The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls

For some teenagers, "historical fiction" has a vegetables-like connotation: it's nutritious but not all that flavorful. With The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other Dauntless Girls, editor Jessica Spotswood may well redeem historical fiction for teens who have a taste for righteous female protagonists.

The 12 stories, set in the U.S., run chronologically from 1838 Savannah to 1984 Boston and spotlight girls from a range of ethnic and social backgrounds. In Erin Bowman's "The Magician," set on the Colorado River in 1858, an abandoned teenage girl masquerades as a boy so that she can work as a stevedore. In Marieke Nijkamp's "Better for All the World," set in Washington, D.C., in 1927, a neurodivergent 17-year-old girl is fixed on a career in law. In Meg Medina's "The Birth of Susi Go-Go," set in 1972 Queens, 16-year-old Cuban immigrant Susana idolizes her go-go-boots-wearing neighbor, of whom Susana's mother disapproves. Several stories feature protagonists defying their parents, in one case to procure an education, in another to serve her country.

Each offering in The Radical Element, Spotswood's companion to 2016's A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls, ends with an author's note about the story's particular historical terrain, but there's common thematic ground here. Ruby, from Spotswood's 1905-set "Step Right Up," in which the 17-year-old Tulsan plots to escape her abusive uncle by joining the circus, sums up all the young firebrands' ambitions when she says, "One way or another, my life changes today." --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

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