Grand Rapids' literary leaders discuss their favorite authors and books from the Mitten State, and the compilation is making us pretty darn proud of where we live.
When it comes to the written word, Michigan is a veritable haven, with the Mitten State's cities, rivers and farms playing backdrop to stories of all that which we call life: love and despair and family and heartbreak and joy. We're lucky to live in a state that so many incredible wordsmiths call home, their books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry bringing us into worlds both familiar and far away: growing up on a Michigan farm in the 1960s, a tour of America's food, struggles with poverty and drug addiction in the Kalamazoo River Valley, poignant and beautiful odes to Detroit, the death of a child and loss of a parent.
Here in Grand Rapids, lovers of literature are particularly fortunate: from locally owned book shops to incredibly active libraries, the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters, and many a book reading, there are endless opportunities to soak in the written word from people who live right here in our community. We have turned to some of these folks to find out their favorite literary beacons hailing from Michigan, or what books set in our state they can't put down, and we're thrilled with their incredibly thoughtful responses.
Roni Devlin, president of Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters
Bonnie Jo Campbell
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories
You just can't go wrong in picking up a book by Bonnie Jo Campbell, and her latest is no exception.
Love, Sex, and 4-H
Oomen's memoir of growing up on a farm in Michigan during the 1960's links her coming of age to the progress she makes, year after year, in sewing skills for 4-H. Readers will likely be able to tell that Oomen is also a poet: this book is quite
lyrical and beautifully realized.
This award-winning book of poems is Faizullah's first, and its focus is the rape of between 200,000-400,000 Bangladeshi women during the country’s 1971 Liberation War. Faizullah weaves the story of herself and her family among those of the victims.
Matthew Gavin Frank
The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America's Food
Frank has always been a favorite regional author (we're lucky to have him here in Michigan!). This time, Frank embarks on a tour of food across the United States, providing an essay on a specific food within each of the 50 states (and each essay includes a recipe, too).
Rose Water & Orange Blossoms
Abood, a Lebanese-American, grew up in Michigan within a family that expressed themselves in the kitchen. This cookbook is thus influenced not only by the traditional Lebanese meals of her upbringing, but also by her subsequent time in culinary school and as a chef in California.
This debut novel depicts the planned influx of a group of Libertarians into a small town called Haymaker. Readers will find much to like in the description of the town and its setting within Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but it is with the characters of Haymaker (both of the town's population and among the Libertarians) that they will find themselves most engaged.
This book of poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer this year. Enough said — go read it.
This book's title refers to a complicated musical technique, but also describes the life of the narrator, a harpist, as he navigates his way through job opportunities, fatherhood, the loss of a parent, and relationship issues with his ex-wife and his current girlfriend.
The Big Book of Exit Strategies
May is a bit of a superstar in the poetry world, and this book has been highly anticipated given the impressiveness of his debut,
Hum. This book, which reads as an ode to Detroit, addresses some serious themes, too: gun violence, racism, poverty. But, May knows how to balance these harder truths with that which remains beautiful.
If you've never read Schmidt's books before, now is the time. And it doesn't matter that they are found in the Young Adult section. His latest tracks the path of a foster teen with a harsh past who is placed with a farm family in rural Maine.
Adam Schuitema, author and associate professor of English at Kendall College of Art and Design
Michigan has produced a number of prominent writers who’ve captured the uniqueness of our landscape and shared it with the wider reading world. Artists such as the late, great Jim Harrison—as well as the indispensable fictionist Bonnie Jo Campbell—have found mainstream success and brought our state wide acclaim through their words.
But I wanted to share a list of books by a current wave of Michigan writers, and to especially focus on titles published by small, independent presses. These presses have increasingly become the lifeblood of the publishing world, especially for emerging poets and fiction writers. And though some of these writers have been (or are about to be) published by major houses, I highly recommend seeking out these powerful works.
Matthew Gavin Frank
The Mad Feast
Okay, right off the bat I’m cheating here. This one’s not from a small press, but Frank built his reputation through the indies with his nonfiction and poetry, and his latest is a powerhouse of lyrical essays—one essay for each of the fifty states—focusing on uniquely regional foods, including Michigan’s own pasty.
This Is Not Your City
This debut fiction collection helped put Horrocks on the national map, and her upcoming books will only further solidify her reputation as one of the smartest and most inventive storytellers out there.
Ha Ha Ha Thump
Huey is one of those poets whose writing invites you in with humor and pop culture so that, when the emotional hammer drops, you never see it coming. I recommend the experience.
W. Todd Kaneko
The Dead Wrester Elegies
Kaneko both wrote and illustrated this collection of poems, each piece a grand lament for a different deceased professional wrestler. The writing perfectly captures the tragedy, comedy, and utter humanity of its subjects.
He Plays a Harp
A memoir about every parent’s nightmare that—through its measured telling—peels back a tragedy to reveal and then celebrate all the layers of a child’s life.
Bright Shards of Someplace Else
(University of Georgia Press)
McFawn is another writer whose career is headed for the stratosphere. This book won the acclaimed Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and is full of both poignancy and originality.
All the Proud Fathers
(Dock Street Press)
This novel won’t be out until the fall, but make a reminder to pick it up because I’ve read it and it’s an amazing work of Rust Belt fiction, tip-toeing between traditional and magic realism.
Robert James Russell
(Dock Street Press)
Russell is the cofounder of the Ann Arbor-based literary magazine
Midwestern Gothic, but this short novel is actually a gothic tale of the old West. The book’s as fierce and determined as its characters.
W. Todd Kaneko, author and assistant professor at Grand Valley State University's Department of Writing
Nine relatively recent books of poetry by West Michigan poets you should read, listed in alphabetical order by author’s last name:
Entering the House of Awe
Ha Ha Ha Thump
Susan Blackwell Ramsey
A Mind Like This
Four Legged Girl
David Cope, Editor
Song of the Owashtanong: Grand Rapids Poetry in the 21st Century
Mursalata Muhammad, poet and English professor at Grand Rapids Community College
Who I am Not What I Am
Rebeca Castellanos, poet and assistant professor in the Modern Languages and Literature Department at GVSU
This is a great read for adults and children, and the author is relatively accessible. I am a fan of inclusiveness and equity; diversity is good but often stops us at the surface. Our children do not see diversity; they see individuals and are taught all the other gunk about interacting with other human beings. This book attempts to reverse that gunking effect. Click Here
for her blog.
Ruth McNally Barshaw
I loved this book because the author embraces a variety of learning styles. When she spoke to students, she was enthusiastic about how her doodling helped her manage attention issues as a child and as an adult. Ellie, the character, is creative and has a spirit boys and girls can enjoy. Her book was used by Grand Rapids Public Library's One Book, One City for Kids. Click Here
for her website.
Harrison's novella Legends of the Fall was the first work I read in English, many years ago. I loved the way he is able to portray pain, and how a person loses her mind.
Whitlock's If I Should Die Before It Wakes is a fantastic collection of short stories. Whitlock was born in Oregon and moved to Michigan several years ago. His stories combine science, irony, while playfully pursuing philosophical questions concerning death, love and regret.
Tim Gleisner, Head of Special Collections and Local History at the Grand Rapids Public Library
This history of the integrated town of Covert, Michigan delves into the history of a small town in Van Buren County and how the people there created a truly integrated community which started in the 1850's and still exists today. This is a book to give anyone hope on the state of race relations in the United States.
Bonnie Jo Campbell
My first introduction to the wonderful author Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage is a sometimes dark work focused on the characters who reside in the Kalamazoo River Valley and their struggles with poverty, drug addiction, and loss of employment. It is an extremely powerful collection of short stories that left me wanting more from this author.
Looking for Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest
This is the best book on my list. Looking for Hickories was one that completely surprised me when I first read it several years ago. Set in the countryside outside of Battle Creek, this work examines the natural world of Southwestern Michigan in exquisite detail. It is truly a book that deserves to be known as a Michigan Classic.
Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations With Gerald R. Ford
It was this work that really helped a newcomer to Grand Rapids like myself to better understand President Ford and the importance he played in United States politics. Not only that, it gave me a better sense of President's Ford's Grand Rapids roots and how they helped to shape his presidency.
Other Side of the River
Another book on race relations in Michigan, but this time set in Benton Harbor and St. Joe. It centers on the unsolved murder case of a Benton Harbor African-American teen in the 1990's who dared to go to the white enclave of St. Joseph and ended up dead. This powerful work examines all of the unspoken taboos of the racial divide in America.
Off the Record
This is for all of the political junkies out there. Off the Record
was written by long time political reporter Tim Skubick. When I read this and hosted him here at the library I truly came to have an idea of Michigan politics. It was because of this book that I started to get an appreciation of the different politicians who helped shaped Michigan in the last 30 years.
Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story
One of the best books written on Detroit in the last several years. What is great about Once in a Great City
is that it looks at Detroit in 1963. This was a period of time where Detroit was one of the pre-eminent cities in America and was poised either to rise even further, or fall. The author paints a picture of all of the different facets of Detroit in 1963, from Motown to the Detroit business elites, and how they all contributed to Detroit's future.
Arc of Justice
A history of the Dr. Ossian Sweet case in Detroit. This National Book Award winner examines the background of why Detroit, in the 1920's, was ripe for racial discord and violence. It is a must read for anyone trying to understand the state of race relations in Michigan.
Stone Circle Poems: The Collected Poems of Terry Wooten
A Michigan Notable Book Award winner for 2016, this work is a compilation of Terry Wooten's work of poetry for the last 30 years. These are wonderful poems that I could not stop reading while on vacation up north. This book of poetry is for anyone who loves Michigan, from its cities to the northern forests, and everything in between.
Howard Frank Dunbar
Michigan Through The Centuries
This book should be on everyone's shelf. Admittedly it is dense history, but it covers just about everything you would want to know about our state and how it came to be. I still look at this book at least once a week whenever I want to know more about a topic or place in Michigan.
Azizi Jasper, poet and performer
Single and A Parent
Jasper is a great writer, beautiful person, and great mom .
How 2 Hustle
Wright is a young businessman with a passion for community and giving back.
Politics and Plea Bargins
A powerful writer, Burns is also a vivid wordsmith who tells an amazing story.
Joel Fluent Greene
Poems of Bungalow and Concrete
Greene is a poetic giant and curator of some of Michigan's best spoken word showcases.
Danielle Alexander, co-owner of Bombadil Books
Bonnie Jo Campbell
and Once Upon a River
Bonnie Jo Campbell's work is often described as "Rural Michigan Gothic." She's so amazing that many critics have given her her own category. American Salvage
is a beautifully gritty collection of short stories that will appeal to anyone raised not only in Kalamazoo, but anywhere in rural, Northern Michigan. Once Upon a River
is one of my favorite fiction reads of all time, and will appeal to anyone who enjoys Annie Oakley, guns, living on a rowboat, and fiercely strong female lead characters. Other reasons to like Bonnie Jo? She has an amazing Instagram
, which sometimes features photos of her with her donkeys, or her and her grandfather at Denny's.
Robert James Russell
Robert James Russell is bringing the Western back, in a very real way. Mesilla
is a quick novella, but it will pull at your heartstrings. Rob is also a super nice guy, and is the new Development Director at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters
(formerly Literary Life Bookstore) here in Grand Rapids, as well as the editor of Midwestern Gothic
and CHEAP! Pop
All of her books, especially her newest, Four-Legged Girl
Diane Seuss read in our space this January along with her former student, the very esteemed Michael Collins, and both were absolutely stunning readers, as well as hilarious together on stage. Diane's poetry speaks to the rough-and-tumble, small-town girl in me.
Whitney Spotts, author tours coordinator at Schuler Books & Music
Bonnie Jo Campbell
Campbell has earned national acclaim for her dark, incisive stories and novels set in small-town Michigan. Named to the Michigan Notables list for her past three publications, she was also a National Book Award finalist for her short story collection American Salvage.
The recently deceased Harrison was the primary elder statesman of the Michigan literary scene. His work was prolific and wide-ranging, including novels, poetry and essays, and he has long been esteemed as a premier voice of rural America.
Hamilton is the New York Times bestselling author of the Michigan-set Alex McKnight mystery series. He’s a two-time winner of the Edgar Award, and he recently made major headlines when he abruptly changed publishers for his new series, The Second Life of Nick Mason, due out later this month.
Albom is the internationally bestselling author of Tuesdays with Morrie and has hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list with all but one of his novels.
Hines, a Lansing area author, has written a number of fantasy series, including the Magic Ex Libris series, his tongue-in cheek Princesses series (think Disney Princesses meet Charlie’s Angels), and the Jig the Goblin series, which playfully flips the standard fantasy scripts.
Detroit author and musician, came out of the gates running with his debut horror novel Bird Box
, which was named a Michigan Notable book and short-listed for both the James Herbert award and the Bram Stoker Award for First Novels.
Link started out a true crime author writing about unsolved Michigan murders and has since developed into a strong memoirist with the Michigan Notable books Bootstrapper and The Drummond Girls.
Ann Arbor author, is unique in being a non-fiction graphic novelist, writing biographies of scientific figures. Graphic novels include The Imitation Game
, about Alan Turing; Primates
, about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas; and Feynman
, a book about the Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, which debuted at number one on the New York Times graphic novels bestseller list.
Lansing-area author Diesen is the author of the number one New York Times bestselling Pout Pout Fish picture book series, as well as a couple of other charming stand-alone picture books. Always excited to see her new work!
Chris Van Allsburg
Chris is West Michigan’s most beloved children’s book author, although he has long passed into international stardom with books like The Polar Express and Jumanji. His events are always greatly anticipated and heavily attended.
Chris Roe and Jonathan Shotwell, co-owners of the soon-to-open Books & Mortar
We thought it might be fun to highlight some of the many talented Michigan authors and illustrators that have put out some prolific children's and young adult books; many of which are even appropriate and enjoyable for adults! Some of our favorites and those we are proud to share the Mitten State with:
Christopher Paul Curtis
Born in Flint and currently living in Detroit, Curtis is the winner of numerous Newbery and Coretta Scott King awards. His books targeted towards young adult readers are prolific in their themes of community, family, humor, and the richness of diversity. Curtis is a must for every Michigander young or old.
Born in Lansing and settled in Union City after living in Oakland, California for 37 years, Polacco is a gem not only in regional children's literature, but also on the national stage. The recipient of countless awards, Polacco's children's books are a win for children and adults alike with strong themes of compassion, community, and rootedness.
Colleen and Michael Glenn Monroe
Author and illustrator of countless books, Colleen and Michael Glenn Monroe have teamed up to create an entire suite of beautiful children's books. Noteworthy for both their content, most of which is Michigan themed, as well as their enchanting illustrations, the Monroe's books are perfect for the young and old alike who have a great deal of state pride.
Author of the popular Michigan Chillers
series and owner of his own quirky and unique indie-bookstore (Chillermania in Indian River), Rand places the majority of his horror-thrillers (albeit young adult friendly) in Michigan cities and destinations, though some of his adventures dare to take you beyond the Great Lakes!
A native of Detroit, Whelan has penned countless young adult novels and works of poetry set in vast cross-section of time periods, locations, and genres. A winner of numerous awards, Whelan offers a cross cultural experience no matter what novel you chose, inviting the reader into new adventures from the shores of the great lakes to the rich cultural landscapes of Japan.
We'd love to hear from our readers as well! Do you have a favorite Michigan author or book? Let us know in the comments below.