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50 Books Every Young Woman Should Read
November 7th, 2010
As we grow up, we learn lessons, feel inspired and gain valuable experience that helps us make better decisions and guides the path we take through life. While our own experiences and the teachings of those around us are often the sources of these lessons, books can also provide guidance for young women and girls through riveting stories and unforgettable characters. Here are fifty books that offer young women, in high school and college, the chance to read about women they can relate to, learn about some of the challenges they’ll face in the world, and gain a better understanding of human nature, their own and that of others, as a whole.
These classic novels will make you laugh and cry, but above all will open a whole new world to readers.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: With a strong-willed main character, struggling to define herself in Victorian society where women were often denied many of the rights we enjoy today, this book was a bit scandalous in its own time. Today, it provides young women with a love story that, while romantic, is filled with intrigue, drama and girl-power aplenty.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: This well-known read showcases a time period when marriage was as much about economics as it was about love.
- The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck: Read this epic tale about a Chinese farm family during the reign of the country’s last emperor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that touches upon love and loss, good and evil and survival.
- The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: A popular feminist text despite the intent of the author, this book follows the life of sometimes-communist Anna as she writes about her life in several different notebooks, each representing a part of who she is.
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: Unhappy in her domestic life despite having a husband that dotes on her and a comfortable life, Emma Bovary seeks something bigger, better and more passionate in her life – with tragic consequences.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: In this dystopian fable, Atwood creates a future world where women have no rights and are separated into distinct classes.
- Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: While the movie is certainly a classic worth watching, read this book to get the real take on this epic tale of love in the South.
- Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger: In this tale by award-winning author Salinger, Franny experiences a period of disenchantment with the world around her, eventually experiencing a bit of an existential breakdown. She finds aid with brotherly advice from Zooey.
- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: This novel follows a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party, traveling back and forth in time and between characters to show what Mrs. Dalloway’s life is really like.
- Howards End by E.M. Forester. Published in 1910, the class struggles detailed in this novel still ring true today.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi
These stories may be based in fantasy, but the lessons they teach and the stories they tell touch upon feelings and emotions that are human and real.
- His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman: Women young and old alike will be inspired by the heroine, Lyra, as she battles evil, explores the universe and tries to unravel the secrets that could turn her world upside-down.
- Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede: At the center of this book – the first in a series – is Princess Cimorene, a girl who runs away from her life of eyelash batting lessons and crochet to live with the dragons.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle: Girls are so often depicted at being poor at math, but not in this novel. Meg Murray travels through space and time to save her father, growing from young girl to a woman in the process.
- Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt: This novel will force young girls to think about what is truly important to them in life, as the main character must decide whether she wants life eternal or to be with her family.
- The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander: While the main character of this story may be a dashing young pig-keeper, he wouldn’t get far without the help of the strong-willed Princess Eilonwy who keeps him out of trouble and comes to save the day more than once.
Coming of Age
Growing up isn’t easy. You can find characters going through some of the same struggles as you in these stories.
- The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd: Working through her confusing and sometimes brutal childhood, a young girl meets a group of women who help her discover who she was and who she wants to be.
- Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden: Taken from her family as a young age, Sayuri comes into her own as a woman and as a geisha in this story set in pre-WWII Japan.
- Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides: Growing up is hard enough without throwing gender confusion into the mix, but this story follows a young intersexed individual trying to figure out just who to be in a world that accepts him as neither male nor female.
- Girl: A Novel by Blake Nelson: Those in high school and just starting college will appreciate this book that offers a relatable main character readers can follow through her hopes, fears and challenges.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: In this novel, young Scout learns about the injustice the world can offer, but also the good that resides in people if you know where to find it.
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: Readers will fall in love with Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in Brooklyn– a story based largely on the author’s own life.
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: Follow the orphan Pip as he attempts to break free from his past and become a true gentleman in this classic novel.
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: In this novel, a young woman grows up in Chicago, dealing with her family and the challenges of her Latino community.
- Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende: In this tale, Eliza leaves home to find her lover, but discovers herself instead.
Young Adult and Children’s Lit
These books may have been written for children and young adults but they offer lessons that will serve you well throughout your life.
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Peterson: This heartbreaking read was based on a real-life friendship and has loads to teach readers of any age.
- Matilda by Roald Dahl: Parents can be hard to deal with even when you’re not a little kid anymore. This classic tale turns parenting on its head and creates a protagonist who’s simply hard to resist.
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: When an orphaned girl finds the key to an old abandoned garden, she turns it into a private paradise, healing not only herself, but her newfound family as well.
- Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell: Readers will be inspired by the strong-will and survival skills of the young Karana, a girl living alone on an island.
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White: While this might be a children’s book, the lesson it has to teach about life, love and loss are worth reading about at any age.
- Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder: Based on her own childhood memories, these children’s novels will draw young women into what life was like for farming families in the late 19th century.
From parents to best friends, these books take a look at relationships between women and those they love.
- The Group by Mary McCarthy: This best-selling novel follows eight women as they graduate from college, get married, have children and move on with their lives, struggling to find their places in the world, reuniting at the funeral of one of the original group.
- Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid: Focusing on mother-daughter relationships, this novel shows how difficult growing up can be, especially when you feel no one really understands you.
- The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: American-born Jing-mei has never understood the customs and ways of her mother and her friends, but after her mother’s death she learns just what struggles they have had to endure and the true power of love.
- Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel: Longing to marry her love, young Tita is devastated when he is instead betrothed to her sister, expressing her pain and passion through her cooking.
- The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards: Explore the dark family secrets bound up in this compelling novel.
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: Explore the relationships of sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy as they grow up, fall in love and deal with tragedy while their father is away at war in this classic novel.
Take a break from fiction to read these true-life accounts that will help you become a stronger woman.
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf: In this extended essay, Woolf explores women in fiction and what they need to make a career in the field.
- Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin: You’ll be inspired by one man’s mission to bring education and care to women in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and more grateful of your own educational opportunities.
- Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: Learn what life is like for women in many other parts of the world and what you can do to help fight for greater equality.
- Our Bodies, Ourselves by Judy Norsigian: This book, first published in 1973, will teach you everything you need to know about your changing and developing body.
- My Life in France by Julia Child: The autobiography of the famous chef Julia Child details her culinary experiences and growth as an international phenomenon.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: Banned in many places, this book isn’t an easy read due to the violent and very often unpleasant events that take place within it. Regardless, it is an incredibly inspirational read based on the life of Poet Laureate Maya Angelou, teaching that with hard work you really can go far.
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank: One of the most famous records of the Holocaust, this journal records the everyday life of Anne, a girl struggling with love, life and growing up under conditions hard to imagine.
- The Feminine Mystique by Betty Freidan: The book that defined the Second Wave of the feminist movement, The Feminine Mystique is a must-read for young girls wanting to understand women’s history and where equality can still use some improvement.
- The Story of My Life by Helen Keller: Readers will undoubtedly find the words of Keller inspiring, telling how she worked with her disabilities to become an author and an activist.
Stories, Poetry and Plays
Get inspired by these great plays and poems that are perfect reads for young women.
- Normal People Don’t Live Like This by Dylan Landis: This collection of interrelated short stories tells the tale of Leah Levinson, a girl growing up in the Upper West Side, and her relationships with parents and friends.
- ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen: A tale of self-awakening, this short play will have you glad you live in this century.
- Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: Here you’ll find a collection of stories, all linked, of ordinary people dealing with the loss of a parent, unrequited love, frustration and numerous other human emotions we can all understand and relate to.
- A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You by Amy Bloom: These stories are at once strange and familiar, taking on human frailty from a wide range of angles.
- Ariel by Sylvia Plath: Plagued by mental illness, Plath couldn’t cope with her life, but during her short time she left behind these, among many other works, that expose the rawness of human emotions.