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Playing to Win: The Reading Women Challenge

Updated: Mar 22

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As a kid I was always up for a challenge, confident in my ability even if untested before. This perpetual striving pervaded my reading life.

Every summer I tracked the number of minutes I read each day and submitted my reading tracker upon returning to school in the fall. Mrs. DeSalvo presented each of us with a T-shirt and a certificate for our participation. (I don’t know why she bothered with the certificates. What kid is interested in a piece of paper?) More importantly I wanted to hear her announce the winners, the students who read the most. Because every year I loved hearing my name, of course!

In fifth grade, the final year of summer reading program glory, I was horrified to hear my name in second place, ousted by Mike Fitzpatrick (not his real name). How had I let the gold escape me? I made up for it by giving Mike hell in gym class and taking first place in the turkey trot before Thanksgiving break.

Later in life at the piano I learned that the value of competition is not in winning but in how a competition drives a person to achieve more than they would otherwise. The value of competition is to motivate.

“Think of how much better your playing is because of preparing for this contest,” Mrs. Brown would point out after a great piano performance, albeit one that garnered no accolades (not even a certificate).

As an adult, I still love to win. But when I bring that desire to my reading life today, I take what Mrs. Brown taught me, and add to it the idea of competing against myself instead of other people.

When I make reading a sport, to win doesn’t mean reading more than anyone else. It means reading books that enrich my life and bring me joy.

This is where reading challenges come in. They motivate me to read more books and more broadly. It’s not about winning per se, but about what the challenge inspires me to accomplish.

Last year I only crossed the finish line for one of the three challenges I joined. That act of entering the race led me to books I loved but would never otherwise have encountered.

This year I’m entering five reading challenges. In reaching to complete all of them, I’m sure to find great books that I’ll enjoy and learn from.

The most demanding challenge is the Reading Women Challenge. First, as its name suggests, all books for this challenge must be written by women. Second, it has 24 categories plus four bonus categories, more than double the number for each of the other reading challenges in which I’m participating. Finally, each category has multiple components, i.e. “a thriller in translation.” The book is not just a thriller, not just a book in translation, but both. And don’t forget, it has to be written by a woman, too!

The RWC prods me to go beyond the books I’m naturally drawn to and hunt for books I wouldn’t otherwise discover. Throughout the year the Reading Women Podcast interviews authors and recommend books that fit the challenge. They also have helpful discussion threads on their Goodreads group page in which readers can exchange suggestions for each category. The discussions support not only my desire to read broadly, but also my desire to connect with other readers. The RWC, though demanding, is rewarding too.

Check out the list of categories below and see what appeals to you. Create your own challenge from a subset of categories if committing to all is too daunting. If the list motivates you to read even one book, you win!

The 2021 Reading Women Challenge

1) A Book Longlisted for the JCB Prize

2) An Author from Eastern Europe

3) A Book About Incarceration

4) A Cookbook by a Woman of Color

5) A Book with a Protagonist Older than 50

6) A Book by a South American Author in Translation

7) Reread a Favorite Book

8) A Memoir by an Indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal Woman

9) A Book by a Neurodivergent Author

10) A Crime Novel or Thriller in Translation

11) A Book About the Natural World

12) A Young Adult Novel by a Latinx Author

13) A Poetry Collection by a Black Woman

14) A Book with a Biracial Protagonist

15) A Muslim Middle Grade Novel

16) A Book Featuring a Queer Love Story

17) About a Woman in Politics

18) A Book with a Rural Setting

19) A Book with a Cover Designed by a Woman

20) A Book by an Arab Author in Translation

21) A Book by a Trans Author

22) A Fantasy Novel by an Asian Author

23) A Nonfiction Book Focused on Social Justice

24) A Short Story Collection by a Caribbean Author


25) A Book by Alexis Wright

26) A Book by Tsitsi Dangarembga

27) A Book by Leila Aboulela

28) A Book by Yoko Ogawa

What books are you challenging yourself to read this year? Share in the comments!

Allie sitting on stairs with a picture book smiling at the camera, wearing a Christmas vest over an off white long sleeved shirt
9-year-old me with a book wearing a Christmas vest and Christmas teddy bear earrings



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