April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

American Girls | Historical Fiction Featuring Feisty Females


Looking for strong female characters in tales steeped in period detail to recommend for Women’s History Month? Share these exciting new young adult novels and short stories with your patrons.

tyranny of petticoatsTwo sisters tending bar in the wilds of Alaska. A Union supporter desperate to discover the Confederate spy in her midst. A World War II factory worker struggling with complicated feelings toward a fellow riveter. Compelling tales of young women in critical circumstances pepper A Tyranny of Petticoats (Candlewick, March, 2016; Gr 7 Up), edited by Jessica Spotswood, with contemporary superstar authors Beth Revis, Marie Lu, Marissa Meyer, Kekla Magoon, Elizabeth Wein, and others, exploring the female experience in America across the centuries in 15 stories.

The strongest tales in the anthology explore little-known periods in our history. In Y.S. Lee’s “The Legendary Garrett Girls,” the aforementioned sisters running a gold rush saloon face extortion and ruin at the hand of a brutal outlaw. Desperate to escape their situation, the pair exert physical—and intellectual—courage to outsmart the man determined to destroy their lives. In a few stories, historical figures such as sharpshooter Annie Oakley and aviatrix Bessie Coleman make an appearance, enriching fictional scenes of our country’s past. Surprisingly, not all of the entries in the collection are realistic in nature; monsters lurk in several selections. In Leslye Walton’s “Destinos,” a trio of sisters in 1840s Texas are merely disguising themselves as human, while serving a more sinister purpose. And in Andrea Cremer’s “High Stakes,” set against the backdrop of slavery and the Civil War, fantasy meets historical fact.

The most fascinating aspects of all the stories, though, are found in the characters’ relationships. Whether they’re young protesters or debutantes on opposing sides of the Civil War, these characters offer well-developed portraits of female bravery, friendship, and romance. The collection is a collage of sisterly—both biological and sentimental—power. And while great attention is paid to period detail, it’s the engrossing narratives that will keep readers turning the pages. Share Petticoats with fans of young adult and historical fiction, and don’t hesitate to suggest it to fantasy fans, who may also find themselves being drawn into this compelling title.

outrun the moonEarly 20th-century San Francisco is the setting of Stacey Lee’s Outrun the Moon (Putnam, 2016; Gr 7 Up). There, in the crowded Chinatown neighborhood, Mercy Wong and her family live in poverty. According to her mother, who tells fortunes, Mercy’s high cheekbones are indicative of a bossy nature, one that will get her what she wants in life. Inspired by a book written by a successful Texan businesswoman, the plucky 15-year-old sees education as a way to help her family and is determined to become a student at the prestigious St. Clare’s School. With a little luck, persuasion, and just a bit of bribery, she manages to get accepted, despite the racist and classist attitudes of the period.

Once she becomes a student at the girls’ school, though, Mercy’s real problems begin. As she struggles to assimilate, she finds herself at odds with her roommate and the rigid headmistress. However, her academic and social issues pale in comparison to the trouble to come—the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. When it strikes, Mercy and the other students at the school, along with others, encamp in the local park.

This fascinating tale of the life of a young Chinese girl in the early 20th century is filled with period and cultural insights and is a must-read for Women’s History Month. Mercy is strong-willed, flawed, yet lit from within with a passion to help her family and those who have experience both loss and grief in the wake of the earthquake. Supporting characters form a vibrant cast of able young women in the novel. Faced with adversity, the girls ban together to comfort one other and those left homeless. While Mercy is at the forefront of the girls’ efforts to help while they await public assistance, the contributions, stamina, and determination of her fellow students are also celebrated within the narrative.

A Madness So Discrett MCGINNISFrom Mindy McGinnis comes a period Gothic thriller, A Madness So Discreet (Katherine Tegen Books/Putnam, 2015; Gr 7 up). Grace Mae has been committed to a horrific, 19th-century Boston asylum because of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. There, haunted by family secrets and her emotional pain, the young woman refuses to speak. During an incident with the abusive institution’s staff, Grace reacts violently and loses her child, after which she is confined to a basement. The teen is discovered there by the visiting Dr. Thornhollow and secreted away to a humane facility in Ohio, where she finds clean beds, meaningful work, and caring, compassionate nurses. But the young woman soon realizes that she has been transferred there for a reason—and her work with the mysterious doctor leads her into society’s underbelly.

As Grace works as an assistant to one of the earliest precursors to forensic science, she is witness to the violent crimes that have been taking place around town, including a string of murders that seem to be the work of a serial killer. Her own talents of observation and analysis make her an asset to the doctor, whom she assists during the night while continuing to heal at the asylum by day. Their partnership is cordial, though occasionally prickly, as the two chase down potential leads.

Grace is bound to the doctor, but her most interesting relationships are those forged with the other patients in the asylum. While her elective silence could have been interpreted as disdain or dysfunction, two fellow patients adopt her into their circle. The girls are nurturing yet all the while struggling with their own psychological and physical issues. A Madness So Discreet traces their journeys as well, and the connections the three characters form are the heart and soul of the book.

Women’s History Month is an ideal time to display and booktalk these female-powered reads. These compelling short stories and novels will have teens thinking about the lives of women in earlier periods in American history, as they relish the poignant bonds created by the characters.

Erinn Black Salge is the librarian at Saint Peter’s Prep, a Jesuit high school for boys. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and their boxer named Cooper. Her last article for Curriculum Connections, Dark Descents: Chilling Tales for Teens, was published in our October, 2015 issue. 

Curriculum Connections

This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.