I discovered Sarah’s blog last year and immediately became one of my go-to places to find book recommendations, insightful discussions and more recently, a must-listen podcast. Also, her mom is one of her co-bloggers!
The Other Brave Girls of YA by Sarah from Clear Eyes, Full Shelves
Being a teenage girl is hard, and sometimes the bravest choices aren’t whether to pick a faction a la Divergent’s Tris, but rather the bravest choice is that of living one’s own truth.
This is something that today’s YA authors do very, very well. They acknowledge that growing up is hard; that young people often deal with grown-up problems all alone; that secrets are kept, that lies are told; that family and friendship are often messy. The fictional teen heroines who tackle realistic challenges in YA novels aren’t often labeled as “brave” girls, like Katniss, Cassie and Tris, but in my eyes, they’re the most courageous.
I’ve highlighted twelve (I tried to limit myself to ten, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be) brave heroines from the YAverse whose personal journeys speak to the struggle of finding their path. I’ve actually omitted a few of my favorites, because I think they’re quite well-known already. The Jessica Darling series, for example, is one of my favorites in terms of the messy realism of growing up. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks is another that’s quite popular which would definitely qualify as a brave YA heroine, the same with multi-award winning author Sara Zarr’s heroines.
However, I wanted to make sure that I shined a light on some YA heroines you may not have heard of, who bravely forge ahead amidst family challenges, friendship failures, finding community, conflicts over the future and the aftermath traumatic experiences--the struggles real teen girls face every day.
Megan, Miracle by Elizabeth Scott - Miracle was probably the most under-the-radar YA novel of 2012 and it--and its remarkable heroine Megan--deserves to have a bright light shined on it whenever possible. Megan is the lone survivor of a plane crash and has been dubbed, “Miracle Megan.” Living life as a teenage miracle is unbelievably difficult, especially when coupled with her intense survivor’s guilt. Despite her supportive family, Megan feels marooned and alone, except when she’s with Joe, a boy who’s life is filled with a different kind of darkness (he’s also got a Tim Riggins vibe going on). While the romance is a secondary story, they way these two characters find light together really lingers. Miracle is the best kind of survival story.
Carly, Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar - Raw Blue is one of those books that sticks long after you finish reading it. While the plot setup is a familiar one, this Australian novel is unique in its voice and execution. Carly, our heroine, has escaped to Sydney’s north beaches, taking solace in surfacing and hiding from the memories of something terrible. Carly’s journey to being able to move forward again is bolstered by the sensitive portrayal of her tentative relationship with fellow surfer Ryan. This is one of the “quietest” novels I’ve read, but Carly’s journey is, cheesy as it may sound, inspiring.
Coley, Live Through This by Mindi Scott - Coley, the teenage narrator of Mindi Scott’s sophomore novel, has kept a big secret for years, a secret that threatens the fabric of her seemingly perfect life. When she begins a relationship with a sweet boy, her secrets become harder and harder to keep. Coley is one of the bravest characters I can recall and Live Through This is a brave book, one that’s unflinching in addressing why secrets are kept and just how hard confronting the truth really is.
Amber, The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder - Lisa Schroeder writes quiet, sensitive stories that work for me--stories I wish I had when I was a teenager. (I grew up in the time of Sweet Valley High, which was not at all my thing.) The Day Before is my hands-down favorite of her novels, as it follows Amber, a teen who’s life is poised to change in a big way, the day before it all happens. She escapes for a day on the Oregon coast where she meets Cade, who’s facing a big moment himself. It sounds strange, but Amber’s fear of the unknown is what makes her so memorable--it’s simply real, even though her circumstances are uncommon. If you love the movie Before Sunrise, you must read The Day Before.
Mattie, A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly - Jennifer Donnelly’s multi-award-winning historical novel probably isn’t under any YA reader’s radar, but it’s still known widely known outside those circles and I had to sneak it into this contemporary/realistic-heavy list. Mattie is one of my favorite heroines in any category. Gutsy, smart, bookish, devoted and pragmatic, she struggles with the choice of chasing her dream of college in New York City versus her obligations to her family in upstate New York. Though firmly rooted in her historical context, Mattie is a thoroughly relatable character on many levels, as she wrestles with life-defining choices.
Imogen, Bruised by Sarah Skilton - Sarah Skilton’s debut novel about a teen martial artist explores the nexus between physical strength and emotional strength. Imogen witnesses a hold-up gone bad, resulting in the death of the man attempting to rob a diner. As a Tae Kwon Do black belt, she feels responsibility to that man, than she should have saved him, rather than hiding in fear. Imogen’s journey is one filled with the question, “What does it mean to be ‘strong’?”
Devan, The Reece Malcolm List by Amy Spalding - Devan has been shipped off to live with the mother she never knew following the death of her father--but don’t worry, this isn’t another grief book. Instead, this is Devan’s story of finding “her people” at a performing arts high school and figuring out a definition of family that works for her. I love that Spalding let Devan work through the discomfort and awkwardness of the parent relationship in a way that feels real. One of my biggest complaints about YA is that the parent-child relationships are often a bit too cookie cutter, and in The Reece Malcolm List it’s completely fresh and believable.
Hudson, Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler - I could have picked any of Sarah Ockler’s girls for this list--her novels are typified by realistic personal growth, which is why I think she’s one of the best at what she does. I have a soft spot for Hudson, who’s living on the outskirts of Buffalo, working in her family’s restaurant and obsessing over lost dreams. Hudson is forced to ask a lot of questions that we all have to address: Do I stay or go? Should I cling to what I know or venture into something scary? Do I kiss the cute hockey or that other cute hockey player? I’m particularly interested in the portrayal of friendships in YA, and Hudson’s relationship with her best friend is one of the most authentic I’ve read. Bittersweet often gets labeled as “cute,” “light” or “fluffy” and while it has sweetness and humor, Hudson’s journey is a fairly weighty one, one that a lot of readers will recognize from their own teen years.
Natalie, Not That Kind of Girl by Siobhan Vivian - There’s a special place in my heart for rigid, Type-A characters. Ahem. Natalie, from Siobhan Vivian’s is an archetypical perfectionist control freak who thinks she has all the answers. This novel follows Natalie’s journey as she figures out that life is messy, complicated and that no one fits into the tidy boxes she tries to place them in--including herself. (I also highly recommend Vivian’s The List, which explores the impact of labels on eight different girls.)
Caitlin, Hold Still by Nina LaCour - There are a lot of my best friend died novels in the YAverse and, frankly, most of them don’t work for me. Hold Still is a big exception. Caitlin is a brilliantly-developed character struggling to understand why her best friend Ingrid killed herself. She chooses to isolate herself in the wake of this devastation, and Hold Still explores her reluctant struggle to build a new life without Ingrid, ultimately allowing herself to open up to new experiences and friendships.
Leah, Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols - I always think that everyone has heard of and read Jennifer Echols, since she has an extensive backlist. However, I’m alway surprised that her novels are often omitted from lists of girl-positive, sex-positive YA fiction. I’m on a mission to change that. My favorite Echols novel is Such a Rush, about a girl airplane pilot who lives in a trailer park next to a small airport in South Carolina. She’s paid for years of flying lessons thanks to a job at the airport and dreams of being a commercial pilot. Leah’s carefully constructed a prickly persona for herself, hard as nails and reluctant to let anyone get close. When the owner of the company she works for dies unexpectedly, her big dreams are threatened and she fears she’ll become the girl everyone believes her to be. Taking place over a very short period of time, Such a Rush is very much about the journey toward adulthood--and the romance is fantastic.
Callie, Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller - I’m going to be a tremendous jerk and talk about a book that’s not out yet, but I read an early copy of Trish Doller’s sophomore novel and can’t get Callie’s story out of my head. Callie was abducted by her mother as a child and has lived life on the run. When she’s suddenly thrown into her father’s family in Tarpon Springs, Florida, she’s torn between loyalty to her mother and the attractiveness of her new life. Where the Stars Still Shine addresses some weighty issues from Callie’s past, but life the other novels I’ve mentioned on this list, her journey feels so real for her character. While I’m often not a big fan of the trauma recovery via romance trope, in this book it’s absolutely spot on as Callie’s relationship with the older, also-troubled Alex plays an important role in her ability to find the right path forward in her life.
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