the public claiming of formerly secret canons. Tell us what to read at:

The Secret Canon of MIchelle Vider

1. Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh

I read Harriet the Spy when I was nine and thought: YES! I want to write! Except I was nine and not so hot on picking up The Message, so I started a burn book about my classmates. It… did not go well. In the novel and its sequel, The Long Secret (an underappreciated beautiful weirdo of a book), Harriet has this tenacity and knowledge-lust that makes a reader dizzy with the possibility of how much you can know about people, about anything, while still knowing nothing at all.

2. Lady of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Diana L. Paxson

A prequel to The Mists of Avalon where the Lady of Avalon and her lover meet, have some space-time-continuum-shattering sex, die in horrifying Rome-colonizing-Britain circumstances, then renew the cycle in their next lifetimes. I think I loved this book because the central struggle of the story was a woman trying to ~HAVE IT ALL~!! Can she live as the leader of her feminist separatist commune without her romantic relationship compromising and undermining her work? CAN ANYONE?

3. Maurice, E.M. Forster

For the lonely and queer in high school, books are where we go to see we’re not alone. Maurice captures coming-into-your-gayness isolation and longing so well, even though it was written by a wealthy white British guy at the turn of the 20th century who was light years away from my own urban Hispanic Catholic community. While Maurice and his love interest, Clive, ultimately aren’t right for each other, Clive’s awkward bookish overtures speak directly to the awkward kid as she reads a copy of Maurice: “I knew you read the Symposium,” he says, just before he admits, “I love you.” Maurice is all about the secret worlds and canons we build to define ourselves and keep ourselves sane.

4. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien

I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t read Tolkien—for one thing, I met so much of my best friend tier through Tolkien fandom online. Middle Earth changes and grows with us; the answers we demand of its landscape are ones we weren’t capable of asking five, ten years ago. I would make The Silmarillion my secret canon pick. The Silmarillion is Genesis and Exodus, from its serene beginnings to the bloodbaths that shaped the world Frodo saves in Lord of the Rings.

5. The Iliad, Homer (tr. Richmond Lattimore)

The Iliad remains one of those few books that I can open to any page and instantly fall into the story as if I never left. As a writer, the Iliad taught me about immediacy and memory, all the life and history and story that can be contained in a moment.

6. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Speaking of combining immediacy and memory in every scene: daaaaaaaaamn, Mrs Dalloway. Strangely enough, it shares a lot of features with how I envision the Iliad, in that they’re both stories where the events aren’t as important as how the story itself is told. Worlds and characters discovered through the telling of stories.

7. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

Castle is presented as the diary of Cassandra Mortmain, who starts writing to escape the bullshit facade of her family’s quietly suffering genteel poverty. She and her sister fall in love with the Cotton brothers, their new landlords down the road, and money. complicates. everything. Cassandra’s world shows how our circumstances shape our stories, something that more self-indulgent writers writing in vacuums of their own creation forget too often.

8. To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Connie Willis is the only writer allowed to write about time travel. Her novels build a hilarious world of academic bureaucracy around the science/practice of time travel, and To Say Nothing of the Dog is a charming as hell romcom set in that world. The story uses time travel to raise the stakes and showcase the eccentrics who would be crazy enough to study time travel in the first place. So fun. SO FUN.

9. Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford

The story follows Christopher Tietjens, Gentleman, who slogs his way through life being tactless, embarrassing, and full of integrity, but shh no one cares. His wife, Sylvia, and his lover, Valentine, steal every scene in the novel from him. It’s difficult to care about Tietjens’s existential crises when Sylvia and Valentine burst into a scene, each of them clawing at the eyes of the world to get more than Nice Young Ladies are allowed.

10. The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham

What’s magnificent about The Painted Veil are its selfish characters, their poisonous spite, and the heavy, heavy regret of a reconciliation come too late. It hits too close to the worst part of us that, when hurt, lashes out and wounds to kill. (Don’t watch the movie.)

11. Sappho: A New Translation (tr. Mary Barnard)

Translation matters not so much for accuracy, but in the translator bringing that spark she sees in the original into the new work she creates. Barnard’s 1958 translation reads modern, clear, and straightforward, illuminating the vivid scenes in the fragments left to us. Sappho herself? Here: “You may forget but/Let me tell you/this: someone in/some future time/will think of us.”

Michelle Vider lives in Philadelphia. She has a master’s degree in English, but she’s feeling much better, thank you. She tweets here.

Interview with Girl Canon

We have an interview up at TellTell Poetry today!

Now’s a good chance to read what we’re about and submit your personal canons to

The story follows Christopher Tietjens, Gentleman, who slogs his way through life being tactless, embarrassing, and full of integrity, but shh no one cares. His wife, Sylvia, and his lover, Valentine, steal every scene in the novel from him. It’s difficult to care about Tietjens’s existential crises when Sylvia and Valentine burst into a scene, each of them clawing at the eyes of the world to get more than Nice Young Ladies are allowed.

Michelle Vider on Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. Look for her canon this Monday. 

The Girl Canon of Anne M


  1. If You Give a Moose a Muffin – Laura Numeroff (Illustrated by Felicia Bond)
  2. Annie Bananie – Leah Komaiko
  3. Where the Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls
  4. Meet Felicity: An American Girl – Valerie Tripp (Illustrated by Dan Andreasen)
  5. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – Alvin Schwartz
  6. The Defenders of the Dead (Star Wars: Jedi Apprentice, Book 5) – Jude Watson
  7. The Giver – Lois Lowry
  8. Rogue Squadron (Star Wars: X-Wing Series, Book 1) – Michael A. Stackpole
  9. Wraith Squadron (Star Wars: X-Wing Series, Book 5) – Aaron Allston
  10. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  11. A Ring of Endless Light – Madeleine L’Engle
  12. The Crucible – Arthur Miller
  13. Emma – Jane Austen
  14. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  15. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants – Ann Brashares
  16. The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1) – Lemony Snicket
  17. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
  18. The Gate to Women’s Country – Sheri S. Tepper
  19. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling
  20. The Awakening – Kate Chopin
  21. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
  22. Z for Zachariah – Robert C. O’Brien
  23. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
  24. New Collected Poems – Eavan Boland
  25. Gender Trouble – Judith Butler
  26. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer – Riki Wilchins
  27. American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot – Craig Ferguson

Anne M tumbles at 

The Grrrl Canon of Emmanuelle M


A few words about myself: I am a French grrrl, Rookie reader (I found out about you through their writer Laia), working as an intranet editor and writer, and trying to keep writing for myself as well.

  1. Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I was 6 I felt like those were my first ‘grown-up’ books, after devouring all of the Countess of Ségur’s children’s books. I developed a strong attachment to Laura’s family. The books triggered my imagination; they gave me a sense of adventure and freedom in time and space I’ll never forget. Laura Ingalls Wilder made me sure I could be a writer if I wanted to.
  2. Night and Day, Virginia Woolf. While Mrs Dalloway was an aesthetic shock, Day and Night was more of an emotional awakening and is closer to my heart. I sympathised with every single character. More than that, I felt like Woolf was writing about every facet of my personality and every doubt and certitude I had ever had.
  3. Suite française, Irène Némirovsky. The unfinished series is the most relatable depiction of France during WWII I’ve read. Although Némirovsky is best at writing about cruelty (see Le Bal or Ida), her ability to instantaneously digest the turmoil of events Europe was going through at the time and to turn it into an ode to humanity is disarming.
  4. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway. Pure poetry. Every word strikes and stays with you. It was a hard read for me, and not only because English is not my native language, but it made it all the more powerful. As rich as the Odyssey.
  5. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. The epitome of a beautifully crafted, immortally accurate novel about interactions between individuals and communities. Austen’s wit never ceases to amaze me.
  6. The Great Gatsby, Francis Scott Fitzgerald. There is something extremely exotic to me in this novel – both Fitzgerald’s style and Gatsby’s disguise of grandeur are things I do not understand but which fascinate me.
  7. The Seagull, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov’s works (plays and short stories) were of tremendous help during my teenage years. The Seagull, along with The Cherry Orchard, illustrates Imperial Russia as I imagine it and the characters embody that special mix of nobility, ambition and apathy that I love and fear. Konstantin’s anger was an outlet for mine in the middle of that infuriating ‘oblomovism’. Chekhov is sitting on the shoulder of my gods of playwriting: Racine, Shakespeare, Molière, Anouilh, Williams.
  8. Requiem, Anna Akhmatova. I have always associated Akhmatova with Woolf: those were women who felt powerful feelings, wrote powerful words and were not afraid to use the former to nourish the latter.
  9. Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling. A comforting, fantastic yet somehow realistic escape. Rowling invented a complex tree house I can climb anytime I need.
  10. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Never were truer words written about injustice. I had loved books like Pierre et Jean (Guy de Maupassant) or Une page d’amour (Emile Zola) for the display of the same talent.
  11. La Promesse de l’aube, Romain Gary. Gary is part of a group of writers and adventurers I love and admire but don’t want to resemble because of the flimsiness of their sense of hope : Joseph Kessel, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Camus… For some reason I associate their styles and stories. They have clarity and poetry in common. This brutally honest autobiography was my key to their works.
  12. Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, Simone de Beauvoir. After reading this I had no choice but to face the blatant inconsistency between my church and my feminism. I still haven’t solved it though. 
"Rowling invented a complex tree house I can climb anytime I need." The Canon of Emmanuelle M goes up tomorrow.

"Rowling invented a complex tree house I can climb anytime I need." The Canon of Emmanuelle M goes up tomorrow.

The Girl Canon of Carmen Maria Machado

  1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott taught me that girls’ stories are important, and worth telling for many hundreds of pages. 
  2. The Anne of Green Gables & Anne of Avonlea miniseries from the 80s taught me that stubborn, outspoken, bookish girls were wondrous creatures who could do anything they decided to do.
  3. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury taught me about atmosphere and horror. 
  4. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson & The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder taught me how to construct my own worlds (and made me cry).
  5. The Giver by Lois Lowry taught me that the future could be terribly, but not irrevocably, broken.
  6. Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School is Falling Down, & Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger by Louis Sachar taught me about postmodernism and formal conceits.
  7. Tangerine by Edward Bloor taught me that a story’s perfect ending can be horrifying and cruel.

  1. Flowers in the Attic (et al.) by V.C. Andrews taught me that I could write about taboos. 
  2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez taught me that I could write about magic like it was reality, because sometimes that’s the only way to tell the truth. 
  3. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf taught me that I was going to have to push against powerful social forces to make the life I wanted for myself.  
  4. Mama Day by Gloria Naylor taught me to write protagonists with bite and flaws and fire.
  5. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber taught me that feminism was a complex thing that couldn’t be pinned down or pigeonholed. 
  6. Bird by Bird by  Anne Lamott taught me that it was okay to write shitty first (and second, and third) drafts. 
  7. Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton & Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson taught me to write with compassion. This line from Winesburg, Ohio has always stayed with me: ”The knuckles of the doctor’s hands were extraordinarily large. When the hands were closed they looked like clusters of unpainted wooden balls as large as walnuts fastened together by steel rods.”
  8. Livejournal taught me to write every day, no matter what. 
  1. Vox by Nicholson Baker taught me that explicit sex can be joyous, funny, kind, big-hearted, and sexy. 
  2. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro taught me how to tuck horror behind quietness. 
  3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler taught me that plot surprises can be meaningful and not “coy” (an adjective I despise and would obliterate from writing workshops everywhere if I had the power).
  4. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters taught me that lesbians get their own stories, too.
  5. Stranger Things Happen & Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link taught me to not be afraid to break any & all rules for any goddamned reason I please. 
  6. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell taught me that science fiction wasn’t out of my reach. 
  7. The Book Thief byMarkus Zusak taught me the importance of picking the right narrator. 
  8. Weetzie Bat (& sequels) by Francesca Lia Block taught me to write as crazily as my heart wanted, and to let my prose shimmer and spark all over the place. 
  9. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter taught me to blow apart fairytales and myths and use the pieces to build my own stories. 
  10. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore taught me that darkness and humor are excellent bedfellows. 
  11. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino taught me to write with joy. 
Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, AGNI, The American Reader, NPR, Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

Say what you will. This book (and the next two in the series) had a whole clique of 5th and 6th grade girls on edge for a school year. Long before Twitter spoilers, we navigated dangerous and excited lunch hour convos about why the little brother was sick and whether or not incest was ever justified. A BOOK DID THAT.

Chelsea Biondolillo on her first informal book club.

The Secret Canon of Chelsea Biondolillo

With the exception of the last item, I read all of these books before 1999. I’m not saying that the new century has sucked (at all), but that it’s hard to know what the canon is when you’re right in the middle of it happening. Ask me in another fifteen years. I’ll have more to add.
1. Diane diPrima: Dinners & Nightmares
Beatnik cool. Except, what I remember most is how, in telling stories of painting her room, or having a party, she admitted to worrying about being cool. No one had ever done that outside of Judy Blume books. I worried about that every day—and here was this cool ass woman in an otherwise all boys club (which I was just starting to sense would be The Club forever) having doubts and worries and making those doubts and worries into beautiful writing. “damn you / lovely // you come and go / like rivers / which makes it hard / on rocks”

2. Galway Kinnell: Book of Nightmares
These poems ring inside of me often. “here is the world. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.” is a beat my pulse follows. 

3. Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I have problems with this book, but not the same that some people do (I’m not worried about the nonexistence of the bloody-pawed cat, for example). They are personal problems, not literary. Mostly though, Dillard’s sense of humor enchants me, as does her wonder. She made me want to write about nature. 

4. Kenneth Patchen: Journal of Albion Moonlight
Talk about floored. The first time I read this book, I was shocked and appalled and then I was forever changed. YOU CAN DO THAT IN A BOOK? Yes, Patchen says (and later, Plascencia and Danielewski would agree). My copy is so taped and torn and fragile that I can’t even read it anymore.

5. V.C. Andrews: Flowers in the Attic
Say what you will. This book (and the next two in the series) had a whole clique of 5th and 6th grade girls on edge for a school year. Long before Twitter spoilers, we navigated dangerous and excited lunch hour convos about why the little brother was sick and whether or not incest was ever justified. A BOOK DID THAT.
6. JD Salinger: Nine Stories
Love every one of them. Also Franny & Zooey, but if I had to choose, the little boy in the dinghy and that day for bananafish tip the scales. 

7. Salman Rushdie: The Moor’s Last Sigh
Rushdie came to me by way of scandal. I read the Satanic Verses because I wanted to know how a book could be a death sentence. I was disappointed in that regard, because it didn’t seem so revolutionary of a book (because in the 90s I couldn’t be accused of having any worldview/knowledge). But Rushdie’s prose was captivated me the way Vonnegut and Nabokov’s once had. He was funny. He was artful. He was crafty. When I read the Moor’s Last Sigh, an epic tale of a matriarchal line that all contributed to the ruination of the narrator-boy-child, I fell fully and truly in love.

8. Edward Abbey: Desert Solitaire
Wherein I learned that you can be an asshole curmudgeon if you need to (tied with Mark Twain’s Letters From Earth), because sometimes human beings are just jerks.

9. Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
This book came to me the first time I had burned out on fiction. I was an undergrad, maybe? I had spent my whole childhood reading reading reading and now I was in art school—what could words still give me, I thought. The future is image, I thought. Then this book came along and hit me in the guts with quiet lonely.

10. Eula Biss: Notes from No Man’s Land
I wanted to make note of a book that lately blew me away. It isn’t perfect, but Biss does something with her discussion of race that I want to do with ecology and conservation, which is, write about it without having resolved all my feelings and questions and concerns. I want to write in a way that opens doors up, not closes them with final authority.

The Secret Canon of Zola Acker


  1. The Gift - Lewis Hyde 
    Originally subtitled “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property” this book, first published in 1983, has since been republished with the more benign subtitle “Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World”

  2. Kindred - Octavia Butler 
    This novel is about slavery, time travel, and interracial relationships. If I taught high-school English I would want to teach this book. 

  3. Deliver Me From Nowhere - Tennessee Jones 
    A book of short stories themed around Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska that touches on masculinity in various forms.

  4. Kathy Goes to Haiti - Kathy Acker
    Kathy Acker’s language tends to be hallucinogenic and hyper-sexual, but this book also includes simple narrative moments. The combination feels true and raw. And there’s voodoo. 

  5. Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson
    Fascinating memoir of the life and mind of this great writer. 

  6. Winesburg, OH - Sherwood Anderson 
    "It is my own language, limited as it is. I will have to learn to work with it. There was a kind of poetry I was seeking in my prose, word to be laid against word in just a certain way, a kind of word color, a march of words and sentences, the color to be squeezed out of simple words, simple sentence construction." - Sherwood Anderson 

  7. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination - Toni Morrison
    A short, accessible, and important book of literary theory.   

  8. Go Ask Alice - Anonymous 
    A fake memoir of a young, drug addicted girl written to scare kids about drugs, this book just made me want to do drugs. Later I would discover reading about drugs was more interesting than doing them, and fake memoirs were (sometimes) more interesting than real ones. 

  9. Reading Like a Writer - Francine Prose 
    I learned SO MUCH by reading this book. 

  10. The BUST Guide to the New Girl Order - edited by Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stoller
    I learned about third-wave feminism by reading this book as a teenager.