15 Facts About Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees

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A tale of love and loss, sisterhood and trauma, Sue Monk Kidd's 2002 novel The Secret Life of Bees has won the hearts of millions of readers around the world. But few know the full truth behind this inspirational novel.

1. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES IS A BILDUNGSROMAN.

A bildungsroman is a novel that charts the moral or psychological growth of its protagonist. It's also known as a coming-of-age story. In this case, Kidd's novel follows the journey of its narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Lily Melissa Owens. After escaping her abusive father T. Ray, Lily finds solace with the beekeeping Boatwright sisters, and confronts the terrible truth about her mother's death.

2. THE NOVEL TACKLES RACE RELATIONS IN THE 1960S.

Set in South Carolina during the civil rights movement, The Secret Life of Bees presents examples of overt racism. In one scene, a trio of white men harasses Lily's mother-figure Rosaleen Daise, who is black. At the same time, the novel challenges pernicious racial stereotypes. Before meeting the Boatwrights, Lily, who is white, assumes all black women are uneducated laborers or maids like Rosaleen. Through her time with the sisters, who are accomplished business owners, the novel's heroine recognizes her own prejudices, and grows to realize her ignorance.

3. ASPECTS OF LILY'S CHILDHOOD MIRRORED KIDD'S OWN.

Upon the novel's 10th anniversary, Kidd offered a long list of autobiographical elements that can be found within The Secret Life of Bees. "Both Lily and I were adolescents during the summer of 1964, and like Lily, I was powerfully affected by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the racial unrest that fomented during those hot, volatile months," she wrote on her website. "I, too, had an African-American caretaker. I, too, wanted to be a writer ... Lily and I created fallout shelter models for our 7th-grade science projects and wrote papers called 'My Philosophy of Life' before either of us were old enough to have a philosophy." Kidd clarifies, however, that she did not lose her mother when she was a child and her father was "nothing like T. Ray."

4. KIDD VISITED HONEYHOUSES AND BEEHIVES WHEN SHE WAS WRITING THE NOVEL.

"Some of those scenes where Lily is experiencing that rush of feeling and emotion when the bees come swirling out of their hives, I could never have gotten that from a book," the author told BookPage. "The fear and delight of all that and the sounds of it … the way your feet stick to the floor in a honeyhouse … the senses are alive in all of that experience."

5. BEES WERE A BIG PART OF KIDD'S CHILDHOOD.

In one way, Kidd lived in a honeyhouse of her own. "When I was growing up, bees lived inside a wall of our house, an entire hive-full of them—that is to say, 50,000 or so. They lived with us, not for a summer or two, but for 18 years," Kidd wrote on her website. "The room vibrated with bee hum. At times, the whole house seemed to hum. I remember my mother cleaning up the honey that leaked from the cracks and made tiny puddles on the floor. Being a good Southern family, we normalized the situation and went on with our lives."

6. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS KIDD'S FIRST NOVEL, BUT NOT HER FIRST BOOK.

Ahead of The Secret Life of Bees, the Georgia-born author wrote three books about aspects of Christianity: God's Joyful Surprise (1988), When The Heart Waits (1990), and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996). It wasn’t until she was in her forties that Kidd shifted her focus to fiction, beginning with short stories. The Secret Life of Bees came out in 2002, when Kidd was 53 years old.

7. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES HAS A SPIRITUAL CONNECTION TO KIDD'S EARLIER BOOKS.

The novel includes Christian iconography, notably the Black Madonna that adorns the Boatwrights' honey jars. Its coming-of-age plot also touches on spiritual awakening. As Kidd said in the 2002 interview with BookPage, "I think of it as something deeper and more profound happening to [Lily] at the level of soul, and I wanted her to have a real transformation and a real awakening … to this other realm."

8. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES'S MEMORABLE MARY FIGUREHEAD WAS BASED ON A REAL ONE IN A MUSEUM.

In the novel, a religious service is held before a statue called Black Mary or Our Lady of Chains, which is the figurehead of a ship that carries a great significance to the Daughters of Mary, a group of women who follow a religion invented by August Boatwright. Kidd had seen a similar figurehead while visiting a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. "The day that I discovered her," Kidd said, "I was totally captivated by … the powerful imagery of this [figurehead] Mary that was surfacing from the deep, washing up from the deep, onto the shores of consciousness, so to speak."

9. THE BOATWRIGHT SISTERS REPRESENT A CELEBRATION OF FEMALE FRIENDSHIP AND SORORITY.

On her website, Kidd tells the story of how she came up with the Boatwright sisters' characters and setting. She had woken up in the middle of the night thinking about where Rosaleen and Lily were going to end up after escaping T. Ray. She picked up a selection of photos that she had hoped would spark creativity. "My eyes wandered back and forth between pictures of three African-American women, an uproariously pink house, a cloud of bees, and a black Mary, and suddenly, it fell in one unbroken piece into my head," she wrote. "My two runaways would escape to the home of three black sisters, who live in a pink house, keep bees, and revere a black Mary. This sudden revelation may have happened in part because down deep I wanted a way to write about the strength, wisdom, and bonds of women."

10. KIDD WAS INSPIRED BY TWO CLASSICS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.

The Secret Life of Bees won applause for its insightful look into the inner lives of its female characters. It may be no surprise that its author says reading the groundbreaking feminist novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published in 1899, made a big impact on her. Kidd also cites Henry David Thoreau's Walden, the 1854 transcendentalist treatise on simplicity and self-reliance. When she read each book, Kidd told Scholastic, "I would say they were turning points in my life, but also I can look back and say they affected me deeply as a writer."

11. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS A RUNAWAY HIT.

The novel spent more than two-and-a-half years on The New York Times bestseller list and more than 8 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide. It has also been translated into 36 languages.

12. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES ALSO EARNED CRITICAL ACCLAIM.

Many reviewers praised Kidd's beautifully rendered characters and setting. "Lily is a wonderfully petulant and self-absorbed adolescent, and Kidd deftly portrays her sense of injustice as it expands to accommodate broader social evils," The New York Times Book Review wrote. "August and her sisters, June and May, are no mere vehicles for Lily's salvation; they are individuals as fully imagined as the sweltering, kudzu-carpeted landscape that surrounds them."

In deeming the novel "buzz-worthy," People wrote, "populated with rich, believable characters and propelled by a swiftly paced plot, this debut novel is a cut above most coming-of-age tales."

The Secret Life of Bees was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women's Prize for Fiction) in 2002, and won the American Booksellers Association's Book Sense Paperback of the Year award in 2004.

13. THE NOVEL WAS MADE INTO A STAR-STUDDED MOVIE.

Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed Love & Basketball and other features, adapted The Secret Life Of Bees into a period drama. The cast included Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, Oscar nominees Queen Latifah and Sophie Okonedo, multiple Grammy winner Alicia Keys, and Dakota Fanning as Lily.

Kidd visited the film set in a tiny North Carolina town and marveled at how every detail of the production was just as she had imagined it. But months later, when she sat down in the movie theater to watch the film for the first time, she felt nervous. "I had no idea what I would see. I’d glibly said that handing over my novel to Hollywood had seemed like leaping out of an airplane, but sitting there waiting for the film to begin, it really did seem that way," Kidd wrote on her website. "The parachute opened, thankfully, and the whole thing floated rather nicely to earth."

The movie earned a People's Choice Award for Favorite Dramatic Movie and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.

14. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES HAS BEEN ADAPTED INTO A STAGE MUSICAL.

As part of Vassar College's Powerhouse Theater's summer season in 2017, the college and New York Stage and Film presented a workshop production of The Secret Life of Bees as a musical, which starred Orange is the New Black standout Uzo Aduba in the role of Rosaleen. The show featured music from Tony winner Duncan Sheik and a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage.

15. KIDD REALIZED THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS BIG WHEN IT WAS FEATURED ON JEOPARDY!.

Under the category "Women Writers," the long-running quiz show offered this answer: “Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is about these insects.” Kidd recalled that moment on her website: "I blinked at the television. Finally, I came to life and shouted, 'What are bees?' Fortunately, the contestant did not need my help."

26 Amazing Books by LGBTQ+ Authors You Should Add to Your Bookshelf

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iStock/Mitshu

With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots coming up on June 28, it seems like the entire country is celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride. But what happens on July 1, when all the rainbow logos and flags get put away for the year? Don't worry—we've got a list of incredible books by LGBTQ+ authors to keep you occupied all year long. Like the queer community itself, this reading list is diverse and exciting, representing a wide variety of genres, time periods, and identities. Here are 26 great books to add to your bookshelf.

1. Fingersmith // Sarah Waters

The cover of 'Fingersmith'
Riverhead Books

Sarah Waters is the reigning queen of lesbian historical mysteries, and Fingersmith is her answer to Oliver Twist—only with more, well, twists. So-called "genre" stories rarely get recognized for major literary prizes, but Fingersmith not only won the Crime Writers Association's 2002 Historical Dagger award, and it was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year.

Find it: Amazon

2. Eighty-Sixed // David Feinberg

The cover of 'Eighty-Sixed'
Grove Press

In the last few years, a host of historical novels have delved into the first wave of the AIDS crisis, from Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers to Joseph Cassara's House of Impossible Beauties. But no retrospective look captures the unknowability of the queer community's sudden descent into the plague years as well as David Feinberg's seminal Eighty-Sixed, which blends humor, fear, loss, and anger into a genuinely fun—if incredibly harrowing and sad—chronicle of the 1980s.

Find it: Amazon

3. Stone Butch Blues // Leslie Feinberg

The cover of 'Stone Butch Blues'
Alyson Books

Winner of the 1994 Stonewall Book Award, Stone Butch Blues is one of the earliest American novels told from the point of view of a genderqueer, trans-masculine person—a “stone butch,” in the parlance of the 1970s (when the majority of the book is set). Leslie Feinberg’s last words were “remember me as a revolutionary Communist,” and in that spirit, the 20th-anniversary edition of the book is free to download on hir website. (Feinberg used the pronouns ze/hir.)

Find it: Amazon

4. [insert] Boy // Danez Smith

The cover of '[insert] Boy'
YesYes Books

This first poetry collection from queer, black, nonbinary Midwesterner Danez Smith shows that the best spoken word poetry can also light up the page. Showing the true breadth of their talent and appeal, in the years since [insert] Boy (2015) was published, Smith has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and won a number of awards, including a nomination for the National Book Award for their 2017 collection Don't Call Us Dead.

Find it: Amazon

5. I’ve Got a Time Bomb // Sybil Lamb

The cover of 'I've Got a Time Bomb'
Topside Press

In this whacked-out road novel, Sybil Lamb borrows deeply from her own experiences as an underground, always-on-the-move, crust punk trans artist—including the time she was beaten and left for dead after a gay wedding in New Orleans, causing her permanent brain damage. The result is surreal and disturbing, yet somehow still hopeful.

Find it: Amazon

6. The Color Purple // Alice Walker

The cover of 'The Color Purple'
Open Road Media

The Color Purple is a timeless American classic that has won accolades in print, on film, and on the Broadway stage. Yet it's not often recognized for the queer sexuality and unconventional family structures at its heart. If you haven’t read this book since it was assigned to you in school, come back to it with adult eyes to find a beautiful story of queer resilience.

Find it: Amazon

7. Sketchtasy // Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The cover of 'Sketchtasy'
Arsenal Pulp Press

Young queer people might be prone to wax nostalgic about the 1990s (as many of us do). But Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s third novel, Sketchtasy, presents a different perspective on the decade, delving into the dangerous and confusing side of being a young queer outsider in Boston, America’s most parochial city, in the mid-1990s.

Find it: Amazon

8. I, the Divine // Rabih Alameddine

The cover of 'I, the Divine'
W. W. Norton & Company

Rabih Alameddine’s sumptuous prose would make a to-do list mesmerizing, but the real delight of I, the Divine is its experimental structure: The book takes the form of a series of attempted first chapters of the memoir of its protagonist. Alameddine is a master of using nonlinear forms to build powerful and unexpected narratives, and I, the Divine is one of his best.

Find it: Amazon

9. Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga // Michael McDowell

The cover of 'Blackwater'
Valancourt Books

Michael McDowell was only 49 years old when he died of AIDS in 1999, but he was already the “finest writer of paperback originals in America today,” as Stephen King put it. Although you may not know his name, you almost certainly know some of his writing, such as the script for Beetlejuice. Blackwater is McDowell’s six-part serial Southern gothic horror epic, which follows decades of one family’s haunted life along the Perdido River in Alabama.

Find it: Amazon

10. We the Animals // Justin Torres

The cover of 'We the Animals'
Mariner Books

Justin Torres’s loosely autobiographical first novel follows three brothers growing up in upstate New York in the 1980s in a family that is at turns loving and violent. A beautiful coming-of-age story about being queer, brown, and working class, Torres fills his pages with gorgeous sentences that linger in your mouth, like, “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

Find it: Amazon

11. Outline of My Lover // Douglas Martin

The cover of 'Outline of My Lover'
Soft Skull Press

Douglas Martin's exquisite, short, experimental roman a clef shines a queer light in an unexpected place: the indie music scene of Athens, Georgia, circa the late 1980s and early 1990s. Following a fey young man's limerent crush on a closeted rock star, Outline of My Lover was published by Soft Skull Press, a New York City underground institution whose earliest books were printed on pirated Kinko's copiers.

Find it: Amazon

12. This Bridge Called My Back // Cherrie Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua

The cover of 'This Bridge Called My Back'
SUNY Press

If you love the concept of intersectionality, This Bridge Called My Back is the throwback read you need. Combining everything from poetry to memoir to theory, this slim anthology is one of the ur-texts that brought an explicitly anti-racist, women-of-color-centered, feminist lens to queer studies—without being so full of academic jargon you’ll want to throw it across the room.

Find it: Amazon

13. Conflict Is Not Abuse // Sarah Schulman

The cover of 'Conflict Is Not Abuse'
Arsenal Pulp

Sarah Schulman is one of the queer community's fiercest public intellectuals, with a critical eye that has tackled topics as diverse as Palestinian liberation and American gentrification. With Conflict Is Not Abuse, she examines the “supremacist thinking” that undergirds everything from our current presidential administration to that Twitter fight you got in last week.

Find it: Amazon

14. I’ll Give You the Sun // Jandy Nelson

The cover of 'I'll Give You the Sun'
Speak

This beautiful young adult novel proves that writing for teens can be as poetic and lyrical as writing for adults—without losing the unputdownable quality that animates the best YA books. In alternating chapters, Nelson’s twin brother-sister narrators slowly circle the devastating secrets that transformed them from best friends into virtual strangers. We dare you not to cry at the end.

Find it: Amazon

15. 7 Miles a Second // David Wojnarowicz

The cover of '7 Miles a Second'
Fantagraphics Books

Following his 2018 retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, the late artist and activist David Wojnarowicz has exploded back into cultural relevance. This posthumous graphic novel (illustrated by Wojnarowicz’s friend, James Romberger, and originally published by DC Comics), turns his autobiographical stories of homelessness, sexual abuse, and AIDS into a fever dream of stream-of-consciousness prose and hallucinatory images.

Find it: Amazon

16. Trash // Dorothy Allison

The cover of 'Trash'
Penguin Books

Dorothy Allison is rightly famous for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, which drew on her experiences growing up poor, Southern, queer, and sexually abused. But the novel’s protagonists, Bone and Shannon, made their debut in this early collection of Allison’s short stories, which won multiple Lambda Literary Awards in 1989.

Find it: Amazon

17. Written on the Body // Jeanette Winterson

The cover of 'Written on the Body'
Vintage International

The unnamed, ungendered protagonist of Jeanette Winterson’s magical novel Written on the Body is both philosopher and seducer, approaching love as a conundrum to be sorted and a prize to be won. The result is a genderless eroticism that is both intellectual and physical. This one is best read with your lover(s).

Find it: Amazon

18. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls // T Kira Madden

The cover of 'Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls'
Bloomsbury Publishing

T Kira Madden’s lush, wild, and disturbing memoir seems to take every insane “Florida woman” Internet meme and explode it, revealing the tenderness, love, fear, pain, anger, and joy that nestle within stories of crazy nights and lost days. But Madden’s lyric prose and unique voice are what truly make this autobiography shine.

Find it: Amazon

19. Go Tell It on the Mountain // James Baldwin

The cover of 'Go Tell It on the Mountain'
Vintage International

James Baldwin is one of the lions of 20th-century literature, renowned for his gorgeous writing, his gripping narratives, and his ability to grapple with some of the major social issues of his time. Go Tell It On the Mountain is his first book, the one that years later he would call “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Start here, and then read everything Baldwin wrote after.

Find it: Amazon

20. No Ashes in the Fire // Darnell Moore

The cover of 'No Ashes in the Fire'
Bold Type Books

Darnell Moore’s memoir of coming of age queer and black in Camden, New Jersey, is equal parts harrowing and beautiful. His ability to interweave his personal journey with the larger story of the structural racism and disenfranchisement faced by Camden residents makes No Ashes in the Fire fascinating on both a personal and political level.

Find it: Amazon

21. Confessions of the Fox // Jordy Rosenberg

The cover of 'Confessions of the Fox'
One World

Transgender writer Jordy Rosenberg’s stunning debut novel ping-pongs back and forth between a lost 18th-century manuscript that purports to be the true autobiography of Jack Sheppard (an infamous historical figure and thief) and the story of the beleaguered academic who finds the book in a library sale at his second-rate university. Rosenberg himself teaches 18th-century literature as well as gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and for anyone who’s spent too long in academic circles, the present-day parts of this book will feel all too realistic.

Find it: Amazon

22. Dancer from the Dance // Andrew Holleran

The cover of 'Dancer From the Dance'
Harper Perennial

Nothing can recreate the hothouse nature of post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS urban gay male life, with its heady mix of liberation and oppression all set to a throbbing disco beat—but Dancer from the Dance certainly comes close. It’s a portrait of shallow hedonism filled with unexpected depth and pathos.

Find it: Amazon

23. Leaves of Grass // Walt Whitman

The title page of a 19th-century copy of 'Leaves of Grass'
Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library

If the last time you tried to read Leaves of Grass was in a high school English class, it deserves a second look. Whitman’s poems are queer, erotic, sensual, sexual, and sometimes downright dirty. As the poet himself wrote, “I am for those who believe in loose delights—I share the midnight orgies of young men.”

Find it: Amazon

24. SCUM Manifesto // Valerie Solanas

The cover of 'SCUM Manifesto'
AK Press

If you only know Valerie Solanas from her attempt to shoot Andy Warhol or her recent cameo on American Horror Story, you’re missing out on one of the most outrageous feminist texts of the mid-20th century. Is SCUM Manifesto a Swiftian satire of Freudian misogyny, or actual propaganda for the violent overthrow of the patriarchy? Unclear. But either way, it's hard to put down a book that begins like this:

"'Life' in this 'society' being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of 'society' being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex."

Find it: Amazon

25. The Queen of the Night // Alexander Chee

The cover of 'The Queen of the Night'
Mariner Books

Like the arias sung by Alexander Chee’s protagonist—a 19th-century opera diva with a hidden past—The Queen of the Night is lush, dramatic, passionate, and melodramatic (in the best way). This book is a confection for opera queens and Francophiles, but even tone-deaf readers will revel in its murders, affairs, intrigues, and mysteries. We've previously put Chee on our list of great Asian American authors to read, so suffice it to say we're big fans.

Find it: Amazon

26. Complete Poems // Marianne Moore

The cover of Marianne Moore's 'Complete Poems'
Penguin Classics

We might think of the terms asexual and aromantic as modern identity labels only recently recognized under the queer umbrella, but throughout history, there have been people who have lived queer lives very much in those modes—like the extraordinary poet Marianne Moore, one of the most talented (and longest lasting) of the Modernist poets of the early 20th century. Complete Poems gives readers a broad overview of her work, from her early, dense, Imagist pieces (often drawn from scientific sources, like 1936's "The Pangolin"), to her later, more accessible and popular work (like 1961's "Baseball and Writing").

Find it: Amazon

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Joy Harjo Named First Native American Poet Laureate

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Since 1985, the United States has appointed poet laureates to promote the reading and writing of poetry among the public. As The New York Times reports, poet Joy Harjo now holds the prestigious title, making her the first Native American poet laureate in the country's history.

A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Harjo was born on Native land in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951. She was introduced to poetry as a college student in New Mexico, and she further honed her skills as a graduate student in the distinguished creative writing program at the University of Iowa. Today she's the author of eight volumes of poetry, including She Had Some Horses, How We Became Human, and In Mad Love and War. She's also taught classes at UCLA and the University of Tennessee.

In her work, Harjo grapples with themes of tradition, loss, and myth-making. Her Native heritage has had a major influence on her poetry. She spoke of the honor of being named poet laureate in a statement: "I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem."

Harjo will take over the position of poet laureate from Tracy K. Smith, who held it for two years. As the United States' new poet laureate, Harjo will be responsible for raising "the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry," according to the Library of Congress, which bestows the title. Official duties are kept to a minimum so poets can work on their own special projects that boost the medium's profile.

[h/t The New York Times]

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