Celebrating the Sisterhood
I don’t often feature paperback series here, but I’m making an exception for this collection of Penguin classics because the design is striking enough that so many people who see them on my shelves just gravitate towards it to pick them up and decide to get a set for themselves and I wanted to share.
The series is called the Penguin Sisterhood Collection – a collection of classics about strong, fearless and inspiring women and girls, written by famous female authors, and inspired by International Women’s Day. Each of the books contains a one-page series introduction by Gen-Z writer and feminist Scarlett Curtis. The gorgeously colorful covers are by Turkish artist Hülya Özdemir – I think part of the reason her watercolor portraits are so arresting is a sense of timelessness – they simultaneously capture the simple beauty of the time period of the books whilst appealing to a contemporary reader.
The books have decorative French flaps which serve as endpapers, and the back contains an adorable tiny portrait of the author and the artist. Unfortunately, bring trade paperbacks, it’s a glued binding, but on the plus side it means they are very affordable. The video above shows all the books in more detail, with links and descriptions provided below, along with an expanded list of books by or about women of colour or other diversities at the end of the article.
Penguin's Sisterhood Collection for International Women's Day
Of course, the series includes British classic Pride and Prejudice, a Regency romance and ‘novel of manners’ written by Jane Austen and first published anonymously in 1813, about Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters, and their search for love without compromising their dignity.
Next we have Heidi, a classic children’s novel by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, originally written in German and published in 1880. Heidi is heartwarming tale about a young orphan who is sent to the Swiss mountains to live a simple life with her grandfather in his cabin.
This edition has the Eileen Hall translation of 1956 – this is the most common translation that the majority of kids have probably grown up with (and – shockingly – one of the most recent!). It also has a limited number of internal line drawings by Cecil Leslie.
The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit is another children’s novel, originally published as a magazine serial in 1905. The story follows a family who move from London to a house near the railway after their father is imprisoned after falsely being accused of spying, where they befriend a Russian exile and try to prove their father’s innocence. It is set during the Russo-Japanese War.
Anne of Green Gables is a classic children’s novel by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, published in 1908. The book stars charming quick-tempered and red-headed orphan Anne with an E Shirley, who is adopted to help out a couple on their farm in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island, and her misadventures in the new town.
Little Women by American children’s author Louisa May Alcott follows the stories of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March, who are raised in genteel poverty by their loving mother, Marmee, in a quiet Massachusetts town while their father serves as an army chaplain during the American Civil War.
Overall, despite lacking a little in racial and cultural diversity, it’s a gorgeous collection, and even though the bulk of the titles are children’s books, the stories are excellent reads, and the eye-catching covers and convenience of a paperback guarantee they will spark a conversation about reading if you take them out and about.
Diverse Contemporary Classics
If you’d like to flesh the series out with a couple of books written by women of colour or addressing other diversity, I have also included a few suggestions for you in the list below.
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani. Juvenile fiction / Asia. A poignant, personal, and hopeful tale of India’s partition into India and Pakistan in 1947, and of half-Muslim half-Hindu Nisha’s journey to find a new home and identity in a divided country.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Literary Fiction / Asian America. The novel traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic artist Mia and her daughter Pearl who upend their lives. Explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.
Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Historical fiction / African American. A young Cameroonian couple try to make a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy – a novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream.
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran. Contempoary fiction / Indian & Hispanic American. Explores the devotion and anguish of motherhood through two women bound together by their love for one boy. Soli, a young undocumented Mexican woman in Berkeley, CA, finds that motherhood offers her an identity in a world where she’s otherwise invisible. When she is placed in immigrant detention, her son comes under the care of Kavya, an Indian-American wife overwhelmed by her own impossible desire to have a child. As Soli fights for her son, Kavya wraps her heart around someone else’s child.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Historical fiction / African American. In 18th century Ghana two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery. Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. Coming of Age / Hispanic & Latino. Set in Bogota under the reign of the drug lord Pablo Escobar, this novel shifts between the perspectives of 7yo Chula living in a gated community, and her live-in maid Petrona, who comes from the city’s guerrilla-occupied slum.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wmariya and Elizabeth Weil. Biogrphy & Memoir / African history. In 1994, Clemantine and her sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty.
Chemistry by Weike Wang. Literary fiction / Asian American. The title of this novel alludes to the love between the two main characters, but in Chinese the word for chemistry translates to ‘the study of change’, and this novel is equally about the unnamed narrator’s slow self-transformation as well as her relationship with her boyfriend.
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons. Literary fiction / African American. Loosely based on the author’s own experiences in caring for her mother while she was dying of cancer, the book is a series of fragmented vignettes, in which the protagonist Thandi narrates the trajectory of her life in the context of her mother’s death.