(Note: I originally published this piece on TheList.com)
What makes for good “beach reading?” Should your summer reading list be filled with steamy, romantic romps? Trendy self-help books? Dark and stormy, blood-soaked thrillers? Everyone has slightly different criteria for what makes for great vacation reading. But it seems to be the general consensus that learning is great, but the text shouldn’t be so erudite that you can’t relax while you read.
As a literature Ph.D. (about to defend), I may have a slightly different definition than normal of what “fun reading” might mean, but let me assure you, boy do I know how to chill. So with that perspective in mind, in the interest of filling your sandy, sunny, summer afternoon reading list with pleasurable reads that will get you pumped up for the future of womankind, here are eight fun and meaningful books to throw in your picnic basket this summer vacation.
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen, 1992
Did you spend your childhood summers watching VHS tapes of every Disney princess movie on repeat? There’s still time to unlearn all that glossy, whitewashed stuff. Emma Oulton, writing for Bustle, says of this modern retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, “Yolen gives us an updated Briar Rose — a strong young girl who takes a much more active role in her fate than the original sleeping princess.” Set during the Holocaust, this “gritty reboot,” as Oulton calls it, tells the dark, compelling stories of the “undesirables” of Nazi Germany. So if to you, “beach reading” has meant Nicholas Sparks paperback romances, get ready to re-define your summer reading list, because this is a page-turner.
Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig, 2017
Most of the books on this list were written by women, but this brand new novelistic debut by teacher and father, Benjamin Ludwig, gets a pass. If you like the idea behind the New York Times bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, you’ll appreciate the similar ingenuity in Ginny Moon, which also tells the complicated story of an an autistic teen girl who is adopted away from an abusive birth mother.
Ludwig told interviewers at Fosters.com that he “was inspired to write Ginny Moon in part because of my own experience adopting a young lady with autism,” but he explained that the text is fictional. The story follows 14-year-old Ginny’s obsession with a “baby doll” that got left behind when she was taken from her abusive mother’s home, and her dangerous quest to get it back. One theme that Ludwig pulled from his own experience was coping with his foster child’s feelings around losing her birth parents. He said, “When she (their daughter) first came to live with us, we were excited and enthusiastic, but quickly had to face the fact that we would still never be enough. No amount of love and support can ever replace the loss of a parent.”
Yes Please by Amy Pohler, 2014
I don’t have to convince you to love Amy Pohler. From her stellar tenure on Saturday Night Live, to her Baby Mama drama opposite Tina Fey, touchingly earnest Leslie Knope in NBC’s Parks and Recreation, this badass comedic actress and writer should already have your admiration.
I’m confident you’ll love her 2014 book, Yes Please, but don’t expect it to be a traditional narrative memoir, or a celebrity tell-all book. Zach Dionne for Rolling Stone describes Pohler’s book as “a 329-page nonlinear hopscotch across Poehler’s life and career, from Chicago’s Second City and the creation of the Upright Citizens Brigade to the glory days of SNL and Parks and Rec.”
Some chapters are just descriptions of weird moments in Pohler’s life, and how she feels about them now. But she offers a lot of sage feminist advice regarding how to be a successful woman in a male-dominated field, and how to be comfortable with yourself and your life.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, 2016
As Brian Murray Jr. summarizes in Redbook, “Hidden Figures is the true story of three African-American women mathematicians, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who worked for NASA and played a major role in the U.S. space program, sending John Glenn into outer space.”
If you saw and loved the feature film of the same name, which has enjoyed massive critical success, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be even more inspired by the detail of these badass ladies’ lives included in the book.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1813
You’ve no doubt seen the many film and television adaptation of this classic book, Pride and Prejudice. And, come on, if you’re the kind of person who plans summer reading lists, and reads about books online, then you’ve definitely already come across this massively popular tome. That said, it fits every piece of criteria of this list! It’s fun, comedic, romantic, makes fun of high-class chauvinism, and stars a kick-ass heroine. So doesn’t it deserve a re-reading?
While it isn’t the most outwardly feminist as a lineup of modern novels might be, for its time (1813), the fact that a Jane Austen (an unmarried female writer), would create a young woman who would reject her mother’s choice of husband, go on walks all over the countryside alone, and go against the words of her so-called “social betters,” is incredibly badass! So read it thinking of its original context, and be amazed again.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, 1985
This one is on everyone’s reading list this year, with the release of Bruce Miller’s Hulu series of the same name, starring the amazingly cool Elizabeth Moss. I actually hated this book the first time I read it in college. I found myself too put off by the darkness to enter into the world of the power female protagonist. Coming back to it years later, I felt pulled in by its deep feminist power.
You’ll want to read this book so you can keep up with the general cultural scuttlebutt, but you’ll want to keep reading to find out the answers to the page-turning mysteries, so I’ll leave them untold here.
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae, 2016
If you automatically watch every new HBO show like me, you’ve already been introduced to the subtle genius that is the mind of Issa Rae. Her recent TV hit, Insecure, is full of the same kind of cheeky humor and insight as her extremely rad book, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which a staff writer for Hello Giggles describes as “a hilarious account of Rae’s life to date and a field guide to learning how to love yourself — awkwardness and all.” Let’s hope this strong, irreverent woman is a new literary archetype.
The Hunger Games, 2010
Okay, even if I can sometimes be a literature snob (it’s natural after so much time studying, right? Oops!) I am always willing to acknowledge the awesomeness of a massively popular book that really deserves its success. The Hunger Games trilogy, which includes the original first book of that name, as well as parts two and three, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, is just such a case. Originally written for young adults, this book trilogy captured the common consciousness for a slew of good reasons, my favorite among them, is that it stars a teen girl protagonist from very poor circumstances completely kicks ass and takes names, both physically and politically. Yes, please!
Having it all
I’ve heard it said that the modern woman is a master of the art of multi-tasking, and that rings true to me. So doesn’t it sound appealing to apply that skill to your summer downtime? These eight books, seven of which are by badass woman writers, can help you combat that scourge of a good vacation feeling — that you should really be doing something to enrich yourself instead of lying face down on the hot sand with your hand in a Cheetos bag. These eight books are all fun, easy to read, culturally rich, and will provide you with some extremely rad female protagonist role models to inspire your summer of kicking ass, all at the same time. Victory!
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