Historical Women in Young Adult Literature, a guest post by author Kip Wilson
This Women’s History Month, I wanted to celebrate some recent young adult books that feature women from history, because that’s my absolute favorite thing to read (and write). I especially wanted to highlight titles that weren’t best sellers or big award winners, because these sorts of books tend to fly under the radar—though the women featured in them certainly did not!
Over on the adult side, both nonfiction and fiction about historical women tend to get all kinds of buzz. A couple of titles among those that I really loved include All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days by Rebecca Donner (a biography about Mildred Harnack, one of the leaders of a resistance group against the Nazis in World War II) and The Paris Bookseller (biographical fiction about the fabulous Sylvia Beach) by Kerri Maher.
But books specifically for the teen audience about women in history can be harder to find, so I’m here to thrust some of my most recent favorites on YA readers. All of these books were published in the last couple of years, and they are all kinds of fabulous, so I hope they’ll end up in more libraries, classrooms, and in the hands of teen readers.
Some of my favorite young adult biographies highlight women I didn’t know before, and these picks definitely fell into that category for me. I’m so glad I read each of them!
Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner’s Call to Science by Jeannine Atkins is a biography in verse that managed to get a ton of facts and anecdotes about this brilliant scientist on the page while immersing readers in the emotion of Lise’s story. Stories set in Austria and Germany are most definitely my jam, and Lise is a woman I would have loved to share a coffee with.
Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life by Marilyn Nelson likewise captured my heart with beautiful verses that flow as naturally as Augusta’s artwork—and as a bonus, photographs of her sculptures and many concrete poems are included throughout the book, so it felt like such a visual representation of her life and work. Another fabulous woman from history!
Close up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam by Mary Cronk Farrell was the perfect book for me to read last year while I was putting the finishing touches on One Last Shot, my own verse novel about photojournalist Gerda Taro. I really loved the way Catherine’s hopes and dreams came to life on the page—this kind of characterization really makes historical women resonate with teen readers. All the photographs (both of and by Catherine) and letters really made me feel like I was there.
YA Biographical Fiction
Biographical fiction is arguably less common in YA, but one format that really lends itself to stories about women in history is verse. (In full disclosure, I might be biased, because this is also what I like best to write, but I really enjoyed these titles in this category.)
Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe by Carole Boston Weatherford did an incredible job of covering Norma Jeane’s full life—a bit rare in YA fiction, which tends to focus on shorter time spans. But if anyone can do this, Carole Boston Weatherford can, and I came away from the book with more of a sense of Norma Jeane, the person—so much more than a movie star.
Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems by Barbara Krasner was particularly fascinating to me because I’d long been curious about the Rosenbergs and what really happened. Ethel’s thoughts and emotions in the poems here really brought her tragic story to life for me.
YA Historical Fiction
Perhaps more common in young adult literature are books that feature imagined young women based on a very real historical backdrop. My own verse novel, The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin, falls under this category, as do several other recent favorites.
Rima’s Rebellion by Margarita Engle is based on documented history of women fighting for suffrage rights in Cuba. Through Rima’s eyes, this history springs to life in beautiful verse that sings.
Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken by Nita Tyndall is a story of friendship and love between young women battling the oppression of Nazi Germany during World War II in Berlin. Yes, I’m a sucker for books set in Germany, but these girls really captured my heart.
Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee is impeccably researched and beautifully written. Like Stacey’s other YA historicals, it stars a strong young woman facing all kinds of trouble. Valora Luck hooked me from the first page and didn’t let go even as the doomed ship met its end.
Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink is set during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. The horror of the historical backdrop coupled with the Angel’s absolutely lovely romance with Isaiah really brought this terrifying event to life.
I hope this list has you running to your local bookstore or library! And I hope more people will use Women’s History Month as a great excuse to help these titles reach more readers and get teens interested in the roles women have played throughout history.
Kip Wilson is the author of critically-acclaimed verse novels White Rose (2019, Versify), The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin (2022, Versify), and One Last Shot (2023, Versify), all of which feature young women in history. Kip holds a Ph.D. in German Literature and was the Poetry Editor at Young Adult Review Network (YARN) for five years before joining Voyage as an Associate Editor in 2020. Find her on her website, Instagram, and Twitter.
Filed under: Women's History Month
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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