Strong female lead. That’s a loaded phrase. I was just having a conversation with a friend not too long ago about how often “strong female lead” ends up being “same old masculine stereotype played by a girl.” The truth is, the world is full of women with unique strengths and perspectives, and books and movies are beginning to recognize and illustrate that truth more fully. These ten books give you a look at ten heroines with ten unique personalities and approaches.
1. Graceling by Kristen Cashore. In Katsa’s world, some people are born with two different eye colors, indicating they have a Grace, which is an ability to do something extraordinarily well. Some Graces are mundane (although useful): the ability to make the best cup of tea imaginable. Katsa’s grace, however, is far from benign, as she is gifted with the ability to kill. This Grace has landed her in the power of her uncle, who uses her Grace as punishment for those who defy him. Her struggle throughout the story is to discover how to use her ability for good and how to defy the people who try to control her.
2. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. At first glance, Kimberly Chang might not seem like a strong female character. She’s living in poverty with her mother, after immigrating to Los Angeles from Hong Kong; she barely has enough clothes to keep warm, let alone avoid the taunts of kids at school. It’s not flashy, but her quiet strength and courage as she tries to create an American life for herself and her mother infuse this novel with an uplifting sense of possibility.
3. Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund. Before Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, left on its final voyage, the wife he left in Nantucket is briefly mentioned. You don’t have to have read Moby-Dick, though, to love this novel that develops that hardly-noticed character. Una’s story begins in Kentucky and moves east; along the way she lives in a lighthouse, disguises herself as a cabin boy aboard a whaling vessel, gets lost at sea, marries Captain Ahab, and continues on without him. Naslund’s novel brings to life a different perspective than Melville’s of nineteenth-century America, filled with historical details based on the lives of women.
4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Ok, confession. I always wanted to be Jo. But I wanted to be a version of Jo who somehow manages to love Laurie and marry him and wear pretty clothes and live in a beautiful old house and not be married to some old German professor. Which means I really wanted to be Amy, but couldn’t deal with the cognitive dissonance of wanting to be the March sister that I despised. Admittedly, the sheer craziness of this statement reveals way more about my fractured psyche than I intended to reveal so just read the book, ok?
5. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman: Accompanied by her daemon, Lyra Belacqua sets out to prevent her best friend and other kidnapped children from becoming the subject of gruesome experiments in the Far North.
6. Kindred by Octavia Butler: Dana, a modern African-American woman, is is snatched abruptly from her home in 1976 California and transported to the antebellum South in order to save the life of a white slave owner.
7. True Grit by Charles Portis: Mattie Ross is determined to avenge her father’s blood by capturing Tom Chaney, the man who shot and killed him for two pieces of gold. Just fourteen, she enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed, trigger-happy U.S. Marshall with an affinity for drinking, and hardened Texas Ranger LaBoeuf to track the fleeing Chaney. Despite their differences, their ruthless determination leads them on a perilous adventure that can only have one outcome: retribution.
8. Sabriel by Garth Nix: Sabriel, daughter of the necromancer Abhorsen, must journey into the mysterious and magical Olk Kingdom to rescue her father from the Land of the Dead.
9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: In a future North America, where the rulers of Panem maintain control through an annual televised survival competition pitting young people from each of the twelve districts against one another, sixteen-year-old Katniss’s skills are put to the test when she voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place.
10. Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater: Nineteen-year-old returning champion Sean Kendrick competes against Puck Connolly, the first girl ever to ride in the annual Scorpio Races, both trying to keep hold of their dangerous water horses long enough to make it to the finish line.