Rebel Girls, by Elizabeth Keenan, (Sept. 2019, Inkyard Press), $18.99, ISBN: 978-1-335-18500-6
Taking place in the mid-1990s, Rebel Girls is about the riot grrl movement and the abortion debate. Athena Graves is a high school junior and a burgeoning riot grrl. Her younger sister, Helen, is a freshman who prefers Pearl Jam to Bikini Kill and is an aspiring model, while Athena dyes her hair red and eschews all things mainstream. The two sisters couldn’t be more different, but when a rumor makes the rounds at their Catholic high school that Helen had an abortion over the summer, Athena goes on the offensive. She knows that rumor came from Leah, an awful mean girl at school, and her cronie, Aimee. Leah can’t stand someone being as pretty and popular as she is; Helen poses a threat to her popularity. But Leah is dating Athena’s best friend, football player Sean. Pro-life Helen is devastated by the rumors, which get her removed from all extra-curricular activities – including the school’s pro-life club – and could get her expelled. As Athena tries to get to the bottom of the rumors and the bullying Helen endures at school, she starts dating new kid, Kyle, only to have Leah start flirting with him, too. Athena is going to have to lace up her Doc Martens and take on Leah and her mean girls, riot grrl style: which can be the toughest thing of all, because riot grrl culture encourages women to lift up other women, not put them down.
Rebel Girls presents a solid, realistic look at both sides of the abortion debate. Athena and her best friend, Melissa, are both riot grrls and pro-choice advocates, where Helen is firmly pro-life; in defending Helen, the two come up with a strategy that doesn’t preach, but does leave a lot of room for discussion. Riot Grrl culture is alive and well in this book, which resonates, because elements of that culture are experiencing a renaissance today: ‘zines, social causes, and the #MeToo culture have their roots in the ’90s and the riot grrl movement. Athena constantly checks herself through the book, reminding herself that even when things are difficult, she has to find a riot grrl way to handle things. That means not spreading vicious rumors about Leah or tearing her down to make Helen look or feel better. Athena and Melissa find ways to rebel against the faculty and student body persecution of Helen in a brilliant way that unites the school while still following (most of) the rules. As a Catholic schoolgirl from the late ’80s, Rebel Girls was like a trip back home. I loved the writing, the characters, and the smartly crafted story. The story touches on the ugly underneath the gloss in more ways than one, too: Melissa is half Vietnamese and half Cajun; Sean is African-American, and both characters experience racism in the book. It’s a small thread of a subplot, but a solid one to remind readers that the more things change, the more things stay the same. If you have readers who loved Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, make sure to give them this one.
Rebel Girls has a starred review from Kirkus.