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7 YA Heroines Who Kick Butt with Their Smarts and Hearts

by Iva-Marie Palmer

Groundbreaking Female Characters in YA

When I think of heroines, I think of Elizabeth Bennet — Jane Austen’s leading lady of Pride and Prejudice could have been another shrinking violet or fainting flower, but she chose to be witty and fierce and not easily impressed by prospective suitors. Or, take Jo March, Louisa May Alcott’s strong, outspoken tomboy in Little Women, a character purposefully not cut from the same cloth as other heroines of her time.

In today’s YA, there are all manner of fierce heroines, from Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Divergent) to Hermione Granger, Harry Potter’s smarter-than-all-the-guys-and-doesn’t-care-who-knows-it wizard — even if you take them out of their dystopian settings or magical universes, these contemporary heroines play by their own rules. But there are plenty of female characters who are groundbreaking in subtler ways, without wielding bows or wands. Here are some of our favorite “everyday” revolutionaries from teen literature:

  • Frankie Landau-Banks

    from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart

    True heroics are often as much about rejecting what we aren’t as they are about embracing what we are. In this National Book Award finalist, Frankie does both, as a sharp, witty young woman who takes on her boyfriend’s male-only secret society and, by seeing-and-raising-them with a series of pranks, proves that she’s not to be trifled with.

  • Eleanor Douglas

    from Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

    Eleanor, whether she knows it or not, is brave. Park Sheridan says of her, “Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.” A poor girl with flaming red hair and unconventional clothing, Eleanor is not aspirational in the glossy-magazine sense of the word, but she does live and love while honoring the truth. She’s a quiet misfit’s heroine — and we need more of those.

  • Theo

    from Pointe, by Brandy Colbert

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    In writing a book with a black ballerina as her main character, Colbert brought greater diversity to the publishing world while also putting a lot of racial stereotypes to the test. But what’s most impressive about Theo is that she’s a complex teenager battling many issues in what is ultimately not an “issues” book. Instead, Theo is a wildly multifaceted character looking to hold her life together while also trying to piece together the mystery of her best friend’s abduction after he returns four years later a very different person.

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  • Blair Waldorf

    from the Gossip Girl Series, by Cecily von Ziegesar

    Say what you will about how spoiled she is, queen-bee Blair deserves to be on this list and lauded as a woman with the chutzpah to go after what she wants (even if she doesn’t always do it by the most laudable means). Machiavellian or not, she also tends to own her mistakes and for that, we can applaud her.

  • Madeline Whittier

    from Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon

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    At first glance, it might be hard to understand Madeline Whittier’s place on this list. Thanks to a disease that makes it impossible for her to even leave her room, she can’t do much of anything. How can she be a hero in those conditions? Madeline goes from Zen-heroic (accepting her life for what it is) to risk-taking heroic (wanting to live an unsanitized life of connections) with an aplomb worth emulating.

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  • Beatrice Maria Estrella Giovannini

    from I’m Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl, by Gretchen McNeil

    Manic Pixie Dream Girls, if you don’t know, are sort of like all the Instagram filters rolled into one seemingly free-spirited, frothy teenager who seems to exist solely to make a guy’s life look better. And McNeil, tired of seeing the MPDG as the focus of one too many YA guys’ crushes, decided to flip the lid on the notion. Beatrice is a math whiz with a life on track, who’s even developed a formula that helps her bullied friends find their way to social happiness — until her boyfriend dumps her for a MPDG and Beatrice uses the formula on herself to become one. Though consequences are inevitable, it’s Bea’s gimlet-eyed way of looking at things that makes her a character to hold in high regard.

  • Sahar

    from If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan

    Often, heroism is quiet and personal. In Farizan’s novel, Sahar, an Iranian teen, is a lesbian who’s been in love with her best friend, Nasrin, since they were six. Because her homosexuality is condemned in her society, to the point that girls in love can endure harsh punishments, even death, they keep a secret relationship, until Nasrin is to be married. Sahar undertakes becoming a man, initially seeing a gender transition to male as her “cure,” but realizes that this, too, is a lie. Though Sahar faces nearly impossible choices, she does so with passion and intelligence.

Who are your favorite groundbreaking female characters in YA literature?