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There are lots of great books that have been published in the last few years that feature smart, strong, interesting and diverse female characters. In this article, we learn about empowering books for girls of all ages that feature empowered women of the present day.
Also learn about feminist books for boys and girls, and choosing the best children’s books about diversity.
Want to find a children’s book to instill a sense of girl power, self-esteem, and confidence in your daughters, granddaughters, nieces, or friends’ little girls of all ages? Rebekah has you covered with the list at the end of this article!
Rebekah’s Empowered Girl’s Origin Story
Without hesitation, I classify myself as a feminist. I trace this belief in equality, fairness and social justice in part to the strong women who raised me, including my mom, aunts, grandmothers, and family friends.
When asked recently to describe where my belief in feminism came from, I recounted an experience from 5th grade in a brand new school.
We had just moved yet again (we moved a lot when I was young, which likely accounts for my own mom guilt over moving my family recently).
We moved from a fairly suburban part of Connecticut to an urban environment in Waterbury, Connecticut.
Only the Boys Play Kickball
The school was in the middle of an urban area and only had two outdoor play areas – one large square concrete yard surrounded by a chain-link fence and a small alley behind the school that backed up to a brick wall.
At recess, there was a large, organized game of kickball in the large play area. The alley was reserved for smaller, independent games, like jump rope and hopscotch.
So on my first day of school, when all the kids were let out of the lunchroom to play at recess, I immediately lined up to play kickball.
The catch: only the boys were allowed to play kickball.
Within seconds of joining the line to play kickball, a teacher came up to me and started yelling at me for breaking the rules.
I had to go play with the other girls in the alley.
When I began to protest that I didn’t like hopscotch or jump rope, the teacher threatened to write me up.
This is the opposite of empowering girls.
Empowered Girls Can Play Too
Now, in 5th grade (much like today), my personality was equal parts tomboy and booknerd.
I placed a lot of stock in being a high-achieving kid, so the fact that I got in trouble on my first day for something that seemed deeply unfair to me didn’t sit well.
So I told my parents about it. And it was like a feminist volcano exploded at the dining room table.
My parents started shouting big words like “discrimination.”
My mother made it very clear to me that, in this case, what the teacher had said to me was wrong.
I was instructed to go back to school and insist that I be allowed to play kickball.
Then, she photocopied the text of Title XI and stapled a business card for my aunt, a local magistrate judge, to the top corner.
She told me if anyone tried to stop me from playing kickball, I should hand them this sheet and tell them my mother’s lawyer would be in touch.
Why Should I Read Books About Empowered Women to my kids?
I got to play kickball every day at lunch for the rest of the year.
I tell the kickball story for a couple of reasons.
First, it operates a little like an origin story for me. I was surrounded by powerful, badass women growing up.
They had high-powered careers, balanced work and family, and would not stand for injustice when it came to me and my sisters.
This is how I learned about not just being empowered, but about empowering other girls.
Coming up through my education and well into my career in academia, there were lots of ways in which the deck was stacked against me because I am a woman.
Having been infused with a sense of justice and defiance from an early age remains a vital part of my success, even as an adult.
Second, even though this story happened 20 years ago, we are kidding ourselves if we think that stories like this aren’t happening right now. Schools, along with other institutions around us, too often still have gender inequality structured into their policies.
Finding and recommending similar stories in children’s books about empowered women means helping pass on the message of empowerment.
Current Gender Inequality in Our School Systems
Take, for example, student dress codes in schools that regularly point to girls’ responsibility in covering up and concealing in order to ensure that boys are not “distracted.”
These structural inequalities are even more apparent when it comes to race and ethnic identity and children who identify outside of binary genders.
Dress codes can discriminate against natural hairstyles for black children or force children to conform to gender norms in their clothing choices.
Raising children to be thoughtful and empowered often means working in the face of these institutional structures. It means teaching children how to stand up to authority figures on behalf of themselves or those around them.
The best books for children on this subject often show how girls around the world have stood up to unfair institutions in the face of authority and persisted.
By showing empowered women and girls, we are providing empowering books for girls.
The Larger Impact of Empowering Girls
It’s important to remember that empowering the girls around us can ultimately have a positive effect on our larger communities, so long as we remember to emphasize the community aspects of empowerment.
In forcing my school to allow me to play kickball, it meant that all of the other girls were allowed to play too.
Raising little girls to stand up for themselves is important. Raising little girls to offer a hand up to others who are less privileged than themselves is vital.
To me, remembering that girls can empower not only other girls, but also their communities is one of the most important aspects of recommending empowering books for girls to parents.
Empowering Girls for the 21st Century
Reading books that feature strong women as the central characters will give your daughters a sense of how they can follow in those footsteps.
More and more books are being published in recent years that feature the stories of amazing women who achieved greatness but were previously left out of history books.
Teaching your children about Grace Hopper, Katherine Jonson, Bessie Coleman, Dolores Huerta, Kate Bornstein, and others can help them to see the vital impact that women have had on our society.
It becomes easier to imagine yourself as an astronaut, a scientist, a firefighter, or President of the United States when you have mirrors that reflect similarly driven, motivated, and determined women back at you.
Empowered Girls in the News
Perhaps you have noticed how many strong young women have started to take center stage in highly political debates.
- Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her work advocating for education for girls in Pakistan, even after the Taliban tried to kill her. She remains a powerful advocate for children’s rights, especially on behalf of refugee populations.
- Emma González is a survivor of the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and has worked to advocate on behalf of gun control measures, including helping to organize March for Our Lives. At that march in Washington, Emma delivered an incredibly powerful speech that has garnered millions of views online.
- Greta Thunberg has become a powerful advocate for the urgent necessity of addressing climate change, starting a school strike movement that has grown into an international movement of young people. She recently addressed the US Congress and the United Nations. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The more empowering female role models we can provide our children with–both real and imaginary, historical and current, grown and young–the more likely it becomes that girls of the future won’t have to fight over being allowed to play kickball, or to go to school, or to dress the way they choose.
Empowering Girls Through Books: A List
Follow me as we navigate through a list of children’s books* that empower girls of all ages.
Please note that these books are, OF COURSE, suitable for boys, as well! The more powerful women young men are exposed to from an early age, the more likely our world is to become equitable to all genders.
But because I don’t want to overwhelm you with too many amazing examples, feminist books for boys is a topic for another article here at Undefining Motherhood. Check back soon!
In this particular list, we’ll look at:
- Board Books About Empowered Girls and Women for Toddlers
- Books About Empowered Women for Grade School Children
- Middle-Grade Books About Empowered Girls and Women
- Non-Fiction Books About Empowered Women for Teens
- Novels About Empowered Women for Teens
Although most of these books depict empowered girls, they are inherently also empowering books for girls. We need good role models, after all.
*Note: Most descriptions come from the publisher’s summaries available on goodreads.com.
Board Books About Empowered Girls and Women for Toddlers
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Featuring forty trailblazing black women in American history, Little Leaders educates and inspires as it relates true stories of breaking boundaries and achieving beyond expectations. Illuminating text paired with irresistible illustrations bring to life both iconic and lesser-known female figures of Black history.
Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz
Meet the irrepressible Feminist Baby in this refreshing, clever board book about a girl who’s not afraid to do her own thing, and wants to make as much noise as possible along the way! Talk about an empowering book for girls from the earliest stages of life!
This Little Trailblazer by Joan Holub
Learn all about influential women who changed history in this engaging and colorful board book perfect for trailblazers-in-training!
Little People, Big Dreams Series by Lisbeth Kaiser
Each book in this series features the story of a trailblazing woman, including Amelia Earhart, Coco Chanel, Frida Kahlo, and Marie Curie
Padmini is Powerful by Amy Maranville
This primer introduces our readers to Hindu gods. Padmini is wise like Ganesh, she is generous like Lakshmi, and energetic like Parvati. Through Padmini, we will meet these Hindu gods, and learn that power has many forms.
My Feminist ABC by Duopress Labs
E is for Equal Rights, F is for Feminism, G is for Girl Power and also for Grit. This inspiring board book teaches little ones an esteemed alphabet of female (and human) values. Big ideas start early in life, and babies and tots of all genders will have a blast with the colorful art and sassy text in the pages of this unique book.
Dear Girl by Amy Krouse Rosentahl and Paris Rosenthal
Dear Girl, is a remarkable love letter written for the special girl in your life; a gentle reminder that she’s powerful, strong, and holds a valuable place in the world. Through Amy and Paris’s charming text and Holly Hatam’s stunning illustrations, any girl reading this book will feel that she’s great just the way she is—whether she enjoys jumping in a muddy puddle, has a face full of freckles, or dances on table tops.
I Like Myself! By Karen Beaumont and David Catrow
High on energy and imagination, this ode to self-esteem encourages kids to appreciate everything about themselves–inside and out. Messy hair? Beaver breath? So what! Here’s a little girl who knows what really matters. At once silly and serious, Karen Beaumont’s joyous rhyming text and David Catrow’s wild illustrations unite in a book that is sassy, soulful–and straight from the heart.
I Look Up To…Malala Yousafzai by Anna Membrino
It’s never too early to introduce your child to the people you admire–such as Malala Yousafzai, the activist for girls’ education and Nobel Peace Prize winner! This board book is such an empowering book for girls, as it distills Malala’s excellent qualities into an eminently shareable read-aloud text with graphic, eye-catching illustrations.
Books About Empowered Women for Grade School Children
Rad American Women from A-Z by Katie Schatz
This one is a favorite in our house, though I’ll admit, my 3-year-old son often only makes it through the tag lines of each page.
Like all A-Z books, this one illustrates the alphabet—but instead of “A is for Apple,” A is for Angela—as in Angela Davis, the iconic political activist. B is for Billie Jean King, who shattered the glass ceiling of sports. C is for Carol Burnett, who defied assumptions about women in comedy. D is for Dolores Huerta, who organized farmworkers. And E is for Ella Baker, who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King and helped shape the Civil Rights Movement.
The list of great women continues throughout the book, spanning several centuries, multiple professions, and 26 diverse individuals.
There are artists and abolitionists, scientists and suffragettes, rock stars and rabble-rousers, and agents of change of all kinds.
She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton
Throughout American history, there have always been women who have spoken out for what’s right, even when they have to fight to be heard. In early 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to be silenced in the Senate inspired a spontaneous celebration of women who persevered in the face of adversity. In this book, Chelsea Clinton celebrates thirteen American women who helped shape our country through their tenacity, sometimes through speaking out, sometimes by staying seated, sometimes by captivating an audience. They all certainly persisted.
Wilma’s Way Home: The Life of Wilma Mankiller by Doreen Rappaport and Linda Kukuk
As a child in Oklahoma, Wilma Mankiller experienced the Cherokee practice of Gadugi, helping each other, even when times were hard for everyone.
But in 1956, the federal government uprooted her family and moved them to California, wrenching them from their home, friends, and traditions.
Separated from her community and everything she knew, Wilma felt utterly lost until she found refuge in the Indian Center in San Francisco.
Despite many obstacles, from resistance to female leadership to a life-threatening accident, Wilma’s courageous dedication to serving her people led to her election as the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.
This beautiful addition to the Big Words series will inspire future leaders to persevere in empathy and thoughtful problem-solving, reaching beyond themselves to help those around them.
Moving prose by award-winning author Doreen Rappaport is interwoven with Wilma’s own words in this expertly researched biography, illustrated with warmth and vivacity by Linda Kukuk.
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty
Rosie may seem quiet during the day, but at night she’s a brilliant inventor of gizmos and gadgets who dreams of becoming a great engineer.
When her great-great-aunt Rose (Rosie the Riveter) comes for a visit and mentions her one unfinished goal–to fly–Rosie sets to work building a contraption to make her aunt’s dream come true.
But when her contraption doesn’t fly but rather hovers for a moment and then crashes, Rosie deems the invention a failure.
On the contrary, Aunt Rose insists that Rosie’s contraption was a raging success. You can only truly fail, she explains, if you quit.
Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge by Rachel Dougherty
On a warm spring day in 1883, a woman rode across the Brooklyn Bridge with a rooster on her lap.
It was the first trip across an engineering marvel that had taken nearly fourteen years to construct. The woman’s husband was the chief engineer, and he knew all about the dangerous new technique involved. The woman insisted she learn as well. When he fell ill mid-construction, her knowledge came in handy.
She supervised every aspect of the project while he was bedridden. Women weren’t supposed to be engineers. But this woman insisted she could do it all, and her hard work helped to create one of the most iconic landmarks in the world.
This is the story of Emily Roebling, the secret engineer behind the Brooklyn Bridge, from author-illustrator Rachel Dougherty.
Grace for President by Kelly S. DiPucchio
Where are the girls? When Grace’s teacher reveals that the United States has never had a female president, Grace decides to be the first. And she immediately starts off her political career as a candidate the school’s mock election.
But soon, she realizes that she has entered a tough race. Her popular opponent claims to be the best man for the job–and seems to have captured all the male votes–while Grace concentrates on being the best person.
In this timely story, author Kelly DiPucchio not only gives readers a fun introduction to the American electoral system, but also teaches them the value of hard work, courage, and independent thought–and offers an inspiring example of how to choose our leaders.
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy
Get to know celebrated Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—in the first picture book about her life—as she proves that disagreeing does not make you disagreeable!
Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent a lifetime disagreeing: disagreeing with inequality, arguing against unfair treatment, and standing up for what’s right for people everywhere.
This biographical picture book about the Notorious RBG, tells the justice’s story through the lens of her many famous dissents, or disagreements.
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is a children’s book packed with 100 bedtime stories about the life of 100 extraordinary women from the past and the present, illustrated by 60 female artists from all over the world.
This book inspires girls with the stories of great women, from Elizabeth I to Serena Williams.
Born to Ride: A Story About Bicycle Face by Larissa Theule and Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Louise Belinda Bellflower lives in Rochester, New York, in 1896. She spends her days playing with her brother, Joe. But Joe gets to ride a bicycle, and Louise Belinda doesn’t.
In fact, Joe issues a solemn warning: If girls ride bikes, their faces will get so scrunched up, eyes bulging from the effort of balancing, that they’ll get stuck that way FOREVER! Louise Belinda is appalled by this nonsense, so she strikes out to discover the truth about this so-called “bicycle face.”
Set against the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement, Born to Ride is the story of one girl’s courageous quest to prove that she can do everything the boys can do, while capturing the universal freedom and accomplishment children experience when riding a bike.
This book is much like Rebekah’s kickball story. It’s a book about empowering girls in everyday life.
Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley
Inspired by the true story of Mary Edwards Walker, a trailblazing doctor who was arrested many times for wearing pants, this fresh, charming picture book encourages readers to think for themselves while gently challenging gender and societal norms.
Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World by Susan Hood and 13 illustrators
Fresh, accessible, and inspiring, Shaking Things Up introduces fourteen revolutionary young women—each paired with a noteworthy female artist—to the next generation of activists, trail-blazers, and rabble-rousers.
From the award-winning author of Ada’s Violin, Susan Hood, this is a poetic and visual picture book that celebrates persistent women throughout history.
Among the powerful pairings: Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall takes on heroic World War II spies Eileen and Jacqueline Nearne; Selina Alko is matched with the brave Malala Yousafzai; New York Times bestselling illustrator Emily Winfield Martin is paired with the inventor of the controversial one-piece bathing suit, Annette Kellerman; and Shadra Strickland introduces America’s first known female firefighter, Molly Williams.
Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution by Laurie Halse Anderson
Listen up! You’ve all heard about the great men who led and fought during the American Revolution; but did you know that the guys only make up part of the story?
What about the women? The girls? The dames? Didn’t they play a part?
Of course they did, and with page after page of superbly researched information and thoughtfully detailed illustrations, acclaimed novelist and picture-book author Laurie Halse Anderson and charismatic illustrator Matt Faulkner prove the case in this entertaining, informative, and long overdue homage to those independent dames!
Turning Pages: My Life Story by Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Lulu Delacre
As the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor has inspired young people around the world to reach for their dreams.
But what inspired her?
For young Sonia, the answer was books!
They were her mirrors, her maps, her friends, and her teachers. They helped her to connect with her family in New York and in Puerto Rico, to deal with her diabetes diagnosis, to cope with her father’s death, to uncover the secrets of the world, and to dream of a future for herself in which anything was possible.
In Turning Pages, Justice Sotomayor shares that love of books with a new generation of readers, and inspires them to read and puzzle and dream for themselves. Accompanied by Lulu Delacre’s vibrant art, this story of the Justice’s life shows readers that the world is full of promise and possibility–all they need to do is turn the page.
Middle Grades Books About Empowered Girls and Women
Princess Academy by Shanon Hale
Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king’s priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess.
In a year’s time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king’s ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess.
Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend.
But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates.
Zoe and Sassafras (series) by Asia Citro and Marion Lindsay
With magical animals, science, mystery, and adventure — the Zoey and Sassafras series has something for everyone! Easy-to-read language and illustrations on nearly every page make this series perfect for a wide range of ages.
Each story features a new magical animal with a problem that must be solved using science. There isn’t a set formula for each book; Zoey sometimes needs to run experiments, while other times she needs to investigate a mystery, and yet other times she needs to do research.
Zoey models how to keep a science journal through her handwritten entries in each story. Each story is complete with a glossary of the kid-friendly definitions for scientific terms used.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Gail Carson Levine’s examination of traditional female roles in fairy tales takes some satisfying twists and deviations from the original.
At birth, Ella is inadvertently cursed by an imprudent young fairy named Lucinda, who bestows on her the “gift” of obedience. Anything anyone tells her to do, Ella must obey.
Another girl might have been cowed by this affliction, but not feisty Ella: “Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally.”
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
“[In this] story of a young Ojibwa girl, Omakayas, living on an island in Lake Superior around 1847, Louise Erdrich is reversing the narrative perspective used in most children’s stories about nineteenth-century Native Americans.
Instead of looking out at ‘them’ as dangers or curiosities, Erdrich, drawing on her family’s history, wants to tell about ‘us’, from the inside.
Braced by Alyson Gerber
Rachel Brooks is excited for the new school year. She’s finally earned a place as a forward on her soccer team. Her best friends make everything fun. And she really likes Tate, and she’s pretty sure he likes her back. After one last appointment with her scoliosis doctor, this will be her best year yet.
Then the doctor delivers some terrible news: The sideways curve in Rachel’s spine has gotten worse, and she needs to wear a back brace twenty-three hours a day. The brace wraps her in hard plastic from shoulder blades to hips. It changes how her clothes fit, how she kicks a ball, and how everyone sees her–even her friends and Tate.
But as Rachel confronts all the challenges the brace presents, the biggest change of all may lie in how she sees herself.
Lumberjanes #1 by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Shannon Watters
At Miss Qiunzilla Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s camp for hard-core lady-types, things are not what they seem. Three-eyed foxes. Secret caves. Anagrams. Luckily, Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley are five rad, butt-kicking best pals determined to have an awesome summer together… And they’re not gonna let a magical quest or an array of supernatural critters get in their way!
The mystery keeps getting bigger, and it all begins here. Added bonus – the girls make exclamations that feature famous feminist figures.
Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly
This edition of Margot Lee Shetterly’s acclaimed book is perfect for young readers. It is the powerful story of four African-American female mathematicians at NASA who helped achieve some of the greatest moments in our space program.
Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
This book brings to life the stories of empowered women Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, who lived through the Civil Rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War.
It focuses on the movement for gender equality, and these women whose work forever changed the face of NASA and the country. A fantastic empowering book for girls!
Non-Fiction Books About Empowered Women for Teens
Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson
Bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson is known for the unflinching way she writes about, and advocates for, survivors of sexual assault.
Now, inspired by her fans and enraged by how little in our culture has changed since her groundbreaking novel Speak was first published twenty years ago, she has written a poetry memoir that is as vulnerable as it is rallying, as timely as it is timeless.
In free verse, Anderson shares reflections, rants, and calls to action woven between deeply personal stories from her life that she’s never written about before.
Searing and soul-searching, this important memoir is a denouncement of our society’s failures and a love letter to all the people with the courage to say #metoo and #timesup, whether aloud, online, or only in their own hearts. Shout speaks truth to power in a loud, clear voice– and once you hear it, it is impossible to ignore.
We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World by Malala Yousafzai
Nobel Peace Prize winner and New York Times-bestselling author Malala Yousafzai introduces some of the people behind the statistics and news stories we read or hear every day about the millions of people displaced worldwide.
Malala’s experiences visiting refugee camps caused her to reconsider her own displacement – first as an Internally Displaced Person when she was a young child in Pakistan, and then as an international activist who could travel anywhere in the world except to the home she loved.
In We Are Displaced, which is part memoir, part communal storytelling, Malala not only explores her own story, but she also shares the personal stories of some of the incredible girls she has met on her journeys – girls who have lost their community, relatives, and often the only world they’ve ever known.
In a time of immigration crises, war, and border conflicts, We Are Displaced is an important reminder from one of the world’s most prominent young activists that every single one of the 68.5 million currently displaced is a person – often a young person – with hopes and dreams.
History vs. Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know by Anita Sarkeesian and Ebony Adams
Rebels, rulers, scientists, artists, warriors and villains. Women are, and have always been, all these things and more.
Looking through the ages and across the globe, Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency, along with Ebony Adams PHD, have reclaimed the stories of twenty-five remarkable women who dared to defy history and change the world around them.
From Mongolian princesses to Chinese pirates, Native American ballerinas to Egyptian scientists, Japanese novelists to British Prime Ministers, History vs Women will reframe the history that you thought you knew.
Featuring beautiful full-color illustrations of each woman and a bold graphic design, this standout nonfiction title is the perfect read for teens (or adults!) who want the true stories of phenomenal women from around the world and insight into how their lives and accomplishments impacted both their societies and our own.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
What does “feminism” mean today? That is the question at the heart of We Should All Be Feminists, a personal, eloquently-argued essay—adapted from her much-viewed TEDx talk of the same name—by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun.
You Don’t Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent
Alida Nugent’s first book, Don’t Worry It Gets Worse, received terrific reviews, and her self-deprecating “everygirl” approach continues to win the Internet-savvy writer and blogger new fans.
Now, she takes on one of today’s hottest cultural topics: feminism. Nugent is a proud feminist—and she’s not afraid to say it. From the “scarlet F” thrust upon you if you declare yourself a feminist at a party to how to handle judgmental store clerks when you buy Plan B, You Don’t Have to Like Me skewers a range of cultural issues, and confirms Nugent as a star on the rise.
Novels About Empowered Women for Teens
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (series of 5)
This series is a personal favorite of mine, especially since I’ve been working with students headed into male dominated STEM fields for the past 5 years. Set in an alternate world based on our own nineteenth century, the Memoirs of Lady Trent are a five-book series chronicling the adventures and discoveries of Isabella, Lady Trent, renowned dragon naturalist.
In the first book, Isabella wants to become a scientist and study dragons, but is prevented from formal study because she is a woman. Luckily, she marries a man who shares her passion for dragons and for science and together they uncover an incredible secret about dragons that will change the fate of the world.
Graceling Trilogy (Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue) by Kristen Cashore
Katsa is a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.
She never expects to fall in love with beautiful Prince Po. She never expects to learn the truth behind her Grace—or the terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.
The major villain of the series is a Graceling with the ability to force people to do his bidding with his voice, reshaping truth to his will, in a chilling precursor to our current political climate.
The Candle And The Flame By Nafiza Azad
Fatima lives in the city of Noor, a thriving stop along the Silk Road. There the music of myriad languages fills the air, and people of all faiths weave their lives together.
However, the city bears scars of its recent past, when the chaotic tribe of Shayateen djinn slaughtered its entire population — except for Fatima and two other humans.
Now ruled by a new maharajah, Noor is protected from the Shayateen by the Ifrit, djinn of order and reason, and by their commander, Zulfikar. But when one of the most potent of the Ifrit dies, Fatima is changed in ways she cannot fathom, ways that scare even those who love her.
Oud in hand, Fatima is drawn into the intrigues of the maharajah and his sister, the affairs of Zulfikar and the djinn, and the dangers of a magical battlefield. Nafiza Azad weaves an immersive tale of magic and the importance of names; fiercely independent women; and, perhaps most importantly, the work for harmony within a city of a thousand cultures and cadences.
We Set The Dark On Fire By Tehlor Kay Mejia
At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society.
Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children, but both are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.
Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret—that her pedigree is a lie. Her parents sacrificed everything to obtain forged identification papers so Dani could rise above her station.
Now that her marriage to an important politico’s son is fast approaching, she must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society, where famine and poverty rule supreme.
On her graduation night, Dani seems to be in the clear, despite the surprises that unfold. But nothing prepares her for all the difficult choices she must make, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio.
Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or to give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?
Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta
A King Arthur retelling with a female Arthur and a teenage Merlin. Set in the future. In Space. I know, that was my reaction at first too. But the diverse cast, page-turning antics and unexpected beauty had me hooked on this book and looking forward to the sequel.
A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney
The first time the nightmares came, it nearly cost Alice her life. Now she’s trained to battle monstrous creatures in the dark dream realm known as Wonderland with magic weapons and hardcore fighting skills. Yet even warriors have a curfew.
Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and a slipping GPA. Keeping the nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job.
But when Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally.
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Akata Witch transports the reader to a magical place where nothing is quite as it seems. Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost.
She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied.
But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged into the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset.
Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto, the man responsible for kidnapping and maiming children.
Will Sunny be able to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own, or will the future she saw in the flames become reality?
A Tyranny of Petticoats by Jessica Spotswood
Criss-cross America — on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains — from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago.
Join fifteen of today’s most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course.
They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos.
They’re making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell.
Features short stories by bestselling Young Adult (YA) authors like J. Anderson Coats, Andrea Cremer, Marie Lu, Kekla Magoon, Marissa Meyer, and Saundra Mitchell
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun. When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance.
As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.
As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane.
On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?
Harrowing and beautifully written, Elizabeth Wein creates a visceral read of danger, resolve, and survival that shows just how far true friends will go to save each other. Code Name Verity is an outstanding novel that will stick with you long after the last page.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
At first, Jude and her twin brother Noah, are inseparable. Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude wears red-red lipstick, cliff-dives, and does all the talking for both of them.
Years later, they are barely speaking. Something has happened to change the twins in different yet equally devastating ways . . . but then Jude meets an intriguing, irresistible boy and a mysterious new mentor.
The early years are Noah’s to tell; the later years are Jude’s. But they each have only half the story, and if they can only find their way back to one another, they’ll have a chance to remake their world.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.
But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role. Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too.
Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.
But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out.
Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.
Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.
But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about.
With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.
So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems. Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.
Got a voracious reader in your life who has already zipped through all of these empowering books for girls and looking for something more specific? Ask for more specific recommendations in the comments!
Rebekah Fitzsimmons, PhD, is Undefining Motherhood’s expert on children’s literature. She has a PhD in English (Children’s Literature) from the University of Florida. She is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Professional Communication in the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Rebekah’s book, Beyond the Blockbuster will be available through the University Press of Mississippi in April. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, son, mother-in-law, and awesome dog.
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