Top Ten Old-School Girl Books by Lyn Fairchild Hawks

I write YA novels about gifted, weird, wise girls – GWW girls for short . Nerd nation gals, the dork divas, the geek chicks. I’ve always felt the magnetic pull to stories about girls who didn’t fit, who chose the path of most resistance, who see the way clear to solving problems no one else attempts, who instigate annoyance, and who thrive on creativity. Here’s my top ten list of old-school books about old-school girls, what one might call the YA of the 20th century before we called it YA.


This is a hard list to narrow, and I truly hated abandoning certain gifted, weird, wise girls for a short list of ten. You may well ask, You left out Meg in A Wrinkle in Time? I plead for forgiveness up front, as I had to err on the side of personal taste when making the tough choices. (Physics fries my brain—sorry, Ms. L’Engle!)


My main criteria: a) Does the book star a gifted, weird, wise girl?; b) Did the book beguile me as a teen or preteen?; and c) Does the book raise tough issues or lead to strange high jinks? Because GWW girls can handle both.


  1. GWW girls have a “besetting sin,” known as “imagining too much.” Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery is not only guilty as charged but loves words to the point of obsession. She’s a verbosity monster, a chatterbox who can crank out the pages and soar on flights of fancy. She starts the Story Club, and writes sentences like these: “Cordelia was a regal brunette with a coronet of midnight hair and duskly flashing eyes. Geraldine was a queenly blonde with hair like spun gold and velvety purple eyes.” Go on with your bad self, Anne. Purple prose is your thing.

  2. GWW girls carry incandescent minds, their heads roiling with raucous poetry and momentous thoughts. Sometimes they just need the right invitation to say their piece. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou’s memoir, a survivor’s tale. When Mrs. Flowers mentors young Maya with books, tea, and vanilla cookies, the rusty lock on Maya’s mouth cracks open. The voice that abuse snuffed rekindles. The beauty stuffed in there so long finds kinship in Dickens and Beowulf and poetry recitations.

  3. GWW girls are rough around the edges—even prickly to the point of pain. They bare and share without the filter that Ms. Manners insists keeps us civilized. Gilly of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson is a nasty soul practiced in the art of manipulation when foster care dumps her out on Trotter’s doorstep. With her first dose of unconditional love, Gilly’s harshness softens, and her meanness and racism dissipates. Trotter, Mr. Randolph, and Miss Harris embrace Gilly’s sharp mind ready for integrity and real relationship, turning it to better things.

  4. GWW girls ask the tough questions and ruminate till their brain hurts. Margaret in Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume takes up the quest of her spiritual identity—am I Christian? Am I Jewish?—that is so much more than the book’s frequently known synopsis of must-must-increase-our-bust. The diary full of unanswerable questions shows her ability to face questions many adults dodge. Her poignant escape from the Catholic confessional captures our confusion in the face of the ineffable.

  5. GWW girls are resilient in hard times. Laura Ingalls of the Little House on the Prairie series can hunker down as she does in The Long Winter, her memoir of surviving multiple blizzards in the winter of 1880-1881. Living on potatoes and coarse bread, warmed barely by twisted sticks of straw—Laura and her family gut it out for several months and barely escape starvation.  Ingalls Wilder’s concise, uncomplaining prose accepts things as they are while Laura’s irrepressible spirit keeps asking, sassing, and challenging, showing her survivor genes the frontier demands.

  6. GWW girls are critical know-it-alls. Felicia of Felicia the Critic by Ellen Conford has a knack for pointing out the truths no one else wants to see. She’s eager to advise, analyze, and nitpick. In the face of rejection, she vows to seal her lips, but discovers that muting a keen, deliberative mind doesn’t help anyone. Her discovery of the art of constructive critique is a great training ground for any GWW maiden.

  7. GWW girls keep their heads in books and capture everyone else’s stories. Cassandra Mortmain of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith turns to her literary heroines and journal, a haven when she feels lost or insecure, whenever her eccentric family’s shenanigans become too much for her. Cassandra’s moral dilemma when romance strikes, pitting her versus her sister, shows her to rise to the occasion with not only intellectual but also emotional intelligence.

  8. GWW girls are obsessed with history—not just facts, but getting the soul behind the story. April in The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder orchestrates a recreation of ancient Egyptian rituals with an eclectic group of friends—more multicultural than many of today’s YA landscapes—and persists in scavenging out the truths hidden in the Professor’s A-Z Antiques storage yard. April’s unquenchable desire to excavate makes her a quirky Indiana Jones before Hollywood discovered him.

  9. GWW girls can’t stop writing the truth. Anne Frank whose journal became The Diary of Anne Frank is known for representing the resistance against Nazi Germany’s Holocaust, but we remember her for telling all about her body, her fears, her passions, and the foibles of her family trapped with the equally flawed Van Daans. Anne’s unflinching gaze at herself and others is the courageous act in the midst of all the waiting.

  10. GWW girls strive to learn no matter where they’re planted, even if it’s in concrete. Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith struggles like a weed through the cracks of sidewalk, finding joy in reading despite a bitter mother, an alcoholic father, and oppressive poverty. No matter what the circumstances, the dream to know more and better oneself is the Tree of Heaven in her heart.


There were many other books I read and re-read as a child: The Empty Schoolhouse; Mara, Daughter of the Nile; The Pistachio Prescription; The Story Girl; What Katy Did in School; Ballet Shoes for Anna…but I digress. I invite you to check out your library and recall the girls who inspired your inner nerd-dom. They gift us with a rallying cry of weirdness, they inspire us with their wisdom, and they never fail to surprise.

Lyn Fairchild Hawks is the author of a YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, and a collection of short stories, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future. She is also author of several works for English educators. You can find Lyn on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Lyn is giving away a copy of How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought. Click here to see the trailer and here to be part of the Rafflecopter giveaway she is hosting.