Feminism in YA Fiction

22nd Feb 2011


Having just completed the transition from the kind of feminist teen with at least 5 or 6 books on the go to the kind of feminist adult with at least 5 or 6 books being neglected, the recent list by Bitch Magazine of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader was always going to grab my attention.

In a world of Katie Price novels and aggressively gendered marketing, it’s heartening to see how much feminist literature specifically aimed at young adults there is out there. Unfortunately, the list contains a few glaring omissions, so here’s a few I’d have included:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The lack of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy on this list is a grimace inducing oversight. The presence of Judy Blume suggests that the compilers weren’t overly concerned about opting for obvious choices, so where are the March girls?

Jo’s fear that she’s not cut out for a traditional marriage and ambition to be a writer mirrors the weight of expectation still placed upon women today. They are funny, loving, creative and largely self-sufficient – what teenager wouldn’t benefit and gain comfort from reading this?

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Sybylla Melvyn has grown up in rural Australia and stubbornly persists in believing that there is more to life than grinding poverty. Like Jo March, she dreams of becoming a well-known writer.

Eventually summoned to live with her rich and doting grandmother, she is finally faced with the choice between realising her dream and marrying the dashing Harry.

Written over a century ago when Franklin was still a teenager, this is a gorgeously insightful book which crystallised many of the conflicts still facing young women today.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

To often dismissed as a children’s writer, Aiken’s creations stand up to comparison with the dark, sadistic elements of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights series and J.K.Rowling’s Dementors.

Bonnie and Sylvia from The Wolves are especially noteworthy as they battle the evil Miss Slighcarp – resourceful, untiring and fun-loving, their exclusion is baffling.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Winner of the Michael L. Printz Award, this is the tale of 15-year-old city-slicker Daisy, caught up in a 21st century world war and falling in love with her cousin, Edmond.

As far from the traditional teen-love story as can be, this book has one of the most hauntingly familiar climaxes. A fantastic adventure story in its own right, this is the first book to give any teenager and the last I expected to see overlooked by Bitch.

My intention is not to suggest that the compilers of this fantastic list were completely aware of all these titles and deliberately excluded them. Indeed, it contains many previously forgotten titles such as The Book Thief which are perfect examples of young adult feminist writing.

Rereading the list in search of titles less deserving than the ones suggested above, I struggled to find one which hadn’t earned it’s place. Young adult fiction is all too often neglected or dismissed as vampires and virginity-angst but, as this collection shows, there is a wealth of fantastic work out there.

Do you think anything is missing? What were your favourite teenage reads? Was Jo March the original teen feminist hero?

Beulah Maud Devaney

(Image via natashalcd’s Flickr photostream)


  • Jane Bradley says:

    I wasn’t a teen when I read How I Live Now (it was while doing work experience at Penguin just after I’d graduated), but I was totally absorbed by it.

    I’ve bought it as a present for several younger women in my family and everyone’s been besotted by it.

    Love this post, YA fiction can be so formative and influential, and it’s such a valuable tool for shaping young readers and their future engagement with literature.

    All the more reason to appreciate the books with positive women role models!

  • Jennifer Krase says:

    Joan Aiken! Yes! I loved WWC as a kid/teen/still love it.

  • Beulah says:

    Yes to Aiken! I loved writing this, so much attention is paid to young women having bad role models or young men not reading enough that sometimes good YA writing seems to be overlooked.

  • Jess Haigh says:

    Some of the best YA out at the moment focusses very much on the fantasy genre. However, there are some great “real world” authors list-worthy.
    Gillian Cross, of The Demon Headmaster fame, had a book out last year “Where I Belong” examining the effects of the globalisation of “western”-heteronormative culture on Somalia.
    Helen Grant is a great suspense writer, I’ve not read it but “The Vanishing of Katherina Linden” is proving a bit popular at work, as is the remarkably brilliant Malorie Blackman’s Naughts and Crosses series.
    I’ve just re-read Nancy Farmer’s A Girl Named Disastor which I cannot recommend enough, set in the early 80s in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
    Plus, of course, I cannot tell you people enough times to read Cry of the Go Away Bird by Andrea Eames as it is literally the best book I’ve read this year!

  • Magda Knight says:

    Lovely suggestions, all. Perhaps this falls more under the umbrella of feminist books for children, but in my books (oh dear, I went there) one simply cannot beat The Ordinary Princess by M.M.Kaye and The Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren.

  • “Constance,” by Patricia Clapp.

    WONDERFUL book set in the Plymouth Colony – Constance Hopkins is an historical character and one of the author’s ancestors, and is brought to vivid life as a bolshie, show-off teenager who misses London and resents being dragged to this back-end nowhere of the world by her dad.

    The book covers seven years and is told in diary format – we see Constance turn from an impulsive 14-year-old into a thoughtful 21-year-old who feels at home in the colony – a sense of “home” earned through hard work and growing up, of putting down roots.

    And while the central tension of the book is romantic – will she marry Stephen or Nicholas – eventually the question is settled by her realisation of which one of them she can really “discuss issues of weighty matter” with. To my teenage self, this was an incredibly important storyline, and set the standard for my future relationships.

  • Kristen says:

    I love both of the lists. There is some great literature in both, and I recognize a lot of the books that inspired me as a girl. However, I wonder why Island of the Blue Dolphins made the cut and Julie of the Wolves did not? I know that there is a disturbing scene early on the in the book (when Julie, forced into a child marriage, is almost raped by her young husband), but what made the book for me was how she got away from that awful situation and then survived on her own with a pack of wolves. In later books, she goes on to aid researchers in studying the wolves in the wild. Her story is very inspiring to show how one girl rose out of terrible circumstances on her own strength and turned her life around.