Last month I was invited to participate in a panel hosted by my school, Simmons College, dedicated to the discussion of Bitch magazine’s now infamous list of “100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader."
The list, which first appeared on the magazine’s website on Jan. 28, 2011, attracted attention and concern from readers, some objecting to the inclusion of what they considered to be “triggering” titles. On Feb. 1, 2011, the Bitch library coordinator announced the removal of three books from the list: Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels, Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red and Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl. The response to this announcement was huge and filled with contention, but I don’t intend to address it here (see, for example, the summary of the arguments at the blog Chasing Ray or Kirkus' romance blogger Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.
Instead, I want to talk about the issue of feminist young adult fiction.
Bitch wasn’t clear about the criteria they used when compiling their list of books “for the feminist reader,” and this might have led to some confusion. Are these 100 books that espouse a feminist agenda? Or are they titles the list creators suggest reading through a feminist lens?
In my opinion, few of the recommended titles were clearly feminist in their literary politics. While many featured strong or distinct female characters, I consider a feminist book—YA or otherwise—to be one that addresses women’s or gender issues from a feminist political perspective. To me, the ultimate feminist YA novel would be at its base a problem novel that either offered a feminist solution or suggested the necessity of collective feminist action.
With this definition in mind, I started to think about which young adult books I would consider unquestionably feminist. On first pass, I came up with a pretty short list of books that dealt with a common feminist issue—sexual violence—that was surprisingly historical and that included one book by a male author and one that featured a male protagonist. Here they are:
Are You In the House Alone? by Richard Peck. I’ll never forget how chilling I found this book the first time I read it and how truly frightening it remains. Told from the point of view of Gail, a high school student who begins receiving anonymous threatening notes, the novel culminates in her sexual assault by a wealthy classmate. Peck’s narrative of rape and its aftermath notes the influence of class and victim-blaming on Gail’s decision not to prosecute her rapist, details which make this novel a bleak but starkly realistic one that emphasizes the political nature of the personal.
Happy Endings Are All Alike by Sandra Scoppettone. Although Scoppettone’s novel certainly has its flaws (In one notably didactic scene, one character actually suggests that another go and read some Susan Brownmiller), this novel was one of few of its time to explore lesbian relationships and probably the only to introduce sexual violence to the mix. Scoppettone’s heavy-handed novel is a bit much, but the reading recommendations offered by its character-slash-mouthpieces are clear calls to feminist action.
When Jeff Comes Home by Catherine Atkins. This story of sexual assault works as a political statement by casting an able-bodied male as the victim. Atkins forces us to rethink the gendered nature of the rape novel and view it as an act of violence, not an expression of sexuality.
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Lanagan’s novel is one of three removed from the initial Bitch list and one of few “novels for the feminist reader” I would classify as truly feminist. A long and lush read, Tender Morsels is, for a great deal of the novel, set in a fantasy world of feminine safety and sisterhood, ultimately making heroines of characters that have stood for three dominant female character tropes: the witch, the mother and the virgin.
As I work on this list, I think of more titles I could add. Books like E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks would definitely make the list, as would Laura Ruby’s unsung Good Girls. These, and the books above, go beyond just offering alternative models of girl-ness to suggest the power of women working together under clearly feminist auspices.
What feminist books inspire you?
Amy Pattee is an associate professor of library and information science at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston. She documents her reading on her blog, YA or STFU, at alanis.simmons.edu/blogs/yaorstfu/.