In honor of the April 15 launch of the fourth annual STEP contest, two of the most recent winners, Robin Farmer (Malcolm & Me) and Veena Rao (Purple Lotus), are joining our brand-new Ten Book Challenge to share their “Book-It List”—a book bucket list with 10 of their most beloved and memorable reads—from the books with their favorite covers and best opening lines, to the reads they gift and the bookstores they frequent.

What is STEP, you may ask? In 2018 She Writes Press and SparkPress, also part of the SparkPoing Studio family, launched the contest to address the publishing industry’s lack of BIPOC authors head on. The She Writes Press and SparkPress Toward Equality in Publishing (STEP) contest offers publishing packages to two female authors, to support inclusivity and fortify the imprints’ mission to give voice to women writers. This year marks the fourth annual contest launch, with submissions open April 15, 2021 through July 5, 2021. Visit our STEP contest landing page for details.

Robin Farmer’s YA read Malcolm & Me, SparkPress Fall 2020 winner

Malcolm and Me is a coming-of-age exploration of the elusive truths in our personal and national narrative, based on the adolescent trauma of a Black Catholic schoolgirl in Philadelphia. It’s about a young teen confronting racism and the hypocrisy that surrounds her, within her school, her family, her community, and the Oval Office as Watergate unfolds. Throughout, the teen reads The Autobiography of Malcolm X drawing parallels between herself and Malcolm X as a role model. Read on to learn about the books that shaped her writing inspiration.


The book  . . .

I last bought/am currently reading: David Tung Can’t have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College by Ed Lin

I recommend to everyone: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

That was my favorite read last year, because: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, because it inspired me to write another novel

Whose author I would love to have lunch with: Elaine Welteroth (More than Enough)

That made me realize language had power: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I’d like to see adapted to the screen: Malcolm and Me

That made me laugh out loud—or cry—while reading it: Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

I think has the most gorgeous cover: Vintage Black Glamour by Nichelle Gainor

With the best opening line: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithewaite

Bookstore that I frequent/is my favorite: Chop Suey Books

Bonus . . . Book I last wrote a blurb for: Truth Like Oil by Connie Biewald

Veena Rao’s novel Purple Lotus, She Writes Press Fall 2020 winner

Purple Lotus, which centers on Tara Raj, an immigrant Indian woman in the American South, who finds the courage to walk out of an abusive arranged marriage and marry again for love, an act of self-determination that makes her an outcast in her patriarchal community. She must then face her lifelong fear of rejection to find her voice and defend her name. Purple Lotus takes a close, visceral look at a woman’s journey through heartbreak, obstacles and self-realization, while questioning misogynistic belief-systems. Read on to learn about the books that changed her life.


The book  . . .

I last bought/am currently readingLouisiana Catch by Sweta Srivastava Vikram

I recommend to everyone: Wendy Voorsanger’s Prospects of a Woman, told from the point of view of a fiercely independent woman who carves a life out for herself in the California gold rush, is fascinating and educational in equal measures. Apart from its historical detail, what kept me glued to the book was its feisty heroine Elizabeth Parker, who must reinvent herself again and again as she navigates a life of extreme poverty, a doomed marriage and forbidden love.

That was my favorite read last year, because: Seven by Farzana Doctor is a sensitively told story of a woman who travels to India to research the legend of her great-great-grandfather, but unexpectedly discovers, and must confront, a shocking truth about her own past. Crafted around the theme of female genital mutilation (FGM), the novel is insightful, educational and deeply engrossing.

 Whose author I would love to have lunch with: Finding Venerable Mother (Cindy Rasicot)

 That made me realize language had powerThe God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

 I’d like to see adapted to the screenMurder in Old Bombay by Nev March

 That made me laugh out loud—or cry—while reading it: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini made me weep copiously for the two female protagonists, Mariam and Laila, as they navigate life in a patriarchal, war-torn Afghan society.

 I think has the most gorgeous coverThe cover of my novel, Purple Lotus, designed by the uber-talented Brigid Pearson.

 With the best opening line“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” – The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

 Bookstore that I frequent/is my favorite: Charis Books & More, the first independently owned feminist bookstore in the country.

Bonus: The book(s) that made me want to write: The Nancy Drew series. At 12, I was so fascinated with the American teen detective that I decided I would grow up to become a mystery writer. In my early teens, Agatha Christie’s brilliantly crafted murder mysteries had the same effect on me.