Recently my first niece was born, and judging by the brilliance she has already displayed in her first six months of life, I can only assume she’s destined to be the next Leslie Knope, or maybe the founder of a NASA competitor. I’m already curating the list of books I want to give her throughout her life, a library she might ignore (maybe she’ll think aunts are dorky) but will hopefully read and dog-ear and love. She’s currently more interested in splashing her bathwater and discovering avocados than she is in complex heroines and stories that teach you new ways to think and be, but here are the books I’d give to her, birthday by birthday, if I were buying them now.
Age 11: Hook’s Revenge, by Heidi Schulz
Jocelyn is the proud daughter of the famous and deadly Captain Hook, and despite her grandfather’s attempts, she refuses to be molded into a lady. She’s overjoyed when the Neverland comes to claim her from finishing school after her famous father’s death—but as she seeks to avenge the dad she never knew, she discovers you can’t become a bloodthirsty pirate overnight. Jocelyn is an intrepid hero who can do anything, but she’s also a little girl, learning the rules of a new world. Schulz lets her be both, while telling an extremely funny, rollicking tale.
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, about an unapologetic info-seeking missile who wants to record the whole world in her notebook
I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Marjorie Agosin, about a Chilean girl whose new life in America is complicated by what she’s left behind
Age 12: Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu
In Ursu’s moody retelling of the Snow Queen tale, Hazel treks into the woods in pursuit of her best friend, Jack, after a shard of demon glass hardens his heart and allows him to be carried away by a wicked queen. In the woods she discovers just how alone she really is—the people she meets along the way have their own, often dark, agendas, and even the good ones can only hope to fix their own story. Being lost in the trees drives people mad, she learns, crippling their understanding of wrong and right. By the end of her journey, she’s exhausted, cold, and whittled down to a tenacious spike: she will find Jack. She will save him. For no other reason than that it’s the right thing to do. This is a thoughtful, lovely story for fairy tale fans in need of some shades of gray.
Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale, about a brave mountain girl who isn’t sure she wants to be a princess
Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, in which a funny heroine is afflicted with the fairy “gift” of absolute obedience
Age 13: Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson’s childhood memoir told in verse is a book that makes your edges dissolve, its rhythmic language—simultaneously lush and spare—drawing you in till you feel you inhabit young Jackie’s skin. In poetic vignettes, she watches her parents fight and her aunts dance to Sam Cooke, eats lemon chiffon ice cream cones, and writes three words into a composition notebook: Jacqueline Amanda Woodson, the first of many. Her story is universal enough for young readers to find themselves, and specific enough to open their eyes to what was, and its connection to what is now. Jackie moves from north to south to north again, learning to keep her head up and never say “ma’am.” A teacher tells her she’s a writer, and she already knows it. If this book doesn’t inspire young readers to find their own voices on the page, I don’t know what will.
The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley, about an ignored princess who makes herself into a dragonslayer through power of will
This One Summer, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, a graphic novel about two girls on the cusp of adolescence in a sleepy summer town
Age 14: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart
If there were one lesson I wish could be engrained into every 14-year-old’s DNA, it would be this: don’t define your self worth by other people’s approval. But holding onto that truth would take superhuman maturity for a new-minted high schooler, which is where Frankie comes in. This cerebral heroine’s story begins where so many stories end: she’s newly “hot,” having developed over the summer, and has sudden social status as the girlfriend of her boarding school’s golden boy. So once you’ve got all the things you’re supposed to want, what do you do next? In Frankie’s case, piss off every guy in her life, from her dad to her boyfriend to his intriguing best friend, in her pursuit of truth, equality, and the freedom to be awesome. Frankie forever!
Purple Hill, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which the Nigerian daughter of a religious fanatic father starts to find her voice
Graceling, by Kristin Cashore, an intense fantasy about a supernaturally gifted fighter who refuses to be made into a weapon against her will
Age 15: Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray
Bray’s Beauty Queens is about teamwork and breaking through expectations and accessing your inner Miss Teen Dream, which, in this case, means a badass girl who kicks butt, takes names, and makes things happen for herself, even when the outlook is grim. It’s also one of the funniest, weirdest, best YAs I’ve ever read. When an airplane carrying 50 Miss Teen Dream contestants—including Miss Texas, who could probably take down the Pentagon with a nail file and a smile—crashes on a “deserted” island on the way to a pageant, the survivors discover abilities they didn’t know they had while trying to stay alive. It’s bursting with distinct, imperfect female characters of grit and grace, whose stories are given room to breathe despite the book’s huge cast.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily M. Danforth, about a bereaved, recently outed teen forced to go to a conversion camp
Not Otherwise Specified, by Hannah Moskowitz, about a black ballerina and recovering anorexic who doesn’t fit into anyone’s box
Age 16: Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Every teen needs to read this book, about a girl’s self-silencing following her rape at a party. When she claims the only power she can—her refusal to speak—Melinda allows misperceptions about her to harden into belief. That she’s a narc. That she’s a weirdo. That she’s undeserving of friendship. But the truly amazing thing about Anderson’s debut is the way Melinda shines through as a clever, watchful heroine, a gifted girl whose soul has been razed, but keeps sending out green shoots. Even as she’s drowning in self-hatred, leaving its marks on her skin and on the lips she chews to pieces, she can’t help but be interested in botany and art, and the political statements of a brainy classmate. When her soul finally comes out of deep freeze, it’s both for her own sake and for the former friend she wants to save from a similar fate.
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, a devastating WWII story about two best friends: an imprisoned British spy and an ace pilot
Under a Painted Sky, by Stacey Lee, about a Chinese American orphan and a former slave who dress as boys and travel down the Oregon Trail
Age 17: Pointe, by Brandy Colbert
Colbert’s stunning debut presents a smart, talented protagonist with good, present parents—who nonetheless cycles through bouts of shame and self-recrimination for the crimes committed against her by a predatorial man. When she learns there might be a connection between the kidnapping of her recently returned best friend, Donovan, and the older man she thought she was in love with at age 13, she spirals into the darkest parts of her past, at the expense of her sanity, budding dance career, and eating disorder recovery. This is a book about finding power in realizing you were victimized, and learning to assert your identity and strength and self-worth after the worst has happened.
About a Girl, by Sarah McCarry, a lush, myth-inflected story about a girl’s dangerous quest for self-discovery
Ash, by Malinda Lo, a Cinderella story in which the heroine’s heart is won not by a prince but by a huntress
Age 18: Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, by A.S. King
This book reminds you to get scared. It reminds you that battles fought aren’t always won, that history repeats itself, that what we take for granted can easily be dismantled. That it couches its killer message in a fascinating coming of age with a fantasy-dystopia twist—after drinking a strange substance, a recent high-school graduate becomes subject to dark visions of an antifeminist future—will just ensure you’re making your fave young feminist a reader of A.S. King for life (as all good readers should be). Girls can and should definitely read this before 18, but it’s a good one for teens about to head off to college, a feminist rebel yell that might inspire them to change the world.
All the Rage, by Courtney Summers, a shattering indictment of rape culture set in a small town
The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma, an eerie genre-bender about girls trapped within both literal and figurative prisons