9 Contemporary YA Heroines To Read In A Time Of Resistance

by Kerri Jarema

The Women's March organizers recently released their fifth call to action entitled Reflect and Resist. On their website they write, "Community is key to activism, so bring your huddles, neighbors, and your march partners back together, collectively choose a book or article to read, or film to watch. Take time to reflect and, together, discuss the topics that they highlight and the issues that women experiencing multiple forms of oppression have faced and continue to face." And they have even chosen five different intersectional reads to get participants started.

This got me thinking about young adult books and their female protagonists. Partly because I am usually thinking about YA books, but also because so many of us are reading them, and looking to the female protagonists for inspiration and even sometimes guidance. I have been fortunate to read stories about so many strong women, especially in YA fantasy, who topple oppressive governments, fight powerful overlords, tackle aliens and conquering armies and invasions.

And while fantasy books are an incredibly important lens through which to see and understand our own political struggles, the books are called fantasy for a reason. It is not every woman who will be able to cast spells on Lord Voldemort's army or shoot an arrow at President Snow. And the things women are fighting against are often more subtle than what we see in a fantasy novel.

Street Harassment. Police Brutality. Wage Inequality. Racial Profiling. Social Media Trolls. Sexual Assault. Reproductive Rights.

No amount of self-defense classes can turn you into a world-feared assassin. No can of pepper spray can compare to a magic wand. And keys held between your fingers as you walk home alone at night are no sword or bow and arrow. We deal with dangers that are so immediate, so much more sinister in their quietness, so much more relevant to our every day lives.

So what do we need from our contemporary YA protagonists? We need to see women who are fighting the good fight closer to home. Who are seeing and experiencing the toxicity of the patriarchy through a personal lens, and deciding to do something about it. We need to see strength and power that comes from the very human need to change things, to keep going, to persevere even without military training or a chosen one narrative.

Because women in the real world can fight. We can protect ourselves. We can resist. We can change everything. And seeing that in our books is sometimes the first step. See some of the books from our contemporary YA resistance reading list below.


'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Angie Thomas's celebrated debut sees Starr Carter rallying against police brutality and racial profiling when her unarmed best friend Khalil is shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. The book does an incredible job of portraying the anxiety and trauma that Starr is dealing with after the murder, while also providing her with the strength and resilience necessary to fight for justice. The timely, realistic plot of the book and the authentic voices of the fiercely human characters make The Hate U Give not only important, but beautiful, and turns Starr into a modern icon for any woman in the resistance.

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'Moxie' by Jennifer Mathieu (September 19, 2017)

Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with a school administration at her small-town Texas high school that thinks the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes, hallway harassment, and gross comments from guys during class. She takes a inspiration from her 90s Riot Grrrl mom and creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. As Viv forges friendships with other young women across the divides of cliques and popularity rankings, she realizes that what she has started is nothing short of a girl revolution. This book shows young women trying to take back their day to day from the seemingly small injustices that add up to the one big whole of sexism, taking a cue from resisters that came before them.

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'Exit, Pursued By A Bear' by E.K. Johnston

Hermione Winters is captain of her cheerleading team, and in tiny Palermo Heights, they are the sports team — the pride and joy of the town. But during a camp party, someone slips something in her drink. And it all goes black. In every class, there's a star cheerleader and a pariah pregnant girl. They're never supposed to be the same person. Hermione struggles to regain the control she's always had and faces a wrenching decision about how to move on. Exit, Pursed By A Bear has been celebrating not only for exploring the very real affects of slut-shaming and victim-blaming, but for also showing a different aftermath to rape and sexual assault; one that shows a woman reclaiming the power that was physically taken from her, surrounded by a strong support system that offers compassion and understanding instead of blame and suspicion.

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'The Female Of The Species' by Mindy McGinnis

Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and the killer walked free, Alex got her revenge. While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people. But during her senior year, circumstances bring her together with Jack, the star athlete and valedictorian and Peekay, a preacher's daughter. A party one night sets the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever. This is an unapologetic book that will jump start conversations about today’s youth, feminism and how we view the sexuality and treatment of women in general. While there are certainly aspects of this book that lean more toward to unrealistic (of course, no one would condone the murder that the main protagonist, Alex, commits) this dark and brutal book takes an unflinching look at rape culture, slut-shaming and the long-lasting effects of sexual assault; not just for the victims, but for those who are close to them.

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'Juliet Takes A Breath' by Gabby Rivera

Juliet Milagros Palante is leaving the Bronx and headed to Portland, Oregon. She just came out to her family and isn’t sure if her mom will ever speak to her again. But Juliet has a plan, sort of, one that’s going to help her figure out this whole “Puerto Rican lesbian” thing. She’s interning with the author of her favorite book: Harlowe Brisbane, the ultimate authority on feminism, women’s bodies, and other gay-sounding stuff. Will Juliet be able to figure out her life over the course of one magical summer? Is that even possible? Or is she running away from all the problems that seem too big to handle? With more questions than answers, Juliet takes on Portland, Harlowe, and most importantly, herself. This book explores what it means to be Latinx and queer in such an authentic, unflinching way as to feel almost revolutionary.

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'Bad Romance' by Heather Demetrios (June 13, 2017)

This book tackles dating abuse through the eyes of a young woman who has found her way out and is looking back to see where everything went wrong. Sixteen-year-old Grace is a girl who wants out of her house and away from her abusive mother and stepfather. She has ambitions that transcend the California town where she lives and she wants to move to New York City or Paris — pretty much anywhere besides her hometown. But then the charming and talented Gavin enters the picture. When he falls in love with her, she can't believe it. But soon their relationship takes a twisted turn, She has no idea their relationship will be a prison she's unable to escape. We follow Grace as she fights to find the strength to stop her spiral into darkness and re-emerge into the light.

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'Done Dirt Cheap' by Sarah Nicole Lemon

Billed as Sons of Anarchy meets Thelma and Louise, Done Dirt Cheap turns YA bad girls tropes on their heads for a book about fierce female friendships and finding your own power. Tourmaline Harris’s life hit pause at fifteen, when her mom went to prison because of Tourmaline’s unintentionally damning testimony. But at eighteen, her home life is stable, and she has a strong relationship with her father, the president of a local biker club known as the Wardens. Virginia Campbell’s life hit fast-forward at 15, when her mom “sold” her into the services of a local lawyer: a man for whom the law is merely a suggestion. When Hazard sets his sights on dismantling the Wardens, he sends in Virginia, who has every intention of selling out the club — and Tourmaline. But the two girls are stronger than the circumstances that brought them together, and it is their resilience that will define them.

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'The Education Of Margot Sanchez' by Lilliam Rivera

After stealing her father’s credit card to finance a more stylish wardrobe, Margot Sanchez suddenly finds herself grounded for the summer, forced to work in her family’s struggling grocery store to pay off her debts. With each order of deli meat she slices, Margot can feel her carefully cultivated prep school reputation slipping through her fingers, and she’s willing to do anything to get out of this punishment. Lie, cheat, and maybe even steal…Margot’s invitation to the ultimate beach party is within reach and she has no intention of letting her family’s drama or Moises — the admittedly good-looking but outspoken boy from the neighborhood — keep her from her goal. And though Margot is far from perfect, she rails against the toxic machismo culture of her Latino father and brother, and comes to learn more about the negative impacts of gentrification.

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'When Dimple Met Rishi' by Sandhya Menon (May 30, 2017)

Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right? Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people, Rishi wants to be arranged. He believes in the power of tradition and stability. When opposites clash, things get interesting. Though this heartfelt rom-com is about arranged marriage, Dimple rails against expectations at every turn, choosing coding over boyfriends, choosing not to wear the makeup her mother foists upon her, choosing to ignore expectations and live her life by her own rules.

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