Social Justice books your kids are reading for college

Each year, hundreds of colleges and universities across the United States assign incoming freshmen a “summer reading” book that is discussed throughout the year. 

Campus Reform reviewed the summer reading assignments from over 400 schools. While many selections focused on motivation and self-help, Social Justice was the overarching theme this year, including topics on immigration, racism, and sexuality.

While not every book assigned was overtly left-leaning, several books chosen this year explore explicitly liberal themes. This has been an ongoing trend among liberal colleges, who create mandatory programs like summer readings to communicate social justice themes to students.

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The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers, edited by Brian Turner, is a collection of short stories written by several authors who recall romantic encounters from a variety of situations and locations. The Kiss has been assigned to incoming freshmen at Sierra Nevada College.

“From Sioux Falls to Khartoum, from Kyoto to Reykjavik; from the panchayat forests of India to the Giant’s Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland; in taxis and at bus stops, in kitchens and sleigh beds, haystacks and airports around the globe—people are kissing one another,”  the description from publisher W.W. Norton reads. “The sublime kiss. The ambiguous kiss. The devastating kiss.” 

“A deliciously diverse anthology of essays, stories, poems, and graphic memoirs, where writers explore the deeply human act of kissing,” the description continues.

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, follows the fictional aftermath of an unjustified police shooting of an unarmed black boy. The novel has been assigned by six schools, including the State University of New York at Brockport and Kansas State University. 

“The novel goes on to raise cogent and credible counter-arguments to the flattening narratives often presented by authorities and echoed by many media outlets in shooting cases involving young black males,” declares a review by The Atlantic. “Thomas’s novel keenly understands the dangers of defaulting to the cop/vigilante versus ‘thug’ framing device: The deceased get put on trial, rather than their killers.”

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The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is a fictional account of a near-future society in which the United States has been replaced by a patriarchal theocratic regime where women’s primary focus is replenishing the waning population.

“Women are the main target of the regime’s brutality,” a review from The Guardian surmised. “Their rights and personal freedoms have been abolished. They are no longer allowed to work, to own assets or to be in relationships not sanctioned by the state. They are now categorised according to marital status and reproductive ability.”

The Handmaid’s Tale was assigned by four schools, including the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University.

Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown, is a collection of short stories by a variety of authors involved in social justice and activism. The book was created and named in honor of award winning author Octavia Butler. 

Octavia’s Brood is described by NY Journal of Books as an exploration of “current social issues such as capitalism, climate change, gentrification, immigration, etc. through the lens of science fiction and with the goal of social change.”

The stories, as described by the Journal, “suggest that science fiction or speculative fiction is indeed the ideal venue for imagining a world without war, violence, prisons, or capitalism.”

Octavia’s Brood was assigned by Western Washington University.

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No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine, by Rachel Pearson, documents the author’s medical experiences, including her time at an abortion clinic. The book has been assigned to the incoming class at Lehigh University.

“Pearson’s inspired collective of illuminating clinical episodes immediately sparks to life with anecdotes from her early work in a female-owned and -operated abortion clinic in her 20s,” a Kirkus review states. “Her experience there as a young, bilingual patient advocate counseling Spanish-speaking women greatly broadened her perspective on women’s issues, ‘the suffering that women go through,’ and it solidified her decision to pursue a career in medicine.”

In The Country We Love: My Family Divided, by Diane Guerrero, documents Guerrero’s experience after she illegally immigrated to the United States with her family as a child. The book explores how Guerrero went from an undocumented immigrant to a famous actress serving as an Ambassador for Citizenship and Naturalization under the Obama administration. 

“Like many of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, her parents worked in countless low-paying menial jobs while in constant fear, knowing that they could be snatched away any time,” Publisher’s Weekly noted in its review. “They tried to obtain green cards and citizenship through legal channels, but were scammed by a con artist.” 

The autobiography was assigned by the University of Houston and the University of South Carolina, Beaufort.

USC-Beaufort explains that it assigned the book to “provide opportunities for students to gain cultural competence and understand different perspectives.”

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Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, by Amy Ellis Nutt, was assigned by three schools, including California State University, Northridge and CSU-Sacramento. The fictional novel is based on a real family’s experience raising twin boys, one of whom decided to transition to female as a child. 

“When trying to illuminate the possible biological origins of transgenderism, Ms. Nutt explains that genital formation and sexual differentiation of the brain are distinct processes that may not always correspond,” a New York Times review details. “When theorizing about this particular, beguiling case—transgenderism in one of two identical twins—she notes that even a fetus’s position in the womb can affect its hormone intake.”

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander breaks down the relationship between mass incarceration of black Americans and Jim Crow laws. Alexander is currently a visiting professor of Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary

“[Alexander] wrote this book for liberals like her to alert them that this system—in which people are being targeted, criminalized, stereotyped to support popular complacent consent for criminalization, incarcerated, and then denied full citizenship upon release—is a legacy to the racial caste system that was Jim Crow,” according to The New Orleans Review.

Alexander’s book has been assigned by two schools this summer, including the University of Missouri Law School, which describes the book as “controversial and provocative, arguing that the war on drugs and unequal enforcement of criminal laws have legalized old forms of discrimination regarding employment, housing, voting rights, educational opportunities, and other public benefits.”

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The most commonly assigned book this year is Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which explores a black father’s advice to his young son regarding race and living as a black man in modern America. The book explores different periods of American history in which race played a key factor, such as the American Civil War, the development of historically black colleges, and modern Chicago.

“Americans have built an empire on the idea of ‘race,’ a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion,” according to Coates’ publisher, Penguin Random House

The book asks several questions, such as “What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?”

Topping the list, Between the World and Me has been chosen for the summer reading by eight colleges this summer, including the University of Vermont, Pacific College, Augustana University, and Westfield State University.

“Coates’s book offers a timely exploration of both the lived experience of race and the structural consequences of racism, weaving together individual experiences and broad insights,” the University of Vermont explains. “As such, the book models critical inquiry, offering students and all of us at UVM an example of what it means to pursue ideas and their consequences, drawing on multiple disciplinary perspectives.”

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