YA heroines, like their real-world counterparts, face off against a range of challenges, from finding themselves to navigating friendships to saving the world. But historical fiction brings its own special difficulties, often highlighting girls who lived in patriarchal societies and weren’t afforded the same freedoms many contemporary women enjoy. We’re kicking off Women’s History Month with five historical novels showcasing girls surviving against all odds in a society that doesn’t make it easy.
Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCollough
McCullough’s debut tells the true story of painter Artemisia Gentileschi in verse. When her mother dies suddenly, Artemisia is left with two choices: join a convent, or help her artist father by grinding pigment for paint. Artemisia chooses paint, which sets her on a path to become one of Rome’s greatest painters by the age of 17, studying under the likes of Caravaggio. But her talent comes at a terrible price, particularly in a patriarchal society where men take whatever they want from women. After she is raped, Artemisia chooses again: this time to speak out in a world where women are often forced to choose silence. Through her paintings, she confronts her own memory of the rape. This is a raw, powerful verse novel about a historical figure many haven’t heard of.
The Pearl Thief, by Elizabeth Wein
Perhaps two of historical YA fiction’s best known girls are from Wein’s Code Name Verity, a book that captured my heart and made me weep openly onto my ereader. One of these heroines, Julie (“Verity” in the first book), gets her own prequel with The Pearl Thief, in which she’s every bit as feisty and mouthy as she was when we first met her. Julie is spending one last summer on her grandfather’s Scottish estate before it’s sold—but her plans for an idyllic season don’t pan out. She’s assaulted near the river where her family harvests mussels for pearls, and after her rescue by two Travellers, Euan and his sister Ellen, Julie begins to realize the attack may not have been incidental. As she grows to know her saviors, she faces her own prejudices against Travellers and enlists their help to find out who hurt her and why.
The Librarian of Auschwitz, by Antonio Iturbe
Antonio Iturbe’s chronicle of Dita Kraus’s time in Auschwitz, based on his own interviews with her, is absolutely gripping. Dita helped with a secret school in Block 31, the children’s section of the Auschwitz concentration camp. There, she was in charge of saving the eight books that have survived the camp, making sure they stay safe and hidden from the Nazis. Flashing back between her time in the camp and her time in the Terezín ghetto in Prague, we see how she became the keeper of these forbidden books. It’s a dark, rich story that beautifully translates one girl’s bravery in one of the worst places imaginable.
Copper Sun, by Sharon M. Draper
Draper’s classic tells the story of Amari, an African girl sold into slavery in South Carolina in 1738. Amari’s idyllic life in an African village changes in an instant after she witnesses her parents murder and is forcibly placed on a ship bound for South Carolina, where she’s bought by a cruel plantation owner as a “present” for his son. Even as Amari endures torture and rape, she dreams of escape, plotting with a white indentured servant named Polly. Throughout all she endures, she never loses sight of escaping and finding a better life for herself.
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Bygone Badass Broads, by Mackenzi Lee
If you want to learn more about dozens of badass women throughout history, Lee’s anthology is a great place to start. Filled with gorgeous illustrations by Petra Eriksson and based on Lee’s Twitter threads of the same name, Bygone Badass Broads gathers the tales of fascinating female historical figures you may not have heard of, including Empress Xi Ling Shi, the inventor of silk, and Julie d’Aubigny, a French swordswoman and complete badass. It’s a fun, inventive book that highlights women who, like Artemisia or Dita, have been largely ignored by the historical record.