An Incomplete List of Women Writers Who Inspire
An Incomplete List of Women Writers Who Inspire
I don’t know about you, but I have been to dinner parties where we talk about creating a "desert island booklist,” but we never get to a consensus on how many should be on that list. I am pretty sure it would be my fault that if the boat sinks and we are forced onto that desert island, it would be because I brought too many books.
To avoid this scenario, and in recognition of National Reading Month and National Women’s History Month (both in March), I thought I would make a list. I am limiting it to female writers or strong female characters.
When looking at the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Awards, and the Booker Prize, you will notice that the female winners are densely packed into the last 30 years. This is a very incomplete list, but a carefully selected collection.
Maya Angelou an acclaimed American poet, storyteller and activist was a true champion for feminism. Her tales of personal strength amid childhood trauma and racism are accessible and powerful. Her writing reflects how events of history, culture and the arts changed the her world and in turn ours.
Sylvia Plath is one of the most audacious poets of the 20th century. Her work attempted to capture despair, emotion and death. She is credited with popularizing confessional poetry and won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. While to content of her poems and her Novel The Bell Jar was dynamic, they also contain moments of humor. In her poem “Ariel” she describes balloons kept as a family pets. Genius.
The award-winning writer of poetry, fiction, and fiction known for her peerless wit, Dorothy Parker was a quintessential New Yorker. Even today, there is a namesake Dorothy Parker Society that offers walking tours of her beloved New York City. She was part of the “Vicious Circle”—which included Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx, George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross, and Edna Ferber—and was known for its scathing wit and intellectual commentary. A firm believer in civil rights, she, at her death in 1967, bequeathed her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Upon his assassination some months later, the estate was turned over to the NAACP. I do not think I could run with the woman, but it would have been a hoot to try.
Amanda Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. She captivated the world when she read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ January 20, 2021, inauguration ceremony.
The prolific American author Barbara Kingsolver, best known for The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, founded the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction to support literature of social change. Some of her books, including The Bean Trees, have found their way into the classroom. Her characters and storytelling have prompted me to even read her essays, not something I typically do. (There is so much to read that I have to draw the line somewhere.) In one essay, she wrote about a hermit crab in Arizona, and it moved me. That is talent.
Best known for The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s works explore mother-daughter relationships and the Chinese American experience. She writes about the universal themes of family, love, femininity, and forgiveness and never loses sight of the fundamental struggles that mothers and daughters encounter.
Louisa May Alcott
Before publishing her iconic Little Women in 1868, Louisa May Alcott wrote under pennames such as A. M. Barnard. She never married and remained a life-long feminist and abolitionist. She created an enduring classic that touched the hearts and minds of generations. Alcott created four of literature’s most well-loved characters when she wrote of the March sisters— Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—and how their sisterhood endured hardships during the American Civil War. Feminist, abolitionist, sister stories, fake name—Louisa, you had me at the March sisters.
The Brontë Sisters
OK, this is a cop out, lumping them together, but hey, my list, my rules. The three Brontë sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—created some of the most iconic female characters. Jane Eyre may describe herself as "poor, obscure, plain, and little," but her strength in spirit and self-worth has made her one of literature’s most beloved female characters. It’s hard to beat the Brontë sisters for their women empowerment.
It is Madeleine L’Engle’s approach, where science and religion are not at odds, that may seem radical and, to some, an even blasphemous assertion, which appears as a theme in several of her young adult novels. I get a kick out of that. I have to say that some of her books were a little too sci-fi for me, but my mother loved the A Wrinkle in Time series and read them to me. I loved listening to my mother read to me.
Born in 1797, Mary Shelley is iconic for her creation of Frankenstein. It's hard to separate the idea of Dr. Frankenstein's monster from the popular icon he's become, but everyone should read the original novel. Shelley's gothic masterpiece, first published when she was only 20 years old, is far richer than any version of the story spawned to life afterward. Can we revisit that she was only 18 years old when she began writing her seminal work?
In 1993 Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She is best remembered for her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Beloved. Yet some of her other notable works include The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon. She also wrote several children’s books and plays. I read The Bluest Eye as a child, and it has haunted me well into my so-called adulthood. Known for her powerfully evocative prose, her grand mystical tales steeped in Black history, and her haunting (and haunted) characters, Morrison is an author whose body of work demands attention.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
“The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.”
—Laura Ingalls Wilder, in a letter addressed to children readers
While Laura Ingalls Wilder might have been writing about pioneering, there is truth in her words today. At just 15 years old, she helped in supporting her family by signing on to be a teacher. Of course, she did. Teachers are superheroes, even when they are only 15.
Judy Blume and S. E. Hinton
S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is a novel that paved the way for young adult fiction today. Judy Blume addressed taboo topics such as bodily changes during puberty and adulthood themes in her young adult books. How does anyone survive their teenage years without knowing these two fiercely talented women? Am I showing my age?
Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion, cruelty, laughter, and heartache and crowded with life and people and incident. It tells the story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of the Williamsburg tenement neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was an American author who lived in rural Florida and wrote novels with this rural themes and settings. The Yearling was written with a heavy emphasis on the landscape I lived in when growing up. It had impact. Everyone should be so lucky to have a local writer.
American novelist and activist Alice Walker is best known for her award-winning novel, The Color Purple. The intense book, which ranks as one of the most frequently banned books in America because of its violence and language, focuses on the lives of a group of Black women living in the rural South in the early 20th century. It addresses complex themes such as racism, religion, love, marriage, and sexual identity.
Despite only willfully publishing To Kill a Mockingbird during her lifetime (an early draft of the same book was published controversially as a sequel, Go Set a Watchman, shortly prior to the end of her life), Harper Lee was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature, such was her impact in the world. Her characters inspire me and make me wistful for the protagonist Scout’s spirit and humanity.
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote in A Little Princess, “‘Whatever comes,’ she said, ‘cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.’” Some days I feel like a princess and some days like a troll under the bridge, but I like the idea of keeping that secret princess self.
Jane Austen completed just six works during her lifetime, yet she created a vivid fictional world that has inspired for centuries. Her characters remain clearly defined and very often someone I would invite to my dinner party, but that is another list. She talks of her character Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice with the words “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.” She is not wrong.
L. M. Montgomery
When I read L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series as a child, Anne Shirley felt like a real person to me, and I loved her as if she were real. When I read L. M. Montgomery as an adult, I’m reminded of the tremendous power of quiet books with genuine, complex, and human heroines. How could one not love someone who can articulate in her book, The Story Girl, "The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland?" How could you not love the creativity of this author?
Dee Morrison Meaney
Of course I will take An Unkindness of Ravens to my island. Who doesn’t want a historical novel taking place in eleventh century in England, that come as a trilogy, has fascinating well researched characters, Vikings and a beautifully recounted mystical approach? A enchanting series written by my aunt. I love having it nearby.
Beverly Cleary wrote in Ramona the Pest, “She was not a slowpoke growing up. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next.” This was a great reminder to me when I was teaching that the antsy child in class was just so full of life.
Elizabeth George Speare
It has been 40 years since I first read Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I remember feeling entirely swept away by that historical novel.
I get that it is a little irresponsible of me to try to write about women writers. No one competes with these ladies, even when trying to praise them. But as I mentioned, this is my desert island. I bet yours is just as interesting. Maybe we could have a dinner party and talk about our lists?
If you need a list of wonderful books or a resource for your classroom library, take a look at this blog post full of fun reads recommended by other educators!