The best books about flawed, fierce, and fascinating mothers

Who am I?

Becoming a mother reshaped me in ways I’m still wondering at now, two decades on. I’ve had to find ways to resist the repressive cultural mythology surrounding motherhood—the pressure I felt to suddenly become a perfect, self-sacrificing vessel for my children’s optimized development. When I read stories about flawed mothers—women, queer and straight, struggling beneath the magnitude of the job, yet fiercely loving their children all the way through—I felt I could breathe a little bit, could handle the task with a little more good humor and forgiveness, for myself, my partner, and my kids. Read a book, bust a myth, go hug your mom.  

I wrote...

After the Dam

By Amy Hassinger,

Book cover of After the Dam

What is my book about?

Undone by motherhood, judged by her husband, thirty-two-year-old Rachel Clayborne flees with her baby in the middle of the night for the one place on earth that’s been her refuge: her grandmother’s lakehouse in northern Wisconsin. Hoping to reconnect with a former, healthier self, she instead faces a confused and dying grandmother, her ever-present nurse who seems bent on thwarting each of Rachel’s desires, and a changed ex-boyfriend—her first and most passionate love. As a constant rain threatens the nearby dam, Rachel struggles to discern what’s happened to the past, who she’s become, and what kind of a life she will make for herself now—one that clings to ghosts or opens bravely to a wild new geography.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Blue Jay's Dance: A Memoir of Early Motherhood

Amy Hassinger Why did I love this book?

The Blue Jay’s Dance is Louise Erdrich’s first memoir—a chronicle of a year of mothering and writing. I gobbled up this book when I was pregnant with my own first child, wanting to know how a writer I so admired managed two utterly consuming tasks so successfully. Erdrich kept a cradle in her writing studio and would write while the baby slept in the same room—an idyllic scene that gave me hope during my own first pregnancy that my writing life might still continue post-baby (turns out it’s a tad more complicated than where you put the cradle). One wise sentence to give you a taste of the whole: “The self will not be forced under, nor will the baby’s needs gracefully retreat.” Yep. 

By Louise Erdrich,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Blue Jay's Dance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s moving meditation on the experience of motherhood—the first nonfiction work by one of the most acclaimed authors of our time.

Louise Erdrich’s first major work of nonfiction, The Blue Jay’s Dance, brilliantly and poignantly examines the joys and frustrations, the compromises and insights, and the difficult struggles and profound emotional satisfactions the acclaimed author experienced in the course of one twelve-month period—from a winter pregnancy through a spring and summer of new motherhood to her return to writing in the fall. In exquisitely lyrical prose, Erdrich illuminates afresh the large and…

Book cover of Beloved

Amy Hassinger Why did I love this book?

I read Beloved for the first time when I was 17, long before I knew the first thing about how parenthood transforms a person. Back then, I was awed by the power of Morrison’s language; rereading decades later, I am awed anew but also deeply moved by the fierce protective passion of Sethe, the book’s protagonist—a mother who would rather kill her own child than see her enslaved. Sethe’s choice scars her, of course—a psychic scar Morrison brilliantly dramatizes by having Sethe’s dead baby return to haunt Sethe in the body of a beautiful, hungry ghost—but it also aptly illustrates the depth of the depravity at the core of the slave system. An awe-inspiring, heart-breaking, and heart-mending read that should be required for every American citizen. 

By Toni Morrison,

Why should I read it?

33 authors picked Beloved as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Toni Morrison was a giant of her times and ours... Beloved is a heart-breaking testimony to the ongoing ravages of slavery, and should be read by all' Margaret Atwood, New York Times

Discover this beautiful gift edition of Toni Morrison's prize-winning contemporary classic Beloved

It is the mid-1800s and as slavery looks to be coming to an end, Sethe is haunted by the violent trauma it wrought on her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky. Her dead baby daughter, whose tombstone bears the single word, Beloved, returns as a spectre to punish her mother, but also to elicit her…

Book cover of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Amy Hassinger Why did I love this book?

I devoured Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (four novels that trace a lifetime friendship between two women living in a deeply patriarchal mid-twentieth-century Italy) in a single summer a few years back, and when I got to the end of those few thousand pages, I felt as though I wanted to start right over at the beginning again. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third novel in the series, and I name it here because it’s the novel in which Elena—the book’s protagonist, and a writer herself—becomes a mother. Elena has a modern marriage compared to her friend Lina’s, but still, she finds the expectations and demands of motherhood difficult to reconcile with her own creative ambitions. Ferrante represents that central struggle with arresting honesty—a captivating read. 

By Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


"Nothing quite like this has ever been published before."-The Guardian

"This is high stakes, subversive literature."-The Daily Telegraph

"With the publication of her Neapolitan Novels, (Ferrante) has established herself as the foremost writer in Italy-and the world."-The Sunday Times

"An unconditional masterpiece . . . I was totally enthralled."-Jhumpa Lahiri

"An extraordinary epic."-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"To the uninitiated, Elena Ferrante is best described as Balzac meets The Sopranos and rewrites feminist theory."-The Times

"Ferrante's writing seems to say something that hasn't been said before, in a way so compelling…

Book cover of The Argonauts

Amy Hassinger Why did I love this book?

Maggie Nelson just dazzles me. Her prose is so sharp and thoughtful, her thinking so idiosyncratically brilliant, her images filled with light. The Argonauts is both memoir and inquiry, a story of how Nelson and her partner Harry, who is in the midst of a gender transition, became parents, a story fraught with obstacles and veined with wisdom. Nelson’s voice mixes erudition, visceral power—especially when she writes about sex and the body—and formal innovation. The Argonauts caused a splash when it came out, and for good reason—its unflinchingly honest portrayal of one queer couple’s creation of family together is beautiful, brave, and yes, deeply fierce. 

By Maggie Nelson,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Argonauts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An intrepid voyage out to the frontiers of the latest thinking about love, language, and family

Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of "autotheory" offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. It binds an account of Nelson's relationship with her partner and a journey to and through a pregnancy to a rigorous exploration of sexuality, gender, and "family." An insistence on radical individual freedom and the value of caretaking becomes the rallying cry for this thoughtful, unabashed, uncompromising book.

Book cover of The School for Good Mothers

Amy Hassinger Why did I love this book?

Unputdownable from page one, The School for Good Mothers follows Frida, a recently divorced new mother, who, sleepless and stressed out, makes the mistake of leaving her baby alone in the house for two hours, and is subsequently stripped of her parental rights and forced to attend a dystopian re-education program where she must spend the year “learning to be good.” There she becomes part of a heartbroken society of women whose crimes range from serious physical abuse (burning a child’s arm with a cigarette) to arguably reasonable decisions like allowing their eight-year-old to walk home alone from the library. I was so taken with how Chan skewers the oppressive culture of perfection-parenting while depicting the gut-wrenching, soul-forging qualities of mother-love. 

By Jessamine Chan,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The School for Good Mothers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'A taut and propulsive take on the cult of motherhood and the notion of what makes a good mother. Destined to be feminist classic - it kept me up at night' PANDORA SYKES
'A haunting tale of identity and motherhood - as devastating as it is imaginative' AFUA HIRSCH
'Incredibly clever, funny and pertinent to the world we're living in at the moment' DAISY JOHNSON

'We have your daughter'

Frida Liu is a struggling mother. She remembers taking Harriet from her cot and changing her nappy. She remembers…

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The Finest Lies

By David J. Naiman,

Book cover of The Finest Lies

David J. Naiman Author Of The Finest Lies

New book alert!

Who am I?

Anyone with siblings knows the deal. Your sibling becomes your first best friend and closest confidant but also your first competitor and fiercest critic. Navigating that relationship as a teen is fraught with peril. If done poorly, it can leave deep scars. If successful, it can teach you the foundations of how to build healthy relationships for the rest of your life. This theme has everything a writer needs to craft an emotional narrative, and these books do it best.

David's book list on sibling rivalry that will inspire you to reconnect

What is my book about?

A mysterious stranger traps teen siblings in a precarious game where each must overcome their embittered past for the other to survive.

This suspenseful, yet winsome novel explores the power of family and forgiveness. But take heed. The truth can cut like shards of glass, especially for those who’d rather avoid it. Sometimes, only the finest lies will do.

The Finest Lies

By David J. Naiman,

What is this book about?

High schooler Nicole Hallett has just about had it with her brother Jay, so when a mysterious man appears with an offer to replace him with a better one, she doesn’t hesitate. Nicole has always been impulsive, but this time, she finds herself in predicament far worse than anything she’s experienced. Just like that, an average snow day—usually filled with hot cocoa and snowball fights—is commandeered by the stranger, who forces the siblings into a dangerous game.

Confronted by past reflections, tested by present complications, and threatened by future possibilities, Nicole has until the end of the day to disentangle…

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Interested in motherhood, Chinese Americans, and Ohio?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about motherhood, Chinese Americans, and Ohio.

Motherhood Explore 46 books about motherhood
Chinese Americans Explore 49 books about Chinese Americans
Ohio Explore 68 books about Ohio