First we mourn, then we fight.
As deeply, viscerally upset as I was when Donald Trump won the election, I’ve been inspired and comforted by the incredible amount of activist energy his election has ignited in progressives (and, frankly, a decent chunk of the center). However you’re working for justice– whether it’s financial donations, taking part in bookish activism, joining protests, calling your representatives, or more– the work is hard. Pushing back against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia is never easy and the victories don’t come quick. It’s worth it, but it’s not easy.
When I get discouraged, and with Mike Pence headed to power it’s hard not to get discouraged, I turn again and again to Laura Kaplan’s The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service. This “collective memoir”/oral history tells the story of the Jane Fund, a group of women who came together in the years before Roe v. Wade to help women obtain safe but illegal/extralegal abortions. There is so much I love about this book but the line I’ve been coming back to in the last week or so is: “The work of it is whatever the work is.” I’ve been meditating on this line a lot as I struggle with how to balance helping individuals in the short term with working to end systematic injustice in the long term.
Because I think we’re going to be doing more work than ever in the coming years, I put out a call to Book Riot’s contributors asking for the book they read when they need to remember that fighting the good fight is worth it. That we can fight for good and, sometimes, we can win. Here are the books they turn to when it’s time to get fired up. In the comments, tell us what book you return to when your activist practice gets hard or you need to remember that justice can triumph against all odds. I want to build up a stash of books to read when the world feels too big to change.
Reading this book reminds me of why standing up and raising our voices is so damn necessary. It’s like a rallying cry, a clarion call, a knock upside my damn head. This book focuses on the gender wars, but reading it makes me want to be a stronger, better, louder social justice warrior for all persecuted populations.
– Steph Auteri
The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling (1997 – 2007)
Because “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” (from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). One of the most powerful messages from this series is the ability of love to overcome fear and hatred, and that in darkness, there can be light.
– Jen Sherman
I Am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer (2014)
When I read this book to my three year old daughter before bedtime, it’s anyone’s guess about whether or not I’ll be able to get through it without choking up. The answer is usually… no. But the message of empowerment and strength that comes from this illustrated tale of Rosa Parks’ part in the Civil Rights Movement makes me want to storm the castle while singing tunes from Les Mis. And not only does this book remind me that the fight is always worth it, but my daughter is being raised to know that “you must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right” (Rosa Parks). If a middle-aged black woman in Alabama can ignite a movement, I can take this disappointment and translate it into positive action!
– Elizabeth Allen
I read this book for the first time this summer, and it’s been in the forefront of my mind every time I turned around in this election season. Some of the pieces are essays, some are interviews, some are short stories, but all are incredibly inspiring. While they don’t all agree, each contributor has a vision, and reading that vision is both a balm and a reminder of what we’re working towards.
– Jenn Northington
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2015)
Short, powerful, effective, and to the point. This is one to read (and watch the TEDx Talk) many times as a reminder–and power-source–that fighting for ALL women’s equality is a basic and simple concept as Adichie shows with great clarity in these roughly 50 pages.
– Jamie Canaves
Set in the near future, women who refuse to comply with male domination results in exile to the worst prison planet ever. I’d really like for this graphic novel not to become a documentary.
– Kristen McQuinn
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940)
If the pioneers living in shanties on the great plains could survive the winter of 1880-1881, I can do anything. While the Little House books have many problematic elements, they remain an inspiration to me, and this one in particular shows just what people can do when they have to.
– Annika Barranti Klein
Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce (1999)
Keladry is the bad-ass heart-strong heroine I aim to be. She is the truest Hufflepuff to exist outside of Hogwarts: ready to defend her friends and family against any odds, and determined to devote her life to protecting those who need it.
– Danika Ellis
When I think of all the shit going on in the world today, I think of Nora Lopez growing up in New York City in 1977, with the riots & the fires and the power outages and the Son of Sam, not to mention the serious problems she’s having in her home life. But Nora learns to stand up and advocate for herself in a violent, unpredictable world, and girls like her give me hope and strength.
– Katie McLain
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M Valente (2012)
September goes on adventures to Fairyland, and she has to learn to deal with the world and its cruelties and death, but this book is mainly about how hard learning to grow a heart can be. It’s about friendship and magic and trust, and about laundering your wishes so they don’t get too dirty, and how sometimes your courage may need to be scrubbed up a bit too. This whole series is just lovely and full of bravery, and exactly what you might need to get you through this winter.
– Sonja Palmer
The Life & Times of Scrooge McDuck (series) by Don Rosa (1994-2004)
I turned to this series at a moment in my life when I needed to read about someone putting their nose to the grindstone and not losing sight of their goals. That’s a lot to load on a duck’s shoulders, right? Scrooge can take it: every last industry he tried to corner involved getting cheated, scammed, robbed, abandoned, and left in the wilderness with little more than his hide and his wits. Every time, he bounced back and fought for his scrappy gains until he became the famously wealthy but miserly duck of Disney cartoon fame. Want to know the secret of Scrooge’s vault? He remembers how he earned every penny and dives through his sea of money to revisit fond memories of friends and family now gone. Not everyone has a skyscraper-sized vault, but we can treasure the people who got us where we are today and work hard to make them proud.
– Thomas Maluck
There’s a lot I like about When Everything Changed, but these days, the thing I find most grounding in it is the way Collins write about both the successes in the women’s movement and the failures. Extraordinary progress was made over the five or six decades about which she’s writing, but there were setbacks too. In moments when progress feels like it’s stalled or even evaporated, it’s comforting to remember that real change has never happened smoothly or quickly.
– Trisha Brown
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014)
I am so freaking imperfect. And when I need to rally and fight it’s really easy to be overwhelmed by my imperfection. It can make me feel defeated before I even begin. This one of the many reasons I love Bad Feminist so much. Not only is Gay brilliant, as usual, but she’s also compassionate about our imperfect selves. She doesn’t offer a grand rallying call but instead provides an example of how one can examine and critique the world around us. Plus, she’s so funny and smart, her existence gives me hope.
– Katie MacBride
This was one of the first books I ever read as a kid that reflected my own cultural heritage, one I wish I knew way more about. There’s just something so hopeful about the story of a dragon, a boy, and the ever charismatic Monkey King fighting the good fight, however reluctantly, against all odds.
– Jessica Yang