The best books about Harlem

4 authors have picked their favorite books about Harlem and why they recommend each book.

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Tar Beach

By Faith Ringgold,

Book cover of Tar Beach

Tar Beach is a classic and for good reason! This book addresses heavy subjects like racism and poverty but is threaded through with an overall message of hope and love. The main character flies above her life in 1930s Harlem, soaring over buildings and bridges -- claiming them as her own. The dreamy illustrations and surreal storyline acknowledge the hard realities of life, but leave the reader with a sense of optimism for the future.


Who am I?

I am a creator and lover of stories. I think storytelling is the most powerful force in the universe. Lately, the world has felt scary and divided and overwhelming for adults, I cannot fathom how confusing it must be for kids. Stories like these can help them process traumas, learn kindness and compassion, and see the world from new perspectives. 


I wrote...

Mama Mable's All-Gal Big Band Jazz Extravaganza!

By Annie Sieg,

Book cover of Mama Mable's All-Gal Big Band Jazz Extravaganza!

What is my book about?

Mama Mable was my first-ever children’s book, and it was also an important lesson in the challenges of telling complex stories. With so many men away at war, the 1940s saw a rise in all-female jazz ensembles (like the International Sweethearts of Rhythm or Babe Egan and the Hollywood Redheads) who for the first time were able to tour the country as professional musicians. These women broke barriers of race, class, and gender and yet many of their stories remain untold.

The band in my book is fictional, but each character is inspired by a real female musician of that era- in the hopes of bringing attention to the many women who contributed to this amazing time in music history.

Here in Harlem

By Walter Dean Myers,

Book cover of Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices

Here in Harlem pays homage to the people of Harlem in the first half of the 20th century. I loved how the rhythmic, musical verse brings the setting to life. It’s modeled on Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, but in a completely unique way that will really speak to YA readers.

The voices depicted in this poetry collection—especially Clara Brown’s recurring testimonies—make the book feel like a fully alive story rather than simple moments captured in time.


Who am I?

I write historical YA in verse—pretty much the niche of the niche. Before I was published, I spent many years writing and querying various YA projects in prose, but it wasn’t until I decided to try a project in verse that I really found my groove. Nowadays, everything I write falls under that same (small) umbrella, so I really looked to novels like the ones here to learn from the best. These days, I still love reading YA historicals and anything in verse, but YA historicals in verse remain forever my favorite.


I wrote...

The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin

By Kip Wilson,

Book cover of The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin

What is my book about?

The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin is a historical novel-in-verse about 18-year-old Hilde, just released from a Berlin orphanage, ready to make her way in the world. She stumbles into Café Lila, a queer club full of love and music, and meets Rosa, the club’s waitress and performer. 

But it’s 1932, and Berlin is in turmoil. Between elections, protests in the streets, and the growing unrest in Café Lila itself, Hilde will have to decide what’s best for her future…and what it means to love a place that will soon be changed forever.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Book cover of Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance

Everyone recognizes ZNH’s iconic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but Hurston is a master short story writer. She reminds me of the artist Van Gogh, who devoted his work to the common man as Hurston centers her stories on simple folk whose experiences exemplify the human struggle. Profound and pleasing to read, you will smell the flowers, hear the bees buzzing, and occasionally laugh out loud at these beautifully told stories of real life. Although your life may be different from these, you will be reminded of what bonds us more than what divides us. No better time to think about that. 


Who am I?

I’ve loved short stories since I was a young girl introduced to Edgar Allen Poe. There’s something especially exciting about a complete story in few words, and once I had to balance work, children, and personal relationships, stories became all the more cherished for short takes. I especially like tales about and by women, relating to our real challenges, and I review them often so other busy women discover better writers and interesting tales. There is nothing like a short story any time of day, especially in the evening, to soothe the soul. 


I wrote...

Rational Women

By Randy Kraft,

Book cover of Rational Women

What is my book about?

Short stories fit a busy woman’s clock. They inspire and educate and, in other lives, we learn something of our own. These modern women grapple with life choices, vacillating between reason and passion:

A grieving businesswoman seeks connection with a stranger. A cerebral woman marries a professor only to discover she needs more than intellect. A teacher takes her poor students’ lives into her own hands. A high-achiever questions her values. A newspaper editor confronts her biases. A white writer faces the disdain of a black critic. At court for a minor offense, a righteous woman considers her real crimes. A sculptor struggles to mold her newborn. An empty nester chooses a new path. In Paris to please her mother, a docile woman discovers a different destiny. 

The Poet X

By Elizabeth Acevedo,

Book cover of The Poet X

This was one of my first times reading a novel in poems, so I was nervous going in—but once I started reading, I couldn’t imagine this story being told any other way. Xiomara is a character whose emotions come to life with aching realness through beautiful, evocative prose as she tries to navigate becoming a woman, reconciling with her religious mother, and expressing herself through poetry. I cried so many times through her difficult journey, but her fierceness and trueness to herself gave me confidence with my own struggles with my sexuality. Don’t let unfamiliarity with poetry scare you away: This book is crushingly gorgeous.


Who am I?

At first glance, this might look like a rather random collection of books. There’s sci-fi, contemporary, fantasy, and even a novel-in-verse. That’s because if you asked what my taste in books is, I’d tell you: Genre doesn’t matter as long as it has compelling, complicated, flawed characters and equally complicated but worthwhile relationships. As someone who’s struggled most of my life with anxiety, depression, and my sexuality, anytime I see characters fighting for what they want, it gives me hope, too. I hope these books help anyone who’s ever felt not enough or unsure of who they even are.


I wrote...

A Soldier and a Liar

By Caitlin Lochner,

Book cover of A Soldier and a Liar

What is my book about?

From the very first draft, A Soldier and a Liar has always been about its complicated, flawed characters, their secrets and rocky relationships, and their journey in learning how to trust others even when they’ve spent their whole lives being hurt. There are superpowers and impending war set in a dystopian world, life-or-death battles, betrayals on every level, and questions of fault and responsibility. But at the end of the day, this is a book about love in every form—even when it’s difficult to move on from past scars inflicted by loved ones.

Manchild in the Promised Land

By Claude Brown,

Book cover of Manchild in the Promised Land

In this 1965 memoir, the late Claude Brown recounts his experiences coming of age on the mean streets of Harlem just after World War II as part of that first generation of black refugees from the south to resettle in New York. Besides ranking as a classic of black literature, Manchild provides plenty of adventure for fans of true crime with an inside look at juvenile gangs, incarceration, and, ultimately, the redemption Brown enjoyed, reflecting themes that remain relevant into the current century.

Who am I?

During my 45-year career as a newspaper and magazine journalist, I covered a wide range of events on a daily basis. As a police and courts reporter for two daily newspapers, I spent many hours researching and writing about crime and legal affairs. As a reader, I’ve enjoyed true crime. As the target of a true-crime myself in 1980, however, I became more fascinated with the sub-genre of the true-crime memoir in which a participant in a true-crime shares insider details of the story without seeking pity or glorification from the reader through objectivity and self-deprecating humor. It’s a fine line. When an author manages to walk it, however, the result proves inspirational.


I wrote...

Luggage by Kroger: A True Crime Memoir

By Gary Taylor,

Book cover of Luggage by Kroger: A True Crime Memoir

What is my book about?

Luggage by Kroger is my memoir of a year when, as a Houston newspaper reporter, I survived a true-life Fatal Attraction adventure that culminated with my attempted murder in 1980 at the hands of a notorious female attorney. Twice optioned for movies, this story made me the poster boy for true-life Fatal Attraction appearances on Oprah, Regis, 48 Hours, and other television programs. Since its publication in 2008, Luggage by Kroger has been a fixture on the Kindle Store’s lists of bestselling true crime and criminology titles, attracting rave reviews and winning five national book awards.

Praisesong for the Widow

By Paule Marshall,

Book cover of Praisesong for the Widow

A cruise ship is, perhaps, the least likely of all possible venues for the beginning of a spiritual breakthrough. But this is where spiritual transformation starts for Avey Johnson, the 64-year-old African American woman who is the central character in this Marshall novel. Breakthroughs are often set in motion deep down inside us, below the surface of our ordinary awareness. In fact, a real breakthrough can’t happen unless it goes all the way down in us. I know of no book that conveys this truth more effectively.


Who am I?

During my 37 years of teaching philosophy to undergraduate students, most of whom had no prior exposure to it, my purpose was to promote self-examination of the sort practiced and encouraged by Socrates. Such self-examination is upsetting, unsettling. It leads one to insights and realizations one would prefer not to have. But by undermining one’s assumptions, these insights break one open to a whole universe of which one had been oblivious. Breakdowns make possible breakthroughs. My students didn’t realize that, just as I was trying to provoke this kind of spiritual transformation in them, their questions, criticisms, challenges, and insights provoked it in me. 


I wrote...

Sobering Wisdom: Philosophical Explorations of Twelve Step Spirituality

By Jerome A. Miller (editor), Nicholas Plants (editor),

Book cover of Sobering Wisdom: Philosophical Explorations of Twelve Step Spirituality

What is my book about?

It is now widely recognized that Twelve-Step spirituality, originally developed by alcoholics for alcoholics, offers all of us neurotic, tormented controllers a pathway out of our addictions. This book of essays will help you understand why and how they are able to do this. Some of the essays are intensely personal, some academically flavored. Each of them brings an appreciative philosophical eye to the Twelve Steps and helps to illuminate their logic and transformative power. The essays explore many of the key themes on which the Twelve Steps focus, including powerlessness, freedom, vulnerability, the meaning of a “higher power,” gratitude, and fellowship. While they approach the Twelve Steps from many different philosophical perspectives—existentialism, Confucianism, Buddhism, atheism, pragmatism—the contributors to the book agree that the Steps provide invaluable insights into the spiritual infrastructure of all religious and spiritual traditions.

Down These Mean Streets

By Piri Thomas,

Book cover of Down These Mean Streets

Thomas’s memoir is a seminal text of Nuyorican Literature (a sub-genre of Diasporican Literature) and the Latinx canon. It also belongs to the urban literature genre that emerged in the 1960s. His, however, was the first Latinx version of a narrative that depicts, some would say sensationalizes and exploits, the gritty, raw life of the inner city. As such, it had a tremendous impact on developing Latinx writers who had few role models at the time. His work, along with others of that genre, still holds influence stylistically and thematically with some Latinx authors. Written in the traditional Augustinian autobiographical model, Mean Streets tracks Piri’s fall into crime and drugs and final transformation and redemption. More significantly, this memoir introduces the issue of Latinx black identity and the complication of it within the American black-white paradigm. 


Who am I?

I’m a child of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Born in the island, raised in the South Bronx—with an interval period in the homeland “to find roots”—I now reside in upstate New York. My life is representative of the vaivén—the “coming and going”—that is a constant in Puerto Rican modern history. Like many Diasporicans, I grew up disconnected from my history, culture, and heritage. These books did not recover what I lost. It is difficult to reclaim culture and national identity secondhand. But these writers shared an experience I readily recognized. Reading them, I embrace my tribe and don’t feel alone. They inspire me to write and tell my own stories.


I wrote...

Migrations

By J.L. Torres,

Book cover of Migrations

What is my book about?

A ‘sucio’ goes to an underground clinic for therapy to end his machista ways and is accidentally transitioned. Ex-gangbangers gone straight deal with a troubled, gifted son drawn to the gangsta lifestyle promoted by an emerging music called hip hop. Dead and stuck “between somewhere and nowhere,” Roberto Clemente, the great Puerto Rican baseball icon, soon confronts the reason for his predicament. These are a few of the characters in J.L. Torres’s second story collection, Migrations, the inaugural winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Prize.

These stories take us inside the lives of Diasporicans, Puerto Ricans in the diaspora: self-exiles, unhomed, and unhinged people, estranged from loved ones, family, culture, and collective history. Despite the effects of colonization of the body and mind, Puerto Ricans have survived beyond geography and form an integral part of the American mosaic.

Harlem Grown

By Tony Hillery, Jessie Hartland (illustrator),

Book cover of Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood

Sometimes, living in a city makes it easy to forget where food comes from. And sometimes it takes just one person to see the possibilities in an empty city space. Gardens can grow in urban places, including gardens that provide fresh, healthy food to eat! This is the inspiring story of one man and a group of school children who, through trial and error and perseverance, transformed an abandoned New York City building lot into a garden full of fruit and vegetables— while growing a sense of collaboration and community in the process.


Who am I?

I’m a children’s book author, illustrator, and map illustrator, as well as an armchair traveler and history buff. I adore books that explain how the world works through the ideas and inventions of curious human beings, narratives of travel and change, and how past and present history are connected. Nonfiction picture books are a fantastic way to distill these true stories for readers of all ages!


I wrote...

Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island

By Jennifer Thermes,

Book cover of Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island

What is my book about?

From before its earliest settlement to the vibrant metropolis that exists today, the island of Manhattan has always been a place of struggle, growth, and transformation. Through dazzling maps and informative sidebars, Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island explores how humans, history, and natural events have shaped this tiny sliver of land for more than 400 years. Discover how a small rodent began an era of rapid change for the island. Learn about the people who built New York City, and how a street plan projected the city’s future. Marvel at how epic fires and storms led to major feats of engineering above and below ground. From The Battery downtown up to Inwood, every inch of the island has a story to tell.

Harlem Shuffle

By Colson Whitehead,

Book cover of Harlem Shuffle

Colson Whitehead takes us into the bowels of 1960s Harlem, where slick operators, ruthless conmen, and aspiring citizens rub shoulders. I liked Ray Carney as soon as I met him and felt bad that life kept tossing him curveballs. Like his cousin Freddie, who dragged him into a life of crime and high anxiety. The book is funny, poignant, fast-paced, and utterly absorbing. And the prose, like all of Whitehead’s writing, dazzles and delights.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by mysteries since I was little. I've also always loved puzzles and brain-teasers. I’ve been a student of Jewish folklore, including folktales, superstitions, mystical ideas, and supernatural creatures all my life. I look for books that challenge my ability to unravel tangles and take me out of my everyday experience. I love mysteries that morph into thrillers, changing the question from “Whodunit” to “What’s at stake?” I read incessantly and obsessively, always on the lookout for new exotic locales, some history that I don’t know, eccentric characters, clever plotting. My own writing traces these same paths, and I love learning from new masters of the genre as well as newbies.


I wrote...

The Deadly Scrolls: Volume 1

By Ellen Frankel,

Book cover of The Deadly Scrolls: Volume 1

What is my book about?

A professor’s murder reveals his discovery of a lost Dead Sea Scroll, whose text encodes the secret hiding places of the lost Second Temple Treasures. Israeli intelligence agent Maya Rimon races against time to stop a religious extremist from launching a terrorist attack at the next Blood Moon, triggering the Apocalypse. The story centers around a genuine historical artifact, the Copper Scroll, whose secrets still remain undeciphered by contemporary scholars and treasure hunters. 

Laced with clever spycraft, encrypted electronic files, mysterious ancient puzzles, plastique explosives, car chases, and Sherlockian ratiocination, The Deadly Scrolls explores the timely theme of fanaticism: among Christian millennialists, Jewish messianists, Islamic terrorists, Israeli politicians, Orthodox Jews, conspiracy theorists, devout Zionists—and spies. In other words, it’s a Jewish Da Vinci Code!

Invisible Man

By Ralph Ellison,

Book cover of Invisible Man

You may in fact have read this in college as I did, but it will richly reward a return. The protagonist doesn’t have a name because his humanity is invisible to the white world. Sitting in a room with its hundreds of lightbulbs run on power stolen from the city, he reflects on the life that brought him from the rural South to Harlem, and it’s all one grotesque, horrible, comic, and inescapable bad dream. No one sees him, but everyone, from sadistic southern whites, to black nationalists, to the doctrinaire Leftists of “The Brotherhood,” wants to use him.

This is an essential American novel.


Who am I?

Growing up in Salt Lake City in the 1950s I was very soon aware that I was living in a world of borders, some permeable and negotiable, and some almost impossible to cross. It was a city of Mormons and a city of those who weren’t; a city of immigrants like my grandparents, and about whom my mother wrote (and wrote well); and a Jim Crow town where Black men and women couldn’t get into the ballroom to hear Duke Ellington play. Finally, it was a city haunted by its Indian past in a state keeping living Indians in its many bleak government reservations. What to make of those borders has been a life-long effort.


I wrote...

An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

By Zeese Papanikolas,

Book cover of An American Cakewalk: Ten Syncopators of the Modern World

What is my book about?

An American Cakewalk is about a group of American jazz musicians, poets, writers, philosophers, and yes, cakewalkers, who didn’t crash head on into the borders of racism, poetic tradition, received ideas and economic orthodoxy that surrounded them, but, like the enslaved men and women who watched their masters’ pompous cotillion, glanced off them through satire and sly subversion. I write about Emily Dickinson and Stephen Crane, Scott Joplin and Charles Mingus, Jelly Roll Morton and William and Henry James, Thorstein Veblen and Abraham Cahan – and squeeze in some others too.

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