Book Reviews / book roundup lists / Teaching Ideas

YA Books with Strong Female Leads

Whether you’re looking for books to celebrate Women’s History Month or just amazing titles to add to your classroom library, here are some YA books with strong female leads you can use in your secondary ELA classroom. 


YA books with strong female leads:



Dread Nation (YA Fantasy)

Dread Nation is set in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. The twist? The Civil War ended not after a treaty, but after the dead began to rise. To combat the undead –known as “shamblers”– many Black and Indigenous children are forced into a life of conscripted service. Our heroine Jane McKeene is attending Miss Preston’s School of Combat. It’s not the life she desires, but it offers her more opportunities than many of her fellow Black Americans. Dread Nation is a classic monster-tale in that the biggest threat to Jane’s safety and happiness isn’t the shamblers, but the deeply racist and and unjust government and society.


In the ELA Classroom:

With elements of horror, fantasy, and historical fiction, this book has a wide appeal. If you read this book as a class, considering incorporating some genre metacognition and discussing the zombie narrative. Check out “How Zombies Inform Our Understanding of Racism,” a timeline of zombie narratives in the American imagination by Shuang Guan and Tiauna Lewis. I really like this article because it shows the literary history Dread Nation evolves from, and students can ground their understanding in several pop culture examples. This is a great opportunity to analyze author’s purpose.


Looking for more inclusive YA fantasy?
I’ve got you covered!


On the Come Up (Contemporary)

Bri Jackson isn’t interested in the prescribed future of college and career her mother has in mind for her. All she wants to do is follow her passion and talent and become a hip hop artist, like her late father. After a triumphant debut at The Ring, a local venue for rap battles, Bri is ready to rise to the top. Unfortunately, the world has its own ideas about how a teenage Black girl is expected to act. She faces relentless racism and oppression just for being a normal high school girl, even without the reputation she gets for rapping. Will Bri be able to stay true to herself and follow her dream?

After her breakout success with The Hate U Give, I was anxiously awaiting Angie Thomas’ next novel and On the Come Up was everything I hoped for. While The Hate U Give is more of an ensemble cast, On the Come Up is focused on our heroine, Bri. I loved reading about Bri. If you’re looking for YA books with strong female leads, look no further! Bri is fierce and unafraid to use her voice, even when some of her closest friends and mentors advise her not to. And that’s such a great message to send to teen girls. Be loud. Take up space. Stand up for what you believe in.


In the ELA Classroom:

So many great avenues here! Challenge your students to consider Bri’s work a work of protest and explore protest songs in general. Samantha Green from Secondary Urban Legends, has an excellent resource you can use.


If you want to learn more you can listen to the YA Cafe Podcast episode featuring this book. The first half of each episode is always spoiler-free, so you can listen even if you haven’t read the book.


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Ignite the Stars (YA Sci-Fi)

Everyone in the universe knows his name. Everyone in the universe fears him. But no one realizes that notorious outlaw Ia Cocha is a seventeen-year-old girl. When Ia gets caught, she is conscripted to join the Commonwealth’s military academy and use her talents as a pilot to work for the very government that destroyed her home. When the young Flight Master Knives is tasked to watch over it, it seems like all her hopes of escape are gone. Infamous for getting out of tricky situations and close calls, will Ia be able to escape her tightest bind yet?

This book had such thrillingly high stakes. Ia is leading a rebellion, right under the noses of all of her teachers and commanding officers. Readers will enjoy her sense of morality, even as she seems standoffish and focused. Ia feels a lot like Katniss from The Hunger Games. This book will also appear to fans of Tris from Divergent and Rey from the Star Wars franchise. 


In the ELA Classroom:

Honestly, there are some intense and violent moments in this book, so I would not assign it as a required class novel. Instead, you could use it as one literature circle choice or keep it in your classroom library. So much in this novel is about challenging assumptions, and you can tackle this theme with your students. How does Ia depend on people assuming she’s a man? How does she later leverage her classmates’ beliefs about her?


If you want to hear more from Maura Milan, check out her appearance on the YA Cafe Podcast. She shares about her writing process, and talks about Ignite the Stars and its sequel, Eclipse the Skies.


Are you reading this list, imagining other YA books with strong female leads? We love comments, and we update our lists based on your recommendations!


Lovely, Dark, and Deep (Contemporary)

Viola Li has her life plan figured out—she wants to become a journalist in the most dangerous parts of the world, the opposite of her risk-averse parents. But when she suddenly develops a light sensitivity that leaves her unable to go outside or even sit under a bright light, all her dreams start to seem impossible. Viola has to figure out a way to keep some control over her life as she struggles to navigate relationships with her parents, sister, and new potential-boyfriend, all while trying to avoid the blistering light that can be dangerous and even lethal.

I LOVE smart, passionate leading ladies, and Viola has the best of both of these traits. And as a Firefly superfan, I found it so cool that Viola was a member of the fandom too 🙂

We featured this novel on episode 24 of the YA Cafe Podcast, and Justina Chen came on the podcast in episode 57


In the ELA Classroom:

This is one I STRONGLY recommend as a class novel. It is lyrical and lovely, and you’ll have a LOT of opportunities for discussion here. From the very title (a Robert Frost reference), you know that you have a lover of literature in this author and protagonist. Viola loves the show Firefly, and understanding elements of the show actually enhance the meaning of the book. If you’re able to show the episode Safe, you could have students compare themes between the two works. River Tam is a strong fighter, but she was welded into that without her consent. The process has left her broken. How does Viola transform over the course of the novel into a fighter of her own, without being broken? You’ll need to preview the episode for content and make your own call based on your students.

Even without the Firefly explorations, this is a beautiful novel. Chen plays with imagery of light and shadows, unexpected turns for characterization and conflict, and an interesting narrative structure with interstitials.


Learn more about using TV in Secondary ELA.


Ms. Marvel (Comic Book)

Kamala Khan is your average Pakistani-American teenager living in Jersey City. She feels her parents’ expectations of her are too strict, when she’s shown them time and time again that she’s a good, trustworthy daughter. When she decides to ignore their wishes and sneak out to a party, she and the other party-goers are enveloped in a strange green mist. Kamala finds herself with new, unruly transmorphic powers.

Like all good superheroes, Kamala walks a fine line between her duty to her friends and family and her duty to her neighborhood. She really does want to make her parents happy, but she knows that she needs to fight crime and save the day!


In the ELA Classroom:

Sharing superheroes with students is GREAT because these characters can open up amazing discussions about ethics, responsibility, and integrity. In this post, I write all about using superhero texts to explore the American identity and American dream. This comic book also requires a specific kind of graphic reading skills, which we talk about in this episode of the YA Cafe Podcast


Miss Meteor (Contemporary)

When Lita Perez asks her ex-best friend to help her win the Miss Meteor beauty pageant, Chicky knows that this is an underdog story for the ages. Never in the history of their small-town pageant have the judges picked a winner who looks like Lita and Chicky. But for Lita, being in the Miss Meteor pageant has been a lifelong dream, and she’s running out of time. Can both girls show the town who their true selves?

Something I love about this book is that you get two great leading ladies for the price of one. Lita is introspective, sensitive, and thoughtful. Chicky is bold and friendly. They are unique and wonderful on their own, but it’s their friendship that truly makes this book awesome!


In the ELA Classroom:

This is an excellent study in split perspective and narrative voice. Use this as a mentor text (just the first two chapters, for example) and help students analyze how the authors develop the voices of the two main characters. How do the authors build interiority and expand upon characterization from the other protagonist’s perspective? Here’s another idea: This book is considered “YA contemporary,” but it also has elements of magical realism. This makes it especially useful in the classroom. You can talk about the history of magical realism as a distinct genre from fantasy. 


Find all of these titles here 🙂


The Radical Element (MG/YA Historical)

This short story collection has tons of amazing female protags to share with your students! I love that it’s historical fiction that shows strong young women throughout many decades, from 1838 to 1984. Rebekah (from “Daughter of the Book” by Dahlia Adler) yearns for an education, but doesn’t want to disobey the strict guidelines of her Jewish community. Carrie (from “Better For All the World” by Marieke Nijkamp) wants to practice law, and create a society that’s just for all citizens. Rose (from “Lady Firebrand” by Megan Shepherd) is in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop her from fighting against the Confederacy. These are a few examples of the 12 fantastic stories in The Radical Element.

You can always trust Jessica Spotswood to compile a great collection of short stories. I highly recommend all of her anthologies. We featured The Radical Element and Toil & Trouble on the YA Cafe Podcast, check out those episodes for more details on our favorite stories from each collection. 


In the ELA Classroom:

Short stories are a great way to draw in all readers, since you’re teaching each one for a few days, max. I love using anthologies because I can be more inclusive about the voices I share. Also, many YA authors featured in the anthologies linked above have full-length novels that students can seek out after finding a story they love. Win-win! Find more inclusive ideas for teaching short stories here.


Final Thoughts




We can always be on the lookout for ways to center women’s voices in our curriculum. Stocking your classroom library with YA books with strong female leads is a great place to start. Next, look for ways to draw in female excellence and expertise in your curriculum. We are building new representative curricula, and each text counts.

Happy reading!


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