Women of Character: A List of My Favorite Books With Strong Women

by: Katie Weiss

When I get to sit back and enjoy a book, I know that my day is going to go just right. Nothing beats relaxing in a comfortable chair with a soft blanket across your lap and endless pages meant to whisk you away to places that you never thought you would know. Finding the right book is a treasure hunt best illustrated by the ease of hours slipping away when one wanders into a bookstore.

I grew up in a family that devoured books. Not only did they read to us, but my mother and father used books as a way to show my sisters and I that we could be different and beautiful; that we could be strong and independent and still accomplish our dreams. My parents used books to teach life lessons about the beauty of the world, the diversity of people, and the excitement that each new day brings. The stories from my youth are still staples in my life that every once in a while I get a chance to reflect on.

My parents, most specifically my mom, searched out books that featured strong women. I assume that she did this as a way to give my sisters and I role models whom we could aspire to be. If this was her goal, it worked. And now, I try very hard to find books that showcase an independent thinking woman fighting free from social norms. (In essence, my mom began this speed train of feminism and activism).

Together with the help of strong, independent women that I am lucky enough to be surrounded by – Cheryl Waity and Brianna Schumacher, my best friends; Danielle La Pointe, my supervisor at work; my mom; and Darla Tess-Weaver, an old coworker – I put together a list of books that feature at least one strong independent woman character. For the record, this proved to be harder than anticipated and the variety of people asked to contribute was a blessing in disguise because of the range of books that it provided.

My List:

1. CinderEdna by Ellen Jackson

This book is epitome of my childhood and one of my mother’s favorite books to this day. We all know the story of Cinderella, but the story of CinderEdna is in direct opposition to it. CinderEdna is Cinderella’s next door neighbor. Both women have an evil stepmother and two evil stepsisters, however, instead of crying and feeling sorry for herself, CinderEdna is a self-sufficient lady who earns money for herself to get her out of a bad situation and uses logic and personality to make friends and, eventually, earn the man of her dreams. Having CinderEdna as a foil to Cinderella is genius. This book teaches young women that they can be bright, thoughtful, and quirky and, as long as they are confident in themselves, live the happily ever after that we all hope for.

2. The Rough Face Girl by Rafe Martin

Another Cinderella type of story from when I was young, The Rough Face Girl is a Native American tale of a young woman who has two beautiful, evil stepsisters. The story shows that the rough-face girl’s beauty (which you can assume from her name is not outwardly gorgeous) exists in her hard work and her love for her world and her prevailing over pain and evil in her life while refusing to back down from who she is.

3. Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen

Absolutely one of my favorite books ever (and a great movie too!), Flippedis the story of Juli and Bryce, written from each of their perspectives in alternating chapters. In the book, Bryce is a stereotypical boy who, though he is a good person, wants to hang out with his friends, crush on pretty girls, and make fun of people. Juli, on the other hand, is a free spirit. Though deeply affected by kids who pick on her in her life, she cares about others, fights for her beliefs, and is fiercely independent, making friends with people who need it most. Though on surface level this is the story of Juli’s crush on Bryce, beneath that story, this book is about being true to yourself and living honestly as a good person. There is also an underlying message to burgeoning young activist women: be proud of who you are.

4. Any Sammy Keyes Book

Written by the same author as Flipped, Wendelin Van Draanen, Sammy Keyes is a series of young adult novels featuring a young woman detective solving mysteries around her town. One of the most fascinating aspects of Sammy is that she does not have a traditional home life. Always finding herself in unlucky situations, Sammy is a badass. She’s a conflicted teen who strives to make her grandmother proud, but who always ends up appearing to be in the wrong. Sammy fiercely cares about her neighbors and is supported by people around her because of her drive and powerful individuality. This is a main character who deserves to be in the spotlight. Interestingly enough, Van Draanen has written books about the peripheral female characters, all who have non-traditional life stories. Her characters, including Sammy, overcome difficult situations with spunk and sass and without ever losing site of their values and ideals.

5. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

I have a very hard time reading books about the Holocaust, but this book is different because it deals with “regular” Germans who were neither Nazis nor nazi supporters nor prisoners. Instead, the main characters are a mother and daughter who now reside in the United States but who lived in Germany during World War II. While the Holocaust is the backdrop, this story follows the mother’s journey to protect her daughter at any cost, and the daughter’s journey to find out who she is and why her mother has never shared her life with her. It is the story of secrets, of hardship, of unknowing and distrust and of failed relationships under the guise of what it takes to survive. These two women, strong in their own senses, are a beautiful contrast of independence and their story, intertwining with alternating perspectives and flashbacks, is a detailed description of overcoming life’s trials while constantly moving forward.

6. The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson

When I first picked this book up, I didn’t think that I would enjoy it. This is the story of Ella Beene and her fight to continue to be a part of her step-children’s lives while picking up the pieces of her own life after her husband dies at sea. I think the drive of Ella to stay involved and to be a good mother and the realistic nature of the ups and downs of life, proved this book to be a keeper on my shelf. Ella is caught between a rock and a hard place, fighting with Paige, the recently returned mother of the children, for the right to raise them. This is a story of fierce of love and caring and the difficult situations that rock individuals who don’t always get to live in the cookie-cutter stereotype of everyday life.

Danielle’s Picks:

7. Room by Emma Donoghue

“Ma” is actually the victim of a man who kidnapped her and has been holding her captive in a shed in his backyard. Jack is Ma’s 5-year-old son and the product of repeated rapes by her captor, “Old Nick”. As a result, the shed or “Room”, as it is referred to in the book, is the only world that Jack knows. Despite the circumstances, Ma tries her best to protect Jack (making him sleep in the wardrobe to hide him from Old Nick and prevent him from watching her being raped, essentially home-schooling him, maintaining a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, etc.) Eventually, Ma devises an escape plan which works and they are rescued. The rest of the book is about the painful aftermath and Ma’s struggle to come to grips with what happened to her. She is a strong female character because she protected and cared for her child incredibly well despite the direst of circumstances. I also can’t imagine the emotions involved in caring for a child that is the product of such a violent and tragic situation.

8. The Help by Kathryn Stockett

With strong female characters Abileen, Minnie and Skeeter, this is the story of women from the South who were standing up against racism and inequality in a time when dissent from society’s norms carried great taboo. These women are strong female characters because it obviously took a lot of courage to be in opposition to long-held beliefs; Skeeter is a strong character because she’s educated and unmarried and isn’t consumed by the need to get married and have children – despite all of the pressure around her to do so.

9. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Clare is a strong character because her story is so tragic. The reader follows Clare’s life and her love of Henry from childhood. It’s clear early on that it’s not going to end well, yet the reader continues to read a beautiful love story. Clare endures her time traveling husband disappearing over and over again, constantly worrying about him, repeated miscarriages because the babies “time travel” out of her womb. The story is very sad but is also mixed in with Henry and Clare’s happier times as well. Clare is strong because she goes through all of the back and forth with Henry but creates a beautiful life despite everything, and goes on after Henry is gone.

10. The Book Thief by Markus Suzak

The book begins in early Nazi Germany with Liesel and her brother being taken to their new foster family by their mother. We learn later in the book that Liesel’s parents are/were communist sympathizers and the mother was leaving the children in foster care to protect them. Liesel’s foster father, Hans, is a caring and compassionate man to whom Liesel grows very close. Rosa, Liesel’s foster mother, is harsh and abusive but ultimately shown to be fiercely protective and caring of her family. Hans and Rosa are secretly anti-Nazi and commit to hiding the Jewish adult son (Max) of a former friend of Hans’. Liesel does not buy in to the Nazi propaganda either (but you don’t get the sense that she feels this way because of her parents, she seems to come to this conclusion on her own). Liesel is brave and thinks for herself – not common in most 12-14 year old girls. Also, she keeps the secret of Max – also remarkable for a girl of her age.

My Mom’s Pick:

11. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Written to take place 4,000 years ago before the birth of Jesus, The Red Tent is Dinah’s story. Named after the Red Tent where women were sent at the full moon when they all got their periods, this is the tale of women working through the injustice of the time and the importance of personal history. Dinah is the pregnant daughter of Jacob and the sister of Joseph (of the amazing Technicolor dreamcoat), whose people and husband are murdered after her father and brothers kill them all. In the bible it says she is raped, but in this story Dinah tells of how men decided her fate and ignored her wants and dreams – it details Dinah’s life trying to survive with her mother in law. It is the story of women’s strength in that Dinah is consistently struck by painful circumstances, yet she faces her demons and then just moves on. In face, this is a whole book of women who were beaten, raped, etc. with little thought given to them and how they deal with their fates and then just move on, making the best of their situations.

Brianna’s pick:

12. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Lily Owens, a young white girl who lost her mother in a mysterious accident when she was young, lives on a peach farm with her father T.Ray, and her nanny who has basically raised her, named Rosaleen (who is African American). In 1964, Rosaleen tries to vote, and is attacked by three racists and thrown into jail. Lily decides to run away with Rosaleen to a place where she can be free and where she can escape her father. They head to Tiburon, South Carolina. Once there, they meet August, May, and June Boatwright, 3 black sisters who are in the beekeeping business. August, May and June take Rosaleen and Lily in, and Lily learns that her mother once stayed with the sisters as well. All of the women in this book are strong for different reasons, Lily for her determination and fearlessness, Rosaleen for her strength, August for her wisdom and kindness, June for her strong values and intelligence, and May, who later commits suicide due to her struggle with depression, for her ability to see the world in a different light than others.

Cheryl’s Picks:

13. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This is the story of a young woman trying to survive in a society where those not in power are ultimately helpless. I think this might be the only book series where not only is the woman physically dominant, but basically fearless. The romantic aspect of these books flips gender roles considerably, with both men in the love triangle not just one. Katniss, the main female character, cares about one thing above all else, her family. It’s nice to see a 16 year old girl who isn’t completely distracted by the opposite sex in a young adult book.

14. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin follows Iris Chase through her life post WWII as she copes with love and loss. Iris Chase finds a way to be herself, tell her story, and ultimately do what she wants in an abusive marriage. The problem I have with this is it is based a lot around love, but Iris find a way to have what she wants and she gets the ultimate revenge on her awful, awful husband…who is awful.

15. The Great House by Nicole Krauss

Great House is a novel about many different people living very different lives separated by thousands of miles all connected through a single piece of furniture—a desk. Through the desk it becomes noticeable how similar stories of loss and loneliness truly are, no matter how extreme the circumstances. This book has a lot of characters in it, and some of them are absolutely pitiful excuses for women, but there is one who is not. She is fiercely independent even in her relationship with her husband who is a good man and adores her for her independence. She was a once famous writer who lived through Occupied Europe. She was Jewish and had to give her child away and hope that he could have a better life because she was fleeing. She managed to rebuild herself and, though giving away her child haunted her, she knew it was the right thing to do. Sad, but strong.

16. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This is a story where a woman finds smalls ways to make do in an awful situation where the world is ruled by very strict Christian values that are contorted in disgusting ways. In the process of the world transforming, Offred, the main female character, loses her husband and her daughter and is forced to be someone’s handmaid (which is actually a person a man is allowed to have sex with and try to reproduce with because his wife is super old). In the end Offred escapes. She isn’t certain if it is to her demise because she has no one to trust, but she risks it anyways.

Darla’s Pick:

17. Bossypants by Tina Fey

Tina Fey is the epitome of a modern day strong woman. She has one of the most coveted careers and still manages to be a mother, which many women struggle to do. She is also tells society to “go fuck themselves’ when it comes to cultural norms such as body image and gender roles.

My final Pick:

18. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Series by Stieg Larsson

This series follows Lisbeth Salander while detailing the horrendous life that she went through as a child, young adult, and woman. This series basically flips the idea of one strong woman in a book surrounded by a group of strong men and sniveling women, and creates a group of independent women who have all earned significant merit in their lives surrounded by a group of mostly inadequate men. This series is about violence against women, specifically the sex trade, and the amazing circumstances that women triumph over in a world where men ultimately have the say of what goes. Seriously, I understand that the first book was slow and dark, but the second and third books more than make up for that. Read this. That a series that is based on violence against women can become so popular should be more than enough reason to pick up these books and read them through. Plus it can’t hurt that Lisbeth Salander is just an ultimate badass.

Now that you have ideas for a whole new shelf in your library – read, enjoy, and appreciate the books that are written with a strong, independent female in mind.

Katie Weiss is a recent graduate of DePaul University who loves Hershey’s with almonds, her teapot collection and hoop earrings. She spends her time as a hard-working admin at National Louis University, an all-out bro at Mad River and a nerd-loving Merlin on Netflix. She is consistently inspired by her amazing peers and thinks everyone is cute.

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3 responses to “Women of Character: A List of My Favorite Books With Strong Women

  1. Katie, thank you so much for including me with these amazing writers and their books! I am truly honored.

    Happy reading to you all!

    ~Jenna Blum
    author of THOSE WHO SAVE US

  2. Thanks Katie. I’m planning of writing several books myself and find it hard to find strong, independent and original female characters in todays world. Mostly (shockingly) the strongest and most independent female characters I’ve discovered are from Video Games: Lara Croft from 2013’s gritty and realistic remake of Tomb Raider, Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite who developed beyond the typical damsel in distress, Alice Liddell from American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns who deals with depression, survivors guilt and schizophrenia she was badly burnt in a house fire that killed her family, Terra Branford from Final Fantasy 6, an asexual girl with dangerous powers who was used and abused to become a weapon for a madman and a tyrant who now travels across a war-torn and enslaved world she helped conquer to defeat her former masters, even when it’s revealed she’ll die as a result, and Nariko from Heavenly sword, a woman who was a living breathing symbol of downfall and misfortune for her clan because in the prophecy she was supposed to be born male, yet despite this sets out to save her clan from a tyrant by using a supposed deity’s sword with an ambiguous legend that will eventually kill her in three days by using it.

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