Defiant Damsels of Historical Fiction

Petworth LibraryStaff Picks

Defiant Damsels of Historical Fiction

These gritty grrrls defy the damsel in distress trope!

Young people's literature is filled with characters of emotional depth and range, internal conflict, conviction, and courage that impressionable young girls can relate to and/or draw inspiration from. As this is the season for doling out awards to film, TV, and books, I am sharing my favorite historical fiction books teeming with gritty grrrls and intrepid womenfolk who defy the "damsel in distress" trope despite their complicated circumstances. Readers of all ages, genders, and cultures can appreciate these previous award winning or award nominated titular titans due to their literary prowess! 

Ms. Tea's Choices for Children's Historical Fiction...

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
A turn of the century tale of the bright and funny eleven-year-old Calpurnia Virginia Tate, who shuns the expected female domestic responsibilities and rethinks her potential due to her budding interest in the natural sciences. Forging a bond with her gruff grandfather through travel, a shared appreciation of the natural world, and scientific discovery, young Callie endeavors to establish a new possibility for her future within a family and a larger society that does not share her enthusiasm or hope for opposing the status quo.  

The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle
A poetic rendering based on the diaries of the real Swedish suffragette pioneer, Fredrika Bremer, and her life-altering journey to Cuba in 1851. The Firefly Letters highlights three suppressed female voices: Bremer, who rejected a life of privilege to advocate for women’s rights; her real-life translator, pregnant African slave Cecilia; and a fictional character Elena, twelve-year-old daughter of a wealthy merchant who befriends and is emboldened by them. A worthy read, this emotive narrative focuses on the risky trials and bold triumphs the women experience as they bond despite the barriers of language and culture.

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher S. Curtis
Meet the Mighty Miss Deza Malone, a special young lady who makes her first cameo in Curtis' award-winning book, Bud, Not Buddy. An avid writer and logophile, (lover of words) Deza Malone is a perky twelve-year-old destined for greatness! Despite the tough times for African-Americans in the 1930s, Deza is a loyal friend and loves her unique and beleaguered family. Together, the family tries to stay encouraged with their motto: “We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful!” When Deza is unexpectedly alienated from the people and places she cares about, she recognizes that everyone is struggling in their own way to make lives for themselves as they weather the highs and lows of America’s Great Depression. My compliments to Mr. Curtis for further developing young Deza into a memorable character whose pluckiness and personality well-earned her own story of pathos and pleasure. 

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Tough field worker by day, adventure tale lover by night, Minli embarks upon a long journey from her home in the Valley of Fruitless Mountain to seek a way to improve the lives of her impoverished, ailing family. Inspired by her father’s fantastic bedtime stories of the legendary Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon, (and convinced that they actually exist), dauntless Minli is determined to discover the wise Old Man and ask him how her family can change their fortune. During her odyssey, Minli becomes acquainted with an assortment of clever characters and magical creatures, including a remarkable dragon who joins her noble quest. Grace Lin penned a Chinese folktale-inspired, Wizard of Oz-esque tale that will enrapture and enamor its readers.

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon
Simon and Bond have applied their respective expertise in anthropology and creative writing with collective knowledge of the life of their favorite author/ethno-anthropologist, the much celebrated Zora Neale Hurston! Using their literary imaginations, these co-authors cast twelve-year-old Zora, (already a gifted and inventive storyteller), along with a fictionalized best friend-narrator, as characters in this tale of friendship, secrets, mystery and southern lore set in Hurston's beloved Eatonville, Florida in the early 1900s. With an excellent concept, narrative tone, and imagery, there are plenty of Hurston-inspired creative possibilities with these characters, their southern community and this historical period to spawn a sequel. 

Ms. Tea's Choice for Young Adults...

Chains by Laurie H. Anderson
This is an edge-of-your-seat, teeth-grinding tale set during the period of the American Revolutionary War. Young sisters Ruth and Isabel are promised freedom upon the death of their owner. Unfortunately, they become the hapless property of Mr. and Mrs. Lockton of New York City, abusive, redcoat-sympathizing, anti-Revolutionist slave-owners who cruelly separate the pair. Brave slave Curzon and the Patriot “Rebels” agree to help Isabel rescue her little sister and encourage her to spy on the Lockton loyalists who know details of British plans for invasion. Fear and fiery indignation of literal and metaphorical chains serve as a catalyst for thirteen-year-old Isabel’s active pursuit of freedom, love and justice against all the odds!