Books: Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature - Reviewed

Katniss Everdeen was labeled as "the Girl on Fire" early on in the first Hunger Games novel, but at the time, Suzanne Collins could not have known how far that fire would spread outside of her fictional world of Panem. The young, brave heroine inspired a stunning influx of sassy female protagonists fighting the powers that be in countless dystopian landscapes and changed young adult fiction as we know it. Infiltrating book stores and movie theaters alike, the onslaught of these characters has been so massive that entire college courses have been written and held to discuss their impact not only on young adult fiction (or, even, fiction in general), but on our culture and society as a whole. McFarland Publishing tapped professor Sarah Hentges for their 2018 offering, Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature, a dense but engaging overview that digs in deep and picks social themes apart layer by layer. While it is an academic text, Hentges’ writing is far from dry and the ideas showcased here, cultivated by discussions with young women in her classes on similar subjects, are an entertaining and enlightening read, even if you’re not a student.

With the Hunger Games series leading the way, the appearance of young women in roles of power have steadily gained popularity across media. Girls on Fire does a great job outlining how the themes presented in these stories have bled from the page into real life. The influence and impact on today’s girls, how they view themselves and each other, and how they feel empowered to turn those feelings into actions that can change and sculpt our society are discussed at length. The importance of this phenomenon, especially coming during one of the most tumultuous, unsettled times in America's history, is also taken on. Following that same note, intersectionality, and its importance to society, is broken down in a very easy to understand manner. At one point, coming from one of the book's later chapters, Hentges states, "Intersectionality asks us to look beyond identity to consider the ways in which the individual and the structural are connected." This is one of the book's strongest messages and most difficult topics to grasp, and she handles it deftly, giving the reader a clearer understanding of the subject, and also the tools needed to alter previous ideas to create a more worldly, inclusive point of view.

While most themes discussed relate directly to women and girls, Hentges doesn't neglect the other elements that come together to create a dystopian landscape. In addition to female protagonists, the novels explored in this text all share similar bases in science fiction. Hentges alleges that this is what allows these particular stories to integrate science with humanity, giving the reader a richer, deeper connection to not only the fictional societies presented in the novels, but also different factions of today's real-world society.

The themes discussed in this review truly only skim the surface of Girls on Fire. Hentges takes her time, developing strong ideas and layering them expertly in a way that is accessible to a wide range of people. Loaded with powerful information and presented without pretension, the themes discussed in Girls on Fire are extremely timely and vitally important for all members of society, but especially to the young women that will rule the new world dawning on the horizon. 

Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature is available through McFarland's website, or through their order line: 800-253-2187.

-Josie Stec