A historic and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that deftly weaves important issues of societal racism alongside a compelling story, To Kill a Mockingbird tops many all-time favorites lists (including mine). Told from the perspective of Scout – a small girl coming of age in the Jim Crow South – the book tells of her father, Atticus, who courageously defends a wrongfully-accused black man in a racist court. Even if you have never read it, you likely know the story (or have seen the Award-winning movie with Gregory Peck). It is a gargantuan task to find and suggest other works that even begin to compare, but here are 12 books like To Kill A Mockingbird that will transport you back to a time, place and feeling reminiscent of this incredible and iconic piece of American literature.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
This true American classic coming-of-age story follows Francie Nolan as she struggles through poverty in Brooklyn in 1910. With an alcoholic father in meager living conditions, her family is barely able to make ends meet. Yet, sensitive young Francie (her grandmother says she is destined to live a special life) is a book lover and able to access books and words through her connection to the free public library. With timeless messages on hard work, determination and hope amongst struggle, this sad yet simple story resonates with all who have toiled to find hope in difficult surroundings.
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
Four orphans escape the mistreatment and sorrow of a boys’ home in rural Depression-era Minnesota, traveling downriver in search of a new future in This Tender Land. Struggling with faith and coming to grips with events from their past, the journey they embark on while they evade their cruel pursuers is filled with adventure and interesting characters. From farmers to faith healers, to families displaced by the economic stresses of the times, this epic story proves that sometimes it is the people we meet along the way that help us become who we want and need to be.
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
This is the story of Peekay, growing up in South Africa amidst the beginning stages of apartheid. Starting out in an all-white boarding school as a very young boy, he faces cruelty and through his experiences begins to understand he must be a voice for hope and love in his changing world. This tale of Peekay’s life and his navigation through a society steeped in racism and discrimination demonstrates for us how one small person can make an enormous impact.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
This middle-grade novel, written entirely in verse, is the autobiographical account of Woodson’s time as a young African American girl growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. With the Jim Crow laws still lingering and the Civil Rights movement in full swing, she struggles to find her way growing up in different regions of the U.S. (Northern and Southern). Straddling those worlds while also discovering her passion for writing, Woodson’s emotional prose reflects the friction of the times from these differing geographic perspectives with the innocence and honesty of a child.
A rural reverend accused of murdering five of his family members for the insurance money in the 1970s is later shot dead at the funeral of his last victim in Furious Hours. Despite numerous witnesses, his murderer is acquitted with the help of the same savvy lawyer that helped the reverend escape justice in the years prior. Who was sitting in the audience at the vigilante’s trial but Harper Lee. Lee, who had helped her friend Truman Capote work on his acclaimed book In Cold Blood years before, also hoped to write her own true crime book. This book chronicles Lee’s year-long venture to report on the bizarre case along with notes she compiled, accounts of dramatic courtroom events and depictions of racial tensions of the era.
Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
Growing up dirt poor on a Southern tobacco farm, 15-year-old Ivy Hartis is an orphan trying to take care of her family and make ends meet. When a local social worker, Jane Forrester, is called in to help, dark secrets are soon uncovered about the farm. Set in North Carolina during the final years of Jim Crow, when mandated sterilization laws were still on the books and racial tension hung thick in the air, Jane finds herself becoming deeply involved in helping the Hartis family and facing the consequences sometimes involved with doing what is right.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
In the 1930s, Cussy Mary Carter, a “book woman” for the Library Pack Horse Project, travels over treacherous terrain on her trusty mule to carry books to the mountain people of Eastern Kentucky. Afflicted with a medical condition called methemoglobinemia that causes her skin to be tinted blue, Cussy is considered “a colored person” by the law and is forced to navigate all the discrimination and mistreatment that moniker held during those times. Bringing precious books, medicine and news, Cussy serves as a source of crucial information and a true lifeline of hope to her mountain patrons. A fierce woman determined to bring literacy and freedom to people who have so little, Cussy finds hope and love amidst struggle and racism in the little town of Troublesome Creek and in the mountains beyond.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Set in the South during the time of slavery, this is the story of a young Irish girl, Lavinia, who comes to a large tobacco plantation as an orphan. Becoming a part of the plantation as one of the slaves (really more of an indentured servant) but being set apart because of her white skin, Lavinia straddles two worlds. She bonds with Belle, the plantation owner’s illegitimate daughter and the rest of her adopted family. But when she is moved to the big house, she is faced with choices that will test her loyalty and the devotion to the only family she has ever known.
If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais
This is the story of three women in post-apartheid South Africa surrounded by racial struggles, the AIDS epidemic and a rapidly approaching civil war. The women come from different backgrounds but their lives interconnect and the story develops when two of them are gifted a newborn baby. What follows is a heartfelt and emotional tale laced with difficult issues of racial discrimination, misunderstanding of homosexuality and AIDS as well as messages of motherly love, second chances and the power of healing.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Fourteen years old and motherless, Lily grew up on a peach farm in the South in the 1960s. Events at home eventually force her to flee to a small South Carolina town with Rosaleen, a strong African American woman who has helped raise her. Taken in by three black beekeeping sisters, Lily finds sanctuary in their eccentric world and gains nurturing mother figures who also have a connection to her past. A coming-of-age story with strong messages on motherhood and religion, this is a dramatic and emotional story told against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in the deep South.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Marie-Laure lives in Paris and flees to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo once the Nazis arrive and take over, bringing with her a precious piece of French history. German Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up listening to a crude radio that brings stories and news from a wider world. He soon becomes an expert in building and fixing radios and is enlisted to use this talent to help the Nazis hunt down the resistance. This is a truly beautiful novel that depicts parallel worlds as a blind French girl and a young German boy struggle through the devastation of World War II. It is a story that shows that goodness and light can exist just beneath the surface of even the harshest events and atrocities of life.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
A group of people connected by treatments in a hyperbaric chamber said to cure everything from autism to infertility are caught up in a scandal when the chamber explodes, causing two deaths. There are many questions about who is responsible but one thing is clear: it was no accident. This debut novel unfolds amongst a tense courtroom drama with facts and the truth coming out bit by bit, uncovering hidden secrets and betrayals through shifting perspectives that keep the reader guessing right until the last page.
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