Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday at the age of 86, was known for many things throughout her life: her wisdom, her acting, her indefatigable civil rights activism. But more than anything else, Angelou was famous for her writing. Both a prolific poet and memorist, Angelou penned more than two dozens books and collections throughout her life (including two cookbooks).
Despite the scale of her oeuvre, much of her work deals with reoccuring themes: love, heartbreak, family, race and feminism. Her books were critically-acclaimed and adored by many readers; here are some of the most notable works.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
The first of seven autobiographical works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s most famous and critically acclaimed book. The story spans much of her childhood, following young Maya and her older brother as they bounce from their parents’ home to their grandmother’s and back again. Throughout the memoir, Angelou struggles not only with feelings of chronic displacement but also her experiences with racism, molestation and rape. Nominated for the National Book Award and named one of the All-TIME Best 100 Non-Fiction works (by this writer), Caged Bird was a revolutionary account of what it meant to be young, female and black in America.
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971)
Angelou’s first collected work of poetry, Just Give was written largely before her first memoir was published, with many of the poems originating as song lyrics. (Angelou worked as a nightclub singer in her twenties.) The book is divided into two sections: Where Love Is a Scream of Anguish features poems about love, while Just Before the World Ends features poems about surviving as an African-American in a white society. The collection became a best-seller and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.
The Heart of a Woman (1981)
For her fourth memoir, Angelou recounts her life from the years 1957 to 1962, where she leaves California with her son, Guy, to move to New York. She finds herself amongst other black artists and writers, reading her work at the Harlem Writers Guild, and taking part in the civil rights movement. She also recounts falling in love with a South African freedom fighter, which led her to travel to London and Cairo, though ultimately the memoir isn’t about relationships — it’s about “a voyage into the self.” The book was praised by critics and — 16 years after it was first published — Oprah Winfrey selected Heart as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, which put it on the best-sellers list.
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993)
The first of three essay collections, Wouldn’t Take Nothing is a collection of autobiographical pieces and homilies that Angelou was reportedly encouraged to write by her friend Oprah Winfrey. Together with her second collection of essays, Even the Stars Look Lonesome, which was published four years later, the essay collections were dubbed “Angelou’s wisdom books” in the New Yorker by Hilton Als.
Mom & Me & Mom (2013)
What would become Angelou’s final book was both her seventh memoir and the only work where she focuses on her relationship with her mother. Mom recounts much of the material found in Angelou’s earlier memoirs, but hones in on her mother’s role in the events of her life. Chronicling her mother’s abandonment of Angelou as a young child, the memoir also covers their reunion and reconciliation. The book ends with the death of her mother, along with Angelou’s final words to her: “You were a terrible mother of small children, but there has never been anyone greater than you as a mother of a young adult.”