How I Picked 10 Best Feminist Teen Books of All Time

For my new Ms. magazine article on feminist young-adult fiction (YA), I set out to pick 10 Must-Reads–those books which every 13-year-old with a spark of gender consciousness should have on her (or his) bookshelf. Or, as I say in the piece, those books that offer young protofeminists “refuge or escape–or provide our first ‘click!’ moment, when we realize the problem’s not us, it’s society, and we’re not alone.”

Since I spent ages 8 through 13 with my nose in such books–OK, fine, more like ages 8 through 28 and counting–I felt pretty qualified. Of course I would put in Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, in which an awkward, misfit princess trains herself (slowly, and with lots of blisters) to fight dragons.

But what exactly would I count as “young adult fiction”? The librarians and young-adult book critics I spoke with explained that there’s no definitive answer. Many YA authors didn’t think they were writing YA until their publishers told them they were; publishers, in turn, go by what they think teens and tweens will read. And that is informed by two old publishing saws: Boys “don’t read,” and men and boys won’t read books by or about women and girls. So coming-of-age books about girls tend to wind up as YA, whereas coming-of-age books about boys (think Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude) are more likely to be marketed to adult audiences.

The upside is that writing YA for girls has become a thriving market for women authors; the downside has been the ghettoization of women authors into that field.

One way for women to avoid being boxed into the YA genre is to include subject matter considered too “dark” for teens–which, given the prevalence of YA “issue” novels about HIV, drug addition, rape, etc., generally boils down to particularly horrific sexual violence, as in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, in which the heroines are raped by their fathers, or Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which includes a harrowing female genital mutilation scene. Librarians and educators generally agree that these books are better read by 17-year-olds, at the youngest, and not by 11-year-old bookworms–though to me this begs a troubling question: Should we be concerned that girls are taken seriously as subjects of “adult literature” only if they’re brutally raped? Of course girls will read these books anyway, because teenagers want desperately to read “up” and nothing’s as compelling as a semi-forbidden book.

And then there was the question of what constitutes “feminist” fiction. As the person who regularly vets fiction for review in Ms., this isn’t a new question for me but still isn’t one I’ve completely resolved.

The easiest way to classify feminist literature is by a “feminist lead character.” That, in turn, is easiest to define as an admirable female character who exhibits heroic traits–bravery, independence, cleverness. And of course, it helps if she runs up against some discrimination. Take Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons, in which Princess Cimorene cannot convince the world she doesn’t want to get married and has to literally fight off her suitors.

But what about the Miss Marples of the world who use prototypically feminine traits (in her case, gossip and speculation) to solve knotty crimes? What about gender-queer boy protagonists? And what about books in which boys who come to feminist beliefs? Goodreads commenter Heather makes a great case on these grounds for Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia:

The main character is a boy, but the effect the strong and different female next door neighbor has on him and the way she completely changes his worldview makes Terabithia a feminist book to me. She changes his mind about what girls can and can’t do and how they’re “supposed” to be.

I decided, simply, that if a book feels feminist–if the little feminist in my heart jumps up and down in excitement and says “Go gender equality”–then it counts.

And last, what makes great YA; what makes a must read? On this, Nancy Pearl, author of Book Crush: Recommended Books for Kids and Teens, had wise words:

It’s the same as in any genre … You want to be able to lose yourself in the pages of the book you’re reading, and you want to be able to find yourself.

Feminist fiction, I’d argue, does this in a particular way: Even as it transports us it also reflects us–especially the bits that go unrepresented in other mass media. It also makes us attend to sexism in our day-to-day lives, and show us the possibilities of other worlds.

There are dozens, maybe hundred, of worthy feminist YA titles, I learned. And to keep things fair, honest, and populist, I decided to start a list on Goodreads where people could vote on their favorites, which has swelled to 433 titles. I even felt I had to put Twilight on that list, despite Ms.‘s critiques of Twilight‘s anemic protagonist Bella (on which I wholly agree). But I’d had a conversation with a Bella enthusiast  who defended her on the grounds that she (a) has sexual agency (i.e., she’s always tearing Edward’s clothes off) and (b) came into badass superpowers at the end of the series. So, up it went on the list to see if others would side with the Bella enthusiast. Nope. Commenter Dharmarose wrote:

Since when is Twilight a feminist book? if anything, it’s anti-feminist lit! it’s also poorly written. it’s crap and i’m not sorry to hate it!

By the end of the first day, Twilight had been bumped out of the top 100 and the outrage died down. (I see now that it’s back on the front page at number 60. Wince.)

It was hard to whittle the hundreds of suggested books down, so in the end I cheated and picked 11 must-reads, not 10. And I snuck in 23 more book titles within the piece itself.

To find out what I chose, join Ms. to get it delivered to your door, or pick up a copy at a newsstand near you.

Meanwhile, I’ll be barricaded in my room awaiting the “But you forgot _______!” letters.

UPDATE: For much-less-subjective judging criteria, check out the awesome Amelia Bloomer Project, which publishes an annual best-feminist-YA list.

Photo from Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. thehatingexpert says:

    Excellent YA feminist fiction: Tamora Pierce, hands down.

  2. heatheraurelia13 says:

    I like His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, def- a must-read.

  3. Proud YA Writer says:

    I think you're missing something essential in your discussion of what classifies a book as YA. It's not so much the "coming of age" aspect, as it is the perspective from which the story is told. YA is almost always written from the perspective of a teen character, whereas "coming of age" stories in the adult marketplace often have a "looking back" aspect to the narration. I don't think it has anything to do with the gender of the protagonist. Look at Curtis Sittenfeld's PREP, for example. Or GOLDENGROVE, by Francine Prose.

  4. I am writing for the YA market and take great offense at your suggestion that it is somehow a "ghetto" of the writing world. (And mystified by the suggestion that I try to "avoid being boxed into" it by including a scene of horrific violence against women. …. What self-respecting writer would throw something like that into their novel as a way to manipulate its placement on the store shelves?)

    Teens and middle-grade readers are a wonderful reading audience and I for one cannot imagine anything more rewarding than writing for them.

    • I'm late to the fair and this probably won't get noticed, but how many times have you and the other YA (or YR/intermediate) writers here, or for that matter, YA/YR editors and booksellers, been asked "when will you work on a `real'* book?"

      * adult

    • Me too and I totally agree. Besides, I think it’s better to be writting for YA. There are a wider veriety of people than adults or yong children. Whens the last time you heard a 40 year old say “What an awsome Book! You have to read it!” I mean seriously.

  5. Respectfully I think you missed another critical point in what classifies a book as YA or adult, which is the intended audience for that book. Certainly there are exceptions, and certainly the "young adult" designation is new and still finding its proper place, which may have caused some confusion, but by and large I think it's fair to say that most novelists are pretty clear in their own minds about who their intended readers are–that's a pretty critical part of the process of bringing a book to the market. Moreover, while authors, agents, editors, and publishers might not always see precisely eye-to-eye, they're usually in agreement about wanting a book to reach its widest, most appreciative audience. So the idea that women writers are being subjected to a "ghettoization" to the YA section strikes me as falling somewhere on the spectrum between absurd and insulting. Exceptions occur, but by and large, authors of YA are authors of YA because they want to be, not because they somehow found themselves at the prom when they really wanted to go to the grown-up party instead.

    Male authors and "boy stories" get shelved in YA when their audience is teen males. Just off the top of my head, here are some examples of writers who could've been shelved in the adult section if that's where they'd wanted to be: Cory Doctorow (LITTLE BROTHER, FOR THE WIN); Paolo Bacigalupi (SHIPBREAKER); Nick Hornby (SLAM). But these books were written with a teen audience in mind, which is why they are considered young adult fiction and why they are shelved there. This is also why they have protagonists who are teens and why they tend to address coming-of-age issues and concerns: teens want to read about teens and their experiences.

    Lastly, adults are not as reluctant as teens to read about characters younger than they are, which is why it is not unheard of for books written with an intended adult audience to have younger protagonists (and why some books written for younger audiences achieve that wondrous thing called "crossover" and manage to sell well to adults). I think, however, that if you talk to authors who write for both audiences (or the librarians and booksellers who interface on a daily basis with the end users), they will tell you that writing successfully for adults and for teens is not the same thing.

  6. I recently finished reading "Sweet Turnaround J", by P.V. Beck, and found myself immediately pulled into the story of a young teen struggling with issues of identity, family and sports. And, it is told from the perspective of Janey, the protagonist. Definitely a Young Adult novel, and one which I highly recommend, and which should be included in any current list of "must read" young adult fiction – especially in this day and age of high teen suicides and the need to find ones place in the world as a young woman.

  7. BooksforGirls says:

    Thanks for your helpful article! I'm on a library committee here in Mississippi where we are building a beautiful new library (the old one was destroyed by Katrina), and I will make a good effort to see some or all of these books included in the library catalog. I'm old, so I just remember Nancy Drew, and I really appreciate the specific help. Might I suggest that some of you younger feminists get yourselves onto library committees where your influence will be helpful?

  8. Great post!

  9. I have yet to meet a YA author who "didn’t think they were writing YA until their publishers told them they were." Young adult authors choose to write for teens and do so on purpose. We choose subject matter that fits the story we are telling—not simply adding violence to shock readers, have our books banned, or have them shelved with literary titles.

  10. urgh twilights are the best movies and books around so whoever wrote this page then don’t dis them!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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