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16 Books that Educate & Illuminate


At the Holiday Market that Feminist Book Club hosted, a reader requested “books that aren’t overtly ‘political’ but might help someone shift their perspective to be more progressive or open minded.”

I advise you to read and/or view with caution as there are triggers in the readings yet vital to their story. All of them share a variety of experiences in religion, race, sexuality, region, and chosen family.

CW: sexual, relationship, and mental abuse

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. In her memoir, Machado writes about being in a same-sex abusive relationship. There is incredible imagery and language that expands her experiences with distance as much closeness. It is a must listen on audiobook. (Claudia wrote a review that you can explore)

The Price of the Ticket by James Baldwin. Many people will say that Baldwin’s work is political. It is in fact rooted in revolution. The book is a collection of Baldwin’s writing that is a pillar of social critique and understanding that is rare today. 

CW: racism

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. The novel is dark horror fiction yet the prose is quite the digestion. I recommend the show, on HBO, about a Black man named Atticus who goes through the Jim Crow South to find his father. The show is haunting, violent, and mesmerizing. 

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Writing about her growing up in Mississippi gives the world a necessary understanding of a land marred by stereotypes and truths. The novel by the two-time National Book Award winning author about a family in fictional Bois Savage, MS. The themes of life and death expand the novel to a new atmosphere. 

Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty. In his memoir, Doty writes about when his partner, Wally, was dying of AIDS. There was comfort in reading this book. I found understanding that we do not just grieve people but experiences. 

CW: sexual assault

Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. In her memoir, she writes about being the daughter of a formerly incarcerated person and the relationship she builds with him and learns from the time she was without him. She writes about being a poor Black girl in Indiana with a fragile relationship with her mother.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. This book sat in my soul for its prose, symbolism, and rawness. Elwood Curtis is a 16 year old Black boy sentenced to reform school in Tallahassee. Over time, he exposes the school’s harsh treatments.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Emira Tucker is a young Black woman in Philadelphia. She is wrongfully accused of kidnapping a white child whom she actually babysits. The book discusses race, age, and privilege with heart.

CW: sexual harassment

My Body by Emily Ratajkowski. In her collection of essays, she writes about experiences in her body and how it has been of profit and pleasure. Her essay, Buying Myself Back has been lauded for her sharp writing and critique of the modeling industry and male gaze that unfolds into the real world.

No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L. Moore. In his memoir, Moore writes about growing up as a Black gay child, specifically that when he was fourteen, three boys in his neighborhood tried to set him on fire. Moore’s views of the world are critical as they are hopeful.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas. Bri is a teenager who becomes a sensation after posting a rap that is deemed controversial. She has always wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become somebody in the underground hip-hop scene. Angie’s writing enlightens Black girls as the stars of their stories and not a martyr. 

This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe. In her memoir, she writes about her experiences before she got her breakout role as the titular character in “Precious.” This includes being a phone sex operator and her mother who sang in the subway to help support her children. Her writing is like sitting with a friend.

Here All Along by Sarah Hurwitz. A former speechwriter for Michelle Obama, Hurwitz writes about reconnecting with her Jewish faith that is beautiful, poignant, and peaceful.

CW: murder

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum. Three generations of Palestinian-American women grapple with expectations of their culture with their individual desires. This book is devastating yet lingers. It is a vital read. 

The Three Mothers by Anna Malaika Tubbs. Berdis Baldwin, Alberta King, and Louise Little are the subjects of this wonderful biography as they are more than the mothers of James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, respectively. This biography uniquely and powerfully tells the stories behind the women of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Fairest: A Memoir by Meredith Talusan. I will quote Penguin Random House, the book is “a singular, beautifully written coming-of-age memoir of a Filipino boy with albinism whose story travels from an immigrant childhood to Harvard to a gender transition and illuminates the illusions of race, disability, and gender.” Talusan’s writing is forthcoming. 

Ashley Paul is a hopeless wanderer, baker, runner, and photographer. She is passionate about supporting high school juniors and seniors to write compelling stories for their post-secondary careers. Her favorite genres are young adult, literary fiction, and memoir.

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