Review of Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature
Kelly J. Drumright
Sarah Hentges. Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. Paperback, 290 pages, $39.95, ISBN 9780786499281.
With Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature, Sarah Hentges offers a panoramic view of the literary archetype (turned multi-media cultural phenomenon) exemplified by Katniss Everdeen, the “girl on fire” protagonist of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. Hentges challenges common critiques of YA dystopia as one-dimensional and escapist by emphasizing the complexity of the author’s worldbuilding and the protagonists’ struggles for social justice. Girls on Fire builds on some of the ideas articulated in the edited volume Female Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction (Routledge, 2016) as well as scholarship about the Hunger Games, with the important difference of centering the voices of more marginalized writers.
Despite the section’s name, those looking for a theoretical deep-dive into young adult dystopia as a genre will not find it in “Part I: Excavating Theories and Legacies,” but Girls on Fire has many other strengths. For one, Hentges commits to an interdisciplinary and intersectional critical framework that includes American Studies, Cultural Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Additionally, Hentges excels at taxonomizing the formidable corpus of 140+ primary texts, illustrating connections between series with diagrams she calls “dystopia trees” (249), which help readers visualize the influences of the Girl on Fire (roots), the core texts (trunk), and the proliferation of diverse examples (branches and leaves).
While a helpful chart in the introduction provides an overview of the Girl on Fire’s most salient characteristics, it is not until “Part II: Excavating Fiction, Imagination and Application,” that Hentges unpacks the titular archetype more fully in the textual analyses that form the volume’s core. With the exception of sections on the Hunger Games trilogy and Octavia Butler’s oeuvre as precursor to the Girl on Fire archetype, Hentges carries out the analysis point-by-point. This approach has its advantages— namely, illuminating trends and highlighting connections between a massive corpus of texts— but necessarily sacrifices in-depth explorations of a single character, text, or series. Standout sections such as the discussion of white supremacy’s pervasive influence on YA dystopia in Chapter 6, “Othered Girls Towards Intersectional Futures,” provide important reminders for other scholars and students to question “assumptions of whiteness” (8). Ultimately, Hentges has opted for the approach that most closely fits her final goal: to describe an archetype, mining the richness of its myriad iterations for insights into our present cultural moment.
One of the most refreshing aspects of Girls on Fire is Hentges’s candid self-identification as a fangirl: “Fangirling shapes my relationship to this literature as a teacher, a scholar, and a critic” (75). Readers yearning for the distant, antiseptic tone that often characterizes literary scholarship will be disappointed by Girls on Fire. Rather, Hentges’s dynamic voice, optimism, and transparent appreciation coupled with critique honor the characters she describes as “compelling and hopeful subjects” (3). In this way, form follows content, as Hentges argues that any textual analysis of YA dystopia is incomplete if it willfully ignores the affective dimension that makes these books so engrossing.
Hentges knowingly positions herself as a fan regardless of the possible pitfalls attendant in doing so, admitting that “Fangirls can be too close to our subject, but we can also provide insights that a reader without a passion for the texts might not” (75). Girls on Fire certainly benefits from Hentges’s enthusiasm; after all, successfully wrangling a massive corpus into an accessible volume of scholarly critique requires passion and tenacity. To my mind, however, Hentges’s proximity to the subject holds the book back in two ways. First, Hentges’s encyclopedic knowledge can manifest in the tendency to list examples as support for claims, resulting in a frenzied pace that can leave the reader feeling unmoored. Furthermore, because of the thematic structure of her analysis and the extensive corpus, these examples often require a brief plot synopsis that interrupts the argument’s rhythm. Secondly, Hentges sometimes revels in the exception— extensively analyzing outstanding books or characters that transgress the genre’s norms— while her critiques of certain thornier trends (e.g., the focus on romance, heteronormativity), which she rightly identifies as central to YA dystopia, remain relatively superficial. However, these elements are not enough to discount the important contributions of the ambitious project that is Girls on Fire.
Accessing this book’s content demands familiarity with the genre of YA dystopia, not expertise; even superficial knowledge gleaned from a casual viewing of the Hunger Games film adaptations will suffice. The volume is accessible to audiences inside and outside of academe, although readers less familiar with the genre may find themselves in one of two positions: either overwhelmed by the scope of the project’s primary corpus or invigorated by their growing TBR (to-be-read) lists. Fortunately for her readers, Hentges has included a rather unorthodox “Appendix 2: Something Like a Rating System,” in which she shares “brief sketches of [her] ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ of these books as well as some of the main elements” (249).
Most importantly, Girls on Fire is a goldmine for educators. With her literary analysis, Hentges models how to engage popular texts with intersectionality at the fore, and these sections would make accessible readings for undergraduate students. Readers will notice that the book is structured with pedagogy in mind, moving from theory and methodology to application via textual analysis, and finally, to the classroom and beyond. In Chapter 7, Hentges generously shares resources such as “action projects” that challenge students to apply their knowledge outside of the classroom (209-214). Although the “action projects” Hentges details are tailored to YA dystopia, they could easily transfer to other fields. As educators, we would do well to follow Hentges’s example when she states, “I have always encouraged my students to critique the thing they most love” (75). Girls on Fire certainly provides many tools and examples of how to do so.