The best books about or written by adventurous, brave, soulful women

Who am I?

I'm a storyteller whose daydreams begin with “once upon a time”. I worked as a corporate paralegal and always thought that legal pads could be put to better use by writing a novel. Someone said that women learn best by observing the lives of women. I'm inspired by women who have stepped off the path as well as by those who have maintained it. My learning began by observing the women in my family, African American women who walked their paths, chosen and unchosen, with grace, style, and courage, sometimes, in heels. The stories of women, fictional narratives as well as biographies, poetry, and historical accounts, illuminate these strong souls.


I wrote...

The Secret Women

By Sheila Williams,

Book cover of The Secret Women

What is my book about?

The Secret Women explores the landscape of friendship, grief, ancestry, and mental health against a backdrop of three women who bond over cocktails and conversation after yoga class. Elise, Carmen, and DeeDee support each other as they work through the psychological and physical “stuff” left behind following the death of their respective mothers, Marie, Joan, and Laura. As they sort through the physical treasures (letters, vinyl LPs, jewelry, and documents) they learn as much about themselves as they do about their mothers.

The characters in The Secret Women provided an opportunity for me to explore the often narrow views we hold about mothers. Spoiler alert: They are people! We forget this even when we are parents ourselves. Our mothers lived their entire lives before we came onto the scene. Who knew?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women

Sheila Williams Why did I love this book?

Editor Jane Hirschfield writes that she is interested in “women who could not be held back from their chosen paths or spiritual practice.” And so am I. This collection includes writings by intrepid women over centuries and landscapes, representing an array of spiritual traditions stretching back to the beginning of recorded time. The canon of spiritual writings that have come down to us across cultures rarely includes the words of women. Hirschfield has taken steps to correct this omission. From the first entry – c. 2300 BCE – through a joyful poem of liberation from one of the earliest female Buddhist followers to Hildegard of Bingen and Emily Dickenson, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Owl Woman, and Penny Jessye. And beyond. Women across cultures, religious traditions, and centuries have inner lives that provoke them to write, sing and shout.

By Jane Hirshfield,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women in Praise of the Sacred as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Hirshfield's current collection brings together . . . an astonishing array of women writers from the 22nd century BC poet Enheduanna to Nelly Sachs and Anna Akhmatova."--Library Journal


Book cover of When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America

Sheila Williams Why did I love this book?

The writings in this book illuminate the experience of African American women from the 17th through 20th century. Its pages inform and inspire. I enjoy the narratives and absorb wisdom from the amazing women whose stories are recorded within. A lot has happened since the book was published in 1984. Yet the narratives recorded and explored in Giddings’s book include heroines barely mentioned in present-day: Ida B. Wells and anti-lynching campaigns, the National Colored Women’s Club movement of which my great-grandmother was an enthusiastic participant, feminism, and African American women. Even the chapter and section titles captivate: “To Choose Again, Freely”, “Black Brainmaster: Mary McLeod Bethune”. “Inventing Ourselves” is a caption inspired, I believe, by Toni Morrison in describing African American women: “…she may well have invented herself.”

By Paula J. Giddings,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked When and Where I Enter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“History at its best―clear, intelligent, moving. Paula Giddings has written a book as priceless as its subject”―Toni Morrison

Acclaimed by writers Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Paula Giddings’s When and Where I Enter is not only an eloquent testament to the unsung contributions of individual women to our nation, but to the collective activism which elevated the race and women’s movements that define our times. From Ida B. Wells to the first black Presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm; from the anti-lynching movement to the struggle for suffrage and equal protection under the law; Giddings tells the stories of black women who…


Book cover of The Fifth Season

Sheila Williams Why did I love this book?

The Odyssean journey of a woman across a landscape both familiar and strange. Jemisin has written a tale that is entertaining and provocative. Essun, the primary character, has truly invented herself through multiple levels of social status, landscapes, names, lifetimes. She walks, runs, crawls, pushes through all, reminding the reader what is possible when one stretches the boundaries of imagination.

By N. K. Jemisin,

Why should I read it?

24 authors picked The Fifth Season as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the end of the world, a woman must hide her secret power and find her kidnapped daughter in this "intricate and extraordinary" Hugo Award winning novel of power, oppression, and revolution. (The New York Times)

This is the way the world ends. . .for the last time.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world's sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land…


Book cover of An American Sunrise: Poems

Sheila Williams Why did I love this book?

The current United States Poet Laureate. She is an artist and not just of words. Harjo plays a mean saxophone. And writes poetry to send the soul soaring. Reminding me of the sky, the soil, the roots. My roots. “Do you know how to make a peaceful road through human memory?” Harjo’s Muscogee roots have their beginnings in the soil that nurtured some of my Georgia-born ancestors. What can I say? I feel the words.

By Joy Harjo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An American Sunrise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the early 1800s, the Mvskoke people were forcibly removed from their original lands east of the Mississippi to Indian Territory, which is now part of Oklahoma. Two hundred years later, Joy Harjo returns to her family's lands and opens a dialogue with history. In An American Sunrise, Harjo finds blessings in the abundance of her homeland and confronts the site where her people, and other indigenous families, essentially disappeared. From her memory of her mother's death, to her beginnings in the native rights movement, to the fresh road with her beloved, Harjo's personal life intertwines with tribal histories to…


Book cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Sheila Williams Why did I love this book?

I first read this book in college. Wrote a paper on it. Said to myself, “OK. So what?” Went on with my life. Read the book again when I was in my forties. And said – aloud – “Mercy!” I think one may need a few years (ok, maybe a few decades) of grief, laughter, heartbreak, financial worries, i.e. life, to feel this Hurston tale in your bones. And then there is the novel’s opening line. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” True that.

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked Their Eyes Were Watching God as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cover design by Harlem renaissance artist Lois Mailou Jones

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds ...

'For me, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD is one of the very greatest American novels of the 20th century. It is so lyrical it should be sentimental; it is so passionate it should be overwrought, but it is instead a rigorous, convincing and dazzling piece…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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