After Marya makes a terrible mistake, she receives a letter from Dragomir Academy—a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Soon she is a hundred miles from home, surrounded by girls she’s never met.
Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the things that threaten the precarious balance of their society.
I grew up devouring Tamora Pierce books, so I’m a huge fan of fantasy books with feminist themes. I’m honestly a bit jealous of the wide swathe of middle grade feminist fantasies available to young readers today. Feminism is simply the belief that everyone, regardless of gender, deserves the same rights and opportunities — whether that’s the right to education or the opportunity to put on armor and fight demons.
These books feature girls standing up for themselves, finding their places in the world, and changing their societies for the better all while going on fantastical adventures and exploring magical worlds. Even though there’s magic involved, that’s not enough to solve their problems and make them the hero of their own story. They have to be kind and courageous and believe in themselves, but also know when they can depend on others. Plus they have dragons, witches, and every mythical creature an 11-year-old Sarah would’ve been thrilled to discover among the pages of their library books. As someone who was constantly pitted against their sister when we were children, I also really enjoy when these books have strong or developing sibling relationships, so you may see my list skew in that direction.
Here are nine great middle grade feminist fantasies to add to your library.
A young wolf, Zima, has grown up fearing humans — especially witches — but has to seek the help of Baba Yaga when her family is threatened. Baba Yaga is hatching her own plan to fix a past mistake and needs a wolf’s keen sense of smell, so she switches bodies with Zima and runs off into the woods, leaving Zima behind. A young orphan girl from the village, Nadya, seeks the witch’s help, but finds Zima instead. The two girls discover their enemy is the same and he threatens them all, so they must unite wolves, witches, and humans to fight back.
In 10th century Eastern Europe, Anya is a daughter of the only Jewish family in her village. When the hateful magistrate tries to force her family off their land with bogus taxes, Anya teams up with some dragon hunters to earn the reward money. But she soon discovers the dragon is not what everyone told her it was, and she has to decide if she’ll save her new friend or her family. Bonus: there’s also a delightful goat (that didn’t fit naturally in my summary, but it must be mentioned).
Cecelia Rios has always been fascinated by the powerful spirits, or criaturas, that roam the desert near her town. But only brujas associate with the spirits, and brujeria is a terrible crime, so her family disapproves of her interest. When her older sister is taken by a powerful criatura, Cece decides to secretly become a bruja to bring her sister back. Luckily, the legendary criatura Coyote has offered to help. Cece sets out to save her sister but may find herself challenging long-held beliefs along the way.
Josephine just wants to be the first girl on her school’s cricket team in Barbados and to protect her dad from his girlfriends, who are never good enough for him. But the coach says girls can’t try out, and then Daddy brings home a beautiful woman named Mariss, who isn’t so easy to scare off. The way people and fish act around her is weird. Josephine has to get some help from her friends and from her cricket skills to figure out what’s up with Mariss.
The only thing that helps Kiki handle her unending anxiety is drawing the Indian myths and legends her mother has told her about in her sketchbook — until the day her sketchbook starts coming to life. An evil god seizes control and wants to use the sketchbook to take over the real world as well. Kiki is drawn into the world she drew, which holds wonderful things and just as many terrifying things. Armed with only a pencil, Kiki thinks she’s not the hero either world needs, but she must find her courage and join with her new friends to defeat the vengeful deity.
Nizhoni can see monsters that nobody else seems to notice. She’s pretty sure Mr. Charles, her dad’s new boss, isn’t human — and he’s up to something. Her dad doesn’t believe her, but then he disappears the next day, leaving behind a message for them to run. The siblings set off with Nizhoni’s best friend Davery on a rescue mission, but now they also need to stop Mr. Charles from releasing ancient monsters upon their world. Along the way, the trio is helped by Diné Holy People, who ask them to pass a set of trials to get the weapons they need.
The night of her 12th birthday, Rea fights with her twin brother Rohan, and then he disappears, nowhere to be found in their village of Darjeeling. Her mother and grandmother are acting strangely, so Rea and her friend Leela consult a fortune teller who sets them off on a quest to the magical land of Astranthia through a portal in a banyan tree. They discover Rohan’s been captured and they’ll need to follow the clues and face all kinds of fantastical creatures to save her brother, Astranthia, and themselves.
Princess Toli is heir to her mother’s throne, which is at the mercy of the dragons who killed her father. She trains for the day she expects they’ll come back to her frozen home and destroy the rest of her family. But when that day finally arrives and dragons seize her mother, it’s not only her strength as a warrior that will save them, but her ability to reconsider long-held beliefs and finally opening up to trust and accept help from others, especially those who care about her.
Twin sisters Iris and Lark are very close, and they both know things are always better when they’re together. They’re put into different classrooms in 5th grade, and both girls start to shrink into themselves. Then things start to go missing, both big and small, in their house and around the city. And Iris will do anything to keep her sister safe. This one is a bit less fantastical than the other books on this list, but if you keep reading, you’ll find the magic.
What are some of your favorite fantasy books for young readers with feminist themes?