Feminist YA and MG Debuts of 2021: 14 Authors Share their POV

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[Note from Frolic: Our resident YA expert Aurora got the chance to chat with 14 YA and MG authors and chat with them about feminism and more. Read on to find your new favorite authors!]

Author Dana Swift says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

Cast in Firelight is a dual point of view YA Fantasy Romance about Adraa and Jatin, two teens arranged to be married who after years of rivalry meet once again and mistakenly think they are someone else. When Adraa discovers her magic is being stolen, the two team up as vigilantes to save their countries, not knowing who they are working with and just maybe, falling for. It’s a mash-up of rom-com shengahians and superhero-esque fantasy action.

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

Everyone has a unique voice and I can guarantee someone out there wants the kind of story you are writing. So above all else, believe in yourself. I think we all doubt ourselves, but it always helps me to reconnect to the fun and joy in writing and creating stories. 

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

To me feminism is empowering, inspiring, and liberating. Most of all it’s about equality, in letting girls and women be whoever they want to be without judgement. In Cast in Firelight many of my characters wear more than one mask (literally) and they find themselves not by choosing one persona over the other, but through embracing all the different aspects of their identity.

Author Anya Leigh Josephs Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

Queen of All is a classic YA fantasy with an intersectional feminist twist. It’s the story of an ordinary girl discovering her magic and coming into her power, while also learning to accept her plus-sized body, her anxious brain, and her lesbian identity. Readers can expect to be swept up in a story of adventure, friendship, and magic, and also enjoy representation for many people often excluded from fantasy storytelling.

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

Really sit with that fear and ask what it can teach you. Your story can be so many different things–it can be just for you, or shared only with friends, or independently or self-published, or in every bookstore in America, and you can choose how far you want to pursue that path. Which of those things–which step along the many paths of writing and publishing–scares you? You never have to confront that fear if you don’t want to, but you always can if you decide it’s worth it to you. (Also, no one can write your story but you! Sorry, but if you want it written, you’re gonna have to give it a try yourself).

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

Feminism is, quite simply, the idea that all genders should be treated equally by society, and the work of advocating for this to happen. I think Queen of All will be an appealing book for feminists because its characters show the different ways of being a feminist advocate. Sisi is a character who is much more of an “activist”–a rebel who questions the systems she lives in and struggles against them. Jena, the protagonist, is much more of a quiet character, who eventually finds her role as a feminist in being her true self. These characters, and more, show that anyone, no matter who they are or how they relate to others, can be a feminist and make a difference in their world.

Author Carly Heath Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

Set in 1904, The Reckless Kind follows a trio of queer teens who decide to defy the expectations of their rural Scandinavian village by leaving their families, living on their own, and challenging the town’s patriarch in the region’s annual winter horse race. Readers can expect a wonderfully supportive queerplatonic triad at the center of this book—three teens working hard to figure out how to make their unconventional family work while flying in the face of small town tradition. 

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

Your voice is important and your story is worth the time you put into it. Set a weekly goal and reward yourself for meeting your goal. Even if it’s something small like 500 words per week, just set that goal and make regular progress. A reward system like “every time I hit 10,000 words, I’ll buy myself a bracelet” really goes a long way to helping you stay on track.

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

I believe feminism should be about examining and dismantling the social and economic structures in place that benefit some at the expense of everyone else. Asta, the main character in The Reckless Kind, doesn’t conform to conventional standards of beauty and she’s not “receptive” in the way her society thinks women should be—she’s hard of hearing, asexual, and doesn’t want to get married or have children. Though faced with societal pressure that leads to personal doubts, she ultimately is able to triumph against those who seek to limit her, and she finds allies who affirm her unconventional desires.

Author Claire Winn Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

City of Shattered Light is a graffiti-smeared, neon-drenched fever dream led by two fierce girls—a runaway heiress, Asa, who’s fled home to save her test-subject sister, and Riven, a gunslinging smuggler who needs a hell of a bounty to secure her place in one of the city’s matriarchal crime syndicates. The girls clash when one kidnaps the other (oops), but they end up with bigger problems when a brilliant, tech-corrupting A.I. monster locks down the city and begins pursuing them. The book is infused with so many of my favorite things—glowing-but-grimy settings, a ride-or-die misfit team (mostly queer characters, including two bisexual leads), heist banter, and strong character relationships.

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

Start with a story you love. Writing a book is a long, uncertain, and lonely path, and the only guaranteed fan you’ll ever have—and the one spending the most time with the story—is you. Plus, a story you’re in love with will feel authentic, and it means there’s a greater chance it’ll find readers who love it. So write a book you’re passionate about and pour your heart into it, even if it feels daunting.

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

To me, feminism is about giving women and girls the freedom to make choices and pursue goals without gender-based hurdles or scrutiny. It’s about ending sexual violence, as well as valuing and supporting women of all races, abilities, and backgrounds. CoSL features a range of flawed, messy women with different talents and backgrounds, all driving the story and making things happen. A major theme of Asa’s character arc is self-discovery. She learns to break free of toxic societal expectations, discovers her own talents and desires, and ultimately becomes a person she’s chosen for herself.

Author Amy Noelle Parks Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss is a dual point-of-view romantic comedy about Evie, a mathy, anxious girl, and Caleb, the boy who’s been in love with her most of his life. When Evie decides she’s ready to try dating for the first time, shenanigans ensue.

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

My advice to new writers would be to write for yourself first. If you love your story, there’s a decent chance someone else will too, and if not, at least you’ve had the pleasure of creating a world you’re happy to live in.

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

For me, feminism in young adult novels is about providing a space for all young people, but particularly girls, to negotiate who they want to be in the world. As a young mathematician, Evie is definitely learning to navigate male-dominated spaces, but she’s also figuring out who she wants to be as a friend and a romantic partner, and that’s feminist work too.

Author Rachel Sarah Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

A call to action and a hopeful march through the lives of the world’s extraordinary youth leaders, Girl Warriors: How 25 Young Activists Are Saving the Earth (Chicago Review Press – April 6, 2021) is a middle grade nonfiction book that will ignite and inspire people of all ages. From Ireland and Pakistan to Colombia and Uganda, Girl Warriors spotlights climate activists from all around the world who are sounding the alarm for their futures. 

Girl Warriors tells the stories of 25 climate activists under 25 who are showing up, speaking up, and rising up. Kirkus just gave Girl Warriors a starred review! (“Engaging, brilliant, and intersectional: a must for shelves everywhere.”)

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

Your story matters. Please know this. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. (This might not be your family of origin!) Writing takes so much perseverance, so having your people around you to lift you up and love you is vital.

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

Feminism means rising up for radical change. All of the girls and young women in Girl Warriors are real-life feminists on the frontlines! I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to interview the activists who are rising up for their futures all over the world as they organize movements and dismantle systems of oppression amidst a global pandemic.

Author Aileen Weintraub Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

WE GOT GAME! 35 Female Athletes Who Changed the World, (Hachette, May 4, 2021)  is an artfully illustrated middle-grade social justice book about female athletes who are  advocating for change in the world, focusing on issues including gender equality, disability rights, climate change, body positivity, cyberbullying, and more. The book also includes the history of each athlete’s accomplishments, along with stats and facts about their amazing careers. It has recently made Publisher Weekly’s List of New and Forthcoming Titles on Women, Girls and Empowerment.

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

Writing for an audience can be very intimidating, but it’s important to shut out the noise and focus on the craft. I believe that every story has a place in the world, and sometimes we need to put aside the doubt and start writing the stories that resonate with us.

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

For me, feminism is about fighting for social, political, and economic equality. The athletes in WE GOT GAME! represent feminism by advocating for equality in countless ways. Billie Jean King fought for Title IX, a law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in educational settings that receive federal financial assistance. Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe are fighting to close the gender wage gap, Grete Eliassen has made it her mission to knock down gender barriers, Misty Copeland promotes body positivity, and Serena Williams, Nancy Lopez, and Ibithaj Mohammad have created inclusive clothing lines for women. They’re all trailblazing athletes using their platform to facilitate change.

Author Laura Rueckert Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

A Dragonbird in the Fern is a YA Fantasy about a dyslexic princess named Jiara whose older sister Scilla is assassinated. Jiara takes her sister’s place as the bride to the young king of a faraway country, hoping she can catch Scilla’s murderer before her vengeful ghost kills their family. But that makes Jiara the assassin’s next target. Be ready for women and girls who rule countries, act as knife and javelin-wielding bodyguards, and are political strategists—and also men who care about what women think and don’t stand in their way.

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

If you’re nervous, try not to pressure yourself. Create the story you want for yourself as a reader. No one else has to see it if you don’t want them to. Give yourself time; there’s no deadline by when you need to have it finished. When you start writing, the only person you need to satisfy is yourself.

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

For me, feminism means everyone should have the same opportunities, and it means supporting, inspiring, and empowering everyone to be the best version of themselves. In A Dragonbird in the Fern, Jiara’s mother, the queen, rules their country. King Raffar wants to be certain Jiara is allowed to make her own decisions. And Jiara learns to trust herself, and that she is capable of much more than she ever believed.

Author Kalena Miller Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

The Night When No One Had Sex is a YA comedy coming out on September 7th from AW Teen. This sex-positive, all-in-one-night romp is about a group of friends who all vow to have sex the night after their senior prom…only everything goes disastrously wrong. Get ready for tender first kisses, high-stakes arguments about college decisions, way too much green body paint, and a cat named Bulldog. (Oh, right. Lots of sex too.)

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

My advice is all very practical. Establish a writing ritual–however that may look for in your life–and value that time. Find critique partners you trust (and then trust them). If you’re able, attend workshops and classes. Develop an unhealthy caffeine habit. Don’t engage in self-deprecating modesty. I’m sure your writing is amazing, so own it!

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

In this project, the aspect of feminism I embraced wholly is sex-positivity. As someone who grew up in Texas, I learned about sex from John Green novels. Similarly, my goal in this novel was to create a space where young readers can learn, question, and laugh about sex. I wanted to replace the shame and stigma with representations of teen sexual experiences that are safe, consensual, pleasurable, and empowering.

Author Tirzah Price Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

Pride and Premeditation is a murder mystery retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, with a feminist slant. The setting is ahistorical Regency London, and sees heroine Lizzie Bennet fighting to prove that she has what it takes to join her father in the family law firm–by solving a murder case!

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

Start writing, and don’t be afraid if your ideas, story, or characters evolve along the way. When we start with an Mo idea, it always feels shiny and perfect inside our heads, but writing is messy and it can be frustrating. Embrace what’s fun about your story idea, and don’t be afraid to explore in order to find out what works.

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

Feminism means equality for all, regardless of identity or expression. In order to achieve equality, we have to take into account the many intersections of identity and fight against oppression on all levels. Over the course of Pride and Premeditation, my Lizzie Bennet learns that there are worse inequalities in her world than men refusing to let her train in the legal profession, and she must confront how she is best equipped to fight those injustices.

Author Emma Kres Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

Dangerous Play is about the captain of a field hockey team who is fierce on the field, but timid in life. When she gets sexually assaulted, she and her ride-or-die team turn into vigilantes. But it might cost them everything.

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

I wasted years being scared to write. Now, I look back and wonder why I let that fear grip me so tightly. Remind yourself that you love to write, so write. Lean into the joy.

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

I define feminism as equal rights regardless of gender. I embrace an intersectional feminism that recognizes that women who also face racism, transphobia, classism, and in addition to sexism will necessarily have different obstacles and experiences and we must take those into account. As women, we must work to lift and support all women. In Dangerous Play, I wrote a large and diverse cast for this reason. I wanted to explore the insidious and pervasive effects of sexual assault and rape culture, even when a rape isn’t the focus. I wanted to examine what happens to a group of girls and their community when rape culture goes unchecked.

Author Monica Rodden Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

Monsters Among Us is about a girl named Catherine who returns from her first semester at college, looking for a reprieve from a traumatic experience she cannot fully remember and hates to even think about. However, during winter break, tragedy strikes her small town, involving her in a mystery that leads, ultimately, to the beginning of healing.

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

Believe in your story and believe in yourself. Ignore the voice in your head that says you can’t do it because that voice is a liar and your voice deserves to be heard above it. You have a story in you that only you can tell. Go one word at a time and I have no doubt you’ll get there.

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

To me, feminism means breaking barriers put in place to make women small, malleable, and manageable. It means taking up space. Catherine literally and figuratively learns to take up space in Monsters Among Us, finding a path forward in a world where men, time and time again, have tried to corner and cage her. This stories confronts lies, and then it tells the truth–about rape, about trauma, and about toxic masculinity.

Author Holly Green Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

In the Same Boat is about seventeen-year-old Sadie Scofield, who is determined to prove to her father and everyone else that she is tough enough to complete a 265 mile canoe race. But when she loses her partner the night before the race, she is forced to paddle with Cully, her former best friend turned worst enemy. It’s fast paced, full of mud and sweat, with a fierce protagonist and a swoony romance.

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

Write something you’re excited about, something you would pick up off a bookshelf, and don’t worry about whether it is good or not—that’s the biggest thing. But also, study the craft of writing. Read a craft book or watch videos or listen to podcasts. Having more writing tools makes it easier to figure the story out and get it on paper

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

To me feminism means equal opportunity and treatment for all, regardless of sex or gender identity or expression, keeping in mind that people face oppression because of other parts of their identity as well. It also means that we stop putting a box on what it is to be female. Our strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and interests are not defined by sex or gender. My main character, Sadie, fights to prove herself in a male dominated ultra-marathon canoe race, when most of the people around her expect her to fail without her dad or brother there to help her through it.

Author Anuradha D. Rajurkar Says…
Describe the content of your latest book and what can readers expect from it.

American Betiya is a cross-cultural love story about 18-year-old Rani, who gets swept up in the euphoria of first love when she meets Oliver. But it’s the challenges they encounter as an interracial couple that allow her to recognize real love for what it is. It explores cultural fetishization, immigrant families, shifting personal boundaries and the complicated relationship between love and culture. It also features funny best friend banter, feminist badassery, sex-positivity, intergenerational experiences, and an illuminating trip to India.

As a debut author, what advice would you give aspiring authors who want to write but might be afraid to try to start their own written story?

 Read widely, especially outside the genre you are planning to write. Study the kinds of strategies that make certain books so impactful. Read books on the writing craft, and set up a writing schedule for yourself that is realistic and that you can stick to, shame-free. Finally, if you’re intimidated like I was at the idea of writing a novel, start small: write a scene between two characters, a character sketch, a poem or short story. Give yourself the space to fall in love with your characters. Use your characters to help you seek answers to your burning questions. Finally: no one’s voice is quite like yours, so value it. Give it the respect it deserves.

What does feminism mean to you? How does a character in your book represent feminism?

To me, feminism means owning your identity, voice and decisions. Rani is the protagonist in my debut, American Betiya, who slowly begins to recognize over the course of the novel that the cultural conflict she experiences in her most intimate relationships leads her to make decisions that compromise her dignity and very identity. She learns the ways racism and misogyny crop up in places she least expects, and begins to lean on her friends and family in a celebration of feminist allyship.

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