When a dear friend asks you to create a feminist reading list for his 16-year-old daughter, you squeal with glee. Or at least I do. But I had to share it with you. Links included, both to the goodreads reviews, as well as previous blog posts when applicable. It’s a very personal list (I’ve read and enjoyed every single one of these books, but obviously I haven’t read everything!) and shouldn’t be considered comprehensive. Also, I tried to keep the focus on teens. Had to limit it somehow!
If you want to keep up with the latest in feminist fiction for young people, keep an eye on the Amelia Bloomer Project.
Books that I remember reading a long time ago that I know shaped my thoughts on women and feminism
The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. A dragon slaying princess? I remember being completely blown away by this concept. Also excellent is the companion novel The Hero and the Crown.
Anything by L. M. Montgomery. If you’ve read any blog posts here, you know she’s one of my all time favorites. What I love about LMM is that she portrays women making their way in a wide variety of ways. The grownups aren’t all married, the teens are pursuing higher education or a career. If you want to read beyond Anne, The Blue Castle is also one of my all-time favorites. A single woman of a certain age (maybe 35? yikes!) gets a diagnosis and decides to really start living her life. Her moments of defiance are brave and funny. And yes, she ends up happily married in the end, but it’s just all so satisfying.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. On a certain level, this is a magical, romantic coming of age story–after all, the family lives in a castle. But the ending puts it over the top.
Young adult historical fiction that I’ve fallen in love with over the last several years
Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith. African American woman wants to join in the WWII fight, and joins the WASP, choosing to pass as white. All sorts of gender and race and history issues here. My thoughts here. And to continue with the flight theme, you can’t miss Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I don’t necessarily think of it as a feminist book, but it is an amazing piece of historical fiction. Incredibly strong female characters, friendship, flight and spying. And women breaking out of the mold.
Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie and Their Daughters by Jeanine Atkins. I’ve loved Laura Ingalls Wilder longer than I’ve loved L. M. Montgomery. I first met Madam C. J. Walker during an internship at the Women’s Museum in college. And Marie Curie is one of those names you just know. Wonderful way to explore these lives–and a combination that is surprising and interesting and powerful. Additional thoughts here.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jaqueline Kelly and its sequel, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate. Perhaps a little young for a 16 year old, but it’s so good. I just couldn’t leave it out! Set in the Hill Country of Texas, Calpurnia is the only daughter, has no interest in domestic things, and desperately wants to be a scientist. Throw in a passel of brothers and a grandfather that had a correspondence with Charles Darwin, and it’s a very different kind of historical fiction.
The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages. More women scientists, but this time it’s at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Really explores well the tensions these women faced through the eyes of their children. Thoughts here.
A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby. Not strictly historical fiction, as there are a few ghosts that make an appearance. But! An orphan girl takes the only job she can find–becoming nurse to the Elephant Man. Oh, and the ghosts of Jack the Ripper’s victims start visiting them at night. A fascinating mash-up of historical people, told through the eyes of a young woman with very limited options.
Nonfiction that is fun
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak. I was definitely a Nancy Drew girl back in the day, though at times I really preferred the Hardy Boys because they had better adventures. The story of how these books were created–and how they shaped American culture. My rave review here.
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip M. Hoose. Before Rosa Park, there was Claudette. But she wasn’t quite as pure–and her story reveals the many complexities of the Civil Rights movement.
Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America by Karen Blumenthal. Perhaps a little young for a 16 year old, but one of those situations where I thought I knew stuff about Title IX, but really I knew nothing. Great use of primary sources too!
Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature and Growing Up in Wartime America by Joan Whelan Morrison. Well written diary of a teenager that somehow knew she was living in interesting times. More thoughts here.
Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden. Technically, not YA, but these women are just a few years older. Closely based on their letters and written by a granddaughter, this is a tiny slice of personal history that has much larger meaning. It’s just delightful.
Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color by Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring. A work of art and one of those great anthologies that does introduce you to some new folks. One of my favorite Christmas gifts last year. More thoughts here.
Contemporary/future feminist young adult fiction
Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. First, you should probably know that I’m book club friends with Julie (even though she hasn’t been in ages because her career has taken off. The movie version of this comes out later this year with Jennifer Aniston playing the mom.) This is such a wonderful story of taking pride in your body, gaining confidence, and fighting the system. Plus, there’s a lot of Dolly Parton references.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King. Recent high school graduate sees the future. And it isn’t pretty.
This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales. Such an amazing book–girl who doesn’t have a place finds a place as an underground DJ. So, so good. My only complaint–and it is very minor–is that this book didn’t come with an audio file for all the great music mentioned.
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan. A near future retelling of The Scarlet Letter, which happens to be set in Texas. I listened to the audio version of this years ago, and it was one of the most gripping audio books I’ve ever listened to.
Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. From my goodreads review: Love, love, love. In a way, it’s a coming of age story with a twist–Frankie is far from perfect and is rebelling from people’s preconceptions of her. I love her analyzing and being smart about the whole high school relationship thing, even as she is trapped by the crush. I love this book now (and can think of a few teen girls to give it to) and I would have loved it years ago as well.
Bob, I hope she finds a few things she likes!