New Reviews

Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature

Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature. Sarah Hentges. McFarland, 2018. 290 pages. £38.50 (paperback).

Sarah Hentges’s Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature blends the realms of fantasy and reality in a bid to critically understand the rebel girls of young adult dystopian literature and "takes a big picture look at girls and girlhood as they illuminate our world through fictional futures" (1). The aim of this monograph is to illustrate the dynamics of girlhood through a theoretical lens as an extension of social reflection. To do this, Hentges divides her study into two parts: Part One offers a theoretical frame of interdisciplinarity and critical cultural studies, while Part Two interprets examples of young adult novels in light of the theories previously discussed. Hentges states that "the trajectory of these chapters matches a process for understanding the power and potential of these texts when considered as a whole – as a specific context with multiple frames and a bigger picture" (12). Notably, the author has coined the phrase "Girls on Fire" not only as the title of this book, but as a definitive label for her transgressive heroines.

Hentges begins Part One, Excavating Theories and Legacies, by distinguishing realism and science fiction. She discusses the relevance of storytelling and cultural studies; a fusion that is designed to question humanity, the humanities (as a sector) and social ideologies. These areas of concern are briefly unpacked to give the reader a sense of direction in the argument. Hentges continues her discussion on the interdisciplinarity of American studies and women’s studies, asserting that literature can be "a powerful cultural symbol" (19). She states that gender theory and cultural studies are often fused together in YA literature to demonstrate intersectionality and racial division. To contextualise this argument, Hentges draws on examples from Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans (2013) and Marie Lu’s Legend (2011) from "The Legend Trilogy." Furthermore, gender theory – including examples of masculinity and femininity – is a major area of discussion for Hentges as she addresses the various roles that are placed upon female characters. She illustrates the challenges that YA literature poses to stereotypical norms while also examining the impact that female agency has on the reader. In Chapter Two, there are moments of clarity where Hentges captures the importance of the transgressive girl, as "the cultural legacies of girlhood and theories of feminism provide an important complement to literary frames, but also perpetuate the divide between white and black, mainstream and oppositional" (53). She rightly states that racial division and gendered stereotyping are key components of marginalisation. The final chapter of this part focuses on popular culture and girlhood; she addresses how satire in popular culture implicates women and how film can move the heroines into the popular sphere. Interestingly, Hentges makes a strong statement in saying that female dystopian heroism is a reflection of generalised American heroism – "Girls on Fire are even more fitting as American heroes because they are complex, conflicted" (55). This is a very limited assertion in terms of the global impact on YA dystopian literature. However, the chapter quickly moves into the deconstruction of the Other, the representation of the marginalised in YA literature and interpreting adolescence beyond liminal spaces.

Part Two, Excavating Fiction, Imagination and Application, focuses on applying theory to textual examples of YA fiction. Firstly, in Chapter Four, Hentges locates dystopia as a factor of realism, stating that "some contemporary realities are another version of dystopia" (79). She describes America’s current political state as an embodiment of fictional dystopia; a nightmarish realm of hardship and obstacles. Of course, the settings of YA literature is a fundamental part of dystopian themes. Hentges uses charts and tables to demonstrate the various forms of dystopia. She divides settings into temporal and geographical spaces, while also illustrating the dynamics of human and non-human interaction that often accompanies the genre of dystopian novels. In Chapter Five, the thematic content is examined through a chart of literary examples. Interestingly, Hentges makes the valid assertion that rebel girls often find themselves isolated in the course of the narrative. Hentges uses the earlier discussion of Otherness as the focal point of the argument in Chapter Six, stating that "the ways in which Othered Girls on Fire negotiate community and fight from their position of oppression is an important contribution to the genre and to our visions of the future" (146). Sex and sexuality are core topics of discussion in this chapter as Hentges outlines the various vulnerabilities and powers that the female body can achieve in YA literature. Finally, Chapter Seven brings to light film adaptations and pedagogical projects that can stem from young adult literature. Hentges also identifies the readership of YA literature as a broad community that stretches into adulthood, which has been caused by it becoming part of mainstream reading markets. Furthermore, Hentges’ argues that social media are significant modes of engagement for YA literature, in particular the rise of fandoms and social discussion.

Overall, Hentges’s pragmatic approach is admirable as it gives the reader a foundation to steadily follow the arguments that are introduced throughout the text. Girls on Fire is a compelling study that provides insightful perspectives on YA literature and the power of dystopian heroines. It contributes to the discussion of representations of girlhood in YA fiction and of the real-life sociocultural dynamics that are often integrated into the fantasy realms.

Jade Dillon
University of Limerick, Ireland