I’ve often been inspired by fictional lady heroes I read about in books, but nothing beats the feeling of reading about a woman who existed and learning about the things she was able to achieve in her lifetime. I’m inspired by (some) celebrity memoirs, or even tales of discovery and letting go like those in Wild (Cheryl Strayed) and Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert). They’re all fantastic stories about real women who achieved something great, each in her own way.
I’m going to highlight a few books that introduced me to ladies whose stories you may be unfamiliar with, or whom you may have forgotten.
The White Masai by Corinne Hofmann
Corinne, who is from Switzerland, met a warrior in Kenya while on vacation and fell in love with him. In this memoir, she talks about the crazy and impossible relationship they had, how different their cultures are, and details her hardship adjusting to their lifestyle (malaria, different food, different traditions). It’s a love story, but it’s also an adventure and, though much has been said by “critics of the story” about the author’s naivete, I find it rather refreshing that there are still people today who are willing to toss everything aside to give love a chance. Call it cheesy, call it whatever you want – but she went there. She dropped everything and tried a completely different way of life, and that’s totally awesome. Bonus: if you’re doing the Read Harder challenge, this would count as a book in translation if you aren’t reading in the original German, or perhaps as a book about an indigenous culture depending on how stringent you are about content (since this is a case where an outsider is writing about her experiences).
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
This definitely falls under the “ladies you may have forgotten about” category, because it feels like things are pretty quiet on Malala’s end these days. And for good reason: she’s a teenager, and she’s already achieved so, so much. It’s tough to keep that wave going when the media moves so quickly, though I’m certain we’ll keep hearing about the rad things Malala’s doing with her life well into the future. In case you haven’t though, I do recommend reading her book, which she co-wrote with Christina Lamb. If you haven’t heard her story, don’t even look her up – just read the book, and then find footage of her speaking and news articles of how much of a tenacious badass she is. And by the way: if you have criticisms about the book because it isn’t some kind of literary masterpiece, you need some perspective. The girl was hunted down and shot by the Taliban for believing women and girls deserve an education. Cut her some slack. Also, if you like Malala’s story or want to read more about similar experiences: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Do iiiiiit.
No Girls Allowed by Susan Hughes (writer) and Willow Dawson (illustrator)
In this book, you get brief summaries of the lives of Hatshepsut, Mu Lan, Alfhild, Esther Brandeau, James Barry, Ellen Craft, and Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. You might have heard of some of these: Hatshepsut was a pharaoh, and Mu Lan was a Chinese warrior who took her father’s place in the army. But have you heard of Alfhild, the viking princess who eventually started her own viking girl gang and ran her own fleet of pirate ships, pillaging and looting all over the place? Or Ellen Craft, who was a slave, and when she fell in love with another slave, she dressed as a white man and acted as her lover’s owner to get them both to freedom in the north, and later England. The best part about this book is at the very end, there’s a whole list of recommended further reading if you want to learn more about any of the ladies.
Primates by Jim Ottaviani (writer) and Maris Wicks (illustrator)
This one’s about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, and what the three ladies contributed to science. We know much more about their lives than we do about some of the further-back ladies I’ve listed earlier here, and besides the theme of primates binding them together in science, they were all recruited by the same anthropologist. The stories are all framed in an easy-to-follow way that gives each lady her time to shine, but also emphasizes how important their research was as a whole, and how they helped or influenced each other. The direction and design with the art and lettering in particular is brilliant, as the overall tone and feel of the panels changes depending on who’s narrating. It really emphasizes the different characters in the stories better and gives them a real voice.
Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell (author) and The Brothers McLeod (illustrations)
I have a healthy respect for folks who work in retail, and particularly for folks who work in bookshops. It can easily be super stressful, make anyone hate the world, drive one to bitterness, and all the rest. But Jen, instead, started blogging about some of the interactions she’d had with customers, poking fun at the frustrations and eventually got enough attention to snag a book deal. Actually, she’s released two hilarious Weird Things… and a third book called The Bookshop Book. To me, folks who work at bookshops and love their jobs, even when people come in and make their lives difficult, are heroes. Having such a positive outlook on life and spreading that goodness around is a trait I admire in anyone. It’s the same way I feel about teachers and counselors and librarians and nurses and others who devote their time at the service of others. Weird Things… may or may not be about any particular badass lady, but it certainly inspires me to take things less personally and to be fair and considerate.
Feel free to add more bookish love for real-life badass ladies to my list!