1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Ifemelu is a Nigerian woman who has spent the last 15 years in the United States, achieving academic success and writing a successful blog about racism in America. When her fellowship at Princeton ends, she returns to the newly democratic Nigeria and encounters her first love, Obinze. An epic saga of love and identity, Americanah is an examination of race in American and Nigerian life.
2. Dealing With Dragons (The Enchanted Forest Chronicles series) by Patricia C. Wrede
Dealing With Dragons’s Princess Cimorene is everything her father doesn’t want her to be: independent, stubborn, and a tomboy. When Cimorene gives up on the lackluster, proper life she is meant to live, she runs away and finds a dragon named Kazul.
3. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
In Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, 14-year-old Esch discovers she is pregnant in the midst of Hurricane Katrina threatening her family’s coastal Mississippi town. Despite the chaos and scarcity of food, Esch struggles to protect her family during the storm in this powerful story of strength and hope against all odds.
4. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent tells the story of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, a woman mentioned only briefly in the Bible. The Red Tent follows Dinah on her journey from childhood in Mesopotamia to womanhood in Canaan and her experiences in the Red Tent, where women bonded in times of birth and menstruation and shared their stories and secrets, before she became a renowned midwife in Egypt.
5. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
Young Claudia Kincaid is bored of her small, suburban life and runs away to New York City, taking her younger brother with her (for his money) and living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along the way, she solves the mystery of a marble sculpture in the museum, all the while keeping herself and her brother alive.
6. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
In Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a young woman named Reno is passionate about motorcycles and art, and moves to 1970s New York from the West to pursue the latter. Through Reno’s introduction to the New York art scene and her relationship with a wealthy, older Italian sculptor, The Flamethrowers explores the many facets of identity, gender, and art.
7. Caucasia by Danzy Senna
Caucasia follows civil rights movement activists Birdie and Cole in Boston in the 1970s, sisters born to a white mother and black father, but who could not look more different — Birdie is as light-skinned as Cole is dark. After their parents’ marriage falls apart and Cole is taken to Brazil by her father, Birdie must pass as white and learn the complex rules of race and identity in America.
8. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted is a retelling of “Cinderella” whose protagonist, Ella, is much improved from the original. Though born with the “gift” of obedience, Ella is spirited and strong-willed and resists her fate, eventually breaking the curse through her own strength and selflessness.
9. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Set in a Puritan colony, The Scarlet Letter is an American tragedy with adulteress Hester Prynne at its center. Despite her community’s condemnation, Hester shows strength throughout her punishment, and through her story, Nathaniel Hawthorne examines the concepts of sin, conscience, revenge, survival, and redemption.
10. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
Heidi W. Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is the story of Rachel, a biracial girl and the sole survivor of a family tragedy, who leaves Chicago to live with her strict African-American grandmother in a primarily black community. As she struggles with her grief over the loss of her family, Rachel must also grapple with society’s notions of race and identity.
11. Alanna: The First Adventure (Song of the Lioness series) by Tamora Pierce
Young, brave Alanna dreams of becoming a female knight and warrior, but isn’t allowed to train because she is a woman. In a bold move, she switches places with her twin brother, disguising herself as a boy, and begins training as a page in the palace of the king.
12. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge unfolds in 13 linked stories set in a small coastal Maine town, at the center of which is Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher who is as vicious as she is compassionate. Each story reveals a little bit more about the complex puzzle that is Kitteridge, and another slice of life in Crosby, Maine.
13. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is a complex, self-aware woman in the Victorian age whose work as a governess eventually leads to love. Independent, strong, and feminist, Jane Eyre is an unforgettable character in a classic novel exploring social classes, love, sexuality, and morality.
14. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Little Women tells the story of four sisters growing up in poverty in Civil War-era New England. From their creativity-filled childhood to their pursuits in adulthood, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy consistently demonstrate inner strength and a refreshing, inspiring vitality.
15. Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye
Marie Ndiaye’s Three Strong Women follows three West African immigrant women in France who discover their inner strength through their tribulations as their lives begin to intertwine. Powerful and thought-provoking, Three Strong Women explores human suffering, vulnerability, and strength.
16. Hild by Nicola Griffith
Nicola Griffith’s Hild is a sweeping, historical novel that takes place in Britain during the Middle Ages, where a bright, curious child named Hild, the king’s niece, becomes his seer in a brutal, violent time. Strong-willed and gifted, Hild grows up to become one of the most powerful women in seventh-century Britain: Saint Hilda of Whitby.
17. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
On an island called San Nicholas in the Pacific Ocean, a 12-year-old Indian girl named Karana is left alone on the island when she jumps off the “rescue ship” taking her family to California in order to look for her brother on the island. Through her next 18 years in solitude fending for herself on the island, she finds strength, serenity, and self-reliance.
18. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics’ smart, intellectual protagonist Blue van Meer enrolls in the esteemed prep school St. Gallway School. But when she becomes involved with a clique of elite students known as the “Bluebloods,” she quickly finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery.
19. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The satirical, classic Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid’s Tale paints a portrait of a horrifying, future world where women are under subjugation in a military dictatorship based on theocracy. Protagonist Offred is a “Handmaid,” essentially a concubine whose only official use is to give birth to children of the ruling class, and The Handmaid’s Tale is her story of indoctrination into life as a handmaid and her unorthodox relationship with a high-ranking official.
20. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
In this eerie Neil Gaiman novel, Coraline’s family moves into a new flat, where she discovers a passage to an alternate, mirror universe. While the other world is in many ways better than the original, Coraline eventually realizes that all is not as it seems and that there are children’s souls trapped there that she must rescue, along with herself.
21. Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
Daughter of Fortune’s Eliza Sommers is a young orphaned girl who eventually leaves Chile for California in the Gold Rush of 1849, following in the footsteps of her lover. In California, she finds independence and freedom amid the fierce gold fever, and what started out as a search for her lost love becomes a journey of self-discovery.
22. Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García
Set in Cuba, Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban follows three generations of del Pino women, starting with Celia del Pino in the mid-1930s, who have each been deeply affected by the Cuban Revolution. Yet despite the revolution, the women’s visionary powers and clairvoyance do not wane in the midst of corruption and family divisions due to politics and geography.
23. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Anne Shirley is a bright, imaginative 11-year-old orphan who is sent to Green Gables to live with a pair of siblings to help with chores on their farm. She quickly adapts to life in Avonlea and warms the hearts of everyone around her, thriving in the small farming village and growing up to become a remarkable young woman.
24. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is set in a small Southern town and centers around a group of five misfits who bond over their isolation. Mick Kelly is an adolescent girl who finds comfort in music, and unlike the other four, fights back against her loneliness by searching for beauty, rather than violence or sex or alcohol.
25. Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Esperanza’s family lives comfortably on their ranch in Mexico, where she is treated like a princess, so when a tragedy forces her and her mother to flee to California to a camp for Mexican farm workers, she is unprepared for the hardships of her new life. But despite the hard labor on the farm and the financial difficulties of living during the Great Depression, Esperanza manages to eventually rise above her unfortunate situation and thrive with newfound strength.
26. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a story of hope set in a dystopian America where environmental and economic problems have led to humanity’s decline. When 18-year-old Lauren Olamina, the daughter of a minister, loses both her family and home, she sets out on a journey with other refugees and fights for her survival while starting a new faith.
27. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Harriet M. Welsch is a curious and intelligent girl who dreams of one day becoming a famous author, but for now she is a spy, writing down everything she knows about her friends and classmates in her secret notebook. But when her classmates find the notebook and read it aloud, Harriet is left trying to find a way to repair her broken relationships.
28. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
The four García girls flee with their parents from their comfortable life in the Dominican Republic to New York City in 1960, a drastic change that will take some adjusting. And adjusting they try — from losing their Spanish to wearing American fashions — but finding an identity in a new country is difficult when they still remember the past.
29. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a meditation on friendship, and a portrait of the friendship between two women growing up on the outskirts of 1950s Naples, Italy. Though they are poor, the girls live in a neighborhood that is brimming with life, and learn to rely on each other through childhood into adulthood as both their country and lives undergo enormous change.
There are countless books out there with awesome female protagonists — tell us in the comments below about your favorites!
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