By Sam Allen

Every society has its villains. From bad boys to mean girls, we seem to be obsessed with stories that extoll the good and vilify the bad. It’s the timeless triumph of good over evil, right?  I’m not so sure.  

I was a target of what we’d call today “mean” girls throughout middle school and high school. I was shy, and I wanted to belong. I didn’t realise until later that girls, as humans, are complicated. We’re not all just good or bad.

Tina Fey’s Mean Girls aside, I have since learned that telling a single story about girls really overlooks the complexity and beauty of their lives. Nobody is just mean or just nice, even though we’d like to think that.  

These five young adult novels reflect on the complexity of the teen and tween girl experience. Even though you might find “mean” girls in them, you’ll also find kindness and friendship.  

Go With The Flow By Lily Williams And Karen Schneemann

This graphic novel takes on a topic most societies avoid talking about: menstruation! And at a high school, no less. One day, Sasha, the new girl at school, has the excruciating fortune of getting her period while wearing white pants. But instead of becoming an outcast, she and her new friends become activists!  

Go With The Flow, a tale of friendship and social change, is appealing and realistic, throwing up friendship challenges as the group seeks tampon access for all. Bold illustrations and easy-to-read text had me hooked but also challenged me to grapple with period product equity.

Rhymes With Witches By Lauren Myracle

If you have a witchy side, this might be the book for you! Despite getting mixed reviews, Rhymes With Witches is a fun little exploration into a high-class prep school populated by mean girls and one girl who’d like to be one but who just can’t accept the hive mindset. Plus, sorcery!  

Myracle’s spot-on narrative of the popular clique pulled me in, and the heroine, Jane, who struggles to be noticed but to also remain an individual, makes a lot of sense if you’ve been in a place where conformity is the order of the day.  

When We Were Magic By Sarah Gailey

Fantastically written, this insightful story features queer characters of colour working to solve what happens when your “magic” isn’t fully mastered yet. The friend group in When We Were Magic is far from a clique, and Gailey’s characters support each other even in the face of criticism.  

I could especially relate to Alexis’ unrequited love for her best friend and to the problem-solving she and her buds “practice” after a boy at their school is accidentally killed on prom night. It’s a coming of age novel that exemplifies the power of solidarity among friends.

Six Angry Girls By Adrienne Kisner

A play on the play (lol) 12 Angry Men, Kisner’s book shows how it feels to get up and start again after a disappointment. Two girls who’ve experienced sudden losses meet by chance in their high school bathroom and hatch a plan to start their own Mock Debate team. In the process, they Smash the Patriarchy! 

Six Angry Girls is an empowering read with fully fleshed-out characters I could easily relate to through their setbacks and triumphs. I appreciated how Millie and Raina turn their pain into positive action, helping them both grow. They even inspire girls in their community to find power within themselves and in one another.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen By Jennifer Torres

Sometimes girls can be mean, and that hurts. In Stef Soto, Taco Queen, the protagonist’s parents own the La Perla taco truck and pick her up from school in it. While being a culinary celebrity was cool at first, Stef’s former best friend starts making fun of her, calling her “taco queen.” 

Thankfully, her family’s love saves her as they all rally around La Perla when it faces financial hardship. I found Torres’ depiction of Stef’s hardscrabble hometown authentic and relatable, and her family is a reminder that those who love you, even in a world of tweenage cliques, can and do sustain us in tough times.  

When I was in college, one of those “mean” girls saw me heading towards my neighbourhood bus stop. I warily accepted a ride from her, and – surprise! – we struck up a friendship. Turns out, this girl had tremendous baggage that she had been working through during her mean girl years. She had just wanted to be loved but hadn’t known how to be loved.

These days, I cling to the hope that books like these can model love and friendship for the readers who need it. Then, there won’t be mean girls or nice girls, but just girls. Who just happen to be human. Like us all.