Summer leisure translates into reading for me. If it does for you too, here’s a handy list of my favourites for the young adult reading fans in your life.
Young adult fiction can be a difficult genre to navigate, especially when it comes to finding good female role models for your tween readers. While I mostly read fantasy books during my childhood, this list is still a great starting point to steer you clear of wimpy vampire-loving two-dimensional girls and towards strong and realistic female protagonists, while being well-written and captivating books to boot. Note: These books are great for boys AND girls!
Plain Kate by Erin Bow
This touching coming of age story tells the tale of Kate, who lives in a world plagued by superstition. A loner struggling to make ends meet and accused of being a witch, she decides to sell her shadow to a mysterious man passing through her village as a last resort. She then must work to put things right after this impulsive choice brings danger to everyone around her. I read this book fairly recently and I was completely captivated by the strength and heart of its protagonist. This story is dark and full of the sorrow of life, but it is beautifully written and will surely move any reader.
Song of the Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce
This author has been lauded for her feminist themes in all of her book series, but it is the Song of the Lioness series, along with the Protector of the Small quartet, that was cited when she was given the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 2013 for her lasting contribution to young adult literature. The series chronicles the challenges and triumphs of Alanna of Trebond, a noblewoman in the fictional country of Tortall, as she fights gender norms to become the first female knight. Not only do the books chronicle her compelling and often exciting journey to become a knight, but it gives weight to her growing emotional maturity too, dealing with her personal challenges as she becomes a young woman. This series is a fantastic and entertaining read, and Alanna is a captivating character that you will find yourself rooting for as you follow her story.
Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix
In a world where a lot of young adult fantasy fiction feels like a cheap copy of Harry Potter, Garth Nix’s series stands apart with the unique and layered fictional world that he has created. The series is set in two neighbouring fictional countries. To the south is Ancelstierre, comparable to early 20th century England, and North of the wall lies the Old Kingdom, full of both the wild Free Magic and the Charter Magic that controls it. The Old Kingdom was once kept in peace by the Royal Family, but for 200 years it has been lost to the Free Magic and many dangerous entities, including the various forms of the undead and the Necromancers that control them. The Abhorsen is the formal title of the Necromancer who is in charge of protecting the Old Kingdom from the dead using nine bells, each with a different power. The series begins with Sabriel, in which the titular character’s father, the current Abhorsen, is in danger, and Sabriel must journey to save him and the whole kingdom from a growing evil north of the wall. Sabriel is followed by Lirael, Abhorsen, and a prequel, Clariel. All of the books feature strong and nuanced female protagonists, and the inventive and elaborate world has a darker and stranger tone that sets it apart from many other fantasy series.
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pulman
This award-winning trilogy takes references from such classic sources such as the work of William Blake and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, from which the trilogy derives its title. However it is at its heart a great tale of adventure and coming-of-age for its protagonist Lyra Belacqua. It takes place in a parallel universe to our own, where zeppelins are the primary mode of transportation, armoured bears rule their own kingdoms, every human’s inner-self manifests itself as an animal-shaped daemon, and everyone is fascinated with the mysterious elementary particle called Dust and its link to Original Sin. This series is compelling and sophisticated, and has attracted controversy for dealing with religious criticism, but Pulman expects the most from his audience, and the difficult themes in this trilogy are still accessible to young readers. Pulman is a master storyteller, and Lyra is a courageous, witty, and rebellious heroine. This series was introduced to me as something to fill the wait until the next Harry Potter book came out, but it has inspired its own devoted fanbase and is rightly considered to be a classic of children’s literature.
Sally Lockhart quartet by Philip Pulman
In this series, Pulman takes his masterful storytelling to Victorian London, where newly orphaned Sally Lockhart is launched into an adventure that will expose the secrets and corruption at the heart of the opium trade. The books are written as a riff on penny dreadfuls with deliberately melodramatic plots, but the rich characters, the vivid descriptions, and themes of social injustice, especially institutionalized sexism, set these books apart. Yet again, Pulman gives us a female protagonist to love; a unconventional girl for her time, Sally is a clever tomboy, trained in military tactics and business management, and a penchant for attracting mystery and adventure. The series is truly a brilliant historical thriller that will keep you flipping the pages, and the characters and sinister setting are hard to forget. Thank goodness there are four of them!
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
This Victorian mystery tells the story of Gemma Doyle, who leaves her home in India to attend an English boarding school after her mother dies. While there she forms a strong friendship with three other girls; Felicity Worthington, Pippa Cross, and Ann Bradshaw. When Gemma begins experiencing clairvoyant visions, the four girls are drawn into a mystery involving a secret order of powerful women at their school, a portal into another world, and the truth about her mother’s life. This book is the first in a trilogy and is followed by Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing. It is a thrilling mystery, but it is also a story about strong female friendships and escaping the societal roles that these young women are expected to inhabit.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
This novel is based on the true story of Juana Maria, a Nicoleño Native American that was left alone for 18 years on San Nicolas Island off the cost of California during the early 19th century. The protagonist, Karana, makes a life for herself alone on the island, taking on traditionally male roles such as making spears, hunting, and building canoes. Her strength and resourcefulness on the island, despite her isolation, will be inspiring to any young adventurer.