Classic literature is full of famous books about angsty teenage boys learning who they are as men. But what about all the women? The books about women’s coming of age are not nearly as widely celebrated, but are they are JUST as significant and moving and important as all those books about boys.
From young adult stories of adventure, to non-fiction graphic novels, these game-changing reads will shape how you think about being a woman — which let’s be real, is mega important. It’s time to dust off your library card and get ready to be empowered.
1. Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
Allende spent seven years researching this novel, which she describes as a young woman’s search for self-knowledge. The result is a beautiful story of a young Chilean girl raised by English siblings that Allende says reflects her own struggle to define the role of feminism in her life.
2. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis is a graphic novel that I first encountered in an Intro to Gender & Women’s Studies in college. I only wish I had read it years earlier. The autobiographical novel details Satrapi’s life living in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. The novel will help any reader understand what is means to be a woman in other cultures.
3. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
This book is classic for a reason. It teaches two incredibly important life lessons that every girl needs to learn: first impressions aren’t always right and everyone needs second chances. Not to mention, it comes with Austen’s signature satire and fierce feminist undertones.
4. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This 1969 autobiography from Maya Angelou shows how a woman can stand strong despite societal and personal injustices. Fighting racism, sexism, and personal trauma, the novel reflects on both how easy it is to internalize these negative forces, and how powerful a woman can become by resisting.
5. Matilda by Roald Dahl
This classic children’s novel teaches women that they have value beyond what others see in them. Matilda is a smart girl neglected by her family, who, when encouraged by a kind teacher, learns she has magical powers. The rest of the story tracks Matilda taking control of her life and deciding her own fate.
6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This is the dystopian novel to top all dystopian novels. Offred is a handmaid in a futuristic (though disturbingly similar) society where the declining fertility rates have caused women to lose control over their own bodies. I guarantee this book will give any woman a new appreciation of her ability to control her reproductive health.
7. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The only novel by American poet Sylvia Plath, this novel takes on issues of gender and mental health. The story is modeled after Plath’s experience at Smith (a woman’s college) and winning a scholarship to work at an NYC magazine. Despite her seemingly impressive life, the protagonist experiences mental health issues that shed light on the complicated history of medical treatments in America, especially for women.
8. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Esperanza Cordero is a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, trying to figure out how the culture of her family fits into the culture of America. The novel is a series of beautiful short vignettes that heartbreakingly and hilariously illustrate life in an immigrant family in America.
9. Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Graceling is the first in a series of young adult novels perfect for fans of fantasy. The series is full of strong female protagonists, and treats sexuality in a mature way appropriate for young teenagers. A fun and quick read, this novel sets up a good sex-positive groundwork for girls, in a fantasy world that includes birth control and LGBT characters.
10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A total classic, famous for addressing issues of racism, starring a 6-year-old protagonist who is undoubtedly a feminist icon: Scout Finch. In the era of the Great Depression, Scout refuses to accept society’s standards and instead pushes for both race and gender equality. In the process, she learns life lessons applicable to even modern readers.
11. Bossypants by Tina Fey
This hilarious autobiography from comedian Tina Fey quells once and for all that pesky rumor that women can’t be funny. The book undeniably holds valuable lessons about feminism and body image, but more importantly, it’s can’t-put-it-down, laugh-out-loud hilarious.
12. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s first novel, this story follows young black girl Pecola growing up in the Midwest. The book addresses issues of racism, incest, and child molestation, all while remaining an intimate and touching reading experience.
13. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
Meggie and her father share a special talent: when they reads books aloud, the characters enter the real world. When her father reads aloud a fantasy book about an evil villain and dragon, Meggie embarks on a quest to save the day. Fun and fiercely feminist, this fantasy adventure is perfect for women of all ages.
14. Forever . . . by Judy Blume
This 1975 novel was groundbreaking in its treatment of teenage sexuality. Set during Catherine’s senior year of high school, it tracks her first love and sexual experience, and also her first heartbreak. The novel will help readers come to terms with their own sexuality — wherever they may be on that journey — and how they choose to express it.
15. Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks
bell hooks (intentionally lower-cased) is a must-read for any woman struggling to figure out how feminism factors into her life. Considering hooks is an author of complex feminist theory, it’s a remarkably easy read. Short and to the point, hooks introduces readers to intersectional feminist politics and how to make the movement your own.
16. The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
Anne Frank’s famous diary, written during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, is touching not just for its historical significance, but also for the small details of a girl growing up. Frank is wise beyond her years, alternating philosophical musings on the nature of war and racism with relatable moments of her first crush.
17. The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson
This charming children’s book tracks an adventure to a mythical island filled with all sorts of magical creatures and charming characters. Throughout the novel, there are creative and complex characters of both genders. It’s a must-read for children, and highly recommended for adults who need to be reconnected with the power of imagination.
18. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah tells the story of a Nigerian woman who immigrates to the United States for college. Despite the sassy and hilarious commentary on racism and immigrant life in America, Adichie insists that the novel is primarily a love story. Full of beautiful writing and rich characters, the novel is pretty easy to fall in love with.
19. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
This science fiction novel focuses on Meg, a 16-year-old girl who embarks on a quest to find her missing father. Despite being underestimated by her teachers and peers for years, Meg remains confident in her talents and ability to bring her family back together. A great read for any girl who needs reminding that she can accomplish whatever she sets her mind to.
20. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Above all else, Stargirl is a story about refusing to conform to society’s expectations. Susan, a newcomer to Mica Area High School, remains proudly unique even when other characters challenge her directly. Instead of lapsing into self-doubt or hatred, Susan responds with kindness, and in the process inspires girls to be proud of the individuality.
21. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
This 19th century classic is just as loved and relatable even two centuries later. The novel follows four sisters as they grow from childhood into women, addressing themes of domesticity, work, and love. As each woman finds her individual identity, she learns her own priorities in life and what she needs to be happy.
22. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Ella Enchanted is a modern day Cinderella story, with a fiercely independent heroine struggling against the curse of obedience. Ella is unapologetically intelligent and adventurous, and it is this wit that causes a prince to fall in love with her. But Ella doesn’t need a white knight to rescue her — she’s quite capable of rescuing herself.
23. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
This 1999 novel tells the story of a high school student dealing with the trauma of sexual assault. Poetic language and non-linear plot make the novel an immersive and deeply touching reading experience. While classified as young adult, the mature topic and modernist plot structure make it well worth another read as an adult.
24. Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
This young adult novel is set in Mexico and California during the Great Depression. Focused on the struggle of a wealthy girl Esperanza whose family slides into poverty, the novel reflects on larger themes and the plight of Mexican farm workers in the United States. The novel is a great starting point for girls beginning to learn about the life of immigrant, the overlap of cultures and the challenge of poverty.
25. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
You’ve heard of the Bechdel test? Well, yes, this Alison Bechdel is also THAT Alison Bechdel. The graphic novel is a memoir of Bechdel’s own past, coming to terms with her sexuality and her relationship with her family. The story is both humorous and heartbreaking, as Bechdel starts to realize the significance her relationship with her father has on her adult life.
[Images via and Amazon]