From June Costa To Sally Lockhart: Five Young Adult Heroines Who Are Self-Starters

Rachel Shukert has a fantastic post up at Jezebel about writing feminist science fiction, but I was particularly struck by her first point, that if you want to write feminist sci-fi, you might consider having your female character seek out adventure or a profession on her own terms, not simply step up in emergency circumstances, or face up to the extraordinary when she has no other choice. Shukert argues:

There’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, in most cases, it’s admirable. Somebody has to sacrifice for her family, her society, and the boy she loves who keeps her from going to college and impregnates herwith a vampire child that will probably eat its way through her stomach and kill her, but hey, that’s what it means to be a mother. (Actually, strike that last one.) But I wanted the girls in Starstruck to be different. They’re looking for adventure, they want to be the center of attention. They’re “leaning in,” to be really obnoxiously meme-y about it (I’m assuming that’s a word), making sacrifices and difficult decisions, but they aren’t doing it to satisfy anything but their own artistic ambition, their own need for recognition, their own big dreams. They’ve got a lot at stake — Gabby is the sole breadwinner for her family; if things don’t work out at Olympus, the fictional studio in the book, Margo and arguably Amanda will have nowhere to go — but nothing so much as their own dreams. These sisters doing it for themselves are doing it for themselves. And that’s fine.

Some of the heroines who have attracted the most intense followings, and made the biggest splashes in their adaptations from page to screen are those reluctant heroines, whether Bella Swan, who is pulled into a larger world of vampires and werewolves when Edward and Jacob fall in love with her, or Katniss Everdeen, who steps up to become a tribute when her sister Prim, who has little chance to survive the Arena, is chosen. But there are plenty of young women out there pursuing adventures on their own terms. These are five of my favorites who match Rachel’s descriptions.

1. June Costa, The Summer Prince: June, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s heroine, is an artist raised in the upper echelons of her society, Palmares Três, a futuristic and highly stratified city that still practices human sacrifice as part of its matriarchal governance structure. Initially, the selection of a new Summer King, a man who lives a luxurious life for a year, and in his death sanctifies the rule of the current queen, is just a stage for June and her friend Gil to stage another one of their public art projects. But when it turns out that Enki, the young man who’s chosen, has an artistic temperament himself, June finds a partner for her creative endeavors, and one who ends up encouraging her to question Palmares Três’ traditions.2. Sally Lockhart, The Ruby In The Smoke: Philip Pullman may be better-known for his Golden Compass trilogy, a retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost. But before he invented Lyra Belacqua, Pullman gave us Sally Lockhart, a spirited young woman raised with the skills of a boy and a charms of a woman by her father, an officer who served the British Empire in India. In search of her inheritance, she gets an education in the world of London far beyond the places she’d have been confined to as a polite young lady, from the slums of Wapping to the studio of photographer Frederick Garland, and finding more about her own identity and capabilities in the process.


3. Beka Cooper, Terrier: A young woman who grew up in the slums of Corus, the capital city where Tamora Pierce has set many of her novels, Beka’s first investigation as a child is into the man who is abusing her mother, and who turns out to be part of an important criminal gang. Her determination to see him caged brings her and her family to the attention of the Lord Provost, the head of the early police force in Pierce’s medieval-ish universe. When the series devoted to her begins, Beka’s a trainee Dog, as cops are known, paired with a legendary team of detectives, eager to solve the mysteries that the rest of her city has missed because they occur in poor neighborhoods.

4. Tara Abernathy, Three Parts Dead: Max Gladstone’s first novel isn’t technically young adult literature, but it’s plenty appropriate for young readers. And Tara, the part-magician-part-consultant who works for a necromantic firm that’s a sort of alternate-universe McKinsey, is a crackerjack. Kicked out of the Hidden Schools, Tara finds a life for herself doing small magic for country people until she’s called on to perform a much bigger task: solve the mystery of a God’s murder, and then bring him back to life.

5. Cimorene, Talking To Dragons: A princess who’s so bored with the routines of her education that she picks up fencing and magic lessons instead, Cimorene runs away rather than marry the tremendously boring prince her parents are trying to set her up with — and takes a job as a dragon’s princess instead. Rather than embracing the role as a helpless captive that most of her fellow princesses sign up for, Cimorene sorts through treasure, borrows crepe pans from a friendly witch, and gets involved with dragon politics.