15 books featuring iconic female literary characters

15 books featuring iconic female literary characters

In Reading Lists by Sonia Gonzalez

15 books featuring iconic female literary characters

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and March is Women’s History Month, and — we think — every day is a good day to read books with a strong female character. Whether it’s a fearless princess, teenage revolutionary, or everyday heroine who overcomes life’s complex trials, these iconic female characters exemplify the intellect, bravery, beauty, and power of women and girls. While not an exhaustive list, titles range from classic picture books to adult favorites and every stage in between — just don’t feel like you have to read all of these at once.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

Published more than 40 years ago, this empowering story spins the "classic fairytale" on its head. Princess Elizabeth must use her wit and gumption to outsmart the ghastly dragon that has destroyed her castle and material possessions and kidnapped her betrothed prince. It's a quick, straightforward read that young children and their parents will appreciate. 

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Isabella is smart, brave, tough, and kind — just like heroines from the past and present that inspire her. From astronauts to activists, scientists to our everyday champions, Isabella is learning how to dream big and change the world. With whimsical illustrations and nods to women who have paved the way, this is a great read for all mighty girls (and boys!). Added bonus: Short bios of the inspirational women from the story are included at the end of the book.

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Every kid fantasizes about how much better life would be with “other parents” and Coraline Jones is no exception. Her parents are well-meaning but preoccupied. So when she discovers a secret passage to a familiar but upgraded alternate reality — one with an eerily attentive “other mother” — she can’t help but be drawn in. When she realizes things aren’t quite what they seem, Coraline has to muster her courage and wit to save herself and the other lost souls being held captive. 

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The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera

Earth will soon be destroyed by a comet and Petra Peña’s family is one of the select few chosen to leave and begin a new civilization on another planet. When Petra wakes from stasis, she’s horrified to discover that a sinister Collective has callously engineered a uniformed society void of diversity, art, stories, culture, and memories of the past — the very things that make us human. Petra is the only one with memories of the planet and life she left behind. This sci-fi dystopian middle-reader tale evokes elements of “The Giver” while weaving in Latinx culture and folklore, introducing a young heroine for a new generation. 

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Me (Moth) by Amber McBride

Meet Moth, a tender-hearted teen struggling to cope with the death of her parents and brother in a car accident. Her survivor’s guilt is so profound that she shrinks herself, refusing to dance, though she once dreamed of Juliard, trying to take up less space. Then she meets Sani, a boy struggling with his own trauma, and they embark on a road trip west, across the American South, toward Sani’s Navajo home. Along the way, they explore and honor their respective African and Native traditions and ancestors, and help each other find healing and peace. 

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

What begins as an impulsive move to save her sister from the savage Capitol-sponsored Hunger Games turns Katniss Everdeen from a reluctant heroine to the inspiring face of a revolution. Just like in Collins’ dystopian world, Katniss’s heart of gold, hardened determination, and impressive archery skills have made her a household name in ours.

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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevado

Sometimes facing your own parents and rigid cultural expectations requires heroic strength and courage. Xiomara, a Harlem Latinx teen, finds refuge in her poetry but must navigate the competing demands of her parents, teachers, and peers if she hopes to find the confidence to let her true self — and talent — shine. Acevado’s debut novel, written in verse, is a lyrical and emotional powerhouse. 

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Thomas’s searing debut novel follows 16-year-old Starr Carter, who lives at the crossroads of two worlds — the low-income Black neighborhood where she lives and the elite, predominately white private school she attends. It’s hard dealing with the constant code-switching, stereotypes, and microaggressions at school while also living up to the expectations of her larger-than-life father who’s a figurehead in his community and local business owner. When her childhood friend Khalil is shot and killed by a white police officer in front of Starr — and the killing makes national headlines and leads to widespread protests — the delicate balance she has nurtured comes crashing down and she’s faced with a difficult and dangerous ultimatum: Reveal what she knows about the shooting or stay quiet to keep her family safe. 

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Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Young Lauren Olamina must face the perils of a society that is falling to ruins with the added weight of hyperempathy syndrome, a condition that results in a heightened sensitivity to others' emotions. Set in the not-too-distant future, Butler’s dystopian classic tackles issues ranging from climate change and the privatization of public services to indifferent government officials and the true cost of erecting walls — both literal and figurative — between peoples.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A journey of growth and self-discovery, this novel follows Ifemelu as she emigrates from her native Nigeria to the United States in pursuit of higher education and opportunity, while grappling with the cost of leaving her family and her boyfriend Obinze behind. It's an artful examination of racial and cultural stereotypes, the layered relationships with friends, family, and lovers, and what it means to find “home.”

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Daughters of the Stone by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa

This captivating debut novel by Llanos-Figueroa follows five generations of Afro-Latinas, beginning with Fela, who was captured in Africa and enslaved on a colonized Puerto Rican plantation. Her descendants in Puerto Rico and, eventually, New York balance familial and ancestral preservation while navigating the ever-changing world around them. Weaving ancient African mysticism with modern Puerto Rican and American culture, “Daughters of the Stone” centers authentic Afro-Latina experiences not often portrayed in literature. 

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Brontë’s classic novel was certainly ahead of its time, in writing style and content. Among the first novels written in first-person narrative, it gracefully challenges societal and romantic conventions of Victorian-era England. Its titular protagonist is intelligent, independent, and spirited as she courageously pushes the boundaries of class and morality. 

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The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

While Hulu’s original series brought renewed attention to this classic by master novelist Margaret Atwood, this satirical tale has been a staple since its 1985 publication. In a future dystopian society controlled by religious puritans, women have no rights, are assigned roles by a domineering patriarchal government, and are subjected to brutal abuse and dehumanizing oppression. Handmaid Offred relays her tale, at great personal danger, offering insight into the perils of her current world while reminiscing on the life she had before — a life with a husband and daughter, a job, autonomy, and other “liberties” she took for granted. 

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Alvarez’s debut novel follows four sisters whose lives are uprooted when their family is forced to flee the Dominican Republic and begin a new life in New York. This beautiful coming-of-age tale weaves the stories of each of the sisters together and explores the difficulty of starting over in a new country and the ways in which they simultaneously assimilate and hold fast to their culture. 

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Daughter of Fortune by Isabelle Allende

Allende’s epic tale, set in the mid-1800s, follows Eliza Sommers from her mysterious origins on a family’s doorstep in the British colony of Valparaíso, Chile to her teenage love affair with a young man who, tempted by the promise of gold, leaves for California. When Eliza discovers she is pregnant with his child, she is determined to find him and sets off on a perilous voyage. What begins as a single-minded mission to find her love ultimately becomes a journey of adventure and self-discovery for this courageous young woman.

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For more reading recommendations to help celebrate Women’s History Month, check out the Inspiring Female Characters Who Crush It and Essential Reads About Women in History lists from our Scribd editors.
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About the Author: Sonia Gonzalez

Sonia Gonzalez holds a B.A. in English Literature from Lehman College, CUNY, and is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared on various parenting and lifestyle websites and in New York Magazine’s 2018 Best of New York series. She lives in New York and when she's not reading or writing, she's spending time with her husband and three children and their very spirited dog. 

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