So many books, so little time.
Why not jump directly to the immensely satisfying stories about kickass ladies who inspire us?
The definition of a “strong female character” may not be the same for everyone. Some may define it as a character with inner strength, some may say it requires physical strength or outward bravery. Some simply say it’s similar to the Bechdel test in that she must be striving to accomplish something NOT having to do with a man.
Whatever your definition, whatever version of “strength” inspires you the most, you’ll find it on this list.
Maybe you love the geeky best friend with good advice that the flippant protagonist never follows. Or the elderly neighbor whose respect you must earn in order to benefit from her wisdom. Perhaps your greatest inspiration is simply a flawed, heartbroken woman struggling to make the best of a situation beyond her control.
Regardless, she is us and we are her and let’s buy, borrow, read, celebrate and talk about the stories that bring us strong female characters.
This list is by no means comprehensive (obviously) because there are so, so very many books. That said, this list focuses on fiction and every story on this list is worthy of your valuable time and fullest attention.
Table of Contents
- 1. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry
- 2. Little Women
- 3. Circe
- 4. The Hunger Games (trilogy)
- 5. The Book Thief
- 6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
- 7. The Handmaid’s Tale
- 8. The Great Alone
- 9. All the Light We Cannot See
- 10. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (trilogy)
- 11. Harry’s Trees
- 12. The Nightingale
- 13. Where the Crawdads Sing
- 14. Bel Canto
- 15. Britt-Marie Was Here
- 16. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- 17. The Secret Garden
- 18. The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1)
- 19. Enchanted Islands
- 20. Turtles All the Way Down
by Fredrik Backman
In terms of fierce females, this book has it all. The wisest of wise grandmothers? Check.
The adventurous, intrepid granddaughter who’s valiantly misunderstood? Check.
The story of a family of badass, barrier-breaking women determined to leave the world better than they found it? Check, check, check.
Another masterpiece from Fredrik Backman, this book with the longest-title-ever, tops my list for imagination and creativity but also for giving us tear-jerkingly inspirational female characters who illustrate the vital importance of staying true to oneself.
This story features castles & fairy tales & scary beasts, alongside Harry Potter references and lessons in growing up, as you follow 7-year-old Elsa on a quest to deliver letters of apology written by her beloved grandmother.
People, if you read one book this year, make it this one.
2. Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott
As iconic and enduring as they are infuriating and endearing, the March sisters from Louisa May Alcott will steal your heart forever.
Originally published in 1868, this “girls’ book” has transcended time, space, and gender and remains an integral piece of American literary history.
Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March are as different as sisters can be. Headstrong, rebellious Jo can’t abide traditional expectations for women of that time. Amy is everyone’s spoiled younger sister who’ll borrow your coziest sweater, spill something on it and then leave it at a friend’s house without so much as an apology. The four of them endure the harsh New England winters with their mother while their father fights in the Civil War.
Together, they cope with growing up, growing apart, falling in love and chasing their dreams.
Plus, the indomitable Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Frances Ha) has written and directed a new take on this classic tale coming to the silver screen this holiday season.
by Madeline Miller
Let me start by saying I know virtually nothing about Greek mythology beyond the lyrics I can still recite from the Disney movie Hercules. That matters none.
The story of Circe by Madeline Miller is ageless, timeless and sweeping, requiring no knowledge beyond the basic human understanding of fear, love, and loneliness, surely something we all have in spades.
Told over many millennia, this story brings us perhaps the greatest female protagonist of all: the flawed, frightened and fierce-as-hell Circe, daughter of Helios, God of the sun.
Banished to a life of solitude on a desert island, Circe makes the best of a total shit-situation, becoming in the process, the strongest most powerful version of herself.
Repeatedly betrayed and belittled by the men in her life, she’s forced again and again to pick up the pieces and soldier on.
This is a tale of the gods and mortals, mythic and ancient, that’s also made modern and new and approachable. Prepare to be enthralled.
4. The Hunger Games (trilogy)
by Suzanne Collins
I give you, KATNISS EVERDEEEEEEEEEN!
This trilogy / YA franchise smash hit introduced a heroine of epic proportions in Katniss. Arrow-slinging, tree-climbing, protect-my-family-at-all-costs Katniss does not shy away from a battle to the death.
Set in a dystopian future society where the government tames the masses through an annual culling of children called The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers as tribute in place of her beloved little sister, Prim.
The rich place bets on which child will be the last one standing and Katniss faces ethical dilemma after near-death experience after ethical dilemma as she fights to survive the unthinkable.
Side note: The movies aren’t bad but the books are far more detailed and imaginative and emotional. They’re worth it even if you’re already familiar with the story.
by Markus Zusak
Come. Come you naive, happy readers and let Death tell you a tale. You will not be the same at the end.
That’s right. Death narrates this absolutely devastating story by Markus Zusak that follows a young girl named Liesel through the terrifying events of WWII in Germany. A brave, defiant resilient person, Liesel discovers the power of a story to transport you to a better time and place – and the importance of that power in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
Liesel steals her first book just after her brother dies. A neighbor boy teaches her to read it, unlocking a vital escape route from the misery of wartime.
As often happens with us bibliophiles, Liesel begins to pen her own story, which death cannot overlook.
By Maria Semple
Oh, pals. Bernadette is all of us.
She’s flighty and hilarious and confusing and determined and smart and trying way too hard while also managing to screw everything up. A failure and a success, a disappointment, and an inspiration, Bernadette is every quixotic dichotomy. You’ll love her and hate her and root for and against her the whole time.
Told through a series of emails, messages, and memos, we find out there’s a whole lot more to momma Bernadette than we realized.
This story scores major bonus points for making me actually want to visit Antarctica AND it’s currently out as a movie starring Cate Blanchett as our girl Bernadette.
by Margaret Atwood
This may come as a shock but the hit Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale starring Elisabeth Moss, was a BOOK before it was a TV show.
That’s right. First published in the 1980s, (an ancient time before streaming services), this true red-robed masterpiece is now forever plonked into our shared consciousness.
Some of us experienced this book as assigned reading in grade school or college but, as with all good art, it will take on new meaning at different points in your life. You’ll find yourself noticing and being affected by totally new things.
Take another spin through the pages of this dystopian future where women are nothing more than brood mares called by the names of their captors.
by Kristin Hannah
Like any good and terrifying story, you know a downward spiral is imminent anytime someone suggests moving to Alaska to “live off the grid.”
Sure enough, when Ernt Allbright drags his wife and thirteen-year-old daughter to a literal cabin-in-the Alaskan woods, you’ll catch yourself shouting “stay out of the forest!” (Any MFM fans out there?)
But Leni Allbright and her mom tackle their new lives with the vigor and resourcefulness only strong women can, surprising even themselves. They meet a cast of strong Alaskan women who are always there for them in a way that will make you wonder, what’s the point of men anyway?
by Anthony Doerr
I know there’s a main male character-perspective in this book but it’s totally overshadowed by the insanely incredible story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl attempting to survive air raids and bombings of WWII.
12-year-old Marie-Laure is the coddled pet of her father, curator and keeper of secrets of the Paris’ Museum of Natural History. When he whisks Marie-Laure out of Paris, she may not be the only thing he’s trying to keep safe.
Complete with descriptions of fear, panic, and survival without sight that will blow your mind, this book tells the tale of a modern heroine / straight-up superhero who doesn’t let a lil ole thing like blindness in battle frighten her into submission.
She’s brave and bright and endlessly admirable and this is the best premise for a book I’ve heard in years.
10. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (trilogy)
by Ann Brashares
To crack the cover on the first book in this trilogy is to step directly into the angsty perfection of a teenage summer.
Also, a 2005 feature film starring Blake Lively, America Ferrera, Alexis Bledel, and Amber Tamblyn, all powerhouse women in their own right, these books deliver mighty lessons on the enduring strength of female friendships.
“The Pants” are a magical pair of jeans that miraculously fit four girlfriends perfectly. The friends vow to share the jeans throughout their first summer apart, mailing them cross-country and over oceans just in time to provide the strength and courage each girl requires to tackle the fickle challenges of growing up.
The jeans are a metaphor for courage. They are unique, flawed and at times extremely annoying, just like your friends in real life!
Oh, how I love to spend a summer with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
11. Harry’s Trees
by Jon Cohen
Reminiscent of recommendation #1, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Harry’s Trees relies upon the imagination of a young girl dealing with a tragic loss.
After the unexpected death of her father, Oriana meets Harry, a tree-surveyor grieving the death of his wife, and becomes convinced he’s the “Grum” in her storybook, come to rectify the many wrongs of her little world.
A magical tale of loneliness, grief, loss, and friendship, pugnacious Oriana will convince you that fairytales do come true.
Plus, this book features the ageless wisdom of a spunky local librarian whose belief in the power of books will bring a tear to the eye of even the most stone-hearted bibliophile.
12. The Nightingale
by Kristin Hannah
The Nightingale is the story of two French sisters — Vianne and Isabelle — separated by WWW II, both facing their own unique battles and fighting to remain safe, sane and true to themselves.
Both heroines in their own different ways, these sisters illustrate the diverse ways women survive the horrors of war – striving to protect their families, their country, their bodies, and their beliefs.
Eloquent prose with a hefty dose of danger and adventure, this story will tug at your heartstrings from page one.
by Delia Owens
Never has there ever been a tale of loneliness as beautifully woven and detailed as this record-breaker by Delia Owens.
Kya Clark, the infamous “Marsh Girl,” who survives alone in the marshes for decades, is accused of murder when the local town douche bag is discovered lying dead at the bottom of a fire tower.
Painfully sad and full of stunning prose, Kya’s story will break your heart over and over again.
She’s a self-made woman who gives a new definition to the idea of wanting a relationship over needing one. How refreshingly modern.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a sensual study in loneliness and the havoc it can wreak on the strongest souls; posing the question, is it better to have loved and lost or to never have loved at all?
14. Bel Canto
by Ann Patchet
For starters, always read anything by Ann Patchet whenever you can. Specifically, pick up Bel Canto if you’re looking for a heartrendingly beautiful, soaring aria of a story.
When the most famous (and beautiful) opera singer in the world, Roxanne Coss, agrees to serenade a private party for a fictitious South American president, nothing goes as planned.
A local terrorist militia storms in mid-crescendo to take hostage a president who bailed last minute and isn’t even present. Changing their plans, the terrorists hunker down in a house full of international hostages. What unfolds is a sweeping, poetic tale of power, greed, desperation, and love set to the sweeping voice of the determined and unflappable Coss.
Fair warning: if you’re the type of reader who demands a happy-go-lucky, storybook ending, this one may not be for you.
by Fredrik Backman
This book is another absolute winner from Fredrik Backman and, incidentally, a spinoff story from #1 on this list, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.
Sweet Britt-Marie is as unlikeable as she is tragic. On her own for the first time after leaving an unfaithful husband, Miss Britt teaches us that it’s never too late for a fresh start.
Britt-Marie arrives unprepared in an unfortunately named town called “Borg,” where her obsession with cleanliness, rigid schedules and giving unsolicited advice makes it hard to make friends.
But, like all of us at some point, she must find a way to operate in a new and chaotic world that she never imagined.
Again and again, Britt-Marie’s best efforts will fall short and she’ll show you that it’s not successes that make a person strong and admirable but rather the way they respond in the face of failure.
by Stieg Larsson
I don’t know what it is about the Swedes but they can really spin a yarn. This smash hit by Stieg Larsson introduced the world to the cunning, brave, tattooed character of Lisbeth Salander.
At times dark, frightening and cold, this book takes you on a wild ride into a tangled, corrupt tale of murder, money, and power with slippery, ingenious Lisbeth at its core.
Never one to succumb to societal expectations, Lisbeth is a powerhouse who is just as capable of riding a motorcycle at top speed as she is at decrypting a hard drive. Forever underestimated for her size, gender, and family history, Lisbeth learns to always stay one step ahead of the people who want something from you.
Trigger warning: sexual assault and rape.
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Here’s yet another enduring tale of a girl doing some very brave growing up.
Published as a novel in 1911, The Secret Garden brings us the story of Mary Lennox, an orphan sent to live with her Uncle in a wild, sprawling mansion where she’s essentially on her own.
During her days of wandering, Mary discovers a locked, walled-off garden in her uncle’s yard. As any stubborn, ignored child of the early 1900s would do, Mary vows to restore the garden to its former glory.
Aided by grounds staff and her frail cousin, she learns the value of hard work, grit, determination, and friendship.
by Philip Pullman
The first book in a sweeping fantasy series by Philip Pullman, this book brings us the land of the Far North with witch clans, Gobblers, and armored bears, oh my. Plus, everyone wears their soul on the outside in the form of an animal “daemon.”
Our protagonist, little Lyra is your classic loner orphan who faces challenges beyond her years.
When her uncle Asriel gets in above his head, and children begin going missing, it’s Lyra and her daemon to the rescue!
This is yet another story of a strong lady refusing to follow the rules and toe-the line. You’ll worry about her and root for her and be enthralled by the intricate, magical world that Pullman builds.
by Allison Amend
Boy-howdy this story has everything. Deceit. Unexpected romance. Grand adventure. Tropical paradise. Spies!
Plus, it’s based on the real-life memoirs of one Frances Conway, suspected WWII spy.
When middle-aged Frances is unexpectedly pulled from her life as an administrator in the Office of Naval Intelligence and sent to the Galapagos Islands with a brand new, younger-than-her faux-husband, she embarks on the ultimate hot girl summer.
Plus, Frances is resourceful, hard-working and unflinching in the face of extreme hardship.
It’s an incredible story that will inspire the most boring of us to believe in the unforetold richness of what the future may hold.
by John Green
Do not discount the power of a YA (young adult) novel to catch a not-so-young adult right in the feels.
Allow me to introduce you to our Turtles protagonist, Aza Holmes, a teenager struggling with loss, young love and her own mental health.
A little bit of adventure, a little bit of mystery, a whole lot of coming-of-age, this is the story of Aza, her best friend Daisy and a cute boy named Davis Pickett whose eccentric billionaire father has, as they say, done a bunk.
Refreshingly candid, Aza’s experience with anxiety and “thought spirals,” shows us all how to be more gentle with our own inner struggles. Sometimes, it really is okay not to be okay.
(Plus, this story taught me what a tuatara is and I am forever grateful.)