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Multi-Cultural Female Protagonists

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Women’s Lit Reading Selection List
One place to start is the southeastern minnesota library co-op:

Multi-Cultural Female Protagonists

Why the search for female heroines? Kelly (1992) sums up the rationale in the first paragraph of her chapter "Gender Issues and the Young Adult Novel" in the same text mentioned above:

If we believe that literature can make us rethink or resee or reevaluate our ideas about others and ourselves, then the portrayal of male and female roles in adolescent fiction is an important classroom consideration. If adolescent literature provides an environment for young adults to see the results of decisions made by characters, and to evaluate their ideas and behaviors, then how males and females interact in those fictional situations can shape thinking by reinforcing stereotypes or by promoting alternative views. (p. 154)

Kelly reiterates that, in quality novels featuring female protagonists, one issue that is often not addressed in those that feature boys as heroes is that of girls' acceptance of their bodies' changes and growth patterns. Elements held in common with novels featuring both genders include themes of relationships with those of the same sex and of the opposite sex and with parents. Complicating these considerations is the sensitive role women, both young and adult, assume in differing ethnographic settings -- religious, cultural, racial, etc. When this dynamic begins to affect the development of identity, the adolescent female with a minority background should be able to find role models and affirmation in young adult literature while others should be able to understand the uniqueness of her situation.

Novels from the 1970s and 1980s

Indeed, novels like those of Mildred Taylor featuring Cassie Logan certainly retain validity for the classroom because the classics Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981) and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) can still move and challenge young people. Not all of Taylor's works dealing with life in southern Mississippi during and after the Depression feature Cassie, but more recently The Road to Memphis (1990) does follow the gutsy protagonist as she continues as a high-school student. Following her history from the African-American perspective, students in a still racially unstable society can find help in forming opinions about the origins of much of this tension. Joyce Carol Thomas's earlier works Marked by Fire (1982) and Water Girl (1986) trace the stories of Abby and Amber respectively as they struggle to find themselves as young black women. Others who have dealt with the plight of the African-American female include Alice Childress in A Short Walk (1981) and Rainbow Jordan (1982). Virginia Hamilton presents adolescent black heroines when she writes the stories of Teresa in Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982), Sheema in A Little Love (1984), and Talley in A White Romance (1987). Walter Dean Myers presents the story of Didi and her brother Tony growing up in Harlem in his classic novel Motown and Didi: A Love Story (1984). These novels, cited above, although published in the 1970s and 1980s, are still worthy of study and/or inclusion in classroom libraries for the Black American perspective on being young and female in America.

The tradition of the young adult heroine who comes from the Caribbean area has been explored by Rosa Guy in the life of Desiree Die-Donne in the Antilles in My Love, My Love or The Peasant Girl (1985) while Scott O'Dell's historical novel of the West Indies Slave Rebellion of 1733 traces the story of Raisha in My Name Is Not Angelica (1989). African writers deal with black heroines from their cultural perspective as Buchi Emecheta has Ngbeke narrate her own coming-of-age story in Nigeria, The Moonlight Bride (1983), and Beverly Naidoo tells Niledi's story centered in the terrorism of apartheid in Chain of Fire (1990).

Asian-American heroines appear in Linda Crew's novel Children of the River (1989), the story of Sunder who has escaped the Khmer Rouge to deal with the conflicts between two cultures as does Kim Andrews when she journeys to one of the Japanese-American concentration camps of World War II in Kim/Kimi (1987) by Hadley Irwin. Other novels featuring Japanese bi-cultural struggles for young adolescent girls include The War Between the Classes (1985) in which Gloria D. Miklowitz writes of Emiko (Amy) Sumoto's experiences in a class experiment with status, and A Jar of Dreams (1981) in which Yoshiko Uchida tells the story of Rinko growing up in the Depression in California. The Chinese-American struggle for identity in girls is exemplified in a historical novel based on the journey of Sun Yat Sen from China to Canada in 1909 to find followers like Lillian Ho's father in The Curses of Third Uncle (1986) by Paul Yee. Two novels often studied at the high school level are by Amy Tan: The Joy Luck Club (1989), which traces four Chinese families from pre-1949 China through 20th-century America as grandmothers, mothers, and American-born daughters of those families struggle for understanding and identity; and The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), which provides an extended reading for those fascinated by the dilemma of the Chinese-American female.

Several recent novels focusing on the Asian experience for young girls growing up in differing cultures examined from the viewpoints of natives of that culture are presented in the contemporary bibliography at the end of this chapter. Included is the sequel to a standard novel often taught in world literature classes. In Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (1989), Suzanne Staples begins the saga of the 11-year-old daughter of a Pakistani nomadic family and her eventual acceptance of an arranged marriage as part of her cultural heritage.

The Hispanic female adolescent experience is chronicled in the classic novel by Sandra Cisneros in The House on Mango Street (1989), where Esperanza, her narrator, tells readers of her neighbors, her low socio-economic background, and her dreams for "a house all [her] own." In other earlier works, the Latino heroine Kata leaves Mexico in Irene Beltran Hernandez's Across the Great River (1989), and Luisa deals with a bi-cultural relationship in Claudia Mills' Luisa's American Dream (1981).

Another aspect of the young female protagonist's quest for identity appears in Native-American literature. Of particular worth for study is A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987) by Michael Dorris where Rayona as part Native American and part African American must make peace with herself as she flees a Montana reservation in her quest. In Jean Craighead George's The Talking Earth (1983), Billie Wind, a young Seminole girl, leaves school at the Kennedy Space Center for the Florida Everglades in a similar journey. Jamake Highwater's Ghost Horse trilogy begins with Legend Days (1984) with Amana's story as an 11-year-old survivor of a small pox epidemic who is forced to marry an elder in the tribe. Her sorrows and rebellion against the constraints of womanhood are chronicled here. Scott O'Dell also deals with these conflicts in several young adult novels published prior to 1990, including Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea (1986), Island of the Blue Dolphins (a 1960 Newbery Award winner), and Black Star, Bright Dawn (1988). In these historical works, he writes of the young Shoshone girl who accompanies Lewis and Clark, of Karana who survives alone on an island off the Pacific Coast for several years, and of Bright Dawn who enters the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska.

The emergence of maturity and identity in novels with Jewish American heroines is also the basis for several novels for adolescents. Although many of these are based in Nazi Germany and use the Holocaust as the theme, others are more contemporary. Sandy Asher writes of Ruthie Morgenthau's decision to have a bas mitzvah while coming to terms with her father's death in Daughters of the Law (1980). Susan Beth Pfeffer uses the same ritualistic ceremony as the basis for Becky Weiss's conflict in Turning Thirteen (1988). In The Night Journey (1981), Kathryn Lasky's heroine Rachel learns of her grandmother's life during the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, thus gaining insight into her faith. Chaim Potok gives his heroine in Davita's Harp (1986) a similar dilemma when her non-believing parents, one Jewish and one Christian, are caught in the chaos of World War II. Much of the Holocaust literature lends itself to a moving thematic unit on that topic. Of special note is Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry, the story of the friendship between Annemarie Johansen, a Christian, and Ellen Rosen, a Jew, in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Ellen pretends to be Annemarie's sister as the Rosen family is smuggled to safety in Sweden. Another Newbery winner, this book represents the true triumph of the human spirit. A switch on this theme has Hannah, living in the United States in 1988, suddenly transported in time to become Chaya in a concentration camp in 1942 Poland; this tour de force is The Devil's Arithmetic (1988) by Jane Yolen.

Multicultural Heroines--10 Contemporary Titles

That contemporary texts successfully deal with this complexity is apparent in a number of novels published in the early to mid-nineties, including the following:

Banks, L. One More River. Avon/Camelot, 1993.
Lesley Shelby, an intelligent, popular fourteen-year-old Canadian Jewish girl, has her comfortable life take a drastic turn when she moves to Israel and, with her family, survives the 1967 Six Day War.

Hesse, K. Letters from Rifka. Henry Holt., 1992.
Rifka, a young Russian immigrant to American, tells the story of her family's dramatic escape from persecution through letters to her cousin Tovah in Russia. The 1919 journey is filled with frightening experiences.

Hamilton, V. Plain City. The Blue Sky Press, 1993.
This novel focuses on a young girl who has difficulties in school because of her appearance. The main character, Buhlaire Simms, is an interracial child, who struggles to find her own identity.

Meyer, C. White Lilacs. Harcourt Brace, 1993.
Rose Lee, a young black girl growing up in Dillon, Texas, in the 1920s, is moved out of her house so that the white citizens of the town can build a park to beautify the town. This moving novel, based on an actual historical event, shows the racial tension of the period coupled through an outstanding coming-of-age narration.

Namioka, L. April and the Dragon Lady. Harcourt Brace, 1994.
April lives in a house in Seattle ruled by her traditionally minded Chinese Grandmother. April refuses to be a part of the old Chinese traditions and decides to date Steve, an American. Will her grandmother ever be able to change her old-fashioned, sexist ways?

Paulsen, G. Sisters. Harcourt Brace, 1993 .
A bilingual tale of the day in the lives of two girls: an illegal Mexican immigrant, selling her body on the streets in order to send money back to her mother, and a spoiled, upper-class beauty, agonizing over cheerleading tryouts.

Robinson, M. A Woman of Her Tribe. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.
Annette is fifteen and in-between: half Anglo and half Nootka Indian. She must choose between the country, where she was raised by her family and her Granmaw, and the city, which she finds frightening yet thrilling and full of exciting new people.

Staples, S. Haveli. Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
In this sequel to Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind, Shabanu has become the youngest wife of the elderly Rahim, a wealthy Pakistani landowner whom she was forced to marry. She must choose between her own dreams and the responsibilities of her world.

Woodson, J. I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This. Delacorte Press, 1994.
Marie is a leader among the popular black girls in Chauncey, Ohio, a prosperous black suburb. She befriends Lena, a poor white student, who moves to town. Lena decides to share a terrible secret about her father. Marie provides her the support she needs to face her problem.

Woodson, J. Maizon at Blue Hill. Dell, 1994.
Maizon is the smartest girl in her Brooklyn neighborhood and decides to attend an all-white boarding school in Connecticut. Maizon misses her grandmother and best friend and must decide if the rewards of the school outweigh the sadness she feels from her separation from them. This book is a sequel to Between Madison and Palmetto (1993).

Multicultural Literature -- Other Titles
(These books are briefly annotated in the text of this article.)

Asher, S. Daughters of the Law. Beaufort Books, 1980.

Beltran Hernandez, I. Across the Great River. Arte Publico Press, 1989.
Childress, A. A Short Walk. Bard, 1981.
Childress, A. Rainbow Jordan. Avon, 1982.
Cisneros, S. The House on Mango Street. Vintage, 1989.
Crew, L. Children of the River. Delacorte, 1989.
Dorris, M. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. Holt, 1987.
Emecheta, B. The Moonlight Bride. George Braziller, 1983.
George, J. The Talking Earth. Harper, 1983.
Guy, R. My Love, My Love (or The Peasant Girl). Holt, 1985.
Highwater, J. Legend Days. Harper Collins, 1984.
Hamilton, V. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. Putnam/Philomel, 1982.
Hamilton, V. A Little Love. Putnam/Philomel, 1984.
Hamilton, V. A White Romance. Putnam/Philomel, 1987.
Irwin, H. Kim/Kimi. Macmillan, 1987.
Lasky, K. The Night Journey. Warner, 1981.
Lowry, L. Number the Stars. Houghton, 1989.
Miklowitz, G. The War Between the Classes. Delacorte, 1985.
Mills, C. Luisa's American Dream. Four Winds, 1981.
Myers, W. Motown and Didi: A Love Story. Viking, 1984.
Naidoo, B. Chain of Fire. Lippincott, 1990.
O'Dell, S. Island of the Blue Dolphin. Dell, 1960.
O'Dell, S. Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea. Houghton, 1986.
O'Dell, S. Black Star, Bright Dawn. Houghton, 1988.
O'Dell, S. My Name is Not Angelica. Houghton, 1989.
Pfeffer, S. Turning Thirteen. Scholastic, 1988.
Potok, C. Davita's Harp. Fawcett, 1986.
Staples, S. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. Knopf, 1989.
Tan, A. The Joy Luck Club. Ivy Books, 1989.
Tan, A. The Kitchen God's Wife. Ivy Books, 1991.
Taylor, Mildred. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Penguin, 1976.
Taylor, Mildred. Let the Circle Be Unbroken. Penguin, 1981.
Thomas, J. Marked by Fire. Avon, 1982.
Thomas, J. Water Girl. Avon, 1986.
Uchida, Y. A Jar of Dreams. McElderry, 1981.
Yee, P. The Curses of Third Uncle. Lorimer, 1986.
Yolen, J. The Devil's Arithmetic. Viking Kestrel, 1988.

Most Popular Sites

  • A Celebration of Women Writers - texts, recordings, and links to information about women writers.

  • Francophone African Women Authors

  • Victorian Women Writers Project - electronic editions of works by British women writers of the late nineteenth century.

  • African American Women Writers of the 19th Century - includes texts and resources, from the collections of the New York Public Library.

  • Orlando Project, The - An Integrated History of Women's Writing in the British Isles - collaborative enterprise combining interdisciplinary research and humanities computing.

  • Women Writers of the Middle Ages

  • Women Writers -
    features original fiction, poetry, scholarship, book reviews, author interviews, links, and more.

  • 19th Century American Women Writers Web - texts, links, and resources.

  • A Celebration of Women Writers - texts, recordings, and links to information about women writers.

  • African American Women Writers of the 19th Century - includes texts and resources, from the collections of the New York Public Library.

  • Brown Women Writers Project - electronic textbase of women's writing in English from roughly 1330 to 1830.

  • Chicklit - for women who love words.

  • Database of Women in American Literature - includes pages for selected authors, with information about their lives and works.

  • Domestic Goddesses - moderated e-journal devoted to women writers, beginning in the 19th century, who wrote "domestic fiction."

  • Dottie Dank's Diatribe - a quarterly journal of women's literary work.

  • Emory Women Writers Resource Project - collection of edited and unedited texts by women writing in English from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century.

  • - covers mystery fiction featuring female investigators, with news, reviews, articles, and a directory of related sites.

  • Francophone African Women Authors

  • InterMountain Woman - magazine of women's writing.

  • Kalliope - a journal of women's literature and art; includes poetry, visual arts, interviews, short fictions, essays and sponsorship of a national poetry contest.

  • ModernAngels and Dystopian Dreams - exploration of the feminine voice in medieval, modern, and dystopian literature.

  • Nineteenth-Century Feminisms - interdisciplinary journal, published twice yearly, devoted to issues of gender, culture, and writing by and about women in the nineteenth century.

  • Orange Prize for Fiction - annual literary award.

  • Orlando Project, The - An Integrated History of Women's Writing in the British Isles - collaborative enterprise combining interdisciplinary research and humanities computing.

  • Reflexiones: 60 essays on Spanish American Women Writers - edited by Dr. Gac-Artigas. Compilation of essays about contemporary Spanish American women writers.

  • Room of One's Own - reviews of books by, for, and about women.

  • Sisters in Crime@

  • Society of Women Writers Australia - Victorian branch aims to draw together women engaged in the writing profession and encourage aspiring women writers.

  • Victorian Women Writers Project - electronic editions of works by British women writers of the late nineteenth century.

  • Voices From the Gaps - instructional site focusing on the lives and works of women writers of color.

  • Women in the Book Arts: A Selection - from Wellesley College, designed to show the diversity of recent works by women book artists.

  • Women Writers of the Middle Ages

  • Women's Books Online - reviews of women's books by women from around the world.

  • Women's Spirituality Book Forum - book recommendations and reviews on all aspects of women's spirituality and the Divine Feminine.

  • Womens National Book Association (WNBA)@

  • World Book Encyclopedia: Women of the Word: A Salute to Women Writers - a look at some of the most famous English-speaking female writers and the impact they have made on different forms of literature.

Following list from:

List of Recommended Literature Centered Around Strong Female Characters

Literature that takes place

During the times of the author

Literature written after the time period

In which it takes place

  1. 1. Biblical stories about Eve, Virgin Mary, Esther, Ruth, and Jezebel

  2. Classical Mythology

    1. The Odyssey, by Homer

    2. The Iliad, by Homer

    3. King Oedipus, by Sophocles

III. The Middle Ages

    1. Ars Amatoria, by Ovid

    2. Lancelot, by Chretien de Troyes’s

    3. Roman de la Rose, by Gullaume de Lorris

    4. The Book of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pisan

    5. Tristan and Isolde, by Gottfried Von Strassburg

IV. The Renaissance

    1. Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

    2. The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Shakespeare

    3. The Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare

    4. Troilus and Criseyde, by Shakespeare

    5. As You Like It, by Shakespeare

    6. Cymbeliene, by Shakespeare

V. 1700’s and 1800’s

    1. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

    2. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

    3. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

    4. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

    5. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

    6. Emma, by Jane Austen

    7. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

    8. Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

    9. Persuasion, by Jane Austen

    10. Northanger Abby, by Jane Austen

    11. Lyddie, by Katherine Paterson

    12. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

VI. 1900's

    1. Warriors Don't Cry, by Melba Pattillo Beals

    2. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

    3. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

VII. Contemporary Literature

    1. Shabanu, by Suzanne Fisher Staples

    2. Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech

    3. Kiss the Dust, by Elizabeth Laird

    4. Shizuko's Daughter, by Kyoko Mori

    5. The Clay Marble, by Minfong Ho

    6. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

    7. She's Come Undone, by Wally Lamb

II. Classical Mythology

    1. Atalanta: The Fastest Runner in the World, by Priscilla Galloway

III. The Middle Ages

    1. The Mid-wife’s Apprentice, by Karen Cushman

    2. The Forest Wife, by Theresa TomlinsoN

    3. Gleaming Bright, by Josepha Sherman

    4. Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman

V. 1700's and 1800's

    1. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi

    2. Sarah Bishop, by Scott O’Dell

VI. 1900's

    1. The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson

    2. Rosa Parks, by Rosa Parks

    3. Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry

    4. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor

    5. The Girl With the White Flag, by Tomiko Higa

    6. The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

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