Tear-Water Tea: My Search for Authors that I’ve Missed


Get to know these female authors from the 1920s to 1960s, and add some new zest to your reading life with some of their best midcentury novels!

Midcentury modern chair in front of full bookshelves

Guest post by Michelle Quinn

Do you remember Arnold Lobel’s Owl At Home? It isn’t as famous as his Frog and Toad series but it’s my favourite Lobel book. I loved it as a child and have read it to students and my children countless times over the years. 

My favourite story is “Tear-water Tea.” In it, Owl sits down to think of incredibly sad things in order to fill his kettle with tears and make his special tea. Of course, the sad things are unique and whimsical:⁠

  • Chairs with broken legs
  • Songs that cannot be sung ⁠
  • Spoons that have fallen behind the stove⁠
  • Pencils that are too short to use
  • Books that cannot be read

A couple of years ago, I started thinking about tear-water tea in relation to my reading. I realized my reading choices were either modern (written in the last five years) or classic (100+ years old). I started to wonder about authors from the 1930s to the ’60s. What had I missed? What else was out there? What about the books that have fallen into obscurity because of the age, gender, and/or race of the writer? If that doesn’t make some tear-water tea, I don’t know what will.

This started me on a reading journey that’s introduced me to so many great authors, many of whose names were just vaguely familiar or entirely new to me. I’m still on this journey, uncovering new-to-me authors and their books but here are five books that really stick out as favourites:

Books by Female Authors of the 1920s-1960s (You Might’ve Missed)

1. The Street by Ann Petry

Written in 1946, The Street follows Lutie Johnson, a single mother trying to make ends meet in Harlem. It’s a powerful ⁠depiction of racism, sexism, poverty, and the myth of the American Dream. ⁠Ann Petry was a social worker and her depiction of how the system fails Lutie and her son is so real and complex. ⁠Petry takes it one step further and imbues this street in Harlem with dark, gothic imagery that really works. The Street was an instant success and the first book written by a Black woman to sell more than one million copies.⁠ Sadly, it settled into obscurity until it was recently re-released.

2. The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

Set post-WWII, a mother and her grown daughter are living out in a big, gloomy house called “The Franchise.” They have been accused of kidnapping, imprisoning, and beating a wide-eyed teenage girl. All the clues point to their guilt. So begins a taut, psychological thriller. A noted Golden-Age of mysteries rule breaker, Tey wrote The Franchise Affair without a murder to solve and her detective, Inspector Alan Grant, is only in two very small scenes. ⁠This was rated #11 in the Crime Writers’ Association top 100 mysteries of the twentieth century.

3. Quicksand by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s novella Passing has been recently re-released as well as been adapted by Netflix. Thankfully, I read an anthology that also included her first book, Quicksand. Published in 1928, it follows a young, biracial woman named Helga Crane. Like Larsen herself, Helga’s mother is Danish and her father is African American. ⁠Due to her mixed heritage, Helga never feels like she fits in. ⁠Quicksand explores profound loneliness and disconnection and moves between Chicago, Harlem, Copenhagen, and the American south.

4. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

Margery Sharp wrote many books from the ’20s to the ’70s – including the Rescuers series that were made into Disney films. ⁠Cluny Brown is a twenty-one-year-old living in 1938 London. She was orphaned at an early age and raised by Uncle Arn and his late wife. ⁠The thing that worries dear old Uncle Arn is that Cluny doesn’t seem to “know her place.” She’s trying to be her own person and not molding herself into the narrow confines that society provides for her. ⁠She’s naïve but oddly astute, really fun and hilariously blunt. The book is light and funny and the ending is exquisite!

5. The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyn

This is an odd, dark, and unsettling book. Written in 1959 but set in Edwardian times, The Vet’s Daughter centers around young Alice. Her father is cruel and demanding to Alice and her mother. His anger and brutality are slowly killing her mother and Alice dreams of somehow escaping. Comyn writes with a detached, matter-of-factness balanced with touches of magical realism. Fans of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle should enjoy this dark, slight book.

Midcentury-style sofa with afghan and pillow, and stack of books

What authors, genres, or eras of literature did you miss out on, and how have you been filling in the gaps?

About the author

Michelle Quinn, a lover of books and make-believe, was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada and continues to live there with her husband and grown twins. Building on her love of reading, Michelle became a primary teacher and has taught for twenty-five years. When not reading, Michelle loves to travel, write, go for long drives and needle-felt little book-loving animal figures for her Etsy shop. You can find her on Instagram at @noraandedie or at her website noraandedie.ca.

Other posts by Michelle on Tea and Ink Society:

Want more lesser-known classics? Try one of these posts next:

Tear-Water Tea: My Search for Authors that I’ve Missed

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  1. I loved this article! I hadn’t heard of ANY of these titles, so thank you for introducing them to me. Also, love the connection between “tear-water tea” and books that have been lost to time. Thank you for helping to bring some of them back into the light!

  2. Emma, I’m so glad you liked it and found some new books! I hope you love them. If you’re on Instagram, we can follow each other. I’m @noraandedie on there.

  3. What a lovely post! This era of writers is a newer discovery for me too. I have read The Franchise Affair and Cluny Brown (love both!), but the other authors and titles are new to me. Thank you! I have recently realized that I had read almost no translated fiction. In the last year, I have read The Count of Monte Cristo, Anna Karenina, and The Ladies’ Paradise (Zola), and I loved each one. So excited to explore more! Happy Reading!

    1. I’ve felt like I “should read Zola” for quite some time, but never got around to it, probably because it felt like an obligation! So I’d love to know what you thought of him and if you enjoyed The Ladies’ Paradise?

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