19 books directly related to Harlem 📚

All 19 Harlem books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Tar Beach

By Faith Ringgold,

Book cover of Tar Beach

Why this book?

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.


Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices

By Walter Dean Myers,

Book cover of Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices

Why this book?

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.


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

By Zora Neale Hurston,

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

Why this book?

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. 


The Poet X

By Elizabeth Acevedo,

Book cover of The Poet X

Why this book?

I loved this book from the get-go! It’s about Xiomara (X), a first-generation Dominican American teen living in Harlem who feels stifled growing up in a religious immigrant home and I love how X is tough and confident enough to defend herself against the boys who give her unwanted attention and also protect her little brother. But mostly what I loved about her is how she fought for the freedom to express herself, which she does so beautifully in her school’s poetry slam. Her poetry is timely and raw. I love how it made me feel like creativity can set us all free. 


Manchild in the Promised Land

By Claude Brown,

Book cover of Manchild in the Promised Land

Why this book?

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.


Praisesong for the Widow

By Paule Marshall,

Book cover of Praisesong for the Widow

Why this book?

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.


Down These Mean Streets

By Piri Thomas,

Book cover of Down These Mean Streets

Why this book?

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. 


Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood

By Tony Hillery, Jessie Hartland (illustrator),

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

Why this book?

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.


Harlem Shuffle

By Colson Whitehead,

Book cover of Harlem Shuffle

Why this book?

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.


Jazz

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Jazz

Why this book?

This 1993 novel focuses on a Black couple, Joe and Violet, who move from Virginia to Harlem during the Great Black Migration; after Joe murders his teenage lover. Violet goes to the girl’s funeral intending to deface the corpse. Morrison delves into the family history of the two main characters, showing how the trauma of their ancestors’ enslavement shapes them psychologically. She also illustrates the challenges faced by Black women in both rural and urban settings. I recommend Jazz because it helps us rethink how stories of that time can be told. Morrison created an omniscient, unreliable, and sometimes inscrutable narrator who seems to improvise in different voices, like the music the novel is named for. Listen to the voices and you will understand how they were formed through migration.


Invisible Man

By Ralph Ellison,

Book cover of Invisible Man

Why this book?

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.


Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

By Roxane Orgill, Francis Vallejo (illustrator),

Book cover of Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

Why this book?

Deservedly, this book received 6 starred reviews for a superb pairing of text and artwork recounting the story of a historic photograph. Taken in 1958 for Esquire Magazine, A Great Day in Harlem captured the gathering of outstanding jazz musicians on a city street, and Orgill's book brings the magic of that summer day to life for young readers. How I wish this idea had been mine! ;]


The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden

By Karina Yan Glaser,

Book cover of The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden

Why this book?

There are so many nice things we, as humans, can do for others. Especially people we know! It simply takes a little time and effort. In The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden, Oliver and his siblings decide to grow a garden in an abandoned plot of land in Harlem, something his elderly neighbor “has been hinting at for years”. Before long, it’s not just the Vanderbeekers who are helping with the garden. And I dare you not to smile when the whole neighborhood sees it bloom. 


My Monticello: Fiction

By Jocelyn Nicole Johnson,

Book cover of My Monticello: Fiction

Why this book?

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s My Monticello is a title to be treasured. Through a series of masterfully woven stories, Johnson brings forth and highlights the deep-rooted racial inequalities in our country. Having my debut novel published later in life, I feel a special connection because Johnson’s recent release is about resilience and passion for the arts – and it proves that ageism has no place in the art world. This is another fiction title I would highly recommend. There’s a lesson to be learned from every character and every story penned in My Monticello.  


Dead Dead Girls

By Nekesa Afia,

Book cover of Dead Dead Girls

Why this book?

The reason I’m flinging this debut historical mystery at everyone who reads books is because of its main character, Louise Lloyd. Lou is a tiny, determined, fierce Black lesbian who lives in 1920s Jazz-Age Harlem and really does not want to keep solving crimes, but crimes keep happening and who else is going to solve them? If you like your heroines ferociously competent, your murder mysteries fast-paced, and your stories to be equal parts harsh tragedy and unstoppable joy, this one’s for you. Plus, it’s the first in a series!


Erasure

By Percival L. Everett,

Book cover of Erasure

Why this book?

Erasure’s book within a book set up targets publishing, contemporary society, and, without mentioning her name, Oprah Winfrey. The plot is terrific. An African American author who is told his work isn't “Black enough” knocks out a satirical retelling of Richard Wright’s Native Son under a pseudonym. The book “My Pafology” — which he retitles “Fuck” —  is boosted by a TV personality and becomes a huge hit, its satirical elements lost on the world. Hilarity ensues. The novel echoes literary scams like James Frey’s Million Little Pieces, but Everett, an under-recognized genius, roasts everyone. 


Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography

By Audre Lorde,

Book cover of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography

Why this book?

Known primarily for her poems and essays, Audre Lorde’s long-form works didn’t attract my attention until I was nearly 30. Zami intrigued me because Lorde called the book a “biomythography”—a mix of biography, history, and myth. The result is a hypnotic mosaic about the lives of women, many of them Black and/or lesbians, who face down hostile political realities, yet often create space to love and support one another.

There is an intimacy to Lorde’s writing, and it doesn’t hesitate to turn sensual. While reading Zami, I realized how underexposed I was to sapphic love stories. I considered myself an ally to my queer sisters, but truth be told, I didn’t read many books that emersed me into their perspectives. Zami led me to expand my reading horizons.


The Women of Brewster Place

By Gloria Naylor,

Book cover of The Women of Brewster Place

Why this book?

This is the absolute, hands down best collection of interlinked stories framed as a novel I have ever read in my life. You will fall in love with each and every one of these colorful, dynamic, and heartwarming women who find themselves in one tenement building in 1970s Harlem. Mattie Michael, Etta Mae Johnson, Lucielia "Ciel" Turner, Melanie "Kiswana" Browne, Cora Lee, Lorraine, and Theresa all come from different backgrounds but intersect around one major theme: surviving urban America as Black women. By the end, you will roar in celebration and respect for their journeys to self-fulfillment, self-discovery, and self-empowerment despite incredible odds. 


In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939

By Minkah Makalani,

Book cover of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939

Why this book?

Why did some Black Americans turn to the communist movement during the interwar period? This is one of the key questions Makalani seeks to answer in his book. He understands the limits of the movement, particularly its doctrinaire approach and the left’s limited engagement with race heading into the 1920s. He focuses on how Black Americans played a role in turning communism’s attention to racial issues while reconsidering certain theories of communism within their own radical networks. Makalani also emphasizes how many Black sojourners accepted communist tactics while maintaining their hesitancy towards the broader movement. Makalani provides a critical look at the Comintern and its efforts, while stressing the development of a unique Black radical movement.