Feminist Summer Reading List (or, Books I Wish High Schools Would Assign For Summer)

Action A Book About Sex - Feminist Reading List

I recently taught high school for two years at a private school in the South, and for two summers in a row I witnessed the school’s Summer Reading List: ten or eleven books total, from which the students could select one book to read over the summer and then discuss in a small group on their first day back to school in August. Both years, the list of books was predominately male-authored, with one or two books written by—or about—women.

Something about this really pisses me off. I’m going to assume that the high school at which I taught was not unique, and that the pattern is to teach/assign/read books by male authors in classrooms (and summer breaks) across the country. The longer we assume that “male” equals ”universal” and “female” equals ”specific,” the worse off our society will be. It would be beneficial for teenage boys to have to read a book by and about girls. It would be beneficial for teenage girls to see that their school values their experiences as valid, interesting, and important.

When I was teaching intro to creative writing at Loyola University, New Orleans, I asked my students to list their favorite writers. You can probably guess who dominated the list: Kerouac, Hemingway, Thompson, etc. I noted, with dismay, that most of my students couldn’t even name women writers they admired. And this was a class of would-be creative writers! So I started a blog, Books I Read By Women, and shared that blog with my students, as a way to direct them toward powerful, talented female writers. Around the same time, Joanna Walsh began #ReadWomen2014, which became #ReadWomen, in particular as a response to Canadian professor David Gilmour’s statement that he is “not interested in teaching books by women.”

The thing is, few high school and college classes are assigning enough books by women, particularly contemporary women writers. Yet these are the books that will help save the teenagers and young adults of the world—books that will tell them they’re okay, their sexuality is okay, their weirdness is okay—and books that will teach them how to respect each other’s differences, bodies, development, and minds. If teenagers and young adults don’t have a way of finding groundbreaking, truth-telling female authors, then at least the Internet can help. Well, the Internet and feminist teachers.

So here is a short Feminist Summer Reading List, which I would recommend to the teenagers or young adults in your life (or yourself). Please add your own to the comments!

  • Action: A Book About Sex, by Amy Rose Spiegel: Sure, no high school is going to assign Action—an informative, funny book about sex, which answers all of your questions with a pervasive sense of acceptance. This is the kind of book that should be passed covertly between students or friends. You can read an excerpt at Lit Hub.
  • Exit, Pursued By a Bear, by E.K. Johnston: This YA book includes a cheerleader who is drugged and sexually assaulted, an abortion, a lesbian coming-out story, and a strong, independent protagonist. The book is set in Canada, because of course (i.e. easy access to abortion! liberals!). The message—that one can transcend trauma and heal, perhaps even growing stronger in the process—is empowering, if not a little idealistic, but it seems important for YA audiences to encounter resilient female protagonists.
  • Painting Their Portraits in Winter, by Myriam Gurba: In this book of short stories, and Gurba’s first, Dahlia Season, she captures the discomfort of growing up, and feeling like an outsider, in brutally honest language and gripping narratives. (Summer reading bonus: check out Weird Sister’s interview with Gurba here.)
  • Milk and Honey, by Rupi Kaur: See Buzzfeed’s “18 Reasons Every Woman Should Follow Poet Rupi Kaur on Instagram.” Kaur’s Milk and Honey is uplifting and accessible poetry for any person, at any age. But the fact that Kaur is also the artist behind the impressive “period photography” that pushed Instagram’s decency boundaries and thus angered feminists everywhere indicates that underneath the niceness—I’d even say politeness—of her poetry lies fierce courage. (If you want poetry that’s a little more gutsy, try Morgan Parker, Ariana Reines, or Jenny Zhang.)
  • So Sad Today, by Melissa Broder: Okay, this book may be too adult for high school audiences. But it also may not be. Broder (a.k.a. Twitter’s wildly popular @SoSadToday) cycles through topics like depression, addiction, disease, existential crises, drugs, alcohol, marriage, open relationships, sex, taboo, desire, fetishes—and it all sounds like your best friend talking to you, the one who you love but who can’t get her shit together. Or else she sounds like yourself. And then you know you’re okay.
  • Excavation, by Wendy C. Ortiz: Because every student should know the realities of being the Lolita. Ortiz’s memoir of a five-year affair with her high school English teacher is a sobering evaluation of the highly romanticized teacher-student affair. Ortiz paints her older lover as a sad, lost figure, but she is no less critical of her own role in their painfully drawn-out relationship.
  • SLUT, A Play and Guidebook for Combating Sexism and Sexual Violence, by Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney: I wish high schoolers in every city and town in America would read this book, start to finish—the play, about a sexual assault and slut-shaming, and the accompanying essays—and then demand that their high school allow them to put it on in their auditorium, black box, outdoor stage, whatever. The same goes for colleges. And for local performance troupes. Why is this not a thing yet? After what just happened in Stanford and the victim’s powerful words to her violator, we need, more than ever, this reminder to trust women’s experiences, to support victims of sexual assault, and to teach males how to fully respect their fellow human beings.
  • My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem: In a moment when teenage feminists are doing impressive work, like pushing against gendered language in high school dress codes, it’s important that they know in whose footsteps they are walking.
  • Girls and Sex, by Peggy Orenstein: I’d suggest reading this book and then mailing a copy to your parents, or any adults, for that matter, who need to realize what it’s like to be a girl today. Orenstein’s argument in this book can be summed up by her excellent New York Times op-ed, in which she recounts how her research into the sex lives of teenage and college-aged girls demonstrates a continued emphasis on cis male pleasure and orgasm, amid the influence of rampant porn usage and female self-objectification.
  • Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, by Warsan Shire: Because everyone who is obsessed with Beyonce’s Lemonade should know the work of this Somali-British poet, whose words pepper Beyonce’s film and help create the narrative arc.

1 Comment

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One Response to Feminist Summer Reading List (or, Books I Wish High Schools Would Assign For Summer)

  1. Re “I’m going to assume … that the pattern is to teach/assign/read books by male authors in classrooms (and summer breaks) across the country”: Yes, and the same was true of my MFA reading list–just two years ago at a SoCal university.

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