Ranking the Reading Lists of the 50 States in the U.S.A.

Every year (when there is no pandemic) the U.S. Library of Congress has a “parade of states” as part of the national book festival where attendees can explore books from every state. I was at this event in 2019, the last time it was held in person and when this photo was taken. 31 August 2019, Library of Congress Life, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Every year (when there is no pandemic) the U.S. Library of Congress has a “parade of states” as part of the national book festival where attendees can explore books from every state. I was at this event in 2019, the last time it was held in person and when this photo was taken. 31 August 2019, Library of Congress Life, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ever wanted to read your way around the U.S.?

I love a good reading list, and I have to say I have an especial weakness for reading lists about the 50 States, probably because it’s all so gloriously complicated. I really want to do one for The Lois Level, but it is a big job. As a first step, I decided to take a look at what’s out there if for nothing else than to see if the world needs another one.

Here are my five favorite lists, going from 5 to 1.

In some cases, I had the impression that one list had simply been stolen from another site, so I tried to go with what I perceived as the original.

5. 50 Books, 50 States: A Literary Map of America from Popsugar

This List is Best For: Older teenagers, college students, younger adults and anyone who is interested in books with a bit of an edge, especially ones who didn’t start to read until they were a bit older (and perhaps missed these books when they were teenagers or were assigned them in school).

What’s Good: Popsugar is the most likely to feature some Young Adult titles or some modern options. There is also a decent mix of fiction and nonfiction titles.

And Not-So-Good: 2 Nicholas Sparks titles? And 2 Judy Blumes? Seriously. In other words, authors are repeated, and all of them are already major sellers, so there is nothing inspired about these choices. The list includes, in addition to the above, Jon Krakauer (2)*, John Grisham, and Stephen King.

I would say if you want to go with a famous author, choose one book, and make it a book that is set in the author’s home state. Seriously.

The Virginia option in Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. While as a Virginian I find that an inspired choice in a way (Andrews lived in Virginia Beach), I know that book is only vaguely set in Virginia since the entire action of the book takes place inside a house! And no, Chris and Cathy are not representative Virginians.

All of the lists I reviewed are in alphabetical order, which I find uninspiring, but that means that the first state is Alabama, where To Kill a Mockingbird is set. Fine book, but everyone knows about it, so I’m bored right away. Not a great start.

On the other hand, I’m definitely not target demographic for Popsugar, and every single thing I’ve complained about is also a good reason that this choice is perfect for the teenage who is aging out of of YA and is ready for the authors that I consider the “gateway writers”.

You know, like a “gateway drug”. They get you hooked, and eventually you seek out the really good stuff. Except books wither neither kill you nor land you in jail. Or if they do, it’s for a good reason.

*Like several of these lists, Popsugar goes from TKAM for Alabama to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild for the second state, Alaska. There are many more inspired choices to introduce those of us from the Lower 48 to the North of the Great White North.

4. 50 Books For 50 States: A Literary Road Trip Across The USA from Forbes Magazine

This List is Best For: The type of person who would read Forbes: someone who prefers a somewhat sophisticated reading list but not one that is going to take too much time and also possibly didn’t complete all the assigned reading in high school, where most people should have read Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. In other words, this list is loaded with books that are good for cocktail party chatter.

What’s Good: There are a lot of nonfiction books and some nice surprises, including Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham for Arkansas. There is also a good mix of fiction and nonfiction, and the picks seem to actually have the flavor of the state rather than a more generic feeling. For the most part, the author, Katherine Parker-Magyar, avoids repeating authors.

What’s Not So Good: Parker-Magyar’s being a travel writer is a weakness because she doesn’t pay attention to the links of the authors to the state, and that strikes me as kind of unfair. I know there is a good choice for every state from someone who is writing about home. And she chose To Kill a Mockingbird.

There are two embarrassing faux pas that I caught: The Maryland pick is Chesapeake…ouch…half the Chesapeake Bay is in Virginia…and for some reason she chose The Color Purple, which is set in Georgia…for Tennessee.

3. America Reading Challenge: Books Set In Each State from Tale_Away

This List is Best For: The general reader who is beyond Young Adult books (about 14 and up) who is really interested in seeing the states represented in the settings of the books.

What’s Good: Like Parker-Magyar from Forbes, “Ash”, the author of Tale_Away is primarily interested in travel, so his choices do seem to be picks that hone in on the individual characteristics of each state. It’s also interesting to have the perspective of a non-American, as Ash is Australian.

Of all of the lists featured on this post, Tale_Away is the only one to include Washington, D.C.

Ash also provides a link to an alternative title for each book, which makes me partly forgive him for TKAM and Into the Wild.

What’s Not So Good: Ash falls in to the trap of starting his list with TKAM and In The Wild, but luckily the list gets much better. He also has the annoying habit that many people, particularly those from the British Commonwealth have, of calling the United States “America”. I think that’s one area in which the citizens of Canada would stand with us against Mother England, not to mention the rest of the citizens of North…and South…America.

As primarily a travel writer rather than a book/literature writer, Ash does not necessarily take the origin of the writer into account, although he does do a better job than Parker-Magyar above, almost serendipitously, I’m guessing. His disregard for genre also seems to help him with this list although I checked out some of his other lists (which are good if a bit messy), which tend to randomly include nonfiction titles of all kinds even when he clearly titles the list “novels”.

Regardless, I’m bookmarking this site because overall, it’s excellent if you like books set in different places, which I do.

2. 50 States Reading List: Best Books Set in Every State from BookList Queen

This List is Best For: The general reader over age 30 or so, possibly but not necessarily female, who likes good quality popular fiction and nonfiction.

What’s Good: This list is the only one in the top 5 that is from an individual blogger rather than a larger online publication that hires writers. Right off the bat, I’m impressed that the BookList Queen has accomplished this task, and she did it with a great list!

To Kill A Mockingbird is NOT her Alabama choice because, as she points out, we’ve read it.

I didn’t spot more than one book per author, and as far as I can see, she chose authors with some connection to the state. She also has a good mix of fiction and nonfiction, and she offers several additional titles in addition to her favorites.

And Not-So-Good: I would have liked a little bit more consistent information about the connection of the book and/or the author to the state…i.e. what is special about the state that I’m going to find in this book?

Overall, however, seriously, a stellar achievement for an independent blogger.

Here are some highlights:

  1. 100 Books Across America: Fiction and Nonfiction for Every State in the Union from LitHub

This List is Best For: Anyone who has read A LOT and is also comfortable with very literary fiction and complex nonfiction.

What’s Great About This List: Author Emily Temple’s and LitHub’s as a whole literary background is clear from the beginning in that they got the genres straight, and they know which books you are supposed to know about already.

For each state, LitHub offers at least 1 fiction, 1 nonfiction, and 1 “famous” option, so they cover all of their bases. LitHub’s bend is toward the literary, so that’s the type of selection they usually offer, and when they do through in a “surprise” genre, such as crime fiction, you can be sure that it is a top notch example, i.e. a selection I might be inclined to read even if it’s a genre I don’t normally read.

They used this 2016 list from The Insider as their source for the “most famous” book, but at times, like true book nerds, they disagreed with it and went their own way.

Every time I review this list, I feel as though I could spend at least a year reading from it.

What’s Not-So-Good: I’m a little bit bummed that LitHub chose not to stick with authors connected to the state, but at least their choices are excellent and never obvious. I didn’t catch any repetition of authors: for example, Stephen King is mentioned under Colorado, for The Shining, so there is no reference to him under Maine, his home state, where other lists have gone with his Carrie, set in Maine. A choice, by the way I agree with because I think there are better representations of Maine as a state.

LitHub also sticks with the 50 states by ignoring D.C. and also, like all the other list, ignored the American territories (Puerto Rico, Saipan, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

Finally, the folks at LitHub got a little too literary for their own good and failed to follow one of the cardinal rules of naming your article in blogging: You need to use the words people put in their search*. So if you Google “Books for the 50 U.S. States”, this one is not #1. Sad, because it should be.

*Don’t make fun of me. I know I do the same thing: Knowing and doing are two different things, and LitHub has been at this a lot longer!

Here are some highlights from LitHub:

The Best Guide to State Reads for Children and Young Adults

Children and Young Adult literature is even more difficult than adult literature because there are so many genres. Radically different age levels need different books, and there are also entire publishing houses who work with schools and libraries to create educational materials…you know, the kind kids use to write (copy?) reports, but that you never see in a bookstore.

The best resource is from the Library of Congress (the U.S. national library) that maintains a tool using books nominated by the individual states each year to represent the state’s heritage. You can access that here: Discover Great Places Through Reading.

Happy literary traveling to all, and be sure to check The Lois Level regularly because I’m working on my own state reads picks!