The best books about sexual assault

1 authors have picked their favorite books about sexual assault and why they recommend each book.

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Shout

By Laurie Halse Anderson,

Book cover of Shout

For decades, Laurie Halse Anderson’s work has been a guiding light for so many young people in her honest portrayals of life’s hardest challenges, including sexual assault. Her 2019 book Shout, a memoir written in verse, is a deeply personal reflection on her own experience with sexual assault and its impact on her life. She first tackled this topic twenty years earlier in her groundbreaking 1999 novel, Speaka book that profoundly affected me as a young person. Born out of outrage over the lack of change that has happened in regard to how society treats survivors (and perpetrators) of sexual violence in the twenty years since Speak was published, Shout is a beautifully fierce and moving call to action for today.


Who am I?

I began writing The Way I Used to Be back in 2010. For me, it started simply as a place to work through my own private thoughts and feelings about sexual violence. I was writing as a survivor myself, but also as someone who has known, loved, and cared for so many others who have experienced violence and abuse. By the time I finished, I realized my novel had evolved into something much bigger: a story I hoped could contribute something meaningful to the larger dialogue. These powerful books on this list are all a part of that dialogue, each based in a richly diverse, yet shared reality. Readers will learn, grow, heal, and find hope in these pages.


I wrote...

The Way I Used to Be

By Amber Smith,

Book cover of The Way I Used to Be

What is my book about?

Eden was always good at being good. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, everything changes. What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved, she now hates. What she thought was true…now lies. She knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So, she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.

Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative novel reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, all while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had.

The Fix

By Natasha Sinel,

Book cover of The Fix

The Fix is tough to read at moments, but so, so necessary. The Me Too movement showed us that just about every female has been subject to assault on some level. Childhood sexual assault is so common that many survivors don't disclose because they don't want to seem weak. Telling someone is the best thing survivors can do for themselves, and The Fix shows that sometimes you can't whisper the truth. Sometimes you have to shout it. 


Who am I?

I fell in love with reading in fourth grade but felt like real girls weren't reflected in young adult books. The characters had friend problems and boy problems, but books about really big problems like sexual assault were rare because most people thought subjects like addiction and abuse weren't appropriate for young readers. It's one of those weird dichotomies: we know kids deal with big problems, but we're afraid to broach the subject. I used books to help me understand stuff I didn't feel comfortable talking about so I appreciate books that show people how to claw themselves out of a bad place and be their own hero.


I wrote...

The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl & Random Boy

By Marie Jaskulka,

Book cover of The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl & Random Boy

What is my book about?

Forgotten Girl, a fifteen-year-old poet, is going through the most difficult time of her life – the breakup of her parents, and her mom’s resulting depression – when she meets Random Boy, a hot guy who, like her, feels like an outcast and secretly writes poetry to deal with everything going on in his life.

In The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl & Random Boy, the couple’s poems come together to tell their unique love story. The two nameless teenagers come from opposite sides of the tracks, yet they find understanding in each other when they lay bare their life stories through the poetry they write and share with each other. Finally they have someone to tell and somewhere to tell it in their marble notebook.

The Right to Sex

By Amia Srinivasan,

Book cover of The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

Srinivasan is clearly an amazing teacher, deeply attentive to her students, and extraordinarily honest and open herself. It is evident her honesty is reciprocated. Much of this book is based on reports from the classroom, and as a longtime educator myself, I was awed by her ability to engage in remarkably fruitful discussions about irresolvable questions of desire and consent. Writing with grace and precision, she explores a terrain in which gender, race, class, and sex overlap, with emphasis on how that terrain looks to people new at navigating it.  


Who am I?

I write about contemporary art, and much of the work I’ve been drawn to was made by women and by artists in other sidelined communities. Early on, I also focused on marginalized disciplines: artists’ books, performance, and art that responded directly to the vacant sites that abounded in New York City when I started out in the late 1970s. It was an enormously exciting time, but also a tough one. Violence was very hard to avoid. I didn’t focus on that at the time, but ultimately, I realized I needed to look more directly at trouble, and how artists respond to it.  


I wrote...

Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

By Nancy Princenthal,

Book cover of Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

What is my book about?

During the famously violent 1970s, the incidence of sexual assault spun out of control, with surprisingly little attention. The women’s movement of the time was great at challenging injustice in the workplace and at home, but initially tiptoed around rape. It was artists who first spoke out, quietly at first, soon with bullhorns. Yoko Ono was the moment’s magnetic if ambivalent herald; Nancy Spero its lacerating poet; Suzanne Lacy its fearless activist. Today sexual assault is routinely in the headlines, but confusion still abounds over whom it most affects, how best to confront it—and even how to define it. Along with illuminating these issues, Unspeakable Acts heeds younger artists who have looked at how rape is inseparably entwined with issues of race and class.  

True Story

By Kate Reed Petty,

Book cover of True Story

A rumor about teenage sexual assault has long-term repercussions on a handful of characters in this superb novel that toggles among different genres—thriller, mystery, women’s fiction, coming-of-age literary, even screenplays—with voices in first, second, and third person, a fascinating way of looking at a single event from every angle. The characters are astoundingly well-drawn, in particular the spot-on portraits of teenaged boys, which are a master class on how to write credible, realistic, and true characters that are well beyond the novelist’s own experience. Even the title itself is a clever subversion.


Who am I?

I love crime fiction—mysteries, thrillers, espionage, you name it, plots and puzzles that excite and confound and ultimately gratify. I also love the non-genre called literary fiction, sharply observed and beautifully written books that move me, and leave me with a slightly better understanding of humanity. And I think the sweetest spot of all is the intersection of the two, with sparkling prose, fully realized characters, and interesting settings combined with an insistent, credible plot that makes it a matter of urgency to turn the page, presenting the exquisite dilemma of wanting to race through the excitement but also the opposite urge to slow down and enjoy it all.


I wrote...

Two Nights in Lisbon

By Chris Pavone,

Book cover of Two Nights in Lisbon

What is my book about?

Ariel Pryce wakes up in Lisbon alone. Her husband is gone—no warning, no note, not answering his phone. Something is wrong. She starts with hotel security, then the police, then the American embassy, at each confronting dubious men and questions she can’t fully answer: What exactly is John doing in Lisbon? Who would want to harm him? And why does Ariel know so little about her new—and much younger—husband? The clock is ticking. Ariel is increasingly frustrated and desperate, and the one person in the world who can help is the person she least wants to ask. According to Stephen King, “There’s no such thing as a book you can’t put down, but this one was close.”

The Shadow Knows

By Diane Johnson,

Book cover of The Shadow Knows

A first-person novel published in 1974, this wry, low-key thriller, quietly shattering, slaloms through marriage and infidelity, prosperity and poverty, motherhood and neglect. I first came across The Shadow Knows shortly after it was published, turned the pages at speed, and in my head argued furiously with the protagonist all the way through. Re-reading it forty years later, I was still aghast, and just as mesmerized. I think it’s safe to say the narrator’s response to sexual violence—like much else in this book—would be impossible to publish in the present; it is as revelatory about our moment as about the one in which it was written and set. 


Who am I?

I write about contemporary art, and much of the work I’ve been drawn to was made by women and by artists in other sidelined communities. Early on, I also focused on marginalized disciplines: artists’ books, performance, and art that responded directly to the vacant sites that abounded in New York City when I started out in the late 1970s. It was an enormously exciting time, but also a tough one. Violence was very hard to avoid. I didn’t focus on that at the time, but ultimately, I realized I needed to look more directly at trouble, and how artists respond to it.  


I wrote...

Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

By Nancy Princenthal,

Book cover of Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

What is my book about?

During the famously violent 1970s, the incidence of sexual assault spun out of control, with surprisingly little attention. The women’s movement of the time was great at challenging injustice in the workplace and at home, but initially tiptoed around rape. It was artists who first spoke out, quietly at first, soon with bullhorns. Yoko Ono was the moment’s magnetic if ambivalent herald; Nancy Spero its lacerating poet; Suzanne Lacy its fearless activist. Today sexual assault is routinely in the headlines, but confusion still abounds over whom it most affects, how best to confront it—and even how to define it. Along with illuminating these issues, Unspeakable Acts heeds younger artists who have looked at how rape is inseparably entwined with issues of race and class.  

Needlework

By Bekah Berge,

Book cover of Needlework

The world-building in this masterfully written story is truly exceptional. And you’ll fall in love with the characters too.

Needlework is full of action, adventure, unexpected twists and turns, and lots of music. I absolutely loved the song texts interwoven in the story. 

The author created an outstanding atmosphere that you will happily lose yourself in. As the heroes join the music festival that takes them on a journey throughout the realm, which is about to be torn apart by a war in which they will be forced to pick sides, the readers learn all about their conflicted past and can’t help but genuinely empathize with them.


Who am I?

I have a crazy theory. I believe that the worlds and characters created by writers are much more than just a product of someone’s imagination. We all possess unlimited creative power (something that most of us take for granted). So what if I told you that all the characters, worlds, realities, and dimensions, ever created in writing or other forms of art, came to life somewhere in this endless Universe? That’s what I write about. Fascinating worlds and realms that exist out there. Lucky travelers that were granted a chance to visit those worlds. It’s what I’m most drawn to as a reader. Because it makes me one of those lucky travelers.


I wrote...

Follow the Hummingbird

By Elena Carter,

Book cover of Follow the Hummingbird

What is my book about?

Tina Thompson, a young and disillusioned widow, finds a pathway to different worlds and realms through her dreams. Using magical amulets entrusted to her, she must find the courage to face a dark and menacing ancient force that threatens to consume her soul.

Resistance

By Sue Goyette (editor),

Book cover of Resistance: Righteous Rage in the Age of #Metoo

This anthology is as powerful as it is still necessary: beware. Some pieces may be triggering, but they raised my awareness and empathy. These collected poems from writers across the globe declare one common theme: resistance. By exploring sexual assault and violence in their work, each writer resists the patriarchal systems of power that continue to support a misogynist justice system that supports abusers. In doing so, they reclaim their power and their voice. Resistance underscores the validity of all women’s experiences, and the importance of dignifying such experiences in voice, however that may sound. Because once survivors speak out and disrupt their pain, there is no telling what else they can do.


Who am I?

I love gathering poets together to celebrate different causes. In fact, I hosted a weekly literary radio show, Gathering Voices, for seven years and published a book/cd collection, Gathering Voice. Since 1972, I have been publishing poetry as well as editing anthologies that collect differing voices, as an activist and poet/editor: gathering voices for women, nature, and social justice is my passion. Given the immensity of suffering in the war on Ukraine, I was galvanized to gather together poems in solidarity with Ukrainians. The anthology, co-edited with Richard-Yves Sitoski, was launched 3 months after the invasion began: a huge endeavor that included 48 activist poets.


I edited...

Poems in Response to Peril: An Anthology in Support of Ukraine

By Penn Kemp, Richard-Yves Sitoski,

Book cover of Poems in Response to Peril: An Anthology in Support of Ukraine

What is my book about?

Canadian poets Penn Kemp and Richard-Yves Sitoski have co-edited Poets in Response to Peril, this anthology that brings together 61 poems by 48 Canadian activist poets responding to such current crises. 

These passionate, often heartbreaking, poems invoke sunflowers and broken earth; intimacy and grief; falling bombs and the fragility of flesh; AK-47s and a bride’s bouquet. Gathering voices in the white heat of the moment, this anthology couldn’t be more timely or more necessary. The book continues with an ongoing YouTube playlist of videos submitted by poets expressing solidarity with those afflicted by war (YouTube > Poets in Response to Peril). Profits go toward PEN Ukraine.

Those Who Knew

By Idra Novey,

Book cover of Those Who Knew

Doubling as both a political thriller and political satire, and set on an unnamed, maybe South American island, Idra Novey’s novel about a corrupt senator stars powerful women who are determined to uncover a past sexual assault and possible murder, ultimately speaking truth to power.


Who am I?

As much as I enjoy traveling to real places in fiction, I find that authors who ask me to inhabit a world of their own making make me think more deeply, and these are also the novels I dream about when I’m not actually reading them, the pages I cannot wait to return to when I can pick up the book again. By exiting the world we inhabit, and occupying a world very much like our own, I end up reflecting more thoughtfully about the contemporary moment, and in a way, feel more connected. I tried to create such a world in The Stranger Game, and this is something I hope to do again in a future novel.


I wrote...

The Stranger Game

By Peter Gadol,

Book cover of The Stranger Game

What is my book about?

Rebecca’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Ezra, has gone missing, but when she notifies the police, they seem surprisingly unconcerned. They suspect he has been playing the “stranger game,” a viral hit in which players start following others in real life, as they might otherwise do on social media. As the game spreads, however, the rules begin to change, play grows more intense and disappearances are reported across the country. Curious about this popular new obsession, and hoping that she might be able to track down Ezra, Rebecca tries the game for herself. She also meets Carey, someone who is willing to take the game further than she imagined possible.

A thought-provoking, haunting novel, The Stranger Game unearths the connections, both imagined and real, that we build with the people around us in the physical and digital world, and where the boundaries blur between them.

Faith

By Jennifer Haigh,

Book cover of Faith

Hemingway once said that a writer should “convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.” As a reader, I don’t always need to feel like the story has happened to me, but when a book is written in first-person narrative, I do enjoy feeling like it really happened to the narrator. I love it when the main character sounds authentic and the author fades to the background, making it seem like a memoir. Such a book is Faith, by Jennifer Haigh. Although Faith isn’t categorized as crime-fiction, it involves an Irish Catholic family in Boston in 2002 during the height of the church’s pedophile scandals. As the narrator navigates her family dynamics after her half-brother is accused of sexual assault, she becomes a woman caught between faith and doubt, and she explores this limbo…


Who am I?

When my family moved from sunny Florida to the cold, rugged mountains of Montana when I was in eighth grade, I thought I would hate it. Instead, I fell in love with Montana and its arresting landscape, especially Glacier National Park, which was only about a half-hour drive from our small town. When I began writing crime novels, I considered setting before plot or character because landscape was so central to me. I decided to place my stories in and around Glacier National Park where the backdrop is stunning, stark, and sometimes haunting. The following books allow you to luxuriate in atmosphere while being propelled by dynamic characters and interesting plots.


I wrote...

The Wild Inside: A Novel of Suspense

By Christine Carbo,

Book cover of The Wild Inside: A Novel of Suspense

What is my book about?

What was supposed to be a pleasant father-son camping trip beneath the rugged peaks and starlit skies of Glacier National Park turned into a full-fledged nightmare when Ted Systead’s father was attacked by a bear and dragged to his death. Now, twenty years later, Ted is a Special Agent for the Department of the Interior and has been called back to investigate a crime that mirrors the horror of that night —but this time, the victim was tied to a tree before being mauled. As Ted investigates, he realizes that the locals are wary of outsiders treading on their territory. The residents’ intimate connection to the wild forces them to confront nature, and their fellow man, with equal measures of reverence and ruthlessness.

Memories of the Future

By Siri Hustvedt,

Book cover of Memories of the Future

An audaciously experimental novelist, Siri Hustvedt is also a highly respected scholar of neuroscience who is not afraid to bring the philosophy of mind into her fiction. In Memories of the Future, she adroitly employs some revisionist art history as well. And there is a breathtakingly vivid evocation of the sensory lag that occurs with trauma. But what grabbed me first and unrelentingly in this novel is its evocation of a time and place—New York in the 1970s (the then scruffy Upper West Side, to be exact)—and of the social and sexual perplexities it produced for young women. The protagonist negotiates independence and loneliness, courage—and memory—both true and false, and men safe and otherwise. I wish I’d known her then


Who am I?

I write about contemporary art, and much of the work I’ve been drawn to was made by women and by artists in other sidelined communities. Early on, I also focused on marginalized disciplines: artists’ books, performance, and art that responded directly to the vacant sites that abounded in New York City when I started out in the late 1970s. It was an enormously exciting time, but also a tough one. Violence was very hard to avoid. I didn’t focus on that at the time, but ultimately, I realized I needed to look more directly at trouble, and how artists respond to it.  


I wrote...

Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

By Nancy Princenthal,

Book cover of Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s

What is my book about?

During the famously violent 1970s, the incidence of sexual assault spun out of control, with surprisingly little attention. The women’s movement of the time was great at challenging injustice in the workplace and at home, but initially tiptoed around rape. It was artists who first spoke out, quietly at first, soon with bullhorns. Yoko Ono was the moment’s magnetic if ambivalent herald; Nancy Spero its lacerating poet; Suzanne Lacy its fearless activist. Today sexual assault is routinely in the headlines, but confusion still abounds over whom it most affects, how best to confront it—and even how to define it. Along with illuminating these issues, Unspeakable Acts heeds younger artists who have looked at how rape is inseparably entwined with issues of race and class.  

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