Herstory YA Literature to Read together during Women's History Month
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “herstory” as history written from the point of view of women, and giving importance to their experiences and activities. Reading fictionalized stories about historical women from their point of view can give readers different understandings of the factors, perspectives, and contexts that contributed to cultural and societal time periods and events. Reading stories about fictionalized women from different time periods can do the same.
In my own reading, particularly that within the mother-daughter book club* I’ve been a member of for the past seven years, there have been many books that have prompted me (and my teenage daughter) to study and celebrate the roles and experiences of women across time and space. Collectively, these books help helped me unpack the historical ways women have been positioned and that femininity has been constructed (and challenged). In our book club, our reading of these books served as a springboard for many rich discussions about the issues surrounding women both past and present. Because of these discussions, we’ve been prompted, as mothers, daughters, readers, and critical thinkers, to advocate for women’s voices and issues locally and globally.
In the paragraphs that follow, I briefly summarize each book and share discussion questions that could guide a “Women’s History Month” reading of them.
Catherine Called Birdy - 1290 England: This historical novel in diary format by Karen Cushman (1994) tells the story of Catherine, the 14-year-old daughter of an English country knight who rebels against the accepted women’s roles and rights of her day. She has been promised in marriage to an old, rich knight whom she despises. Readers grow to love Birdy and all the ways she reflects on the (limited) options in her life. In our book club discussion about this book, we explored the following questions:
Blood Water Paint - 1610 Italy: Joy McCullough (2018)’s book, written mostly in verse, is the fictionalized story of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi. After her mom dies, Artemisia must decide, at age twelve, to either live as a nun or grind pigment for her father, an artist. She decides to grind pigment and in doing so develops her artistic skills. During a time period when men just took what they wanted from women, Artemisia must decide whether to live in silence or speak the truth. Discussion questions that extend from this story:
The Birchbark House - 1847 United States (Lake Superior). In her first novel for young readers, Lousie Erdrich (1999) tells a story through the eyes of the spirited, 7-year-old Ojibwa girl, Omakayas. Readers follow Omakayas and her adopted family and their surrounding community through four seasons in the span of a year, including when a historically documented outbreak of smallpox occurred on the island. Two questions to discuss after reading this book:
Uprising - 1911 United States (New York): Margaret Peterson Haddix (2014)’s historical fiction novel revolves around the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that killed 146 immigrant workers. The story, told in alternating points of view, focuses on three young women from different walks of life whose lives intersect because of the shirtwaist workers’ strike and the development of the women’s suffrage movement. Discussion questions from this story could include:
Letters From Rifka - 1919 United States (New York): The main character in this book by Karen Hesse (1992) is Rifka, a young Jewish girl who escapes from Russia with her family to America because one of her brothers is wanted by the army. The story consists of a series of letters from Rifka to her cousin Tovah who remains in Russia. In these letters, Rifka documents her experiences and chronicles her wonderings, dreams, and hopes. This story prompts readers to consider:
Claudette Colvin: Twice Before Justice - 1950s, United States (Alabama). Philip Hoose’s (2009) National Book Award-winning nonfiction book based on interviews tells an in-depth account of Claudette Colvin, an activist and pioneer in the civil rights movement yet not nearly as well known as Rosa Parks. As a 15-year-old teenager, Claudette refused to give her bus seat to a white woman nine months before Rosa Parks did. However, Claudette was dismissed by community leaders and not celebrated in the ways that Rosa Parks was.
Questions to explore with this book include:
*For the past seven years, our mother-daughter book club has gathered bi-monthly to discuss books, eat book-related food, and participate in book-inspired activities. I have written more about our book club with Gretchen Rumohr and Erica Hamilton here: Why Book Clubs Matter; Reading and Challenging Constructions Together: Implications of a Mother-Daughter Book Club for Classroom Practice.