A History of Women Told Through Middle Grade and YA Novels, In Honor of Women’s History Month


In celebration of Women’s History Month, I will be taking you on a historical journey of women’s struggles and successes with some of my favorite young adult and middle grade historical fiction novels. We will begin our voyage back in time with…

Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney 

Middle Grade – Grecian Times 

Transporting us to the mythic Age of Heroes, Cooney’s narrative is set against the backdrop of Ancient Greece around 1600-1100 B.C.E. The novel follows a young Anaxandra, who was taken by King Nicandor to befriend and care for his disabled daughter on the island of Siphnos. Jump to six years later, and pirates have ransacked her home. She is the sole survivor of the attack and must take on the role of Princess Callisto to survive. When her identity is questioned by the fabled Helen of Troy, the battles between Sparta and Troy begin.

Anaxandra is a strong female lead for middle grade readers. She is both cunning and resourceful in her actions, if a bit flawed. Her interactions with the pampered Helen of Troy are tense and draw the reader into the struggles Alexandra has had to face. She offers a fascinating look at the power of forgiveness and quiet rebellion in the face of tyranny. 

The Royal Diaries Cleopatra the VII: Daughter of the Nile – 57 B.C. by Kristiana Gregory

Middle Grade – Ancient Egypt (57 B.C.) 

Another middle grade story following the power-hungry and indomitable Cleopatra long before her time as Pharaoh of Egypt. This novel is one I remember reading repeatedly in middle school because of its opulent language and aesthetics. While a wildly inaccurate retelling of Cleopatra (what’s new?), this book is rich with the dangers and pleasures of royal life in Egypt. 

Cleopatra is her father’s favorite, proclaimed to eventually rule Egypt—if her sisters don’t kill her first. Told through diary entries, this book gives us an insight into Cleopatra’s life and the constant political schemes revolving around her. This novel is unafraid to tackle heavy subjects and even lets twelve-year-old Cleopatra show off her confidence against the never-ending assassination attempts on both her and her father. She is far from a perfect character, but she gives a perfect look at the lengths women across history have had to go through for their own success and even survival. 

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras 

Middle Grade – 13th Century 

Drest’s life is relatively normal in her Scottish headland, that is, until her home is ransacked by knights, who take her father, the Wolf of the North, and her brothers from her. Throughout the novel, we follow Drest as she embarks on a fast-paced medieval quest to rescue her family from a castle prison. This story is an unforgettably adventurous and enthralling read for people of all ages. Drest is a strong and determined character who never fails to forget the value of family, friendship, and bravery. She often gets mistaken for a boy, and doesn’t really mind, but remains proud to be a woman. She never lets her age or gender take away from the fact that she is part of the war band just like her brothers. Drest is a snarky and tough character even in the face of adversity. 

Brief intermission here: The previous novels have all been middle grade recommendations, but now we get into the thick of it. The following novels have no shortage of steamy scenes, as well as violent moments. Here are some young adult novels that span the next centuries of history. 

And I Darken by Kiersten White

Young Adult – 16th Century 

Content Warning: Graphic depictions of violence, sexual content, explicit language, Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny

Set in the age of the Ottoman Empire, And I Darken features Lada Dragwlya, a brutal and relentless princess unafraid of a bit of violence. If there were ever a book I would recommend to people who enjoy dark and twisted female leads, it would be this. Lada is a genderbent retelling of Vlad the Impaler with the same amount of intensity and cruelty. She believes the only way to survive is to be ruthless in her methods of leading. The book follows Lada and her brother as she takes on the position of warrior to escape her captor. Things seem to be going according to plan until Mehed, the son of her captor, gets a bit too close. The romance is dark and enticing, just like Lada herself. A historical read with fantasy elements scattered throughout and a cunning female lead. If you’re looking for an edgier main character for Women’s History Month, look no further than White’s And I Darken

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger  

Young Adult – 19th Century Britain

Etiquette and Espionage, set in the Victorian era, follows fourteen-year-old Sophronia, whose manners are abysmal and whose curtseys are perfunctory. Sophronia is sent to finishing school, but it’s not just  grace she will be learning, with knife throwing, seduction, and political espionage on the daily regimen. This novel is full of strong and diverse female characters, perfect for Women’s History Month. Sophronia experiences quite the arc, learning to accept the duality of what women can be and finding the sophistication in herself, as well as the danger. A very feminist novel set in a steampunk boarding school with werewolves and vampires alike, Etiquette and Espionage is a quirky read that is well worth the time if you enjoy fight scenes where women wearing petticoats and corsets are still able to kick ass.  

The Book Thief by Mark Zusak 

Young Adult – WWII

Content Warning: Holocaust, violence

Considered one of the best YA novels of the 21st century, The Book Thief is a heartbreaking story with creative narrative style and a complex female lead. While Liesel is not necessarily the most interesting, strong female character in YA literature, her development and emotional turmoil is placed at the forefront of the novel as tensions rise. Liesel is the titular book thief and starts the story as a rich German girl, but, as the book continues, you grow to care for her and her interest in protecting her family and the books. Liesel’s innocence is juxtaposed against the harrowing realities of her time, proving that courage and compassion can be found in the darkest of moments. The Book Thief is a terribly sad story with a female protagonist full of heart. 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Young Adult – 2010’s 

Content Warning: Racism, racial violence

The Hate U Give is a modern classic with a poignant look at social injustice and the power of empathy and support. The Hate U Give is led by the complex protagonist Starr Carpenter, who feels trapped between two worlds: her poor neighborhood and her preppy suburban school. When her friend is shot by a police officer, everything changes as protests, gangs, and news headlines share a story that only Starr knows. Starr is pulled in several directions throughout the book, and yet she remains resilient throughout. Her bravery and love for her friends and family carry this novel and prove the power that one person can hold if only they choose to act. While mainly tackling themes of racism and social injustice, this is an exceptional read for anyone looking for complex and powerful female leads. 

As we delve into these novels, it is important to recognize that while they may take liberties with historical accuracy, the essence of their characters resonates deeply. These women serve as powerful reminders of the strength of femininity across the ages. Women’s History Month prompts us to reflect on the strides women have made and our ongoing fight for equality. Through these narratives, we witness the lengths women have gone to ensure their rights to freedom and independence. Here is to Women’s History Month – may it inspire us to continue championing equality, and, of course, to keep reading! 

Jenica Delaney, Pine Reads Review Writer