When I was young, my mom gave me a red, white and blue bumper sticker that said, “Readers are Leaders.” While pictures of boy bands, Tom Cruise in Top Gun, and other childhood obsessions came and went throughout the years, that slogan adorned my bulletin board until I left for college. Simply put, in a world where we are incessantly bombarded with mind-numbing platitudes, images, jingles, and catchphrases, this simple, yet powerful, statement resonates throughout the ages.

Because the written word, when approached with reverence and curiosity, can and will change minds, hearts, and lives, Midtown Reader hosts its monthly Read to Lead Series where people with diverse backgrounds come together to discuss books, exchange ideas, and engage in thoughtful dialogue about issues that impact us both individually and collectively.

Last week, Midtown Reader welcomed four local women of distinction for its most recent Read to Lead Series:

  • Katrina Rolle, President of United Way of the Big Bend

  • Jennifer Portman, News Director of the Tallahassee Democrat

  • Marilynn Wills, former President of the League of Women Voters of Florida

  • Ruth Baumann, Managing Editor of The Pinch Literary Journal and poet

Despite their varied backgrounds and unique professional endeavors, each woman loved to read at an early age and shared delightful memories of visits to the library with grandparents or hours after school immersed in a book. In addition, reading was clearly part of the early bonds they developed with their families; in fact, a couple of them spent their childhoods immersed in their families’ prized collections of encyclopedias, embracing both the knowledge and the challenges that these volumes delivered to their living rooms. Not surprisingly, reading provided these women with an early avenue for emotional expression as well as a path of exploration and discovery that may not have otherwise existed for these voracious young minds.

As their lives have unfolded, their reading selections have also evolved, and several of them now find themselves drawn to non-fiction that explores the human experience and brings research to life through exquisite detail. They read to find understanding and overcome life’s obstacles; explore issues like the justice system, homelessness or prejudice; or revel in authors’ introspective integrity and authenticity.

This month’s community forum ended with a lively discussion among the panelists and audience about feminism and its evolving role in the social and economic fabric of our community. Some remembered an era where women were simply trying to overcome the institutionalized assumption that men were superior while others discussed whether the label of “feminism” was even necessary to empower women in today’s society. After examining various definitions of and the applicability of feminism in their workplaces, their personal lives, and their community, the participants agreed that equity will be achieved when everybody has the opportunity to pursue the perfect expression of themselves without fear of discrimination or ostracization.

Throughout the discussion, each panelist discussed books that have impacted their lives; here are some for your consideration:

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

One panelist still owns her original copy of this classic!

It's been 150 years since Lewis Carroll introduced Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the story which has become a favorite of children and adults the world over. Lose yourself in Alice's story as she tumbles down the rabbit hole, swims through her own pool of tears, and finds herself in a rather curious place called Wonderland. There, she'll encounter the frantic White Rabbit, have a frustrating conversation with an eccentric caterpillar, and play croquet with the hot-headed Queen of Hearts.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank

This timeless book introduced our panelists to evil of incomprehensible dimensions and irrevocably changed their perspectives of the world.

The classic text of the diary Anne Frank kept during the two years she and her family hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic is a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit.

Madame Curie: A Biography by Eve Curie, Vincent Sheean

Marie Curie is a woman who changed the face of science for all time—not just because of her discovery of and work with the radioactive element Radium—but because of her incredible strides in the male dominated world of laboratory science at the turn of the 19th century.

Now, here is a biography written by her daughter Eve that illuminates her life away from the lab and shares her humanity, in a way that can only be viewed and admired from a child who paints a portrait of a caring mother and a devoted, passionate wife.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

This book continues to resonate for the panelists because it provides a stark narrative of overcoming life’s struggles.

First published in 1939, Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930’s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Their trials and repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots create a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man's fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman's stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America. At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck's powerful landmark novel is perhaps the most American of American Classics.

Eleanor & Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship, Based on Eleanor Roosevelt's Private Papers, Joseph P. Lash

In his extraordinary biography of the major political couple of the twentieth century, Joseph P. Lash reconstructs from Eleanor Roosevelt's personal papers her early life and four-decade marriage to the four-time president who brought America back from the Great Depression and helped to win World War II. The result is an intimate look at the vibrant private and public worlds of two incomparable people.

“A biography in the grand manner. Extraordinarily readable...Splendidly written from start to finish.”—Richard Rover

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

One of the most important works of twentieth-century American literature, Zora Neale Hurston's beloved 1937 classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an enduring Southern love story sparkling with wit, beauty, and heartfelt wisdom. Told in the captivating voice of a woman who refuses to live in sorrow, bitterness, fear, or foolish romantic dreams, it is the story of fair-skinned, fiercely independent Janie Crawford, and her evolving selfhood through three marriages and a life marked by poverty, trials, and purpose. A true literary wonder, Hurston's masterwork remains as relevant and affecting today as when it was first published--perhaps the most widely read and highly regarded novel in the entire canon of African American literature.

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World, Linda Hirshman

The panelists agreed that this book provides a good road map for learning to listen, to disagree agreeably, and to support other women.

The relationship between Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—Republican and Democrat, Christian and Jew, western rancher's daughter and Brooklyn girl—transcends party, religion, region, and culture. Strengthened by each other's presence, these groundbreaking judges, the first and second women to serve on the highest court in the land, have transformed the Constitution and America itself, making it a more equal place for all women.

Linda Hirshman's dual biography includes revealing stories of how these trailblazers fought for their own recognition in a male-dominated profession—battles that would ultimately benefit every American woman. She also makes clear how these two justices have shaped the legal framework of modern feminism, including employment discrimination, abortion, affirmative action, sexual harassment, and many other issues crucial to women's lives. Sisters in Law combines legal detail with warm personal anecdotes that bring these very different women into focus as never before.

Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

The panelists applauded this classic for its unabashed authenticity and courageous introspection.

“[This book],” Baldwin said, "is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else." Go Tell It on the Mountain, originally published in 1953, is Baldwin's first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy's discovery one Saturday in March of 1935 of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a Pentecostal storefront church in Harlem. Baldwin's rendering of his protagonist's spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle toward self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and the way Americans understand themselves.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

According to one of the panelists at last week’s Read to Lead Series, all women should read this book.

In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....

Rachel & Her Children: Homeless Families in America, Jonathan Kozol

This is the story that jolted the conscience of the nation when it first appeared in The New Yorker and changed one panelist’s perspective of homelessness in Tallahassee and the systemic failures that perpetuate generational poverty.

Jonathan Kozol is one of America s most forceful and eloquent observers of the intersection of race, poverty, and education. First published in 1988 and based on the months the author spent among America s homeless, Rachel and Her Children is an unforgettable record of the desperate voices of men, women, and especially children caught up in a nightmarish situation that tears at the hearts of readers. With record numbers of homeless children and adults flooding the nation’s shelters, Rachel and Her Children offers a look at homelessness that resonates even louder today.

"A searing indictment of a society that has largely chosen to look the other way...One would need a heart of stone not to be moved.”—New York Times

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

The panelists engaged in an interesting discussion about the prison system and ways that our current and future leaders could eradicate the racism that pervades the system.

Once in a great while a book comes along that changes the way we see the world and helps to fuel a nationwide social movement. The New Jim Crow is such a book. With dazzling candor, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that "we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it." By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control--relegating millions to a permanent second-class status--even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness. In the words of Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, this book is a "call to action."

Called "stunning" by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis, "invaluable" by the Daily Kos, "explosive" by Kirkus, and "profoundly necessary" by the Miami Herald, The New Jim Crow is a must-read for all people of conscience.

A Night to Remember: The Classic Account of the Final Hours of the Titanic, Walter Lord

According to one panelist at the Read to Lead event, she’s read and re-read this book several times, and each time she finds new issues that resonate with where she is in her life.

First published in 1955, A Night to Remember remains a completely riveting account of the Titanic's fatal collision and the behavior of the passengers and crew, both noble and ignominious. Some sacrificed their lives, while others fought like animals for their own survival. Wives beseeched husbands to join them in lifeboats; gentlemen went taut-lipped to their deaths in full evening dress; and hundreds of steerage passengers, trapped below decks, sought help in vain.