Why She Wrote: A Graphic History of the Lives, Inspiration, and Influence Behind the Pens of Classic Women Writers by Lauren Burke, Hannah K. Chapman, and Kaley Bales

My Rating: 4 stars

Many thanks to Chronicle Books and NetGalley for the ARC. This book is being released today, April 20 2021!

Lately I’ve noticed an influx of graphic fiction and nonfiction about classic women writers, and I am loving it. Why She Wrote is a great addition to the genre. The book covers eighteen British and American writers from the 18th through the early 20th century. For each author, there is a brief biographical overview with a discussion of her influences and a short comic depicting scenes from her life. Even though many read Peter Rabbit and The Secret Garden as children or Jane Eyre and Frankenstein in high school, we usually don’t learn much about the authors themselves. This book is a fun way to learn a bit about their lives. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety included; I thought most of the information would be things I already knew, but I was quite wrong. There are some of the typical authors you expect: the Brontës, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, etc. But they also include lesser known writers who don’t usually get as much attention, like Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. There were even some I’d never heard of who I now need to check out.

Bales’ art is, of course, the highlight of the whole work. She gives each of the authors a distinct look and draws on real life depictions of them. They are immediately recognizable as themselves, and she didn’t try to make them more beautiful or elegant than they actually were. And every panel is lovely. I did feel there was a bit of a range of quality for the actual stories within the comics. Some I adored, particularly Beatrix Potter’s and Frances Hodgson’s Burnett’s; their comics focus on the issues they had copyrighting their books. Frances Burney’s about her struggle with breast cancer is also excellent. However, others felt quite short or not especially deep. I wanted a bit more from the comics on Ann Radcliffe and Sui Sin Far.

The organization was an interesting choice that I liked in some ways and disliked in others. Instead of organizing it chronologically, Burke and Chapman did it thematically. The book is broken into six sections with three authors in each. Some of the titles are “The Horror of the Everyday,” “Activism as Art,” and “Protection and Profit.” On one hand, I love that this allows the authors and readers to make connections between writers who are on different ends of time or who write in different genres. I would never have thought to make any connection between the lives of Sui Sin Far, George Eliot, and Anne Brontë on my own. However, it does feel a little disjointed at times because it jumps back and forth in the timeline, and each author’s section is so short that it contributes to that feeling.

Overall, Why She Wrote is an enjoyable and fun way to learn more about some of the world’s most famous women writers. I’m not sure what Burke, Chapman, and Bales intend, but I would love to see this made into a series. There are so many women writers to go!

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