioned in passing, but she does indeed have a number of great heroines. Probably the best known is Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle. I find her interesting because initially she balks convention in spite of herself, not intentionally.

Would folks consider To Kill a Mocking Bird as YA? If so, Scout is great.
Joe Vondracek
45. joev
Trixie Belden and her best friend Honey Wheeler.
Confession: as a young lad, I much preferred Trixie Belden to Nancy Drew. (I used to read all of my sister's books. And my mother's romance novels. I read everything.)

I nominate Deryn Sharp from Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series. She's quick-thinking and fearless, a regular action hero.
46. Leah617
I'm going to more recent stick to books labeled YA for this:

-Katsa, Bitterblue, Fire (Kristen Cashore's Graceling universe)
-Gemma Doyle (Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle series)
-Deryn Sharp (Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan Trilogy)
-Tally (Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series)
-Tris (Veronica Roth's Divergent series)
-Clary Fray and Tessa Grey (Cassie Clare's Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series)
47. Els Kushner
Mosca Mye, the indefatigable and totally kickass heroine of FLY BY NIGHT and its sequel FLY TRAP, by Frances Hardinge!
Emma Rosloff
48. emmarosloff
Have to echo Lyra Belaqua from His Dark Materials. She's supposed to be what, 12? And yet that book wrestles with many darker, more adult themes and the worldbuilding's incredible. Also want to second Menolly from the Dragonsinger trilogy. I agree that 'Scout' is an enduring heroine, as well, an inspiration to young woman, whether or not you'd classify To Kill A Mocking Bird as YA. I read that book as a girl and it really stuck with me.

I think it's interesting to consider what constitutes YA nowadays. I've been reading a lot of the YA cropping up lately in the wake of The Hunger Games (Dystopian YA in particular) and I honestly find most of it to be a bit limiting, a bit simple. Books like: Enclave, Ashes, Ashes, Delirium, Divergent (to name a few) that all feature strong female heroines, but are rather weak stories with vague and/or poorly wrought worlds, in my opinion.

Suzanne Collins manages to paint Katniss' world in broader, simpler strokes, and yet still tell a riveting tale -- ultimately, her message is what translates, and it's powerful and clear. Her world may be simple, but it's fully realized in context, I feel. So many books are trying to imitate this (hell, even I'm trying to, I'm working on a YA trilogy right now), but it's a tall order.

What's funny is I read a ton of adult fiction growing up, primarily sci-fi and fantasy. Sure, as a tween I was reading Harry Potter, Roald Dahl's books, the Anne of Green Gables series and yes, my father read Little House on the Praerie to me every night before bed as a small child. But he also read me and my brother Dune and I dreamed of sandworms. In middle school he read the bulk of Aasimov's 7 book Foundation series to me, and I had a 7th grade English teacher who read us Brave New World. I also read the Hobbit/the Lord of the Rings, Brian Jaques Redwall series, even John Varley's Gaea Trilogy (which is full of sex).

By 9th grade I was reading books like Mists of Avalon, Stranger in a Strange Land, Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Ender's Game, 1984, and more classic stuff like Jane Eyre. Small wonder much of the YA I'm reading nowadays feels so watered down.

I didn't really have a concept of 'Young Adult', but I felt enriched by literature full of adult situations, with characters navigating difficult circumstance and often oppressive or alienating societies. Even reading about adults facing these scenarios gave me insight and courage -- just because the protagonist wasn't my age, didn't mean I couldn't relate or hook into their story. But, I was always an oddball, growing up, I could be an exception.

All that being said, my goal with my YA trilogy is to create a world and tell a story of the caliber that I grew up reading, but to feature a strong, 16-year-old female protagonist, wrestling just as much with her identity as with the fate of everything, alongside an equally tenacious 17-yeard-old boy. I don't think the label of 'YA' should let the writer off the hook. If anything, it's more of a challenge to write about extraordinary circumstance through the lens of that pivotal time of life.
49. wend
Reading comments on what constitutes YA classification I'm reminded of a quote I heard long ago (I sadly no longer remember the source) ...

"Young Adult is a POV, not a reading level"

That seemed to make sense to me, especially today when there are so many cross-over titles like Hunger Games, Black Magician Trilogy, His Dark Materials, Inheritance Cycle, Graceling & Harry Potter (marketed 9-12 in bookshops yet teenager POV in the last few books). Also, they are read by a large age range.

I realise I'm reminded of YA fantasy titles here, instead of YA fiction - must be the HG connection.
50. Julieb5543
Basoni from Witchwood cradle you see her go from girl to woman and in the end stand up for herself and her young charge...

Laura Chant from the change over

both among my favorites as YA

51. Novashannon
I disllike putting an audience age on books, so I like the idea that YA is a pov! Glad someone else recalls Trixie and Honey fondly (I liked them much more than the priggish Nancy) and a few others mentioned here (love Menolly). I agree that there are some obviously aimed at youner children. I am just so glad that so many YA heroines kick ass! I think that children's books sometimes talok down to people. The HP books did not and were fun for adults to read from the beginning.
52. angellus00
I saw it said once but it could bear saying again.

Vin in Mistborn is amazing.
53. wtsmith
Melpomene from John Barnes' Orbital Resonance.
54. Mary Lynne
Two books by Elizabeth Marie Pope spring to mind that no one seems to have mentioned: The Sherwood Ring and The Perilous Gard.
55. jenchem
Ok, maybe not strictly YA - but most of us read LOTR as teens, so how about the brilliant Eowyn? Guys, she was a young adult and she made the most awesome kill in the whole series! Remember, "I am NO MAN!" She struggled against the serious confines of her life as a woman, killed the King of the Ring Wraiths, and learned to be happy with who she was. I'm surprised no one has thought of her yet.
56. StarWatcher
I'll second Menolly from Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger trilogy and Kit Tyler from The Witch Of Blackbird Pond, and add Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphin. I was so young when I read Trixie Belden -- 8 or 9 -- that I barely remember her, but the memory brings warm fuzzies.
57. Asakiyume
Great discussion! Glad to see The Perilous Gard get mentioned; that one left a big impression on me as a young person. Another set that only middle-aged readers are likely to know are Enchantress from the Stars and The Far Side of Evil, about an anthropologist from a highly advanced future civilization.

Two stand-alone books by Lloyd Alexander that had strong female characters are Gypsy Rizka and The Rope Trick
58. Virginia
Everything by Sally Watson, but my favorite is "Jade," the story of a girl pirate. Sally is still writing about kick-ass heroines, by the way, at age 80-something!
sparrow hawk
59. sprrwhwk
Add to the list the title character of Caddie Woodlawn, a no-nonsense frontier tomboy.
60. ntn
I absolutely back up Cimorene from the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Hari from The Blue Sword, and all of Tamora Pierce's heroines. Every single one of them bucks the role expected of her by society and has awesome adventures to boot.

But how come nobody's mentioned Rosie from Spindle's End?? She's just about the most amazing version of Sleeping Beauty ever, and you can be sure she doesn't just sleep while the big finale's going on!!!
61. Wordslinger
So many people have mentioned many of the heroines I would have mentioned (and I also loved Trixie Belden SO much more than Nancy Drew) but I can't believe no one's mentioned Stephanie Edgley from Derek Landy's fabulous Skulduggery Pleasant books!
62. Kirstenzoe
My only thing, is that when most of these books were published, YA didn't exisit. No one WROTE books for young adults, there wasn't just not a market for it, NO ONE CARED. I think if written today, Anne of Green Gables would definetly be YA (and I think Montgomery would love the idea of a YA market, which is very different from Children's publishing)

But yeah. Ramona? I last read that when I was...8. I was young, but I wasn't anywhere near an adult.
Kerly Luige
63. Celebrinnen
I`d say "Pippi" is absolutely a children`s book.
And I`m not so sure whether it is exactly a YA (although I believe it should be), but Mac and Dani from Karen Marie Moning`s "Fever"-series should definitely be in this list. These two definitely know how to kick (fae)ass.
Mari Ness
64. MariCats
@Kristenzoe -- The idea that YA adult as a category didn't exist until recently is frequently repeated, and completely untrue.

The most famous example these days, because it's one of the few still read, is Little Women. Louisa May Alcott was approached by an editor and specifically requested to write a book for older girls -- not teenagers. That book, and several of her later books -- An Old Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, and Jack and Jill were aimed specifically at that young and lucrative market. An aside in Old Fashioned Girl even shows that Alcott knew full well the book would be read by 14 year olds. Alcott was sort of the Meyer/Collins of her day, in a way, and publishers rushed to cash in.

During the 20th century, several publishers produced generally terrible series books about glamourous nurses (the Cherry Ames books), some equally awful books about glamourous flight attendants, and so on. L. Frank Baum, better known for the Oz books, wrote an entire ten book series specifically aimed at adolescent girls, called Aunt Jane's Nieces. And this is not even mentioning the didactic stuff printed for and aimed at teenage girls in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Most of this stuff isn't read anymore, but it certainly was printed and recognized as a separate publishing category. But with the questionable exception of Little Women, it was also dismissed as complete crap (I've looked at a Cherry Ames book, and that's a legitimate critical assessment) and not worthy of critical attention and praise.

L.M. Montgomery was most DEFINITELY aware of these books; she even read the didactic 19th century stuff whenever she could get her hands on it as a young child and voracious reader. She even wrote short stories for this adolescent market. When she wrote Anne of Green Gables, however, she deliberately wrote this for an adult market. It was marketed and sold to adults (you can see this from the initial cover images), was widely read by adults, and for the first ten years of its existence recognized as an adult novel that teenagers could also read.

Montgomery was not against the idea of a YA market at all; it helped support her financially before she wrote Anne of Green Gables. But she shared the critical assessment of most of the books in that category, and was upset and deeply offended when (mostly male) critics delegated her works to the adolescent girl category, particularly because several libraries also restricted access to many of her books, particularly A Blue Castle, but also Anne's House of Dreams and A Tangled Web, as inappropriate reading for teenagers. She discussed this with fellow writers and, very painfully, in her journals; this dismissal may have been one of the factors that led to her suicide.
S Cooper
65. SPC
Hey, when you're in the right age bracket, Cherry Ames books are fun! Cherry is a total Mary Sue, but the world and story around her can be interesting (The WWII ones were, for sure). I'm not going to try to defend them all, but they're really all in the same boat with Nancy Drew.

I think Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys might make your point better, unless they were targeted for a younger audience than I think they were. Just look up the list of Stratemeyer Syndicate series on Wikipedia - there were a lot.

What age were Heinlein's juveniles intended for?
S Cooper
66. SPC
To be clear, I'm not nominating anyone from Cherry Ames, Vicki Barr, Nancy Drew, the Stratemeyer books, or the Heinlein juveniles as "great" girl characters. Just expanding on historical YA offerings.
Shelly wb
67. shellywb
I heard a definition of YA vs children's books recently that made a lot of sense to me. In children's books the protagonist comes out the other side of her experience basically the same person, still a child. In YA books the protagonist deals with issues that push her closer to adulthood. YA books involved that change in some way, children's books do not.
Mari Ness
68. MariCats
@SPC - Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins were all intended for a younger audience - ages 7 through 10. I don't know about Heinlein.

And yes, I think we're all in agreement that Cherry Ames and Vicki Barr are not great girl characters. The Atlantic, however, puts Nancy Drew in that category. I don't, but I would put Trixie Belden and Honey Wheeler on the list, with the caveat that since these were also syndicated books written in a hurry, and it shows, the quality lacks something.

@shelleywb -- Hmm. Not sure if I can buy that -- it's certainly true for some children's books, (including the Oz books and Paddington Bear) but many children's books certainly deal with issues that push them closer to adulthood -- The Little House books (including the first four which were most definitely aimed at a young audience -- 6 to 7 -- even we are debating the last few) and Harriet the Spy from the Atlantic's list as the first that come immediately to mind.

For that matter, Understood Betsy (1916), absolutely aimed at and written for children (and featuring a nine year old) , deals with a significant change, including emotional maturity, for the child, and t as do many of the Kate Douglas Wiggins books -- and again, this is just off the top of my head. Going down to picture books, the protagonists in some (not all) Dr. Seuss books and in the Berenstein Bears books often end up changing by the end of the book, taking on more responsibility and independence.

On the other hand, if that's the definition the Atlantic was using, that certainly explains their list.

@everybody -- Please keep these suggestions coming! With the exception of Cherry Ames, this is great!
69. TLynn
I am loving this conversation! Elana from the Vampire Diaries is nothing like the one in the television show. She does not belong on this list. Also, the Book Thief by Zusak was originally written for adults, but I do think it belongs on a YA list.
As a librarian, I shelve anything that is ment for 5th grade and up as YA. This is how I define it.
I just wanted to add my 2 cents :)
70. RMK
No one has mentioned one of my very favorite authors, Patricia McKillip. Sybel from "The Forgotten Beasts of Eld" is a frighteningly powerful magicuser who softens and balances but does not surrender her power for love; Rois rescues her sister from a faery curse in "Winter Rose"; Nepenthe stops a coup in "Alphabet of Thorn"...and there are many more memorable female characters, such as Tristan and Raederle of the Riddlemaster trilogy, Melanthos in "The Tower at Stony Wood," or Mag in "Ombria in Shadow". Some of her books have been published as YA, some as adult fantasy, but they all feature her gorgeous writing and complex characters (and recently, covers by the fabulous Kinuko Craft, bonus!)
71. rachelaka
I'm coming on late, here, but this is a great discussion for Saturday morning coffee. In the general/non SF/F YA category, I don't think anyone mentioned Jane, from Cecil Castellucci's graphic novel the Plain Janes. Dicey Tillerman is great, in Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming, from her Tillerman Cycle- all good reads with strong, deep-thinking female and male characters dealing with lots of "growing up stuff" and some generally messed up adults. Admittedly still on one of my reading piles are two YA fantasy books by the wonderful Nnedi Okorafor, The Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker, whose protagonists are both strong, young women of color. They have that in common with the Hunger Games, which is more than can be said of many other books on the Atlantic's pitifully ill-educated list.
72. stacey2545
No one's mentioned Chloe or Maya from Kelley Armstrong's YA trilogies. Or the girls in Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely!
73. Taryntula
Harry Crewe, from Robin McKinley's "The Blue Sword," kicks major butt. She is AWESOME.

Meg Murry, from Madeliene L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," I think would also apply...I think it's inbetween as far as Young Adult. I read it when I was 11 or 12, so maybe that's why I associate it as YA.

Kit Tyler from "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" (as mentioned above by another poster)

Princess Eilonwy from the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

Also, I don't know where Brian Jacques' "Redwall" series lies ( I would put it in the tween reading area myself), but Mariel Gullwhacker of "Mariel of Redwall" and "The Bellmaker" kicks butt too...even if she is a mouse :)
74. iaoey
Calwyn from The Singer of All Songs (Kate Constable)
Maerad from The Naming (Alison Croggon)
These two are almost exactly the same book, but still worth reading.

Kestrel Hath in the Wind Singer and Holly Blue in Faerie Wars are great too. They're both one of two or three main characters.

Seconding Tiffany Aching, Lyra, Candy Quakenbush, etc. You're all right.
Travis Butler
76. tbutler
A few thoughts...

I agree that a lot of the suggestions above - WoT, Song of Fire and Ice especially, maybe the Lackey books, certainly Wurts' Empire books, etc. - are adult books, not YA, so I wouldn't include them here. And I'd put Pippi firmly into the children's camp, but no less worthy for that.

(I admit being confused by the 13-18 age range quoted above, since I'd classify high school - certainly at graduation, probably down to freshmen - as 'adult' for many practical purposes, and very distinct from jr. high. In fact, I'm tempted to define YA in educational terms, as 'middle school/jr. high' - shading into late elementary school on one end and early high school on the other. It's a pretty distinctive period between 'basic three R's' and 'start functioning as an adult'.)

And I'll go back around on that and note that while I think the relabeling of Wrede/Stevemer's Sorcery and Cecelia as YA is questionable at best, it would at least let me propose their heroines as suitable for this list. If we let S&C in, then perhaps we could let Mairelon the Magician in, and that would let me cite Kim... :)

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiller shades a bit towards children's level, but I rather like Claudia's initiative and smarts.

How about Turtle from The Westing Game?

I'd also second the recommendations for Menolly, Nita from the Young Wizards books, Cimorene, Tiffany Aching, and Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle.
Dix Denni
77. DixD
Ms. Ness has made a strong argument—along with other, more–appropriate options—for her own picks. And, I’m impressed by how so many unpaid individuals have come together with her to create a more–accurate and –complete rendition of the list originally intended by The Atlantic. Bravo!

Growing up, my favorite YA femme was Maia, written by Richard Adams (of Watership Down fame). This is fantasy, and set in the same Beklan Empire as is Shardik. That girl does a great deal of striving and growing—with few punches pulled.

Is anyone else, here, aware of Thorn, the protagonist of Gary Jennings’s, Raptor? No need for a “spoiler” alert; I’m not about to give away the twists of this one. I’ll say only that, while not quite the quintessential YA draw, over the next few decades this character should prove “meaningful” for the world in which we find ourselves.
Mig Archey
78. Quilld
I would add Hester Shaw, Wren Natsworthy and Fever Crumb from Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines Quartet and Fever Craumb series.

BTW, 19 April, The Altlantic followed that piece with the second in the series: What Does 'Young Adult' Mean?
79. curlygeek04
Thank you for including the Oz girls! When I was a girl those were my favorite books, and I loved how all his books had strong girls and women. I had a hard time finding adventurous girl characters in other books (though Pippi was also a favorite). I know Baum's writing can be a little dated today but Oz is still my favorite fantasy world.

I'd second the mentions of Sabriel and Lirael, Tiffany Aching, and the female characters of Scott Westerfeld. Though I'd rather suggest characters written by women, none are coming to mind at the moment (other than ones already mentioned).
80. Kays
As a break from all the fantasy heroines, how about Dicey in Cynthia Voight's Homecoming and Dicey's Song? Tough, on the fringes of middle class life, she rivals Katniss as a determined survivor, and is equally protective of her younger siblings.
81. Saavik
There's another Elana--in Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl. Definitely YA (a Newbery Honor book). On the categorization issue: Engdahl's "Children of the Star" trilogy (This Star Shall Abide, Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains, Doors of the Universe) was originally published/categorized as YA, but the omnibus edition of the entire trilogy was published as adult SF! Hey, the page count was higher....
82. morigianna
Mists of Avalon and more in that series has MANY strong females.
83. Laura the Author
No one's mentioned anything by Lois Lenski, one of my favorite authors in the young adult area.
84. forootle
Alice Bastable, Jane and Anthea and the other very real Edwardian girls from Nesbit's books. Not sure whether they'd be classified as 'Young Adult' - they don't really contain much about Issues or Growing Up, but they don't really read like children's books either somehow. Maybe 'Upper Tween', especially the fantasy.
85. Lainey
That list was a little off in places, no doubt. But I do believe that a couple of those characters belong on a list of all time best characters, such as Anne Shirley and Winnie Foster. Not because they're radical or because every reader wanted to be them at one time or another, but because they're beautifully written and possessed strength in imagination and intellect that we just don't see anymore (except for Hermione, of course). In my opinion, there are about a hundred female characters than belong distinctly above Katniss Everdeen on that list. Her incessant whining and everlasting trust issues just pissed me off. A thousand female characters have lived through things worse than the events of The Hunger Games trilogy, and none of them survived on attitude alone. To me, Katniss is an example of "emotional constipation" and the only reason she's so bad-ass is because she's physically fit and can shoot like nobody's business. She reminds me of the closed-off, emotionless women in crime shows who make impressions only by taking down the criminal in an action movie-esque fashion. True, she's the epitome of physical awesomeness, but she's got no favorable personality to enhance that.
Esmera Z.
86. Esmera
I totally agree with Vin, though I'm admittedly confused about what counts as "young adult," Mistborn was my favorite book when I was 14. And for all the Sanderson lovers out there I have to mention Shallan in Way of Kings (though she isn't the main protagonist, just one of many).

Also Cimorene, all of Tamora Pierce's heroines, those ones from Mercedes Lackey, and a lot more people mentioned that I'm forgetting. Though I'm likewise not sure if Mercedes Lackey is really a young adult author, she was still one of my favorites in high school.

Katniss was awesome. In the first book. And kind of the last book, too, but I read that once, cried my eyes out, and promised to never taint the memory. She was awesome, but then the romantic drama came in and bleh... not my cup of tea.
87. That other Jacob
I'm grateful for the Sanderson love (he's my favorite), but there are a few names really missing from this discussion:
Susan & Lucy Pevensie, Jill Pole, Aravis, and Polly Plummer

Multifaceted, mostly-heroic female characters written by a male sixty-odd years ago who carry the story without being martyrs--often with legitimately aggrieved females opposing them.

Viva la Lewis!

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