Growing up I didn’t have many real-life role models for how to be a girl. Because we were constantly on the move, I didn’t have many friends. I was determined not to be like my mother, and my four younger brothers were no help at all. So, it was to books I turned as I looked for girls to emulate.
It was to books I would turn again and again as I negotiated forming an identity. Every time I decided to reinvent myself at any age, I found girls and women waiting there on the page. They were the friends I didn’t have to leave behind; I carry them with me even now.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
When I asked my mother about sex this is the book she handed me. I never read a book so closely in all my life! I return to it repeatedly and find something new in the story of the unattractive orphan who won’t conform to the expectations of others and seeks autonomy in a time when women aren’t allowed it.
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Another girl deciding who she’ll be when she grows up and making it up as she goes along. Anne never compromises no matter the cost.
Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
I think I saw the Disney/Haley Mills movie first. I wanted to be plucky and optimistic and, just possibly, orphaned like Pollyanna. Probably the most sentimental and Victorian of the books on this list, I admired Pollyanna’s ability to always play the “Glad Game” even in the face of rejection and ridicule. She, too, struggled to define herself on her own terms at a time when the options for women were severely limited for girls and women.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
How could I not include this book? I read all of Louisa May Alcott’s work as I was growing up. At first I saw Little Women as sentimental and confining but I came to understand that in some ways Alcott is very subversive. And who doesn’t identify with Jo as they read this book? Another plucky, independent hero who forges a life on her own terms.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Get your hands on the audiobook read by Maya Angelou and listen to the story of her young self in her own voice. The power of her words combined with her beautiful and imposing vocal presence bring alive events that are almost unbearable to read or hear. She is another spirit so grand that it cannot be crushed no matter what happens.
The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
Nancy certainly set the bar high. Clever, independent, and mostly on her own, she solved mysteries while driving her own roadster and dressing fashionably. Of course, I wanted to be like her with lots of friends and not hiding how smart I was. I wanted to solve the mysteries that surrounded me as a young girl.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
I struggled with including this book as I didn’t find it as moving as I did in my early twenties. However, it was a big influence on me then and I think it still influences me as a writer today. Mariah, the main character, is a disappointing hero now but when I was twenty-one or twenty-two she accurately reflected how I felt. Her passivity in the face of all the events in the book is frustrating but was a state I identified with then. The scene where she fears/dreads/thinks she might be pregnant and wears white to summon up her period resonates even now. Everyone in Mariah’s life has a solution for her problems but she is frozen and unable to act.
Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry
This book always makes me cry. Everyone thinks they know what Emma should do with her life; everyone but Emma. While she doesn’t ever quite work things out, I find her quiet resistance and refusal to give up truly endearing. It is my favorite of McMurtry’s many books. Emma reminds us that not all resistances are big, flashy affairs.
Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
It’s hard for me to choose a single Octavia Butler novel, but this trilogy is among my very favorite of Butler’s works. It tells the story of a woman resurrected hundreds of years after the end of the world, who finds herself part of an alien plan to create a whole new species. Butler’s novels always force us to imagine a future destined to be different than we’ve ever imagined before, and remind us that there are different ways to be human—or something more.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Scout is another iconic girl seeking to forge an authentic self in a society that doesn’t give her much to work with. Long before I understood the other themes of the book, I identified with Scout and her refusal to conform viewed as a failure to conform by her family and others around her. I was not that plucky little girl who defied convention, but I wanted to be.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I admire Katniss Everdeen and her struggle to remain true to herself no matter what the games throw at her. Her fierce independence, her competence demonstrated over and over again but particularly in keeping her family alive, and her resistance to barbarity of the times she lives in combine to make her a strong,
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I was blown away by this book. Although considered a teen novel, there is nothing childish about it or the decisions that main character Starr is forced to reckon with. The juxtaposition of deadly serious politics and teen concerns complicate her life in ways that change her forever. I liked the portrayal of a strong black family supporting each other in every way. Starr struggles to define herself against a backdrop drawn from the nightly news and succeeds despite the obstacles she faces.
Circe by Madeline Miller
I love this retelling of the story of the Odyssey from the viewpoint of this minor goddess who is confined to a tiny island for refusing to conform to the expectations of older gods and goddesses. This version upends tropes we are all familiar with and leaves us with a woman determined to live on her own terms even within confinement. Circe is neither loveable nor infallible but feels very real. Betrayed over and over again by those she loves, she never gives up.
The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich
I wanted to be a researcher at a magazine about the same time as this nonfiction book is set. It tells the story of a group of women who refused to settle for the status quo and fought to change their industry in the face of daunting odds. Plucky girls with ambition can change the world if they work hard enough.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The anti-hero for plucky girls everywhere. Despite the horrible circumstances of her upbringing, Lisbeth Salander works hard to define herself and her life. Heaven help anyone who stands in her way. She rights wrongs unhampered by any moral code but her own. I always want to be just a little bit like her.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This novel moves me deeply every time I read it. Celie’s indomitable spirit in the face of egregious mistreatment at the hands of Mr._______ astonishes me anew every time I pick up the book. Her ultimate willingness to live a life unbound by convention is eternally inspiring.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Terry’s debut novel, Darling Girl, released earlier this month from Green Place Books! – Ed.
Darling Girl by Terry H. Watkins
DG is five the first time her mother goes away. She’ll go away again and again before DG finally understands why: mental illness and a manipulating husband. DG’s family aren’t like other families. Her father moves them constantly. Moving, along with the stigma of mental illness, isolates the family. In public, they seem the perfect American dream. In private they grow increasingly unstable. Darling Girl unfolds in a series of vignettes spanning ten years and four continents. Traveling through the 50s and 60s and from apartheid South Africa to the capitals of Europe, the family live like so many dancing bears in a traveling circus with her father as the ringmaster. DG’s story is both personal and universal. She’s on a journey from innocence to experience; to the realization that her mother’s illness isn’t the family’s only problem, it’s not even the main one.