Are you ready for another month of the Decades Reading Challenge? We’re kicking off summer this June by reading books set in the 1960s.
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 Sixties that including works written during the decade, historical fiction books that examine social and racial issues, novels that capture the flair of swinging ’60s, and memoirs and non-fiction books that provide insights into the era.
The Sixties were a decade dominated by the Vietnam War and a strong anti-war sentiment among young people against the US involvement in the War. Civil Rights marches also defined the era, and helped bring about positive changes including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
In the early 1960s, many Americans lived in fear of nuclear war as the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated. Throughout the decade, the country mourned the losses of beloved leaders, including President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 60s came to a close with a giant leap for mankind as the first astronauts stepped foot on the moon.
Major World Events of the 1960s
The US deployed 3,500 American soldiers to Vietnam in 1960. After many years of conflict, the US officially went to war in Vietnam when it sent combat troops to defend the American airbase at Da Nang in 1965. Opposition grew in the US, and anti-Vietnam sentiment became more prevalent throughout the decade.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the youngest person elected President of the United States; three years later JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963 while riding in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas with his wife Jackie sitting by his side
The development of “the Pill” in 1960 brings the topic of contraception “out of the bedroom and into the living room” as it becomes a common theme in magazine articles and books.
NASA launched its first astronaut into space for a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, just weeks after the Soviet Union launched the first human into orbit. In the following year, NASA sent two more of its original Mercury Seven astronauts into space.
In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, at the height of the Cold War, a US-backed operation known as the Bay of Pigs invasion attempted, unsuccessfully, to overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961.
The world was on the brink of another World War in 1962 as the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated and both the US and USSR came close to launching nuclear attacks
The Beatles released their first single – “Love Me Do” – in the UK in 1962. When the Beatles first visited American two years later in 1964, Beatlemania swept the nation and launched a music phenomenon known as “The British Invasion” that also included popular British bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Herman’s Hermits.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the Civil Rights March on Washington; the renowned civil rights later was later assassinated in 1968
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender or national origin – was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson; the following year, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law, ending discrimination at the polls
The first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health declares smoking “hazardous to your health,” contradicting years of tobacco industry advertisements regarding the benefits of smoking.
1967 is dubbed the “Summer of Love” when the “hippie movement” was in full swing in and around San Francisco, where thousands of young people flocked to Haight-Ashbury
Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of JFK, was assassinated in days after winning the California Presidential primary; Richard Nixon went on to win the US presidential election in 1968
In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men on the Moon during NASA’s Apollo 11 mission
The three-day Woodstock music festival in 1969 featured acts such as The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin
Books Set in the 1960s
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by Sue Monk Kidd Setting: 1964, South Carolina First published 2003
After her mother passes away, 14-year-old Lily Owens runs away with her friend and nanny, Rosaleen. The two escape to Tiburon, South Carolina where they are taken in by an eccentric trio of Black beekeeping sisters. Lily is introduced to the world of bees and honey, the Black Madonna, and to the town that holds the secret to her mother's past.
by Colson Whitehead Setting: Early 1960s, Tallahassee, Florida First published 2019
While the 2020 Pulitzer Prize winning novelThe Nickel Boys is a work of fiction, it’s based on real “schools” and the unspeakable treatment of young Black men who were sent there during the 1960’s. Disgraceful Jim Crow laws made it palatable for injustices against people based on the color of their skin. This is the story of Elwood Curtis, a young man whose promising future is cut short by ignorance and intolerance after being sent to the Nickel Academy reform school for his so-called crimes.
The Book Girls Say… This book will make you feel every emotion there is. Through Colson Whitehead’s writing you really get to know and feel for the characters and the situation they are thrown into. It’s not an easy book to read. It will make you mad. It will make you hate. It will make you sad. Regretfully, racial inequality in America is embarrassingly still a relevant topic today. Books like this and voices like Colson’s add to the outcry for justice, love and hope.
by Kathryn Stockett Setting: 1962, Jackson, Mississippi Originally published 2009
Skeeter has returned home from college to her family’s cotton plantation where - despite trying to act like a proper Southern lady - she seems to constantly disappoint her mother. Her true ambition, however, is to be a writer. The only job she’s able to find is one she completely unqualified for - writing a housekeeping advice column for the local paper. Having virtually no experience of her own with housekeeping, Skeeter turns her friend’s maid, the very poised Aibileen, for help.
As she gets to know Aibileen and Aibileen's friend, the very sassy Minny, more intimately, Skeeter is inspired to help tell their stories, and she pitches the idea to write the narratives of 12 Black maids – a very risky project for all of them.
The Book Girls Say… This is one of Angela’s favorite books of all time! It’s full of characters that are easy to love (and others not so much), and by the end you’ll be so invested in their stories that you won’t want the book to end! The good news is that, when you do reach the final page, you can watch the movie to enjoy these women all over again.
by Chanel Cleeton Setting: 1960s Florida First published 2019
Beatriz Perez and her family had fame and fortune in Cuba, but when they were forced to flee during the Cuban Revolution her father is set on rebuilding their lives and their business in Florida. When the CIA recruits Beatriz to infiltrate Fidel Castro's inner circle, Beatriz becomes consumed by her desire for revenge and to reclaim what she's lost. As the Cold War surges, Beatriz also meets a man who is off limits and launches into a forbidden affair.
Through the eyes of Beatriz, this book is rich with historical context and explores the US/Cuban relationship in the 1960s, including the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the assassination of JFK.
The Book Girls Say... This book follows Next Year in Havana(which is on our 1950s reading list), but it can be read independently. Although you meet Beatriz in the first book, that book instead centers around her sister, Elisa.
by Clint Hill Setting: 1960s, US and around the world First published 2012
This is the memoir of Jackie Kennedy’s personal secret service agent who was with her throughout her years as First Lady. In this intimate portrait, Clint Hill recalls being by Jackie’s side for some of her happiest moments, as well as the darkest. He traveled the world with her, shared in intimate family moments in and out of the White House, and was with her in Dallas on 11/22/63 when he jumped onto the back of the President’s car to shield Mrs. Kennedy in the moments after her husband’s assassination – a tragic day that he recounts moment by moment in this book.
Clint Hill also wrote another memoir that is equally worth reading. In Five Presidents, he reflects on his seventeen years on the White House Secret Service detail under Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, shedding light on the personalities of five of the most powerful men in the world, and giving a unique insider perspective on many historical events of the 50s, 60s and 70s.
The Book Girls Say… Both of Clint Hill’s memoirs are vivid and insightful without feeling gossipy, and he provides an in depth look at the politics of the day without feeling political.
by Stephen King Setting: early 1960s, 2011; Maine and Texas First published 2011
This book is NOT what you'd expect from Stephen King. Instead of horror, you'll find a suspenseful historical fiction crossed with science fiction (and even a twist of romance) that addresses the most compelling aspect of time travel - how actions taken in the past affect the same future you started in.
English teacher Jake Epping is recruited by his friend Al, the owner of the local diner, to help with the most unlikely of requests. Al discovered a portal in the diner's storeroom that transports him back in time to the era of Ike and Elvis, and he sets becomes obsessed with the idea of using to portal to go back in time and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But when he realizes he won't be able to complete the mission, he enlists Jake for the job. Jake reluctantly agrees to go back to 1958 and live the early years of the 1960s in the small town of Jodie, Texas while devising a plan to stop JFK from dying on 11/22/63.
The Book Girls Say... This book is a giant at more than 800 pages, but we promise you'll thank us for this recommendation, and the audio book is fantastic! We haven't watched the mini-series yet, but we weren't surprised to hear that (as is always the case) - the book is better!
by Robert Dugoni Setting: 1960s and 1989, California First published 2018
Born with ocular albinism, Sam Hill's red eyes cause him problems from the moment that he enrolled at Our Lady of Mercy. Labeled "Hell Boy," he is bullied by not only his classmates, but also by the nun who is principal at the elementary school. Eventually Sam finds the friend he desperately needs in Ernie Cantwell, the only African American boy in his class, and years later in a fiercely individual girl named Mickie.
Years later, Sam is a respected ophthalmologist still moving through life with Ernie and Mickie by his side, but his world is about to be upturned when he's unexpectedly reunited with the biggest school-yard bully from his past.
The Book Girls Say... This has been one of Angela's favorite reads of the past year! The writing feels effortless, but the complex character development will pull you in and stick with you long past the last page. We highly recommend the audiobook which is narrated by the author himself!
Susan Crandall Setting: 1963, Mississippi and Tennessee First published 2013
Starla is a feisty little girl, born to teenage parents, and being raised by a strict grandmother whose main goal is to ensure that Starla doesn't turn out like her mom. In the summer of 1963, 9-year-old Starla runs away from her grandmother's home in Mississippi bound for Nashville, where he mom is trying to become a famous singer.
Walking alone in the country, Starla happily accepts a ride from a Black woman named Eula who is traveling with a white baby. Eula longs for a child of her own and Starla longs for her mom and dad to be together so she can have the family she dreams of. As they travel together, Starla learns the harsh reality of southern segregation.
This book is described by many as The Secret Life of Bees meets The Help meets To Kill a Mockingbird.
by Ken Kesey Setting: 1963, Salem, Oregon First published 1963
Set in a mental hospital, this classic novel is one of the defining works of the 1960s. Tyrannical Nurse Ratched rules her ward of the Oregon State mental hospital with an iron fist that is unopposed by her mind-numbingly medicated patients. But when the brawling and fun-loving Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives, he opposes Nurse Ratched's rules on behalf of his fellow inmates.
by Beatriz White Setting: France, 1914, 1942, 1964 First published 2020
This newly published historical fiction moves from the dark days of WWI and WWII to the turbulent years of the 1960s. In each era, the women with bruised hearts - an heiress, a Resistance fighter, and a widow - find refuge at the legendary Ritz Hotel in Paris.
Beatriz Williams Setting: 1964, Manhattan; 1914, Berlin First published 2014
Vivian Schuyler graduates from Bryn Mawr College in 1964 and shocks her wealthy Fifth Avenue socialite family by entering the Mad Men world of cutthroat Metropolitan magazine. But when an overseas parcel arrives on her Greenwich Village doorstep, its contents draw her into a family history and a crime that she didn't know existed.
In 1914, Violet Schuyler Grant moved to Europe to study physics, and made a disastrous marriage to a fellow scientist. As WWI looms, she is drawn in by a British army captain who challenges her to escape her husband's hold.
Fifty years later, Violet's fate remains a mystery, but the more Vivian investigate her disappearing aunt, the more she realizes they have in common.
Angie Cruz Setting: 1965, Dominican countryside; Washington Heights, New York First published 2019
Unlike many other girls growing up in the Dominican countryside who dreamed of moving to America, Ana never did. But when shes given the opportunity to marry Juan and move to New York City, she takes it even though he is twice her age and she doesn't love him, because it means the rest of her close-knit family may be able to eventually immigrate.
Ana's life in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC is lonely and miserable, until Juan returns to the Dominican Republic due to political turmoil, and his brother, Cesar, introduces Ana to the possibility of a different kind of immigrant life in America - one where she is free to take English lessons, see movies at Radio City Music Hall, and lie on the beach at Coney Island. But when Juan returns, Ana is again faced with the struggle between what she wants and what she sees as her family duty.
by S.E. Hinton Setting: 1965, Tulsa, Oklahoma First published 1967
Following two weeks in the life of 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis as he struggles with right and wrong. His world is made up of just two groups - the "socs, " a violent gang of rich kids who have money and can get away with anything, and the greasers, like Ponyboy, who live on the outside and need to watch their backs. Ponyboy is a proud greaser, until the night that his friend makes a terrible decision and he begins to question everything.
This work of fiction is considered to be one of the novels that laid the groundwork for the YA genre.
by Lily Koppel Setting: 1960s, Houston First published 2013
This is the fascinating, true story of the wives behind the men of the 1960s space program. NASA viewed the families of their astronauts as their business - selecting only men with seemingly perfect family lives, and giving the wives strict orders to create homes that wouldn't produce any undue stress or "mental chores" for the men.
Rocketed to celebrity (see what we did there?) by their husbands' selection as the original Mercury 7 astronauts, these women were featured on the cover of Life magazine. Under a deal with NASA, each wife was assigned a reporter who was embedded into her daily life - following her everywhere and placing her in a fishbowl even at the most tense of moments as she await word of his husband's fate on each mission. Only able to confide in one another, the "astrowives" formed a tight-knit community in Houston.
The Book Girls Say... This book gets mixed reviews, and most complaints seem to come down to the fact that it's written more like a work of feature journalism. But this is a quick read and Angela found it fascinating and couldn't put this book down! If you enjoyed the style of historical non-fiction books like Hidden Figures, we think you'll appreciate this book, too!
by Cathleen Schine Setting: 1960s, Greenwich Village, NYC Originally published 2013
When his mother dies of cancer, orphaned eleven-year-old Fin is reunited with his eccentric twenty-four-year-old half sister who he hasn’t seen in six years. Now his legal guardian, Lady relocates Fin from his dairy farm in Connecticut to her home in the middle of Greenwich Village during the swinging sixties. Lady is far from a conventional parent, and Fin finds that she is as much his responsibility as he is hers.
Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, Fin’s upbringing with Lady in Greenwich Village is the polar opposite of his former life. Lady enrolls Fin in an alternative school, takes him along to political rallies and marches, and doesn’t let her new parental-role slow down her free-wheeling lifestyle. When Lady asks Fin to help her find a husband by her 25th birthday, Fin takes very seriously his role in protecting his sister from her potential suitors, and from herself.
The Book Girls Say… Critics say this book doesn’t have enough of a plot, but Angela really enjoyed it as a character study of both Fin and Lady, as well as a portrait of the era. Those who love NYC will enjoy stepping into the whirlwind of Greenwich Village in the mid-60s.
by Renee Rosen Setting: 1965, Manhattan First published 2019
When Alice Weiss leaves her home in Midwestern Iowa to chase her dreams in NYC, she is lucky to land the job of a lifetime at Cosmopolitan Magazine which is under the new leadership of its first female editor, Helen Gurley Brown.
Not everyone is happy to see Helen at the helm of the magazine, with some editors and writers resigning and others cooking up a scheme to sabotage their new boss. Alice, on the other hand, remains loyal and is determined to help her new boss succeed as she shocks America by daring to talk to women about all things off-limits.
The Book Girls Say... Melissa loved stepping right into 1965 Manhattan as Alice adjusts from her Midwestern roots and learns how magazines are run. This novel is often described as Mad Men meets The Devil Wears Prada, but it's a huge bonus that the book was based on the real Cosmopolitan magazine and its first female editor, Helen Gurley Brown.
by Jacqueline Susann Setting: 1960s, New York City First published 1966
In an era when women were expected to become housewives, three best friends instead struggle to make their mark in NYC as they climb their way to the top of the entertainment industry. But once there, they discover there is no place to go but down - into the Valley of the Dolls.
The Book Girls Say... Described by reviewers as compulsively addictive (like the booze and pills everyone in the book is taking) and highly entertaining, and as a classic, if possibly trashy, piece of chic lit, this book is certainly not for everyone! But it's a cult classic that has endured for more than 50 years, and it's certainly piqued our interest to find out why!
by Cynthia Swanson Setting: 1960, Upstate New York First published 2018
It's the autumn on 1960 when Angie and Paul Glass receive a phone call that Paul's brother has committed suicide and his wife is missing. Angie thinks they are going to take care of their grief-stricken niece, but they discover that the enigmatic 17-year-old does not want to be nurtured. Staying in her brother- and sister-in-law's ultra modern house on the edge of the woods in Upstate New York, Angie begins to learn more about the complicated Glass family, and comes to question everything.
The Book Girls Say... Cynthia Swanson also wrote another book set in the 1960s called The Bookseller, which is set on right in Book Girl Angela's own little neighborhood in Denver! In this novel, Kitty Miller is leading two lives, one by day - where she's single and runs a bookshop with her best friend, and one in her dreams at night, where she's married with children living in an elegant home - and soon the lines between the two lives begin to blur. We've heard rumors that The Bookseller may soon be a movie staring Julia Roberts.
by Lisa Mason Setting: 1967 and 2467, San Francisco First published 1994
This book is historical fiction with a time travel twist that will transport you back in time and immerse you completely in the groovy Summer of Love in San Francisco, where a teenager - having run away from her suburban home in Ohio - is seeking peace and love in the Haight-Ashbury. Five hundred years later, Chiron is sent back time from 2467, where San Francisco is a city under the dome, to keep an eye on this 1967 runaway.
The Book Girls Say... This book gets great reviews, but if the sci-fi elements of the story don't appeal to you, consider picking up My Beautiful Hippie, a YA novel, that also gives a vivid glimpse of the summer of 1967 in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury.
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 the body of a handsome boy from town is found, the locals immediately suspect Kya.
by Elin Hilderbrand Setting: 1969, Nantucket First published 2019
This might just be the perfect historical fiction beach read for the summer - a family drama that brings the 60s to life in vivid, nostalgic detail.
Each year, the children of the Levin family have looked forward to spending their summer in Nantucket with their grandmother. But in the summer of '69, thirteen-year-old Jessie is the only sibling who can make the trip. One of her older sisters is pregnant with twins, the other is caught up in the civil rights movement, and her older brother has recently been deployed to the war in Vietnam.
The summer proves to be an eventful one - Vietnam, Woodstock, the moon landing, the Chappaquiddick affair, Jessie struggling with her first heartbreak, and her grandmother with a few secrets of her own.
by Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Genry Setting: Late 60s, California First published 1974
As the prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, author Vincent Bugliosi had an inside look at some of the most baffling and horrifying criminal cases of the 20th-century - those carried out in 1969 by cult leader Charles Manson and the young women who followed his orders. This book is the true story of those crimes.
The Book Girls Say... For a fictionalized look at Manson-like cult crimes in the late 1960s, consider The Girls by Emma Cline. This novel received tons of literary praise and awards upon its publication, but it was met with mixed reader reviews. Those who love this book describe it as a deep and thought-provoking look at the young female psyche.
The “Where the Crawdads Sing” has snatch another fan! I really enjoyed the book. Kya was a wonderful and colorful character. It was hard to put down. Thanks for turning me on to this book. Can’t wait to read the others you have suggested.
Monday 3rd of August 2020
I'm so glad you enjoyed it Stephanie! I just finished reading The Great Alone and if you haven't read it, we both highly recommend it.