Are you ready for another month of the Decades Reading Challenge? During the month of May we’ll be reading books set in the 1950s.
You can read all about the challenge, download your free printable reading tracker, and find book lists for other decades here.
As a reminder, you can choose any book you like that is set in the decade, but to get you started, we’ve compiled a great list of books about the Fifties that include historical fiction novels set around the globe, books about quintessential American life in the 1950s, stories about the divergent experiences of black and white Americas in the middle of the century and the growing racial tensions, and memoirs and non-fiction reads about the events and people of the day.
With the Great Depression just a memory, and the post-WWII economy strong, the 1950s began a time of rapid change in the United States. American families were growing fast, giving rise to the baby boomer generation. These families began flocking to the suburbs in search of idyllic, “normal” life amid growing fears of the atomic bomb brought on by the Cold War. As they grew up, the baby boomer generation would be at the forefront of social change, including greatly influencing the Civil Rights Movement and the conflict in Vietnam – both of which began in the 1950s.
Major World Events of the 1950s
The US birthrate was on the rise throughout the 1950s, with the Baby Boom peaking in 1957.
The Korean War began when North Korea invaded South Korea in June of 1950.
Between 1950 and 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy carried out a campaign against alleged communists, which came to be known as McCarthyism. Many of the accused lost their jobs or were blacklisted during the Red Scare, although it turned out that most did not actually belong to the Communist Party.
Elizabeth II became the Queen of England following the death of her father, and her coronation was celebrated one year later, in 1953.
In 1954, the Supreme Court deemed racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional in a unanimous decision in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. Despite the ruling, some southern states refused to comply.
The Vietnam War began in November 1955 and lasted for two decades.
The Disneyland theme park opened in California in 1955, the same year that “The Mickey Mouse Club” premiered on television.
In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. This was one of many actions that sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
Following testing on HeLa cells in the early 1950s, the first polio vaccine became available to the public in the 1955.
American Actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956.
In 1957, nine African-American students enrolled at Little Rock Central High School and were met with protests and resistance, ultimately being escorted into the school by Federal military troops at the command of President Eisenhower.
The Soviet’s launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957 launching the Space Age. The following year, NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – was formed.
In 1959, the Cuban revolution ended and Fidel Castro came into the power, creating the first Communist nation in the West.
Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as the 49th and 50th states in the U.S.
Books Set in the 1950s
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By JD Salinger Setting: 1950, Pennsylvania and New York City First published 1951
Sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield leaves his prep school to go underground in New York City for a few days. This is a classic novel of teenage angst and rebellion that has been challenged in court many times over the years for its liberal use of profanity and portrayal of sexuality, but it has endured as one of the best novels of the 20th century. Today, it's interesting to see what rebellion looked like in the 1950s.
The Book Girls' Say... If you love coming of age stories, this is a must-read. Melissa finds it hard to re-read books when there are so many unread books waiting for her, but this one has been really interesting to read during different decades of life. Her thoughts reading it in her late 30s was much different than when she was closer to Holden's age, but she still enjoyed it.
By Delia Owens Setting: North Caroline, 1952 and 1969 First published 2018
Young Kya, being left to fend for herself in the North Carolina marsh in the 1950s, will steal your heart from the beginning. For the next two decades, rumors about Kya - known to most just as the "Marsh Girl" - has lived alone finding her only companions in the nature around her. But in 1969 when a handsome boy from town is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya.
By Khaled Hosseini Setting: 1952, Kabul, Afghanistan First published 2013
The story begins in Kabul in the 1950s where a poor family sells their youngest daughter to a wealthy family in Kabul - a decision that devastates her brother Abdullah. From there, the novel spans 50 years and four generations, following its characters and the ramifications of their lives, their choices, and their loves around the globe - from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco and the Greek Island of Tinos.
The Book Girls Say... This is a beautifully written and emotionally complex novel that is hard to summarize in a short synopsis because it takes every one of its 400 pages for the story to unfold.
By Fiona Davis Setting: 1952s, New York City First published 2016
It's 1952 in New York City and the glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women is home to a generation of aspiring models, secretaries, and editors lived side-by-side while trying the claw their way to the top. But when Darby, one of the residents, befriends a Barbizon maid, she comes to know a different, much seedier side of the city. More than 50 years later, the Barbizon has turned into condos, but the elderly Darby still lives in her rent-controlled apartment. Darby's upstairs neighbor - a journalist - can't help but seek answers about the rumors that Darby was invovled in a deadly altercation with the maid all those years ago.
By Marjan Kamali Setting: 1953, Tehran, Iran First published 2019
Set against the backdrop of the Iranian Coup, Roya, an idealistic teenage girl finds literary oasis in the neighborhood book and stationery shop. The owner introduces her to his favorite customer, the handsome Rumi who has a passion for justice and poetry. The two fall in love, but are separated on the eve of their marriage. Reunited sixty years later when both are living in America. Together they discover the truth of what really happened all those years ago in the town square.
By Toni Morrison Setting: 1950s, Georgia First published 2011
Frank Money is an angry and self-loathing veteran of the Korean War who returns to a racist America with more than just the physical scars of the front lines. He barely recognizes his home or himself, but when he hears that his younger sister is in danger, his life has a new purpose. Together, they return to their rural Georgia hometown. After spending years trying to escape, he learns what it means to come home.
By Sylvia Plath Setting: 1953, Boston and New York City First published 1963
In this semi-autobiographical novel, Esther is a beautiful and brilliant college student selected for a month-long summer internship as a guest editor of Ladies' Day magazine in New York City, but she's also slowly descending into depression and insanity. The Bell Jar has become an enduring American classic described as "shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional."
By David Guterson Setting: 1954, Puget Sound, Washington First published 1994
When a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, a Japanese American is charged with his murder. Haunted by the memories of the Japanese internment camps during WWII just a decade before, during the course of the trial it becomes clear that much more is at stake in this community than just one man's guilt or innocence.
By Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb Setting: 1955-56, Monaco First published 2019
At the Cannes Film Festival in 1955, Grace Kelly seeks refuge in a small boutique to escape the flash-bulbs of the press. She becomes fast friends with the shop owner, Sophie Duval, and even creates a plan to help Sophie's struggling perfume business. James Henderson, a British press photographer following Grace Kelly also takes a liking to Sophie. The following year, James is assigned cover the wedding of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco, and hopes he'll also have the opportunity to be reunited with Sophie. This sun-drenched journey along the Cote d'Azur is filled with romance, friendship, and tragedy.
By Jenny Wingfield Setting: 1956, Arkansas First published 2011
Each June, the members of the Moses family gather for a family reunion at a hundred-acre farm in Arkansas, and every year young preacher Samuel Lake brings his wife, Willadee Moses, and their children back for the celebration. Just as the reunion is getting under way, tragedy strikes, setting the stage for a summer of crisis and change. Much of the story is told through the eyes of an 11 year old girl named Swan.
The Book Girls Say... What stands out in the reviews of this book are the comments about how REAL it is - the realism of the characters and the conversations.
By Rebecca Skloot Setting: 1950s, Maryland and Virginia First published 2010
For more than half a century, scientists knew her as HeLa, but the story of Henrietta Lacks deserves to be heard. A poor Southern tobacco farmer, when Henrietta fell ill, she was treated in the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was here that she had a tissue sample taken while undergoing treatment for cancer, and -without her consent - those cells became the first "immortal" human cells grown in culture. Still alive today, the HeLa cells have been used to develop the polio vaccine, to discover cancer treatments, to advance gene mapping, and much more.
It wasn't until more than 20 years after Henrietta's death that her family learned of her "immortality." Having never seen any profit from their mother's immeasurable contribution to science, and with the looming shadow of dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the news was devastating to the Lacks family.
The Book Girls' Say... For some reason, Angela resisted reading this book when it was recommended by a close friend years ago, but when she finally read it she was blown away by both the science and the story of Henrietta's life and family. It raises so many important lessons about history, as well as ethical scientific questions that persist today.
By Melba Beals Setting: 1957, Little Rock, Arkansas First published 1994
Three years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, nine black teenagers were chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas in 1957. For Melba Beals and her eight classmates - the Little Rock Nine, as they came to be known - walking up the steps to the school flanked by heavily armed Arkansas National Guard and surrounded by a rampaging mob, made them reluctant warriors on the battlefield of the civil rights movement.
The Book Girls' Say... If you enjoy this book, you may also want to pick up March Forward, Girl - another Beals memoir of her earlier years, which is written in language that's appropriate for younger readers, but with an important story that is just as captivating to adults.
By Maeve Binchy Setting: 1957, Ireland First published 1990
Life-long friends Benny and Eve grew up in the village of Knockglen, Ireland. Together they head to university in Dublin where their circle of friends expands to include beautiful Nan and handsome Jack. But heartbreak and betrayal result when their worlds of Knockglen and Dublin collide, and long-hidden lies emerge that will test the bonds of their friendship.
The Book Girls' Say... Angela read this book in high school and it still stands out in her mind as one of her all-time favorites! It's a simple story of friendship that is heart-warming and beautifully told from the first page to the last. Her most vivid memory of this book is the warm, satisfied feeling it left her with.
By Chanel Cleeton Setting: 1958, Havana; 2017, Miami First published 2018
Growing up, Marisol heard romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother, Elisa. The story alternates perspectives between Elisa - a nineteen-year-old in 1958 Havana, the daughter of a sugar baron and a member of Cuba's high society. Her families position largely shields her from the growing political unrest, at least until she embarks on a forbidden affair - and Marisol in 2017, arriving in Havana for the first time to fulfill her grandmothers dying wish of having her ashes spread in her her birth country. Marisol tries to reconcile the contrast of Cubas timeless beauty with its political climate, all while uncovering the story of her grandmother's past.
By Bill Bryson Setting: 1950s, Iowa First published 2006
Bill Bryson is famous for his humorous travel writing, but in this nostalgic and hilarious memoir he reflects on growing up in middle-America in the 1950s in the middle of the baby boomer generation. Using his childhood imaginary super-hero persona to tell his story, he tells his story of growing up in Des Moines, bringing to life his loving but eccentric family.
The Book Girls' Say... If you've never read a Bill Bryson book before, then we'll just warn you that you'll get both a great book and an ab workout from laughing so hard!
By Lorraine Hansberry Setting: 1950s, Chicago First published 1959
Following the life of one black family on Chicago's south side, this play examines their hopes and aspirations as well as the struggles of the working class. "Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, has so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage," observed James Baldwin shortly before A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959.
The Book Girls' Say... This is one of the most powerful plays you'll ever experience on stage, but this uncut version of Hansberry's landmark work offers even more than you've seen before.
By Amy Sue Nathan Setting: 1951, Michigan + Present First published 2020
Betty Stern turned 18 in 1951 and was looking forward to her last summer at her grandparent's Jewish summer resort before heading off to college. She had big dreams of becoming a fashion editor in NYC.
During that life-changing summer, Betty collapses at the end of the beauty pageant, which ends up being the last time the pageant is held until 2020 when a financially-struggling manicurist decides to bring it back. By this time, Betty is in her late 80s and no one knows she was the last winner or why the pageant ended.
The book alternates between Betty's life that summer and a present-day gathering of her best friends from that summer. It's a great look at societal expectations between the two time periods.
By Karma Brown Setting: 1950s and current day, New York suburbs First Published 2020
Alice leaves her publicity career to become a writer, and follows her husband to the suburbs of New York. Learning to fill her days in a big, empty house, she comes across a vintage cookbook in the basement and discovers hidden notes left by the home's previous owner, Nellie - a quintessential 1950s housewife. As Alice cooks her way through Nellie's recipes, she stars to uncover clues about her life.
Juxtaposing Alice's life against Nellie, this is a story of how everything has changed, but in some ways nothing has changed.
By Melanie Benjamin Setting: 1950s, New York City First published 2016
Centered around two dynamic historical figures - Truman Capote, the playwright, actor, and author of Breakfast and Tiffany's, and Babe Paley, a New York City socialite and style icon named to the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame - this is the story of a scandalous and heart-wrenching friendship. This book is filled with gossip, scandal, and betrayal set in the glamorous, perfumed, and smoky atmosphere of New York's high society.
By Lynda Cohen Loigman Setting: 1950s and 60s, Brooklyn, NYC First published 2016
In a two-family brownstone in Brooklyn, two babies are born just two minutes apart to two women - sisters by marriage. Over the years, cracks begin to form in their relationship and their friendship begins to unravel. This is a moving family drama that opens on that fateful night in the late 1940s and spans the two decades that follow. Described as an "emotional but dreamy novel" that will have you both sobbing and smiling.
By Ann Petry Setting: 1950s, Connecticut First published 1953
When a twenty-six year old, Dartmouth-educated African-American man falls for a married white woman, the quiet town of Monmouth, Connecticut will never be the same. Written and set in the early 1950s, this book offers a window into class, race, and love in middle of the Twentieth Century.
By Fiona Davis Setting: 1950s, New York City First published 2019
Playwright Hazel Riley and actress Maxine Mead aim to put up a Broadway show, and they plan to use the Chelsea Hotel - a hot spot for creatives and artists - to get the ball rolling. But they soon discover that greatest obstacle to producing a Broadway show isn't the art, but the politics. This story spans the 1940s-60s, but it's centered around the era of McCarthyism. As the Red Scare is sweeping the country, those in the entertainment industry are in the cross-hairs and there is pressure to point fingers.
The Book Girls' Say... Fiona Davis is a master of New York City historical fiction. She writes in a way that paints a picture in your mind of both the visual scenery and the emotion of her characters. You'll step back in time and experience a disturbing era in our country that is rarely talked about today. Thankfully, that history lesson is told through a page-turning novel. This is a great pick for any lover of the arts.
By Dorothy West Setting: 1950s, Martha's Vineyard First published 1995
The Cole family is gathered on Martha's vineard for the wedding of their daughter, Shelby. She could have had her pick of black men from the Oval - a proud community made up of the best and brightest of the East Coast's black bourgeoisie - but she fell in love with a white Jazz musician from New York.
Set on Martha's Vineyard, this novel offers an intimate look into the lives of the African American middle class in the 1950s.
By Donna Van Liere Setting: 1950s, Tennessee First published 2012
Ivorie Walker is only in her early 30s, but single and unmarried, she is considered an old maid by those in her Tennessee town. But when a ferel, dirty faced boy begins sneaking onto her land to steal food from her garden, she begins on an unlikely path to motherhood. Every time he flees her garden and heads back into the hills, she has more questions about where he came from and how she can help him. As she begins to uncover the answers, she angers many in town who would rather she let secrets stay secret.
The Book Girls Say... Angela's IRL book club read this book last year and while it didn't make it onto her all time favorites list, many others in the book club considered it a five star read!
by Harper Lee Setting: 1950s, Alabama First published 2015
Written first, rather than a sequel to as a To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee penned this novel in the late 50s, but it was not published until nearly 60 years later. Her early publisher had reservations, and recommended she take a different approach - resulting in To Kill A Mockingbird.
The Book Girls Say... People love it or hate it! If you adore Atticus Finch, you might be happier not reading this book, but it does tackle the important reality of the racial tensions brewing in the South in the 1950s.
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