Feminist YA is one of my absolute favorite categories, so much so that I wrote my senior thesis in college about it. And while a lot of the focus on feminist YA today is in contemporary works, the themes continue in historical fiction as well. The novels below definitely fit the bill, featuring strong, smart heroines all ahead of their time—and showing that women have always, despite the odds, persisted.
Burn Baby Burn, by Meg Medina
Nora Lopez is seventeen in 1977, the year of the burning hot summer in New York when serial killer Son of Sam was on the loose. In between her job at the deli and pressure from her teachers, as well as her mother’s inability to pay the rent, Nora’s in over her head. She has met a cute guy at the deli, but is there even time for love when there’s a killer on the loose? The feminist backdrop of the late 1970s makes this a wonderful read, as Medina explores growing opportunities for women in the time period, and where to find a good place to make out so you won’t get murdered.
These Shallow Graves, by Jennifer Donnelly
Drawing comparisons to Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy, These Shallow Graves is a must-read. Jo Montfort is beautiful, rich, and ready to graduate from finishing school. But rather than marry a wealthy bachelor as she’s expected to do, Jo longs to become a newspaper reporter like her hero, Nellie Bly. However, her plans are thrown into disarray when her father is mysteriously killed. Determined to find out the truth about her father’s death, Jo is drawn into untangling a more sinister plot than she could have imagined. Jo is an absolutely fierce, determined heroine—and the Libba Bray comparison? Absolutely spot on.
Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Pérez
A Printz Honor book set in 1937 Texas, Pérez’s debut follows Naomi and Wash, two teens on opposite sides of the line in East Texas. Set against the backdrop of the 1937 New London school explosion, Pérez expertly weaves in Naomi’s coming to terms with her Mexican family’s heritage, and Walsh’s need to do good. The book expertly covers racism and intersectionality in a historical setting, as well as a budding love story between Naomi and Walsh. If you’re looking for a good, sad historical to fill the Code Name Verity–shaped hole in your heart, definitely pick this one up.
Outrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee
Lee’s debut Under A Painted Sky was one of my favorites of 2015, and her sophomore novel continues the trend of strong Chinese American protagonists in historical settings. Mercy Wong is fifteen years old in 1906 San Francisco, and determined to leave the poverty of Chinatown behind. Using her wits (and some bribery), Mercy gains entrance to St. Clare’s School for Girls. Her only challenge is standing up to spoiled white girls—until the infamous San Francisco earthquake hits. With her home and school destroyed and she and her classmates living in a temporary encampment, Mercy is determined to take charge and show that bossy girls get things done.
Out of the Easy, by Ruta Sepetys
Sepetys’ novels Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Gray gave readers a window on under-reported historical events, but it’s Out of the Easy that remains my feminist fave. Set in New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1950, Sepetys’ novel follows Josie Moraine, known to everyone around her as the daughter of a prostitute. Desperate to escape her mother’s reputation and the secrets of the city, Josie has her sights set on attending an elite college far away. But when someone in the Quarter is mysteriously killed, Josie is torn between her plans and her loyalty to her mother.
Girl at War, by Sara Nović
While not strictly YA, this is one of my favorite historical books of the past year, and pretty much ever. In 1991 Zagreb, Croatia, Ana Jurić is a carefree ten-year-old, spending time with her family and baby sister, Rahela. In 2001, Ana is a college student haunted by the war that tore her family apart. Desperate to find meaning, Ana returns to her childhood home in Croatia, and there finds more than she bargained for. Seamlessly blending past and present, Nović’s novel is intense and riveting, and Ana’s voice at both ten and twenty will stay with you long after you’re through.