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Top Young Adult Books for Women's Studies
About ten years ago I picked up a book called "Half the Sky". Within the first chapter I read this quote: "More than 100 million women are missing..." at any given time. This is because of trafficking, gendercide, domestic violence, etc. This quote, and this book, really struck me. I mentioned it, and the PBS documentary that goes along with it, to a few of my high school students. They were interested, largely because many of the issues resonated with them personally. These students led project-based learning experiences on some of the issues and shared their final products with the school community.
One of my coworkers was particularly inspired by their projects and suggested that we start a school-wide book club on women's issues. The interest, participation, and engagement was astounding, from students of all genders and backgrounds. Over the past ten years, since this book club got its start, we have read dozens of books centering around women - women's history, women's oppression, stories of achievement, books with powerful and inspiring female characters, and more.
Girls around the world are faced with extraordinary challenges on a daily basis simply because of their gender. Have your students read these books because they are relevant, real, relatable, teach empathy, and they're interesting.
I connect these books with self-directed project-based and problem-based learning experiences. My students design and lead PBL around books that they choose to read. I have two resources that help walk students through this experience. I encourage you to check those out - Women's Studies Self-Directed Project-Based Learning and Women's Issues Community Action Projects.
I also have a project-based learning prompt to go with readings about women. This resource is free in my experiential learning resource library, along with a sample implementation schedule. Click the button below for that resource and many others.
There are so many great young adult books, and many books that celebrate and study women. I chose these specific books to add to this list because they are student favorites. Read all books yourself before reading them with kids. Consider your student population, their age and maturity level, backgrounds, etc. Not all books are appropriate for all students. Use discretion.
1. Sold, by Patricia McCormick
I love to read this book with my students because one of the themes it explores is the power of "education". This book is about a young Nepali girl who is sold to a brothel in India. It is an amazing story of perseverance. This book is not a true story but is based on the very real issue of human trafficking.
2. I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erik L. Sanchez
Many adolescents can relate to this book. Although the storyline - a young teenage girl tracking down secrets about the life of her sister who abruptly passes away - is a little out there, but the themes throughout the book are relatable, the focus being on the unreachable expectations of and pressures on girls.
3. Renting Lacy, by Cindy Coloma and Linda Tuhiwai Smith
This was a breakthrough book for my students. This book is based on a true story (true stories), and takes place in the United States. Sex trafficking is a global issue.
4. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T Kira Madden
This is another student favorite. Many of students understand the writer's situation and feelings precisely because they have experienced them first hand. They are part of the "tribe". The book is so well written, however, that even those that do not belong to the "fatherless tribe" take something profound away from this reading experience.
5. Girls Like Us, by Rachel Lloyd
This book is a memoir, a true account of the author's escape from the commercial sex industry as a child. She later founded GEMS - Girls Education and Mentoring Service - to help other young survivors in New York City. More student-directed PBL projects have come out of this book than any of the other books we have read as a group.
6. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
This is such a powerful book about race, police brutality, self-concept, voice confidence, loyalty to family and friendship, and justice, all challenges teens face everyday. All teens should read this book, but I have it on a women's studies reading list because the main character is female. Her gender identity plays an important role in the story.
7. Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld
Uglies is a book series that takes place in a dystopian future. The book chronicles Shay's required surgical transformation from "ugly" child to "stunning" adult. This book evokes dialogue about self-confidence and body image, among other things.
8. Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
Go Ask Alice was written in 1971 and is still relevant today. I first learned of this book from a student and it continues to be a favorite book club read. That is why I included it on this list. The story centers around a girl who develops a drug addiction at age 15 and runs away from home. Although it is classified as a young adult book, there is strong language as well as graphic details of abuse. Read it before reading with students.
9. Refugee, by Alan Gratz
Refugee is not even remotely centered around women's studies. The book focuses on three separate refugee stories that ultimately interconnect in some way. The three main characters are teenagers, one of which is female. Her story, although fictional, blew me away. So, this book is included on this list simply because of this character and her strength, determination, and grit.
10. A Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison
Another book about trafficking! I realize there are many of these on this list, but of all of the women's topics that we read about, my students are the most interested in trafficking.
11. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak is a powerful book about an unfortunately relatable issue; sexual abuse and rape. The main character, Melinda, is raped at a party. Throughout the course of the book she gradually comes to grips with what happened to her. She speaks out and finds her voice. This is an especially important book for young people to read, of all gender identities, in the thick of the "me to" movement.
12. I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced,
by Delphine Minoui and Nujood Ali
Nujood is married off by her father at age ten to a man in his 30's. This book is her TRUE story of child marriage, abuse, and her escape to freedom.
The following books are not young adult books and may be too much for your student population. Each of these books was added to this list because they highlight the bravery, determination, and resiliency of female characters. And my students love them.
"Half the Sky" is what started this journey for me and my students. This book is not really one that students want to read through from front to back. It's not a story; it's journalism. While I read the other books with my students I pull quotes, statistics, and personal stories from Half the Sky.
1. I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai
This memoir is the inspiring story of a young girl from Pakistan who strongly and vocally advocates for girls' education. In doing so she and her family become targets of the Taliban.
2. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
This book is not specifically about women's issues, but the book focuses on several female characters, all faced with a variety of female-centric conundrums from friendship loyalties to motherhood to female reproductive health. READ this book before reading it with students. You may not find it appropriate for your audience.
3. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
This is the story of a girl who is abandoned by her family and is left to fend for and educate herself. It's interesting for students to follow along through the various stages of her life.
4. Educated, by Tara Westover
This is an incredible true story of a girl's struggle in a violent home and the choices and sacrifices she makes to escape the abuse.
5. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
This novel takes place in a dystopian future. In this patriarchal society, women are forced into a variety of roles. The book focuses on the perspectives of these different women and the choices they make to either accept their fate or gain their independence, and at what stakes.
6. The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah
I LOVE this book. I read this book with a few of my students, and the sentiment is shared. The story about a small family that move to Alaska to start over. The father, who suffers from PTSD, is violent toward his teen daughter and wife. This is a powerful story about love, parenthood, loyalty, friendship, survival and so much more.
7. Everything Here is Beautiful, by Mira T. Lee
This is one of my favorite books right now. Everything Here is Beautiful is interesting book about mental health, several stories written from different perspectives. The main characters are sisters, one with bipolar. This topic highly resonates with my student population, but I believe it resonates with most. We have all been impacted by mental illness either directly or indirectly. Mental health is an important topic in and of itself, but I added this book to a list of books on women's studies because of its focus on sisterhood, motherhood, and women's health.
8. 1000 White Women,
I was floored when I learned that this book was based on actual historical events. 1000 white women is a really interesting book about volunteers for the "Brides for Indians" program started by the U.S. government in the 1870's. Aside from that mind-blowing foundation of the story, the side stories and pictures painted of a woman's worth and their role in 1800's America is fascinating.
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.