These books highlight heroes who give courage to our souls—but most of all, they reveal the true, relatable humanity beneath their subjects’ seemingly supernatural heroism.
The Black Rose by Tananarive Due
The story of Madame C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire, is one of the most remarkable American success stories. Her life inspired Netflix’s recent series “Self Made,” but I prefer The Black Rose, a gripping work of historical fiction by award-winning author Tananarive Due that chronicles Walker’s rags-to-riches rise. The first person in her family born free, Walker survived an abusive marriage and raised a daughter on a meager salary before launching a hair-care empire for black women. Ambitious and tenacious, Walker held fast to the idea that women like her deserved to feel beautiful and were willing to pay for it—despite naysayers all around, including famous men like Booker T. Washington. But money talks, and Walker’s success soon spoke for itself. She never forgot where she came from, giving back until her untimely death at 51.
The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
Mackenzi Lee followed The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue with another smashingly entertaining historical road trip, this time focused on aspiring doctor Felicity Montague. Entering the medical field was nearly impossible for an 18th-century woman (even a rich, white woman), and Lee strikes the perfect balance between inspiration and historical realism. This is not a simple “girl power” fable. Felicity confronts her own internalized misogyny as she comes to appreciate women whose dreams and personalities are different from her own but no less valid or deserving of respect. The characters in Lady’s Guide know they are outliers in their own time, but they press forward anyway, confident that they are blazing a path for the generations of women who will come after them.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
The Mirabal sisters of Julia Alvarez’s powerful novel may sound like the stuff of myth, but they were real. Four women, known as “the Butterflies,” joined an underground movement in the late 1950s against President Rafael Trujillo and became legends of resistance for the Dominican people. Three sisters died in the process, but they mobilized a nation to liberate itself from a decades-long dictatorship. Alvarez’s novel, like many feminist Latin American works, is rebellious even in its form, mixing timelines and genres in a polyphonic, metafictive masterpiece. During dark times, our impulse can be to protect ourselves before others, to stay silent out of fear. Stirring to its very core, Alvarez’s novel captures the crucial shift when a person decides to stand up for what they truly believe in, no matter the cost.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
The Life of Frederick Douglass by David F. Walker, illustrated by Damon Smyth & Marissa Louise
Few Americans are more remarkable than Frederick Douglass. To learn about his extraordinary life and work, you could read the autobiographies he wrote during his lifetime, or one of the thorough biographies that have been penned since his death. Or, for a totally different avenue into the history of abolition, you could read David F. Walker’s stunning graphic biography. Written in the voice of Douglass himself and illustrated with at times violent, at times beautiful scenes from Douglass’ life, this book offers a high-level portrait that is more humanizing, vivid and heart-stirring than words alone could paint. When the world seems full of impassable obstacles, The Life of Frederick Douglass is a helpful reminder of how to knock them down.
—Christy, Associate Editor
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
Blood Water Paint is an incredible true story. Artemisia Gentileschi, the daughter of an art dealer in Rome during the early 1600s and a talented painter in her own right, was attacked and raped by one of her father’s business associates. Defying convention, Gentileschi pressed charges against her attacker, risking everything—including her future as an artist—to seek justice for herself. Joy McCullough tells Gentileschi’s story in 99 poems, interspersed with the prose stories of Susanna and Judith, the biblical women depicted in two of Gentileschi’s best-known paintings. Gentileschi’s voice on the page is arresting, and her determination to prevail and carve out a life for herself as an artist, even in the face of horror and trauma, is unforgettable. You’ll never look at Gentileschi’s paintings the same way again.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor
Each month, BookPage staff share special reading lists comprised of our personal favorites, old and new.