The best books for kids with smart, strong female protagonists

Who am I?

I earned my Master’s in Writing For Young People, or ‘Bildungsromans’ a few years back, and subsequently published my debut novel, a coming-of-age adventure about a girl who goes on a quest to save her suicidal cat. I headed back to school to honor that long-alive love for kid lit. When I was a kid, I devoured books that irrevocably inspired, changed, and moved me: I voraciously consumed every book by E.B. White, Robert O’Brien, Madeleine L’Engle, Beverly Cleary, Ruth Chew, Mildred Taylor, Richard Adams, Roald Dahl, Lowis Lowrey, Gary Paulsen…every other major kid lit classic out there, really. 

I wrote...

Alice the Cat

By Tim Cummings,

Book cover of Alice the Cat

What is my book about?

On the verge of 13, Tess’s life is falling apart. Her mother’s dead. Her father’s like a zombie. And now her beloved cat, Alice, is rushing in front of cars, trying to get run over. The only thing Tess can think of that might help? Running away. 

As she ventures from home, Tess stumbles upon a few goths in the local haunted house, performing séances. There, she discovers that the house’s ghostly entity wants a cat to care for in the afterlife, and has its sights set on Alice. With the help of an unexpected friend and the adorkable kid who has a huge crush on her, Tess will do whatever it takes to save the cat, help the ghost, heal her dad, and survive summer.

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The books I picked & why

A Wrinkle in Time

By Madeleine L'Engle,

Book cover of A Wrinkle in Time

Why did I love this book?

When we first meet Meg Murry, she’s restlessly awake late at night in the attic of her house—her bedroom—watching a violent storm rage outside. It’s a perfect example of how good writers use the exterior to reflect the interior.

She’s feisty, a fighter, vivacious, and verbose. Ultimately, her quest takes her across the entire universe to save her lost father, learn about her magical and enigmatic younger brother, Charles Wallace, and save the world from an entity not unlike what we’re dealing with now: AI, and how it will strip us of our souls.

Published in 1962, it’s a resonant, important, and prescient book. 

By Madeleine L'Engle,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked A Wrinkle in Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Puffin Classics: the definitive collection of timeless stories, for every child.

We can't take any credit for our talents. It's how we use them that counts.

When Charles and Meg Murry go searching through a 'wrinkle in time' for their lost father, they find themselves on an evil planet where all life is enslaved by a huge pulsating brain known as 'It'.

Meg, Charles and their friend Calvin embark on a cosmic journey helped by the funny and mysterious trio of guardian angels, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. Together they must find the weapon that will defeat It.…

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

By Mildred D. Taylor,

Book cover of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Why did I love this book?

Cassie Logan is fiery-tempered, bombastic, and demonstrative. She’s rather like her mother in that way, who is considered a ‘radical’ because she speaks up and out about the racism in the American South during the Depression.

Cassie fights back, but learns the hard way that there is a time to fight racism, speak out about injustice, and a time to accept that there are things we just have to live within this complicated and unjust world. But before she can accept that fully, she utilizes her fierceness to hatch a plan of attack against her nemesis, a racist, privileged white girl named Lillian Jean.

As readers, we are left to admire her prowess but also to wonder if anything she does can truly make a difference, given what’s she’s up against. An essential book. 

By Mildred D. Taylor,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The stunning repackage of a timeless Newbery Award Winner, with cover art by two-time Caldecott Honor Award winner Kadir Nelson!

With the land to hold them together, nothing can tear the Logans apart.

Why is the land so important to Cassie's family? It takes the events of one turbulent year-the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she is black-to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family's lifeblood. It is the land that gives the Logans their courage and pride, for no…

The Golden Compass

By Philip Pullman,

Book cover of The Golden Compass

Why did I love this book?

Lyra ‘Silvertongue’ Belacqua is one of the most compelling young female protagonists ever wrought. It feels to me that she was brought to us on a bolt of liquid lightning.

She is a girl from another universe where the inhabitants’ souls exist externally in the form of animals. It’s mind-bendingly beautiful. And her quest is deep, dark, and dangerous. And while Pullman can sometimes get mired by his loftiness, preachiness, and pedantisms, ultimately this is the very touching and adventurous story of a girl who crosses dimensions, worlds, and precipices—including a dive into The Land of the Dead from which she risks never returning—to save her best friend, Roger.

Forget about Marvel—Lyra and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, are the most heroic duo in modern storytelling.   

By Philip Pullman,

Why should I read it?

21 authors picked The Golden Compass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first volume in Philip Pullman's groundbreaking
HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy, now a thrilling, critically
acclaimed BBC/HBO television series. First published
in 1995, and acclaimed as a modern masterpiece, this first
book in the series won the UK's top awards for children's literature.

"Without this child, we shall all

Lyra Belacqua and her animal daemon live
half-wild and carefree among scholars of Jordan College, Oxford.

The destiny that awaits her will take her to the frozen lands
of the Arctic, where witch-clans reign and ice-bears fight.

Her extraordinary journey will have immeasurable consequences
far beyond her own world...


The Last Cherry Blossom

By Kathleen Burkinshaw,

Book cover of The Last Cherry Blossom

Why did I love this book?

12-year-old Yuriko, a girl living in Japan with her expanding family and navigating the tricky terrain of World War II, is unlike other tween female protagonists.

She’s not outwardly assertive, feisty, or heading off on a quest. She’s more of a jewel of innocence, love, and curiosity. But when we witness the bombing of Hiroshima through her eyes, we see unexpected heroism take flight. The losses she suffers, the setbacks, the nightmares, the horror, the pure honesty in how she conveys it.

Author Burkinshaw wrote the book in honor of her mother, who survived Hiroshima. It’s unlike most books for kids that come down the pike. It’s about bravery, family, and beautifully illuminates Japanese culture. The story is about facing unimaginable events but not losing your heart in the battle. 

By Kathleen Burkinshaw,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last Cherry Blossom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and since the Japanese newspapers don't report lost battles, the Japanese people are not entirely certain of where Japan stands. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more…

The First Rule of Punk

By Celia C. Pérez,

Book cover of The First Rule of Punk

Why did I love this book?

Malú ((María Luisa O’Neill-Morales) is a tween punker who moves across the country with her ‘Super Mexican’ mom who will do anything to make her daughter into more of a respected senorita who embraces her heritage.

But Malú needs to find out who she is in her own way—a very punk way to do things. And her father reminds her of the most important part of being punk, (or not being punk at all for that matter) and it is this: be yourself. Malú finds her true self in creating a punk band with her newfound friends and defying the school administration who doesn’t want her to be who she truly is.

It’s a kick-ass book. And includes all the awesome visuals of Malú’s favorite pastime: making zines. 

By Celia C. Pérez,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The First Rule of Punk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There are no shortcuts to surviving your first day at a new school - you can't fix it with duct tape like you would your Chuck Taylors. On Day One, twelve-year-old Malu inadvertently upsets Posada Middle School's queen bee, violates the school's dress code with her punk-rock look, and disappoints her college-professor mum in the process. Her dad, who now lives a thousand miles away, says things will get better as long as she remembers the first rule of punk: be yourself. The real Malu loves rock music, skateboarding, zines, and Soyrizo (hold the cilantro, please). And when she assembles…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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