If you’re reading BUST, you probably already know that the Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction 1) features at least two women 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. It is named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and it has sure inspired a lot of lists of films, particularly those that fail the test, but I’d like to look at works that pass it.
Here’s a short list of YA novels to add to your reading list that both pass the Bechdel test and tackle some important subjects, including body image, sexuality, and mental health.
1. Notes From The Teenage Underground by Simmone Howell tells the story of 17-year-old Gem who discovers the work of Andy Warhol on a school trip and decides to make her own underground film. Her two best friends quickly take control of the project and drama ensues. Howell’s well-crafted prose might make you see the art and friendship of teen girls each a little differently.
2. Manstealing for Fat Girls by Michelle Embree is a smart, off-center teen drama set in the 1980s that follows three girls—one fat, one a “dyke,” and one missing a breast—through the troubles of adolescence, including body-image issues, bullying, drug use, sexuality, and violence. While I highly recommend it for its great characters and vivid imagery, keep in mind that it may contain some triggering material.
3. Name Me Nobody by Lois-Ann Yamanaka is a well-crafted work of fiction that really changed me when I read it. I was the same age as the 13-year-old protagonist at the time—a Japanese-American living in Hawaii named Emi-Lou—and I related to the young characters’ struggles with self-image, sexuality, and a toxic friendship. Again, the contents may be triggering to some readers, but it’s a great book, written in a way that really gets you inside the character’s head.
4. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson also comes with a trigger warning. The author, best known for her powerful novel Speak, has created a great collection of YA novels dealing with trauma and mental health. In Wintergirls, Anderson tells the story of Lia and Cassie, who have vowed to be “skinniest together,” which results in Cassie’s death. It is written in present tense in the weeks following her death and Lia makes for a frustrating narrator as she’s delving further into her sickness. My sister, who suffered from anorexia herself in high school, explained to me that it’s frustrating to cope with the obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions associated with anorexia, and she says Anderson does a great job of telling Lia’s story in a truthful way.
5. Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy is the autobiographical first novel by Sonya Sones. The protagonist, 13-year-old Cookie, is left confused and shaken after her older sister has a manic breakdown. Sones writes novels in verse, and her poetry is so true and so precise, it really makes the book especially touching. The first time I read this book, I devoured it in one sitting, and I’ve read it many times since.
6. Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix is a work of historical fiction about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which I remember learning about in school. This fire was the deadliest factory disaster in New York City history, claiming the lives of 145 people—mostly women, and mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants. Haddix wrote about this tragedy while telling about the histories of immigration, women’s rights, and the labor movement, and through the alternating perspectives of three young women.
And two classics worth revisiting:
7. Forever... by Judy Blume. Sure, it tells the story of high school senior Katherine’s relationship with a boy, but this book is really better than just that. My favorite character is her grandmother, who was a progressive liberal in the 1970s when this timeless book was written and who encourages Katherine to get on The Pill. Honestly, light some candles, get some chocolate, and read this for a night as self-care.
8. The Bluest Eye was Toni Morrison’s first novel, and while it has been banned in schools across the country for its controversial plot, which deals with racism, as well as incest and childhood sexual abuse, there is a reason the book remains in our conscious minds—it’s both brilliant and poignant. Trigger warnings in mind, buying and reading banned books is a beautiful form of rebellion.
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