Young Adult Literature with female characters

I wrote this on my old blog for World Book Day last year, but I am retiring that blog and I think the themes are really relevant to this blog – it is very important for our daughters to have strong literary role models)

Whilst reading reviews of something else, I came across a sad statement. It said “It made me jealous of today’s teens who get such high quality literature written for them (it was a leap straight from Sweet Valley High to Jilly Cooper in my day)” Whilst I cannot be sure if we were teenagers at the same time (I was 13 in 1995) I rather felt for the author of a blog who writes about female authors that she seemed to have lacked so much in terms of teenage female role models or specifically young adult literature about female characters. Not that there is anything wrong with SVH or Jilly Cooper. I think I own almost every SVH ever written and just bought all the most recent ebooks as well. 

I read avidly as a teenager and this statement made me try and think back to those books that I loved in those early teenage years. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s world book day on Friday.

Starting this post was like opening Pandora’s box. The more I thought about it, the more books I could remember. This post will go on forever, so I am limiting it and I think it will have to be a series.

Add your favourites in the comments!

My all time favourite was Rose, in A Little Love Song (Michelle Magorian). That’s a book I still re-read to this day and such is my love for this book that my friend arranged for Michelle Magorian to sign a copy of this book for Pip. Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, A Little Love Song is one summer of Rose’s life as an evacuee, arriving a schoolgirl, leaving a strong confident woman. She gave me hope that I too would fall in love, but also that I didn’t need to. And that I didn’t need to change to be grown up and accepted; that by being myself, I’d be ok.

Nancy Blackett in the Swallows and Amazons series (Arthur Ransome) is my longest standing girl crush on a female character. I was 7 when I first read Swallows and Amazons and always wanted to be Nancy. She was a pirate, a sailor, independent, self reliant and the ring leader of all the Swallows and Amazons adventures. She could do everything that John could do, but was also a girl. I dressed up as Nancy Blackett for world book day when I was 10. Nancy is described by Sara Maitland as a childhood role model “who transcended the restriction of femininity without succumbing to the lure of male-identification” and a “hero who had all the characteristics necessary for the job; who lived between the countries of the material and the imaginary” (I realise that Susan does fall neatly into female gender stereotyping in many ways but also without Susan, none of the adventures would ever have gone ahead. Susan knew that the parental figures did not care so much for adventure but did care that one of them could be relied on to ensure everyone went to bed, ate meals and washed. All expeditions require a cook and organiser and in Ransome’s case, this happened to be Susan).

Sadie Jackson in Twelfth Day of July (Puffin Teenage Fiction) and the rest of the ‘Kevin and Sadie’ series (Joan Lingard). Sadie lives in Belfast and is a protestant; she meets and falls in love with Kevin, a catholic. The series follows their relationship from Belfast, London and Liverpool and did a really good job of educating me about the Irish troubles. Sadie was pretty much everything I wasn’t as a teenager and I think that’s why I found her so fascinating. She wasn’t going to let life in Belfast stop her from living; she was sassy and courageous and followed her heart rather than her father’s instructions. We read The Twelfth Day of July in the third form perhaps, as part of our English coursework and I then sought out every other book in the series in the library. Partly, I suspect, because the relationship between Kevin and Sadie was at the core of the series and, much like now, I love a good romance. But there was far more to it than that.

Alex in the Alex series (Tessa Duder). Alex was a New Zealand swimming school girl with serious talent, training for and then competing at the 1960 Rome Olympics.”I have always known that in another life I was-or will be-a dolphin. I am a pink human, caught in a net of ambition and years of hard work. In a few minutes I will dive into artificially turquoise water waiting at my feet. A minute later I’ll either be ecstatic or a failure.” (Alex in In Lane Three, Alex Archer). I was reminded of the Alex books when watching the Olympics last summer and have been trying to track them down again to re-read (I didn’t own any of them and had to rely on the school library).

Liz in In spite of all terror (Hestor Burton). I could write reams on this book (and did, in my dissertation). Liz  lives with her aunt and her family in East London poverty before being evacuated to Oxfordshire and a relatively wealthy family who really wanted a boy. She is geeky, determined and self sufficient and in the end, she and the family she is evacuated to find peace united in their grief. A common theme to my favourite books was strong female teenagers finding themselves set to a background of war and, as part of that, falling in love. Liz and Ben’s love is not graphic like Rose and Alec’s is, in A Little Love Song. That was written in the 1990s and shows (in a good way). Liz meanwhile remains in the late 1960s and although younger and chaster, I still wanted to be like Liz and to find but not depend on a man like Ben.

Victoria in Vicarage Family: A Biography of Myself (Noel Streatfeild), Laura in the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, most of the books by Judy Blume, the list is endless. I’m not quite sure where children’s literature becomes young adult literature in some places and indeed I think the boundary can be quite blurred but basically anything aimed at 10/12 years to 18 years must be a rough definition.


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