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Today, 12th July is Malala Day, for one of the most inspiring and fearless role models for teens. Here are a few inspiring YA books for both boys and girls.
As one reads the trials and tribulations faced by fictional female role models, one realizes that often times their challenges might have originated because of their gender, but the way they emerged successful was through inner strength, perseverance and curiosity.
This message is applicable for both boys and girls. So, in reality these books need not be just for girls, just because the protagonist is a girl. These are books that are for an universal audience.
I was a late bloomer in terms of children’s books. I grew up on a sporadic diet of Gokulams and Chandamama with a sprinkling of Rani comics and pole-vaulted directly to Sidney Sheldons and Irving Wallace. So when I read Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, (I was a mother of two children by then), I was blown away! It was refreshing to see Elizabeth define her own ‘happily ever after.’ I found out that there is a whole range of books with enriching female role models like Paper Bag Princess and was delighted.
As my children grew up, we slowly graduated to books like Igraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke, in which the protagonist Igraine dreams of becoming a knight, even though her otherwise well meaning parents are not quite taken with the idea. Pipi Longstocking was a total gender bender. She lives alone, is extremely confident about her appearance and capabilities and can you imagine the stir she must have caused in 1945?! When we were done with Pipi, we had the precocious Matilda, Lila from The Firework-maker’s Daughter, our very own Judy Moody and the incomparable Gooney Bird Greene to relish.
It was a wonderful catch-22 situation in our home at this point. Reading about strong fictional female role models helped my family process and address the jarring and sub-conscious gender inequality in our society. And the more we got on this path, the more we discussed such issues, the more we sought out books with strong female protagonists.
Without any further ado, here is a list of books, each with a wonderful role model for teens, both boys and girls. Listed chronologically in the order they have been published.
by Louisa May Alcott, published in 1868
Set in America during the civil war times, the sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy portray a realistic family trying to find its bearings with a single parent and dire financial need. Meg is kind, Beth the good, polite girl, Amy the creative child and Jo the maverick. Instead of lumping all the qualities in to one, the story line shows that the qualities that make them starkly different from each other are the same qualities that bonds them and they are stronger together.
“I want to do something splendid…something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all someday.”
by Susan Coolidge, published in 1872
Katy, the oldest child of six siblings, is expected to play mother to her younger siblings when her mother dies. But Katy dreams of adventures and refuses to be pinned down by traditional expectations. She is stubborn, mischievous, irascible at times and often gets herself in to sticky situations. It is not her fault because she is only 12 and is still a child. The story ends with the wilful Katy applying the same qualities that were deemed negative by the society, to walking again after a tragic accident that makes her wheel chair bound.
by L.M.Montgomery, published in 1908
The character of Anne is timeless. She has enchanted generations of children ever since she was published. From an orphan with red hair who had been rejected by many, to the role of a teacher and a faithful support to Marilla, Anne has never lost her pluck. Anne is a fictional female role model for facing adversity without any fear.
“There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn’t be half so interesting.”
by Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in 1932
Life as a pioneer must have been tough. Laura didn’t have time to think about feminists, she just had to be one. There were no specific gender roles. Every one had to pitch in or you suffered. Laura is a fine example of making the best out of the meager resources they had access to in an unforgiving landscape.
by Harper Lee, published in 1960
Be it dressing up in comfortable clothes and getting dirty or defending her father by punching her cousin, Scout blindly mimics her brother. Growing up with her brother Jem, Scout is of the impression that men are better, but as her character grows and matures with the story, you see Scout evolving beautifully. She starts realizing the value of a woman in a society and starts feeling more comfortable in her own skin.
“[Calpurnia] seemed glad to see me when I appeared in the kitchen, and by watching her I began to think there was some skill involved in being a girl.”
by Scott O’Dell, published in 1960
Now, Karana is not entirely fiction. The book is based on Juana Maria, a native American girl who lived alone on an island for 18 years. Karana is a survivor. She creates a life for herself on the island. Instead of blindly resorting to revenge and killing the animals that killed her brother, Karana manages to tame the leader of the pack.
by Madeleine L’Engle, published in 1963
Meg Murry is neither popular at school, nor at home. She struggles with the absence of her father and is insecure about her looks. On a mission to rescue her father from Camazotz, Meg’s younger brother Charles is left behind to the mercy of IT. Meg herself is nearly killed and ends up frozen. Meg overcomes her physical and emotional limitations, goes back to Camazotz to rescue Charles and succeeds. Meg is the one that despite her doubts manages to defeat IT through her love for her brother and her resistance to fall in rhythm with IT.
by Judy Blume, published in 1970
Pre-teen is a confusing age irrespective of gender and the time you live in. As a child grows from toddler stage he/she thinks that they have formed an identity and know their position in social hierarchy. All this is shattered and the child is left to rebuild his/her identity from scratch during the pre-teen years. This is exactly what Margaret is going through. She is trying to learn about religion, her body and boys. Most importantly she is learning about herself. The beauty about Judy Blume books are that she does not ‘tell’ her readers something is better that the other. Young readers simply understand that they are not alone, that every one goes through similar thoughts and doubts.
“I have not really enjoyed my religions experiments very much and I don’t think I’ll make up my mind one way or the other for a long time. I don’t think a person can decide to be a certain religion just like that. It’s like having to choose your own name. You think about it a long time and then you keep changing your mind.”
by Katherine Patterson, published in 1977
Leslie and Jess cannot be any more different. Jess is constantly afraid, insecure and has always worked hard for everything in his life. While for Leslie, everything that Jess has coveted and longed for comes easily. Leslie is fearless and does not conform to the rural Virginia lifestyle owing to her privileged upbringing. Finally Jess manages to break through his insecurities and liberates himself not through his life long friendship with Leslie, but through Leslie’s death. If there ever was a fictional tragedy that punched me in the gut, Leslie’s death was certainly it.
“He thought about it all day, how before Leslie came, he had been a nothing—a stupid, weird kid who drew funny pictures and chased around a cow field trying to act big—trying to hide a whole mob of foolish little fears running wild in his gut. Leslie was more than his friend. She was his other, more exciting self-his way to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond.”
by Philip Pullman, published in 1985
The Victorian time is well know for its rigid class structure and gender inequality. Romanticized by countless authors, this is truly a period where women were without rights. How Sally, a sixteen year old orphan manages to live life on her own terms, becomes a successful businesswoman, and an amateur detective, is positive role modelling for all her readers. She exhibits extraordinary independence and strength through out the eponymous series.
by Karen Cushman, published in 1994
The book is a journal of a 13 year old in 13th century England, Catherine. Catherine has an opinion about everything and she puts it down in her journal. While she wants to be crusader just like her Uncle George, she is made to hem, embroider and sew. She thinks her life is barren as she is 14 and has never witnessed a hanging. She minces no words when it comes to the lady-lessons she is expected to learn. Catherine fights her arranged marriage to an old man, and finally all is not lost for Catherine. The book shines with wit and humor and endears Catherine to the reader.
“More lady-lessons. It is impossible to do all and be all a lady must be and not tie oneself in a knot. A lady must walk erect with dignity, looking straight before her with eyelids low, gazing at the ground ahead, neither trotting nor running nor looking about nor laughing nor stopping to chatter. Her hands must be folded below her cloak while at the same time lifting her dress from the floor while at the same time hiding her mouth if her smile is unattractive or her teeth yellow. A lady must have six hands!”
by Philip Pullman, published in 1995
Eve can be perceived as a temptress who made Adam commit the original sin or as a curious mind that breaks man out of his ignorance. While organized religion portrays Eve as the former, Pullman in his trilogy depicts Eve as the latter. 12 year old Lyra who is rude and lies to get her way is identified as the next Eve by the Magisterium, a religious body. How she travels through different worlds and unravels the true nature of life while she breaks archaic notions about women is the story told in the trilogy.
by Karen Hesse, published in 1997
Placed in the time of the Dust Bowl in the US, that was dominated by dust storms and depression, this book, written in free style poetry, traces the life of fourteen year old Billie Jo and her losses. The book is written as narrated by Billie Jo. Billie Jo, who is resented by her father for being a girl when he wanted a boy, dreams of becoming a pianist and leaving the dust bowl. Her dreams come crashing down when she inadvertently sets her mother on fire and in the process burning her hands. All is lost to Billie Jo and she runs away from home. But she finds enough courage to come back and face her demons as well as help her father out of the tragedy.
by Gail Caron Levine, published 1997
Ella is given the gift of obedience by a fairy. Can you imagine a bigger curse?! There is an Ella in every girl/woman, because we are largely a patriarchal society that strives to install obedience in women. Sometimes the message comes through loud and clear and at times subtly masked as a well-meaning action. To instantly accept and or obey is the bane of many girls/women. To reject what is told/expected, to assess a situation and to decide for ourselves at times becomes as eventful as Ella’s quest to break free of her curse!
“It is helpful to know the proper way to behave, so one can decide whether or not to be proper.”
Do look out for Part II of this great list of YA books with fabulous female role models for teens tomorrow.
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