Women are too often conditioned to believe that they can’t be outspoken, brave, or independent, and this stereotype is perpetuated by female representation in literature. There is also an unfortunate trend in books, whether intentional or not, to diminish female characters of all ages by making them submissive, lovesick, or two-dimensional sidekicks—archetypes that are overused, boring, and, frankly, offensive.
Instead, young women need to be encouraged to speak their minds, take the lead, and be self-sufficient. No girl should be taught that there’s anything they can’t do simply because of their gender. Thankfully, not all books fall victim to this trend, and the number of confident, dynamic female characters is increasing. The books below tell the stories of brave girls facing dangerous adventures, broken families, identity crises, and political turmoil; they are the fierce, unique, and real females that women—young and old—deserve to read about.
One cold October, thirteen-year-old Sal and her younger half-sister, Peppa, escape from their alcoholic mother and sexually abusive stepfather into the wilds of Scotland, setting up camp in Galloway Forest Park. As the winter advances, they replace their tarp structure with one of bent saplings and shoot rabbits and grouse for food. Sal is well armed with survival skills, but the sisters won’t be able to hide forever.
Sal is a compelling narrator because of her contradictions: she is simultaneously a child and an adult before her time; she is prepared to engage in primitive tasks like creating a shelter, digging a latrine, and skinning a rabbit, but many of these abilities were learned from YouTube videos. That blend of old-fashioned survival strategies and modern technology makes Sal feel like an update of classic children’s stories, while Peppa’s reading of Treasure Island and Kidnapped provides a specific link to her adventure heritage in Scottish children’s literature.
Regional slang and curse words give the novel an edgy charm—Sal refers to Peppa as a “dirty-minded wee bastard.” But there’s also a naïve sweetness to Sal’s thinking. She plans to bring their mother back to the camp when she gets out of rehab and—together with Ingrid, an elderly German woman who also lives in the woods—form an unconventional family. It’s an appealing image of the future, but it completely ignores the nature of addiction, the threat of illness, and the far-reaching effects of the incident that prompted Sal and Peppa to run away.
The call of the simple life in the woods is strong, but technology makes it impossible to completely disappear. Kitson’s novel has an abundance of influences and themes—from flashbacks to Ingrid’s life in East Germany to the belief in a Mother Goddess—that will make it a rewarding read for teens and adults alike.
REBECCA FOSTER (February 27, 2018)
Alice is a strong, determined young girl. As she starts her summer vacation, she is intent on accomplishing two things: getting her name on the record board at the local swimming pool, and getting her dad to move back home.
Tiny Infinities by J. H. Diehl is an extraordinary and unflinchingly honest book. Each character is flawed in some way, and each is trying to make things better. Alice’s parents are reorganizing the family into separate households; they do not have the time or energy to devote to their daughter and her complaints. Alice is too young and too hurt to see that she cannot force her parents to be together.
Alice’s father’s new neighbors include Piper, a child with a disability that no one can diagnose. Piper’s parents need help that Alice wants to provide. Alice’s new friend Harriet is brilliant but strange; she seems more interested in the fireflies in Alice’s backyard than she does in Alice.
As summer progresses, Alice finds joy in swimming and in taking care of the neighbors, even though she is still personally unhappy. She learns that she has a strong backstroke, she learns how fireflies communicate, and she learns to help Piper. Most importantly, she learns some significant lessons about truth and lies, about personal responsibility, and about how individual choices define a life, shaping it in the space between each moment.
Tiny Infinities is both meaningful and memorable, and the lessons that Alice learns in one transformative summer are universal. Diehl’s characters will live on in readers’ minds long after finishing the book.
CATHERINE THURESON (April 27, 2018)
In Mischa Thrace’s intense My Whole Truth, seventeen-year-old Seelie has just survived a vicious attack by killing her assailant. The worst of her physical injuries include a deep knife wound in her leg and a cut across her face that will leave her scarred for life. As she begins the process of healing, she believes nothing can be worse than what she just survived. But after she is released from the hospital, the police come to her home and arrest her for murder.
My Whole Truth is a multifaceted story about relationships, justice and judgment, and, most significantly, the power of speaking the truth. Seelie’s strained relationship with her mother and close relationships with her three best friends are all challenged; she must defend her choice to survive not just in court, but also in a school community that primarily sees her assailant as a local hero. Her challenges demonstrate just how fragile the justice system is, and just how damaging the judgment of others can be.
The book captures the reasons for, and the destructive pain of, keeping assault secret. Seelie attempts to hide the worst details of her ordeal from everyone, fearing that her friends and family will never see anything else when they look at her, but her secrecy has consequences. Her best friend Lyssa, with whom she is secretly in love, is hurt and frustrated; she knows Seelie is not telling her everything. Worse, keeping the secret may mean spending the rest of her life in prison.
Thoughtful and infuriating, My Whole Truth is a powerful exploration of at least some of the reasons that people choose to keep assaults secret, but also a hopeful reminder of the power of speaking the whole truth.
CATHERINE THURESON (August 27, 2018)
The rebellious Tash and cautious Sam are 12-year-old best friends living in a world full of rules, all with the same goal: avoid confrontation with the Chinese soldiers occupying their country, Tibet. But their careful lives are disrupted when a man sets himself on fire in protest of the occupation and Tash’s parents, members of the undercover resistance movement, are taken during post-protest raids.
Tash suddenly finds herself homeless, parentless, and on the run from the Chinese soldiers. She decides there is no one who can help her except the Dalai Lama, and makes plans to journey across the Himalayas to find him in India. Of course, Sam is never far behind so together they set out with only two yaks, cryptic rebellion papers, and each other to save Tash’s parents.
Jess Butterworth wastes no time jumping into the adventure that Tash and Sam share, and continues this swift pace throughout the book. From the opening lines, her presentation of emotion and scenery resonates in a way that complements the speed of the story exquisitely. This immediate use of action and description captivates the reader from the very beginning, and keeps them entertained until the very end.
One of the best elements of Running on the Roof of the World is the dynamic between Tash and Sam. It is all too often that the protagonist is a strong and brave male while his female counterpart is simply shy and unsure. In this book, Butterworth has done the wonderful (and important) thing of reversing these roles which shows girls they can be fierce leaders and boys that they can be quiet and careful. There is also a complete lack of romance between Tash and Sam, as their relationship is more like that of siblings: argumentative yet tender and natural.
Running on the Roof of the World is heavy stock made lighter and more optimistic, thanks to the lens of children. It is the perfect combination of adventure, friendship, cultural appreciation, and real-worldliness that make it a five-star read for kids and adults alike.
KARA HANSEN (July 31, 2018)
Penelope is a fifth-grader in Oakland, California. She loves basketball and her moms, and is excited that she will soon be a big sister. Her parents give her a journal to write all of her feelings in, and she decides to use the journal to write letters to her unborn sibling.
Love, Penelope is thoughtful in its approach to heavy issues. Penelope witnesses racism when Mike, her best friend’s older brother, is pulled over and harassed by the police. She watches her friend Hazel cope with her parents’ divorce and her mom’s new, unfriendly boyfriend. She learns about the abuses toward the Native American Ohlone people and culture while studying her mother’s ancestors for a school project.
Penelope also learns that there are people who do not approve of her family. As she interacts with her friends, her family, and her teacher, she learns valuable lessons, recording each in her journal to pass on.
The book’s difficult topics are offset by the central characters’ passion for the Golden State Warriors. Set first in 2014, it covers the Warriors’ NBA championship and the Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. Witnessing these events through Penelope’s eyes is fun and relatable.
Even though Penelope learns that people can be disappointing, her story is a hopeful one; she also learns that people can grow and change. Ultimately, forgiveness, acceptance, and love guide this ten-year-old girl through her year of challenges and changes.
CATHERINE THURESON (March 27, 2018)
All Out of Pretty is a horrifying story about a young girl with nothing left to lose—and what she does in her desperation.
Andrea lives a normal life. She worries about school, has plenty of friends, and enjoys the fringe benefits of being pretty. She also lives with her grandmother—a situation preferable to dealing with her irresponsible mother. When her grandmother dies, Andrea’s life changes overnight.
Andrea’s mother, Ayla, has drug and alcohol problems, and is used to living off of her hookups. Though forced to take care of her daughter, she does not change her lifestyle one bit. Andrea is left waiting outside bars for her mother to emerge. She eats whatever she happens to find in the homes of the men her mother sleeps with. When Ayla hooks up with a dangerous drug dealer, he offers Andrea the food and shelter that she craves—at a price.
The deeper Andrea goes into her new lifestyle, the farther she pulls away from who she was. Her beauty makes her stand out; she often wishes it away, willing to trade it for more practical things. She feels twisted and ugly inside. She holds new friends at a distance for their own protection.
Andrea is a complicated protagonist who draws out protectiveness and sympathy from her audience even as her actions veer into deeply questionable territory. Do the ends justify the means? That question recurs throughout the novel, which finds an ultimately innocent girl engaging in many dangerous, wrongful behaviors.
All Out of Pretty is a disturbing novel that follows a young woman who is threatened into submission and who lives opportunity to opportunity, all simply to to survive.
HANNAH HOHMAN (February 27, 2018)