Annie Cardi shares her top feminist YA contemporary novels
"Even though I got older, I still appreciated this aspect of YA literature that affirmed the strength and depth of young women."
This post was written by Annie Cardi, author of Red.
When I was in high school, I was a huge reader. English was my favorite class and I had a group of friends who passed around books to each other. (Now, one is an astrophysicist and one is an artist, and we still have a regular book club.) Even though I read a lot of classic or ‘serious’ literature, I gravitated toward YA novels partially because it was one of the few places I found where teen girl characters were taken seriously. In the fiction section, teen girl characters were few and far between or they were treated as one-dimensional eye-rolling machines. In the YA section, I found books about girls struggling with their identities, their communities, their bodies, their traumas. Girls who were smart, who were funny, who were angry and wanted to change things. Girls who did change things. Even though I got older, I still appreciated this aspect of YA literature that affirmed the strength and depth of young women.
It’s one of the reasons I write YA novels. My latest book, Red, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter centered around the stigma a Christian teen faces after having an abortion. Tess is quiet, thoughtful, and sensitive—maybe not the first person someone would think of as a strong feminist protagonist. But through the novel she finds strength in her own voice to change things for the better in her small town.
If you’re also into feminist contemporary YA, here are some of my recent favorites:
One Great Lie by Deb Caletti
Caletti is one of must-read authors and her story of art, manipulation, grooming, and passion was everything I hoped it would be. Not only do we follow main character Charlotte as she pursues her love of writing and confronts abuses of power, but we also see her connection to a female ancestor who may have been the actual source of some historically lauded work. Caletti blends the past and present expertly to create storylines that are layered and realistic and hopeful.
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
I’m fully obsessed with this book. Not only does Boulley weave together a fascinating thriller (my heart was pounding all through the ending), but in Daunis she creates a nuanced, smart, strong main character who is deeply committed to her past and her people while also wanting to change things for the better. Daunis demonstrates survivorship in a variety of ways and is one of my favorite YA characters in recent years.
We Are the Wildcats by Siobhan Vivian
Set over the course of one night, We Are the Wildcats follows a varsity field hockey team as they uncover uncomfortable secrets about each other and their relationship with a charismatic coach. Vivian captures team dynamics wonderfully and lays perfect groundwork for readers to slowly understand the extent of the coach’s manipulation. It’s subtle and affirming and has stayed with me longer than I expected.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Acevedo is one of my favorite YA writers today and this novel-in-verse is a quietly powerful coming-of-age story that grapples with religion, sexuality, harassment, family, creativity, and more. Xiomara is smart and observant and empathetic as finds the strength of her voice through her poetry. Even if you’re not typically a novel-in-verse or poetry fan, this book (along with the rest of Acevedo’s work!) is highly recommended.
Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
I finished Saints and Misfits and immediately wanted to recommend it to everyone I knew. Ali seamlessly blends together the layers of Janna’s life, from her relationship to her faith and the demands of her family to her supportive friends to her navigation of surviving sexual assault and learning how to speak out. Even though there are so many ways Janna’s daily life is nothing like mine, I connected with her character and the book in a deep and unexpected way.
Girl Mans Up by M.E. Girard
One of my favorite YA novels that features a non-binary main character, Girl Mans Up is a fantastic portrayal of inclusive and intersectional feminism in YA fiction as Pen confronts her friends’ and family’s ideas of what it means to be a young woman. All the relationships felt so real to me, and I especially appreciated Pen’s struggles with her traditional Portuguese family and her group of guy friends.
This Side of Home by Renée Watson
A touching, quiet novel, This Side of Home is a thoughtful portrayal of the strength of both an individual’s voice and a community. Maya is a smart, determined main character who is very aware of the threats of gentrification and wants to make things better for the people in her family, her school, and her neighborhood. The novel has nuance and warmth and it’s a joy to see Maya use her voice to honor history and create a bright future.