Playing to Win: The Reading Women Challenge
Updated: Mar 22
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