The best books about Mississippi

23 authors have picked their favorite books about Mississippi and why they recommend each book.

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Salvage the Bones

By Jesmyn Ward,

Book cover of Salvage the Bones

When I am asked whether my next book will also be true crime, I say that my wheelhouse isn’t actually true crime but stories about pregnant teenage girls. This extends to my reading material. Salvage the Bones is a heart-stopping novel about a 15-year-old girl being raised by her widowed father in small-town Mississippi. In the calm before Hurricane Katrina, Esch and her three brothers—who alternately play basketball, raise pit bulls to dogfight and get in the way—are only just getting by. But Esch has a secret, which threatens to tip her life into chaos—there’s a baby growing inside of her. This book shines a light on the vast unfairness of the responsibility of pregnancy. I all but held my breath for the last 50 pages.

Who am I?

I was raised in the Midwest by parents who told me I could have whatever kind of life I wanted. I took them at their word, never considering that my gender might come with limitations. It wasn’t until I had my first child and began investigating Paula’s case that the true complexity of womanhood began to dawn on me. I’ve since spent nine years reading and writing and thinking about the experience of being a woman in the modern world. 

I wrote...

What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood

By Katherine Dykstra,

Book cover of What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood

What is my book about?

One summer night in 1970, eighteen-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling left her house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and didn’t return. Four months later, her body was discovered just beyond the mouth of a culvert adjacent to the Cedar River. Her homicide has never been solved.

Paula’s case had been mostly forgotten when, 50 years later, journalist Katherine Dykstra began looking for answers. What begins as an inverstigation into an unsolved homicide, evolves into a reckoning about all the ways women are at risk in the world, simply by being women. Part true crime, part memoir, What Happened to Paula is a timely and important look at gender, autonomy, and the cost of being a woman.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

By Jesmyn Ward,

Book cover of Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jojo in this novel breaks my heart. His mother neglects him, his father is in prison, and he must take care of his three-year-old sister Kayla on his own. He and the other characters in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi are haunted by drugs, poverty, and backwoods racism. They are also haunted by ghosts. Jojo’s mother Leonie sees the phantasmic presence of brother Given, and Jojo is followed by the ghost of a boy who was cruelly murdered in Parchman prison. Apparitions wait in the tall trees. 

Who am I?

I was lucky enough to land a job teaching English at the University of Montevallo, a small public liberal arts college where I have had the opportunity to explore my strange academic interests and teach classes with titles like “Am I Human?” and “Southern Neogothic II: Disability, Hicksploitation, Meat.” When I got tenure, I also had the time and freedom to try my hand at writing the kind of Southern Gothic, Bizarro, and Horror tales that I have always adored. From Mad Magazine to MaddAddam, I have always craved dark satire, body horror, and the grotesque. It’s in my blood. 

I wrote...

Ballad of Jasmine Wills

By Lee Rozelle,

Book cover of Ballad of Jasmine Wills

What is my book about?

Channel surfing, I saw a commercial where people were eating worms for the reality TV program Fear Factor. I thought, why would somebody watch worm eating for entertainment? What would I eat for all that media attention? These questions compelled me to write a book where an overweight banker is kidnapped and made the star of a reality TV show called Diet Extreme. Locked inside a studio in the middle of the Alabama woods, Jasmine is tortured with fancy food, brainwashed with self-help videos, and badgered with exercise routines for her growing mass of livestream fans.  

As I Lay Dying

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of As I Lay Dying

A classic, and perhaps too much so. Many scholars of Faulkner believe there are other, greater titles in his career that should stand as his seminal work. However, this is the first of his novels that I read, and so perhaps had the advantage when it came to leaving an impression. Again, the multi-faceted storytelling is most impressive, as are the not-so-subtle themes of death and religion. Bonus points for the shortest chapter in literary history: My mother is a fish.

Who am I?

I’m from East Texas, which is closer in culture and climate to the South than the Southwest. The southern voice in American literature has given us countless classics, specifically when it comes to dealing with our very dark, very human nature. Violence, racism, religion, and redemption are all explored under the Southern Gothic umbrella. My own upbringing exposed me to much of the darkness that still exists in these shadowed pockets of the country. I want to illuminate some of those places, and each of these books serves as a massive spotlight. 

I wrote...

River, Sing Out

By James Wade,

Book cover of River, Sing Out

What is my book about?

Attempting to escape his abusive father and generations of cyclical poverty, young Jonah Hargrove joins the mysterious River -- a teenage girl carrying thousands of dollars in stolen meth -- and embarks on a southern gothic odyssey through the East Texas river bottoms. They are pursued by local drug kingpin, John Curtis, and his murderous enforcer, Dakota Cade, with whom River was romantically involved. But Cade and Curtis have their own enemies, as their relationship with the cartel controlling their meth supply begins to sour.

With a colorful cast of supporting characters and an unflinching violence juxtaposed against lyrical prose, River, Sing Out dives deep into a sinister and sanguinary world, where oppressive poverty is pitted against the hope of something greater.

Radicalizing the Ebony Tower

By Joy Ann Williamson-Lott,

Book cover of Radicalizing the Ebony Tower: Black Colleges and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi

Joy Williamson-Lott has a powerful voice and perspective the permeates every sentence in this book. She doesn’t waste a word. And, her research skills are superb. For anyone wanting to learn how to write beautiful history, this book is a model. She is also particularly good at showcasing the voices of African American students who were instrumental to the Black freedom struggle. You can feel their energy and frustration in her passages, and their commitment to freedom and justice comes alive.

Who am I?

Marybeth Gasman has been writing about African American history – within the educational setting – since 1994 when she began research that led to on an intellectual biography of African American sociologist, Harlem Renaissance architect, and Fisk University president Charles Spurgeon Johnson. Over the years, her work has explored many topics, including the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black medical schools, African American philanthropy, and the production of Black scientists. She is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Professor in Education & a Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University and also serves as the Executive Director of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity, & Justice.

I wrote...

Making Black Scientists: A Call to Action

By Marybeth Gasman, Nguyen Thai-Huy,

Book cover of Making Black Scientists: A Call to Action

What is my book about?

Americans have access to some of the best science education in the world, but too often black students are excluded from these opportunities. This essential book by leading voices in the field of education reform offers an inspiring vision of how America's universities can guide a new generation of African Americans to success in science.

A Chance for Change

By Crystal R. Sanders,

Book cover of A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle

Sanders offers a most compelling portrait of how working-class Black women harnessed civil rights activism to education and the War on Poverty. In 1965, the Child Development Group of Mississippi became one of the earliest Head Start programs in the nation. Sanders focuses on how activists deployed it to enhance educational opportunities for Black children and to secure economic independence from white employers for Black women. She also tracks how the state’s white supremacist political leaders and those in Washington D.C. undermined this successful program. In so doing, Sanders demonstrates the precariousness of civil rights victories, especially when activists sought economic justice that required fundamentally remaking the structure of U.S. society.  

Who am I?

Having studied the civil rights movement for over twenty years, I can attest that it is infinitely more complex, more nuanced, and more inspiring than how it has come to be remembered and celebrated. Students in my civil rights seminar always ask “Why did we never learn this in high school?!” They do so because they discover what becomes possible when ordinary people united around the goals of freedom and justice undertake extraordinary challenges. For those concerned about our contemporary historical moment, both the movement’s successes and shortcomings help explain how we got here. Yet they also suggest how we might best adapt the lessons from that era to our own as the struggle continues.

I wrote...

Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

By Katherine Mellen Charron,

Book cover of Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

What is my book about?

Lifelong educator and civic activist Septima Clark (1898-1987) created the Citizenship Schools, an adult education program that equipped southern African Americans with practical literacy so they could register to vote, and political and economic literacy so that they could effectively access resources to improve their communities. More than 28,000 people participated in this training. My biography of Clark explores the activist educational culture of Black women teachers in the Jim Crow South, and how she adapted it in the mid-1950s to train a new generation of grassroots women. Because women predominated as both teachers and students, I argue, the Citizenship Schools functioned as a crucial space for them to hone their leadership skills and then decisively shape the civil rights agenda in their local communities.

Coming of Age in Mississippi

By Anne Moody,

Book cover of Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South

Moody’s wrenching account of growing up black and desperately poor in rural 1950s Mississippi reveals the ways in which the Jim Crow system undermined the stability of black families, deprived them of decent housing and education, and trapped them in generational poverty. She reveals the grinding destitution of sharecropping life and the daily indignities whites inflicted on blacks, even small children. An inquisitive and intelligent girl, Moody was determined to go to college, a feat she achieved thanks to a basketball scholarship.

At Tougaloo College, she became deeply involved in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s fight to bring integrated facilities and voting rights to Mississippi. This is a story of deep disillusionment and fierce resistance.

Who am I?

I was raised on a dairy farm in Tennessee, and I grew up steeped in my grandparents’ stories about the “hard times before the War” and the challenges of making a living on the land as the southern farm economy was transformed by industrialization and modernization. I learned to appreciate the deep insights found in the stories of so-called ordinary people. As a historian, I became committed to using oral history to explore the way people understood their lives, in my own research and writing and in my teaching. I assigned all five of these books to my own students at Converse University who always found them to be powerful reading.

I wrote...

Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History

By Melissa Walker,

Book cover of Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History

What is my book about?

Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History explores the ways that southern farm people understood the social and economic transformations they experienced in the twentieth century. The book tells the story of the modernization of the South in the voices of those most affected by the decline of traditional ways of life and work.

It analyzes the recurring patterns in the ways farmers described agricultural change and leaving the land, filling in gaps left by more conventional political and economic histories of southern agriculture.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

By Mildred D. Taylor,

Book cover of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

By the time Mildred Taylor received the Newbery Award for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in 1977, I had moved on to reading historical fiction for adults. In grad school I studied all of the Newbery winners to learn how to write literary fiction for young readers, and I fell in love with the whole Logan family at first read, especially the nine-year-old narrator, Cassie. Taylor had the exceptional talent of being able to climb inside a child’s mind and take the reader through her lived experience with stunning psychological depth and truth. With heartfelt humanity, Cassie’s narrative puts readers inside a loving, proud, and independent land-owning Black family defying racism in 1933 Mississippi. 

Who am I?

As an avid young White female reader of everything from cereal boxes to any book I could get my hands on, historical fiction was my favorite genre from an early age. I still love experiencing a different time and place vicariously through the eyes of protagonists different from myself. Both an author and a scholar, I’ve taught children’s and young adult literature for three decades and currently direct the Graduate Programs in Children’s Literature at Hollins University. My once contemporary PhD dissertation, Ash: A Novel (Orchard Books, 1995), has become historical fiction of sorts, due to the passage of time.

I wrote...

I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials, Massachusetts Bay Colony 1691 (Dear America Series)

By Lisa Rowe Fraustino,

Book cover of I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials, Massachusetts Bay Colony 1691 (Dear America Series)

What is my book about?

This is the compelling diary of a young girl who finds herself caught up in the turmoil and drama of the Salem Witch Trials.

Deliverance Trembley lives in Salem Village, where she must take care of her sickly sister, Mem, and where she does her daily chores in fear of her cruel uncle's angry temper. But when four young girls from the village accuse some of the local women of being witches, Deliverance finds herself caught up in the ensuing drama of the trials. And life in Salem is never the same.

The Sound and the Fury

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of The Sound and the Fury

While no one would call Faulkner’s 1929 masterpiece “a surprisingly accessible read,” it remains a landmark of modernism and one of the finest examples of stream of consciousness prose. Faulkner takes readers deep into the minds of his perspective characters, showing the ways they think in real-time as they navigate a day while consumed by past traumas, unstable identities, and inherited historical burdens.

Who am I?

If this list of books sounds like it would make for a great class, that’s because it is! These books form the core of an American Novels Since 1900 class that I teach at the University of Northern Iowa. I didn’t choose them initially because they mess with time, but after teaching them for a number of years, I couldn’t help but notice the ways in which they spoke to one another, and I guess I couldn’t help but be influenced by them as well.

I wrote...

The Cord

By Jim O'Loughlin,

Book cover of The Cord

What is my book about?

The Cord is a science fiction novel that follows life along both ends of a space elevator that connects an orbiting space station to an equatorial island. The story is told in a reverse narrative format that emphasizes the fragile but essential ties across generations. It is a book that messes with time, and I’ve been influenced by some great books which, appropriately, are listed here in reverse chronological order.

Dispatches from Pluto

By Richard Grant,

Book cover of Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta

This is a fantastic dive into a tangle of interrelated subcultures in a part of America so foreign to me that I felt like I was reading about another country. Richard Grant unlocks the secret of how to talk about deep-seated patterns of social injustice in a way that I found to be, not just educational, but a riveting read. This book taught me that sometimes the best way to spread awareness is by getting off of one’s soapbox, and simply allowing the facts – funny, sad, and maddening to speak for themselves.

Who am I?

As a journalist, I’ve often been frustrated at the sense that I am preaching to the choir – those who take the time to read about a serious topic don’t need to, and those who need to, won’t. I’ve learned to spread awareness by packaging serious information inside a “Trojan Horse," one so fun to read that it reaches people who can actually benefit from the educational bits. These brilliant books, and many others, show that a spoonful of sugar can help us easily swallow information about social justice, endangered species, the U.S. military, and American history. I happily make these books Christmas gifts, knowing they are joys, not obligations.

I wrote...

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town

By Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling,

Book cover of A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town

What is my book about?

A tiny American town's plans for radical self-government overlooked one hairy detail: no one told the bears.

Once upon a time, a group of libertarians got together and hatched the Free Town Project, a plan to take over an American town and completely eliminate its government. In 2004, they set their sights on Grafton, NH, a barely populated settlement with one paved road. A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear is the sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying tale of what happens when a government disappears into the woods. Complete with gunplay, adventure, and backstabbing politicians, this is the ultimate story of a quintessential American experiment -- to live free or die, perhaps from a bear.

Them Bones

By Carolyn Haines,

Book cover of Them Bones

Sarah Booth Delaney, Southern belle and failed actress turned amateur sleuth is wily, droll, and full of real Southern charm. She will teach you the art of cloaking an insult in a compliment, the proper way to make an entrance and an exit, and how to save your family’s estate by kidnapping a friend’s dog and rescuing it for the reward. This kind of cleverness lends itself to sleuthing, particularly in an old town full of secrets, lies, and dead bodies - some haunting the mansion she’s trying to save. I loved the dialogue and the cunningness of Sarah in Them Bones and the rest of the series. Set in Zinnia, Mississippi, you’ll fall in love with Sarah and Jitty, the bossy antebellum ghost haunting the family plantation.

Who am I?

My first editor informed me I was a mystery writer and my first mystery conference categorized me as a Southern humorous mystery writer. I didn’t intend to write Southern humorous mysteries but find the world-view of my characters and the world they live in quite comical and southern (my characters and I live in Georgia). I also abhor crime, so the dead bodies that keep appearing in my stories need to be dealt with lightly. I’m happy to be a Wall Street Journal bestselling and international award-winning author with eighteen books and counting in three series, Cherry Tucker Mysteries, Maizie Albright Star Detectives, and Finley Goodhart Crime Capers. 

I wrote...

Portrait of a Dead Guy

By Larissa Reinhart,

Book cover of Portrait of a Dead Guy

What is my book about?

In Halo, Georgia, folks know Cherry Tucker as big in mouth, small in stature, and able to sketch a portrait faster than kudzu climbs telephone poles -- but commissions are scarce. So when the well-heeled Branson family wants to memorialize their murdered son in a coffin portrait, Cherry scrambles to win their patronage from her small town rival.

As the clock ticks toward the deadline, Cherry faces more trouble than just a controversial subject. Between ex-boyfriends, her flaky family, an illegal gambling ring, and outwitting a killer on a spree, Cherry finds herself painted into a corner she'll be lucky to survive.

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