Four Books I Wish I’d Read in Middle School

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

Most feminist book lovers I’ve met can’t get through a top-five list without gushing about a Brontë, and I’m not going to be the one to change that stereotype. Having fallen in love with Charlotte the semester before, I started reading into the lesser-known sister and her two modest novels during year one of graduate school. Agnes Grey appealed to me, with its Anne Shirley–esque theme of the independent, working governess, but the moment I skimmed the back of a dusty copy of Tenant I fully recognized myself. The book is about a crappy, failed marriage to an oppressive A-hole and the heroine’s steps toward independence, new love, and even a budding art career—practically the story of my life after college. While there are some points of plot that are a little bit cringe worthy by modern standards—like the trope of the angelic, long-suffering wife who for moral reasons should not officially divorce her abusive, philandering husband—the novel holds so many questions that would have been crucial for me as a wee middle school girl about to walk right into the trappings of patriarchy, the cultural marriage mandate, and sub-par male-female relationships.

The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan

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In a similar vein to Brontë’s novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife braids together a rich historical setting with a feminist narrative that can be an enriching place to start for teen girls. A few scholars I’ve read, including Karen Dodwell, talk about removing the feminist discussion to a faraway culture or time period to help newcomers to feminism understand and process it better without getting all tangled up in their own cultural scripts. (Think in terms of modern-day conservative students shying away from Shulamith Firestone but fully embracing Charlotte Brontë.) In pedagogy—or in my reading recommendations to my former teen self—this suggests potential for a historical Chinese diaspora novel like The Kitchen God’s Wife, which shows old and new, East and West, while bridging those gaps to illustrate the universality of the themes without reinforcing orientalism or cultural chauvinism. This book was an eye opener for me to pick up as an adult due to its domestic violence themes, especially on the emotional front, so a teenager could do much worse than to learn about good and bad relationships in the milieu of Japanese-occupied China during World War II, from one of the best modern American writers out there.

The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler

I’ll just come out with it: I am a dystopia junkie. Dystopia, plus any other iteration of Foucault’s –topias, for that matter, from Thomas More’s Utopia or Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, to heterotopias like Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black, to downer dystopias like The Parable of the Sower. Octavia Butler’s novel about US societal collapse in the not-too-distant future is an engaging piece of ecofeminist thought that is age appropriate for teens. Unlike many teenage dystopias, Butler does not focus on the constructed totalitarian society but examines California life as it crumbles from unsustainable environmental, economical, and social practices. Aside from the mind-spark messages that would have been new to me as a middle schooler, the book is simply well written and engaging. A book like this one, if read early, would have opened the door for me to engage with ecofeminism as well as a canon of dystopia writers like Margaret Atwood, Cormack McCarthy, or Ursula K. LeGuin—some of my now favorites, who I didn't even know about until college—a little sooner in the coming-of-age process.

The Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea

This novel wasn’t around back when I was in middle school in the late-1990s, but I wish it had been, and I wish I’d had the foresight to pick it up. As it happened, I was 25 when I bought the bargain hardback, which I’d judged for its striking foil stamping and for the title’s proclamation that this was a novel about girls. I started reading it on a rainy day in my study and didn’t put it down until I’d turned over the final leaf. Unlike so many of the books I’d read so far, this book was not written from the Western perspective, and it served as my introduction (as a mostly Christian American from a tiny midwestern town), post-9/11, to what real Muslim women’s lives are like in a place like Saudi Arabia. This wasn’t a Westernized reactionary piece, out to “rescue” all Middle Eastern women, and it wasn’t an outright vindication of the godliness of Islam and the evils of the West. Because this book failed to fall into either stereotype of how Americans tend to see Islamic life, it affected my reach into world literature and global feminism in a deep way. In short, Rajaa Alsanea’s perspective on being young and educated and fashionable in an Islamic state helped elucidate for me the real feminist questions happening in the Islamic world, outside of the blurred contexts of Desert Storm, 9/11, and other East/West battlegrounds. The novel is written in the form of an e-mail publication, with teen-accessible language in the English translation. If this book had been in my hands in the late nineties, I would have been able to skip all the Western-born stereotypes about Islam and jump into something useful.