This post is for Isabella, who wanted a book round up like the one I put together for younger readers but for a slightly older crowd. Isabella, we love readers like you – young, passionate, and vocal – and I’m so happy to be able to present you and all your fellow Rioters with this post of the best feminist books for young adults.
Before we get started though, two things: 1) Never let recommended age ranges dictate your reading; many of those “younger reader” recommendations were ones I read for pleasure in my twenties! and 2) Everyone should also check out the great articles that Kelly has written for more fabulous recommendations (we’re all rad feminists ’round here). Per Isabella’s request these titles are for teens in high school and early twenty-somethings, although, like I said, I’m in my thirties and still reading them! Because YA lists abound, and many great feminist-oriented ones at that, I’m focusing more on titles you may not have considered or that are personal favorites, this is my best list. As always, comment away with your own favorites and recommendations, the more the merrier!
The Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie R. King – Is it YA? No. Are teens and young adults only allowed to read YA? No. I’m so enamored with Mary Russell and I recommend this series to everyone. You need to start with the first two, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and A Monstrous Regiment of Women. And then, honestly, you can kind of read them in any order, although I recommend going in series order, for character development reasons. Russell is the great Sherlock Holmes’ match in ways Watson never could be, mostly because she doesn’t idolize his smarts and refuses to be set-aside by him when he finds it in/convenient. If you’re a fan of historical fiction or mysteries, or both!, you need to give these a shot.
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi – One of the reasons I recommend this so often is that I am fascinated by how well Mafi manages to convey the realities of Juliette’s tumultuous and
changing evolving thoughts (see what I did there?). And that’s what makes this a wonderfully feminist book. Sure, Juliette is strong and the hero the people need, but she’s real and vulnerable and her thinking evolves and grows and Mafi shows all that through her brilliant cross-out technique. You can pick up tons of great, strong-female-led dystopian novels, but this one had a protagonist that felt human. Like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy, she’s a heroine AND a teenage girl, full of hormones, emotions, and fears… and a growing self-confidence.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – If you’ve never read this classic, or, if like me, you read a condensed version as a child, you need to pick this one up. We all think of Jo when we think of feminist icons in classic literature, but what about all the others? Marmee was a strong, virtually-single parent who defied conventions and spoke her mind. Amy may have craved frivolous luxuries, but her love for her sisters and her determination are incredibly admirable. Beth embodied the feminist qualities of social welfare and charity. Meg proved that you could choose a traditional life but still be intelligent and strong. The March women never (with one notable and lesson-learning exception from Meg) compromised in life or love, and were well ahead of their time.
If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan – What makes this book particularly great? The Iranian characters are actually written by a first-generation Iranian-American, so they are authentic and not stereotypes. The lesbian main character is written by a lesbian, so she is authentic and not a stereotype or an oversexed trope. The book addresses the real cultural struggles of coming out (or not being able to) in a conservative and highly regulated society. It also addresses the differences between sexual orientation and gender identity, and opens the door for some great discussion. It’s not a neat book; the happy ending comes purely through Sahar’s self-confidence and not through a romantic happily ever after. As messy, raw, and confusing as real life.
Jackaby by William Ritter – This is one of those books that people will pitch to you by saying “Perfect if you like Sherlock and Doctor Who!” and you’ll roll your eyes and be the absolute embodiment of skepticism. Then you’ll read it and realize they were actually right. It’s a lovely mix of murder mystery and fantasy (a lot of Celtic lore – a nice departure from the Norse & Greek dominated YA market). It also features a headstrong, yet realistically written female protagonist name Abigail Rook. She doesn’t fall in love with the male lead, R. F. Jackaby. She doesn’t pine after him. She voices her opinion and comes to her own conclusions. If you want a little escapism without that annoying damsel-in-distress or love triangle distraction, read Jackaby.
Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls by Karen Finneyfrock, Mindy Nettifee, and Rachel McKibbens – This poetry anthology was compiled in response to the blatant lack of published poetry collections for young women. I honestly can’t do the book more justice than the official description does: “A collection of fierce, empowering poems by living, self-identified women writers intended for girls age 12-21. Full of advice, critique, reflection, commiseration, humor, sorrow and rage, this anthology includes poems by some of the most exciting female poets writing and performing today. Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls will live in lockers, backpacks and under beds for years, its pages reblogged, tattooed, dog-eared and coffee stained.”
Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles – I’m not big into comic singles, I prefer trades (more to read that way), but right now only Vol. 1 is available in trade and I love this series too much to wait. Not only is it a female driven comic in a still male-dominated industry, but it’s got strikingly gorgeous artwork and a killer story to boot. Think Shanghai-Western meets American Gods. Filled with spunky female characters who run the story, you will quickly become obsessed with this series. If you liked Gaiman’s Sandman or Vaughn’s Saga this is right up your alley. While we’re discussing her comic, you should all hop over to Panels and read this amazing interview with Kelly Sue all about feminism and intersectionality!
Happy Families by Tanita S. Davis – Ysabel and Justin are twins who share narrator duties in this honest and timely novel dealing with their reactions to their father’s newly revealed transgender identity. Not only is the book great for opening horizons and starting a dialog about transgender issues, it’s also a really great read. I truly appreciated how Davis portrayed the teens’ identity crisis in the wake of their dad’s revelation. Our identities are so tied to our family life and structure that it’s only reasonable, and teenage identities are already in crisis when moving into adulthood. How they voice their worries, insecurities, anger, and hope for the future is true to the voice of the teenager I remember being and of those I have in my life now.
Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis – Technically horror, I mean the main character is a ghoul who compulsively eats people who show her (too much?) affection, this is also a striking coming-of-age tale that is deliciously dripping with unapologetic feminist symbolism. Maren is on a journey to track down her absent father in a hope to find answers to her, erm, peculiar affliction. She’s been abandoned by her mother and believes she is an irredeemable monster. On the way she finds that she’s not as unique as she has long believed. She also finds out just how strong she is. Don’t believe it’s as feminist as I’m claiming? When you get to the final scene, you won’t have any doubts left. Promise. (And when you do get there, please tweet me so we can discuss, I’m dying for more people to talk about this one with!)
The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde – This clever little book is comprised of Vande Velde’s six different improvements on the classic Brother’s Grimm fairy tale. Read this compact collection and then give it to your friends AND THEN compare and discuss which one was your favorite. Vande Velde deftly points out the painfully sexist problems in the tale (and most fairy tales) by spinning each issue on its head and creating stories that are far more believable and usually quite funny. You know you’ve always wondered why the poor girl would marry her captor, or why her father would set her up for such an impossible task, or even why she wouldn’t even try to escape? Now somebody needs to dissect, improve, and salvage some of the other traditional fairy tales.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll – These short, graphic stories are gorgeous and so much fun to read. Always a little haunting, a lot eerie, Carroll is a modern day Grimm in her ability to weave a moral fairy tale. Except hers don’t subjugate women, they empower them. If you’re looking for something quick and captivating, you’ve got to give her debut book a shot. And if you can’t wait, head over to her website for even more illustrated wonderfulment. There’s something about her art and storytelling style that makes Carroll the natural next step for everyone who loved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and the Goosebumps franchise.
Not exactly fiction, but if you haven’t picked up one of the Rookie Yearbooks yet, hop on it. Available in One, Two, and Three at the moment, with Four coming this October with pre-order available now. There’s nothing like witnessing the next generation (or your generation as it were) moving and shaking, creating and writing, and just generally kicking ass. I am forever impressed by Tavi Gevinson.
I could keep typing for days. My fingers would wear through to the bones and I would still keep sharing all of the wonderful, vibrant, fresh and truly enjoyable feminist books I know and recommend to young adults all the time. And to old adults. Average adults, too. Books and feminism, gosh, they make me happy.
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