“Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” is the theme for Women’s History Month this year, and I don’t think they could have picked a better theme.
At our core, humans are creatures of stories. Long before the written word, we used oral storytelling to convey important information and ideas and most importantly, meaning. Whether you write advertising copy, political speeches, novels or text books, effective communicators know that people learn best through stories. To resonate with people you have to have a compelling narrative. This is why it is vital to have women’s voices in all corners of our society. This includes, but isn’t limited to, books. So let’s start with women authors.
I’m pleased to say that there are so many women authors that I cannot list them all, or even aim to list the best without missing many important voices. We need all these voices and more because the voice that reaches me, the story that makes me feel seen, empowers me, or teaches me to see someone else won’t necessarily be the story or voice that reaches you or your sister. We need voices that represent all of us. And we’ve come a long way in this regard, even within my lifetime (I’m nearing 50), yet we still have further to go.
Any child who has enjoyed one of the numerous science fiction or fantasy books available to kids today owes a debt to Madeline L’Engle. Before her books, such as the well-known “Wrinkle in Time,” juvenile science fiction and fantasy didn’t exist. Her work was rejected countless times before her books were published. Publishers didn’t believe children should read about other children who had lost their parents, or children who were grieving, or children fighting evil and having epic adventures through space and time. These subjects would be too traumatic for children, never mind that there were children living these realities. Publishers saw no market for her books. But L’Engle kept trying and eventually got through.
My, how times have changed, and I am so thankful. If you loved Madeline L’Engle books as a child, I highly recommend her series of memoirs, which are all included in the Crosswicks Journals. Sometimes I’m afraid to revisit my favorite childhood books and authors, but Madeline L’Engle stands the test of time.
Another pioneering favorite of mine is Robin McKinley. Her books, “The Hero and the Crown,” “The Blue Sword,” and “Deerskin,” were even more personally important to me than L’Engle’s. She gave us brave girls standing alone (with animal companions), leaving the known world where they didn’t fit to find or make something better. What better preparation could a girl have for our world? It doesn’t matter that these stories are fantastical. Much of McKinley’s writing is based on the re-telling of folk tales, which are fantastical by nature, and yet they still get at the root of what it is to be a human in this world. McKinley captures that essence and brings the characters alive. Fast forward 30 years and the re-telling of folk tales is an entire genre of its own for all ages, but that wasn’t the case when McKinley’s first books were coming out. We don’t have a biography of her. I wonder how many rejections she got and what the reasons were.
These are just two authors that spoke to me, but there are so many other good ones out there. Some women were pivotal in opening up new realms, new worlds and ways of seeing, possibilities that wouldn’t have been possible if their voices hadn’t been projected. If they hadn’t persevered. If someone, somewhere hadn’t listened. I can’t explain how it important it was to be able to see myself in McKinley’s books. The “Hero and the Crown” series features a horse-riding redhead, which also describes me. We need books and storytellers that represent all kinds of women and girls, so we can all find books where we recognize ourselves.
I have been pleased to see a notable expansion of books by women of color, hopefully, this is just the beginning. Reading has been shown to be key to developing empathy, which is why we need books by women from all over the world, from all walks of life, and women who have faced different challenges. As readers we need to make sure that we listen to the stories of women who are different from us, so we can find our common strengths and challenges and understand our differences.
Of course, you can’t commend L’Engle or McKinley without recognizing that they were new branches on the trees that were planted by women before them. I’ve compiled a list of 60 women writers who have opened up new possibilities by sharing their stories.