The best books on the complexity of American girlhood

Who am I?

I was raised in the Midwest by parents who told me I could have whatever kind of life I wanted. I took them at their word, never considering that my gender might come with limitations. It wasn’t until I had my first child and began investigating Paula’s case that the true complexity of womanhood began to dawn on me. I’ve since spent nine years reading and writing and thinking about the experience of being a woman in the modern world. 

I wrote...

What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood

By Katherine Dykstra,

Book cover of What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood

What is my book about?

One summer night in 1970, eighteen-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling left her house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and didn’t return. Four months later, her body was discovered just beyond the mouth of a culvert adjacent to the Cedar River. Her homicide has never been solved.

Paula’s case had been mostly forgotten when, 50 years later, journalist Katherine Dykstra began looking for answers. What begins as an inverstigation into an unsolved homicide, evolves into a reckoning about all the ways women are at risk in the world, simply by being women. Part true crime, part memoir, What Happened to Paula is a timely and important look at gender, autonomy, and the cost of being a woman.

The books I picked & why

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By Melissa Febos,

Book cover of Girlhood

Why this book?

Girlhood was published while I was in edits and though I bought the book, I couldn’t risk reading it. The subject matter was too close to my own. What if I wanted to add or (gasp) rewrite? I’m glad I waited. Febos’ stunning essays perfectly encapsulate the confusion of adolescent girlhood, the mixed messages—from adults, from our own bodies—and the traps that lay in wait.My favorite, “The Mirror Test,” contains lines that crackle such as: “Before it carried any sexual connotation, the word slut was a term for a slovenly woman… A slut was a careless girl, hands sunk haphazardly into the dough…—eyes cast out the window, mouth humming a song, always thinking of something else. Oh was I ever a messy child. A real slut in the making.”

Salvage the Bones

By Jesmyn Ward,

Book cover of Salvage the Bones

Why this book?

When I am asked whether my next book will also be true crime, I say that my wheelhouse isn’t actually true crime but stories about pregnant teenage girls. This extends to my reading material. Salvage the Bones is a heart-stopping novel about a 15-year-old girl being raised by her widowed father in small-town Mississippi. In the calm before Hurricane Katrina, Esch and her three brothers—who alternately play basketball, raise pit bulls to dogfight and get in the way—are only just getting by. But Esch has a secret, which threatens to tip her life into chaos—there’s a baby growing inside of her. This book shines a light on the vast unfairness of the responsibility of pregnancy. I all but held my breath for the last 50 pages.

Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen

By Alix Kates Shulman,

Book cover of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen

Why this book?

This novel might have been published a half-century ago, but the situation—wherein beauty is currency, women’s bodies with their bleeding and their smells are betrayers, and the institution of marriage is, well, an institution—feels more than relevant today. The book’s protagonist, Sasha Davis is a former prom-queen who is aware of all the possibility that exists outside of the confines of her loveless marriage. Liberated, she makes moves to extricate herself from the relationship, but what she can't shed is the very thing that holds her back: her own womanhood. The book’s tone, a sort of “Can you believe I have to put up with this?” is rife with humor even as it lays out the fury-making double standards women had to face then (and now).

The Mars Room

By Rachel Kushner,

Book cover of The Mars Room

Why this book?

The Mars Room is the bar in San Francisco where Romy Hall used to give lap dances. It’s also the catalyst for the event that landed her in a high-security women’s prison serving two consecutive life sentences far away from her seven-year-old son. In addition to the sky-high stakes and Kushner’s incisive prose, what thrilled me about this novel is the way it’s told, on dual tracks. The present is Romy’s experience of incarceration, and the past is a slow reveal of everything that led up to her imprisonment. The tension mounts and mounts until finally we learn the circumstances of her crime, infuriating evidence of the ways society sets women up to fail. 

Girl, Interrupted

By Susanna Kaysen,

Book cover of Girl, Interrupted

Why this book?

Susanna Kaysen’s memoir, about the two years she spent confined to a mental institution by a doctor who’d only ever spent 15 minutes with her, is about how society determines who gets to walk free and who cannot. This is an interesting question in itself, but what moved me most was the book’s exploration of relationships between girls: their alliances and feuds, the ways they hurt each other, and the ways they help, holding one another up in the hardest of circumstances. For it’s Kaysen’s fellow patients—including the defiant, unpredictable Lisa, the gentle, self-immolating Polly, and the know-it-all, true blue Georgina—who are the true life of this slight but searing book. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in adolescence, Mississippi, and psychiatric hospitals?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about adolescence, Mississippi, and psychiatric hospitals.

Adolescence Explore 25 books about adolescence
Mississippi Explore 43 books about Mississippi
Psychiatric Hospitals Explore 25 books about psychiatric hospitals

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