What better way to celebrate July than with a 50 States Reading List! If you’re are up for an American Reading Challenge or just curious what I think are the best books set in every state, be sure to check out our epic list.
What do you do when you have some free time on your hands and want to create something big for your book blog?
You come up in an epic 50 States Reading List!
That’s right. I’ve got 50 books set in 50 states just for you. Let’s consider it the ultimate American Reading Challenge.
How do you choose the best book for every state? Do you go with the most famous book set in every state or do you aim for the most popular book in each state?
After much research, I decided to pick the books I’ve loved, the ones I hear about most often. I wanted to give this 50 States Reading List an updated look compared to other lists I’ve seen that all seem to mention the same books.
I generally chose newer books over older books (but not always) and aimed to fit the list that would best describe what I want to see in a 50 States Reading List. So dive right in.
50 Books Set in 50 States. Could you finish this ultimate American Reading Challenge?
I know, you are expecting me to kick of the 50 States Reading List with the brilliant classic To Kill A Mockingbird, but since you’ve already read it, let’s take a different approach with Just Mercy. As a young idealistic lawyer, Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice to defend the most desperate of clients. Over the years, he helped the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women with nowhere else to turn. One case in particular stands out: Walter McMillian, a young man on death row who insists he is innocent, and very well may be. Stevenson inspires his readers to consider how compassion is needed in order for true justice to be served.
Coming off The Nightingale, her wildly successful World War II novel, Kristin Hannah’s latest book explores the untamed wilds of Alaska. A recently returned Vietnam War POW, Ernt Allbright decides to move his family to the Alaskan frontier. At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers and just what Ernt needs. But when the harsh Alaskan winter approaches and Ernt’s mental state begins to deteriorate, his wife and daughter must fight to survive.
Nancy E. Turner
Inspired by the author’s own family history, these are the words of Sarah Agnes Prine, a woman doing her best to follow the path life has laid out for her. Recounting her life from childhood to her marriage to Captain Jack Elliot, These Is My Words is a sweeping family saga beautifully depicting life in Arizona in the 1800s. Though the details of her everyday life are quite different, many of the struggles she faces still challenge women today.
Melba Pattillo Beals
We’ve all seen the pictures of Elizabeth Eckford being screamed at as she tries to attend her first day of school at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. But did you realize how long it took to integrate? Melba Pattillo Beals tells her memories of being part of the Little Rock Nine, of her oppressing junior year protected at times by the 101st Airborne Division and at times left alone to face the horrors laid upon by the other students. Of all the books from our 50 States Reading List, Warriors Don’t Cry will definitely make you angry at race relations in the 1950s and make you wonder about how we handle the same and similar issues today.
Considered one of the best audiobooks of 2018, Tommy Orange’s debut novel tells of the lives of urban Native Americans. Centered around the Big Oakland Powwow, There There peeks into the lives of twelve characters as each is drawn by their Native American heritage to visit the Powwow. Orange delivers a striking look at many of the issues that have plagued so many Native Americans – alcoholism, addiction, suicide and abuse – as well as topics more specific to them. If you’ve never listened to a full cast audiobook, you definitely should give the audiobook in your American Reading Challenge.
With meticulous in-depth research, Dave Cullen examines the mas shooting that forever changed America. In a day and age where shootings are sadly becoming the norm instead of the exception, Cullen takes you back to that fateful day in 1999. On that tragic day, Cullen was one of the first reporters on the scene and has since spent years piecing together the full story of what happened at Columbine High School.
When asked what inspired her famous work, The Love Poem. renowned poet Fiona Skinner tells the story of her family. After her father’s sudden death, Fiona’s mother goes into a deep depression for three years, basically leaving the young children to fend for themselves. The four Skinner siblings’ lives forever changed during this period which they refer to as “The Pause.” They emerge closer than ever, but that period of time changes each one of them, with consequences following them throughout the rest of their lives.
In a Delaware apartment complex live Spanish-speaking immigrants from all over Central and South America. They may not all be from the same land, but they all share the same dream of starting a new life in America. Among them are Arturo and Alma Rivera who have come seeking medical help for their daughter Maribel. A heartfelt story of the various struggles and desires of immigrants, The Book of Unknown Americans is a must-read for any American Reading Challenge in today’s political climate.
I don’t even like dogs, and I love this book enough to suggest that it is one of the books every millennial needs to read. Marley’s antics are absolutely hilarious. I laughed so hard at all the havoc he wrecked upon his family. But the love that springs up between Marley and his owner despite Marley’s many flaws is so touching. And when Marley eventually dies at a ripe old age, I was just in tears thinking of the wonderful life of the “world’s worst dog.” If this is not one of those memoirs that will make you cry, there must be something wrong with you.
If you love long classics, Gone with the Wind is Margaret Mitchell’s idealized look at the South at the time of the civil war provides you food for thought about how we portray our bias into historical events. Her extremely flawed heroine Scarlett O’Hara gives you much to contemplate on love and selfishness. While I adore watching the movie, I love being able to see into Scarlett’s thought process in the book. Definitely a must-read when looking for the best book for every state.
As a child, Rachel Kalama dreamed of traveling around the world like her seafaring father. But when a red mark appears on her face, Rachel’s dreams are dashed. Instead of becoming a world traveler, Rachel is quarantined for leprosy on the island of Moloka’i. What she expected to be a life-ending experience turns out to be just the beginning of a life she never could have imagined. With a cover as beautiful as the state it’s set in, Moloka’i is a beautiful addition to the 50 States Reading List.
Who knew Idaho would have a great contender in the list of 50 books set in 50 states? There is really no excuse to not read Tara Westover’s spectacular memoir. In our opinion, Educated was one of the best nonfiction books of 2018. Westover grew up in the rural mountains of Idaho with no formal education. Despite her extremist survivalist parents and violent older brother, Westover managed to make her way into college, eventually earning a PhD. Her amazing determination is inspiring while the circumstances of her childhood are incredibly sad. Definitely one of those books that will stay with you for a long time.
A master of narrative nonfiction, Erik Larson turns his attention to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Larson expertly interweaves two parallel story lines. The first, that of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect and mastermind of the fair. On the other hand, at the same time in Chicago lurked the serial killer Henry H. Holmes, a pharmacist intent on building his own type of fairgrounds – a torture chamber full of every imaginable horror. By contrasting the lives of these two figures, Larson presents a startling juxtaposition of American history, perfect for your American Reading Challenge.
Two kids with cancer who fall in love. Well that’s a recipe for tears if I’ve ever heard one. Knowing that she will die someday sooner rather than later, Hazel is afraid to let anyone get close to her. In her selfless way, she wants her death to cause as little pain as possible. Yet when she meets Augustus Waters in her Cancer Kid Support Group, her conviction begins to waver. The true beauty of this story lies in the ending lines: “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have some say in who hurts you.” If you want an inspiring and emotional read, this book is for you.
Marilynne Robinson’s novel takes the reader into the mind of Reverend John Ames, a pastor of a small congregation in Gilead, Iowa. Written in the form of his journal, Ames wants to create a record for his 7-year-old son about his family history – his own experiences and those of his father and grandfather. A beautifully written and thoughtful reflection on the philosophical and spiritual questions of life, Gilead was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Truman Capote was the founder of narrative nonfiction with his thrilling look at an unspeakable crime. On November 15, 1959, in the small farming town of Holcomb, Kansas, two men brutally murder the Clutter family in their home for no apparent reason. Through extensive interviews from the first days following the events all the way to the execution of the murderers, Capote suspensefully unfolds the whole story of exactly what happened and more intriguing of all, why it happened. Make sure you set aside a chunk of time to read this modern classic because, I promise, once you start you’ll realize this is a book you can’t put down.
During the Great Depression, Englishwoman Alice Wright marries a handsome American and finds herself transplanted to rural Kentucky. To escape her unhappy home life with her withdrawn husband and overbearing father-in-law, Alice agrees to become a traveling librarian, riding around the countryside bringing books to local residents. In her new job, she meets other fierce women and gains lasting friendships. Add in plenty of drama, love stories, corrupt businessmen, and even murder, and you have the perfect light historical fiction for any book club.
Selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, An American Marriage was one of the top fiction books of 2018. At first glance, newlyweds Celestial and Roy seem like the perfect American couple. He’s a young executive, and she’s an emerging artist. However, as life comes into play and Roy is unjustly imprisoned, their marriage begins to fall apart. Discussing love, marriage, and race, this thought-provoking read is definitely one to add to your 50 states reading list.
You can’t really talk about books set in Maine without talking about Stephen King. Deciding which Stephen King novel best fit into our 50 States Reading List wasn’t hard. That honor rightly belongs to King’s debut novel, Carrie. The shock factor is high in this original story of a high school girl developing telekinetic powers. Mistreated by her family and her classmates, Carrie is pushed to the breaking point, setting her on her famous path of revenge.
While vacationing in London, Jack Ryan happens to stop a terrorist attack in action – and save the life of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Although he’s earned the gratitude of a nation, he’s also earned the enmity of an ultra-right wing of the IRA. I know there have been a number of movie and television adaptations of the books in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, but nothing can beat reading the books. Feel free to start the series with this action packed second book entry into the series; I did.
If you are looking for a gorgeous novel about family relationships and feminism, try this book club favorite for your 50 States Reading List. Born in Boston in 1900 to Jewish immigrants, Addie Baum embraces life in America in a way her parents never truly can. She wants to go to college, find true love, and live her own truth. Told from the perspective of an old woman looking back on her life, The Boston Girl gives a magnificent portrayal of Addie’s life and her search to find her place in the world.
Why not add a little young adult fiction to your 50 States Reading List? Against her wishes, sixteen-year-old Zander Osborne is sent to Camp Padua, a Michigan summer camp for at-risk teens. Between her crazy cabinmate Cassie and the pathological liar Bek, Zander doesn’t feel like she belongs. Then there’s the charming Grover Cleveland to whom Zander feels irrestibly drawn. As unlikely friendships develop, Zander begins to learn more about what it means to truly understand herself.
William Kent Krueger
In the sleepy town of New Bremen, Minnesota, death will forever shape one young man. In 1961, Frank Drum is having a typical teenage summer with his family: his minister father, his doubting mother, his talented older sister and his quiet younger brother. When his sister is murdered, Frank’s ordinary life is rocked by the secrets and motives of an adult world he doesn’t fully understand. A stunning addition to any American Reading Challenge.
I have to admit, I don’t think a book has made me laugh quite as hard as Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. A few of the scenes were just so side-splittingly funny that even thinking about them now still makes me chuckle. Which is amazing because The Help is not a humor piece. It’s a moving tale of the lives of women in the deep South in the 1960s. Between Aibileen and Minny, “the help” of the title, the women they work for, and Skeeter, a young 22-year-old writer who wants to tell their stories, you get a layered approach and character study of a tumultuous time in our history.
Gone Girl took the book world by storm in 2012 with its look at a marriage gone terribly wrong. On her fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Dunne mysteriously disappears. At the top of the suspect list – her seemingly perfect husband Nick. Both husband and wife aren’t who they seem to be, so expect plenty of twists and turns (and lots of language) in this hit thriller. You might not end up loving the story or the characters, but I promise you, you’ll definitely find them memorable enough to land it among the best books for every state.
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” So begins Norman Maclean’s classic based on his own childhood spent on Montana’s Big Blackfoot River. On the surface, A River Runs Through It is about fly fishing. But deeper than that, Maclean’s novella uses fishing to relate to deeper questions of life: family, religion, hope and dreams. In 1992, A River Runs Through It was adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie.
Of all the books set in Nebraska, nothing quite conveys the sweeping prairie like Willa Cather’s noted work, My Ántonia. Near the end of the 19th century, 10-year-old orphan Jim Burden moves to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. There he meets Ántonia, daughter of Bohemian immigrants. The novel follows their lives as each starts to reach for the American Dream – to build a home in a new land. A beautiful classic that everyone should read, even if you aren’t trying to finish this American Reading Challenge.
Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Any American Reading Challenge would not be the same without books about the dark portions of America’s history. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s classic The Ox-Bow Incident perfectly epitomizes the violence of the early American West. Set in 1885, the story centers on the realities of the lawlessness of the wild west. When a well-loved local is killed by cattle thieves, the townspeople take it upon themselves to mete out justice, lynching three innocent men.
During the early days of World War II, Southern boy Gene Forrester attends an elite New Hampshire boarding school. Feeling insecure among the prep school kids, quite introverted Gene eventually becomes friends with the charming athletic Phineas. But when friendly competition goes awry, the consequences last a lifetime. A thought-provoking coming-of-age novel that quickly became an American classic.
Janet Evanovich’s name perennially appears at the top of The New York Times bestselling list with her Stephanie Plum series. To find out what all the hype is about, jump right in with the first book, One for the Money. New Jersey bounty hunter Stephanie Plum decides she’s tired of nabbing small fry for little money. Instead, she is determined to catch former cop Joe Morelli, a character from her own past. This fun series that has quickly become a fan-favorite seemed to be the appropriate choice for our 50 States Reading List.
Although written for young adults, Steve Sheinkin’s history of the development of the atomic bomb will fascinate readers of all ages. Sheinkin suspensefully describes the race to be the first to build the most destructive weapon in history. Full of espionage and science, Bomb brings history to life in a startlingly fun way. I might have stretched a bit with this one, since it’s set in multiple locations, but still it felt perfect for our 50 States Reading List.
The American Dream. Many hope for it, but how many truly find it? Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel details the lives of Cameroon immigrants living in New York City: Jende Jonga, who is trying to apply for legal status under a false asylum claim; his wife Neni, struggling to finish schooling in hopes of becoming a pharmacist; and their son Leomi, trying to balance his American-ness with his Cameroon side. In the days preceding the Great Recession, Jende gets lucky enough to get a job as chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive. Mbue brilliantly paints a fascinating look at immigrant life – the struggles with the immigration system, the desire for a better life, the balancing of cultural differences and the financial burden that comes with being poor in America. Through her writing, Mbue asks you to ponder: What really brings happiness? and Is the American dream all its cracked up to be?
For years, Kya Clark has survived alone in the marshes of the North Carolina coast. Dubbed “The Marsh Girl” by the locals, she was abandoned by her family and has been raised by nature itself. Now, as she comes of age, she begins to yearn for something more than her loneliness – maybe even a connection with the locals. An exquisitely written tale that quickly became one of 2018’s bestselling books, Where the Crawdads Sing is one of last year’s must-reads that is perfect for a 50 States Reading List.
Other Books Set in North Carolina: Too many to count! Check out this post from The Uncorked Librarian for a full list of books set in North Carolina.
The setting: North Dakota, summer of 1999. The tragedy: Landreaux Iron accidentally kills his neighbor’s 5-year-old son Dusty Ravich when hunting deer. The complication: According to Ojibue tribe tradition, Landreaux gives his own 5-year-old son, LaRose, to be raised by the Ravich family. Thus sets up Louis Erdrich’s powerful novel of two families striving to overcome a horrible tragedy in the far reaches of North Dakota.
J. D. Vance
First off, you need to understand that J. D. Vance’s memoir is actual about life in rural Kentucky as I often see erroneously stated. Actually, it’s about his family life in Southwestern Ohio and how the Hillbilly culture and ethics his grandparents brought from rural Kentucky affected the lives and choices of his grandparents, parents and even himself. Having grown up in that same region of Ohio, I can say that many of observations definitely ring true. While you might not agree with all of Vance’s conclusions, he will certainly make you ponder how culture affects us and what heritage you will pass down to your own children.
Having spent 40 weeks on The New York Times bestsellers list, if you haven’t read Killers of the Flower Moon, you need to add it to your 50 States Reading List. David Grann investigates the fascinating case of the Osage murders in the 1920s. After discovering oil on their land, the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma are among the richest people in the world at the time. Once the death toll surpasses 24 Osage, the newly created FBI takes up the investigation to expose an alarming conspiracy behind these notorious crimes.
In grad school, Phil Knight had a crazy idea that Japanese running shoes could overtake the domination of German company Adidas. He partnered up with his former track coach to help design innovative shoes and traveled to Japan to bring this crazy idea to life. Following the ups and downs of the journey that built the billion-dollar company Nike is today, Knight’s memoir will hook you in with a band of eccentric characters and an underdog story with excellent narrative pacing.
Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel of the Battle of Gettysburg is one of the best books ever written about the American Civil War. With in depth research, Shaara covers the factual details of the four days at Gettysburg but adds in the thoughts and motivations of the main characters (which makes it a work of fiction instead of a straight history book). Through his writing, Shaara makes the battle come alive and teaches you history in a profound way. The book was adapted into the film Gettysburg in 1993.
I’m not particularly a Jodi Picoult fan, but this is by far the best of her books. When Kate develops leukemia as a child, her parents decide to have another child – one specifically with a perfect bone marrow match for Kate. Thus, all Anna’s life, she has undergone countless procedures to help her older sister. But now Anna has had enough, and is ready to life her own life unconstrained by Kate’s illness. Reading it, you get so invested in the lives of Anna and Kate that when the big twist comes – and it’s Jodi Picoult, so there is always a big twist – you feel so deeply the pain the characters are going through. As Anna makes a literally life-or-death decision, you just feel so torn between Anna’s needs, Kate’s needs, and the love and desperation of their mother. It’s definitely a book that will make you question how you would react. Hopefully you will never have to find out.
Sue Monk Kidd
At age 14, Lily Owens runs away from her father and moves with her nanny to Tiburon, South Carolina. There they are both taken in by the Calendar Sisters, a charming but eccentric trio of beekeepers. As the white Lily comes of age, she learns about womanhood and the Black Madonna from these four black women she has come to consider her family. A heartwarming story set amid the racial tensions of the 1960s, The Secret Life of Bees is a delightful story perfect for book club.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
When looking for the best book for every state, we figured North Dakota would be our hardest, but South Dakota definitely took the cake. Luckily, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous Little House series came to mind. While the series starts with her family’s life in Wisconsin and Kansas, the Ingalls family eventually settles by the shores of Silver Lake in the Dakota Territory. It’s in South Dakota that she meets her future husband, Almanzo Wilder. Portraying the intimate details of pioneer life, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories provide a fascinating look back at a time in many way so vastly different than our own.
You probably weren’t expecting to see a young adult novel about three teenagers in their senior year of high school in rural Tennessee on the 50 States Reading List. In the story, the main character Dill struggles to find his place in life. The son of a snake handling preacher currently imprisoned for child pornography, Dill does not exactly fit in at school. Luckily he has his best friends Lydia, a vintage fashion blogger, and Travis, a gentle-hearted giant obsessed with fantasy books. Teaching about friendship, love and the struggles of growing up, The Serpent King is a touching novel that will give you all the feels.
H. G. Bissinger
When you think of Texas, high school football probably comes to mind. Football is serious business in the Lone Star State, and nowhere more so than Odessa. Way out in the oilfields of West Texas, the lives of the people of Odessa seem to revolve around nothing but football, for which they have been rewarded with the winning-est football team in Texas History. Bissinger’s expose on the subject shines a brilliant light on the town’s obsession – both the good of uniting its citizens and the bad of justifying anything that will help the team win on Friday night. Friday Night Lights inspired both a dramatic motion picture and a successful television series, but the book is completely true.
In 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart became a household name when she was kidnapped from her Utah home in the middle of the night. For 9 months she was held captive and abused by Brian David Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee. In her memoir, Smart recalls how her faith allowed her to maintain hope through her traumatic ordeal and how she was able to forge a new life afterwards.
A modern Greek tragedy, Donna Tartt’s debut novel details the awful fall from morality of a group of students at a private Vermont college. Classics professor Morrow only admits a handful of select students to study Ancient Greek. After determinedly breaking into this close-knit group, Richard Papen is surprised to find a world of highly flawed characters losing their grasp on morality. Secrets, lies, betrayal and eventually murder become justifiable actions as they slip further and further in their descent into evil.
Margot Lee Shetterly
Telling of the true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians, this book became a hit movie in 2016. Segregated from their white colleagues, these fierce women used pencil and paper to calculate the physics needed to launch men to the moon. Be warned that the writing is a bit dry but the characters are fascinating.
Sometimes you just need a clever satire, and you’ll be sure laugh at the ridiculous Bernadette, a Seattle-area mom who takes antisocial to a whole new level. When her teenage daughter Bee begs the family to go on an Antarctic cruise, the agoraphobic Bernadette agrees, only to vanish from off the face of the earth. As you delve deeper and deeper into Bernadette’s world, you have so much fun with her crazy antics. While the ending of the book isn’t the strongest, the buildup is so much fun that it makes it still worth recommending for a 50 States Reading List.
One of the most powerful memoirs of the last decade, Jeannette Walls recounts the story of her tumultuous childhood. She opens the book with the account of how at 3 years old, she ends up hospitalized with severe burns after pouring scalding water on herself when cooking hot dogs for lunch. You meet her charming father Rex, equal measures brilliant and paranoid; her mother Rose, selfish and depressed; and her three siblings, trying their best just to survive. To quote my husband, “Sometimes someone’s train wreck of a life is fascinating.”
Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond tells the true stories of eight families from the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee. All of these families are barely scrapping by, having had to spend almost all of their earnings on rent alone. Each is facing eviction and an unknown future. Based on years of fieldwork, Evicted takes an eye-opening look at extreme poverty and eviction in America today.
C. J. Box
C. J. Box is well-known for his novels of game warden Joe Pickett in Twelve Sleep, Wyoming. Open Season, the first novel of the Joe Pickett series, finds Joe investigating a body dumped in his own backyard. Though the local police have dubbed the case already solved, Joe feel there are deeper motives at play. Layering the thrill of a murder mystery against the beautiful backdrop of the modern American West, C. J. Box has become a bestselling author in the last few decades.
What books would you put on your own 50 States Reading List?