These powerful stories for tweens and teens explore the grim realities of life under dictatorships, and why protecting our democracy by becoming an informed and engaged citizen is more important than ever.
There are many rights we take for granted in a democracy, from the opportunity to vote, to the freedom to criticize the government, to the peaceful transition of power after free and fair elections. Tragically, throughout history, many people have discovered how fragile their rights — and their democracies — can be when extreme polarization leads to mob rule and the erosion of democratic norms. Time after time, in countries around the world, would-be autocrats and authoritarian regimes have used these fractures in weakened democracies to assert absolute control, often violently suppressing any opposition.
An essential component of all healthy democracies is teaching young people about the dangers of extremism and the realities of life under authoritarianism. To that end, in this blog post, we've showcased a variety of books about girls and women living under authoritarian regimes. While some of these stories are biographical and others are fictional, all of them are based on real-life autocratic regimes from history or present day. In many cases, these regimes emerged due to an autocrat taking control of a weakened democracy, while others emerged in countries that have never established democratic systems of governance.
While the lives of the girls featured in these stories offer an often harrowing look at authoritarian oppression, they also speak to the power of the human spirit — the courage and determination of people daring to find their own ways to resist. Ultimately, their stories will give young readers important insight into the struggles of those who have suffered under authoritarianism, a sadly common experience in human history. And, most importantly, these powerful and poignant stories will give them a new appreciation of the rights and freedoms afforded to them within a democracy — and a deeper understanding of why it is so essential to protect democracy by becoming an informed and engaged citizen.
Mighty Girl Books About Life Under Authoritarianism
Ana Rosa is a budding writer — but in the authoritarian Dominican Republic controlled by dictator Rafael Trujillo, there is no freedom of expression. She spends her days scribbling on napkins, paper bags, and shop paper, and dreams of having a notebook of her own. The only support her mother feels safe offering is, "there always has to be a first person to do something." Then, the government announces that they will be bulldozing Ana Rosa's village to build hotels, and Ana Rosa's brother is appointed the village's spokesperson. Ana Rosa's poems don't have the power to stop the government's crackdown, but perhaps they can help her process her grief and tell her loved ones' story to the world. This powerful story about oppression, creativity, and the drive to seek justice will get kids thinking about the freedoms they likely take for granted.
11-year-old Anna's family live in Czechoslovakia, where the Communists saved the country from the Nazis at the end of World War II — but now they don't feel safe under the authoritarian regime. Her father had to flee the country to avoid arrest, and Anna, her mother, and her sister know they're in danger. So the family escapes, hoping to reunite with Papa even though they don't know where he is or have any way to contact him. As they hide from authorities and struggle to survive, the family realizes they'll have to put their trust in strangers, no matter the risk. Based on the author's family history, and including several anecdotes from the real-life Anna, this thrilling novel about escaping Czechoslovakia after the 1948 Communist takeover captures a riveting yet little-known part of history.
While Mma works as a maid for a White household in Johannesburg, South Africa, Naledi, her brother Tiro, and her baby sister Dineo stay with family hundreds of miles away. But when Dineo gets sick, Naledi is sure that Mma is the only one who will know what to do, and she and Tiro set off on the journey to find her. It's the first time Naledi has traveled through South Africa, so she's never seen the truth of apartheid before: an innocent Black youth arrested, a girl who has lost her family fighting against the government. On her journey, she will have her eyes opened to the injustice around her — and the courage of those who defy it. Author Beverley Naidoo gives readers an unflinching look at the realities of apartheid and living in an authoritarian state in this searing novel.
When the Berlin Wall went up, it split Gerta's family in two: her father and middle brother, who had gone to West Berlin to look for work, are on one side; Gerta, her mother, and her other brother are on the other, under the Soviet's authoritarian control in East Berlin. Now Gerta is growing up with East German soldiers pointing guns at their own citizens to keep them prisoners in their own city. Then, on her way to school, Gerta spots her father on a viewing platform, performing a strange dance, and receives a mysterious drawing. Her conclusion? Her father wants them to tunnel under the wall and reunite the family. But do they dare the deadly consequences of getting caught in search of freedom? This gripping book encourages kids to consider how fragile freedom can be as it ends with the warning: 'History repeats itself."
Nadia's perfect twelfth birthday is interrupted by shocking news marking the beginning of the Arab Spring — and the start of the civil war in Syria. In mere months, her home city becomes a war zone, and her family decides to flee... but before they can, Nadia is buried in the rubble after a bombing, and her family is forced to go without her. As Nadia attempts to follow them, she receives help from an elderly bookbinder and encounters others like her: people young and old who just want safety and peace. Author N. H. Senzi uses Nadia's memories to explore both the everyday lives of most Syrians before the war and the dangers of life in a country ruled by a dictator like Bashar al-Assad.
12-year-old Sora is familiar with the tight restrictions of life within North Korea, a Communist dictatorship, in 1950 — and with the equally harsh expectations on girls. Her mother makes it clear that her 8-year-old brother, Youngsoo, is far more important than Sora could ever be. When war breaks out, the family uses the chaos as an opportunity to escape to South Korea, over 300 miles away — but when Sora and Youngsoo are separated from their parents, she finds herself responsible for getting herself and her increasingly weak younger brother to safety. Loosely based on the experiences of the author's mother, this wartime survival story is a poignant look at a girl struggling within the shackles of an totalitarian state and a culture that makes her feel less worthy than a boy.
In June 1942, in the midst of World War II, 10-year-old Esther Rudomin and her family are arrested by Soviet authorities in Poland, accused of being capitalists and "enemies of the people." They are forced from their homes, into crowded cattle cars, and shipped to a forced labor camp in the bitter cold wastelands of Siberia. For the next five years, Esther and her family struggle to survive as they are forced to work as slave laborers in the mines under repressive Soviet overseers. Based on the real story of author Esther Hautzig's exile experience, this gripping story offers a harsh indictment of the inhumane Soviet regime alongside a moving exploration of the resiliency of the human spirit even in the bleakest of times.
12-year-old Audra lives on a quiet family farm in 1893 Lithuania, but her world is turned upside down when occupying Russian Cossack soldiers arrest her parents and burn their home to the ground. Her parents send her to escape, carrying an important package: unbeknownst to her, they have been working as book smugglers, fighting to keep their language and culture alive after the Russian Czar made it a crime to speak or write in Lithuania. Audra soon joins the resistance movement, risking her life to smuggle even more books before they are burned by the Russians. Still, she wonders if her work for the resistance might not just save her language; perhaps it can save her parents too. In Words on Fire, Jennifer A. Nielsen, the author of A Night Divided and Resistance, introduces readers to this little-known period in history through the inspiring story of a courageous girl determined to fight against oppression.
When the Taliban, an authoritarian Islamic fundamentalist regime, takes control of Afghanistan, Parvana, her mother, and sisters suddenly can't go to school, work outside the home, or even appear in public without being covered. When her father is arrested because of his foreign education, the family is soon in dire straights. So Parvana takes a bold step: she cuts her hair, disguises herself as a boy, and sets off to earn money. The first volume in a series about living under Taliban oppression — and after it — is suspenseful and all too timely, even years after it was written. The series continues with Parvana's Journey and Mud City, which are also collected in a single volume in The Breadwinner Trilogy, and in My Name is Parvana; the book has also been adapted into an acclaimed animated film.
In this powerful middle grade book about the White Rose Student Resistance Movement, author Russell Freedman captures the power of a courageous group of young people determined to resist Hitler's regime. Although aspects of the story are sobering — including the arrest, interrogation, and execution of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans — Freedman handles them with care, not shying away from the realities but conveying an overall tone of defiant, triumphant resistance. As their father tells them after their conviction, "You will go down in history. There is such a thing as justice despite this. I am proud of both of you." Filled with archival photos, Freedman's vivid prose makes the story of these heroic siblings come to life for young readers who will be inspired by Sophie and Hans' courage of conviction.
For 9-year-old Ling, life in China is full of opportunity: her surgeon parents teach her English and listen to Voice of America on the radio, and she dreams of what her future may hold. Then one of Chairman Mao's political officer's moves into their apartment and suddenly her home isn't safe. Soon neighbors begin to disappear, her father is arrested, and Ling is bullied at school by the son of a government official. With suspicion and spies everywhere and food becoming scarce, Ling will have to figure out how to survive even as her world falls apart around her. This autobiographical novel by author Ying Chang Compestine offers an unflinching childs-eye view of living under Mao's oppressive rule after the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Celeste’s childhood in Chile is idyllic until warships appear in the harbor. The country’s new government calls artists, protesters, and those who help the needy “subversive” and vows to eliminate them. Some of Celeste’s classmates stop coming to school, and soon Celeste begins to feel that no one is safe. Celeste’s parents realize they need to go into hiding, and they send Celeste to her aunt in Maine. Celeste must learn to cope with being exiled from the country and family she loves, and also with the fear that no one, anywhere, can truly be safe. Set during Augusto Pinochet's takeover of Chile in the 1970s, this powerful novel reveals the harsh realities of living under a dictator through one young girl's eyes.
10-year-old Ileana lives in Romania in 1989, where writing a story or publishing poems — anything that can be interpreted as critical of Communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu — can result in someone disappearing for good. Ileana collects the stories she hears, including the folktale about her namesake. But when her Uncle Andrei becomes the latest "disappearance," Ileana's parents send her to live with grandparents she's never met, in a small village in the mountains. Adjusting to village life is difficult, but Ileana comes to love it there, and even feels safe enough to start wondering: can she use the stories she's collected to save the people there from the ruthless Securitate? This powerful novel celebrates a girl finding her voice through a clever interweaving of history and folklore.
At first, Lida believes that she and her family are safe from the Nazis since they aren't Jewish. However, the Ukrainian girl can't escape the horrors of World War II. Lida is rounded up with other youth and sent to a brutal labor camp where she and other children will be forced to make German bombs until they drop. There, Lida comes up with a daring plan: sabotage the bombs. Her friends are eager to join her secret resistance, but if their deception is discovered, they'll surely be executed. Nevertheless, the chance to do their own, small part to end the war is too important to waste. Based on the real-life experience of countless Ukrainian and other Central and Eastern European children who were among the estimated 3 to 5 million Ostarbeiters (or "Eastern workers") used as slave labor in Nazi work camps, this historical fiction novel is not too graphic for younger readers, but still captures both the horrors of the camps and the courage of people like Lida who found ways to fight back against Nazi oppression.
Renowned journalist Rania Abouzeid crafts a unique and personal look at the Syrian revolution-turned-civil war in this story of two pairs of sisters. Ruha and her younger sister Alaa are Sunni Muslims in rebel-held territory, facing constant attacks by the Syrian government. Hanin and Jawa are Alawite, living in the oppression of the Syrian regime. They see things many young people could not imagine — from violent arrests to destroyed homes to the full horrors of war — and yet these four girls maintain the hope for a better life to come. This harrowing account of life in the Syrian conflict helps young readers understand the full complexities facing children there, building empathy and urging readers to imagine what potential could be lost in war.
12-year-old Ji-li Jiang is at the top of her class and anticipating a bright future in 1966 Communist China... until the Cultural Revolution begins. Now, because her grandfather once owned property, Ji-li's family are classified as "Landlords" who are considered "Enemies of the People." People who were once her friends and neighbors turn on her and her family, forcing them to live in constant terror of arrest. When her father is arrested, Ji-li faces a terrible choice: criticize and denounce her father to prove her loyalty to the new regime, or stay silent and wonder what the future brings. This powerful autobiography explores one the most terrifying authoritarian regimes of the 20th century through the eyes of a girl trying to understand it all. For two more books about the Cultural Revolution, both for ages 12 and up, check out Girl Under A Red Moon and Snow Falling In Spring.
As a teen, Sophie Scholl grew disillusioned by the propaganda of Nazi Germany and decided she could no longer be silently complicit in supporting a tyrannical regime. Sophie and her brother formed a non-violent resistance group called the White Rose and began distributing anonymous leaflets calling on their fellow Germans to oppose the Nazis. Betrayed to the Gestapo, Sophie and her brother were arrested for treason, interrogated, and executed mere hours after a show trial. Today, they are honored among Germany's greatest heroes for their moral courage. This powerful novel-in-verse honors Sophie's courage and others like her who gave their lives in the fight against fascism.
Lina is a gifted artist, but her life is like any other girl's in 1941 Lithuania — until the night that Soviet officers break into their house, separate their family, and send her, her mother, and her little brother to a work camp in Siberia. The cramped and long train ride is nothing compared to the brutal conditions there, where they're forced to farm despite miserable hunger. And yet Lina's art sustains her, not just by giving her hope, but also because it allows her to document what is happening — even if that comes with tremendous risk. Few children will know about the 20 million estimated deaths under Stalin's rule; Lina's story brings them to vibrant life. For a book for younger readers about the Siberian camps, check out The Endless Steppe for ages 10 and up.
Stefania “Fusia” Podgórska achieved her dream of leaving the family farm by working for the Jewish Diamant family in their grocery story in Przemsyl, Poland. The Catholic Fusia finds friendship with the family, and even first love: a secret betrothal with Izio Diamant. But when the German army invades, the Diamants are forced into a ghetto and Fusia is left without work and responsible for her 6-year-old sister Helena. And then, she hears a knock on the door: Izio's brother, Max, has jumped from a train taking Jews to the death camps. Fusia and Helena end up hiding Max and twelve other Jews — even while two Nazi offers requisition living space in their house. But can they keep their deadly secret? Best-selling author Sharon Cameron based this book on Fusia's true story, and includes an author's note detailing Fusia, Helena, and Max's lives after the war.
When Marjane Satrapi is 9, fundamentalist rebels overthrow the Shah of Iran — and initially, her community welcomes the change, especially when the rebels free friends and family members the Shah had imprisoned. But it soon becomes clear that the rebels have also brought their own brand of totalitarianism. Religious extremism is on the rise, and as the new regime clamps down, she loses some of those she cares about the most. Her parents manage to send her to Vienna for high school, where she discovers just how different life is elsewhere... and even when she returns to Iran as an adult, she no longer feels like this place is home. This searing and often heartbreaking graphic biography is a stunning accomplishment, capturing the struggles of finding your identity when stepping a foot out of place is so dangerous.
When World War II began, 17-year-old Irene Gut was a Polish nursing student, a typical teenager preparing for a future career. Then she was separated from her family, assaulted by Russian soldiers, and forced to serve German officers. But she was determined to help who she could, smuggling food into the ghetto and hiding several Jewish friends at the villa where she worked. And when she was discovered, she even agreed to become mistress to a German major in exchange for protection for Jewish friends. This memoir by a real-life Holocaust rescuer, full of hard choices, is a powerful read for any teen.
In 1957 Madrid, 18-year-old Daniel, son of a Texas oil tycoon, has no idea about the brutality of dictator Francisco Franco's authoritarian rule of Spain; he's there to learn more about his mother's home country and explore his talent for photography. When he meets Ana, their blossoming relationship allows her to introduce the truth to him, from the oppression directed at women to the punishments directed at whole families when one person dares to rebel. Ruta Sepetys, author of Between Shades of Gray, drew on extensive research to craft this powerful story of repression, violence, and complicity.
On November 25, 1960, three sisters were found dead in the Dominican Republic, next to a wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a cliff. The state newspaper reported their "accidental" deaths, but many readers knew the truth: Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa Mirabal were Las Mariposas — The Butterflies — vocal opponents of Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship. In this extraordinary novel of courage and love, the voices of all three sisters, as well as their surviving sister, Dede, speak across the decades to tell their own stories, from hair ribbons and secret crushes to gunrunning and prison torture, and to describe the everyday horrors of life under Trujillo's authoritarian rule and the human cost of political oppression.