This kicks off our new series, Y.A. for Grownups, in which we talk about Y.A. literature—from the now nostalgia-infused stories we devoured as kids to more contemporary tomes being read by young people today. Despite what Joel Stein wants, grownups are reading Y.A. Let's embrace it.
Much has been made of Katniss Everdeen as a new generation of girl hero, featuring a compounding of traits ranging from warrior to accidental girl-next-door hero to a new-era survivalist from a revamped frontier myth. In Wednesday's New York Times A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis dissect Katniss as played by Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, calling her "one of the most radical female characters to appear in American movies." In late March, around the time the movie was released, Bloomberg's Christopher Palmeri predicted that the way the character of Katniss has resonated with audiences (translating into big money for Lionsgate studio) might inspire Hollywood to give a little more attention to female leads of this ilk. It's too early to see if that pans out, though it would be nice.
The main message that Dargis and Scott put forth is that Katniss is one of a new kind, and not just a new type of character but one that "represents an alternative to an enduring cultural type that the literary critic R. W .B. Lewis described as the American Adam": “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.” (Dargis and Scott also align Katniss with James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, an independent loner who defends the frontier but is never truly part of it.) But isn't an individual standing alone, "self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him [or her] with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources" exactly what a good young adult novel character IS?
If Katniss had not found herself living in a dystopian society, she might have been just a girl who grew up feeling oppressed by her family, who wanted to, say, run away to a museum and solve a mystery on her own, with the help of her little brother. She might have been a red-headed spitfire determined to live life on her own terms (or that other red-headed spitfire, who did the same). She might have been a prairie girl, or an orphan girl, or just a little girl who didn't quite fit in—maybe one who squeezed a whole tube of toothpaste into the sink, just because she felt like it. She might have been a girl spy. Part of what makes Katniss such a relatable character, despite being put into a situation to which none of us can truly relate, is that she's a girl character like so many who came before her, if writ slightly larger, and with different, more violent bells and whistles.
We've made our own connections to the character of Katniss and another girl hero of literature—A Wrinkle in Time's Meg Murry, who, like Katniss, is pushed into action in order to save a younger sibling, and who finds unknown strength in herself in doing so. But this isn't, necessarily, a unique trait in girl characters, particularly not girl characters in young adult fiction. You find them all over the place, in fact. While they may not know how to shoot an arrow, and while the challenges they're up against may not be as dramatic as fighting to the death in a televised game at the behest of an authoritarian government, they face challenges nonetheless. Sure, there's something new with the character of Katniss: Certainly, the stakes are greater, the world is more dangerous, there are many deeper messages to be read within. But the inherent qualities that make a girl character a hero, whether in those situations or those far more commonplace, are one and the same. Katniss might be a new breed of female hero, but she's got a lot of traits we already know and love.
Scott writes, "Katniss is carrying the burden of multiple symbolic identities. She’s an athlete, a media celebrity and a warrior as well as a sister, a daughter, a loyal friend and (potential) girlfriend. In genre terms she is a western hero, an action hero, a romantic heroine and a tween idol. She is Natty Bumppo, Diana the chaste huntress of classical myth, and also the synthesis of Harry Potter and Bella Swan — the Boy Who Lived and the Girl Who Must Choose."
Perhaps in American cinema, as Dargis writes, women have typically been reduced to types like mom, girlfriend, or victim. But in the Y.A. books of our youth, they are far more complex, and more thoroughly drawn. They have been for years, and they continue to be so. Here are a few of our favorites, and why:
Laura Ingalls of the Little House series. Perhaps the original girl character frontierswoman, Laura Ingalls could tap a maple tree for sap and played with a balloon made of a pig's bladder. She also lived through a long, blizzardy winter and had her share of going hungry. Can you say survivalist?
A Wrinkle in Time's Meg Murry. Of course. Read about why here.
Liesel Meminger of The Book Thief. Throughout the course of this book, which takes place in Nazi Germany, Liesel comes in contact with Death on numerous occasions—the first being when her brother dies as she and he are being taken to what would be their new foster home by their mother, who has been forced to give them up because of her "Communist sympathies." At her brother's burial Leisel spots and steals a book, The Grave Digger's Handbook, even though she can't read. In the course of the book, she does learn to read—but she's a heroine in many more ways as well.
Ramona Quimby, of Beverly Cleary's wonderful series. Spunky, wonderful Ramona, who's not perfect but who just keeps trying. How can you not love and relate to her? She's the flawed everygirl of toothpaste-squeezing to Katniss's more grown-up reality televised-warrior, but they are both spunky and sometimes trouble and sometimes in trouble, but always, at their core, they are fighters.
Pippi Longstocking. "Nine-year-old Pippi is unconventional, assertive, and has superhuman strength, being able to lift her horse one-handed without difficulty." She also has a name that would trump that of any Hunger Games participant: Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking. Yep, she's awesome.
Francie Nolan of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Betty Smith's classic about a Brooklyn girl growing up and finding herself is still poignant, affecting, and beautiful, perhaps more so now when the Williamsburg streets where Francie learned how to be herself are cluttered with young adults of an entirely different sort, seeking to grow up as well. As Robert Cornfield wrote in a moving New York Times piece on the book in 1999, "It is a story of triumph over adversity. Francie, spat upon, ridiculed, molested, betrayed by her first love, trusts her imagination to save her. Of her education, Smith says, 'Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that district.' The librarian, who 'hated children,'' notices nothing about the girl working her way down the shelves from A to Z."
Winnie Foster in Tuck Everlasting. Natalie Babbitt's fantasy novel published in 1975 tackles questions of immortality, love and relationships, and doing the right thing for the future of humanity—questions which the character of Winnie, herself only a girl, must find answers to for herself. Her choices are hard ones, yet she makes them with the wisdom of someone much older.
Anne of Green Gables. Anne Shirley is an inspiration to all of us. So funny, so imaginative, so prone to accidents and mishaps in her youth—and, in the end, a self-possessed young woman who finds a way to live the way she wants to while also being kind, gentle, loving, intelligent, and courageous.
Betsy Ray of the Betsy-Tacy series. Many of the books that girls of a certain age grew up on involve characters who wanted to be writers, probably because many of those grown-up women writing those books had the same dream in their youths, and accomplished it. So Betsy, a girl living in small-town Minnesota in the early 1900s, is in some ways a small-town girl, with a traditional upbringing and values, but she's also a girl who dreams of being a writer, who staunchly supports and respects her female friends always, who finds love despite plenty of missteps along the way, who travels around the world, and who realizes her dream, while also, in the end, being a wife and mom. For a book series that began publication in 1940 and deals with a character living at the turn of the last century, that's pretty damn impressive.
These girls and others showed us how to grow up and be individuals and make hard choices and face moral consequences for our actions. Katniss Everdeen is great, of course, and the plot of the book (and the movie) is clearly compelling enough to keep these sorts of discussions going for weeks. But as we talk about Katniss as this brave new character, let's also remember those who came before. She might be a new breed, but she comes from hardy stock.