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This week’s question was suggested by one of our readers:
Here’s what they said…
I’m always a bit taken aback when I get a question like this, because my response is that young teenage girls that read at an advanced level should read, well, everything! At that point I was certainly still reading books that would be classified as young adult — but heading over to the science fiction and fantasy section whenever I could, and loving just about everything, the more epic and unrealistic, the better. (The one exception was The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, which I may have been a bit young for; I ended up loving Donaldson’s other, later stuff.) So I advise the same to any young teenage girl — go. Explore. Read whatever looks interesting. Some of it will suck. Some of it will make you babble endlessly to friends and family. Some of it will change your world.
Specific recommendations? That’s also tricky, without knowing what the girl might be looking for — epic? Funny? Romantic? I quite liked Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore series; Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Steverner, an amusing blend of magic and humor, and Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Deerskin, for fairy tale lovers, and nearly anything by William Sleator for science fiction fans. More recent young adult books that I can recommend include Inara Scott’s The Candidates, an entertaining superpowered high school tale; Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns, set in a land somewhat inspired by Spain, with a heroine who slowly learns how awesome she is; Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, which I can’t talk about without spoiling; Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, ditto (but definitely start this series in the beginning); Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker, about a timid girl about to make a journey into a fabulous jungle. Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose still haunts me.
For those wanting to jump into adult stories — that was when I found Samuel Delany, Nancy Springer, J.R.R. Tolkien, Joe Haldeman, Douglas Adams, Julian May, Joan Vinge, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, Lucy Maud Montgomery (I highly recommend seeking out her five volumes of journals) and other novelists that I really can’t exactly recommend, you understand. But it was a feast of reading, and something I encourage all readers to do: just explore, since this list is self evidently woefully incomplete.
I’m interpreting the question as meaning books with content suitable for young teenage readers (12-15) in which both the language and the ideas are reasonably challenging. At that age I was reading adult fiction along with some books aimed at young adults, and my parents let me make my own mistakes over reading choices. So there may be material in some of the books I recommend that some parents and/or librarians would think too ‘adult’ for readers at the lower end of the young adult age range.
The most obvious choices are classics of their genres. In science fiction, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – a thought-provoking novel that offers no easy answers. The sequels are less well suited to younger readers.
In fantasy I’d suggest Patricia McKillip’s books, perhaps starting with The Riddle-Master of Hed. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen, a version of the Sleeping Beauty story set in the Holocaust, is a challenging but rewarding read. Then there’s Ursula K Leguin’s Earthsea sequence.
Some novels by contemporary writers that I can highly recommend: Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, a novel for young adults set in New Zealand, with a wonderful, if unlikely, female protagonist and Maori mythology woven skilfully into a suspenseful story. A great read. Nation by Terry Pratchett. Thornspell by Helen Lowe, another New Zealand writer and, in fact, another Sleeping Beauty-based novel, with a considerable twist. Possibly, the recent novel by Margo Lanagan, The Brides of Rollrock Island (published in Australia as Sea Hearts) but this comes with a caveat: Lanagan’s work is extremely dark, and suited only to readers who are used to challenging material and adult concepts. She has also published several books of short stories. Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, an intriguing version of the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, set in an Alaskan research station.
I have a new book coming out later this year, Shadowfell, which is a YA/adult crossover with a fifteen year old female narrator, set in an uncanny version of ancient Scotland. It’s a gritty and challenging story about tyranny and rebellion, ideal for the readership we’re discussing. Readers in this age group will also enjoy my earlier novels Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret which have historical settings and young female narrators – both are quite substantial in content.
Interestingly enough, I used to run a book club for teen girls. So, the subject is near and dear to me. The judgement that if it’s written for teens the themes must be simplistic is erroneous, by the way. Even The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud (which is marketed as a Middle-grade) is richly woven with sophisticated ethics and social commentary. It’s all in how deeply one reads. If you’re asking about adult speculative fiction that I’d recommend, it wouldn’t be much different than fiction I’d recommend to anyone else. Females don’t put upon themselves the limitations to reading that male readers often do. (I’ve seen it, having worked in a bookstore for six years.) Girls read anything.
That said, here are my recommendations. First, I always push The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It’s important to understand why certain laws are in place. If you don’t understand, you’re more likely to let things slip without understanding the consequences. The Handmaid’s Tale contains themes that are extremely fitting for the current socio-political climate — frighteningly so. Atwood’s book is important, regardless of personal taste. If the readers in question enjoy dystopian fiction, I’d recommend Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. If they want to venture into post-apocalyptic fiction, I’d say read The Postman by David Brin and Green Angel by Alice Hoffman first. Because post-apocalyptic as a genre tends to assume that women can’t survive as anything but a commodity and/or aren’t worthy of survival. Therefore, it’s a good idea to see two novels that don’t assume women exist only at the sufferance of men and technology and good manners — that women wouldn’t have anything to contribute to rebuilding civilisation. The truth is, the world couldn’t be rebuilt without women playing an active role. Period. We actively helped build this one, after all. Just because society pretends otherwise doesn’t change the facts.
In fantasy and urban fantasy, I’d mention the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, anything by Charles de Lint, the Borderlands anthologies and novels, anything by Holly Black, Ellen Kushner, Betsy James, Francesca Lia Block, Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, Octavia Butler, Terry Pratchett, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, Cherie Priest, N.K. Jemisin, and Elizabeth Moon. If they’re into vampires, I’d have to point out Nancy Collins and Charlie Huston. (But then, vampires fall under horror for me.) Also, I can’t help mentioning The Princess Bride by William Goldman. As much as the film is a comfort when I’m stressed or sick, the book is a totally different experience. It’s funny and sarcastic and marvelous. It also rips the traditional princess fairy tale a new orifice.
In sci-fi, I’d talk about The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, God’s War by Kameron Hurley and Push of Sky a short story collection by Camille Alexa. Then there’s The Laundry series by Charlie Stross. (Although it rests on the border between fantasy and sci-fi.) Elizabeth Moon should be on this list too because Speed of Dark is amazing. Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is great fun. Under the old school category, I’d have to go with Ray Bradbury, C.J. Cherryh (specifically Cyteen and The Faded Sun series) also Dune by Frank Herbert. I’m behind on my sci-fi reading, I’m afraid. Jo Clayton’s Skeen series is on my list, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.
For these reasons I don’t believe adult books that check the other criteria should be excluded from the list, especially as the premise is advanced readers. That means young women with a good vocabulary, who are already putting two and two together about the world around them, and most likely have a high level of intellectual curiosity. But who still want to have fun (nods to Cyndi Lauper)–so yes, absolutely, to adventure, magic, and characters who think outside the square. But we’re talking young teen women, which means that romance, while not a prerequisite, is definitely a bonus. Again, I don’t think having a female protagonist is an absolute, but I do believe it is affirming for young women to have some female protagonists to identify with. So that is another important criterion for the list.
Obviously if I were making a list for a specific teen girl then I would take her particular interests into consideration. So a young woman who loved baking for instance–well, I’d be strongly inclined to add Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, just for the descriptions of the food! If she were big into archery though, then The Hunger Games would be a shoe-in.
But now, the list, which is a kind of Top Ten, starting with the McKs:
– Patricia McKillip’s The Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy, for the depth of the story and beauty of the language, but particularly the second book, Heir of Sea and Fire, with its strong friendship between the three female protagonists Raederle, Lyra and Tristan.
– Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword because of the world building and the character of Angharad/Hari, who learns that the hardest part of being a damalur-sol (lady hero) is standing up for what you believe to be right, even if it means standing alone.
– Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight–although I admit it was a toss-up with The Ship Who Sang–because there are dragons! And the romance–but mainly on account of Lessa, the main character, who is strong and smart but also very human, i.e. she’s far from perfect but that, of course, makes her very real.
– Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn. Again, this was a toss-up with Dragonsbane, but The Ladies of Mandrigyn won out because of the contrasting characters of Star Hawk, the woman warrior, and Fawn, who has probably never picked up a sword in her life, and the wonderful “band of sisters,” Sheera Galernas and the eponymous ladies of Mandrigyn–while not leaving out the equally strong male character of Sun Wolf.
– Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts’ Daughter of the Empire–again because of the world building and the array of wonderful characters, but mostly due to the main character, Mara, who is a smart, courageous survivor, when survival is dependent on thinking outside the square.
– Ru Emerson’s The Princess of Flames–this isn’t a book or a writer you hear a lot about now but it’s such a great story, with fascinating characters, and Elfrid is a wonderful heroine: a young woman forced to become a soldier of fortune, who feels very ‘real’ both emotionally and in that role.
– Katherine Kerr’s Daggerspell–speaking of young women soldiers of fortune, I can’t go past the young silver dagger, but also dweomer adept, Gill. I also love Kerr’s Celtic world of Deverry and intriguing magic (dweomer), as well as her fascinating take on elves and dwarves. And did I say–great story!
– Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass–Lyra Belacqua, an alternate Oxford, daemons and panzer bjorn and Finnish witches: I probably need say no more. Except there’s also that fascinating exploration of repressive religious orthodoxy in the form of Mrs Coulter, and unbridled free will in the guise of Lord Asriel…
– Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet–Tamora Pierce has written so many good stories, all series, and every follower has their favourites. Mine are the Lioness quartet, about Alanna, the young woman who decides to become a knight–and is also a mage–and disguises herself as a boy to do so, and The Protector of the Small series. The latter features Keladry, a young woman who also pursues the knightly path, only not in disguise and without the mage powers. But I opted for Alanna because it is the first series and the best introduction to Pierce’s Tortall world.
– Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book–needless to say, there were so many contenders for the tenth spot, but in the end I went with Willis because history is one of my great loves and I particularly like the way she has interwoven historical realism with speculative fiction. And perhaps because I’ve realised–a little guiltily–that my list is weighted toward Fantasy and The Doomsday Book is a classic work of SFF.
And those other books jostling for a place–they include Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Elizabeth A Lynn’s The Watchtower, Frank Herbert’s Dune,
Olaf Stapleden’s Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, Joan Vingt’s The Snow Queen, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
A whole raft of great stories and all standout genre in some way–because of their world building, their characters, their asking of the “what if?” questions–or all of the above. Any young woman of 13 to 15 years reading them could expect to find herself entertained and engaged, but also, I hope, with plenty to chew on in terms of food for thought.