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Saturday, September 10, 2011

YA Warriors

In the world of young adult books, "kick-ass" heroines seem to be all the rage. When I think of the heroines I grew up with (and the heroes, for that matter), I can't come up with any who beat people up. They won their battles by using their brains and usually they had a little help from their friends. Many of the heroines in our books and movies today, though, could thrash Bruce Lee and turn right around and mop up the floor with Chuck Norris (Did anyone see Hanna?).

Where did this love for violent heroines in YA books come from? I don't think it's just that because children feel powerless they are drawn to powerful protagonists. Children have as much power today as they've always had. And this YA warrior woman is a new thing.

Or maybe not. Women have always had the capacity for great evil, and I suppose they've always wanted power and they've always wielded as much power as they could. Look at Salome and Herodias asking for John the Baptist's head on a platter. Maybe feminism is just an old lust for power sporting a diamond nose stud and acrylic nails.

Bitch Magazine gives us the 100 best Young Adult books for the Feminist Reader, which is fine. Feminists are welcome to talk about books they love. What I find a little disturbing, though, is that many of those books are being read by girls who don't know they are picking up feminist thought. Our daughters are likely reading them, thinking the strong heroines are great.

I don't want to do any knee-jerk reacting. Strong heroines are great. I like books with active protagonists, be they female or male. Girls are able to think and plan and dream. They should have goals and they should work toward those goals. I even like the girls who know how to fight. I liked Katniss and Katsa. As I was reading The Hunger Games and Graceling, I believed the girls should be fighting in their worlds. They started off fighting to save people. They had the "just war" thing in their favor. Or to put it Biblically, they were setting captives free.

I haven't got anything against strong girls. When the strength leads to selfishness, though, that's another matter. True strength is about being self-sacrificing, not self-centered.

I've read several of those top 100 feminist books. One was so beautifully written I ached when I read it (A Northern Light). The heroine grows in the story until she is able to leave her family behind and go off in search of self-fulfillment. In that book, men and Christians are depicted as rather brutish. I cared about the heroine and wanted her to learn that in obedience to God's purposes there is great joy. Instead she set off to look for joy, unencumbered by familial obligations. And we all know where that road ends: in the pig sty, with a starving character longing to be fed with the pods the pigs are eating.

We know that's where she'll end up, but I bet most teen readers don't know this.

In Graceling, Katsa, who has a special power that allows her to kill people with her bare hands, starts out wanting to save people. This is good. She also tells the boy she loves that she will never marry or have children, which is not so good. She's determined to remain free. The would-be husband says that's OK with him. He'll take whatever she'll give. He wants her so much that he lets her set the terms of the relationship. They make love then, and they continue to have wonderful, unhindered sex throughout the second half of the book. He thoughtfully provides her with a root to chew that will keep her from getting pregnant.

I loved Graceling, I loved Katsa, and I loved the boy...right up until he agreed to let Katsa use him and take from him what she wanted without promising anything in return. When he did that, I lost all respect for him.

Is this how it is? In order to make our girls strong must we make them selfish? In order to make our girls strong must we make our boys weak?

YA is a hot market right now, and I would rejoice if God would give us more strong writers publishing books for teens, written from a Christian worldview. What about you? Have any of you thought about writing for teen girls and giving them strong, faithful, healthy, happy, obedient-to-God heroines to look up to? Do you know any writers who are putting out such books now?
When Sally Apokedak was eight, she fell in love with reading. The characters in the books she read opened their hearts to her and allowed her to share their lives. They taught her to relate to the world—to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. None of them beat anyone up.

Sally hopes to write great stories with characters girls will love. Her short works have been published in various magazines, including
Highlights for Children, and her YA novel The Button Girl is currently being reviewed by publishers. She is represented by Reclaim Management. She blogs about young adult novels at


  1. Wow, Sally. Powerful. This article is one of those rare pieces that changed me. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

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  3. Really, really good post, Sally. Thank you.

  4. Powerful, Sally, and well written. There are a few really great YA authors writing for the CBA. It would be great to see more. :) Actually, it would be great to see them in the ABA.

  5. This was so well written. I have wondered why spiritual and emotional strength clothed in gentle, Godly femininity is such an underrated thing anymore. I agree that the YA warriors of today get their kicks by making men seem small, undervalued and even stupid. It's sad, but just another way the devil is trying to destroy God's plans to grow us into Christ-likeness. To destroy the structure of family, as well. Makes it even more frightening that the wives of the future are reading/watching/listening to this stuff right now. Also, thanks for the encouragement to write Christ-centered YA books for the young girls out there. That's exactly what I'm doing! Keep those of us who are doing so in your prayers, please! May God use us to counteract this movement of our enemy.

  6. Good post Sally. I see the same thing in my own genre (fantasy). What I would really like to see is powerful women with their power under control. Those who are able to control their power are truly the most powerful.

  7. Wow, the description of Graceling is really sad. I've been mulling over the feminist mindset, since it's basically just a woman wanting to be out from under the headship of man. How does one write a strong female lead and not go that route?

    And it breaks my heart that in order to have a strong woman, the man must be weak and effeminate. Is that what women really want?

  8. Thanks for the feedback, all of you.

    Kessie, Graceling is really a very good book. Very well written and compelling. And it's not surprising that the character doesn't want to marry and have children. She was used by a man when she was young and she's determined to never be "owned" by anyone again. Since she's not a Christian, it's not surprising that she has no problem with having sex outside of marriage.

    Women, in general, are not commanded to be under men, but wives are to be under the headship of their husbands. So I think the way to write a strong female lead is make her single, or to make her married and happily loving, honoring, and obeying her husband.

    It takes great strength to submit of your own free will. Jesus submitted to his Father's plan. He asked for the cup to be removed. But he said he lay down his life himself, no one took it from him. I think strong female characters can do the same. They can lay down their lives for the good of their families.

  9. Well said. I've always hoped that my daughter learns how to be a strong woman by watching her mother, and how a man is supposed to treat a woman by watching me. The YA novel should take both the male and female role into consideration. The few secular YA novels that I've flipped through did nothing but promote their own view of a "sexual coming of age." Thanks for your views. This will make me pause and think about how I write my characters, even for the adult market.

  10. I've read Graceling and I really disliked it because of the ungodly characters.
    I think some authors accidentally make what I'd describe as a "false feminist." In most action books, the main character has to be doing something, normally giving orders, not following orders. I think this is where the "false feminists" come in. These girls aren't feminist but since they're the main characters, the authors make them the leaders, and they end up being in authority over men. (Hunger Games would probably be an example of this.)
    I myself have a problem in one of my stories because, when my female character is around the male character, she considers him to be in authority over her. I know it's the way things are supposed to be but her POV is very boring when he's around because she lets him be in charge, making those scenes difficult to write.
    I've played with other female characters, and I think it is possible for one to have some authority over a man(if they're not in a relationship with the man) and not be a real feminist, but only if there is a very good reason. For example: If a woman who is a trained survivalist and a guy who knows nothing about surviving have to survive after their airplane crashes in a jungle, the guy will probably let the woman be in authority over him. I don't think this would make the woman feminist.

  11. I loved Graceling. Very well written book, with an amazing story to tell. I share Sally's disappointments with the characters, but they made no claims to faith and so I can not hold them to my standards. I feel that in the boy's mind he had made a marriage commitment to her, even though she didn't knowingly accept it (I'd explain but that would be a spoiler). And he proved himself her equal and earned her respect despite her reluctance to trust men. He was physically weak compared to her, but I don't believe humbling himself for the woman he loved to be a weakness, nor the poor choices from a lack of faith to be a major fault. I've probably said too much in defense of this story, but I enjoyed it and also the prequel Fire, and plan to read the next in the series when it comes out.

    I'm working on a story along the lines of what you are speaking of, Sally, and your words today have been an encouragement and a reminder to be careful with this heroine that I'm writing of. I'm not sure yet if she will end up causing physical harm to anyone- but she will be powerful enough that she could, and with her faith will regret it if she does. She has to make mistakes- we all do. But I hope she will be an example of how to be strong in God (contrasted with worldly power) through submission to His will.

  12. Jessi, thanks for reading and commenting.

    I think there are a couple of things here that we could talk about. First is the idea that women shouldn't be in authority over men. I don't see in scripture any prohibition against women being in authority over men. I don't see scripture forbidding a school from having a female principal and a male teacher, for instance.

    Do you agree with that?

    Once a woman marries, she is no longer her own. But submission doesn't mean that the woman always lets the man take the lead. Wives can lead in areas where they have expertise. They can't lead if they marry men who are too dense to recognize the wives' strength and delegate authority to the wife, but in your book, why not give your gal a boyfriend who sees her strength and utilizes it? This would allow her to lead in things she should be leading in and it might even encourage your readers to marry wise men.

    Does that make sense?

  13. Have I got a kick-ass Christian teenage heroine for you…check out Lisa T. Bergren’s River of Time series. It’s a time travel trilogy featuring a sword wielding chick and her younger sister who’s a killer archer. Highly recommended.

  14. Patrick, thanks for commenting. I won't read Fire, because I've read the reviews on Amazon and I'm thinking if I was bothered by the feminist agenda in Graceling, I will not be able to take Fire at all.

    I thought that some readers might see the boy's agreement with Katsa's terms for the relationship as his being willing to sacrifice what he wanted for the person he loves. That could be noble.

    I don't think it is, though. Not for Christians and not for unbelievers. A girl who settles for a man who won't commit, is never considered noble and humble. She's considered stupid. I think a boy who settles is stupid, too. There's nothing humble about having no self-respect and letting someone else use you because she can't make a commitment. You aren't loving a person when you aid her in her sin and selfishness.

    Katsa is sinful and selfish and strong. It doesn't help to say she's not a Christian. Our daughters are reading story after story of strong heroines who are all their own bosses. They don't need saving, thank you very much. They don't need anyone.

    This is a deeply unChristian mindset, and it shouldn't shock us that people of the world are writing stories with unChristian messages. The tragedy is that Christians have largely retreated from the Children's publishing world, so the girls in this country are getting feminism and autonomy over and over in the books they read and they aren't getting many novels with Christian worldviews that present another side to the story.

  15. I LOVE that I'm not the only one noticing this!

    I wrote a post a few months back called Strength vs. Stupidity - because I think these YA heroines aren't just selfish, they're essentially feminized men. They're acting like thugs rather than using the uniqueness of being a woman / smart / intuitive to win their battles. And too prideful to accept help. And... on and on.

    What an encouragement to find more like minds out there.

    Thank you, God.

  16. Sally Apokedak,
    I think I can agree with you on that.
    In my story, I've already done what you suggested. The main problem is, the guy does know more about what they're currently doing, which puts her bellow him. (Earlier on, she knew more about a few things so she did tend to be higher in "rank.")

    It is sad that there are very few good, Christian, YA action/adventure books out there for young adults. Even if there are, it's hard to find them since the libraries rarely seem to get that type of Christian book in, and I've got to the point where I don't want to buy a book if I've never read anything else by that author.

  17. I'd say that yes, there are "quiet" books for teens coming out all the time, mostly coming-of-age stories, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, but definitely thought-provoking. But if you're talking action, high concept books, then I think you're going to find kick-ass heroines. I like a girl who doesn't sit around, waiting for a guy to rescue her. (I don't like selfish heroes, male or female, but then if you're busy saving yourself and your people, you tend to act first and worry about consequences later.)But what I find funny is that even though girls are reading these kinds of books they're still walking around with a "rescue me" mentality. Why is that, do you suppose?

    Thoughtful post, Sally. And now I'll have to look at Graceling again. I know I read that book, but huh. I don't remember all THAT. ;-)

  18. Thanks, Michelle. I'm going to check those books out.

    Interesting post, Aimee. Thanks for mentioning it.

    Jesse, I think there are some wonderful Christian YA books out, but, not enough to keep someone who loves to read busy all year. There are, however, some great novels out that can be read and enjoyed by Christians even though they aren't published in the CBA. I know what you mean about buying books when you don't know the author, but I think you will find lots of great authors in the library. If you are looking for action/adventure written by Christians I would recommend ND Wilson and Veronica Roth.

    Cathy, thanks for coming over and commenting. I didn't mean to say I wanted quiet books. I don't care for quiet books all that much. Nor do I want heroines who sit around waiting to be rescued. I even like characters who want to remain single. What I object to is a character having the benefits of marriage without being willing to take on the responsibilities of a marriage. And it's not that the girls can fight that bothers me. It's that they are autonomous, and they insist on remaining autonomous.

    As to why girls have a "rescue me" mentality...I've worked with the teen girls in my church and I wouldn't have painted them that way. They don't seem to be looking to be rescued to me. Can you give me an example of what a girl does when she's waiting around to be rescued?

    I think girls have trouble with self-worth. I think they put far too much emphasis on looking good and on being loved by a boy. They don't feel worthy of love, often, unless a boy loves them. I believe the answer to that problem is not to tell them they can do whatever men do and they don't need any man, but rather to show them their identity in Christ. They have great worth because he died for them.

  19. I do some YA writing--not novels (yet) but nonfiction and one memoir. Do you remember The Outsiders? When I read it as a young teen, my life was nothing like PonyBoy's, but I (and thousands of other teens) identified with his struggles to survive in a world that often seemed aligned against him. Holden Caulfield was a similar hero in a different situation.

    And yes, I recognize these as heroes, not heroines. I also loved Jo March, Anne Shirley, and Madeleine L'Engle's Meg Cabot. I don't know if they fit your initial descriptor, but my identification with various aspects of their lives lent me some of their courage and much of their hope.

    Have you read Joyce Magnin's new release, Carrying Mason (Zondervan)? I think you'll find her protag, 13-year-old Luna, not necessarily "happy" but worthy of much of the rest of your challenge.

    I think teens, like the rest of us, are looking for heroes because deep inside, they want to be those heroes. They want to believe they, too, have the stuff of greatness.

    As you mention in your comment, when we can write words that point them toward their true identity in Christ, we move beyond story-spinning. And somewhere in that wonderful, beautiful, mixture, we have the opportunity to reveal truth that sets free.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I'll be watching for more!

  20. Great post, Sally. I also liked the question you posed on your own blog today -- are kids (people in general, perhaps) looking for power or significance? That would make for a great discussion, and it fits in perfectly with what you said here.

    I tend to think that exercising power in the "kick ass" way is primarily selfish. Rather than submitting to authority, finding a peaceful compromise, or working within the proper channels to bring about change, the character that exerts kick ass power generally interested in accomplishing her own purposes in her own time.

    As I was reading this post, I couldn't help but think of Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels, Zena Warrior Princess. I first became acquainted with kick ass women who were called Amazons. (I wonder if the online giant is related. LOL) My point is, they have, as you said, been around for some time, but not necessarily held up as something girls aspired to become.

    Perhaps this is the pendulum swing reaching the opposite side from Woman as Victim.

    Much to think about and react to here, Sally. Thanks for a thought-inducing article.

  21. i've definitely seen a hole in the market for Christian YA heroines who are REAL and not super-powered. although i truly enjoyed "the hunger games" and have a soft spot for the old wonder woman series, you can spot the feminism if you're looking for it. i've thought about writing a "wholesome" YA book w/a female protagonist, but just wondering if it would even have a chance in today's market if she's just a normal teen girl, awkward and sort of nerdy, like many of us were. thanks for the post.

  22. YAY! I'm so excited to read this post! I love YA fiction, love good writing, but can't help noticing the 'heroines' are getting more and more like liberal feminists. The 'root' he gives her to prevent pregnancy almost made me fall off my chair. Whatever!! Now that I have an 11 year old girl reading YA I look at it all in a whole new way... I won't let her read Graceling... not even later, if it's in my power. It was just not the sort of story that she should be letting into her heart and mind as a young Christian woman.

  23. Wow, Becky, I had forgotten about Wonder Woman. I never read her comics or watched her TV show. Ditto for Zena. I know the new Charlies Angel's movie was full of kung fu fighting, but I don't recall the original three fighting. I remember it was labeled as a T and A show, though. Ugh.

    Heather, I loved The Hunger Games. I love a lot of these books. It's just that the ones I love best are the ones where the girls learn to be self-sacrificing. Because I really think that if we want to empower teen readers we need to set them free from sin. That's what enslaves us and the sin of self-idolatry is the main sin. We want to be our own gods. We want to have no one in authority over us.

    And, yes, Heather, I think normal teens will work. Some of the best books are about normal teens who do something extraordinary to triumph over hardship. They don't need superhuman powers. They need perseverance, maybe, or humility, or some other virtue that they can learn.

  24. Virginia, If you love YA and good writing, you might want to give Graceling a try. It really is a very good book. And the thing is, if you read it and then gave it to your daughter, you could discuss it with her. The reason I suggest that is that I don't think it's possible for our daughters to grow up in the USA and not be influenced by feminist thinking. So if they are getting it anyway, it might be good if you give it to her and then teach her how to filter it and compare it with scripture.

    I don't know. My son and daughter are 18 and there are times I wish I'd moved to a convent when they were little and hidden them away from the world. Mine are more worldly than I like. So I'm not saying I have the answers. Just throwing stuff out to think about.

  25. I think a really great example of a heroine is Polly from Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.

    Her story is completely ordinary, yet infused with a peculiar magic. And she's just a girl dealing with her parents divorcing, and having to live with her grandmother, and dealing with drama at school.

    All the while she's writing stories to a man she made friends with who she considers much older than her (he's not), and they dream up stories and adventures together. And somehow, these adventures keep coming true. So by the end, when the magic is finally revealed, Polly knows how to save Tom from the awful magic bind he's under.

    And sure, in all their interactions, Tom is usually the leader, mainly because he's older. But they argue and bicker like any other friends, and throughout the story, Polly is figuring out what her parents did wrong and how a relationship is supposed to work.

    I wish books like that were popular. I pull something new out of Fire and Hemlock every time I read it.

  26. I like what I've read by Diana Wynne Jones a whole lot. I'll have to give Fire and Hemlock a go. Thanks!


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