Women's History Month Reading List
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In honor of Women’s History Month, here are 15 women writers we’ve been fortunate to speak with at PBS Books. These writers and their work have had a profound impact on literature and reading and inspired a generation of readers and writers alike, of all ages.
Jennifer Egan's brilliant writing career unfolded steadily, resulting in a Pulitzer Prize for her innovative work of fiction, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and a National Book Award longlist honor for her most recent historical novel, Manhattan Beach. “There’s something wonderful about the feeling that things continue to improve," Egan recently told The Guardian. “I had a steady build and then [after the Pulitzer] a quantum leap. I just turned 55, and feel: wow! I’m also one of the lucky ones, in that I have always been able to make a living from it.” Egan’s influence continues to grow. This month, she was named the new president of PEN America, taking leadership of the organization of writers as it mobilizes against mounting dangers for free expression rights in the United States and worldwide.
Min Jin Lee's goals for her craft are as ambitious as the sweeping scope of her National Book Award-nominated novel, Pachinko. "I’m interested in creating radical empathy through art," she explains. "Literature is especially good at awakening that part of our capacity. It’s one of the few things that can really convince human beings to view each other as human beings." With Pachinko, Lee has solidified her position as a vital voice, one who reminds us that, even in the face of adversity, there is much to be hopeful about.
Jesmyn Ward is a fearless writer, equally at home writing fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. "As long as America has novelists such as Jesmyn Ward, it will not lose its soul." This past year, Ward became the first woman and the first person of color to win two National Book Awards for Fiction 2017's Sing, Unburied, Sing and 2011's Salvage the Bones)—joining the ranks of William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Philip Roth, and John Updike.
Judy Blume is a national treasure, though of course that hasn't stopped her classic books for young readers from becoming the target of censors. "I've always believed that learning to think for yourself, learning to make intelligent, thoughtful decisions is one of the most important parts of an education. So it makes me sad and very angry that encouraging young people to think for themselves is seen by some as subversive," Blume said during her acceptance speech for her Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award in 2004. "I never planned to become an activist but things happen. You either take action or you don't. Standing up and speaking out for what you believe in--well, it feels a lot better than doing nothing. And while you're doing it, you find out you're not as alone as you thought you were."
In 2017, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith was appointed the 22nd United States Poet Laureate. In addition to her poetry, Smith is also the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Ordinary Light a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction. About Smith’s writing, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said, “her work travels the world and takes on its voices; brings history and memory to life; calls on the power of literature as well as science, religion and pop culture. With directness and deftness, she contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths—all to better understand what makes us most human.”
Jacqueline Woodson, the four-time Newbery Honor winner and four-time National Book Award finalist was named the 2018-19 Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. It's a responsibility Woodson takes very seriously. “For young people who are very stressed about the future, who have this sense of disempowerment, who don’t know what’s coming next, my big quest is for them to remain hopeful,” she recently told the New York Times. “When you come to literature, it does allow you an escape from the world if that’s what you need, but it also changes you. You’re different than when you started that book.”
Kate DiCamillo is the two-time Newbery award-winning author of Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux and, most recently, Raymie Nightingale. Her stories enchant young readers and old, alike. “There is something in our hearts and bodies that responds naturally to stories," DiCamillo said. "We have a powerful biological connection to the tale: the need to tell one, the need to be told one, seem to be hardwired into us. When we read together, we welcome each other in.”
Elizabeth Alexander is a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her memoir of love and loss, The Light of the World, and is the author of six acclaimed books of poetry. In 2009, Alexander wrote and recited an original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, becoming just the fourth-ever poet to read at a presidential inauguration. Now, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has elected Alexander to be the foundation’s next president, effective this month. Of Alexander, Yale President Peter Salovey said "She is visionary. She has the ability to embody and communicate the value of liberal education, the humanities and arts, access, diversity, and to do it with poetry.”
Rita Dove is a former U.S. Poet Laureate (1993-1995), a recipient of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and one of our most esteemed literary lights. "I never know what will ignite the spark," Dove said in an interview. "Even after all these years as a poet, I still find myself constantly amazed by the world—the slant of sunlight through a snow-laden branch, the crunch of dry husks underfoot, the utter fearlessness of a toddler exploring her environment for the first time, the things people do for and to each other."
Kelly Link's short story collections, including Magic for Beginners and Get in Trouble (a Nebula winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, respectively) have influenced a great many fellow writers and inspired a legion of loyal fans, helping open the door to a wave of magical realism in American literature. Her stories are magical, fabulist, and often just plain weird. But Link's monsters are also wonderfully relatable. For as Link writes, "what story, after all, isn't a ghost story? We're all haunted by someone, by something."
Leigh Bardugo has become one of the most prolific young adult writers, with her Grisha Trilogy and wildly successful Six of Crows series, appealing to both young adult and adult readers alike. Born in Jerusalem, raised in Southern California, and a graduate of Yale, Bardugo’s books feature a cast as diverse as her own background, including non-able bodied characters. Speaking of the role of books and diverse characters in literature to connect, Bardugo told Vanity Fair recently, “If you’re a particular kind of kid who hasn’t found your tribe, which most of us don’t until later, that’s what books become.”
Raina Telgemeier’sSmile, her hugely influential autobiographical graphic novel, helped change the landscape of graphic novels and legitimize comics as suitable for YA literature. In fact, librarians and library organizations have been some of Telgemeier's biggest advocates, specifically citing Smile and Telgemeier's other works—Sisters, Drama, Ghosts, and other books—as being excellent books for teens and tweens. Telgemeier’s incredible success helps kids understand that their personal stories are important and vital and helped kick open the door for a legion of new graphic novelists.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels and stories celebrates the diaspora through the lens of the Nigerian immigrant experience. Americanah has become a new American classic, while in her home country of Nigeria, Adichie has become a national heroine, thanks to the popularity of her books, but also because of the writing program she launched there, the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop. Through the program, aspiring Nigerian writers spend a few weeks learning from Adichie and other well-known writers she brings to Lagos to participate. To her students she says "to read and read and read. I’m a believer in reading, to see the wide range of what’s been written.“
Carmen Maria Machado's debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, a finalist for the National Book Award, marked the arrival of a bold new voice, mixing love, sex, ghost stories and other elements of the fantastic. On her untamed imagination, Machado explained to the Paris Review that "when I was a kid, I used to apologize to my furniture if I was leaving for a long time. I would explain that I had to go on a trip, but I would be back. I think I had seen Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and was convinced that they were all alive and that they would try and eat me if I made them upset. That sense of play was never squashed. For a lot of people it does get squashed, or it’s not exercised, so it atrophies. But artists, especially writers, have to invoke that sense of play. If you don’t have it, you can’t really create anything interesting."
Marilynne Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, was a huge success when it was released in 1980. It wasn't until 24 years later that she released her second novel, Gilead, to equal acclaim. Two more novels in her Gilead trilogy a collection of essays have followed, as well as a growing list of accolades. In 2012, Robinson received the National Humanities Medal, and in 2015, she sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with President Barack Obama, discussing everything from literature to American political history to Christian thought.