One day I was chatting with my women friends about the heroines from fantasy and science fiction books that inspired us when we were kids. We talked about Alanna from the Song of the Lioness series, Sabriel from the Abhorsen series, Cimorene from the Enchanted Forest series, and many more. We agreed that these heroines set us on the path toward feminism and self-empowerment.
But one of my friends in this conversation said, “I read all of those books when I was a kid, but then one day I looked in the mirror and realized that none of those heroines looked like me.” What my friend saw in the mirror was a black woman.
My heart broke when I heard that. The fantasy heroines of my childhood were so important to me. When I saw girls treated unfairly, or was treated unfairly myself, it was these fictional girls who gave me the courage to resist, and support other girls as they fought to resist. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have no heroines from my books who I could identify with.
So, in the interest of fighting back, I present to you a list of my favorite heroines of color from YA fantasy and science fiction. Read them to inspire yourself, or more importantly, buy them and recommend them for girls of color who you know. You could make a huge difference in their lives.
1. Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games
If your mental image of Katniss Everdeen is represented by Jennifer Lawrence, you may be wondering what I’m talking about. The truth is, the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies is a gross case of whitewashing, turning a character of color into a white character in an adaptation. This is how Katniss describes her friend Gale and her own family in The Hunger Games.
He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin, we even have the same grey eyes. But we’re not related, at least not closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble each other this way.
That is why my mother and Prim, with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place. They are. My mother’s parents were part of the small merchant class that caters to officials, Peacemakers, and the occasional Seam customer… She must have really loved him to leave her home for the Seam.
This is clearly a system where paler people in District 12 have an economic advantage on the basis of their skin color over the Seam, Katniss’ people, who are poor and hungry. Later on, Katniss describes Seeder, a woman from District 11, which is clearly coded as an analog to the American South under slavery, as looking just like a Seam woman except for her eye color. Katniss reads to me as multiracial, or perhaps Native American. (For more thoughts on this, read here.)
The Hunger Games series is a powerful anti-oppressive narrative about a young woman of color, whose people face constant police brutality and bodily exploitation, trying to assert her own humanity. The scene where Rue, a little black girl from District 11, dies in Katniss’ arms while she sings a song of mourning, is a powerful scene in the books because Katniss’ mourning song is a message: this little girl is not disposable, and neither am I. We are people. Our lives matter. What could be a more resonant read for a girl of color in these dark times of sanctioned police murder?
Katniss Everdeen is bowed, battered, but never beaten, and in this series she uses her voice to inspire both her people, other oppressed people of color, and her white oppressors to overthrow a broken system.
2. Daja Kisubo, Circle of Magic
Daja is a dark-skinned black girl of the Traders, a nomadic, marginalized people somewhat like the Romani in our world. She is an outcast from her own people as a young girl because she uses magic to survive a shipwreck. She becomes a mage in a circle of four friends who practice a kind of “practical magic,” the magic of everyday crafts like gardening and sewing. These new friends form her chosen family, since the one she knew is now gone forever.
I love that Daja’s magic concerns the most traditionally masculine craft of anyone in her circle: blacksmithing. Just like the metal she works into beautiful shapes with her hands, Daja is solid, steady, unyielding. Yet at the same time, she struggles deeply with what it means to live in the dominant culture that despises and distrusts her because of her heritage, even as her own people shun her as an outcast. It’s bonds with a new family, including a black metalworker who serves as her trusted mentor, that help her adjust to this new life.
Dana also gets a shout-out for being an openly lesbian character. I like that this is only a minor subplot; her story is mostly about her life as a student and teacher of magic, but she also just happens to meet a woman along the way who captures her heart. It’s a ridiculously cute romance.
3. Cassie, Animorphs
Cassie was given the power to morph into animals by a dying alien who wanted to give her and her friends a chance to fight the brain-stealing alien slugs, the Yeerks, who wanted to conquer her world. Cassie is a special person because unlike any of her friends, she didn’t choose to fight this terrible secret war against aliens for personal reasons, like one of her family members being captured by a Yeerk. She chose to do it because she loves her planet and believes it’s the right thing to do.
Cassie is a black girl whose parents are veterinarians. She volunteers with her parents helping sick animals. She is very smart and principled. Her knowledge about animals makes her the best morpher of the Animorphs, and she is usually the one who figures out the best morph to use in any given situation. Her strong moral compass also saves the Animorphs from sacrificing their souls to win the war they fight.
I also love Cassie because her moral principles do not make her harmless. One of the other Animorphs, much more military-minded than Cassie, realizes by the end of the series that she is the most dangerous Animorph. She is very insightful about people and uses this knowledge to manipulate them when she must. She can also see the big picture, and she’s willing to make great and terrible sacrifices in the present to ensure an important victory in the future. I find her a fascinating and complex character.
4. Catherine Hassi Barahal, Spiritwalker
Kate Elliott, the author of this series, summarizes it on her website better than I ever could: “This Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure has a gaslamp setting complete with revolution, Phoenician spies, and dinosaur lawyers.” If that doesn’t sell you on it, I don’t know what will. Cat, the protagonist, is one of the Phoenician spies trying to bring about a revolution, and yes, she has dinosaur lawyers.
What I love best about this series is that its emotional core centers on the friendship of two girls of color: Cat, and her cousin Bee. They both have men in their lives, and family besides each other, but the bond between them is the most solid and reliable thing they have in all the world.
The world building in this series is also inspiring. Spiritwalker is set in a world where the Ice Age lasted longer than it did in real life. All of Northern Europe is under ice, while Northern Africa is more fertile and less desert. As such, the centers of power are shifted southward, and 1800s Europe has a much stronger influence from Bantu culture. The alternate history elements are brilliant and just go to show that European cultural dominance is by no means an inevitability. Also, a significant part of the series is set in the Caribbean islands, and it wonderfully depicts the life of indigenous people from that region.
The four characters above I find wonderful in every respect, and can recommend without reservation. The heroines of color below I like in most ways, but I have at least one major reservation about how they are represented, so I present them as runners-up with brief explanations of why I like them and what gave me pause.
Yelena, Poison Study
Yelena is a prisoner on death row who gets her sentence commuted by agreeing to be the poison taster for the military dictator of her country. It’s a terribly dangerous job, but Yelena learns to do it, and navigate the dangers of political life. I love Yelena because she has basically spent her whole life surrounded by people trying to grind her into dust, and every time she refuses to be degraded. She’s a survivor, and she uses wits, cunning, and a little magic to get out of impossible situations. My major reservation is that I find the power dynamics of the romantic subplot disturbing, bordering on abusive.
Yeine, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
There is a lot to love about this story of a tribal chief of a conquered land, who is suddenly thrown in the middle of a political struggle for the throne of the empire that subjugated her people. She is a leader and a warrior in her own right, but never has she lived in such a nest of vipers. I love how Yeine’s simple compassion shines through in a royal palace full of self-interested people. The story is also a powerful anti-colonialist narrative from the perspective of the colonized. Again, though, I found the power dynamics of the romantic subplot to be profoundly troubling and off-putting, bordering on if not outright abusive.
This story is based on the original Cinderella tale, which comes from China. Much of the story will be familiar, but much is different in this Chinese cultural setting: the fairies in the story are much more frightening than any fairy godmother, and Ash must make sure they don’t get the best of her. Another major difference is that instead of Prince Charming, Ash falls in love with one of the royal huntresses, so this story earns a special place in my heart for turning a fairy tale lesbian. I would only caution that this story is a fairy tale, and as such, it has more of an emphasis on atmosphere than characterization. Ash is not nearly as well-drawn as the other heroines on this list.
Eona, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn
This story is also based on a fantastical dynastic China, complete with a clear analogue of Taiwan and its fight for independence from the empire. The Dragoneyes work with dragons to tame the monsoons and keep them from destroying villages and crops. Bona wants to be a Dragoneye’s apprentice, but women are not allowed, so she disguises herself as a boy. Not only that, but Eona is disabled, and has to learn to train alongside the other apprentices with her bad leg. This book deals with gender very thoughtfully, and I love how Eona fights to protect her fellow apprentices, even though she has enough problems of her own. My serious problem with this book is that Eona’s disability is not handled well by the narrative. The author should have either given it more thought or not included it at all.