Tennessee women have been at the heart of major historical and cultural events in the United States — abolition, the Trail of Tears, women’s suffrage, and civil rights, as well as triumphs in music and athletics.
During the last days of Women’s History Month, and year-round, educators and readers can celebrate stories written by women and accounts of heroines that illuminate the richness of Tennessee culture and history. Here are some books by Tennessee female writers or about Tennessee women that readers of all ages can enjoy.
Early childhood readers
“Can I Play with My Food?”: Ali Manning (writer), Taylor Bou (illustrator)
Ali Manning is a food scientist and entrepreneur based in Memphis. Her early-reader picture book, “Can I Play with My Food?” encourages children’s curiosity and experimentation about what they eat. The story focuses on two sisters, Nema and Lexi, and their journey of discovery. Where does their food come from? What is the science involved in cooking? Along the way, the sisters also learn the importance of empathy and accepting people of varying abilities.
“Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth”: Alice Faye Duncan (writer), Keturah A. Bobo (illustrator)
Children’s book author Alice Faye Duncan has been a Memphis staple for more than thirty years. Her stories take crucial moments in Black history and bring them to life for young readers. Her most recent work, Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth, is one of the first biographies of Opal Lee, the woman who tirelessly advocated to make Juneteenth our newest federal holiday. Through Duncan’s research and Keturah Bobo’s illustrations, children learn about a living legend. Lee continues to give speeches and spread her universal message of freedom.
“Coat of Many Colors”: Dolly Parton (writer), Brooke Boynton (illustrator)
Dolly Parton is one of Tennessee’s most celebrated daughters. The multitalented singer, author, humanitarian, and entrepreneur was born in Pittman Center, Tennessee. “Coat of Many Colors” is an early-reader picture book that illustrates the lyrics of her famous song of that name. Parton had humble beginnings as the fourth of twelve children in the Smoky Mountains. The book depicts her mother’s love and labor stitching a garment out of hand-me-down rags. The author encourages young people to show gratitude for what they’re given and to prevent bullies from stealing their pride.
“Wilma Rudolph: Track and Field Champion”: Adrianna Morganelli
Adrianna Morganelli is a prolific biographer writing for young audiences. “Wilma Rudolph: Track and Field Champion” details the life of one of Tennessee’s most revered athletes. Born in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, Rudolph faced many challenges. She suffered from pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio-related paralysis all by the age of 5. Nevertheless, she persisted and went on to win three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Rudolph’s story serves as an inspiration for all girls, African American children, and young people with disabilities.
Middle school readers
“Last in a Long Line of Rebels”: Lisa Lewis Tyre
Tennessee native Lisa Lewis Tyre connects the past and present in her debut novel, “Last in a Long Line of Rebels.” The protagonist is Lou, a 12-year-old girl. Initially, Lou is on a quest to save her condemned Civil War-era house. As she digs further into her history, she learns more about her ancestors — enslavers, abolitionists and everyone in between. The book illustrates a young girl’s adventure to save her home and right the wrongs of the past.
“Summer of My German Soldier”: Bette Greene
Bette Greene was born in Memphis. For part of her childhood, her family moved to Parkin, Arkansas, where they ran a general store, and then back to Memphis for her preteen and high school years. Her years in Memphis influenced her novel, which tells the story of Patty Bergen, a young Jewish girl in Arkansas during World War II. She befriends Anton, an escaped prisoner of war from Germany. The story chronicles Patty’s empathy as she harbors Anton in her family’s garage, and Anton’s attempt to bolster her self-esteem.
Secondary and post-secondary Readers
“The Foreign Student”: Susan Choi
Susan Choi’s novel is set in 1955 at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. It details the unlikely romance between Chang, a 25-year-old student from Korea, and Katherine, a 28-year-old white American. The novel moves between events in the American South and South Korea, depicting the trauma and obstacles of race and class the characters must overcome to be together.
“Bloodroot”: Amy Greene
Amy Greene grew up in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Whitesburg, Tennessee, and lives in Morristown. Her debut novel follows four generations of women in the Lamb family as they navigate desire and disaster. The novel interrogates generational blessings and curses through magical realism. The author renders a realistic and complex portrait of legacy in Appalachia.
“How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe”: Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
Mexican American writer Raquel Vasquez Gilliland lives in Tennessee with her family. Her second novel, “How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe,” chronicles Moon’s coming- of-age story as she goes on a road trip with her twin sister, Star. Star becomes popular as a social media influencer and Moon agrees to act as her cameraperson and merchandiser. Over the course of the novel, Moon learns to defy expectations and has a budding romance. This eventful summer turns her world upside down.
“When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky”: Margaret Verble
Margaret Verble mines her Cherokee heritage for the novel, “When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky.” The tale, set in 1926 Nashville, depicts the life of Two Feathers, a young horse-diver who sets out to solve a mystery. Two Feathers and her friends want to discover why their zoo is plagued by curses and the specter of World War I. The novel invites the reader to contemplate what happens when we confront history instead of burying it.