5 Sexist Summer Reading Books You Were Assigned In School — And What Modern Novels To Read Instead

If you were anything like me as a teen — nerdy, bookish, and just beginning to learn the nuances of feminism — then you probably had a love-hate relationship with summer reading. On the one hand, you loved any opportunity to read a new novel, but on the other hand, you couldn't stand the sexist books you were assigned in school, especially when you knew there were so many other incredible books out there.

The purpose of summer reading in school, according to my teachers and my parents, is to keep kids' minds sharp over the holiday, to keep them learning and thinking outside of the classroom. But it's also supposed to help students learn to enjoy reading, and how can any teen do that when the books that are most often assigned are century-old novels that feel so out of touch in the modern world? Don't get me wrong, reading literary classics is important, in part because it helps us better understand our past and how the path was laid to the present. Does that mean that, every summer, teens across the country should be forced to endure old, sexist texts that belittle, ignore, or wholly erase women? This reader certainly doesn't think so.

If you, like me, are still reeling over the fact that every year you were forced to spend your vacation slogging through a 100-year-old novel about a male protagonist in which the women were relegated to props in the background, then it's time to ditch the old sexist summer reading and pick up one of these modern stories instead. Don't worry, there is still plenty of time to finish them before school starts in September.

Instead of 'The Catcher In the Rye' by J.D. Salinger, Read 'Down and Across' by Arvin Ahmadi

Has it been long enough now since the publication of J.D. Salinger's celebrated American bildungsroman that we can all just admit the book's protagonist Holden Caulfield is a total tool, and a sexist one at that? Good, because it's time to read a different coming-of-age story, one in which women aren't looked down on, idolized, or completely unrelatable. Try Down and Across, which follows Scott Ferdowsi, a teen who, not unlike Holden, is confused and directionless in a world where everyone else seems to know who they want to be and where they want to go. After sneaking off to Washington, DC, seeking the advice of a famous psychologist who claims to know the secret to success, Scott finds himself on an unexpected adventure that includes sneaking into bars, picking up girls at the zoo, and an intriguing (not to mention realistic and fully developed) female college student obsessed with crosswords. This is a beautiful and inspiring story about identity, growing up, and finding your place in the world.

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Instead of 'Moby-Dick' by Herman Melville, Read 'Cinnamon and Gunpowder' by Eli Brown

It's amazing to me that women are almost entirely absent, save for a couple of mentions, in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, especially considering there is an entire chapter devoted to clam chowder. I mean, really? Instead, try Eli Brown's gripping novel Cinnamon and Gunpowder. In the year 1819, renowned chef Owen Wedgewood is kidnapped and taken prisoner by Mad Hannah Mabbot, a fierce and ruthless pirate obsessed with finding the notorious Brass Fox, no matter how hard she has to push her crew. A thrilling adventure set on the high seas, this is the kind of swashbuckling story readers won't have to slog through. And, if you're worried about missing out on Melville's description of seafaring life, and in particular, the food, don't worry, this seaborne romance has plenty of culinary descriptions that will make your mouth water.

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Instead of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain, Read 'The River at Night' by Erica Ferenik

Mark Twain's classic, which includes the use of the n-word and some incredibly sexist and stereotypical descriptions of women, is problematic to say the least, which is why it should be taken off summer reading lists and replaced with a different kind of adventure story. Like Erica Ferenik's The River at Night, a dark and harrowing story about three friends whose exciting hiking and rafting excursion turns into a terrifying trip of a lifetime in an instant. Sure, this book is more of a thriller and less of a traditional literary novel, but it has beautiful prose, fascinating characters, and important themes of love, loss, and survival readers will find truly engaging.

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Instead of 'The Picture of Dorain Gray' by Oscar Wilde, Read 'We Could Be Beautiful' by Swan Huntley

Because women are so much more than the “decorative sex”, as the character Lord Henry from The Picture of Dorian Gray says, do yourself a favor and trade in your copy of Oscar Wilde's classic for something a little less dismissive of females. Perhaps We Could Be Beautiful, Swan Huntley's thrilling tale of psychological suspense that contains within it even more secrets, deception, and lies than the Wilde classic. A searing social satire about an heiress who has finally met the man of her dreams, or so she thinks, this captivating novel about class, status, and beauty proves not all that glitters is gold.

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Instead of 'A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man' by James Joyce, Read 'Cat's Eye' by Margaret Atwood

Whether it be in literature or film, we are inundated with stories of tortured male artists and their silent, decorative female muses. That's why you can skip James Joyce's A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man this summer and instead pick up Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye. It follows Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to her childhood home of Toronto for a retrospective of her art, as she comes to terms with her past and the girls who shaped it, as well as her present role as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman. A brilliant and layered novel about identity, memory, and friendship, this novel is a fascinating examination of a female artist that readers won't soon forget.

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