“What happened to Girl Power?” When all but one of the Spice Girls reunited for a recent concert tour, a writer for the BBC posed this question about the slogan associated with the group. “Girl Power” wasn’t theirs originally, but grew out of the North American riot grrl punk rock movement in the early 1990s, the name of a zine put out by the band Bikini Kill, but it went global with the British supergroup’s help. Some of this year’s best young-adult books look at adolescent girls who are trying to assert themselves in a world that is often uncooperative, and sometimes downright hostile.
In Toronto author Danielle Younge-Ullman’s second novel He Must Like You (Penguin Random House, age 14 and up), Libby is nearing the end of high-school when her parents inform her they’ve lost the money they’d saved to help send her to college. She takes a job waiting tables where a frequent diner likes to handle and otherwise humiliate the young women who work there – jokey, handsy, volatile, he is a customer most women who’ve waited tables know all too well. Libby’s not sure what to do since he’s a local hero, the founder of a microbrewery that helped revitalize the small town where she lives, and she needs the job. Her mother tells her she’s got to play along, to charm and outwit her tormenter but not confront him, but Libby’s not satisfied with that, and ends up dumping a pitcher of sangria on him. This is high drama, but this funny and forthright book also looks at the subtler obstacles put in Libby’s way. As per the title, Libby ultimately wonders why she was taught that when boys teased you, when men hugged and handled you without your say-so, that means they like you.
The underpinnings of Libby’s predicament are addressed in The League of Super Feminists (Drawn & Quarterly, ages 12-18), award-winning Montreal illustrator’s Mirion Malle’s third book, the first to be translated into English. Using a Socratic question-and-answer format, women dressed as superheroes speak, informally, with wit and brevity, to a young audience about consent, different forms of privilege and misogyny. It arms readers with tools to analyze culture, including fellow cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s three-part test for movies: Are there at least two named female characters, do they talk to each other – about something other than a guy?
For a long time, the best friends in Ashley Woodfolk’s When You Were Everything (Delacorte Press, ages 14 and up) talked about everything – about Cleo’s desire to study Shakespeare in England and Layla’s love of singing. The two young New Yorkers are inseparable, until they’re not. The book anatomizes their break-up and the cruel (and believable) things they say to each other, the wars, to paraphrase the author, that girls can fight with their voices, tearing each other apart without touching at all. But there’s a generosity to the vision here, an effort to out what was once so right about the two of them, before it all went so wrong.
There’s maybe a friend break-up brewing in Laura Taylor Namey’s A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow (Simon & Schuster, ages 12 and up), but that’s the least of its baking phenom protagonist Lila’s worries. She’s lost her grandmother, the woman who taught her how to make the empanadas and flans that have made their family bakery in Miami such a success, and her boyfriend, the son of a Cuban-American politician. To get her away from the scene of all her upsets and the resulting gossip in her close-knit community, her family sends her to a Cathedral city in England, where an honorary aunt runs a hotel. Against her will, at first, Lila falls in love with this colder country and its ritualistic teas, its strange lingo, its indirections and politesses. She emerges from her involuntary exile a larger person. A young Brit and a raucous group of new friends have catalyzed her growth, but it ultimately comes from within.
Growth is not part of the heroine’s program in Kate Hattemer’s The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid (Random House, ages 14 and up). No, it’s her storied, tradition-loving private school that needs to change. Instead of letting boys do the asking to the prom, she puts in place a computer matching program in which the preferences of all the students are taken into account – though, she realizes, she hasn’t thought through how this would work for those drawn to the same sex. She’s determined that the student body will have its first female leader – but ignores the obvious leadership potential of her Korean-American friend Jiyoon. In short, the book upsets and complicates the heroine’s agenda and her uncomplicated version of herself as crusading change-maker.
The power of the teenaged heroine of Kelly Powell’s second book, Magic Dark and Strange (Margaret K. McElderry Books, ages 12 and up), is not just metaphorical, but literal: Catherine Daly can raise the dead, but only temporarily, so their loved ones can say a final goodbye. The Burlington, Ont., author’s Gothic fantasia is written in the shadow of Robert Louis Stevenson 1884 short story The Body Snatcher – and released just in time for Halloween. In both the new book and the old story, medical students learn about anatomy using unlawfully exhumed corpses. But where Stevenson’s main characters are compromised, Daley and her two helpers, young men of about her age, keep their moral compasses intact, as they try to solve both down-to-earth mysteries and philosophical ones. Who committed this string of murders? What would it mean for a human to obtain dominion over death?
Where Powell’s book is swathed in fog and an appealing yesteryear formality, Jessica Jung’s book set in a K-Pop studio, Shine (Simon & Schuster, ages 14 and up) is all bright colors and now, now, now. As the former lead singer of Korea’s most famous girl group, Girls’ Generation, the author knows the scene she’s setting here, with its relentless dance workouts and singing lessons, with its eyelid surgeries and cat-and-mouse media interviews. Growing up in New York, the book’s heroine Rachel saw something empowering in the success attained by people who looked like her. Still, though a talented singer and dancer, she just can’t make herself fit the template, disobeying the strict rules about alcohol consumption and dating – her temptation is a more established Korean-Canadian singer. Earlier all-female groups put together by male producers, the Spice Girls et al., are in the backdrop here. The challenge for her is to make the template fit her, to seize the power on offer by joining a successful group, without losing both her family’s respect and her self-regard.
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