25 Books Alice Walker Championed

alice walker book recommendations

Author, poet, feminist, activist, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Alice Walker is one of our most storied and prolific living writers. Growing up in Jim Crow Georgia, Alice’s family had a long history with the oral tradition, passing down tales from generation to generation. Though she hid her early writing away from her parents, she recognized the escapist nature of reading from a young age, reflecting that “Books became my world because the world I was in was very hard.”

While studying at Sarah Lawrence, she started writing poems as a means of dealing with depression, which were published in a book of poetry called Once. After her first short story, To Hell with Dying, was “discovered” in 1967 by acclaimed jazz poet Langston Hughes, Alice worked as a writer-in-residence for a number of colleges, and taught a course on Black Women’s writers at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. When she later taught at Wellesley, one student spoke of the reading list: “Alice had us read books by all these black women we’d never heard of. She unearthed a part of our history that we had been denied.”

Of those writers, Walker famously championed the work of Zora Neale Hurston – author, anthropologist, and central figure in the Harlem Renaissance – who inspired her to use stories from her own life as material in her work. Walker drew from her experiences growing up in the rural South for her seminal work The Color Purplewhich deals with racism, sexism, religion, and family, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and National Book Award for Fiction in 1983. A divisive book that was widely banned for its inclusion of lesbian characters, as well as violence and abusive language, it was adapted into a wildly successful film of the same name starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in 1985. It later became a hit Broadway musical from 2005 to 2008, with its 2016 revival winning two Tony Awards.

As an activist, Walker once stated, “Artists have a responsibility to speak and to act when governments fail.” In protest of Israel’s treatment of Palestine, she wouldn’t allow a Hebrew translation of The Color Purple. And at its New York film premiere, Alice directed proceeds to Reading Is Fundamental, a local literacy group. She co-founded a feminist publishing company in 1984, and has been a lifelong advocate for women of color, particularly writers who have fallen into obscurity. From her ruminations on feminism and black identity to the power of poetry, Walker has gifted us with her fierce intelligence and spirited storytelling throughout her literary life, all while championing the disenfranchised. As she herself put it, “If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?”

Read on for a list of Alice Walker’s book recommendations, included titles listed in her college syllabi, and complement with Maya Angelou’s Recommended Reading.

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (also rec’d by Maya Angelou)

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

“This book is so raw and true to the feelings of abandonment when a mate ups and leaves that it is a bit scary.  I especially appreciate Ferrante’s clear-eyed depiction of the abandoned mother with the snarly children who don’t understand and don’t care either.” -AW

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

“I hope everyone’s read my favorite rave about book, but if not, try it on audio.” -AW

This Side of Providence by Rachel Harper

“I was not prepared for the journey this compelling novel took me on.  Or so I thought.  I knew nothing of the lives of Puerto Rican immigrants to the United States, and certainly very little of the lives of the children.  This book changed that.  It is a book of such power that it is as if a completely new layer of the American experience has been exposed to our view.  And like many a great work of fiction, not one line is wasted and every single word rings true.” -AW

Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

“Reading Their Eyes for perhaps the eleventh time, I am still amazed. .. that it speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done; and that the language of the characters, that ‘comical nigger dialect’ that has been laughed at, denied, ignored, or ‘improved’ so that white folks and educated black folks can understand it, is simply beautiful. There is enough self-love in that one book – love of community, culture, traditions – to restore a world. Or create a new one.” -AW

Who Look At Me by June Jordan

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi

“When Breath Becomes Air made me so glad Paul existed I could hardly sit still. It’s a wonderful book about a wonderful human being. Living and dying with so much grace and dignity I’m still weeping as I write this, and it’s been months!” -AW

The Sun Shines Over the Sangkan River by Ding Ling

Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan

“In my opinion, this book is not fiction, but read it as anything you like. An average kind of white woman flies off to Australia thinking she’s about to be given some kind of award by the indigenous people. She gets there, and they give her one—only it is not what she expected. In teaching her who they are, they initiate her into the deeper mysteries of life. If this book were a breeze, it would blow you over. It’s even better hearing the author on tape.” -AW

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge by Jeremy Narby

“When rainforest Shamans are asked how they know such an extraordinary amount about medicinal plants, they respond, as if it should be obvious, ‘The plants teach us.’ In this riveting book, anthropologist Jeremy Narby explores a vision he experienced after drinking ayahuasca, the ‘vine of the soul,’ which Shamans have used for healing and to acquire knowledge for thousands of years. He makes an astonishing connection between ancient Shamanistic beliefs and those of modern science.” -AW

Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

My Year of Meats & A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

“Ruth Ozeki’s amazing books lit up my mind and soul for a couple of weeks.  She was such a surprise! I love the Japanese/American-ness of her!” -AW

The Street by Ann Petry

If You Knew Me You Would Care by Zainab Salbi

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide by Ntozake Shange

Loving Her by Anne Allen Shockley
“To my knowledge, Loving Her is the first novel about an interracial lesbian relationship written by a black woman. Viewed as an artistic work, I think the novel fails. But in its exploration of a daring subject boldly shared (and written by a librarian at Fisk University) I think it has immense value. It enables us to see and understand, perhaps for the first time, the choices certain women have made about how they will live their lives, and allows us glimpses at physical intimacies between women that have been, in the past, deliberately ridiculed or obscured.” -AW
The Healing Wisdom of Africa by Malidoma Patrice Some
“This is a book that brought me to my knees in gratitude. So much ancient wisdom that I had assumed lost is to be found here. For those of us of African descent—and who among us is not?—it will generate a gentle healing in just those areas of community, ritual and memory where we’ve felt so orphaned and bereft.” -AW

Poems on Various Subjects by Phillis Wheatley

“We now know that you were not an idiot or a traitor; only a sickly little black girl, snatched from your country and made a slave.” -AW

Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace by Angel Kyodo Williams

“Angel Kyodo Williams is a young black woman who is also an ordained Zen priest. In this remarkable book, she brings a hip and modern eye to the teachings of the Buddha. I was moved by her honesty and great patience in interpreting the dharma: her understanding of suffering and her willingness to aid in the universal effort toward the growth of compassion and joy.” -AW

Native Son by Richard Wright

Collected Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

“I am Malala shines with this young woman’s indomitable spirit and high intelligence.  I fell in love with her father, too, because he demonstrates what we so often are missing in fathers: total love and commitment to his female child.” -AW

(via Alice Walker’s official siteO Magazine, & Alice Walker: A Life)

Books by Alice Walker (full list)

To Hell With Dying (1967)

Once (1968)

The Color Purple (1982)

“I think The Color Purple is so bursting with love, the need for connection, the showing of the need for connection around the globe.” -AW
Categories: Activists Writers

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