From Our ReadersThe Trouble With Young Adult FictionFrom Our Readers

Is Katniss a little too brave?

I’ve spent a lot of time defending the integrity of young adult novels. Sure, they can be silly, but that doesn’t negate their impact on the thirteen-to-mid-twenties demographic, and they shouldn’t be condemned just because teenage girls are the major target audience.

I still think this. In fact, I’m pretty adamant on the fact that teenage girls have good judgment skills when it comes to a lot of things (my teenage sister, for example, dresses way better than I do), and that includes books. Mary Shelley was sixteen when she wrote Frankenstein, so chew on that for a bit before you start slamming the XX chromosome.

The more I read and grew up, though, the more I started noticing the problems with YA/NA – problems that would have adverse effects on the same teenage girls I’ve been defending and now feel the need to caution. While plenty of these tropes are laughable and pretty much harmless, there are a number of influences that are potentially damaging to young women’s psyche, self-image, and lifestyle. Here are some of the pitfalls when it comes to how YA girls are portrayed.

Perfect Heroes, Clumsy Heroines

The hero tends to be good-looking, well-spoken, intelligent, charming, witty, and introspective. Meanwhile the heroine is stuttering up a storm and falling down every set of stairs that gets in her way. I’d say it’s a simple matter of extrovert/introvert, but then there seems to be the suggestion that all men are outgoing and all women would rather stay curled up in bed with a classic British novel or whatever. She’d probably fall off the bed repeatedly, though, since she’s always portrayed as a klutz. But I guess the heroine has to walk into the occasional wall. I mean, she needs some flaw to balance out her unprecedented hotness and overall perfection, which brings us to our next point…

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The [Un]pretty Heroine

I don’t mind a heroine who doesn’t think she’s all that and a bag of chips. I mean, let’s face it, teenage girls aren’t offered a lot of encouragement when it comes to self-esteem; everywhere they look they see models who don’t even have pores. What I do mind is when authors try their hardest to convince you that their protagonists aren’t at all conventionally attractive, even though when they clearly are. Not only are dudes hitting on them left and right, but when the writer describes the character, she’s undeniably hot. Whatever happened to adolescent awkwardness? I’m not talking about that heroine who trips over the air, either. I’m talking about growth spurts and oily skin and pimples and bad haircuts and misdirected fashion choices and too much eye shadow and just the general weirdness of being a teenager. All these characters look like bammin’ slammin’ bootylicious twenty-somethings who’ve got their s— together. I cannot suspend disbelief for that; it’s too ridiculous.

Side note: Why does no one have brown eyes anymore? They’re all green with flecks of gold or steely blue-gray or violet (color contacts much?). Listen, if brown eyes are good enough for Van Morrison, they’re good enough for your super special snowflake protagonist.

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  1. I wonder what sort of YA you read to have arrived at this conclusion. Those books are definitely not representative of the entire genre. There are a lot of authors out there writing about diverse and REAL characters. Have you tried Sarah Dessen, Deb Caletti, Cath Crowley, Melina Marchetta or Maggie Stiefvater? The protagonists have parents, are flawed and messy, and include characters with problems such as anxiety disorders and the like. Maybe avoiding the overhyped dystopian/fantasy series and going for “quieter” books would change your mind about YA/NA and where it’s headed.

  2. I don’t know why I get offended but this one. . . teenagers are not stupid and at least you are reading the sisterhood of the travelling pants, so yes the YA sucks but did you read all the books, all the books that are typed as YA?, maybe I’m saying this because yes I’m still a teenager and I love The maze runner saga, but you still are showing and teaching others that teenagers are stupid?, because I took like that this article, sorry. And all those loves issues, maybe someone likes it. Someone wants to read an story that will end up well and “The Heroine” and “The Hero” have had hard times but at the end they love each other. Someone likes the cliche things.
    And even if you’re not a teenager just imagine Cecelia Ahern, it’s like saying: Oh no, your books are silly so you’re not a good writer, but…
    I understand everyone has their opinion, like you I just wanted to tell mine.
    and sorry for my english and grammar.

  3. Yeah, you should read Simone Elkeles. She writes inter-racial relationships, parents are present, and there are real life issues. I was about sixteen the first time I read one of her novels and my mind was blown because it broke down barriers and was the first novel I’d ever read that actually celebrated an inter-racial couple without sugar coating the reality racism is still out there. Sarah Dessen is another great one. Her novels bring up issues of self worth, self image, and self confidence. The protagonists are never perfect, in fact Just Listen was amazing because of how awful both of the main characters initially were. A lot of the best books for young adults are the ones that are mostly under the radar but still have a strong following. The best advice for anyone looking for young adult novels is to stop going to the best sellers lists and spend a few hours at your local library or book store; they have plenty of books that will fit your wants and standards for good literature.

  4. I think there’s a good reason The Hunger Games books are the the only “YA” books I’ve been able to get into, and you pointed that out clearly.

    I tried to read Divergent and City of Bones, but I couldn’t get past the first few chapters before getting bored with all of the overworked tropes. There’s something about the way that Katniss reacts to everyone and everything that pulls you in. Half of the time she’s like, “I knew I should care, but screw that.”

    I was hesitant to get into YA books for the reasons you listed above and although I try to keep an open mind, it’s difficult when many of them fall into the same cycle over and over and over….

    Great piece!

  5. I agree with every point made! Lately I’ve tried reading YA novels (Divergent) but I just can’t digest them anymore. I get frustrated when reading from the point of view of a teenager/YA because I am one no longer one. Thanks!

  6. It felt like that until…

    -John Green
    -Rainbow Rowell

    And you can always crawl back to…

    -Louisa May Alcott

    Nonetheless, I absolutely agree. I read such and I keep thinking “I didn’t have friends like that. No, those are not the boys I remember. My mother would never ever have approved… I would’ve panicked!… Am I too old? Have I always been 125 years old?”

  7. You definitely should sample some of Charles De Lint work, it is just the better I ever found in Fantasy books. It has this perfect balance of real world/people issues with a poetic way of the autor to bring legendary beings in their stories. It is my love match books and I definitely hope my kids will read them.

  8. Could not agree more! I enjoyed this article, and since books have such an influential effect on such a large portion society, it is important to look at these features. When you read a book, it is quite easy to admire the qualities of your favourite characters, and find yourself unconsciously wanting to become just a little more like them. While I don’t think this is necessarily a thing that should be majorly encouraged (as it’s good to be yourself!) I think it is in part unavoidable, through human nature. Also agree that there should be an increase in diversity of characters! One of the things that always annoys me is that there are plenty of female protagonists that love to eat, but at the end of the day they still fit into their size 8 jeans! Why is being plus size so undesirable for a female heroine? Heroine that is plus size with a positive body image please!