Positive Girl Friendships in YA: Guest Post by Jessica Spotswood

Is it rare to see girl friendships portrayed well in YA fiction? I tend to think that’s an area where there are fewer books than there should be and those that do tackle this subject stand out because it’s fairly rare. Today, Jessica Spotswood is here to talk about female friendship in YA, and I think she gets a little to the heart of why it might be a rare thing and why it’s something she fought for in her own work.

Jessica Spotswood is the author of the Cahill Witch Chronicles: BORN WICKED (2012), STAR CURSED (2013), and SISTERS’ FATE (August 2014). She grew up in a tiny, one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Now Jess lives in Washington, DC with her playwright husband and a cuddly cat named Monkey. She can be found drinking tea, teaching writing workshops for teens, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Some things never change.

When Kelly listed a range of possible topics for my guest post, one leapt out at me right away: friendships in YA. It’s a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, because I would be lost without my girl friends, but strong, positive girl friendships feel like a rarity in YA.

To be honest, they were a rarity in my life as a teen, too. There were lots of toxic friendships, the kind marred by gossip and jealousy and competition, whether it was over parts in the school plays or over boys. These kind of mean-girl dynamics tend to be super popular in YA (see: PRETTY LITTLE LIARS and GOSSIP GIRL). Two of my favorite examples of some truly vicious girls are in Courtney Summers’ SOME GIRLS ARE and in Katherine Longshore’s GILT. For less fraught examples, check out the friendships gone wrong between Samantha and Nan in Huntley Fitzpatrick’s MY LIFE NEXT DOOR, or between Cricket and Jules in Leila Howland’s NANTUCKET BLUE. I think girl-on-girl bullying, frenemies, and friend breakups are all important to portray.
It strikes me, though, that the most common girl friendships in YA are sort of token friendships – the best girl friends who recede into the background once the heroine meets the right guy. This is one of my literary pet peeves, possibly because it rings so true to my own high school experience. I was the single girl amidst lots of couples, with girl friends who only made time for me when they needed relationship advice or consolation after breakups. It made me realize early on how often we idealize romantic relationships and focus on them to the exclusion of all else, and it gave me an early feminist horror for making a boy the be-all and end-all of one’s life. I know firsthand that that dynamic is super realistic – but I don’t think it’s emotionally healthy or ideal, and too often it seems to go unquestioned within the text. If most other girls are either rivals or placeholders until our heroines meet the boys of their dreams – what is that saying? 
My editor for the Cahill Witch Chronicles is brilliant, and I take the vast majority of her suggestions. But the issue of Cate’s friends Sachiko Ishida and Rory Elliott was one that I pushed back on. Sachi and Rory are popular, fashionable, gossipy girls and Cate – who’s preoccupied with the need to protect her sisters and keep their magic a secret from the patriarchal Brotherhood – originally dismisses them as nothing but cabbageheads. But – spoiler – she’s wrong. My editor suggested early on that one of them should be after Finn, that it could be more dramatic if they functioned as rivals with Cate in some way. But it was important to me that Cate be wrong in her original estimation, that she misjudges these pretty girls who love bright colors and dresses, who choose to hide their own secrets in plain sight instead of cloistering themselves away and disdaining feminine things. One of my favorite scenes in the entire trilogy is when Cate realizes how fierce and loyal and strong Rory is, and she’s ashamed of how she’s treated her. It was important to me that Cate find true girl friends – women who are generous and clever and talented and funny, who support her and won’t let her face her problems alone – and that she realize their worth. 
I wish more YA books featured strong girl friendships – the kind worth every bit as much to the heroine as a boy, the kind who aren’t shoved off stage or reduced only to giving relationship advice, who fight the monsters or evil government right alongside the heroine. Here are three girl friendships that I think are really, really awesome:
Rose and Lissa from the VAMPIRE ACADEMY series by Richelle Mead: This was the first example that came to mind, maybe because I just saw the movie! This friendship and the shadow-kissed bond between them are really at the heart of the series. Rose has to try to negotiate her romance around her loyalty to Lissa and her professional duty as Lissa’s Guardian. There are elements of jealousy, of negotiating boundaries (especially since she has a psychic bond with Lissa), of figuring out how to define herself away from the friendship. It’s an awesome, complex relationship that’s every bit as important to both girls as their romances.
Karou and Zuzana from the DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE series by Laini Taylor: I just read the novella “Night of Cake & Puppets” and it hit me again how special this friendship is. Karou and Zuzana are fiercely protective of one another. Zuzana knows that Karou is stronger than her in many ways, but she still threatens the jerk who broke her friend’s heart. Karou is off having mad, dangerous adventures, but she still makes time to text Zuzana advice about Mik. Zuzana is Karou’s link back to the everyday, human world; Karou provides the dash of magic Zuzana desperately wants. They balance each other in a really lovely, supportive way.
Kate and Parker from THINGS I CAN’T FORGET by Miranda Kenneally: Kate is a complex girl, which is why she’s one of my favorite protagonists. She has very firm religious convictions that guide her every move, and at the beginning of the book she’s incredibly judgey. She judges Parker, who’s abandoned some of her church’s teachings and whose mom is a lesbian. Parker calls Kate out when she’s being hurtful, but over the course of the book, she becomes someone Kate can go to with frank questions about boys and sex and morality. Friends don’t always agree on the big stuff, but I love how mutually respectful Kate and Parker are.
What about you? I’d love to read about some of your favorite girl friendships in the comments.
Jessica Spotswood is the author of the Cahill Witch Chronicles series, including Born Wicked, Star Cursed, and the upcoming conclusion, Sisters’ Fate, available in August. 
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterestshare on Tumblr


  1. says

    I also like the way Bitterblue relies on other women (in, um, "Bitterblue"). But your post totally made me think about the way that from fairy tales on, so many narratives put girls/women in competition with each other in mean girl scenarios. Seems like a default setting, sadly. I loved hearing about how you consciously bucked it!

  2. says

    I love when great friendships feature prominently in YA and I absolutely loved Things I Can't Forget. However, just skimming my 'read' shelf on Goodreads confirms everything you said. I can't really see too many books where the best friend hasn't been demoted to an extra due to a love interest.

    Kudos then to: Ally Carter for giving us Cam, Bex and Liz in the Gallagher Girls; Jaclyn Moriarty for Em, Lydia and Cassie from Finding Cassie Crazy; and Eva Rice for Penelope and Charlotte in The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets (although not categorized as YA, the characters are all teenagers so I think it counts).

  3. says

    Code Name Verity, definitely and this is something I think Sarah Dessen is especially good at. In Along for the Ride, I would argue that the main character finding female friends is actually more important to the story than her meeting the love interest.

  4. says

    Code Name Verity, for sure, and Anne and Diana from Anne of Green Gables were very much a part of my childhood (as both a book and a musical).

    SORROW'S KNOT by Erin Bow will take your breath away (and then make you cry on an airport shuttle in front of strangers, who will as if you're okay because they think you've left someone you love at the airport, which was kind of true, but not the reason I was losing my mind).

    TEAM HUMAN by Sarah Reese Brennan (which is also one of the funniest books I've ever read), the Ally Carter Gallagher Girls novels, SCHOOL SPIRITS by Rachel Hawkins, FATHOMLESS (and PURITY, really) by Jackson Pearce, THE WAY WE FALL by Megan Crewe, TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN by James Marsden…

    (And THE STORY OF OWEN, which is mine.) 😉

    • says

      Love love love both CNV & Anne of Green Gables! I obviously need to read SORROW'S KNOT ASAP as well bc everyone is recommending it (and I loved PLAIN KATE). Thank you for the big list of recs!

  5. says

    Kerstin Gier's time travel books have Gwyneth and Lesley as best friends and working together. I also love Gail Carriger's Finishing School books for showing the friendships ups and downs with Sophronia and the other girls.

    • says

      Ooh, the Finishing School books are a great example; I almost included them in the post. I love Sophronia & her friends! And thanks for the recommendation for Kerstin Geir's books – I haven't read those yet.

  6. says

    I have second both Sorrow's Knot (gorgeous fantasy AND really wonderful portrayal of friendship, especially the shifts and development the relationship undergoes the young women enter adulthood) and Code Name Verity ("it's like falling in love, meeting your best friend.").

    I want to shout out to Smart Girls Get What They Want by Sarah Strohmeyer, a delightfully brainy AND bubbly novel. Gigi, Bea, and Neerja's rock solid friendship is a big focus of the narrative; they support each other with kindness, consideration, and respect. They push each other to face fears and try new things while also committing time to each other. Over the course of the novel, the three girls specifically take time to nurture their friendship and support each other even as each pursues new interests and first romances.

  7. says

    One of the best new female friendships i've read about is Dee and Reagan in Emery Lord's OPEN ROAD SUMMER! They are strong, they have their hiccups, but they love and support each other so so much!

  8. says

    As others have mentioned both Sorrow's Knot and Code Name Verity, I will add my endorsement to those.

    My absolute favorite is probably Francesca, Justine, Tara, and Siobhan in SAVING FRANCESCA by Melina Marchetta.

  9. says

    The girls and I over at Oh, the Books! are actually putting together a recommendation list based on this same topic, for later this month. We figured it would be a great theme to go along with our having just started co-blogging. Also it seems way harder than it should to find books with strong female friendships in them! Karou & Zuzana were one of the first pairs on my list, so I'm happy to see them on yours as well. (My others are Rachel & Ivy from Kim Harrison's The Hollows series, and Cinder & Iko from Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles series.) I'll have to add the others to our suggestions!

  10. says

    I read Tammara Webber's book Easy back when it was self-published and a work also called mature YA. In that book one the things I loved was the supportive friendship that the main character has with her roommate Erin.

    They are both very different personalities but learn to love each other because of this instead of despite this. Erin is the first person Jacqueline tells about an attempted sexual assault. Erin goes on full support mode even going so far as to break up with her boyfriend when he takes the assaulter's side with a fake story. She gets Jacqueline to sign up for a self defense class taking it with her and stands by her side the whole time including when she begins to come out with her story.

    I also loved the truth behind the way sometimes Erin's support is a bit misguided but well intended. She tries to get a newly broken up with Jacqueline to rebound with a new guy without fully considering that this doesn't fit J's personality. But she tries to support her in every way.

    Also, have you read Roomies? It's a story about two girls writing emails and forming a tentative friendship before college when they find out they'll be roommates in college after the summer. I thought it was done well.

    • says

      Thanks for the recommendations, Lynn! I haven't read EASY but that friendship sounds great – and I like that it has its flaws too, bc I think lots of times friends don't quite know how to support each other and that's hard…I bought ROOMIES when it came out but haven't had a chance to read it yet. Soon, I hope! I love Sara Zarr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>