For Your Consideration: Revisiting The Books You Loved in Middle School

for your consideration

Welcome to For Your Consideration, a new series about things we love and love to do — and we’d like to give you permission to embrace your authentic self and love them too.


I learned how to masturbate from a Meg Cabot novel. Specifically, it was Ready Or Not, the sequel to All-American Girl, a truly bonkers and perfect YA novel about a teen girl named Sam who saves the President from an assassin, becomes a celebrated national hero and teen ambassador to the UN, and falls for the President’s son. The fact that it has not yet been adapted as a film is one of life’s greatest mysteries. Hollywood, I’m available (but my version will obviously be queer).

In the sequel, the President’s son invites Sam to Camp David and mentions that maybe they can play the board game Parcheesi, which Sam takes to mean he wants to have sex with her. In the end, he really did just want to play Parcheesi, but Sam spends much of the book trying to decide if she’s ready for sex and also seeking advice from her older sister Lucy, who subsequently teaches her how to masturbate in the shower. My life was never the same!!!!!!!!

My parents never talked to me about sex — not queer sex, not heterosexual sex, none of it. I think the first time I became aware of sex as a concept was while watching Charmed reruns on TNT in fifth grade. Instead, I got my sex talks from Judy Blume and Meg Cabot. And yes, their books only really touched on straight sex, but that didn’t make them altogether irrelevant to a closeted middle school lesbian in suburban Virginia in the middle-aughts. Their books taught me that being ready to have sex was entirely up to me, that it didn’t need to happen by a certain age or in a certain way.

A few years after I read Ready Or Not the first time, my parents gave me two books for my birthday, one of them hilariously titled What’s Up With Boys?, intended to be a guide for (straight) adolescent girls to understanding “the male psyche.” Both books were written by the same author, an insidiously sexist and homophobic woman who framed her punitive and toxic views on sex as progressive sexual education for religious teens. Unlike Ready Or Not, her books were distinctly anti-masturbation. She tried to make abstinence-only sex education sound hip. I quickly became terrified that God was mad at me for touching myself. (I kept doing it anyway.)

Eventually, I pushed these books out of my memory. I have a freakishly detailed memory for every book I’ve ever read — when I read it, where I was. But those books faded away for a long time. I didn’t even think about them when I came out and was bombarded by questions about why I didn’t do so sooner, why it was so hard for me to come out to my family even though they were seemingly progressive and accepting and religious but not that kind of religious. I forgot about the books. I think they did, too.

Then, one day while sitting in a closed restaurant in West Village, a few glasses of wine deep, I read a random passage someone posted on Twitter from an evangelical’s text on sex that conflated masturbation, homosexuality, and sin. The words weren’t from the same writer as the books I was given on my birthday, but they still sounded familiar. It all came back, my parents’ misguided and ultimately harmful replacement for an actual sex talk — two books that, in their defense, were probably just recommended to them by their significantly more conservative friends and that they didn’t think to screen them themselves. I tried to tell my then-girlfriend about this life-changing realization I was experiencing at 3 a.m. in an empty restaurant. She didn’t quite get it.

I found excerpts of the books on Google and confirmed that they were just as bad as I suddenly remembered. I cried as I read. I still can’t remember the exact details of how I felt when I read them the first time or where I was. I know I never talked to my parents about them and still haven’t.

This past summer, one of my immediate reactions to sudden, intense turmoil in my personal life was to regress, to go far back enough in time that I could somewhat cordon myself off from what was happening in the present. This looked like briefly escaping to my parents’ house in suburban Virginia. There was almost nothing to do and I didn’t have any friends left there, so I tried to occupy my days alone in my room with my cat, who I’d impulsively brought along despite the fact that she had never left Brooklyn. Everything I tried to read or watch or do reminded me of the person I was trying so hard not to think about. So I started re-reading Meg Cabot’s prolific series The Princess Diaries.

Revisiting those books was one of the only times that this past summer felt like actual summer. I read those books for the first time during swim meets while awaiting my races, on the hammock in our backyard, late during summer nights when I could stay up reading without worrying about school the next morning. I intensely associated them with summer, and even when I returned to Brooklyn to my increasingly unstable life, I would go up to our apartment’s roof and tune into Princess Mia Thermopolis’ New York City. For the uninitiated, there are actually 16 of these books, including half-volumes and even a volume VII and ¾. Meg Cabot doesn’t fuck around.

It wasn’t the first time I’d re-read the books I loved in my youth. For Fourth of July in 2017, I went to my best friend’s parent’s new home in New Jersey and the grand tour included a bright reading nook where the built-in shelves had an entire section dedicated to Judy Blume’s greatest hits. I picked up Just As Long As We’re Together, a book that had once taught me about shifting friendship dynamics during a time when it felt like all of my friendships were changing at a pace I couldn’t keep up with. It held up, and let me tell ya, the queer subtext was fiery. I got my hands on the sequel, Here’s To You, Rachel Robinson the next time I was at my parents’.

That time, the time-traveling I was doing by picking up these books wasn’t necessarily a coping mechanism, but it did feel good, and it did give me access to an old version of myself, shedding light on a lot of the things that contributed to my young queer identity and on that strange paradox of both knowing and not knowing my queerness at the same time.

You can learn a lot about who you were when you go back to what you read during formative years. Sometimes, it’s unsettling. I’d rather never think about those stupid books my parents gave me, but in a way, I have to. On the other hand, with books tied to better memories, revisiting can be an exhale. There’s an intoxicating, instant warming feeling of settling back into a world like that of Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl, worlds I spent so much time in both while reading and in daydreams.

You’d be surprised the kind of memories that can be sparked by a simple phrase or even by the look and feel of a book. The tacky layout of those pages with quotes that separated the chapters in Anne Brashares’ The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants? Oh yeah, you better believe I was transported back to a particular house on a particular street with a particular girl when I recently laid eyes on those again. Even just the plasticky feel of the Princess Diaries books’ shiny hardcover jackets felt like summer.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a Brooklyn-based writer, television critic, and comedian who spends most of her time over-analyzing queer subtext on television, singing "Take Me Or Leave Me" in public places, and assembling cheese platters. She has a cat named after Piper Halliwell from Charmed, and her go-to karaoke song is "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. Her writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her screaming in all-caps about Kalinda Sharma, Jennifer Lopez, and oysters on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 171 articles for us.

48 Comments

  1. The Princess Diaries!!! Those books made me who I am today. One of the later ones, Princess Mia, is my tried-and-true guide to heartbreak. I made my mom read them, and she repeatedly told me that Michael was an unrealistically perfect man.

  2. Tbh I don’t remember that book super well (I probably only read it once, instead of the two or three times I read All-American Girl!), but I do remember that she spends all this time worrying about sex and then finds out after she’s actually tried it that her cool older sister hasn’t done that yet. And both of their decisions are presented as okay!

    ANYWAY, I am convinced (perhaps falsely) that a lot of my childhood reading was great and would be great if I read it now. Madeleine L’Engle, Meg Cabot, Eoin Colfer (well, maybe just the first few Artemis Fowl books, I wasn’t that into the later stuff in the series), Garth Nix (specifically the Seventh Tower series) and so many more.

    • I immediately thought of Tamora Pierce! The Tortall heroines have always felt significant in my heart, even though the overtly queer characters are mostly in her later Circle of Magic books. I think it’s because ultimately the message I got from Alanna, Daine, and Kel can be summed up as “work hard on being the best version of yourself, but be yourself, even if it’s sometimes scary and you have to be quite stubborn about it.” That’s how baby middle school me tried to roll, and that’s how I roll to this day, which feels like it’s working out.

      • I’m currently rereading them too (and will probably for the rest of my life!) – the Emelan books and the chosen family in them mean so much and Tortall – Alanna and Daine and ahhhhhh! I have yet to meet anyone irl who feels about them like I do so seeing these posts has made me so happy!!

  3. In 8th grade I was desperately in love with a girl from a different school, and she and I would pass my copy of Traveling Pants back and forth, pretending to read it, but really sending each other notes hidden between the pages. The texture of the cover ALONE makes me blush.

  4. Jacqueline Wilson is basically synonymous with middle school for me. We had to read The Lottie Project for a combined History and English project and boy that was it for me. I fell in love with her books, her characters and her unique storytelling. I have most of her books stashed somewhere in my parents’ house.

    Other books that come to mind are The Famous Five, Goosebumps, Animorphs and of course, Harry Potter. I also vividly remember being obsessed with a gigantic Princess Diana biography during this age. I don’t know why exactly but I read and reread that biography like 5 times. Something about her and her tragic story really just fascinated me.

  5. All American Girl was supposed to be turned into a movie years ago, not sure if Ready or Not would have been a movie too but it never happened

    I used to read a lot of Meg Cabot but I’ve never read The Princess Diaries though I’ve seen the first movie.

    Anyway what I read when I was younger was:
    – The Babysitters Club and Little Sister Karen Books
    – American Girls series, I loved Molly.
    – Number The Stars by Lois Lowry
    – The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the sequels.
    – Sweet Valley High, I think I was in 7th or 8th grade when I read these.
    – Goosebumps

    • I sometimes hate that everyone from my generation is an adult now, but the fact that one of us has made SSR into a podcast makes me think that maybe it’s not so bad. 😛 I will definitely be checking this out! Thanks for the rec!

  6. That feel when someone loved a book that you loved and irrationally thought of as your own… half heartwarming connection, half Gollum possessiveness.

    Also, Caroline B. Cooney was and is the shit.

  7. i’ve never quite stopped rereading my middle school favorites because i’m a chronic rereader of books, but i have recently been trawling the dollar book bins looking for the editions i remember best to fill out my Room of Books Optimistically Titled Library

  8. Umm, I ALSO learned to masturbate from the Meg Cabot classic Ready or Not! I remember reading all of her books with love in my heart and a deep-seated desire for romance to happen to me, which it really never did in middle or high school. I also loved basically any book that had a Meg-Cabot-ey cover (the title in cursive, maybe a daisy with a few petals that had fallen off, maybe a piece of fruit, etc.).

  9. YES this is what I have done to survive my adulthood! I loved reading and rereading books as a kid, and now I like to listen to audiobook versions of my favorites. Diana Wynne Jones, Tamora Pierce and the Harry Potter books are my go-to picks when I’m especially stressed.

  10. A little bit later in the YA world, but Gemma Doyle books anyone? There was like, a paragraph about lesbians that I had bookmarked and reread at least weekly in middle school.

    Also I read Ready or Not for probably the 20th time after I came out in high school and honestly it felt more relevant than ever.

  11. Okay, not only were Meg Cabot’s books my entire world throughout sixth and seventh grade, but I’ve also kept rereading them!!! And it’s so good!! Really brings me back to earlier, simpler times.
    BUT THE REASON I CAME TO THIS COMMENT SECTION IS BECAUSE THE ACTUAL MEG CABOT SHARED THIS ARTICLE ON FACEBOOK!!!!!!!!! AND I WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW CAUSE OMG KAYLA!!!! MEG CABOT READ THIS AND LOVED IT!!!

  12. Cast your imagination back to 1978-1980…the colors around us were changing from harvest gold, avocado, and ALL of the browns, to the bright pink and green decreed by Lisa Birnbach’s manifesto “The Official Preppy Handbook.” I suspect the Jewish author wrote it as a gentle satire, but in my NE Catholic prep school world, it was considered an instruction manual. I also remember reading many books at summer camp which formed/warped my intro (and sole experience) of sex ed. The “must reads” were V. C. Andrews’ “Flowers in the Attic” [SOOOOO fucked up], Judy Blume’s “Forever” because THERE WAS AN ACTUAL SEX SCENE! JUDY BLUME WRITING ABOUT HETERO INTERCOURSE! THIS WAS A BIG DEAL!, Reuben’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex: But Were Afraid to Ask”. He was anti-gay, but as that wasn’t on my radar yet, it didn’t make any impression. But he did introduce me to the concept of masturbation- which also was not on my repressed radar- so I do have to thank him for that. Keyes'”Flowers for Algernon” made me so very sad. Finally, I fondly remember Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game”. It won the Newberry medal in 1979 and my elementary school librarian gifted me with it to thank me for my outstanding work as a school library aide. Boom!

    • Oh gosh, V.C. Andrews. I definitely read the entire Flowers in the Attic series when I was a teenager, plus at least parts of some of her other series as well. Such intriguing garbage, lol.

    • Thank you for being another person in the world who thought the whole flowers in the attic thing was frankly – terrible! Everything was girls being kidnapped in the silver crown- girls having disasters in the Australian outback in Climb a lonely Hill, trees killing your sister Seven little Australians and what I thought would be a Sapphic high school dresses romp…Picninc at Hanging Rock! But no – all death and violence and tragedy. Later on discovered and read all the Little House on the Prairie books, and the Katy Books, What Katy Did, What Katy did at school,and Next but looking back I think I just secretly wanted to be Rose Red. Oh and all those Ballet books about Drina, Drina dancing in Spain, Drina dancing in the bathroom, Drina’s grandma being always cross but always up with book tokens…..and fog..lots of London fogs. As for sex education my parents gave me a pretty badly drawn comic but probably very good book explaining masturbation and Puberty called What’s Happening to Me, the sequel to the equally not well drawn comic book Where Did I come From (Oh no why does the Man have to get on top? How can you Breathe like that. Gross!) Anyway I was in sixth grade, about 10, and took the book to school to show my friend Alison this exciting thing I’d tried that was really fun to do “look just read it…just rub there and keep doing that and… many questions from the principal later the book was confiscated! Alison became a missionary. Things looked up when I read Lee Harding’s Displaced Person which at that time just totally reflected my state of mind – it’s about a person becoming invisible in the world and I still recall parts of that tale on some days. But then for some reason when I was 16 I bought two books one day on the way to my work because they had nice covers. A Samuel Beckett reader, and a ‘new’ book with these awesome looking women on the cover called the Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. With Stephen and Waiting for Godot with six years of fine self help to orgasm skills what more could you need! Thank you books!

  13. I don’t think I ever really read YA books as a kid, I read Ursula Leguin’s Wizard of Earthsea trilogy and the Narnia chronicles, and Madeleine L’Engle in my 20’s.

    As a kid and young teenager though, I went straight for the jugular. These are the ones that affected me the most :

    Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human which I read in French – I reread it recently and was just as blown away

    The Emmanuelle series by Emmanuelle Arsan (actually written by her husband, I found out only recently)

    All of Shirley Jackson but particularly We Have Always Lived in the Castle in a tie with The Haunting of Hill House

    Agent Oh Oh Sex (the only title I remember from my bro’s hidden smut collection)

    Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (my mother actually forbade me to read this, which of course made me very determined to disobey her).

  14. I switched schools in sixth grade (went from a theoretically bilingual school in Mexico to a catholic school on the US side of the border), and I had absolutely no idea how to interact with other kids. Luckily, there was a mini-library in our classroom, which is were I discovered The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time and The Hobbit. Books became my best friends for a few years after that. I read ANYTHING I could get my hands on, from Aesop’s Fables to Flowers in the Attic, but those three remain the most important. So much so that I got a few tattoos inspired by them so I can take them with me wherever I go.

  15. My Side Of The Mountain by Jean Craighead George. I wanted to run away and live in the woods. Literally did my book report on this book four grades in a row. After I grew out of my Pipi Longstockings phase.

  16. I loved Gordon Korman books, but especially No More Dead Dogs and Son of Interflux. I still re-read these books when I need some genuine laughter. The Adventures of Blue Avenger by Norma Howe was another favorite.

    • My mother read I Want to Go Home by Gordon Korman so many times aloud to us as kids. She finally bought a second copy, and I have one of them on the shelf at my house along with several other of his books!

      Then in eighth grade I got into reading several Alice Walker books (where I’m sure a lot of it went over my head).

  17. I was suuuuper into YA thriller/horror books when I was in middle school in the mid-90s. R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and Caroline B. Cooney are the authors I remember the most. Lois Duncan was another one. I remember a book of hers about astral projection that was just wild.

    I also got into V.C. Andrews in either middle school or early high school. I definitely read the entire “Flowers in the Attic” series, and at least parts of some other series that I can’t remember anything about now. Her books were such scandalous garbage when I was a teen, I’d check them out from the library but then hide them from my mom.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I also loved historical fiction. One of my very favorite books from that time is one I was sent by Scholastic because I’d ordered The Diary of Anne Frank and it was on back order, so they sent me this book as a “sorry we couldn’t fulfill your order” freebie. It’s called “As the Waltz was Ending” and it’s the author’s own story about growing up in Vienna during WWII. It’s one of the few books I still have my childhood copy of and I’m glad I held onto it because I’m pretty sure it’s out of print now.

  18. A few years ago I bought and re-read some books from elementary school: the Chronicles of Prydain series and the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede. It was pretty great and magical. I was also really into those Tamora Pierce books ya’ll are mentioning so I might have to re-read those soon. My Dad got some for me for Christmas one year because he was sick of me reading Harry Potter over and over again, lmao.

  19. This article is spot-on timing — would you believe I was actually just rereading one of the Princess Diaries books today?! I put it on hold on the library app ages ago in a fit of nostalgia and it only just came through. It’s the one where Mia decides she’s ready to Do It with Michael and in her nervous preparations, discusses with Tina how they learned to practice in the shower from watching the 40-year-old virgin. I’m 100% sure that that whole thing went totally over my head when I read it as a teen. Apparently I should have been reading Meg Cabot’s other books to get the full picture!

    Honestly though, so much else of my sex ed came from Meg Cabot. I was homeschooled for several of my teen years and missed actual public school sex ed lessons, so Mia and Tina were my sisters in imaginative cluelessness and Lana Weinberger was my stand-in mean girl who spread misinformation about periods causing you to bleed out in the shower.

    Madeleine L’Engle’s books were my other #1 YA favorites and also were quite educational! However, did anyone else read A House Like a Lotus? I have not revisited it since I was in high school but I recall there was a weird storyline that involved an older lesbian friend getting drunk and making inappropriate moves. I feel like it was probably pretty problematic representation? But I also remember that this was the first book I read where the main character actually had *sex*, and I was simultaneously too embarrassed to look at the page once I figured out what was happening and also so, so curious to see what would happen next.

  20. i super support this, one of my absolute favorite books that ive carried to each house since i was a kid, i got at the BIPOC bookstore in the mall near my grandma’s house near DC and i remember the day i gto it like super vividly, how my mom said i can pick out any book that was up to five dollars (I MISS THIS) and i read the back of this cover that had a bunch of buildings set against a blue night sky and a little brown girl staring at the reader from one of the windows. I reread Sahara Special lowkey all the time and it helps a lot because it’s one of the reasons I decided writing was for me. A lot of times when I feel like I’ve lost it (whatever “it” could possibly be), I go back to that book and remember that the writing, or at least whatever’s at the heart of it, can never really be lost.

    I didn’t read Harry Potter as a kid so that’s more high school me (someone spoiled a HUGE part before the last two movies came out and I was like NO MORE) but I was all about Judy Blume, I gotta go back through her catalog and see which ones I should reread, I remember the Fudge series ranking really high on my list.

    Also! This always makes me feel better anyways cause my mom took us to the library while she was studying for her Master’s and even though everyone and their mother will regret going into a bookstore or library with me (I have. to go through every section. and multiple times. When I went to LWT last year I spent three hours in the same bookstore that was NOT even that big, I mean like the size of the living room and kitchen on one day at a time including Lydia’s room and I didn’t think anyone noticed until I finally brought my books up and the book owner just goes, “I really appreciate how thorough you are, I love it. You made sure to comb every inch.” and as another aside my dad won’t let me go into the library anymore if he’s driving so thank goodness for library ebooks), it always reminds me of the best parts of my family, how books got me through just about everything. How they still do.

    The not so good books are definitely the ones from my high school religion classes like whatever sex book we had that told us not to masturbate and that same sex marriage wasn’t okay and shit and definitely made sure I stayed closeted (at least to adults) for three more years. But it was also a super mixed message because the first part of our sex education class was an episode of A Different World which talked about consent (yikes, considering who is behind this show) and most definitely still had sex before marriage. A strange place that school.

    Thank you Kayla!!! I think I’m gonna do this on my day off, it’ll be good I think.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.