Even if you call North America home, we bet you still have a lot to learn about this incredibly diverse continent. For example, you might be surprised to learn that while 8 of the 10 largest metropolitan areas are located in the USA, it’s Mexico City that tops the list with the largest population. And did you know that Greenland is the world’s largest island that isn’t also a continent?
North America has a huge range of climates, including every one of the Earth’s major biomes, from the ice and arctic tundra of the far north, to the tropical rainforests of Central America, with temperate forests, grasslands, savannas, deserts, and coral reefs in between.
This continent is also a very important source of information about the Earth’s geologic periods. The Appalachian Mountains, which run parallel to the Atlantic coast from Canada to Alabama, are the oldest mountain range in the world. And more dinosaur fossils have been unearthed in the United States than in any other country.
PS: You can read all about the Book Voyage challenge, find new book lists each month, and download your free printable map book tracker, with a color-coded map of each region here.
As always, you are welcome to choose any book set in North America that you’d like, but we’ve compiled this recommended reading list specifically with the intent to help you explore beyond what you may already know. While many readers may automatically think of books set in the USA, we’d like to encourage our fellow American’s to armchair travel to one of the continent’s other countries or territories, including: Canada, Greenland, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Of course, the North American book recommendations that we detail below are just a starting point. We also have lots of other reading resources that you may find useful:
Arctic North: The Arctic and Antarctica were the first stop on the Book Voyage Challenge, and our list of Arctic books cover the northern-most parts of Canada, Greenland, and the US state of Alaska.
Islands: In addition to the countries listed above, there are also many island nations and territories that are considered part of North America. You’ll find many of those covered on our list of books that take place on islands.
Latin America: The term Latin America generally refers to the entire region south of the United States in which Spanish, Portuguese, and French (all Latin languages) are officially spoken. The countries of Latin America span both the North American and South American continents. Accordingly, this North American reading list includes Latin American books set in Mexico and the seven countries of Central America. Be sure to check out last month’s list of the best books set in South America for more Latin American literature and non-fiction.
The Past Century in the United States: Our list below includes a handful of books set in the United States, with a focus on works that provide a unique perspective. If you’re interested in learning more about life in the US throughout the past century, we encourage you to check out the reading lists that we’ve compiled for the Decades Reading Challenge. Here you’ll find book recommendations for each decade from the 1910s to present, with many of the books on each list set in the United States.
Books Set in North America
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Throughout the list, we noted the books currently available as part of Kindle Unlimited Subscriptions.
This Canadian novel opens in 1950s Quebec, where tensions run high between the French and English. When 15-year-old Maggie's parents find out that she's pregnant and that the father is a poor French boy, they force her to give baby Elodie girl up for adoption.
As the years go by, we follow the lives of both the mother and daughter. Elodie is a bright and determined young girl growing up in Quebec's impoverished orphanage system. But when a law is enacted that provides more funding to psychiatric hospitals than to orphanages, Elodie and thousands of other orphans are declared mentally ill. Elodie withstands terrible treatment until she is finally able to gain her freedom at age seventeen.
Maggie marries and is eager to start a family, but she never forgets the daughter that she was forced to give up. Through the years, the lives of the mother and daughter continue to circle around one another, never quite intersecting. Until finally, Maggie decides to go in search of her long-lost daughter.
The Book Girls Say... This historical fiction book is highly recommended for fans of the Orphan Train.
Written in 1908, Anne of Green Gables has been a charming classic for over a century. The book starts a series of 8 novels, which follow Anne from childhood all the way through having her own children. In the first book, you'll meet Anne as an 11-year old orphan being adopted by the Cuthbert's - an older man and his stern sister who live on a farm on Prince Edward Island called Green Gables.
The only problem is that the Cuthbert's intended to adopt a boy to help run the farm, not a feisty red-headed girl. However, her wild imagination and beautiful yet precocious spirit quickly win them over.
This heartwarming book recounts the experiences of countless passengers from some of the 38 planes that were unexpectedly diverted to Newfoundland - an island in Canada’s easternmost province - when US airspace was closed on 9/11. On that day, the small town of Gander, with a population of just 10,000, received more than 6,600 passengers from 92 countries. Ganderites, along with residents of the surrounding towns, opened the doors to the local churches, schools, and even their own homes.
Throughout this book, you'll not only learn the personal stories of the passengers, but you'll also learn a lot about life on this tiny, remote island and about the unexpecting hosts who welcomed strangers from around the world with open arms and generous hearts.
Book Girls Say... We've both seen and loved the musical Come From Away, so we already knew the story of Gander, but we were still blown away by the power of this uplifting read. Pick up the book, and then get tickets for a production of the musical anytime you get a chance!
Saul Indian Horse wants peace. After hitting rock bottom with alcohol and entering an inpatient treatment facility, he discovers that healing must come through telling his life story as a member of the Ojibway tribe. Throughout the book, you'll walk through Saul's history, which includes being taken from his family and sent to a residential school, which was a common tragedy for many indigenous children. His heritage was again attacked as he got older and experienced harsh racism.
While the book will open your eyes to the challenges faced by indigenous people in Canada, it also shares Saul's joys along the way and describes the landscape of northern Ontario in detail.
The Book Girls Say... Angela's Canadian friends have been raving about this book and the recent movie version. They say it should be required reading for all Canadians.
This is the latest in the popular Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series of crime mysteries set in Quebec. Each book in this series takes place in the fictional village of Three Pines, where the Chief Inspector investigates murders and digs up long-buried secrets that lay below the seemingly idyllic surface of the town.
The first book in this character-driven mystery series, Still Life, was published in 2006, and many of the subsequent novels have topped the New York Times Best-Seller list and have won major crime-writing awards in three countries.
Greenwood is a multi-generational saga, following one family from 1934-2038. However, the book works backward, first introducing you to Jake, an eco-tour guide in one of the world's last remaining forests.
Then you'll meet Liam, a carpenter in 2008, followed by Willow in 1974 as she attempts to make up for the sins of her father and his timber empire. Finally, you'll be all the way back to 1934, when Everett Greenwood spent his days alone with the trees and their maple syrup. One day, he hears the cries of an abandoned baby in the forest. His life and the life of the following generations are forever changed.
Timber and the environment tie the family together through changing generations.
The Book Girls Say... This is a longer book at 528 pages, but reviewers say you'll be so engrossed in the world of the Greenwoods that you won't even notice.
Spanning from 1933 to 1939, and from the streets of Toronto to the shores of Hong Kong, this Canadian historical fiction novel tells the story of a little-known chapter of WWII history.
With the Depression crippling Toronto, 18-year-old Molly puts aside her journalism dreams to work any job she can to help her family get by. As the summer of 1933 stretches on, the terrible wave of hate and anti-Semitism sweeping the globe reaches Toronto in the form of "Swastika Clubs" and "No Jews Allowed" signs. On a fateful night in August, tensions reach a boiling point between the local Irish and Jewish communities, and the resulting riot has devastating consequences for Molly's family and that of her best friend, Hannah.
Six years later, Molly is now working as a reporter for the local paper. With the war on the horizon, and many people she loves in danger, Molly is forced to confront what happened on that terrible night back in 1933.
The Book Girls Say... This book is highly recommended for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.
If you've ever wanted to learn about Greenland, this book provides the perfect opportunity to explore the icy island alongside Gretel Ehrlich, who spent the better part of a decade taking in its terrain, culture, and beauty. This Cold Heaven is part travelogue, part adventure story, and part cultural anthropology.
In this historical fantasy novel, a young woman named Casiopea takes a road trip across Jazz-era Mexico with a Mayan god. It all begins when she happens upon a wooden box in her grandfather's house. When she opens it, she frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests that she help him recover his throne. Together they journey from her small town in southern Mexico through the jungles of Yucatán, the bright lights of Mexico City, and into the Mayan underworld.
The Book Girls Say... Reviewers say that Gods of Jade and Shadow feels like Mexican folklore mixed with a modern telenovela.While this book includes elements of magical realism (which is a prominent subgenre in Latin-American literature), this book will also make you feel like you've visited 1920s Mexico. The author explains that the Mayan Revival architecture of the hotel in the book was inspired by a famous Mexican resort called Agua Caliente, which for a time in the Roaring Twenties was as ritzy as Monte Carlo.
In 1918, the Mexican Revolution and Spanish Flu overlapped and presented increasing challenges to everyday life. When a family elder, Nana Reja, finds a baby covered in bees under a bridge, he is considered "kissed by the devil" by the locals. But Francisco and Beatriz Morales are willing to adopt him. As he gets older, it becomes clear that he really is different. In fact, when he closes his eyes, he can see things that no one else can - visions of the future.
The Book Girls Say...This is a tricky recommendation because Melissa started and didn't finish this much-loved book. It's vibrant with descriptions, which she found made the plot too slow for her mood, and she gave up about halfway through. However, it's beautifully written, and especially since it's free with Kindle Unlimited, it's worth checking out if you're looking for a historical fiction set in Mexico.
Clara is a modern teenager growing up in Baltimore. She has never met her father's parents, and doesn't know much about his past other than the fact that he snuck over the US border as a teenager. One day she receives a letter from her grandparents inviting her to spend the summer with them in their small village of Yucuyoo in southern Mexico.
After her initial culture shock, Clara begins to see the beauty in a simpler life, and as she learns about her father's past, she also embarks on her own journey of self-discovery.
The Book Girls Say... While this is a middle grade fiction book, we think it's an excellent choice if you're looking for a quick but moving read that will truly transport you to rural Mexico. The descriptions of the landscape and the food will have you longing to visit the Oaxaca region.
In the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico, women are often on their own as the men leave looking for other work. However, the setting is also surrounded by the drug war, which is even more dangerous than the terrain and abundant poisonous creatures. As a result, resourceful mothers learn to hide the beauty of their daughters as a form of protection - disguising them as boys or making them unattractive in other ways.
Ladydi is one of these daughters, and you'll quickly fall in love with her fierce intelligence and willingness to make the best of the circumstances she was born into. When she's offered a chance to leave Guerrero to become a nanny for a wealthy American family in Acapulco, she jumps at the opportunity to make a better and safer life for herself. However, the cartel still looms and impacts her life in unexpected ways.
Inspired by several notebooks that were discovered at Frida Kahlo's Mexico City home, this novel provides a fictional account of the life of the famous artist. The author begins with the premise that, after Frida nearly died in a streetcar accident, she received a notebook as a gift from her lover, Tina Modotti, and used the notebook to collect memories, ideas, and recipes.
This reimagined tale of Kahlo's passionate life and the development of her art also details her relationships with many famous characters, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Nelson Rockefeller, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Salvador Dali, and more.
This unexpected non-fiction covers two years of the author's life as she travels through a wide range of Mexican cities with a group of street performers. It's the opposite of other travelogues where the authors seem to have unlimited budgets. Instead, the group travels hand-to-mouth style, performing each day to earn enough for that day's food. Along the way, they encounter humor, violence, and endless knowledge about day to day life of the urban poor in different regions.
Fiesty Makina grew up learning how to survive in a violent world, which comes in handy as she leaves life in Mexico to search for her brother in the United States. She must be smuggled into the US and comes with two messages for him. One from their mother and one from the criminal underworld. The book delves into the literal border crossing and the mental and linguistic changes that happen when you pass either direction.
This short but powerful book was written in Spanish and won an award for Best Translated Fiction.
The Book Girls Say...For a different look at Mexican-US border life, try Everyone Knows You Go Home about a family living in a Texas border town. It's currently included with Kindle Unlimited.
Humor travel writer Bill Bryson was born and raised in middle America, but later moved to Britain, where he lived with his English wife and their four children. After living abroad for two decades, Bryson moved back to the US in the late 1990s, and in this book he shares his comic musings about the process of reacquainting himself with his own country after twenty years away.
This present-day novel follows 12 different characters from Native communities as they travel to California for the Big Oakland Powwow. Each has their own struggles, and through their stories, you'll gain tremendous insight into life as an urban Native American. From a 14-year-old traveling to perform a traditional dance for the first time to a newly sober woman trying to reconnect with her family, each story will eventually interconnect in unexpected ways.
The Book Girls Say...The Night Watchman is another solid choice for Native American fiction. It's based on the life of the author's grandfather and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2021.
In this masterfully written non-fiction, Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities in search of a better life. Spanning 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America.
The history of this epic migration is told through the lives of three individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who left sharecropping in 1937 and relocated from Mississippi to Chicago, where she later proudly cast her vote for Barak Obama when he ran for his Illinois senate seat in the early 2000s; George Starling fled Florida for Harlem in 1945, where he fought for civil rights; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career and who later became the personal physician to Ray Charles. This book not only captures the personal side of each story - including the treacherous and exhausting cross-country and the process of adapting to their new lives, but also addresses how the migration changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work.
Part travelogue and part history of America's public lands, you'll armchair travel across the country to some of America's most beautiful locations as you read That Wild Country. The public land trust owned by the citizens of the US is the largest in the world, and the lands serve as havens for wildlife and recreation zones for visitors. However, since the inception of the public land system, there has been controversy. Some want conservation, while others want the vast resources utilized. This book is the perfect primer on the topic.
This book is a compilation of stories from thirty-six major contemporary authors. Representing some of the literary world's most exciting writers, each contributor looks beyond the numbers to share powerful stories, essays, and poems about the impacts of division in America.
The Book Girls Say... The authors included in this compilation include some favorites that you'll recognize, including Ann Patchett (The Dutch House, State of Wonder), Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See), Richard Russo (Empire Falls), and many more.
After retiring as a social worker, 60-year old Ellen Lippman Finn took a two-week trip to Honduras to learn Spanish by immersing herself in a new culture. That single decision radically changed her life and turned into a 7-year stay in Copan Ruinas. Her work there started with small acts, like asking friends and family back home in the US to send materials for rural schools. As she received more contributions, she expanded into opening new schools, medical clinics, and more. This memoir recaps her journey and focuses on Honduras's culture and how important it was for her to understand and appreciate the local customs.
The Book Girls Say...When researching this book, we were impressed to learn that the author stayed in Latin America, moving to Guatemala, even after violence and threats by drug cartels increased. She has now completed her 20th school in the region.
They called Gabi the tree girl because she was always climbing trees in the Guatemalan forest to watch the eagles and the sunrise. One day while high in the safety of her trees, she witnesses the sights and sounds of a terrible massacre - part of the ongoing Maya genocide. Also known as the Silent Holocaust, the Guatemalan military government carried out more than 600 massacres, killing tens of thousands of Maya citizens and destroying more than 400 Mayan villages between 1981 and 1983.
Having lost not only her whole family, but her entire village, Gabi joins the masses of refugees struggling to reach the Mexican border. Throughout the long journey, Gabi continues to hold out hope that she might be reunited with her younger sister.
The Book Girls Say... Although this is a middle grade book, we included it on the list because it deals with a tragic event that happened during our lifetime that we weren't even aware of until now. Caminar, by Skila Brown, is another highly rated middle grade book about the Mayan genocide.
Adoption from Guatemala is a big business - full of those looking to get children into homes that will provide them a better chance at a safe life, but also those who see children as a commodity. In this non-fiction book, the authors delve behind the scenes and use the compelling true story of 14-year old Ellie to uncover the complicated layers of the process. Ellie was abandoned at 7 and adopted by a middle-class family in Michigan, but yearned to find her birth mother back in Guatemala. Her return shows the stark differences in life between the US and Guatemala, as well as the bonds that transcend location.
Sharon Matola was beloved as “the Zoo Lady” in her adopted land of Belize. This biography chronicles how Matola became one of Central America’s greatest wildlife defenders. The book also details her crusade to stop a multinational corporation that sought to build a dam that would have flooded the nesting ground of the last scarlet macaws in Belize.
Looking for something more along the lines of a YA Romance? In Wanderlove, an 18-year old sets off to tour Central America. Except she made a mistake and signed up to be a part of middle-aged tourists - not what she had in mind for a summer of love and independence. When she meets a backpacker and his sister, she quickly ditches her tour and joins the siblings as they travel further off the beaten path to locals like Mayan villages and isolated islands.
The Book Girls Say...Just wanted to give a shout-out to the other middle-aged tourists like us, who are pretty fun to be around. 🙂
This is the memoir of acclaimed Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli. Born in Managua, Nicaragua in 1948, Gioconda grew up in a world of country clubs and debutante balls, completely sheltered from the poverty outside of her bubble. She was educated abroad and married young. But in 1970, after becoming more aware of the social justices in her country, Managua joined the Sandinistas and spent the next two decades as an insider to a revolution.
This historical fiction follows Nicholas, a 9-year-old boy searching for his mother. They are separated when gunfire erupts in a crowded plaza. It's 1980, and El Salvador is two years into a brutal civil war. Nicholas can't escape it - Guerrilla's even come to take over the shack he lives with his grandfather in the mountains. While the war continued until 1992, this book will give you a glimpse of what it was like in the early years of fighting. The author's family lived in El Salvador during the civil war, and the personal connection helps the story feel even more realistic.
The Book Girls Say...This book became an easy win for the list when we read this line in a review, "I felt like I was walking with Nicolas through El Salvador for the entire book." It sounds like a true armchair travel experience! Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to be available in Kindle form, but the paperback is around $10. For a non-fiction look at El Salvador, try the memoir "What You Have Heard is True."
Margot and Anthony were leading lives filled with stresses that will sound familiar to many parents - long hours at work, carpooling, overscheduled kids, and concerns about money. One day Margot impulsively suggested the family should move to Costa Rica, and a short seven weeks later, they were jobless on top of a remote mountain.
In this witty memoir, Margot provides insight into her family's struggle to get themselves back on track in a completely new life. She shares insights on parenting and privilege, loneliness, and connection. Along the way, she discovers that even when everything changes, some things still remain the same.
This book is available via Kindle Unlimited.
The Book Girls Say... If you'd prefer a fictional read set partially in Costa Rica, consider Charming Falls Apart, by Angela Terry. In this women's fiction pick, Allison's life begins to fall apart when she loses her job and finds her fiance cheating on her with her maid of honor - all on her 35th birthday. She uses her time away from work for some self-reflection and travels to Costa Rica for a meditation retreat.
The title story in this collection of short stories is a 100-page novella, set in 1989 Panama, and is focused on the month that Manuel Noriega was overthrown. Together, the stories show a range of geography and experiences of everyday citizens as the county began to transition to the new government. With themes of family relationships and generational conflict in many of the stories, you'll be absorbed by the characters and learn about this period of Panamanian history at the same time.
The Books Girls Say...The author spent her summers growing up with family in Panama, so she has first-hand experience in the region. She also wrote a great novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, which gives insight into the immigrant experience in America.