In honour of International Day of the Girl, I’ve compiled a reading list of books featuring strong female protagonists for the girls and boys in your life. Whether your reader is in middle school or high school, there should be something on this list which will keep them reading.
Five compendiums of awesomeness:
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo)
From A (Ada Lovelace, scientist) to Z (Zaha Hadid, architect) this book covers it all. Each story is about 250 words and accompanied by a stunning illustration. Animators, boxers, mountaineers, surgeons, spies, and the Notorious RBG are all included.
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History (Vashti Harrison)
The illustrations are pitched at a younger audience than the text, but that might be strategic: hook them when they are young with stories of filmmaker Julie Dash and pilot Bessie Coleman!
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (Rachel Ignotofsky)
Again, beautiful illustrations accompany biographies of a variety of women. There are short facts peppered throughout as well, for those who might just want to peruse. Interested in Grace Hopper (Rear Admiral and Computer Scientist)? Or Katia Kraft (Geologist and Volcanologist)? Lillian Gilbreath (Psychologist and Industrial Engineer)?
Women who Dared: 52 Stories of Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers, and Rebels (Linda Skeers and Livi Gosling)
If your child has no sense of personal safety, this probably isn’t the right book, as it features tales of early stunt women, women who go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, daring lighthouse keepers, and more. Many are unknown figures from history, meaning there is not significant overlap with other collections.
Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women (Catherine Thimmesh and Melissa Sweet)
Why am I not surprised a woman invented Scotchguard? Or a drip coffee maker? Melitta Bentz is my new hero.
Five YA novels with Fierce Heroines:
Etiquette & Espionage (Gail Carriger)
A steampunk novel for teens. As Booklist writes: “Sophronia is sent to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy to learn how to be a proper lady. Their carriage is immediately waylaid by flywaymen looking for a mysterious prototype—the first of many clues that this academy will not be the dreadful bore Sophronia expected. Once established at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s (set on a chain of dirigibles!), Sophronia learns that she is a covert recruit into a school that trains girls to be part assassins, part spies, and also always fashionable ladies of quality.”
A Spy in the House (Y. S. Lee)
The first in a series by a Canadian author, the novel features Mary Quinn, an orphaned pickpocket saved from the gallows only to be trained as a spy. Set in 1850s Victorian England, there is significant mystery and action. Mary struggles to conceal her secrets, including her origins as the daughter of a Chinese father and Irish mother
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (E. L. Lockhart)
In a summer, Frankie transforms from geeky girl to beauty, and gains the attention of the people who previously ignored her at her private prep school. But Frankie’s past experiences have made her wary, and she begins to rebel—notably by secretly manipulating the secret society open only to boys. As her brilliantly imaginative pranks escalate, so do the stakes. It was a National Book Award finalist and an ALA Honor Book.
Shadows Cast by Stars (Catherine Knutsson)
More Canadian content: this time a dystopian science fiction novel 200 years in the future, authored by a Métis author. The heroine, Cassandra Mercredi, is one of the indigenous characters whose blood contains the antibodies to a mysterious plague. She and others protect themselves from the government, who would harvest them to create a cure, by retreating to a Coast Salish island. It’s the longest novel on this list, at over 400 pages.
The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas)
A NYT bestseller, about an African American teenager confronting the unknowns around the shooting death of her friend. As Publisher’s Weekly writes: “Though Thomas’s story is heartbreakingly topical, its greatest strength is in its authentic depiction of a teenage girl, her loving family, and her attempts to reconcile what she knows to be true about their lives with the way those lives are depicted—and completely undervalued—by society at large.”
Five Middle School Novels:
Chasing Secrets (Gennifer Choldenko)
Set in Gilded Age San Francisco, this novel features a young girl who wishes to be a doctor. When plague strikes, and Chinatown is quarantined—despite evidence it is not the epicenter—Lizzie discovers the inequities underpinning her world, and engages in a thrilling race-against-time to save the lives of those she loves.
Fly by Night (Frances Hardinge)
Orphaned Mosca Mye depends upon her cantankerous pet goose and her ability to read to help her survive life with her cold uncle. But her world opens up when she attaches herself to a travelling con man (or is he?) and lands herself in the centre of political intrigue in the bustling metropolis of Mandelion. It’s a riotously funny, imaginative, and adventurous book. THE GOOSE!
Amina’s Voice (Hena Khan)
Publishers Weekly writes: “Watching Amina literally and figuratively find her voice—bolstered by community, friendship, and discovered inner strength—makes for rewarding reading.” Will Amina’s best friend change her name to something more “American” sounding? Why does her uncle disapprove of her piano playing? Reading through online reviews it becomes clear how much children—and adults—love this book.
Alanna: The First Adventure (Tamora Pierce)
Young Alanna wants nothing more than to be a knight. Disguising herself as a boy she enters the castle and begins training, overcoming significant odds, including her size and previous lack of training. Set in the magical world of Tortall, the feisty heroine’s struggles are still very realistic, and readers will root for her success through this novel and the sequels.
El Deafo (Cece Bell)
This graphic novel follows the heroine’s return to school wearing a bulky hearing aid, after losing her hearing to a virus. From School Library Journal: “The antics of her hearing aid connected to a FM unit (an amplifier the teacher wears) are spectacularly funny. When Cece’s teacher leaves the FM unit on, Cece hears everything: bathroom visits, even teacher lounge improprieties It is her superpower. She deems herself El Deafo! inspired in part by a bullied Deaf child featured in an Afterschool Special.”