'Rebel Girls' By Elizabeth Keenan Is A YA Novel That Tackles Abortion Stigma Head-On
Are you the kind of person whose weekend plans usually include at least one protest, march, or rally? Does your favorite playlist consist of riot grrrl music and the sweet sounds Bikini Kill? Do you know in your heart that the '90s was and will always be the best decade? Then you will love writer and feminist musicologist Elizabeth Keenan's forthcoming book Rebel Girls, a contemporary young adult novel about female friendship, sisterhood, and the fight for women's rights. It doesn't hit shelves until September, but Bustle is thrilled to reveal the cover of Rebel Girls and share an exclusive excerpt from the book, which you can check out below.
Set in 1992 in Baton Rouge, Rebel Girls tells the story of Athena Graves, an independent teen girl who is as passionate about punk rock as she is about her feminist politics. Her beliefs make her a bit of an outsider at St. Ann's, her conservative Catholic high school, but Athena would rather make mix-tapes than socialize with her peers anyways. But when a rumor starts to spread that her popular, pro-life sister had an abortion over the summer, Athena is forced to confront the student body and work hand-in-hand with Helen to convince everyone — including the administration — that it doesn't matter whether she did or didn't. Will their girl gang's protests be enough to save Helen from getting kicked out, or will their riotous behavior lead the entire girl gang to expulsion?
A punk rock protest novel about sisterhood, feminism, choice, and finding your voice, Rebel Girls is the kind of book I would have loved to read as a teen and can't wait to get my hands on even now as an adult — especially because of its kick-ass cover, which you can see below:
Am I the only one getting serious style inspo from this gorgeous book design and the jacket on its — er — jacket? While you won't be able to add this beauty to your bookshelves until Sept. 10, you can start reading an exclusive excerpt from Rebel Girls right now, below!
EXCERPT: Chapter One
At my school, the only place with any freedom from the dress code was your backpack. You could put almost anything on it, as long as it didn’t contain swear words, advertise a band the guidance counselors had arbitrarily decided wasn’t acceptable, or endorse a controversial political message. Last year, my best friend Melissa had tested those limits with a Suicidal Tendencies patch and a Planned Parenthood button. She got sent home for Planned Parenthood, which obviously violated our Catholic school’s pro-life policies, but Mrs. Turner, the guidance counselor, also expressed concern to her parents that Melissa might be calling out for help with depression. It wasn’t until she brought in a Suicidal Tendencies cassette to prove the band existed that Mrs. Turner dropped the issue.
In order to avoid Melissa’s predicament, my assemblage had to negotiate the shoals of being acceptable to authorities while signaling cool-not-poser. It was an almost impossible task.
I dumped the contents of my jewelry box onto my bed in a heap of one-inch band buttons, costume jewelry, and concert ticket stubs. I looked from the pile to my new backpack and back again, trying to figure out what belonged. My pins and patches needed to say, “I am Athena Graves. I’m cool and mysterious, not just some sophomore nerd who got bumped up into senior-level math and science classes. I have good taste in music, and I am not a phony Holden Caulfield would hate.”
In order to avoid Melissa’s predicament, my assemblage had to negotiate the shoals of being acceptable to authorities while signaling cool-not-poser.
Right now, the bright red backpack said the opposite, silent and mocking and terribly, terribly new, like I’d sat down the night before school started and carefully selected everything, instead of forging an organically coherent collection of awesome buttons. And although I was sitting down and picking out buttons the night before school started, I didn’t want anyone to know that.
'Rebel Girls' by Elizabeth Keenan
The pile of pins on my bed also felt inadequate for the task of broadcasting a relatively cool persona. I had exactly three acceptable choices: The Clash, classic, and my favorite band; Pixies, loud-soft-awesome; and Duran Duran, an unexpected, somewhat irony-driven choice. Otherwise, the buttons didn’t feel right. Prince and Madonna hung out with the B-52s, Depeche Mode, and U2 in the unfortunately middle-school pile. Sure, they might have been cool in sixth grade, or even in eighth, but now they made me look like I’d held onto them for too long — or, worse, like I’d raided the free pin bucket at the used record store.
The rest were just so mainstream. Nirvana was great last year, but now everyone liked them. Ditto with Pearl Jam. Putting a Pearl Jam button on my backpack now would be like wearing a flannel shirt in August here in Louisiana — nothing but evidence of jumping someone else’s train. And speaking of jumping someone else’s train… The Cure were out, too, because “Friday I’m in Love” had birthed a whole new generation of black-clad trend-followers.
I didn’t have anything delightfully obscure or truly cutting edge, because Baton Rouge record shops didn’t have such things, and my mail order of cool buttons and patches from the Burning Airlines catalog hadn’t shown up yet. The Blur button Melissa had given me had an awesome font, but I didn’t actually listen to them, so it would be weird and fake to put it on my backpack. There’s nothing worse than someone asking you about your button or patch and having no explanation for why it’s there other than, “I thought it looked cool.” But if you could pull that statement off without flinching, you’d definitely be cool—an arbiter of good graphic design instead of musical taste, but cool.
There was no way I was that cool.
My sister Helen twirled into our room, a bouncy ball of exuberance dressed in our school uniform. Last year, the skirt she was wearing had been mine, and would be again in about a week. But our dad had recently started his new job as a corporate attorney after years of working for nonprofits, and he’d forgotten about our back-to-school shopping until the very last Saturday before school started. Unfortunately for Helen, the store that sold our school’s uniform was out of tall-girl sizes, so she was borrowing one of my spares until her special order arrived.
On me, the skirt had hit an extra awful spot just below my knee and turned my calves into tree trunks. On Helen, it was the primary ingredient in an instant sexy Catholic schoolgirl formula, evidence of what seven inches of extra height will do for a girl.
She pranced in front of me. “Hey, Athena, how do I look?”
Like jailbait, I wanted to say, and might’ve said as recently as last week. But I stopped myself with a reminder that it wasn’t Helen’s fault that she got all the height in our family, and I was stuck at a measly five foot three.
"On me, the skirt had hit an extra awful spot just below my knee and turned my calves into tree trunks. On Helen, it was the primary ingredient in an instant sexy Catholic schoolgirl formula..."
“It’s a little…short,” I said, as diplomatically as possible.
“You’re a little short,” she said, narrowing her eyes at me. She turned back to our full-length mirror and fussed with the white Oxford shirt that completed our uniform, pulling it out so it bunched against the skirt’s waistband, creating a giant-shirt-tiny-waist juxtaposition. She struck a pose that mimicked Claudia Schiffer on the cover of the Vogue magazine sitting on her bed. The special fall fashion edition seemed to be about ninety percent ads and was so huge it was currently making a significant indentation on Helen’s fluffy comforter.
“I didn’t mean it as an insult.” I shrugged an apology at her reflection. She looked back at me with a quick glance of her wide-set blue eyes, then went back to making serious faces at herself in the mirror. “Last year, half the girls in my homeroom got sent to Sister Catherine’s office in the first week for skirts that were too short for the dress code. So you might want to have Dad write a note about your skirt being on order.”
She turned to look at me, her face wrinkled up in annoyance. “You’re such a goody-good.” Her eyes lit up when she saw the band buttons on my bed. “Hey, can I have that Pearl Jam button?”
Her hand hovered in the air, ready to snatch it from the pile.
I eyed her suspiciously. It wasn’t that Helen didn’t like Pearl Jam—she had a crush on the band’s singer, Eddie Vedder, that teetered on obsession — but there was no way she’d wear the pin in public, let alone put it on her backpack. It just wasn’t her. She was too organized for the casually arranged, haphazardly cool collection I was aiming for. She had already labeled her new school binders—all black, red, and white, our school colors — with the titles of her classes, complete with classroom number and teacher’s name, in her neat handwriting with a silver paint pen. Even her interest in fashion was methodical, with her magazines, books, and scrapbooks full of clippings carefully lined up on her bookshelf.
“Why do you want it?” I edged the Pearl Jam button closer to my jewelry box.
“You don’t like them anymore,” she said. “And I do. God, you don’t have to be so mean.”
I wasn’t being mean, just guarded. Helen was always taking things from me when I was done with them, sometimes before. And like the uniform skirt, it usually looked better on her than it did on me. I almost always felt like the prototype version of the Graves sisters’ operating system, with everything that was average about me physically turning into something unfairly exquisite with Helen. It wasn’t just her height, either—she got the cheekbones of my dreams; a version of my nose without the bump I’d acquired in a fall from a playground balance beam; and straight, wheat-blonde hair that defied the Louisiana humidity, unlike my own dirty-blonde waves, now dyed a fiery red, which turned frizzy approximately 363 days of the year. Our eyes were the only feature where we were about on an even playing ground, in that they were essentially the same size and shape. In terms of their color, I sometimes thought I’d eked out a small victory in that my eyes were a more interesting blue-green to her blue ones.
I wasn’t being mean, just guarded. Helen was always taking things from me when I was done with them, sometimes before. And like the uniform skirt, it usually looked better on her than it did on me.
I handed the pin to her anyway. At the end of the day, that pin deserved to find a home with someone who loved Pearl Jam, and that wasn’t me.
“Thanks!” Helen pinned it to her shirt and flipped her hair over her shoulder. It was the least punk-rock gesture ever.
“You can’t wear it like that at school.” I cringed at my rule-following urges. I might want to look punk rock, and be a Riot Grrrl, but my instinctive aversion for getting into trouble kept tripping me up. “Violates the dress code.”
“I know,” she said, shrugging. “I wasn’t planning to wear it to school. Or maybe I will. It might be nice to break some rules.”
“Oh, really?” I asked. “You? Breaking the rules?” Helen never broke the rules. She might gently massage them into a form more suitable to her tastes, but she never broke them, exactly.
“Oh, come on,” she said, facing me with crossed arms. “You know that the dress code is stupid. It’s designed to destroy any sense of fashion.”
She was right, but I didn’t see how pins figured into the equation. And then I noticed the fashion book on Helen’s bed was flipped open to a spotlight on Vivienne Westwood and punk fashion of the 1970s. It figured that something I viewed as a carefully cultivated expression of my innermost self would be just another fashion statement to my sister.
“You really think this skirt is too short?” Helen asked, turning back to her reflection. She tugged the skirt down around her thighs, trying to make it reach regulation length.
“Probably, but it’s too late to do anything now.” I shouldn’t have said anything. “And it really doesn’t matter, honestly. Half the cheerleaders hem theirs shorter than that, anyway.”
“Like Leah?” Helen narrowed her eyes. Leah Sullivan was my friend Sean Mitchell’s girlfriend, and stereotypically enough, captain of the cheerleading squad to his quarterback. While the rest of the cheerleaders were pretty nice and friendly, Leah was at best distantly cordial to me, and at worst a serious impediment to my commitment to the Riot Grrrl revolution’s feminist message of not trashing other girls.
“Yeah, like Leah.” I sighed.
“I’m okay, then,” she said. “No way could I look like more of a slut than she does.”
“That’s a gross word,” I said, looking up at Helen to let her know I meant it. “And also, because she’s been dating Sean for almost a year, not true. But that’s beside the point.”
Helen threw herself back on her bed with a more dramatic flair than required.
“I don’t understand what he sees in her!” Exasperation strangled her voice.
“That’s a gross word,” I said, looking up at Helen to let her know I meant it.
“Me neither.” I didn’t say what I thought Sean saw in her, which was a cute girl who would make out with him on a regular basis. My opinion flunked any kind of feminist test, though I’d often tried—and failed—to find something worthwhile in her personality, for Sean’s sake. “But why do you care?”
“I don’t,” she said, too quick and defensive for me not to notice. “I mean, he’s your friend, but she’s terrible. She’s…” Helen paused for a second, trying to come up with a concrete reason to dislike Leah, who, as far as I knew, hadn’t given much thought to Helen. “She’s not nice to Mrs. Estelle. So it’s hard not to hate her, just on principle.”
“Fair enough.” Being rude to Sean’s mom, Estelle, was something that Helen and I would never, ever consider doing, especially after how well she’d taken care of us when our parents were getting divorced. I’d never actually seen Leah being rude to her, but it certainly wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.
I looked back at my bed with a frown. The pile of buttons just wasn’t right. There was nothing to telegraph to the world that I wasn’t some weirdo obsessed with music from ten years ago. I’d thought the eighties buttons were hilarious when I bought them, but now that I had them in front of me, they seemed so not-cool.
I didn’t want my backpack to be a cheesy joke. The collection needed to be perfect, but everything rubbed the wrong way, awkward and staged instead of cool and mysterious.
I scooped the pins back into my jewelry box. Better to say nothing at all on my backpack than to say the wrong thing.
St. Ann’s Regional Diocesan Catholic High School spread out as long as its name, low to the ground in beige-painted concrete stucco. Our school was a vaguely brutalist monstrosity, especially compared to some of the other schools in town. Baton Rouge High and St. Ursula’s looked like Hollywood sets for the ideal arts school and a snobby, wood-paneled private school, respectively.
But St. Ann’s was hastily built about ten years ago to deal with the overflow of kids from Baton Rouge’s oil-based population boom. The stretched-out, single-story building gave the impression that it would soon sink back into the swamp that made most of the campus’s forty acres unusable. We no longer had a football field, since it had flooded last spring and was now referred to as a “seasonal pond.” This year’s home games were going to be at Greenlawn, a public school nearby.
Helen bounced off to find her friends, Sara and Jennifer, who were probably as excited to be starting school as she was, but more scared. I looked around for Sean and Melissa, but couldn’t find them in the crush of bodies moving toward the glass double doors at the front of the school. With seven hundred students, the everyday task of getting through the front doors was more like a mosh pit at a hardcore show than an orderly exercise in school attendance.
'Rebel Girls' by Elizabeth Keenan
“Athena! Over here!” Melissa was shouting from somewhere near the entrance. Since Melissa was a junior and I was an ambiguously scheduled sophomore, we only had two classes together this year, so the five minutes before morning assembly were crucial in our social life. Otherwise, we’d be stuck with passing notes in physics and calculus or just hanging out at lunch.
Melissa and I first met in orchestra camp the summer after I was in seventh grade. I’d been super into Depeche Mode at the time, and the day I wore one of their band T-shirts, Melissa bounded over and asked me to join her minor-key synth-pop band. Our musical tastes had changed since then, but we were always halfway into the process of starting a band that never truly materialized.
I struggled to spot Melissa’s Army Surplus backpack in the crowd. Finally, there it was, bobbing along in the opposite direction I’d expected. I swam through the sea of plaid toward that backpack. Melissa must have added a patch and a few buttons to it last night—she’d said she was going to at some point—but I was surprised she’d taken the time for backpack arts and crafts the night before school started. I would have expected her to be too busy organizing her binders by each class’s expected output of effort, then bleaching her roots so she could apply a fresh round of hair dye, most likely purple.
The new buttons aligned with my musical tastes more than Melissa’s: a large patch with the Clash, a smaller one with Green Day’s Kerplunk!, and K Records and Bikini Kill buttons. Maybe Melissa had finally switched her allegiance from the Sex Pistols to the Clash, or listened to that Bikini Kill cassette I’d sent her over the summer from my mom’s house in Eugene, Oregon, after I got super lucky and found a copy in a local record store. But K Records seemed impossible, even if Kurt Cobain had made people slightly more aware of the tiny independent record label with his tattoo of their logo. Melissa had always said that Beat Happening was fey and twee, not to mention musically incompetent. I’d tried to point out that they were fey and twee in a punk rock way, but she wasn’t having it. I wondered what had made her change her opinion over the summer. Maybe she’d met a boy.
The backpack was just out of reach. I grabbed for it, before it floated away again in the Great Plaid Sea. Or before the two-minute warning bell rang for morning assembly, whichever came first.
I wondered what had made her change her opinion over the summer. Maybe she’d met a boy.
I tugged down on her backpack. “Hey, Mel—”
The wearer of the backpack, a boy who was decidedly not Melissa, turned around and smiled at me. He wasn’t anyone I had ever seen before. He was tall and muscularly slender, with broad shoulders, almost stereotypically perfect in his proportions. His golden brown, slightly messy hair flopped into his face. It should have made him look sloppy, but instead it just drew attention to his eyes.
Oh, his eyes. Anyone could have brown eyes. Most people, statistically, did. But his eyes were a warm amber, rimmed with dark brown, like deep caramel surrounded by dark chocolate. I ignored the fact that my brain had gone straight to a food simile that reminded me of Rolos—like, I didn’t want to eat his eyeballs, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” I squeaked.
How could I have ever mistaken him for Melissa, even in this crowd? I knew there was no way she’d ever admit to liking anything by K Records. At the start of last year, Melissa and I had been the only ones with buttons and patches of the alternative kind, until grunge became popular and suddenly weird was cool and we were almost popular—or at least Melissa was. I was more “the almost popular girl’s nerdy friend.” But K Records was a step too far, and I didn’t know anyone aside from my summer friends in Eugene who even knew the label existed.
He was cute—far cuter than any of the boys at my school.
He had to be a transfer. At least I hoped he was—he couldn’t possibly be a freshman. That would be awful, because then I’d probably never see him again. It would be even worse if he was a senior. Then I would never see him, and he’d probably consider me beneath his attention.
The boy melted back into the crowd with another smile before I had a chance to ask him. The dread of the first day of school had now entirely disappeared from my thoughts, replaced with something fluttery and disorienting.