Young Adult Fiction for Girls by Niranjana Iyer (Summer 2011)
As evidenced by studies as well as our own memories, teen girls are particularly vulnerable to self-doubt and self-esteem problems. In this context, young adult (YA) novels can play a special role, with stories crafted specifically to validate their emotions and speak to young women’s concerns.
YA literature assures teens that the world is capable of understanding and sympathizing, and that it can provide a safe space to explore the unknown, including the unknown parts of oneself.
Courtney Summers, who recently published her third YA novel, Fall for Anything, recalls, “As a teen, I often looked to books to gain perspective about stuff I wasn’t ready to talk about with friends and family. In YA literature, the way characters process and internalize their experiences is very close, very in-the-moment, which makes for an intense reading experience—which is perfect, because being a teen is a very intense time.”
Neesha Meminger, author of Shine, Coconut Moon and Jazz in Love, recalls her experience of reading Of Customsand Excise by Canadian children’s writer Rachna Gilmore.
“It was the first time I’d read a book about a South Asian character written by a South Asian author,” remembers
Meminger, who grew up in Toronto. “It was not only a reflection of me, but it also opened a door. It was possibility. If this South Asian woman could share her stories about little brown girls struggling in and challenging a male world, why couldn’t I?”
Teen literature has of course existed long before the term YA was coined to describe this category—works like Anne ofGreen Gables have ensnared generations of teens. Amy Black, senior editor at Doubleday Canada, notes that the young adult category was generated by publishers, rather than by readers. She links the rise of young adult fiction to the Harry Potter phenomenon, which “changed the retail landscape for books for young readers and attracted more and more writers, agents and publishers to focus on that age range.”
The term young adult is now used for books aimed at 14- to 17-year-olds, books that engage with the world through the filter of a teen protagonist’s experiences. As young adult novels are specifically written for and marketed to teens, they are held to higher standards of accuracy and authenticity in their portrayal of the teen experience than adult fiction featuring teens.
Audrey Chen, 17, maintains a young adult literature blog called Holes In My Brain. “Young adult deals with issues everyday teenagers have, with the emotions that you don’t necessarily come across in adult fiction,” she says. “I feel it’s a total cop-out if you just write a shallow adult mystery and switch the ages of the main characters to 17.”
Besides the thrills of identification with similarly aged characters and of non-judgmental understanding, young adult novels offer hope. Teens often battle feelings of isolation and loneliness, and teen girls additionally face relentless media pressure to conform to impossible standards of attractiveness.
It is no accident that most young adult novels, if not neatly resolved, at least end with the probability that things will get better for the protagonists. Young adult novels can act as a lifeline for teens, providing stories where the world is in alliance with them rather than against them. It is therefore critical that teens have access to stories that open up possibilities for growth and change, and that offer strong heroines and heroes for their consideration.
What are girls reading today? Kat Drennan-Scace, a youth services librarian and teen specialist, recently conducted an online poll to determine the answer. To no one’s surprise, paranormal romances topped the list. Even if you live in a teen-free universe, you’ve probably heard of the Twilight series— Stephanie Meyers’ saga of a high school girl’s romance with a vampire. Much has been written about the books, both positive and negative, but the protagonist’s eagerness to upend her existence for a (vampire) boy has left most feminists either angry or depressed.
According to Drennan-Scace, the most frequently requested books for teens in 2010 include, besides the Twilight series, titles such as Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick (a book featuring angels), Vampire Dairies by L.J. Smith (self-explanatory) and Fallen by Lauren Kate (more an gels). Other genres popular with teens include dystopian fiction such as The Hunger Games series, lighter chick-lit works and contemporary novels dealing with serious issues such as bullying or teen pregnancy.
But paranormal literature is the clear leader. Drennan-Scace confesses, “I’m sick of looking at the latest supernatural boarding school romance, but teens are still enthralled. And the publishers’ catalogues are filled with paranormal romances.”
The appeal of paranormal titles for teens has a variety of explanations, ranging from the lure of escapist fare for a group struggling to cope with media expectations regarding attractiveness and behaviour, to dark supernatural beings serving as a metaphor for teen struggles with the first stirrings of sexual desire.
Chen has a simpler explanation. The boys in these books are hot, and have impressive superpowers. “I mean, have you seen them? All paranormals have at least one amazing boy.”
Amy Black confirms that the biggest sellers on Doubleday Canada’s young adult list are paranormal titles. “The paranormal trend has been very resilient. The really signal authors writing in that genre ... appear to have ever-growing readerships,” she observes. “When you take stock of the sheer volume of similarly packaged, commonly themed books in the stores, you have to wonder if that deluge will continue to be supported by readers. But as a whole, paranormal is flourishing.”
A pattern emerges after reading a dozen of these paranormal- themed books. The heroine communicates with ghosts, finds dead bodies, reads minds or possesses a special chemistry that attracts the hero. The hero is a vampire or werewolf, a hound of hell or an angel, and has often been supernaturalized against his will. It sometimes seems like there’s an unwritten rule in this genre. The heroine’s looks will never be diminished by her paranormal abilities—she won’t grow a snout, for instance, or sprout facial hair. The hero’s powers will enhance his “masculine” traits such as strength, speed or night vision; he will never be allocated a “feminine” power like empathy.
The emphasis on looks is just the start. The relationship between the protagonists is usually salted with misunderstandings, jealousy-inducing friends and, more disturbingly, gender roles featuring dominant boys and passive girls. The hero invariably possesses inside knowledge about the situation and proceeds to manipulate the girl, trivializing her concerns in the process. The heroine is mostly unable, rather than unwilling to resist the male—even if, as in one of the books mentioned earlier, the boy seems to try to kill her.
Unsurprisingly, the climax usually features the boy saving the girl, even if the girl is super-powered and the boy is Joe the plumber’s apprentice. The bulk of these books apparently consider stalker-like behaviour a sign of love, encourage high school girls to plan their futures around their attraction to high school boys and validate love as an end that justifies inappropriate or threatening behaviour as the means. These books usually end with the young man and woman committing themselves to a relationship, getting into bed or becoming engaged—essentially, living happily ever after.
Some will of course argue that teens recognize that these books are fiction and hence do not take them seriously. But stories have always held the power to guide and influence their listeners and, moreover, teens often lack the tools or the cultural context to view works in a critical light. As Y.S. Lee, creator of The Agency series, says about the genre, “If the heroine is struggling with larger questions (identity, justice, faith, surviving supernatural warfare) and resolves these while getting her high school love en route, that’s great. But if the boy is the sum total of her desires and aspirations, such a narrow, solipsistic plot does both girls and boys a huge disservice.”
Not all teens have succumbed to the tropes of paranormal literature. Audrey Chen says, regarding the Twilight series: “The thing about Bella [the protagonist] that bugs me is that she has no life outside of Edward [the vampire], and it seems like her goal in life is to marry Edward and become a vampire. No aspirations, no career options, no personal goals. Just wants the boy.” But Chen may be the exception—the four Twilight books, with sales of over a hundred million copies, are literary catnip for teen and tween readers.
So, where are the young adult novels with feminist heroines? The list below shows that such books are found across genres. Given that YA books compete against Facebook, television and a hundred other distractions, it’s important to note that overly didactic fiction will probably lose its reader in fewer than 20 pages.
Y.S. Lee says, regarding her heroine Mary Quinn, “I didn’t set out to create a girl-power heroine. But I had to write a heroine I respected, and that meant she had to be intelligent, resourceful and able to save herself as well as others. The Agency novels are feminist books simply because I am a feminist.”
Of course, teens read much more than YA books—Chen mentions Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander as a “freaking kick-ass” heroine. But this list, for reasons cited earlier, includes books specifically crafted for and marketed to teens, rather than crossover novels.
You’ll Love These YA-YA-YAs for the Young Women in Your Life
*Titles followed by an asterisk are Canadian.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore features 17-year-old Katsa, who possesses supernatural fighting skills. Her ability to cut off evildoers’ heads with a gigantic penis-shaped sword is the least of her strengths. This thoughtful meditation on the use of power comes with a fantastic plot and some beautiful prose. If you need further convincing, note the
Amazon.com reviews that bemoan the lack of “conservative values” in this novel.
The Agency Series* by Y.S. Lee features Mary Quinn, a teenage girl who works as a companion and also happens to be a spy. Lee’s heroine will appeal to modern feminists even as the author successfully maintains the integrity of the social mores and values of her Victorian setting. Issues of race, power and (of course) gender are unobtrusively woven into the fast-paced plot.
More recent historical offerings (the 1960s) include Home Free* by Sharon Jennings, which deals with a rebellious girl’s life in conservative small-town Canada.
Cracked Up To Be* by Courtney Summers. Pitch-perfect teen dialogue and a profound understanding of the pressures placed on girls to achieve impossible standards of perfection make this book a winner.
I Know It’s Over* by C.K. Kelly Martin. This book features a male protagonist who actually lets the heroine be herself—and heroine who dreams of a renegade craft fair in Toronto!
Perfect for those who like offbeat, eccentric heroines.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. Frankie is smarter than her boyfriend, and not terribly keen on hiding it. She infiltrates an exclusive boys-only club at her boarding school—and shows them how it’s done.
Ash by Malinda Lo. A retelling of the Cinderella story with a lesbian angle. (Fantasy)
Crush* by Carrie Mac. When Hope realizes she has a crush on Nat, she wonders if she’s lesbian. (Contemporary)
Hello Groin* by Beth Goobie. Sixteen-year-old Dylan wants to come out as lesbian, but is afraid of the reaction of her parents, her friends and the mean girls at school.
Since you can never begin too early, check out the Gutsy Girl Series* from Second Story Press for slightly younger readers. Another must-read is the Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer, featuring Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister Enola, who solves cases on her own—oftentimes a step ahead of her brother.
Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins. Sometimes, true courage lies not in waging war, but in making a quiet sacrifice.
Perkins’ beautifully plotted novel set in India shows the different forms feminism takes in different cultures. Silver
Phoenix by Cindy Pon. Seventeen-year-old Ai Ling discovers an inner power that enables her to battle demons and monsters during her quest to help her father.
This cinematic tale set in ancient China will delight the paranormal seeker, too.
Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger. A 17-yearold girl explores the implications of her race and religion in the months following 9/11. Meminger isn’t afraid to tackle themes of identity and gender head-on.
Support Herizons by subscribing and get your very own copy in the mail 4 times per year. http://www.herizons.ca/catalog/143/subscriptions