Everything I Needed to Know About Feminism I Learned from YA – Panel Report

Still working on the WisCon 31 panel reports. Slowly but surely!

The next panel I attended on Saturday was “Everything I Needed to Know About Feminism I Learned from YA”:

Young Adult fiction is full of strong female heroines who are a 14-year-old girl’s version of a superhero. They kick ass, wield magic, stand up to boys/men/school/society, and always save the day. Where does YA get the gender politics right? Where does it often fall short? How are contemporary YA authors pushing the tough heroine archetype in new directions, and where would we still like to see her go?

The panel was moderated by Sharyn November, and featured Ellen Kushner, Kelly D. Link, Meghan McCarron and Micole Iris Sudberg. It was a very well-attended panel, and the sound in the room was not super-fabulous. I took notes as best I could, but I’m afraid that they’re somewhat incomplete.

The panelists all introduced themselves, and made opening remarks. While discussing the enduring popularity of YA fiction amongst adult readers, Micole Iris Sudberg talked about the “porous barriers” between the two classifications. Sharyn November observed that YA can be defined as “what a teenager reads,” meaning that it often includes books that appeal to – or were originally intended for – an older audience, as well. Later on, November also talked about how interesting it is to re-read books that she really enjoyed when she was in the YA demographic from a new, presumably more experienced and mature perspective, to see how her feelings change and what new things she discovers in the book.

Sudberg brought up the idea that what had attracted her to speculative YA fiction when she was, herself, in the YA demographic was that it seemed to her that it was more diverse than mainstream YA fiction, or anything she saw on television. A little later on in the conversation, Ellen Kushner connected back up with this idea, talking about how important it is for readers to be able to identify with characters who are not like themselves. She specified that she was talking about more than just gender – that it’s important for readers to read about main characters of differing religions, races, etc. November agreed, saying that it’s important to be able to experience books as both mirrors and windows – there should be enough diversity in YA fiction for readers to see themselves reflected in main characters, and also for them to identify with main characters unlike themselves.

The panelists all seemed to agree that they’d like to see YA science fiction and fantasy continuing to become more and more diverse. Another thing that many people in the room seemed to agree would be good was Meghan McCarron’s wish to see more stories featuring female characters who use teamwork, rather than stories about exceptionalism.

All of this discussion was interspersed with recommendations for good YA novels, from panelists and audience members alike. I wrote down as many as I could, and will finish this panel report by including a list.

Generally recommended authors included:

Tamora Pierce

Patricia C. Wrede

Robin McKinley

Kristopher Reisz

Nancy Farmer

Particularly recommended books included:

Dreamhunter and Dreamquake by Elizabeth Knox

Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

The Privilege of the Sword and The Golden Dreydl by Ellen Kushner

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman (I can’t remember who suggested this one, but whoever it was also said, “stop there.”)

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin

It wouldn’t be WisCon if there wasn’t a long list of books to be read by the end!

I know that many of the regulars around here are big YA fans – what authors and books would you add to the recommended list?


  1. says

    Libba Bray. A Great and Terrible Beauty. It’s newer YA Victorian fantasy, but very good. All of Patricia C. Wrede’s stuff except the last book in the Dealing With Dragons series… because it never rang true to me as a kid that Cimorene became that passive. Cynthia Voigt’s Kingdom novels, starting with Jackaroo, maybe?

  2. says

    I always found the last book in that series a little odd, too, Duru. Still definitely one of my all-time favorite YA series, though. 😀

  3. says

    Off the top of my head? Bruce Coville and Jeanne DuPrau, though they both skew a little bit younger, I think; and definitely Frances Hardinge’s “Fly By Night”, which is so fantastic I haven’t even found words to write about it yet.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    Haha, I am so printing this article when you finish, +comments, and taking it to the library!

    FYI, the “Print this post” link at the bottom of the post will put both post and comments on a printer friendly page and save you some paper. 😉

  5. MaggieCat says

    I don’t know if we’re even allowed to have this thread without someone at least mentioning Judy Blume. 😉 Or Paula Danziger. And how did Roald Dahl not make it on the list? I know it’s kind of retro, but still. Pretty much anything of his. (Which may be the genesis of my anglophilic tendencies.)

    Tanith Lee, the Claidi Journals and definitely the Unicorn series. And I’ve heard really good things about the Piratica series as well, although they’re fairly new and I haven’t gotten to read them yet I absolutely adore her books- I have yet to find one I haven’t loved. Some parents might want to be careful to make sure it’s one of her YA books rather than adult fiction, since there tends to be a healthy amount of sex in the books geared for a grown-up audience. But how can you not love someone whose response to being asked about the differences between writing for an adult audience vs. children is:

    “How dare one presume to write in a particular way, for children? They deserve the best of a writer, just as the writer deserves the best of themselves. The only limits are sex, for reasons of censorship, and violence, for reasons of common sense.”

    Hallelujah. If only more people would believe that, maybe I wouldn’t have been chased into the adult section of the library at age 8 by excessive treacle.

  6. Michelle says

    Haha, I am so printing this article when you finish, +comments, and taking it to the library!

    Hmm, I’d recommend Like The Red Panda by Andrea Seigel (though it’s neither SF or fantasy) and Innocence by Jane Mendelsohn. I remember really enjoying books by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes when I was younger as well, but I haven’t picked those up in a while.

  7. says

    The Kate & Cecy books (starts w/Sorcery & Cecelia) by Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (also Mairelon the Magician & The Magician’s Ward also by Wrede). The Secret Country trilogy by Pamela Dean (extra bonus points of goodness, like w/all Dean’s work, if you’re an English lit sort of person & thus pick up on @ least some of the many references she crams in there). Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith. You already saw me recommend Zahrah the Windseeker (I hope you like it!). Um, speaking of the porousness of the boundary between adult & YA lit, The City, Not Long After by Pat Murphy was out of print for ages but got re-released recently (by Sharyn November’s Firebird imprint) as YA. Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire & Hemlock. I also really like Midori Snyder’s New Moon trilogy (I have a thing for element-related magic, plus gritty urban fantasy settings). Um, that’s all… for now???

  8. says

    Oh, & for crap’s sake, how did I forget Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series? I like how Nita & Kit work as a team, & (as yet?) there’s no romantic entanglement between them; there’s also two older wizards who clearly have TEH GAY, although I suppose when she published the first book in the ’80s they weren’t about to make that obvious (but given that Duane herself is bi, I’ve heard, & she has queer characters in her other books). Also I like how she puts science into her books w/o making it boring for people who tilt more towards fantasy than science fiction (ie. me).

  9. says

    Sorcery and Cecelia is one of my favoritest books evar, johanna, and I really love Mairelon the Magician and Magician’s Ward, too. I’ll definitely have to check out some more of your recommendations… It seems like we’ve got some tastes in common.

    In a slightly weird (but not that weird, really) coincidence, I just bought a copy of The Secret Country at the used bookstore today. I think I’ll bump that one to the top of my to-read-next list.


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