The best books that illuminate the unique life of outsider children in the South

Who am I?

I am a child of the South, hailing as I do from Warm Springs, Georgia, best known for Roosevelt’s Little White House. My family, indeed the entire community as far as I can tell, were in the thrall of conservative Christian values that had no room for people like me—gay (although I had no word for it for a long time) and physically misshapen (something to be hidden under layers of clothing). I was a boy and then teenager living on the fringes, always on the outside looking in, seeking approval or defiantly hiding to process the uniquely Southern dysfunction around me. I know these protagonists. They’re my people.


I wrote...

Red Clay Suzie

By Jeffrey Dale Lofton,

Book cover of Red Clay Suzie

What is my book about?

Red Clay Suzie captures life and love living on the fringes in America’s Deep South. Inspired by true events, I take readers inside the heart and mind of Philbet, a gay, physically misshapen boy struggling to find his way in a deeply conservative family and community. Fueled by tomato sandwiches and green milkshakes and obsessed with cars, Philbet is happiest when helping Grandaddy dig potatoes from the garden that connects their houses. But Philbet’s world is shattered by events that crush his innocence, expose his physical deformity, and convince him he’s not fit to be loved by Knox, the older boy he idolizes to distraction. Philbet finds refuge in unexpected places and unexpected ways, leading to a resolution from beyond the grave.

Awarded the Seven Hills Literary Prize for Fiction.

The books I picked & why

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To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee,

Book cover of To Kill a Mockingbird

Why this book?

Told from the point-of-view of a young girl, Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird masterfully immerses us in fictional Maycomb, Alabama, where racial prejudice and inequities are part of the fabric of the town. Against that backdrop, the precocious Scout, gently guided by Atticus Finch, her father, learns the roots and consequences of racism and otherness. Scout is every outsider child of the South who has questioned norms and stood up against fear-based hatred. This book got deeply under my skin, in my cells, when I read it in high school. I understood Scout and cheered her on from the sidelines.

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee,

Why should I read it?

22 authors picked To Kill a Mockingbird as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'

Atticus Finch gives this advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of this classic novel - a black man charged with attacking a white girl. Through the eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Lee explores the issues of race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s with compassion and humour. She also creates one of the great heroes of literature in their father, whose lone struggle for justice pricks the conscience of a town steeped…


The Cicada Tree

By Robert Gwaltney,

Book cover of The Cicada Tree

Why this book?

The Cicada Tree is a wonderful Southern Gothic magical realism mash-up leavened with humor and illuminating reflections on the human condition told in voices that drip with authentic Southernisms. Analeise Newell, this novel’s protagonist, is a complex, not-as-kind-as-she-knows-she-should-be eleven-year-old who drinks whiskey and is a piano prodigy. Her close friendship with Etta Mae, a budding coloratura soprano, sheds light on accepted racial inequities in the Deep South of the 1950s, building to (in the author’s words) a “chain of cataclysmic events with life-altering consequences-all of it unfolding to the maddening whir of a cicada song.” 

The Cicada Tree

By Robert Gwaltney,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Cicada Tree as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WHEN AN ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD, WHISKY DRINKING, PIANO PRODIGY ENCOUNTERS A WEALTHY FAMILY POSSESSING SUPERNATURAL BEAUTY, HER ENSUING OBSESSION UNLEASHES FAMILY SECRETS AND A CATACLYSMIC PLAGUE OF CICADAS. The summer of 1956, a brood of cicadas descends upon Providence, Georgia, a natural event with supernatural repercussions, unhinging the life of Analeise Newell, an eleven-year-old piano prodigy. Amidst this emergence, dark obsessions are stirred, uncanny gifts provoked, and secrets unearthed.
During a visit to Mistletoe, a plantation owned by the wealthy Mayfield family, Analeise encounters Cordelia Mayfield and her daughter Marlissa, both of whom possess an otherworldly beauty, a lineal trait regarded as…


Salvage the Bones

By Jesmyn Ward,

Book cover of Salvage the Bones

Why this book?

Salvage the Bones is a deeply personal, heartbreaking story of Esch and her siblings navigating life as Hurricane Katrina approaches. But more than the chaos of nature’s fury, it is their interior lives—their day-to-day struggles absent any meaningful help from outsiders—that bring Ward’s pages to vivid life. She shows us just how complex growing up can be, especially for a child faced with bringing a new life into the world. And, yes, I’ll leave it there, exhorting you to read Salvage the Bones for more.

Salvage the Bones

By Jesmyn Ward,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Salvage the Bones as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

_______________ 'A brilliantly pacy adventure story ... Ward writes like a dream' - The Times 'Fresh and urgent' - New York Times 'There's something of Faulkner to Ward's grand diction' - Guardian _______________ WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD Hurricane Katrina is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. He's a hard drinker, largely absent, and it isn't often he worries about the family. Esch and her three brothers are stockpiling food, but there isn't much to save. Lately, Esch can't keep down what food she gets;…


Cold Sassy Tree

By Olive Ann Burns,

Book cover of Cold Sassy Tree

Why this book?

Cold Sassy Tree is unabashedly naughty and funny and innocent all at the same time. Will comes of age in the early 1900s, and along the way we’re introduced to his family and friends who see him through exploits that rival anything Mark Twain ever cooked up for Tom Sawyer. It’s cooky, crazy, and completely enchanting. This is the spot-on antidote to a crummy week. We all have ‘em, so keep this special novel handy and pick it up when you most need to smile. It will bring you happiness as it does me.

Cold Sassy Tree

By Olive Ann Burns,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Cold Sassy Tree as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The one thing you can depend on in Cold Sassy, Georgia, is that word gets around—fast. When Grandpa E. Rucker Blakeslee announces one July morning in 1906 that he's aiming to marry the young and freckledy milliner, Miss Love Simpson—a bare three weeks after Granny Blakeslee has gone to her reward—the news is served up all over town with that afternoon's dinner. And young Will Tweedy suddenly finds himself eyewitness to a major scandal. Boggled by the sheer audacity of it all, and not a little jealous of his grandpa's new wife, Will nevertheless approves of this May-December match and…


The Secret Life of Bees

By Sue Monk Kidd,

Book cover of The Secret Life of Bees

Why this book?

At the center of The Secret Life of Bees is fourteen-year-old White girl Lily Owens, who is haunted by clouded memories of the afternoon her mother was killed. After her “stand-in mother” confronts racists in their town, they move to Tiburon, South Carolina, where they are taken in by three Black beekeeping sisters. There, Lilly finds a long-needed safe harbor in this mesmerizing novel about a bedrock longing for acceptance and the power, the divinity of the female spirit. Like a lot of kids from wildly dysfunctional Southern families, I ached for inclusion, for a sign that I was going to be okay, just like Lily. I get her—her questions, her struggles, her doubts, and I think you will too.

The Secret Life of Bees

By Sue Monk Kidd,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Secret Life of Bees as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The multi-million bestselling novel about a young girl's journey towards healing and the transforming power of love, from the award-winning author of The Invention of Wings and The Book of Longings

Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily's fierce-hearted Black "stand-in mother," Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina-a town that holds the secret to her mother's…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in bildungsroman, Georgia (USA), and South Carolina?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about bildungsroman, Georgia (USA), and South Carolina.

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