Sometimes, the advice we’re getting about a certain question in our lives doesn’t feel powerful enough. The current self-help bestseller may not fit either. Instagram memes and quotables can feel temptingly good for a brief moment, but fall short of being deeply instructive and helping us turn thinking into action.
In early 2018, soon after New Year’s resolutions began to wane, that question for me (once again) was how to sustain creative flourishing. For me personally, this means sustaining myself as a writer amidst editorial and publishing projects, motherhood, and everything else that distracts me from my writing path. I have returned to this question often in recent years and have witnessed by other artist women friends doing the same. It feels great to get together for lunch or happy hour, ponder how we might do better, and maybe share a few tips. Still, early last year, I wanted more depth and breadth. Something lasting. I found myself asking what it was that drove women to create in the first place and, conversely, what interrupts us from doing so. This led me to think about the voices (in our heads and from others’ mouths) that encourage or squelch our creative zeal. Perhaps most pressingly, I was eager to know how other women artists cast that junk aside and persevere through their creative obstacles.
My home state has a long history of craftswomen, and it made perfect sense to look to my sister native Arkansans and ask them to share insights from their own lives. Women Make Arkansas: Conversations with 50 Creatives (the first of my Women Make series, just released April 11) is the result of the year I spent on the road visiting the studios, kitchens, and hearts of women artists in Arkansas.
I came away from the project believing that sometimes, we can get ourselves in a better place, faster, not through a single example or even a handful of examples, but from the stories of many women. So here you are, ladies: a list of strength in numbers, of books to help us mentor and raise stronger girls—and to help ourselves as we sustain our creative practices alongside life’s interruptions.
200 Women: Who Will Change the Way You See the World compiled by Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday, edited by Sharon Gelman and Marianne Lassandro, photography by Kieran Scott
The co-creators and photographer of this beautiful tabletop tome listened to the stories of two hundred women from all walks of life—famous and unknown—from around the world as they asked each woman the same five questions: What really matters to you? What brings you happiness? What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? What would you change if you could? Which single word do you most identify with? Dozens of profiles easily stand out, but feminist and prolific writer Isabel Allende’s stays with me over time. After her adult daughter’s severe brain damage and death, she concludes that “…we come into this world to lose everything.” And yet, generosity is Allende’s “single word,” one whose message she lives out daily through her foundation that empowers women and girls. Perhaps, she suggests, because she has known these depths of misery—a mother being able to do nothing about the illness and loss of her child—there is nothing else that can compare. She is resilient and free, knowing nothing in life can harm her more deeply than the loss she’s already suffered. Hers is just one of the shining lights among the two hundred survivors, inventors, artists, and leaders from around the globe who tenderly and radically share their lives, reminding readers that there is no ordinary story, no typical woman.
In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs by Grace Bonney
Author Grace Bonney is the founder of Design*Sponge, which has more than two million monthly readers. You’ll not only get a peek into women’s lives through Q&A and power pull quotes, but by entering their studios, workspaces, closets, and bedrooms. You can even pant over their pets. Turn to page eighty-four and you’ll find Roxane Gay! Some reviewers have criticized the book for focusing on California and New York and seeming repetitive (same questions over and over), but for me, totally worth it to be a voyeur into the creative spaces of some seriously power ladies.
The Atlas of Beauty: Women of the World in 500 Portraits by Mihaela Noroc
Sometimes text is unnecessary. In The Atlas of Beauty, five hundred portraits from fifty countries and a few captions is all you need to understand that women’s beauty exists countless forms.
Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen
If you’ve been in a gift store in the past couple of years, chances are you’ve seen this cover, if not plucked up the book and flipped through or purchased it. From the writer known for pulling back the curtain on sex for many of us as preteens, Judy Blume, to Harriet Tubman, to Cleopatra, this book is bound neither by time nor type of bad girl act. Regarding one of the one hundred, Lilith, author Ann Shen quips, “It doesn’t get much more badass than getting rejected from the Bible, does it?” The text about each woman is quite brief but catchy. Women and teens alike will enjoy the colorful illustrations and hand lettering.
Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World by Mackenzi Lee, illustrated by Petra Eriksson
This fun little number comes in a 6.4 x 8.4” format. I picked it up after hearing the young, energetic historian and author Mackenzi Lee at the 2018 Arkansas Literary Festival and am glad I did. She said the number was fifty-two because she wanted a forgotten woman to be remembered each week for a year, and each woman’s story is shared through Lee’s humorous voice and with Lee as a strong presence (versus the more straightfoorward reportage more typical of this sort of book). Despite going little-noticed or unnoticed until now, the women included here did things like invent silk, write the first novel, engineer the Brooklyn Bridge, and transform modern physics.
Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves by Kate T. Parker
Driven by the idea that true beauty is about owning one’s authentic self, Parker shares nearly two hundred images of and quotes from everyday girls displaying pride, humor, abandon, excitement, joy, courage, and care for others.
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Author, illustrator, and filmmaker Vashti Harrison features forty women past and present, plus twelve additional women in brief. She begins with Phillis Wheatley, who as a slave was the first African American woman poet ever to be published, and was called “a master of English verse” by Voltaire. Also included are Harriet Tubman, Zora Neale Hurston, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Maya Angelou, Octavia E. Butler, and Ruby Bridges—just to name a few. Harrison includes women whose names are well-known, and others whose contributions were paramount, yet about whom little is known.
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
This New York Times bestseller and its sequel, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2, are pillow companions to prepare the favorite girl in your life to take serious stock of her wildest dreams. Between the two volumes, more than seveenty female illustrators are assembled to bring life to the stories of two hundred heroic women including Jane Goodall, Hellen Keller, Maya Angelou, Oprah, Ellen, Nadia Comaneci, Sonia Sotomayor, and many other household names.
Women Make Arkansas: Conversations with 50 Creatives by Erin Wood
It was nothing short of life-changing for me to spend my year with the fifty women in this book. If I’m having a moment of doubt, I can remind myself of what one of them may have said on a topic, referring to the dynamic experiences of the Arkansas Poet Laureate, a kombucha brewer, a fire performer, a film production designer, a hatter, a drag queen, an aspiring time traveler, the state’s first certified chocolatier, a ceramicist who has made more than one hundred thousand blades of porcelain grass, and so many other bold women that live right here in my home state of Arkansas. They bravely reveal how they quiet the negative voices (whether from critics’ mouths or inside their own heads), channel their intuition, and work hard as hell to bear out their creative visions. They’ve challenged the way I think about identity, entrepreneurialism, community, and what it takes to lead a creative life, and I hope they’ll do the same for loads of other women and girls. Perhaps more than anything, I’ve come away from this book recognizing the power women unleash when we work together to build each other and lean on one another to build ourselves.