Toni Morrison’s Best Books Ranked [Opinion]

Toni Morrison speaks at the Risk-Takers In The Arts honors benefit hosted by the Sundance Institute at Cipriani 42nd Street April 23, 2003 in New York City.
Evan Agostini / Getty Images

Toni Morrison died today, August 6, leaving a gaping void that can only be filled by her own words. It is undisputed that her legacy will live on, eternally etched on the collective minds of Americans and our powerful history. Through her books, Morrison redefined how the black American experience was portrayed in mainstream circles, helping broaden the collective memory of her community. Her work, in a way, helped rewrite and reshape American history.

In 1993, Morrison became the first black American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Five years earlier in 1988, the author had won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, arguably her most well-known book. Author of 11 novels, Morrison also helped shape the literary world via children’s books and essay collections.

Today, we celebrate the legacy of African American culture and one of its most legendary voices. While each work is as essential to your bookshelf as the next, we offer a ranking all of her novels.

No. 1: The Bluest Eye

Written in 1970, The Bluest Eye marks Morrison’s first novel. Her debut is fundamental to understanding Morrison’s perspective and goal, as it takes her back to her own experience as a black child in the mid-20th century. As The Guardian writes, the author drew inspiration from a conversation she had all the way back in elementary school when one of her friends told her she wanted to have blue eyes.

“Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing,” Morrison wrote of the event. “And 20 years later I was still wondering how one learns that. Who told her? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her.”

No. 2: Sula

This 1973 novel is as poignant as it is daring. Sula tells the story of two best friends, Nel and Sula, who go on diverging paths. While Nel stays in their hometown to raise a family, Sula leaves for college, enjoying the city life. They reunite in their late 20s when both struggle to come to terms with their differences and the consequences of their life choices.

No. 3: Beloved

The novel that earned Morrison a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize, Beloved (1988) is as much about the story of a black American mother as it is about all black American women. Set during the Reconstruction, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a former slave who escaped to Ohio in the 1870s, but who becomes haunted, literally, by the ghost of her daughter.

No. 4: Song of Solomon

Written in 1977, Song of Solomon remains to this day Morrison’s most celebrated novel. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award that year, the book uses a mix of realism, fable, and fantasy to the story of Macon Dead Jr. (or Milkman) and the mysteries and unforgettable characters that seem to surround him.

No 5. Tar Baby

This 1981 novel tells the love story between a black woman and a black man who come from very different backgrounds.

With this book, Morrison successfully “raised her novel above the social realism that too many black novels and women’s novels are trapped in,” John Irving wrote in a review for The New York Times.

No. 6: A Mercy

One of her most recent works, this 2008 novel proves that neither her production nor her brilliance diminished later in life. A Mercy beautifully weaves a multilayered account of 17th-century Virginia. The story follows an Anglo-Dutch adventurer who takes in a young girl named Florens, who was traded in a debt payment.

No. 7: Jazz

The 1992 novel set in Harlem, Jazz pieces together the lives and dramatic love triangle of door-to-door salesman Joe, his wife Violet, and his teenage girlfriend Dorcas.

No. 8: Paradise

The first novel she released after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, this 1997 novel depicts the events that lead to a shocking act of violence in Ruby—a patriarchal all-black Oklahoma town.

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No. 9: Love

This 2003 novel uses a split narrative to tell the stories of the many women who shared relationships with a hotel owner named Bill Cosey who dies under suspicious circumstances.

No. 10: Home

Written in 2012, Home follows the life of a young black veteran of the Korean War, Frank Money, after he returns home to face, once again, America’s race wars while dealing with the trauma of war.

No. 11: God Help the Child

Set in the 21st century, this 2015 novel explores the issues of colorism by telling the story of Bride, a beautiful and confident dark-skinned woman, who features cause her fairer-skinned mother to subject her to cruel abuse.