The Radical Element edited by Jessica Spotswood
Genre: Anthology, Historical Fiction, YA
Series: A Tyranny of Petticoats #2
Release date: March 13th 2018 by Candlewick Press
Length: 320 pages (Kindle edition)
Purchase: Publisher | Amazon | Book Depository
LGBTQAI+: Sapphic main and side characters in a couple of stories, and a transgender man LI in one
Sex on page: No
In an anthology of revolution and resistance, a sisterhood of YA writers shines a light on a century and a half of heroines on the margins and in the intersections.
To respect yourself, to love yourself—should not have to be a radical decision. And yet it remains as challenging for an American girl to make today as it was in 1927 on the steps of the Supreme Court. It’s a decision that must be faced whether you’re balancing on the tightrope of neurodivergence, finding your way as a second-generation immigrant, or facing down American racism even while loving America. And it’s the only decision when you’ve weighed society’s expectations and found them wanting. In The Radical Element, twelve of the most talented writers working in young adult literature today tell the stories of the girls of all colors and creeds standing up for themselves and their beliefs—whether that means secretly learning Hebrew in early Savannah, using the family magic to pass as white in 1920s Hollywood, or singing in a feminist punk band in 1980s Boston. And they’re asking you to join them.
I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This is going to be a long review because I have so much love to give to this anthology.
At first glance, I loved the way the stories are in a chronological order, and the year + setting is clearly stated right before every story. Then I started reading, and I’m not kidding when I say that I fell in love with every single one of these heroines. The quality of writing in this anthology was through the roof – I was taken in by every single story. I also loved the author’s notes at the end of each story, which included many things: the real historical context, the research that went into the stories, how the experience of the characters relates to the authors’ experiences, and sometimes even recommended further reading.
As soon as I finished reading, I went on Goodreads to look up the other books by these authors and add most of them to my TBR.
While I kinda wish more of the stories had queer characters, I still didn’t mind in this case since the religious, racial and neurodivergent diversity was amazing. Many of the stories didn’t have romance at all, or there were hints of future romance, but the ambition of the girls took priority (for now). Still, there were some great male (future) love interests that I fell in love with.
It’s very difficult to pick favourites in this anthology when I rated almost every individual story 5 stars, but I’m going to mark a few stories as my favourites anyway.
* 1838: Savannah, Georgia — Daughter of the Book by Dahlia Adler: With a Jewish main character, this story is about a girl who yearns to learn about her own culture and religion, including things that are said to be improper for girls and women. She recruits a Jewish boy to be her teacher, and the two of them find empowering women in Jewish religious texts. I absolutely loved not just the main character, but her chosen teacher, Caleb as well. 5/5 stars
* 1844: Nauvoo, Illinois — You’re a Stranger Here by Mackenzie Lee: This story has a Mormon main character who eventually risks her life for her and her mother’s religion, despite the fact that she actively questions her own faith in their prophet. I really loved the questioning aspect of it, especially paired with the ending, and the writing was just absolutely amazing. 5/5 stars
* 1858: Colorado River, New Mexico Territory — The Magician by Erin Bowman: This is one of several stories where I was worried it would end badly, but instead it had an open, perhaps bittersweet ending where you’re free to imagine how things end up. The main character is an orphaned girl disguising herself as a boy to keep her job, and save up money so she can find her family. I absolutely loved the ending of the story, and the last few lines were my favourite. 5/5 stars
* 1863: Charleston, South Carolina — Lady Firebrand by Megan Shepherd: THIS STORY. This story was amazing. The main character is a white girl in a wheelchair who travels from the Northern states to the South to visit her relatives, with her black best friend posing as her maid. Her relatives have no idea that the two of them are actually abolitionist spies helping the Northern cause. This story also had a male character that I loved, and I loved the way the story ended (although I would have loved to see the rescue itself). 5/5 stars
1905: Tulsa, Indian Territory — Step Right Up by Jessica Spotswood: Major trigger warning for a physically abusive uncle here, with beating in the story itself as well. Step Right Up is about a young girl who wants to join the circus, not only to get away from her uncle but primarily to be a performer, which has been her dream since she was five. This story also had a lovely relationship between the two sisters that I loved (and also a sapphic main character, though her only love interest in the story is unrequited). 5/5 stars
1923: Los Angeles and the Central Valley, California — Glamour by Anna-Marie McLemore: Glamour has a Mexican main character whose dream is to become a famous actress on the cover of magazines in Hollywood – but to achieve that, she uses an inherited family charm to appear more white. This story has a transgender male love interest and heavy themes of racism, and it’s absolutely amazing. 5/5 stars
* 1927: Washington, D.C. — Better for All the World by Marieke Nijkamp: This was one of those stories where I hoped the guy wouldn’t turn out to be a jerk, and yet… Better for All the World was a story about an autistic girl who wants to be a lawyer, and it’s also #ownvoices for autism. It has discussions of forced sterilisation on mentally ill or autistic people, and I found it one of the most chilling stories in this collection. I absolutely loved the main character. It was also a good example that believing somebody doesn’t deserve to have rights isn’t just a “difference in opinion”. 5/5 stars
1943: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts — When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough: A fascinating story with a black main character who lives with her parents. They harvest the moonlight itself and drink it every month to lengthen their lives, so the main character is hundreds of years old, but still having to go through the same milestones for 16-year-olds, and being treated as a kid by her parents (“this is grown-up talk”). It’s also about loving a country that doesn’t love you, and wanting to help people in spite of it. 5/5 stars
1952: Brooklyn, New York — The Belle of the Ball by Sarvenaz Tash: A story about a girl who has been writing funny scenes to be acted out by her friend for years. She loves I Love Lucy and wants to write comedy, despite the fact that so many people, including her neighbour thinks that “women just aren’t funny”. One of my favourite parts was that she had that quote up on her wall as motivation to write. 4/5 stars
1955: Oakland, California — Land of the Sweet, Home of the Brave by Stacey Lee: Lana, this story’s main character has both Japanese and Chinese ancestry, but she was born in America and even her grandmother has worked on the sugar fields there. She enters a contest to be the face of the company that both her Japanese grandmother and half-Japanese mother work for, as the only Asian girl among the contestants. 5/5 stars
1972: Queens, New York — The Birth of Susi Go-Go by Meg Medina: The main character here is Cuban, immigrated to the U.S. as a child, who wishes to be more American and dress like her neighbour, Linda. I loved the ending of the story and the reaction of the grandparents, though I can’t say much more without spoiling it. 3.5/5 stars
1984: Boston, Massachusetts — Take Me With U by Sara Farizan: The Iranian main character here is staying with her uncle in America temporarily while war goes on in her home country, and she ends up joining a feminist band with some other American girls. I absolutely loved the bilingualism of this story, how she didn’t understand everything and had to ask her 6-year-old cousin for help (which was especially funny when neither of them had any idea what the band’s name meant). 3.5/5 stars
Final rating: 📚📚📚📚📚/5