Thoughts on Bravery and YA Protagonists

Recently, I read two YA novels that I continue to think about and that I recommend to anyone who hasn’t read them yet. Good YA literature often tackles difficult subjects in thought-provoking and fresh ways. The Hate U Give and An Ember in the Ashes do just that. Though very different, these two novels surprisingly share common themes and one problematic issue that has stuck with me.

hateugiveThe Hate U Give was released in February, and immediately the book world was buzzing about it,  for good reason. What started as a short story in a creative writing class soon turned into a full-length novel that had thirteen publishing houses bidding for it. The novel, written by Angie Thomas ( from Jackson, MS!), is considered the first Black Lives Matter novel for young adults, and Thomas won the Walter Grant #WeNeedDiverseBooks for her debut. With all of the buzz and acclaim, I had to read it. The novel explores the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement by focusing on a fictional community, one girl and her family, and their experiences. After sixteen-year-old Starr witnesses police fatally shoot her childhood friend, Khalil, the story makes national headlines. Soon the world learns Khalil was unarmed, and Starr finds herself in the middle of a war that makes the lines between her two worlds even more distinct. Starr lives in a poor community where her family runs a business and supports their neighbors, but because the school has become unsafe, Starr’s parents make the decision to send Star and her siblings to a predominately-white, private school in a wealthy neighborhood. Throughout the novel, the reader sees Starr struggle with balancing these two worlds while also dealing with the traumatic aftermath of her friend’s brutal death. As the only witness, Starr must decide if she should remain silent to protect her family and community or to speak up for her friend amidst protests and a divided, outraged nation. In the end, she learns that racism is not only about police brutality, but also about silence and the power of voices to change the world.

“That’s the problem. We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

emberintheashesIn many ways, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir couldn’t be more different from Angie Thomas’s novel. Also a debut, An Ember in the Ashes is a dystopian, fantasy novel set in a world inspired by the Roman empire. The story is told from alternating perspectives of the main characters, Laia and Elias. As the description on the book’s Amazon page puts it, “Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.” Laia lives with her grandparents and brother in a poor neighborhood in the Empire and are part of a caste known as Scholars, who are not allowed to read or write in order to maintain power in the hands of the Empire and their brutal martials. When Darin, Laia’s brother, is taken by the martials for treason, Laia decides to join a group of rebels who vow to take down those in power. It is a defining moment for Laia as she decides what is most important.

“Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then, one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after.”

In exchange for their protection and help in rescuing her brother, Laia agrees to enter Blackcliff Military Academy to spy for the rebels, at the risk of her own life. What follows is the intertwining story of Elias and Laia, who come from very different worlds, as they both try to gain their freedom.

I enjoyed both of these novels immensely, and I found  their diversity and themes to be important and refreshing. However, after reading both of them–in pretty quick succession–I noticed a prominent theme that troubled me: Bravery. Specifically, female bravery.

In both novels, the protagonists experience traumatic events that leave them reeling, but that also challenge their identities. Both Starr and Laia attempt to redefine themselves, especially when it comes to courage. Starr and Laia feel like cowards. On the very first page of An Ember in the Ashes, in fact, Laia admits that she’s afraid to ask her brother where he’s been all night. She can’t bring herself to do it and admits, “In my head, I have the courage to ask the question.” This scene establishes one of the most important and prominent character traits that readers see Laia grapple with for the rest of the novel. Throughout the novel, the word “courage” appears twenty-one times, “brave” twelve times, and “coward” three times. In each of those three instances, Laia uses the word, “coward,” to define or label herself. It isn’t used to reference any other character.

In The Hate U Give, Starr’s family, the press, and her friends often reference her bravery. Starr, however, continually identifies her cowardice and questions her own bravery. In one scene, she tells her mother that she is anything but brave. Her mother responds, “Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It means you go on even though you’re scared.”

Initially, I didn’t think much of these instances in either novel. People often question their own courage, especially after experiencing something traumatic. It’s normal. It’s human nature. And I thought the authors were smart and the writing powerful to capture something so authentic about the human experience. The characters’ doubts about their courage also forces the reader to define courage for themselves, and it is clear for the reader that both Starr and Laia are indeed brave.

Though there is quite a bit of controversy about whether YA should be considered instructional for young readers, it is hard to deny that YA is often held to a higher standard simply because of its intended audience. Some believe that YA writers have a responsibility to provide sound models of experiences and education while also entertaining their readers. That is one of the (many) reasons why there has been so much controversy surrounding Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why and the Netflix Original series. People understand that YA books and film are influential, for good or bad.

An Ember in the Ashes and The Hate U Give provide many positive lessons  for younger audiences, lessons about social justice, privilege, power, race, identity, and  bravery. But, I believe that these novels also provide a dangerous lesson for young women about courage. Starr and Laia have friends and family who constantly validate their bravery and reinforce to the reader that the protagonists are not the cowards they believe themselves to be. On the surface, it appears to be a positive message about female bravery because the reader doesn’t identify Starr and Laia as cowards. They are strong and courageous in the face of overwhelming adversity.

The theme of bravery, however, became a problem for me when I noticed that none of the male characters in the novels doubt their courage in the same way. They do not seek outside validation for their bravery or lack thereof. The message is similar to one that a lot of media provides for young girls and women. Be smart, but not too smart. Be ambitious, but not too ambitious. Be brave, but not too brave. Or at least, don’t admit it. Play dumb. Be humble. Say you are a coward until someone tells you that you are not.

Once I began thinking about this idea, I couldn’t get away from it. I’ve seen it time and again, especially in YA characters and novels. Hermione in the Harry Potter series. Katniss in The Hunger Games. Tris in Divergent.

I have seen the changes in how literature and YA represent women, and many of these changes are for the better. I see that the characters over the years have become more independent, stronger, and smarter. There are many more female heroes for young readers to look up to. But, I am ready to see a YA protagonist who doesn’t doubt her strength, her smarts, and her bravery. One that doesn’t need validation from others. It’s a lot to ask, I know. But, maybe it begins with women challenging these ideals and admitting our own courage. Be brave. And admit it.


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