The best works of fiction set in the City of Brotherly Love

Who am I?

My usual answer, when someone asks me where I live in Philadelphia, is: “Have you seen the Rocky movies, where he’s running through that open fruit/vegetable market? I’m three blocks from there.” I’ve called Philadelphia home for more than 20 years. I’m clearly a big fan, having now written four books about the city. I include a reference to the city’s most famous fictional character in my children’s alphabet book Philadelphia A to Z. In More Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell, I got to tell stories about the country’s largest public art program. In This Used To Be Philadelphia, I told the then and now stories of dozens of city locations.


I wrote...

Walking Philadelphia: 30 Walking Tours Exploring Art, Architecture, History, and Little-Known Gems

By Natalie Pompilio, Tricia Pompilio,

Book cover of Walking Philadelphia: 30 Walking Tours Exploring Art, Architecture, History, and Little-Known Gems

What is my book about?

Walking Philadelphia:30 Walking Tours Featuring Art, Architecture, History and Little-Known Gems is my first collaboration with my photographer sister, Tricia. I tried to include stories I would enjoy hearing. You’ll learn how to correctly order a cheesesteak, the many meanings of “jawn,” and some unexpected Philadelphia firsts, including the country’s first kidnapping for ransom.

For my five books, I chose works of fiction set in the City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection, as the city’s promotional materials often add.) Two of these books—As Bright as Heaven and Philadelphia Fireare linked to historic city events. Long Bright River, Such a Fun Age, and With the Fire on High touch on real-life social issues including teen pregnancy, substance abuse disorder and racial prejudice. Each story is very different. Each book deserves a read.

The books I picked & why

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As Bright as Heaven

By Susan Meissner,

Book cover of As Bright as Heaven

Why this book?

More than 12,000 Philadelphia residents died when the Spanish Flu began global deaths in 1918. Although the virus had already wreaked havoc in New England, Philadelphia officials went ahead with plans for a scheduled parade designed to raise public funding for the Great War across the ocean. An estimated 200,000 people watched and cheered as soldiers, veterans, and workers involved in the war effort marched down Broad Street on Sept. 28, 1918. An article about the spectacle published that afternoon in The Evening Bulletin, began “This is a great day in Philadelphia.” 

But another article in the same edition noted that a police officer had died from the flu and more than 100 people had recently tested positive for the virus. The parade was what we now would call a “super spreader event.” Within weeks, “the grippe,” as many called the disease had killed thousands and shut down the city. 

Author Susan Meissner’s As Bright As Heaven follows the Bright family – mother, father, and three daughters – during the influenza and beyond. The mother and three daughters alternately describe the action, and I found myself eager to hear more of their individual stories. Imagining the characters in the book’s various Philadelphia settings enriched the read.

As Bright as Heaven

By Susan Meissner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked As Bright as Heaven as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the acclaimed author of The Last Year of the War comes a novel set during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, telling the story of a family reborn through loss and love.

In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters—Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa—a chance at a better life.

But just months after they…


Such a Fun Age

By Kiley Reid,

Book cover of Such a Fun Age

Why this book?

While this novel is set in Philadelphia, the city doesn’t get the most flattering write-up. Main character Alix, a relative newbie to the city, misses her life in Manhattan, bemoaning Philadelphia’s slower pace. Philly is also where the racially-tinged incident that ignites the book’s action occurs: When a stranger sees Alex’s white daughter in the care of the child’s Black babysitter, she tells grocery store security she believes a kidnapping has occurred.  

Why am I recommending a book that paints Philadelphia as boring and racist? Because this is a story that could be set in any city or town. Alix’s complaints about her new home reflect more poorly on her than on the city. Systemic racism and the growth of the Karen Culture is uniquely American. 

This book hooked me on page one and didn’t let go. It’s an easy and engaging read, and, like real life, it’s more nuanced than black and white. 

Such a Fun Age

By Kiley Reid,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Such a Fun Age as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Best Book of the Year:
The Washington Post • Chicago Tribune • NPR • Vogue • Elle • Real Simple • InStyle • Good Housekeeping • Parade • Slate • Vox • Kirkus Reviews • Library Journal • BookPage

Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize

An Instant New York Times Bestseller

A Reese's Book Club Pick 

"The most provocative page-turner of the year." --Entertainment Weekly

"I urge you to read Such a Fun Age." --NPR

A striking and surprising debut novel from an exhilarating new voice, Such a Fun Age is a page-turning and big-hearted story about race and…


Long Bright River

By Liz Moore,

Book cover of Long Bright River

Why this book?

I can’t even tell you how many times in many years working for newspapers that I rushed out after hearing a body had been found in an empty house or neglected alley. In almost every case, I would arrive to have police officers tell me, “No story here. No homicide. Just another overdose.” The newspaper didn’t tally overdose deaths as it did murders, even if many fatalities are linked to heroin that has been mixed with fentanyl without the users’ knowledge. It’s very rare for those who sell the killer substance to face homicide charges. 

The city is basically another character in this book. While the opioid epidemic had touched communities across the country, Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood is widely acknowledged as a disaster zone. A 2018 New York Times article called Kensington is the largest open-air narcotics market on the east coast. 

The plot centers on Philadelphia police officer Mickey and her search for Kacey, her sister, who has substance abuse disorder and often uses in Kensington. Mickey fears her sister may have been a victim of a murderer who is notching up bodies in the neighborhood. 

Long Bright River is much more than a police procedural. It’s a thriller that keeps you guessing. It’s the story of a family whose lives have been forever changed by the opioid epidemic.  It’s a look at what was once a blue-collar neighborhood of rowhouses filled with families that is today a neglected, dangerous place with abandoned buildings, a consistent drug presence, and house-proud residents who are caught in the middle.  

Long Bright River

By Liz Moore,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Long Bright River as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR

NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY NPR, PARADE, REAL SIMPLE, and BUZZFEED

AN INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A GOOD MORNING AMERICA BOOK CLUB PICK

"[Moore’s] careful balance of the hard-bitten with the heartfelt is what elevates Long Bright River from entertaining page-turner to a book that makes you want to call someone you love.” – The New York Times Book Review
 
"This is police procedural and a thriller par excellence, one in which the city of Philadelphia itself is a character (think Boston and Mystic River). But it’s…


With the Fire on High

By Elizabeth Acevedo,

Book cover of With the Fire on High

Why this book?

I didn’t know this book was considered “young adult” until my teenage niece pointed out that she’d been assigned the book in school. Yes, protagonist Emoni is a senior in high school, but she’s an old soul. She has to be, given the challenges she faces as a teen mother and a mixed-race woman. Emoni is strong and inspiring and determined, but her greatest gift is cooking. When Emoni makes a meal, her amazingness gets into the food and brings joy to its eaters. I love magical realism and this reminded me of Like Water for Chocolate, another novel in which she who prepares a meal infuses it with emotion. 

Emoni struggles, but she is surrounded by love and she gives it in return to the grandmother who raised her and the daughter she conceived as a high school freshman. Emoni has dreams of cooking school but she’s also a realist. How could she do that when Babygirl needs her? (The toddler Emma is almost always called Babygirl by Emoni and her grandmother, much to the disdain of the child's paternal grandmother.)  

Emoni is inspiring. When her boss at a fast food restaurant is unfair, she regroups and stands up stronger. When the teacher in the school cooking program scolds her for not following recipes, she reflects on why that upsets him. Her relationships – with her ex, her grandmother, her friends, and a possible future beau – are real and relatable. It’s so unlike some novels centered on teens featuring superficial, one-line zingers. 

I was strangely proud that the author chose to set this book in Philadelphia. Yes, it’s fiction, but I like to think there are Emonis in our schools who are on paths to succeed.

With the Fire on High

By Elizabeth Acevedo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked With the Fire on High as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A delicious, evocative story' THE GUARDIAN

From the author of THE POET X comes a sumptuous prose novel, perfect for fans of Angie Thomas' On the Come Up, Justin Reynolds' Opposite of Always and Nicola Yoon

Ever since she got pregnant, seventeen-year-old Emoni's life has been about making the tough decisions - doing what has to be done for her young daughter and her grandmother. Keeping her head down at school, trying not to get caught up with new boy Malachi. The one place she can let everything go is in the kitchen, where she has magical hands - whipping…


Philadelphia Fire

By John Edgar Wideman,

Book cover of Philadelphia Fire

Why this book?

This book couldn’t be set anywhere else. In 1985, a stand-off between city authorities and members of the MOVE organization ended when a state police helicopter dropped two bombs on MOVE’s West Philadelphia headquarters. Eleven people died, including five children, and more than 60 homes were destroyed. Two residents of the house – a 13-year-old boy and an adult woman – survived the conflagration. 

MOVE members believed in racial justice, animal rights, and a back-to-nature lifestyle. The group frequently clashed with neighbors and city leaders. On the day of the bombing, police had gone to the MOVE home to evict those living there. 

As a newspaper reporter, I twice interviewed two police officers on the scene who helped young Birdie Africa as he fled the burning home. The first words Birdie said to the officers were, “Don’t shoot me.” Two decades after the bombing, the police officers were still haunted by it. “I’ll probably find peace when I pass,” one told me. 

John Edgar Wideman won the Pen/Faulkner Award for this often-dark work. Written in 1990, the story remains relevant today. While attending a memorial service for the MOVE victims, the fictional main character thinks of what he wanted to say to mourners: “… if they offed them people on Osage yesterday just might be you today. Or tomorrow. .. because that day in May the Man wasn’t playing. Huh uh. Taking no names. No prisoners … And here you are again, making no connections, taking out no insurance.”

Philadelphia Fire

By John Edgar Wideman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Philadelphia Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1985 police bombed a West Philadelphia row house. Eleven people died and a fire started that destroyed sixty other houses. John Edgar Wideman brings these events and their repercussions to shocking life in this seminal novel.

At the heart of Philadelphia Fire is Cudjoe, a writer and exile who returns to his old neighbourhood and who becomes obsessed with the search for a lone survivor of the event, a young boy seen running from the flames.

One of Wideman's most ambitious and celebrated works, Philadelphia Fire is about race, life and survival in urban America.


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