A Discussion on History of Females in YA
Thanks so much to Batool for inviting me to write a guest post detailing the importance of
female empowerment in young adult literature. Her blog is wonderful and I was deeply
touched to be approached to write a piece on a topic that is dear to my heart.
I am an adult who reads young adult fiction. There, I said it.
Why, you might ask? I actually get asked this a lot. The answer is: because I find more
empowering female protagonists who I can actually relate to.
When I was a teenager I had difficulty finding books that had realistically depicted, strong
female characters. That’s not to say there wasn’t any – it was just difficult trying to find
these types of books in my local library (my main source for reading material) or my school
Female empowerment, in young adult novels in particular, really saw a boom in the 1990s.
Prior to that, the majority of contemporary young adult fiction aimed at girls was romance
orientated (Sweet Dreams I’m looking at you!), though there were some great examples of
strong female characters in fantasy literature (Alanna from The Song of the Lioness series by
Tamora Pierce, or Aerin from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and The Crown to name two
examples) but you could argue the contemporary market was somewhat lagging behind.
Let’s go back a bit. The first book to be deemed a ‘young adult’ title was Seventeenth
Summer by Maureen Daly released in 1942. It was a romance (naturally) aimed at girls
about the trials of first love. A prevalent theme in all young adult fiction is coming of age –
regardless of gender.
The term ‘young adult’ was originally devised by the Young Adult Library Services
Association during the 1960s to represent the 12-18 age range. It was really the 1970s that
saw the ‘young adult’ novel really take off though. This era has been called the ‘golden age’
of young adult.
Authors such as Judy Blume and Lois Duncan dominated the shelves (even though both
were seen as somewhat controversial for their often difficult and challenging subject
matters – they can frequently be found on the ‘banned books’ list for example). I read both
of these authors myself (mainly in the early 1990s) and classed them among my favourites. I
liked that they targeted ‘difficult’ subjects such as teenagers having sex (shocker!) and
feminism. Another author who was greatly lauded for this was Norma Klein but I am only
passingly familiar with her works so I cannot really comment.
They had female protagonists who actually read like real people – completely different from
the other young adult series that I consumed at the time (like the aforementioned Sweet
Dreams series or the completely unrealistic Sweet Valley High series – with the most
perfectly beautiful and ‘sweet’ Wakefield sisters – pass me the sick bucket please)!
It is always something of a disappointment for me that when I was growing out of reading
young adult, the market had its second ‘golden age’. This began in the very late 1990s but it
was the 2000s that really saw the biggest impact.
Book series such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter paved the way for series such as Stephanie
Meyers Twilight, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth’s Divergent
series. I am not a huge fan of Twilight (Bella is too much of a Mary Sue, damsel in distress
type for me and don’t get me started on Edward Cullen as the romantic lead) but you
cannot deny that the popularity of these particular books has really allowed female-driven
narratives to flourish.
Katniss Everdeen is a great example of a strong, kick-ass protagonist but what makes her the
more relatable for me is that she doesn’t want to be thrust into the role of role-model and
icon – she just wants to survive and protect her loved ones from harm. This is what makes
her such an awesome example of female empowerment for me. She is a warrior but she is
also just a girl that has to overcome some truly horrific circumstances. The final book in the
trilogy Mockingjay is actually my favourite because it deals with the fallout of all the trauma
that Katniss has and continues to experience.
As I mentioned before, it really was unfortunate that the young adult genre really saw a rise
in the types of books I would have loved to have read as a teenager – just as I was heading
out of my teenage years!
I didn’t have a lot of time for reading when I was studying at University and I was beginning
to cut my teeth on more adult-themed books (to be fair though I had always read a mix of
young adult and adult books previously – as much as I loved Sweet Dreams and Point Horror
novels aimed at the teenage market – I also lapped up Stephen King novels and the like).
Young adult seemed a distant memory.
However, the popularity of books such as Twilight encouraged me to start reading young
adult books again and I am incredibly glad that I did. I have cited Katniss as a strong,
empowering female character but she is far from the only one I have read. I love Rose
Hathaway and Sydney Sage from Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy and Bloodlines series
for example – both approach things in vastly different ways but they are kick-ass characters
that deserve attention.
I would also recommend Kristin Cashore’s Graceling novels which can definitely be
described as feminist and anything by Maggie Stiefvater who always has strong female
characters. As for contemporary novels, Sara Zarr and Rainbow Rowell are definitely worth
There are actually a plethora of novels to choose from which just goes to show that the
market has greatly expanded since I myself was a teenager. I am glad that I got the chance
to rediscover young adult – it has been an incredibly enriching experience and I am thankful
that young girls today get to experience such a vast range of powerful, strong and relatable
female characters as role models – I wish there was more of it when I was that age.
Here is some further reading material on the above subject:
Brin (forever young adult at heart)
My Blog – http://brinsbookblog.com/
Twitter – @BrinGuivera
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