By Jill Andreasen, MLIS, Collection Development Librarian
A remarkable trend in YA literature that I’ve been noticing over the last two years is that of female anger—no, female RAGE—being expressed at various kinds of oppression and aggression.
Behavioral double standards between the sexes in American society are older than our country. For the longest time, angry female characters were unacceptable and off-putting to readers and, therefore, relegated to shrewish, stereotypical supporting characters. Recently, it seems as if we are allowing ourselves and other women to be visibly and volubly angry. When we have trends in society at large (Women’s March, #metoo), they are reflected in our arts and literature.
I want to discuss two novels from this list that sport strong young women who are exquisite in their expression of rage at the injustice they face and, what’s more, who act upon it with satisfying agency.
Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse of Sea is set in the political aftermath of 9/11. Her protagonist is an Iranian-American teen named Shirin, who wears the hijab and suffers daily aggressions by schoolmates, neighbors, and random strangers alike for it. Her coping mechanism is to shut everyone besides her family out, but it doesn’t prevent the steady state of rage Shirin sustains at the unprovoked verbal abuse.
Despite this bleakness, Mafi imbues Shirin’s inner life with ambition, black humor, and intriguing interests to pull the reader into the narrative. Some of the most satisfying, surprising, and interesting vignettes of the novel involve the breakdancing crew that Shirin’s brother starts and she joins. This breakdancing club and a romance with the school’s basketball star, Ocean, breaks Shirin from the social tundra she had in place with explosive consequences. Mafi lets her character experience blatant casual and purposeful racism in a way hardly seen in YA lit, and the reader feels it keenly, sickeningly. It’s what makes the narrative so powerful and timely.
For different lens on a similar issue, Courtney Summers’ masterful, suspenseful Sadie has a split narrative: the first from 19-year-old Sadie herself, as she relentlessly pursues the man who killed her younger sister, Mattie. A second narrative in the form of a Serial-like podcast is interspersed into Sadie’s POV as journalist West McCray tries to find out what happened and where she is.
The story’s split timeline and narrative form reveal clues to the reader, and tantalizing details of what exactly happened to both Mattie and Sadie drive the story, despite their grim environs and experiences. Sadie is a broken but ruthless avenging angel of a character who you won’t soon forget. There are so many good reasons to read Sadie and A Very Large Expanse of Sea. Both have writers at the height of their careers, giving break-out books. Both have protagonists whom readers will connect with on a deep emotional level, and both are telling important, pull-no-punches, stare-the-ugliness-right-in-the-face stories. I believe the best reason to read them is that we need it; we need the catharsis of seeing our sisters howling and fighting against injustice in all its forms.