By Kristina “K. K.” Pérez
opens in a new windowI’ve always loved superhero origin stories and, I must admit, I’m huge fangirl of “chosen one” narratives too. Growing up, I binge-watched reruns of Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman. The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired during my last year of high school and I immediately became a card-carrying member of the Scooby Gang.
One of the reasons I love reading (and writing!) about superpowers is that they’re often at the intersection of science and magic. The origins of these superpowers can be mythic in nature or they can be the result of an experiment gone wrong.
Characters with extraordinary abilities also allow us to ask deeper questions about what it means to be human. Do magical/superpowers truly make characters more than human––or less? Does it make someone a monster? Here are five of my fave YA girls with superpowers who answer these questions in different ways.
The Young Elites by Marie Lu
I’ve always had a penchant for complex female characters and Adelina Amouteru from The Young Elites is a fabulous, spikey protagonist. In this richly constructed fantasy world, Adelina is the survivor of a blood fever that has left her and other children with varying superpowers. The survivors are feared and reviled by many, and hunted by an Inquisition who believe they’re too dangerous to exist.
Adelina has also been raised by an abusive father determined to exploit his daughter and her powers however he can. When Adelina discovers the full scope of her abilities, it’s easy to see why she might use them for revenge. Adelina treads the line between superhero and super-villain throughout the series and reminds me very much of Catwoman who had 12-year-old me rooting for her in Batman Returns.
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mefi
Ever since I read Frankenstein in high school, I’ve been drawn to stories that explore how monstrosity and humanity can be flip sides of the same coin. When we first meet Juliette Ferrars in Shatter Me, she’s been locked in an asylum for three years because she murdered a small boy. Juliette can kill with a touch and she considers herself a monster. She lives in a dystopian society run by a government called the Reestablishment who offers to let Juliette out of the asylum––if she agrees to use her ability to torture for them on demand. The question of who the real monster is becomes a recurrent theme throughout the novel and, like with Adelina, the reader becomes extremely invested in Juliette as she learns to define her own identity.
Hunting Lila by Sarah Alderson
You had me at “secret societies.” This is one of my favorite set ups for books, movies and TV shows. Probably because I not so secretly want to be recruited into one. (So if you’re reading this, you know who you are, and you know where to find me!) In Hunting Lila, our heroine has been hiding the fact that she can move objects with her mind. After she uses her ability during a mugging, she turns to her brother for help and learns that he works for a secret organization called The Unit that’s been hunting down their mother’s killer. And her mother’s killer also has superpowers. Dun dun dun. I love stories where the protagonist has the proverbial carpet pulled out from underneath them, forcing them to question everything they thought was true. Lila is headstrong and relatable as she learns more about her own power and the motivations of the people in her life. There’s also a swoony romance, but that’s just a bonus.
Control by Lydia Kang
Genetic mutation is a common cause of superpowers (*cough* The Tesla Legacy *cough*) but the in-depth scientific explanations provided by Lydia Kang––who just also happens to be a practicing physician!––makes Control one of my favorite YA sci-fis. Set in the year 2150, the world inhabited by the protagonist, Zel, is one where genetic modification has run amok and extraordinary abilities are sold on the black market. The novel opens with Zel being orphaned and her sister kidnapped by a shadowy organization convinced that Zel has untold power locked in her DNA. Using her fierce intelligence, scientific know-how, and determination, Zel sets out to save her sister and save herself. Control asks important questions about the ethics of medical enhancements and gene therapy, as well as who should control them (pun intended).
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
The Adoration of Jenna Fox is another smart examination of medical and scientific ethics. On the surface, it might not seem like a book about superpowers, but I think that all depends on how you define them! In the near future, a seventeen-year-old girl named Jenna Fox wakes up from a long coma––at least she’s told her name is Jenna. She doesn’t remember anything about her life before the accident. Her parents forbid Jenna from leaving the house or going to school but they provide her with hundreds of hours of home videos to help her remember who she was. Jenna doesn’t know who she is now but she knows she’s not the girl from the videos. As she starts to remember things she shouldn’t know, she begins to wonder if she’s human at all. Jenna’s desire to get to the bottom of her situation and figure out exactly who––or what––she is has all the hallmarks of a superhero origin story and an intriguing twist that will keep you turning pages.