The best books about smart girls figuring out hard stuff

Who am I?

My family moved around a lot when I was younger, which may explain why I’m fascinated by the experience of being an outsider. To me, it’s not a bad thing; being on the outside can sometimes help a person to see things more clearly, to think more critically and creatively. The year I spent living in a country where English wasn’t the main language was one of the most stimulating periods of my life, because I was so attuned to all the tiny details that other people took for granted. Plus, as teenagers, everyone feels like they’re on the outside looking in – which is probably why all of my books have contained some coming-of-age element. 

I wrote...

Once, in a Town Called Moth

By Trilby Kent,

Book cover of Once, in a Town Called Moth

What is my book about?

Anneli has lived in a small Mennonite colony in Bolivia her whole life—until now. She and her father have packed their bags, changed their names, and fled in search of her mother, who disappeared when Anneli was five. Arriving in Toronto, Anneli has to fend for herself in an alien environment, isolated in a big city with no idea how to navigate the unspoken codes that come with being fourteen and in high school. Torn between two worlds, she is troubled by the things she and her father have left behind—a vanished town, a long-ago crime—but determined to find her mother: the one person who might be able to tell her just what it is they’re running from.

The books I picked & why

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The Lying Days

By Nadine Gordimer,

Book cover of The Lying Days

Why this book?

I stumbled across this coming-of-age story by one of my favourite South African writers in a second-hand bookshop in Oxford when I was an undergraduate. I hadn’t been able to lose myself in fiction for a couple of years because I was so immersed in academic reading (history, mostly) – but this novel got me back on the wagon. It was the first novel I’d read in a long time that really made me want to write, to tell a story that could move a reader in the same way. In it, a white, middle-class girl growing up in a small colonial town in 1940s South Africa starts to see the world around her as it really is. Definitely one of those books that deserves a much wider audience.


By Mariko Tamaki,

Book cover of Skim

Why this book?

Full disclosure: Mariko’s cousin, Gillian, attended my old high school, and part of the appeal of this book for me initially was the fact that I recognised so many details from that world. Kimberley “Skim” Cameron is a would-be Wiccan goth attending an all-girls private school that’s gone into high-gear mourning over the death of the boyfriend of one of its students. It’s poignant and perceptive and darkly funny, if somewhat angst-heavy. This was one of my earliest introductions to graphic novels and what the form can uniquely offer.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,

Book cover of Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Why this book?

Like many people, I was really impressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the problem of a single story. So when I saw that she’d written a short chapbook of feminist advice for a friend who’d recently become a mother to a baby girl, I had to get my hands on a copy. My own daughter was still a preschooler when it came out, so I figured I had just enough time to make good on the fifteen pieces of advice she offers. Witty, wise, and supremely accessible, this is a book for mothers and daughters equally – as well as anyone with an interest in building a more just and equitable world for all.

The Wall

By Marlen Haushofer,

Book cover of The Wall

Why this book?

Ok, so the protagonist of this book isn’t really a “girl” – she’s a grown woman – but I still think this is a great book for anyone in their mid-teens and up. I’m fairly sure it was another second-hand bookshop find, because how else would I have come across a 1963 post-apocalyptic novel by an Austrian author that didn’t have an English translation until 1990? An unnamed woman finds herself stuck behind an invisible wall in the Austrian mountains after a possible nuclear event; a dog, a cow, and a cat are the only other apparent survivors. It’s eerie and completely gripping, and the ending really shook me up. 

The Girl Within

By Emily Hancock,

Book cover of The Girl Within

Why this book?

I’m just realising now that some of my favourite books were accidental finds – I think that this one turned up at a sidewalk sale. The author is a psychologist who uses the life stories of twenty women to illustrate her theory that girls are their most powerful, authentic selves up to the age of about twelve; that after that, their sense of personhood comes under attack from a whole range of sources, so that much of adulthood is spent trying to piece that pre-teen girl and her distinct sense of self back together. It’s extremely convincing and something I’ve found really interesting to discuss with my now tween-age daughter.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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