I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I used to defend myself when caught on my university campus with a book marketed to teenagers propped in my lap, but honestly, who has the energy? So I’ll just say it straight-out: I love young adult novels. There really is nothing like them. Lovely prosey stories wrapped up in delightful, charming youthfulness are just what the soul needs after going cross-eyed picking apart gender theory. I spend most of my days during the school year doing exactly that, as I am studying gender, sexuality, and feminist studies.
The genre could do with a good dose of feminist scholarship, though. Too often I crack open the pages of the new teen bestseller to find a girl (usually white), torn between two guys (usually also white) while maybe also surviving in a dystopic future. Fiction has a huge capacity to influence the way our brains develop and the social schemas that we internalize. The Atlantic published an intriguing article in 2012 tracking the lily-white world of YA novels, and the message it sends to our youth of color. Teens of color, immigrant teens, and LGBTQI+ teens are all being told that their stories aren’t worthy of others’ time and energy. What does that do to a kiddo’s self-esteem? Young adulthood is already a trying enough time without systemic discrimination being piled on top.
So below, find (in no particular order) a few of my refreshing feminist faves. All of these books delve into aspects of teen and young adult life that stray from the mainstream; they offer the charm of YA style without relying on antiquated tropes. None of these are without flaws. It is my hope, however, that works like these have begun to push the boundaries of what YA lit can look like. Its audience is far more diverse than what is currently being published; maybe someday, the books that are published will actually be representational of the folks who are consuming it.
1. Does My Head Look Big In This?, by Randa Abdel-Fattah
A delightful slice of life, Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel introduces us to Amal, a sixteen-year-old girl dealing with typical sixteen-year-old problems, who has recently decided to wear hijab full-time. Amal’s story offers us a heartwarming and complex portrayal of this piece of her spiritual and emotional journey. The novel subverts and openly defies Islamophobic tropes at every opportunity; Amal shuts down misconceptions from her classmates and principle about her faith, but by no means is emotionally unaffected by the conversations. Centering a Muslim family and their social network, this novel wonderfully portrays the diversity within the Muslim faith that most contemporary works collapse into flat stereotype.
2. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, by Sara Farizan
How did I live so long without awkward, nerdy, sapphic protagonist Leila in my life? Nudged towards dealing with some big identity questions when beautiful new girl Saskia arrives in town, our hero just wants to get through high school alive. Whether the reader is queer or not, Leila’s fear of disappointing her parents and her realizations that her classmates are more complex than previously imagined is certainly something anyone who has been through high school can relate to. After reading many books that dealt either with sexual identity or ethnic identity, I found it refreshing to see them integrated here in a way that feels natural and intersectional. feels way more realistic to see characters like Leila with such multifaceted experiences.
3. If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo
If I Was Your Girl is a complex little novel despite the deceptive simplicity of its plotline. It simultaneously subverts and confirms the “mainstream” narrative of what it’s like to be a young transgender woman. The book opens with Amanda Hardy, eighteen, starting a new school after having gone through the laundry list of available gender confirmation procedures. I have always been frustrated with books, especially YA, that focuses the trans experience on what it’s like to experience dysphoria transition (i.e. get hormones and surgeries); not every transgender person chooses to go through medical processes, and not every transgender person is dysphoric about their bodies. With all of that behind Amanda, the book avoids ogling a young girl’s medical procedures. Nevertheless, we purport the mainstream narrative of a transition being binary and completed with genital surgery. Everything clicked into place for me when I read Russo’s afternotes. She addresses one letter to her cisgender readers, and one to her transgender readers, acknowledging the difference of the contexts in which people might be consuming her book. For the cis reader, this book is a boiled-down introduction to what a transgender person’s youth might look like; good for those who might want to learn more about transgender identities! For the trans reader, she offers affirmation and support and a celebration of those who have come before, offering the ultimate message of “you are not alone.”
4. Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray
The concept: fifty young women, all on their way to compete in the Miss Teen Dream USA beauty pageant, crash on a deserted island with nothing but their suitcases, their sashes, and each other. Beauty Queens is an honest-to-goodness masterpiece of satire (think “Lord of the Flies” but with sparkly dresses); its larger-than-life characters dissect everything from Eurocentric beauty standards to the way menstrual products are advertised. Bray has written things that are less anvilicious than this novel, but honestly? It works. Told almost in vignette style with shifting perspective and focus, the reader gets a look into many a beauty queen’s complicated psyche. And, of course, as soon as you’ve gotten used to the whole “Beauty Queens building survival shelters” thing, the sexy pirates arrive.
5. A Great and Terrible Beauty (The Gemma Doyle Trilogy #1), by Libba Bray
Full disclosure: I would add every book Libba Bray has ever written to this list if I could. The thing about her writing is that each time she comes out with something new, it’s completely different in style and focus than what came before it. Whereas Beauty Queens is high satire, Bray’s first serialized work is more in the realm of high fantasy. Hailed as a feminist Victorian Gothic romp, the reader follows Gemma Doyle, a young girl shipped from her home in British-colonized India to a stuffy boarding school in 1895 London. Along with trying to fit into her new accommodations, Gemma has the unsettling habit of swooning into visions of the future that tend to be startlingly accurate. Dancing between our world and a mysterious spiritual one, Gemma and her newfound friends delve into adventures far larger than they ever imagined. The trilogy begins with A Great and Terrible Beauty, and is followed by Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing, all satisfyingly thick and with Bray’s signature wit and knack for developing nuanced female characters in a genre that tends to lack them.