Summer reading: 3 YA heroines who rule the world

While on vacation for a month, I read three absolutely incredible Young Adult books, all starring kick-ass heroines. I’m dying to tell you about them.

Besides Hunger Games, these three stories are the first YA books I’ve read since starting Reel Girl.

Because my three daughters are ages 3 – 9, and because I’m writing a Middle Grade novel, I’ve mostly stayed away from Young Adult books. I don’t have the time to read everything I’d like to (and I really enjoy reading books intended for 43 year olds as well!) But because I have never trusted the rating system of kids’ media– what is deemed “acceptable” or “good” for children and what is not– I decided to venture into YA territory on my own.

Here are my reviews:

Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce

This book is gripping from start to finish. The story follows an intrepid and extremely likeable heroine, Daine, as she discovers her power and uses her magic to save her world. Daine starts out fearing her mysterious skills, her “difference,” but under the guidance of a mentor and a new community of friends and allies, she leans how to wield and tame her wild magic.

The only thing in this whole book that I feel could be inappropriate for young kids is a reference to Daine’s mom being raped. That reference describes bandits who murdered her mother and reads something like, “They would have passed by the house but my mother was pretty.” Otherwise, there is no sex in this book. I gave it to my almost nine year old daughter to read, and she loves it.

Like most girl-centered books for kids, this is a feminist story within the context of the patriarchy: it’s a narrative about the rare women who achieve, for example, who are able to become knights. There is more than one powerful female, which is great, but as usual, while reading, I longed for a magical world gender equality simply exists.

I don’t like this cover much. Daine looks naked and the image does nothing to communicate the magic or power of the book.

Wild Magic is mysterious and beautiful story.

Reel Girl rates Wild Magic ***HHH***

Graceling by Krsitin Cashore

This is my favorite of the three books I read. I could not put it down. The villain is one of the scariest and most compelling bad guys who I’ve ever read about.

This book is violent. Katsa, the heroine, like many in her land, is born with a “grace,” a special talent. Her particular talent is killing. Katsa’s grace is exploited by a power-hungry king who she must serve.

Graceling, like Wild Magic, is the story of how the heroine discovers the true meaning of her magic, how to own it and use it for good.

Though I adored this book, I don’t recommend it for Middle Grade readers. I don’t mind the violence. I’ve blogged about violence in kids’ media quite a bit but to quickly recap: Narratives are metaphors, magnifications of moments that, if successful, allow the reader to experience intense emotions.

Narratives raise the stakes so that experience can happen. We’ve all felt like we were “being attacked” or that “the world was caving in.” Narratives show us that actually happening. The story of David and Goliath is a metaphor, so  much so that it’s become part of our language; it’s much more than a story of murder.

In the same vein, to the individual, cleaning out a closet can be a monumental task. We are all the heroes of our own lives. To communicate how huge and overwhelming something so mundane really feels, you don’t write about someone cleaning her closet, you write about Psyche sorting seeds as a matter of life and death.

So this is why I don’t mind violence at all, our psyches are intense, as are the emotions of little kids (and grown-ups.) A good and successful narrative depicts that.

Sex, on the other hand, I mind a lot. I don’t think kids should read about sex before they are ready to, and Graceling is an intensely sexual tale. It’s really a love story between Katsa and another graceling, Po. I love Po. Love him!  His relationship with Katsa is so great because he is in awe of her power. He helps her to see it and develop it.

On some level, I suppose a little kid could read this story and totally miss the love affair, but I don’t recommend that. It would be leaving out so much. There are also references in the book to incest, more obtuse than the love story, but without getting that aspect of the tale, the reader misses how creepy the villain is.

Reel Girl rates Graceling ***HHH*** (not for MG Readers!)

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Wow, I wish this book was around when I was a kid.

Gemma Doyle is another heroine who fears her magic. This story, like the other two, shows how she comes to understand her power and use it. I loved reading about the secret society of powerful women (the Order) and the power they wield. Also, the setting is a boarding schools for girls in the Victorian Era. How can you resist that?

This book is also the story of an intense and complex mother-daughter relationship, something most teens can relate to.

Even more so than Wild Magic or Graceling, this book is very much about females struggling within the patriarchy. Again, the conflict is very well done, but also again, I long for kids to just be able to see females being strong without claiming the right to be as strong as boys. Can you imagine boys proudly claiming the reverse? It’s patronizing.

There is sex in this book. I don’t recommend it for MG readers.

I hate this cover. At best, we have the tired patriarchy/ corset metaphor; at worst, a “bodice-ripper.” Ugh.

Reel Girl rates A Great and Terrible Beauty ***HHH*** (one more time, not for MG readers!)

6 thoughts on “Summer reading: 3 YA heroines who rule the world

  1. I am a huge Tamora Pierce fan. She has written many series, all with powerful female protagonists. Her Tortall books (which include Wild Magic) do take place within a patriarchal culture, but it’s one that, with the help of her protagonists, is slowly becoming less patriarchal. I don’t necessarily see that as a drawback to a book; we do, after all, live in a patriarchal culture that is not really becoming less so. I think it’s great to give girls role models who show that such things *can* be changed. In Ms. Pierce’s Circle of Magic series, however, there is no gender inequality. The first book is called Sandry’s Book…check it out.

    Ann, in response to your sexual content warning for The Immortals series, I have to disagree about not giving it to Margot’s daughters. It’s certainly not for anyone younger than pre-teen, but that’s just as much about reading level as it is about content. I read Ms. Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series, The Immortals series, and the Circle of Magic series when I was about 8-12 years old (3rd-6th grade), and they were some of my favorite books. The “non-specific” (ie: non-graphic) wording about sex wasn’t upsetting to me-the-pre-teen the way a graphic sex scene might have been.

    Margot, I imagine that you don’t really want to think about your daughters’ imaginations turning to sex, but pre-teen time is when that starts. As an adult now, I feel that reading Tamora Pierce’s heroines empowered me as a pre-teen to feel like I could make my own choices regarding how I felt about sex. I grew up with these characters, and they grow up in their respective series as well. Yes, Daine is 14 in her first book, but she’s only 16 by the last one. 8 and 9 year old girls read books about teenage girls all the time…wouldn’t it be nice if they read more books about empowered teenage girls instead of ditzy ones?

  2. I LOVE Wild Magic but be careful, there is some sexual content (all non-specific) in book 4, so be careful before giving it to your girls.

    • Hi Ann,

      I only recommended Wild Magic. I figured Daine gets older and so perhaps does her story line. All the YA books I reviewed here are series but I only read book one of each. Thank you for the heads up. Did you like the whole series?

      MM