Teenage reads: Brilliant books with fearlessly strong female leads
Our teens are bombarded with an insane amount of media every day. Between Instagram and Tik Tok, a lot of that media focuses on beauty and body image, two particularly sensitive topics in our teen years as young women. It's easy to feel inadequate at that age anyway, but with all this new media constantly reinforcing the message that they are never quite good enough, it's important to shore our daughter's defences up against these attacks on their self esteem and confidence.
Having examples of strong and capable young women is key, and a great source of those role models are in books. These young women and girls overcome their problems, find their worth in their intelligence, their abilities and their belief in themselves, overcoming seemingly impossible situations by relying on themselves. We've compiled some of the best examples – and stories – below for you to choose from to show your daughter that she can do anything she puts her mind to!
The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press)
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister's place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to death before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a serious contender in the Games. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weight survival against humanity and life against love.
Although the films made a lot of the narrative about the love story, the books focus a lot on Katniss’ mental health journey. She goes through a lot between losing her father, overcoming PTSD, emotional and physical trauma – and she manages to come out the other end of it, scarred but not broken. She perseveres through impossible situations and is known as one of the original ‘strong female characters’ in children’s literature.
‘The Henna Wars’ by Adiba Jaigirdar (Page Street Kids)
When Nishat comes out to her parents, they say she can be anyone she wants—as long as she isn’t herself. Because Muslim girls aren’t lesbians. Nishat doesn’t want to hide who she is, but she also doesn’t want to lose her relationship with her family. And her life only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life.
Flávia is beautiful and charismatic and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat choose to do henna, even though Flávia is appropriating Nishat’s culture. Amidst sabotage and school stress, their lives get more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush on Flávia and realises there might be more to her than she realised.
Headstrong as well as strong, Nishat is a complicated protagonist that you really feel for. Struggling with secrets and shame, she stays true to who she is through difficult times, facing up to bullies and social pressure throughout it all.
'Divergent' by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books)
In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.
During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.
Tris is hardcore! Another classic ‘strong female protagonist’, the incredible storyline in this book is only second to Tris’s amazing transformation from meek and mild to daring and courageous. Embracing the parts of herself she always had to keep hidden, Tris comes into her own throughout the challenges and trouble that comes her way in this series, leaning how to love not just others, but the dark and complicated parts of herself as well.
'Six of Crows' by Leigh Bardugo (Henry Holt and Co.)
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…
A convict with a thirst for revenge
A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager
A runaway with a privileged past
A spy known as the Wraith
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes
Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.
We hear from lots of different perspectives in Kaz Brekker’s crew in this book, but our favourite two are Inej and Nina, the two girls who are total opposites, showing how strength can take many forms. Nina is loud and brash and seems confident on the surface and Inej is quieter than the breeze, slinking through the shadows of life hoping to be unnoticed. Both girls discover the power and expertise they bring to table, despite their broken pasts, and find healing and new adventures along the way.
'Stargirl' by Jerry Spinelli (Scholastic)
Leo Borlock follows the unspoken rule at Mica Area High School: don't stand out–under any circumstances! Then Stargirl arrives at Mica High and everything changes–for Leo and for the entire school. After 15 years of home schooling, Stargirl bursts into tenth grade in an explosion of color and a clatter of ukulele music, enchanting the Mica student body.
But the delicate scales of popularity suddenly shift, and Stargirl is shunned for everything that makes her different. Somewhere in the midst of Stargirl's arrival and rise and fall, normal Leo Borlock has tumbled into love with her.
In a celebration of nonconformity, Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, emotional tale about the fleeting, cruel nature of popularity–and the thrill and inspiration of first love.
Embracing who you are can be a long and difficult road, with plenty of roadblocks along the way. Stargirl is whimsical but string character who believes in herself when no one else does. The follow on to this book, Love, Stargirl, is told from Stargirl’s perspective and we see the true cost – and payoff – of being you when everyone wants you to conform.
'Percy Jackson and the Heroes of Olympus' by Rick Riordan (Disney-Hyperion Books)
Jason has a problem. He doesn’t remember anything before waking up in a bus full of kids on a field trip. Apparently he has a girlfriend named Piper, and his best friend is a guy named Leo. They’re all students at the Wilderness School, a boarding school for “bad kids," as Leo puts it. What did Jason do to end up here? And where is here, exactly? Jason doesn't know anything—except that everything seems very wrong.
Piper has a secret. Her father has been missing for three days, ever since she had that terrifying nightmare about his being in trouble. Piper doesn’t understand her dream, or why her boyfriend suddenly doesn’t recognise her. When a freak storm hits during the school trip, unleashing strange creatures and whisking her, Jason, and Leo away to someplace called Camp Half-Blood, she has a feeling she’s going to find out, whether she wants to or not.
Leo has a way with tools. When he sees his cabin at Camp Half-Blood, filled with power tools and machine parts, he feels right at home. But there’s weird stuff, too—like the curse everyone keeps talking about, and some camper who's gone missing. Weirdest of all, his bunkmates insist that each of them—including Leo—is related to a god. Does this have anything to do with Jason's amnesia, or the fact that Leo keeps seeing ghosts?
Join new and old friends from Camp Half-Blood in this thrilling first book in The Heroes of Olympus series. Best-selling author Rick Riordan has pumped up the action, humor, suspense, and mystery in an epic adventure that will leave readers panting for the next instalment.
The more grown-up follow-on series from the best-selling Percy Jackson and Olympians series, this story follows all your favourites from the first series as they hit their mid teenage years. With a cast of amazing female characters, this series really steps it up, as we hear from Piper who is determined to be more than anyone has bargained for, Hazel who will make people see past the darkness of her past if it’s the last thing she does and Reyna, who will be the best leader that the world has ever seen – even if her heart is breaking on the inside. Annabeth returns as her gloriously bossy, capable and intelligent self, bringing a complexity to the character that her fans from the previous books will love.
'Queen of Coin and Whispers' by Helen Corcoran (O'Brien Press)
When teenage queen Lia inherits her corrupt uncle’s bankrupt kingdom, she brings a new spymaster into the fold…Xania, who takes the job to avenge her murdered father. Faced with dangerous plots and hidden enemies, can Lia and Xania learn to rely on each another, as they discover that all is not fair in love and treason?
In a world where the throne means both power and duty, they must decide what to sacrifice for their country – and for each other …
A story that delves deep into the political running of a country, Xania and Lia are another set of opposites that somehow work well together. Where Xania is all fire, Lia is ice and together they take on the doubters of the new queen, playing to their strengths to manipulate, outmanoeuvre and best their enemies and the enemies of the crown.
'Only Ever Yours' by Louise O'Neill (Quercus)
In a world in which baby girls are no longer born naturally, women are bred in schools, trained in the arts of pleasing men until they are ready for the outside world. At graduation, the most highly rated girls become “companions”, permitted to live with their husbands and breed sons until they are no longer useful.
For the girls left behind, the future – as a concubine or a teacher – is grim.
Best friends Freida and Isabel are sure they’ll be chosen as companions – they are among the most highly rated girls in their year.
But as the intensity of final year takes hold, Isabel does the unthinkable and starts to put on weight…
And then, into this sealed female environment, the boys arrive, eager to choose a bride.
Freida must fight for her future – even if it means betraying the only friend, the only love, she has ever known…
An eye-opening and shocking read, this book will have women drawing comparisons with their own life and internalized beliefs, making us interrogate them like we never have before. Frieda is unfortunately, not a very strong character, falling victim to the harmfully beauty-obsessed patriarchal world she lives in, but we find rebellion can take strange and harrowing forms in this book, and that everything is not always as it seems.
'Princesses Behaving Badly' by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie (Quirk Books)
You think you know her story. You've read the Brothers Grimm, you've watched the Disney cartoons, and you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after.
But real princesses didn't always get happy endings.
Sure, plenty were graceful and benevolent leaders, but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets. Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe was a Nazi spy. Empress Elisabeth of the Austro-Hungarian empire slept wearing a mask of raw veal. Princess Olga of Kiev slaughtered her way to sainthood while Princess Lakshmibai waged war on the battlefield, charging into combat with her toddler son strapped to her back.
Princesses Behaving Badly offers true tales of all these princesses and dozens more in a fascinating read that's perfect for history buffs, feminists, and anyone seeking a different kind of bedtime story.
This is one of my favourite ‘retellings’ as it exposes the history behind the fantasy – perfect for history and Disney buffs! It shows women in their all their complicated imperfection – and how they thrive or survive in spite of and because of it.