Girl Canon: 50 Essential Books About the Female Experience


Everyone knows that, statistically at least, girls read more than boys. But the classic, canonical growing-up books, at least in American culture, tend to represent the male experience — I’m thinking On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, everything ever written by Bret Easton Ellis or Michael Chabon — and while these are great books, suitable for boys or girls, the question remains: where are the books for girls to grow up on? Well, they’re definitely out there, if perhaps assigned less often in schools to readers of both genders. And so I propose a Girl Canon, populated by books not necessarily for girls but which investigate, address, or represent the female experience in some essential way. After the jump, 50 such books, of many — add your own favorites to the list in the comments, and keep the canon expanding.

Self-Help, Lorrie Moore

Everything a girl needs to know: “How to be an Other Woman,” “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce,” “How to Talk to Your Mother,” “Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Guide to the Tenor of Love,” and, if you really must, “How to Become a Writer.” All written with enough wit and warmth and soul to soothe any growing heart.

Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh

The quintessential outsider girl makes good novel, and a must for anyone who’s ever kept a journal, spied on her friends, or felt misunderstood.

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Morrison’s first novel is a dissection of our notions of beauty, and what those notions do to us — and what ugliness, in all its many forms, can do to us too.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

The wallow book for any gloomy teenage girl, Plath’s semi-autobiographical tale of a young woman’s descent into depression is the kind of book that hooks and doesn’t let go for life. (Though hopefully things get a little sunnier after high school.)

Get in Trouble, Kelly Link

Really, any and all of Link’s books belong front and center in the Girl Canon — but let’s go with her newest, just for fun, containing buyable boyfriends in the varieties werewolf, vampire, and ghost; a girl on a mission of love at a superhero convention; and a storytelling spaceship. Her books are the way forward, friends.

Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block

YA has rarely been weirder — or better — than this magical love letter to youth and LA and Secret Agent Lover Men. A fantastic and fantastical coming of age story for the offbeat heroine in all of us.

The Lover, Marguerite Duras

The gorgeous tale of a young French girl and her older Chinese lover set in prewar Indochina, this book is a poem of sorts, or at least a glittering bauble of sex and memory and femininity. A classic for a reason.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

Every girl deserves to have a love affair with Emma Bovary: so bored, so beautiful, so tragic, so deeply frustrated by the world.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans

The girls in Evans’ excellent stories (and they’re nearly all girls in these stories) are struggling. They’re searching, they’re talking smack, they’re pretending, hard, to be grownups. And aren’t we all?

The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr

A tough-talking, fierce memoir of a childhood in the East Texas of the ’60s that manages to be both rough and exquisite in both language and life.

Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector

Lispector’s incendiary miracle of a first novel, published when she was a mere 23, is a visceral, stream-of-consciousness masterpiece, centering on the wild Joana, first as a child, then later as an adult in an unsatisfying marriage. To be tattooed on the hearts of women everywhere, this mantra, for times of trouble: “I need only fulfill myself and then nothing will impede my path until death-without-fear; from whatever struggle or truce, I shall arise as strong and comely as a young colt.”

The Group, Mary McCarthy

An oldie but a goodie, and still one of the best novels about female friendship ever written.

The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

A big, bombastic novel that follows a group of teenagers from summer camp through their adult lives — a novel that asks us to examine how friendship works, how friendship works when one friend is more successful (as an artist, as a person), how friendship changes in the face of tragedy.

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

This remarkable, charmingly old-fashioned book is essential reading for any girl who has ever wished to grow up in a castle, or be a writer, or fall in love.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

For its poetry, for its insistence on the power of female relationships, for Janie, in all of her hurt and love and strength. As Zadie Smith put it: “a deeply soulful novel that comprehends love and cruelty, and separates the big people from the small of heart, without ever losing sympathy for those unfortunates who don’t know how to live properly.”

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

Winterson’s wonderful first novel tells of a young evangelical girl who, as she grows up, becomes unable to reconcile her religion with her love of women. A masterfully, magically written coming-out/coming-of-age tale for the ages.

How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran

Everything you need to know, in the most hilarious way you could possibly learn it.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

One of the best graphic memoirs in recent memory, Satrapi’s Persepolis tells of her coming-of-age in Tehran during the Iranian revolution, with all the familiarities and strangenesses that entails.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

A book in which the plain, nerdy girl gets the man of her dreams. Need I say more?

Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro

As our current #1 master of the short story, Munro’s collection(s) should be read by everyone. But some of the stories here are destined especially for girl canon-dom, in particular “Child’s Play,” an expanding wonder of a story that reveals the lives of two girls who have committed an unspeakable act, and how long we can hold onto secrets; and “Wenlock Edge,” in which a book-smart student winds up at a stranger’s house, doing his bizarre bidding.

The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter

Feminist fairy tales, sexy fairy tales, violent, bloody, dark, and secret fairy tales. This is what little girls are made of.

Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill

Gaitskill’s stories investigate sex, love, and people in all their oddness, and positively sing with anguish and intelligence on every page.

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

This cult novel about freaks and freak-dom is essential outsider lit — though, let’s face it, at some point everyone has felt like a demonically engineered freak of nature — and also an excellent argument against running off and joining the circus, no matter how annoying your parents get.

Krik? Krak!, Edwidge Danticat

In Haiti, if someone wants to tell a story, they’ll ask, “Krik?” and any nearby person who wants to hear a story will respond with, “Krak!” These nine stories, mostly about women dealing with their demons and relations in equal measure, must be Krak-ed.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Melissa Bank

In these interlocking stories, Jane Rosenthal grows up and figures it out, or at least mostly, or at least sometimes, with wit and vigor and a sharp eye towards what it means to be living in the world — as a girl, as a woman, as anybody. Which really is all any of us can hope for.

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Every girl needs a little Woolf in her life, and this novel, a day in the life of one Clarissa Dalloway, is a true, enduring, astonishing piece of art sure to enrich any soul and elevate any mind.

Nightwork, Christine Schutt

Dark and often disturbing, Schutt’s stories are small, exquisite windows into worlds you never knew existed — or maybe you did.

Wild, Cheryl Strayed

If Strayed’s bone-breaking honesty doesn’t get you, thinking about whether or not you’d make it out there alone in the wilderness will. Either way, you’ll be tested.

Vida, Patricia Engel

These tough, beautiful-but-unsentimental stories center around Sabina, the daughter of Colombian immigrants: her family and childhood in New Jersey (“spics, in a town of blancos”), her tumultuous adult life in Miami. Every story here is a gem, bursting with life and hard-won wisdom.

Sabriel, Garth Nix

Still one of the best fantasy heroines ever created, in a captivating tour de force (with sequels!).

Kindred, Octavia Butler

But of course every girl must read something from the doyenne of sci-fi, the countess of time travel — this book, which follows a modern woman shunted back and forth between her life in California and the slave quarters of a plantation in the antebellum south, is the place to start.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

Bechdel’s genius memoir details her strained relationship with her father, revelations about both their sexual orientations, and his death. Also deserving its own spot of sorts in the girl canon: the Bechdel test.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

For girls who kind of wish they had been born werewolves.

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

All Wharton, all the time! But seriously, this novel, with its struggling, reaching heroine trying to trade on her beauty and her social climbing skills, only to, well, fall down the ladder and into a deep dark hole, is required reading.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s classic horror story of what-could-be only gets more and more important to read as time goes on.

Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion

It’s my feeling that there should be a little Didion in just about everybody’s canon, but especially on a list for growing girls (or grown women). This novel is a withering portrait of LA, Vegas, and deserts both Mojave and metaphorical in the ’60s, and how one woman navigates her way through the baubled bleak.

Dare Me, Megan Abbott

Maybe the best, most intense, most literary novel ever written about high school cheerleaders.

Why Did I Ever, Mary Robison

Robison’s hilarious novel is a life (Money Breton’s) in short sections, mad and bizarre and often cutting; a work of genius in miniature. It’ll snuggle you up close to as strange a woman as you could ever hope for, and give you some thrills of language besides.

At the Bottom of the River, Jamaica Kincaid

Kincaid’s collection of short fictions — or perhaps prose poems, or perhaps something in between or other than these — explores a young girl’s childhood in the Caribbean, the connection between mothers and daughters, and the significance of the home in all its small wonders and terrors.

Marilyn, Gloria Steinem

Marilyn Monroe persists as one of the classic symbols and ideals of womanhood — and while many books have been written about her, Steinem’s dissection of the human and the phenomenon is still probably the best place to start.

Transformations, Anne Sexton

Mad, vicious, somehow intimate re-tellings of classic Grimm’s fairy tales by a true force of nature.

The Complete Claudine, Colette

Colette is one of the most badass literary figures of all time — an ex-dancer at the Moulin Rouge, beloved and championed by her native France, died attended by a doting younger man — and this series of short novels, while not as incendiary as they were when first published, still reflects girlhood, sex, and growing up with quivering, unshrinking honesty.

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez

In this fierce first novel, Alvarez tells the story of four sisters, uprooted from the Dominican Republic and deposited in New York City — a brilliant coming-of-age tale in shimmering four part kaleidoscope.

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

For everyone, really, but especially for the death-obsessed, the life-obsessed, the word-obsessed, Dickinson is the patron saint of poetry.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia C. Wrede

In this delightful set of young adult novels, fairy tale tropes are mixed and mashed, wizards are evil and dragons are (mostly) good, and Princess Cimorene will NOT do any more embroidery, thank you, she prefers translating Latin. One hundred percent the greatest.

Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie’s debut is a powerful, lush novel narrated by Kambili Achike, a 15-year-old Nigerian girl whose life looks perfect from the outside, but is rotten and tense from within. When Kambili and her brother go to visit their progressive aunt, things begin to implode, and Kambili’s burgeoning strength must see everybody through.

The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston

A deeply affecting memoir of growing up in a Chinese-American household in California, the “solid America” of Kingston’s experience overlaid and swarming with her mother’s “talk-stories” of China, a world of wonder and magic and oppression and pain.

The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich

Rich is one of the most influential feminist poets, constantly investigating femininity, sexuality, motherhood, politics, language, and humanity itself in both her poetry and her prose. All that aside, her poems will just knock you out.

No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July

July’s weird, sexy, skin-piercing stories are sly reflections of the world you know, the people you recognize. The collection isn’t just populated by girls and women, but those are the stories you’ll most remember, the awkwardnesses you’ll think back on, the efforts that will most surprise you.

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes

A melancholic masterpiece of female friendship in graphic novel form. Enid and Rebecca, your angst is everyone’s.