The Help Desk: What book would you give to your teenage self?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

If you could give one book to yourself as a teenager, what book would it be? It can be any book from any time, even if it was published after your teen years.

Helga, Crown Hill

Dear Helga,

What a wonderful question, as one of my favorite pastimes is stewing in regret. Your question reminded me of a time in my early 20s when I told a good friend and mentor (who is male) that I didn't think women wrote as well as men. My comment was the product of what I'd been exposed to in school: illustrious male writers I admired and identified with, and the occasional woman thrown in whom I did not: Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Austen and Anne Frank. The female authors I read on my own were mostly romance writers and other genre authors, and while I enjoyed their work I didn't want to emulate them.

When that thoughtless comment fell out of my mouth, my mentor did not correct or lecture me. He simply gave me a look of pity and then did the same slow fade I employ at parties when someone four beers in says, "Well if I was a girl I'd take it as a compliment." That pitying look prompted me to search out and read contemporary female authors and, unsurprisingly, I found a ton of work that I identified with and authors that I now love.

If I could go back and give my teenage self one book, it would be Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which is one of the most beautifully constructed books I've ever read. (Also, Robinson is from Idaho like myself, and should be celebrated more in her native state instead of a lionized dude like Hemingway, who simply shot himself here.)

I would also give myself Claire Vaye Watkins's essay "On Pandering," which every female writer should read.