Monday, January 26, 2015

Where's the contemporary middle grade feminist realistic fiction?

Before the holidays, my supervisor asked me if I had any book recommendations for a friend of hers; the friend wanted to buy her daughter some great books for the holidays, but she wanted to make sure that they had strong feminist themes--good role models for strong girls, I believe is how she put it. "No problem!" I thought; I'd check my go-to resource for such inquiries: the Amelia Bloomer Project lists.

Amelia Bloomer, from the
Amelia Bloomer Project
Some background: Each year, the Amelia Bloomer Project identifies a list of titles (as far as I can tell, they don't have a limit to the number of books they can recognize) that fit a few criteria: 1) have significant feminist content; 2) excellent writing; 3) appealing format; and 4) appropriate for readers of a young age. I completely trust the folks who serve on this committee, and I look forward to seeing the titles they recognize each year.

Cut back to that readers' advisory request. When I went to peruse the past few years' Amelia Bloomer Project lists, I found something that startled me: there aren't very many contemporary realistic middle grade fiction titles on the lists. In fact, as I went back over the past 5 years of the award--during which time 50 middle grade fiction titles were recognized--only 6 titles could be classified as contemporary and taking place in the US. In other words, there weren't a ton of titles on the list for the girls* the award is meant to support that would reflect the everyday lives and situations they deal with.

So I went through all the lists available on the Amelia Bloomer Project website; that's a list each year starting in 2002. Here's what I found:
  • in the 13 years of the award (from 2002-2014), 95 middle grade fiction titles were recognized
  • 51 of those 95 titles are historical fiction
  • 15 titles are fantasy
  • 14 titles are contemporary realistic fiction set in the US
  • 11 titles are realistic fiction set outside the US dealing with location- or culture-specific issues
  • 3 titles are science fiction
  • 1 title is short stories
Breakdown of Amelia Bloomer Project middle
grade fiction titles, by genre (2002-2014)

Frankly, this breakdown strikes me as problematic. As I said, I have total faith in the Amelia Bloomer Project's committee members to read widely and truly identify the titles in a given year that they believe fit their award's criteria. So if they're recognizing the great contemporary middle grade feminist realistic fiction each year, to the result of an average of 1 title per year, that leads me to believe that perhaps not a whole ton of the stuff is being written and/or published. That's a problem for me and, I would hope, other librarians and feminists, too.

What does it do for the modern middle grade reader when the vast majority of great stories featuring strong girls are set in a time or place that is foreign--perhaps even alien--to their personal experiences of the world? That's not to say that historical fiction and fantasy don't have their merits, or that girls can only be positively influenced by stories filled with characters quite like them. But the relative absence of middle grade feminist books about everyday girls in everyday situations reminds me of how it's incredibly problematic that youth literature with black protagonists is more likely to be set during or before the Civil War (i.e., slavery) or during the civil rights era than to be set nowadays with black characters just being people.

Strong feminists in historical fiction are great. So are strong feminists in fantasy, etc. They can be inspirational, no doubt. But the beauty of strong feminists in contemporary realistic fiction is that it shows how there are strong feminists in everyday life and everyday situations--from going to school, to participating in a sport or club, to interacting with friends, etc. I can't help but wonder if there's some unconscious connection between the phenomenon of young women saying they aren't feminists and the possibility that they most often see feminists as tied to a historical time and place that is no longer personally relevant.

If we have more excellent contemporary realistic fiction with feminist themes for middle grade readers, today's girls--the ones in our libraries right this second--can see their strong feminist selves in the books they read. Not just the qualities that they want, or that they wish they'd have so they, too, could solve crimes with Sherlock Holmes/be strong during a fraught time in history/wield magic powers. But the qualities that they already possess and can put into use every single day. Because when it comes down to it, feminist values are not tied to a specific time or place. They are everyday. They have to be everyday.

So writers, publishers, librarians, take heed: we need more contemporary middle grade feminist realistic fiction. Readers need it. Let's get it into their hands. And let's make sure it's intersectional, too. Every contemporary girl, regardless of race, religion, culture, or creed, deserves to see strong girls like her in the pages of the books she reads. Can we work on this, please?

*I'm going to keep saying "girls" throughout this post, although obviously any person of any gender identity can read any book and find it meaningful and personally resonant


  1. Wendy Shang's upcoming The Way Home Looks Now has a girl playing baseball on a boys' team in 1972. I think Tim Green writes strong female characters in his sports novels, which is important. You're right, though- we need more!

  2. Could you post the list of the 14 that you found? I'd be interested in seeing what the titles were. Thanks!

    1. Sure thing! By year:

      2014 – 0 titles

      2013 – 2 titles
      -PLAY BALL by Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir

      2012 – 3 titles
      -TRUE (…SORT OF) by Katherine Hannigan
      -ADDIE ON THE INSIDE by James Howe
      -ILLEGAL by Bettina Restrepo

      2011 – 0 titles

      2010 – 1 title

      2009 – 0 titles

      2008 – 0 titles

      2007 – 2 titles
      -REGARDING THE TREES by Kate Klise
      -THAT GIRL LUCY MOON by Amy Timberlake

      2006 – 2 titles
      -GETTING IN THE GAME by Dawn FitzGerald

      2005 – 1 title
      -BECOMING NAOMI LEÓN by Pam Muñoz Ryan

      2004 – 1 title
      -JUDY MOODY SAVES THE WORLD! by Megan McDonald

      2003 – 0 titles

      2002 – 2 titles
      -SOME KIND OF PRIDE by Maria Testa
      -LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER by Deborah Wiles

  3. I found the things you mentioned in this post very interesting. My husband and I were having a conversation not that long ago, and found myself saying I was not a feminist, as I too, even as an adult, had a distorted vision of what it means to be a feminist. Of course I love strong women, and think it is absolutely vital that young girls be taught they can do anything, and see the importance of equality between genders. But because, like you said, we are not during a specific time period that is requiring an actual "fight" to have those rights, I didn't feel that I was a feminist. After the conversation, it had me thinking and searching, and realizing that it is more than that, and I wonder if that lack of books you are referring to has had some sort of an impact in how I viewed it growing up. Interesting!


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