Female Characters with Stories to Tell
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
Nelson's latest book, I'll Give You the Sun, won the Printz award, but her debut is also well worth reading. Lennie's sister has died suddenly, and Lennie is struggling with her grief while also experiencing her first love. She also is trying to find her sense of individual self after spending most of her life happily playing sidekick to that sister. That may sound depressing, but this book is hopeful and engrossing, and Lennie's voice feels both like that of a real persons and also fully individual.
Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin
I've never read a better description of the oft-competitive nature of a certain kind of friendship than this book. Rachel and Darcy have been best friends since childhood, but then Rachel sleeps with Darcy's fiance. All summer.
That makes this book sound lurid and trashy, but it's not at all! It's about denying what you want because you think you aren't good enough and having a job you don't enjoy because it's what you're "supposed" to do and how following the rules your whole life might not actually make you happy.
Rachel certainly isn't perfect and sometimes I want to scream at her to assert herself, but that's why I love this book so much -- because Rachel feels like a real person making real choices, which includes making mistakes!
If you want a more "literary" approach to the competitive friendship angle, I'm going to be the billionth person to recommend Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend.
A Midsummer's Nightmare by Kody Keplinger
This is a very different book, with a very different narrator, than the above books. No one would ever mistake Whitley Johnson for a "good girl" -- she has a bad reputation and doesn't really care. What she cares about is her summers, which she's spent with her dad since her parents got divorced.
Until this summer, which she has to spend with her dad... and his fiancee and her kids. One of whom happens to be her one-night stand from graduation night. It's hard to like Whitley at the beginning of the book, but as you spend time with her, you begin to understand why she acts the way she does. Whitley's family, especially her relationship with her mother, is very different from what is often depicted in fiction, but felt very real.
Pointe by Brandy Colbert
In some ways. Pointe could be considered an "issue" book - Theo's best friend was kidnapped four years ago, right after her boyfriend left town, and in the aftermath, her parents sent her to a live-in clinic to deal with her anorexia. But Theo's also just a girl, dealing with the competitive pressure of the ballet she loves and an inappropriate crush on a guy with a girlfriend and being one of the only black kids in town.
This book really stuck with me - Theo has a lot on her plate and doesn't always make the "right" choice, but she's doing the best she can.
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Unlike the other books on this list, this story is historical fiction, but Mattie, like all the women in these books, has a deeply personal story to tell. Inspired by the same story as Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, this book is about a maid at a hotel who possesses letters that could solve the murder of a hotel guest.
But Mattie is not just a maid: She has dreams of continuing her education and writing books, but she's stuck at her farm taking care of her sisters because her mother is dead and her brother ran off. The setting of this book is compelling and feels real to the time, and Mattie's struggles are emotionally powerful.
My Heartbeat by Garret Freyman-Weyr
It should be hard to call a Printz nominee underrated, but this book is. Ellen is a high school freshman in love with her brother Link's best friend, James. It's never been a problem, until a friend at school asks if Link and James are a couple. Are they?
James and Link and their parents have different answers to that question, and in the course of investigating what love is and should be, Ellen also attempts to find her own interests - her own heartbeat. I love love love this book and want everyone to read it. And then read all the books Ellen reads over the course of the novel, starting with The Age of Innocence, starring her namesake.
Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour takes a different angle. It's an engrossing story about a young woman in Hollywood for the summer working as a set designer while trying to stay away from the ex-girlfriend she keeps taking back.
This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales
Elise has never really fit in at school. She doesn't understand the rules and everyone picks on her and she has nothing. Until she finds Start, an underground dance club. There, people like her and even trust her.
DJing becomes her next big project. She's always been precocious and good with projects. The problem is that the world doesn't like precocious - the world likes ordinary people. This book is about bullying and trying and failing to fit in, but it's also about a girl struggling to find her place in the world.