Warning: The following books are a true source of inspiration, but there may be a few spoilers ahead!
In this unpredictable world we live in, sometimes you need a hero–someone to believe in, as the challenges mount in number, and your hope grows fragile, beginning to dwindle. Across literary genres, there are thousands upon thousands of books that tell the story of a hero: Someone who must confront troublesome odds, who unconditionally does the right thing despite the efforts of their enemies, and who pays no mind to the unpopularity their decisions may bring. For these heroes answer to a higher calling–a nobility of heart, a loyalty to the self, a sense of purpose. Additionally, I am proud to say, that many of these characters are female. To be a hero, one does not need to adhere to a specific demographic; all that is needed is, what many a writer across history has dubbed, “a lion heart.”
Below is a list of books to read when you need inspiration from a female hero–A lion heart, who, despite the odds, puts her head down and moves forward. I think you will find each of these book recommendations and character assessments to be uplifting, invigorating, and truthful. I hope they inspire you to make courageous decisions and stay brave in both big and small moments of life-just like the female characters in these books.
1. The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Adult, Fiction)
Female hero: Skeeter
Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, in a town and time rife with racism and cruelty, Skeeter breaks the mold in a profound way, publishing stories about how white housewives treat their black housemaids. This novel, which is based on actual events, tells the story of members of the community, both black and white, and the secrets that come out when the bravery of a few people begins to push through.
Skeeter: Recent college grad Skeeter is an aspiring writer and a privileged member of the junior league; she is dating an eligible bachelor from their southern community. As she sits down with the black housemaids she is interviewing, and as she treats them with dignity and respect, Skeeter becomes increasingly shunned by her privileged friends and eventually is an outcast in white society. In a world where upper-class women hardly even work, she loses her relationship and childhood friendships because she has decided to do work writing about the disrespect inflicted upon the black maids by the white women who employ them. In this racist and prejudiced society, Skeeter’s avoidance of group-think steers her into complete isolation with the exception of her exasperated family. In a poignant scene near the novel’s resolution, she is alone and turns on the radio to hear up-and-coming northern musician Bob Dylan singing; she describes that it feels as though she is “listening to the future.”
“A dreamer is someone who can feel their way by moonlight. Their punishment is that they see the dawn before the rest of the world.” –Oscar Wilde. Skeeter is shunned, but refuses to give in an inch, and at all times refuses to remove someone else’s humanity. Hero.
2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (Adult, Science Fiction)
Female Hero: Valentine
Ender’s game is a one-of-a-kind novel about a child, Ender, who is designed and trained to end the war the human race is fighting against the “bugs,” a mysterious alien species. It is a wonderful book that pulls the reader into individual moments with our protagonist, struggling to reach a victory through about a million adversaries and roadblocks. Of course, this military/science fiction novel has an excellent male hero, Ender, but not to be ignored is the lethal intelligence, familial protectiveness, and progressive conviction of Ender’s older sister Valentine.
Valentine: Due to her strength and intelligence, Valentine was also sent to battle school but was rejected due to her overwhelming compassion. In her early years, she protects Ender from the violent bullying of their older brother, who she does not fear despite his talent, intelligence, and constant tyranny. Later on, Valentine becomes an anonymous essayist renown across the universe. Using a pseudonym of a male Greek philosopher, she is revered for her wisdom and her thought-provoking philosophical writing against xenocide (like genocide but against aliens). Notably, in one of her essays, she writes that when the human race identifies a non-human species as more relatable to humanity, and therefore a life worth respecting; it is a greater step for mankind than for the foreign species. For we, as a species, are what we think and see. Valentine: Compassionate, intelligent, and fearless. Hero.
3. Never Broken by Jewel Kilcher (Adult, Memoir)
Female hero: Jewel
Jewel Kilcher is best known for breaking through the grunge scene of the 90’s to create a career singing pop/folk songs with messages of kindness and acceptance mixed with storytelling. Her memoir is the story of her journey growing up in an abusive, one-parent household in rural Alaska, singing in bars, putting herself through art school, yodeling and telling stories, hitchhiking to find her not-so-great mother, being sick and homeless, and becoming a self-made millionaire. During her journey, she was at times alone and depressed and generally without money. She befriended outcasts, experienced dramatic adventures, wrote poetry, searched for self-acceptance, and learned to create a loving life for herself. She is the summation of her experiences with a healthy dose of kindness and rationality that help her survive and learn during times of trouble. Her sense of adventure and emotional strength speak loudly throughout her stories, and her simple kindness makes her stories lovable and touching. A role model and hero.
4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Young Adult, Fantasy)
Female hero: Katniss
This dystopian novel is about a nation known as Panem established after North America was destroyed many years prior. A wealthy central capital exploits and represses the surrounding districts that survive in varying degrees of poverty. As punishment for an uprising, and an effective form of fear mongering, each year the capital takes one boy and one girl between the ages of 12-18 from each district who is then forced to participate in a “game” that will end in the death of all but one. From the poorest of the districts is Katniss Everdeen, a girl who volunteers to save her gentle younger sister’s life.
Katniss: Strong-willed Katniss was let down by her mother, who after the death of Katniss’ father became depressed and unable to care for their family despite their dire need. The family of three lives in sincere poverty, and in her mother’s negligence, Katniss hunts illegally to provide food for her mother and sister. It is established early on that Katniss is a survivor. Once she is in the games, and in a time of true violence, rather than form alliances with the strongest competitors who are generally reared in the more stable districts, Katniss befriends the smallest girl because she reminds her of her younger sister. As the games proceed, it is difficult for the participants to find food, and many starve; Katniss identifies that this part of the games, and it doesn’t phase her in the same way it weakens her competitors because being from the poorest district, she knows how to starve. These examples illustrate Katniss’ protective nature and her toughness. She detests bullies, has a unyielding mind that stays impervious to the seduction of others, and has a fiery temper. A true fighter and a true underdog. Hero.
5. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (Young Adult, Fantasy)
Female Heroes: Hermione and Luna
Although relatively new, Harry Potter is one of the most popular book series of all time. It tells the classic story of the great battle between good and evil with the backdrop of magic. Many issues we face in today’s world are analogically explored in Harry Potter (racism, sexism, violence, and one could even argue veganism through the treatment of house-elves). The accessibility mixed with good humor and human emotion makes the series relevant to individuals across nations and cultures. We all fight battles and feel alone sometimes. This series has become synonymous with standing in the face of adversity and summoning courage and strength of heart in the face of evil. It also happens to have a couple of amazing female heroes.
Hermione: While teased for loving books, and being a teacher’s pet and rule follower, never in seven books does Hermione acknowledge this or even bother to discuss it. Neither does she discuss the fact that being smart is what has made her top of her class academically and invaluable in the defeat of Voldemort. Read: Hermione does not care what people think of her. Ever. To emphasize that Hermione does not allow the opinions of others to affect her understanding of morality, she repeatedly, and publicly, denounces the wizard treatment of enslaved house elves–a historical norm in wizard world (vegan analogy?). Rather, than adhere to what is common, she maintains intellectual independence and maintains a strong heart for those in need. Hermione repeatedly shows leadership, courage, and mental toughness. She also happens to be a mudblood, and simultaneously, the best in her year. Underdog. Hero.
Luna: A unique girl, mocked and shunned for believing things that appear “crazy” to others, Luna does not yield to the pressure her peers continuously inflict upon her throughout the series. In fact, of the Harry Potter books, Luna is the champion of not yielding to peer pressure. Luna’s courage and kindness shine through over and over. For example, she is kidnapped and forced to live in the Malfoy’s basement yet remains ever the optimist. Rather than panicking, she comforts her fellow kidnappee, Mr. Ollivander, who is depressed and has lost all hope for freedom and life. After the loss of all of their wands, she is the only one Mr. Ollivander sends a new one to due to his gratefulness for her kindness and selflessness in a dark time. Additionally, it is important to remember that after the loss of Harry’s godfather, Luna is the only one who is able to comfort him because, like him, she has experienced the loss of someone she loves. Throughout the trials that are thrown at her and her friends, she is laughed at and isolated by the majority of characters, yet she remains unwavering with a strength of heart that does not falter for anyone or anything. Luna’s capacity for compassion and courage cannot be overstated. Additionally, her importance to the completion of the series should not be overlooked. Not once does Luna panic. “Only the gentle are ever really strong.” –James Dean. Hero.
6. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Young Adult, Science Fiction)
Female Hero: Artemis
Almost as soon as it was published in 2011, this sci-fi novel became a high-selling, trendy book; it even won the Prometheus Award. It is currently being made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg. This dystopian story is about computer hackers living in a poverty-stricken world where the majority of humanity has stayed plugged into the virtual reality and live as their avatars all day because real life is utterly hopeless. An old millionaire designs a gamer quest and hides an egg somewhere in this virtual reality, and gamers around the world plugin to search for the egg and become wealthy IRL to assuage their depression and hunger. The plot becomes a tale of corruption and greed, of creativity and cleverness, of luck and serendipity.
Artemis: An avatar named for the Greek goddess of independence, Artemis is a character who is fiercely independent to the point of refusing the make alliances with any “gunters.” Her game-playing skills are formidable, and everyone in the world learns her name. Despite the pressure and stakes at hand, Artemis keeps her mind clear and on her goal, sacrificing nothing for anyone. Additionally, when we meet her IRL (in real life, for the non-gamers), she is just as lovable as her avatar. Independent and single-minded. Hero.
7. Star Wars: Before the Awakening, by Alan Dean Foster (Adult, Fantasy)
Female Hero: Rey
If you are a Star Wars fan, chances are you already have fallen in love with Rey. This novel has some scenes that the film does not, but otherwise, it is the same in that it tells the story of the fight between the First Order and the Rebellion and the struggle that individuals face against oppression by the masses.
Rey: Rey is a character who has experienced loss, but her innocence and purity of heart are undeniable. When introduced, the first thing Rey does is silently and deftly climb, slide, and acrobat her way around, scavenging a wrecked ship. She is immediately introduced as a character who is monetarily poor, as well as resilient, resourceful, and athletic.
The second thing Rey does is save a terrified droid from being overpowered and kidnapped by an individual who wants to dismantle it and sell it for parts. Rey fiercely reproaches the attacker and describes to the droid that the assailant “has no respect for anyone.” As the novel unfolds and more of Rey’s character is revealed, she fulfills the hero archetype with her natural desire to protect rather than slay, and by maintaining her allegiance to doing what is right even in desperate situations. Silent conviction. Also critical to mention–physically, Rey is a formidable, formidable enemy. Lion. Hero.
8. Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo (Adult, Memoir)
Female Hero: Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo’s memoir is a combination of art, pain, beauty, stories, and culture. Harjo’s memoir comes from her experiences as a Native American growing up in a poor, depressed community, then attending art school, and following her calling to create. Given the circumstances, the simple fact that she continued to move forward is heroic, and this beautiful book is comprised of poems, stories, and prose, both fiction and non-fiction, that reflect her experiences. It involves nature and society, pain and art. Joy Harjo’s courage, recklessness, and strength make her someone to admire, and her life experience is unmatched by most. A great book to read when you need someone who has not given up yet–and who tells great stories. Through sheer power of her spirit, Joy Harjo is a female hero.
9. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Adult, Fiction)
Female Hero: Sabina
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel set in Prague in the 1960s; it tells the story of two men and two women during this period. It also explores relationships, emotional baggage, love, boredom, and the feeling of being lost in life, relationships, and emotions.
Sabina: Bohemian Sabina is independent, original, artistic, and hero to hipster girls everywhere. For the readers with a stark sense of morality, perhaps Sabina is not their idea of a hero because she lives her life according to nothing other than her understanding of her own life. But Sabina’s adherence to living artistically in every single moment and her devotion to living for herself is in itself admirable–and unfortunately very rare in our society. Sabina does not defend morality or save lives, but she conducts her life for the world that she experiences, for art, and with unfaltering independence. This book is great for those who need a reminder of how to do this. When it comes to this measure, Sabina will remind you. An unlikely hero, but heroes come from everywhere.
10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Adult, Fiction)
Female Hero: Scout
The classic about racism and injustice in the south in the era of the Great Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of the Finch family and how their lives are affected by the prejudice and stigmas that thrive in the rural south in the midst of a racially driven court case. Additionally, as according to the name, the novel tells the reader about the loss of innocence, for “who could kill a bird that does nothing but sing its heart out for us”?
Scout: No list about female heroism is complete without Scout Finch. When it comes to spirit, innocence, and talent, Scout cannot be overlooked. Even as a child, she has mental independence beyond expectation and does not let the motions of the town sway her ideas on justice. Rather, she lets her own experiences and conversations with her father steer her intellectual personality. Scout continues to question everything and gets criticized by the boys in her class for not being “girly” enough and for being physically strong. Scout is tough while innocent, curious and intelligent. When it comes to mental and moral strength, Scout is quite the young hero.
11. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (Adult, Fantasy/Science Fiction)
Female hero: Dagny Taggart
This classic, 1000-page dystopian novel tells the story of members of the Taggart family who together are an industrial powerhouse. It also tells of Hank Rearden, who has invented a type of metal that is the absolute best on the market without contest. The plot is about Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, and a mysterious figure called John Galt. It must be clarified that this novel is staunchly in favor of capitalism and rugged individualism, and the message comes through on every page. This book rather romantically uses theme and imagery from Greek mythology to communicate the human condition in this mix of society and economic philosophy. Whether or not you are a capitalist, this book is like none-other and has undeniably strong personality.
Dagny Taggart: Heiress Dagny Taggart remains a tough, intelligent, worker bee with laser-like focus and no capacity to be intimidated by anyone. She endures heartache, mounting pressure, and cold loneliness and is a master at setting and achieving goals. And you might say her non-magical superpower is making businesses run and earning money. She is the original bad bitch. Notably, after an excessively painful heartbreak that leaves her confused and lost, Dagny decides the best thing to do is to get to work, so she locks herself in her office and works until she stops thinking, which leads her to her next step. This book communicates the beauty of fighting the good fight alone and the glory of achievement when you begin with nothing and no advantage. After reading this book, one is left with the belief that going up against Dagny Taggart would be a very bad mistake. Female hero.
12. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (Young Adult, Fantasy)
Female hero: Ella
In this young adult novel, Ella is given a gift from a foolish fairy: Obedience. This gift/curse must be broken in order for Ella to save who she loves from exploitation and manipulation and live any kind of life at all. A novel of magic, love, danger, and made of the classic fairy-tale story arc with a creativity that makes it unique.
Ella: Ella is a character brimming with stubbornness that was thrust upon her by fate and as much cheek as she can muster. After the heartbreaking death of her mother, Ella lives much of her life in isolation though her condition compels her to become strong-willed, adventurous, and in any and every way she can manage, disobedient. Her internal dialogue is sincere and poignant as she battles evil that manifests in the form of odious step-sisters, a negligent and insensitive father, and a manipulative and hateful stepmother. She is perpetually vulnerable due to her curse and therefore learns to think quickly to protect herself. She battles the cruelty, jealousy, and greed of others, fueled by nothing but determination, love, and simple courage. Hero.
13. Alanna, the First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (Young Adult, Fantasy)
Female hero: Alanna
In this young adult fantasy novel, Alanna of Trebond is born a girl who refuses to fit into her society if it dictates that she will have to have a boring life because of her gender. In her kingdom, girls are banned from learning to fight and becoming knights, but to Alanna, it is “a fate worse than death” to be sent away to learn to be a lady. Alanna wants to learn to fight so badly that she disguises herself as a boy, and her twin brother gives her his spot at the palace so she can train as a knight.
Alanna: Alanna’s adventure forces on her an independence and self-awareness that many who she encounters lack. On top of the challenges of Knight training, which include violence and verbal abuse, she must hide her secret or suffer the wrath of the palace. She fights bullies who are at least twice her size and half as smart, befriends the King of Thieves, and saves the lives of her friends who are royalty, all while alone and under substantial pressure. Alanna is the type of character whose stubbornness is admirable, whose capabilities can be measured against any’s, and whose mental toughness is not to be reckoned with. Female hero.
Other books that have great female heroes: Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, Princess Diaries by Gina Wendkos, Island of the Blue Dolphin Scott O’dell, The White Album by Joan Didion.
What are your favorite books featuring a strong female character?
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