The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
Aerin, the daughter of a witch and the king she bewitched, lives a lonely life, derided by her countrymen, scorned for her lack of gifts. Somehow she takes an elderly, broken-down warrior horse and heads off to kill a small dragon. In the process, she finds her life.
It was grueling to read the parts of the story where Aerin faces the enormous dragon, burning off her hair, scarring her. It felt, for some reason, more difficult to read than stories of men facing dragons. I do not know why.
I don’t know what children would make of this story. Big vocabulary. Tragedy. Love.
But I liked it a lot. Aerin learns much from a mystical mage, falls in love with him, and yet chooses to leave him to save her people, her ungrateful, cruel people.