Dear Aunt Debbie,
While I find it hard to call Cynthia Voigt's books chick lit, they were another staple of my teenage years: intense, beautifully written, full of deeply memorable characters. She's written a number of series, some of which I don't know at all (though the Bad Girls books seem like promising titles in light of our current thread). But when I think of Cynthia Voigt, what leaps to mind are her Tillerman Cycle books, beginning with Homecoming, Dicey's Song, and A Solitary Blue. These books (there are seven in total) chronicle the lives of the four Tillerman children after they are abandoned by their mother and have to find their way to relatives who can help them restart their lives. Dicey is the oldest: she's 13 in the first book, taking care of her sister Maybeth and brothers James and Sammy.
Voigt doesn't soft-pedal what it means to take care of kids when you're a child yourself; I remember the scenes on the road as both harrowing and specific. (There's a peanut butter sandwich-making scene that sticks in my head.) By the end of the first book, the Tillermans have found a place to live with their prickly grandmother, and in Dicey's Song there's a little more breathing room. Dicey is a wonderful heroine -- strong, independent, responsible even as she's totally overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility placed on her. She's also fairly androgynous -- short-haired, not into dresses, often mistaken for a boy. In later books, she begins a relationship with Jeff Greene (the protagonist of A Solitary Blue, and one of the main men on my friend Cyd's literary crush list, at least through high school).
This is one of the great things about Voigt's books: like L'Engle, she writes a number of books set in the same world but with a focus on different characters. The later Tillerman books can stand on their own, but if you've read Dicey's Song, scenes in A Solitary Blue and Come a Stranger take on greater resonance. Come a Stranger focuses on Dicey's friend Mina, an aspiring ballet dancer who faces racism at a New England ballet camp (she's black and from Maryland; perhaps one possible answer to Denise's question in the comments about diverse YA chick lit characters?).
Jackaroo: A Novel of the Kingdom. The current cover art appears to be unfortunately romance-novel-y; what I remember doesn't read that way at all. Jackaroo is set in a medieval-ish time and place called the Kingdom, and its heroine is a strong-willed, practical innkeeper's daughter named Gwyn. She discovers the mask and sword of the legendary Jackaroo (a Robin Hood figure), and decides to use the disguise herself to help people in need. It turns out that she's not the first person to have done this -- Jackaroo's identity is used by a number of people, for different reasons. It's a good mystery.
This thread is making me ridiculously happy.