Feminist AF: What Makes a YA Book a Feminist YA Book?
I don’t think there is a clear cut answer, and that everyone’s answer is a bit different. I have been asking myself this question for months now, and I thought I would take this chance to explore my thoughts on the subject.
At first when I considered this question, I was thinking of YA books that have been presented to me as feminist books. The quickest that came to mind were those with storylines that directly grapple with feminism in the form of a fight against a male-dominated establishment. What I have discovered is that most of the time, the way that has shaken out is we look at books where characters fight back against sexual assault and we say “this is feminist.” Which, yeah, they can be. For sure. I certainly consider books like Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire, Joy McCullough’s Blood Water Paint and Tehlor Kay Mejia’s We Set the Dark on Fire to be feminist. Do we require our feminism in YA books to be reactionary? Does something terrible have to happen first for us to fight back against? I think the answer is no.
I think about books like Rebecca Barrow’s You Don’t Know Me But I Know You and Brandy Colbert’s Finding Yvonne, which both deal with reproductive choices as they relate to a single character. By nature, these are feminist YA books, though they don’t involve a huge outward fight. Books like Olivia Hinebaugh’s The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me and Camryn Garrett’s upcoming Full Disclosure, feature girls who want access to information about sexual health. Feminist.
As I was writing this, I went back to the idea of reactionary feminism in YA. And I think, in a different way, there are books that are feminist in a reactionary and revolutionary way, just because media has told us for so long that this isn’t what our stories look like. I’ve started counting named roles in musicals, and the percentage of them that belong to women. It’s usually less than half, even in musicals with female leads. And then I think about Mean Girls, which features a substantial amount of girl roles, but is still filled with girl-on-girl hatred, fatphobia, and just a general sense of unease. In so much media, whether it be musicals, or movies, or tv shows, women are shown to be less. Less speaking time, less characters, less opportunity for antiheroines or messy life choices, less strong female friendships (or romance where one of them doesn’t get killed, I still haven’t finished Buffy after the thing happened). It’s gotten better, but there’s still so much that needs fixing.
So what are some books that feel revolutionarily feminist when it comes to these issues? Well, I think Rebecca Barrow’s This is What it Feels Like presents female friendship and the messy nature of its evolution in a way that shouldn’t feel as radical as it does (again, thanks media!) I see Julie C Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix in this revolutionary feminist light. The first has a main character who doesn’t shy away from being an anti-heroine, the second has a quiet princess—and neither has to apologize for existing that way. Do you remember the way it felt when If I Was Your Girl released? A moment that was astounding, and long overdue? Amy Rose Capetta’s The Brilliant Death features a demigirl main character in a fantasy setting, and the fact that I was even able to write that sentence feels sensational.
An important point I want to note. A book cannot be feminist and transphobic. If your feminism is at the expense of transgender teens/readers and non-binary teens/readers, then your feminism isn’t feminism, it is cruelty.
I’ve mentioned a number of books through this that I think are great feminist picks, but I want to make special note of Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan’s Watch Us Rise. It is intersectional in its feminism, it is fighting back against a broken system, and it has a strong female friendship at its core.
There are many ways a YA book can be a feminist YA book, and I think I’ve only scratched the surface. It is important to keep in mind that not every feminist book will tell you loudly that it is feminist. We have to talk about the loudly feminist books and the quiet feminist books and all the volumes in between.
Rachel Strolle is a teen librarian in a Chicago suburb. Prior to that, she was an indie bookseller for five years. She currently runs Rec-It Rachel, a blog where she yells about books you should read and makes your TBR way too long (and she is not sorry).
Filed under: #FeministAF
About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
SLJ Blog Network