Whether you’re participating in our Read Around the USA Challenge, or just curious to learn about the US island territories, you’ve come to the right place. Our list of highly-rated books will allow you to explore the rich history and unique cultures of these often-overlooked places.
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Overview of the U.S. Territories
The American territories are lands that are either under the direct jurisdiction of the United States or administered by the U.S. government. There are currently a total of 14 U.S. territories. For purposes of our book list, we have focused on the five permanently inhabited island territories. The inhabited US territories in the Caribbean are Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands are the inhabited US territories in the Pacific.
Reading about these lands and the unique stories, cultures, and people that make them home can be inspiring and educational. This post will explore the books set in U.S. Territories and how, through literature, we can gain insight into these beautiful, far-reaching places.
Note that our map is not intended to be geographically accurate.We grouped the inhabited island territories together on our printable map simply for the purposes of reading challenge tracking.
Discover the Untold Stories of the US Territories Through Books
Are you ready to explore the hidden gems beyond the mainland of the United States? The island territories often get overlooked despite their rich history and unique culture. Books set in the territories offer a window into the beauty, complexity, and diversity of these lands. From exploring the history of the islands to examining the struggles of their inhabitants, the books featured on our list below bring together stories that represent a multi-faceted view of the culture and life in these island territories.
Whether you’re a fan of literary fiction, memoirs, or crime thrillers, these books are sure the captivate and educate. You may have to step outside of your reading comfort zone, but the titles we’ve curated will help you discover the rich history and cultural traditions of these islands. From Puerto Rico’s complex politics to the little-know stories of the Northern Mariana Islands, the territories are full of untold stories just waiting to be discovered. Without further ado, let’s dive into some must-read books that will take you on a journey to explore the US island territories.
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Must-Read Books Set in the US Island Territories
On the list below, we’ve grouped the books by island territory and also indicated the time setting of each. We’ve also included a brief overview of the inhabited territories to provide some context for the history and literary themes.
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by Doug Mack Setting: Covers all the US TERRITORIES
Four million people inhabit the US island territories spread from the Caribbean to the Pacific. While these lands don’t have the benefits of statehood, like representation in the US Senate, they do have everything from US Post Offices to Little League teams.
When the author of this book realized that he (and most other Americans) knew very little about these territories, he decided to visit each one. After covering 30,000 miles and spending time with locals on each island, he was uniquely equipped to write a book about how the territories are an interesting and important part of America’s story.
The audiobook is currently included free with an Audible Plus membership as of March 16. 2023.
Puerto Rican Books
One of the most fascinating stories among the US territories is that of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's land mass is larger than that of either Rhode Island or Delaware. With a population of 3.4 million, more people live in this island territory than in 21 of the US states.
Puerto Rico has a complex political history. Understanding it requires delving into a variety of issues, including colonialism, economic dependence, and cultural identity. Luckily, we've found a variety of highly-rated books set in Puerto Rico, including books by Puerto Rican authors.
Puerto Rico was acquired by the United States from Spain in 1898 in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. In 1917 Puerto Ricans became US citizens, and in 1950, President Truman signed the Puerto Rico Commonwealth Bill. As a Commonwealth, the island was able to establish its own constitution, and it has limited autonomy over local matters. However, for much of its recent history, the U.S. has dominated it militarily, politically, and economically.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but they do not have voting representatives in Congress. They do, however, elect a non-voting resident commissioner to Congress who serves on standing committees. While they can participate in primaries, they do not have electoral votes for president.
The island's status is often debated, both within and beyond its shores. Numerous statehood referendums have been held in Puerto Rico over the past half a century, most recently in 2020. But ultimately, the power to grant statehood rests with the US Congress.
After Isla’s father passes away, she's sent from her home in New Jersey to stay with her grandmother and great-aunt in Puerto Rico. When she is eighteen, her grandmother dies. It is only then that Isla discovers that she has a family gift that has been passed down through her family’s cuentistas (storytellers).
The tales of the dead family storytellers are brought back to life, replaying themselves over and over right before her eyes. At first, Isla is enchanted by this connection to the family cuentistas, but when she has a vision of an old murder mystery, she realizes that she must try to solve it in order to close the loop before these stories cost her her life.
The Book Girls Say… This Puerto Rican magical realism mystery is the first adult novel from Nuyorican author Ann Dávila Cardinal. Nuyorican is a term used to refer to members of the Puerto Rican culture who live in or around New York City. Ann comes from a long line of Puerto Rican writers and has also authored several YA horror novels.
In 1898, starving Puerto Ricans called los hambrientos roamed their island looking for food. The island was ruled by the Spanish at the time, and preparing for war with the US. As the Spanish-American war loomed, Vicente Vega and Valentina Sanchez struggled to keep their small farm in the coffee region safe from creditors.
When the great San Ciriaco Hurricane of 1899 created mass devastation on top of the already fragile economy, the couple followed the lead of thousands of other Puerto Ricans who were lured to the sugar plantations of Hawaii in search of a better life. However, America’s promises of prosperity were hollow.
The Book Girls Say… This book spans 1825-1902 and includes the transition of Puerto Rico from Spanish colonial rule to US Territory. While part of the book is also set in the US State of Hawaii, during the timeline covered in the book, Hawaii was still a territory.
This non-fiction tells the true story of a group of chefs who traveled to Puerto Rico just days after Hurricane Maria and fed thousands of hungry Americans. In September of 2017, Maria devastated the island and destroyed the economy. For most people, there was no clean water, food, power, gas, or even communication with the outside world. Chef José Andrés arrived on the island just four days after the hurricane and began aiding the crisis the only way he knew how - with hot meals. Andrés teamed up with other chefs to cook 100,000 meals a day at more than a dozen kitchens across the island. At the same time, they also confronted a crisis with deep roots, as well as the broken and wasteful system that helps keep some of the biggest charities and NGOs in business.
A portion of the proceeds from this book are donated to the Chef Relief Network of World Central Kitchen for efforts in Puerto Rico and beyond.
The Book Girls Say… If you’d prefer to read a fictional mystery/thriller set against the backdrop of Hurrican Maria, check out After the Hurricane by Leah Franqui. In this novel, a daughter returns to Puerto Rico - a place she hasn’t seen since childhood - to search for her troubled father who has gone missing after the storm.
When Olga and her older brother, Prieto, were just teenagers, their mother abandoned them to fight for a political cause. Twenty-seven years later, the siblings have both made names for themselves in their hometown of Brooklyn. Olga is a wedding planner for Manhattan's chic 1%-ers, and Prieto is a popular congressman representing their gentrifying Latinx neighborhood.
Despite the prestige of their public personas, behind closed doors things are far less perfect. Olga spends her days orchestrating the love stories of the elite, but she's still looking for love of her own, Prieto has secrets that could impact his political career, and both are still grappling with their troubled childhoods.
Set in New York City in 2017 - the year that Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico - this story examines political corruption and complex family relationships. It paints a vivid history of Puerto Rico set against the notion of the American dream, and it asks what it really means to weather a storm.
The Book Girls Say... Reviewers praise this novel for its realistically flawed protagonists. Don't be fooled by the light and breezy tone of Gonzalez' writing - like the characters she creates, there is much more below the surface.
Author Xochitl Gonzalez was born in NYC to a second-generation Puerto Rican mother and Mexican-American father. She was raised by her maternal grandparents in Brooklyn.
This book is included with Kindle Unlimited as of 3/13/23.
Set 13 years after Life and Other Near-Death Experiences, Don't Make Me Turn This Life Around gives us an updated look into the life of the fictional character Libby Ross-Velasquez. Her family is going through a rough patch with distance in relationships, a death, and an illness, so Libby books a trip to Vieques, a small Puerto Rican island.
Her dream of escaping reality for a bit turns into a nightmare as a hurricane approaches the island. She fears that in an attempt to make things better, she's put her family at risk of a bigger disaster.
The Book Girls Say... You may need some Kleenex for some of the heart-wrenching scenes in this one. While the cover looks like a light rom-com, reviewers say it's fabulous, but heavy at times and has a bit less humor than some of Camille Pagan's other works.
This book is included with Kindle Unlimited as of 3/13/23.
by Jaquira Díaz Setting: PUERTO RICO and Miami, Florida
This memoir tells the story of the author’s early years being raised in the housing projects of Puerto Rico. Her father then relocated the family to Miami Beach when Díaz was in elementary school. But their dreams of a better life fell apart little by little as money was spent on drugs and as her mother’s mental health deteriorated.
Díaz also had her own struggles with mental illness and violence, in addition to dealing with racism and her sexual identity. She finds solace in her books and her friends - her fellow “ordinary girls” - who give her the strength to forge a better path.
The Book Girls Say… While only part of the author’s story takes place in Puerto Rico, the book is said to be heavy on Puerto Rian heritage throughout. Often compared to Tara Westover’s Educated, reviewers say this memoir, too, reads like a novel. Some readers found this book an emotionally draining read. It includes many potentially triggering topics, including physical and sexual assault, mental illness, suicide, and more.
Books Set in the US Virgin Islands
This Virgin Islands chain is made up of about 90 small islands. Four larger islands make up the British Virgin Islands, and three larger islands are territories of the United States. The US Virgin Islands (USVI) include St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas.
When you think of the USVI, you likely picture a luxurious, family-friendly beach vacation. But there's so much more to learn about the approximately 100,000 people who call these islands home.
The United States purchased these islands from Denmark in 1917 for a total of $25 million. The US made the aquisition to establish a naval safety net for the Panama Canal.
Individuals born in the USVI are considered citizens of the United States. While they can't vote in federal elections, they do elect a nonvoting delegate to the US House of Representatives.
Explore the islands' vibrant culture, history, and natural beauty through books on our list.
by Elin Hilderbrand Setting: St. John, US VIRGIN ISLANDS
Irene gets a shocking late-night phone call that her husband has been found dead on the island of St. John, far from their suburban life. When she travels to St. John to figure out what happened to her husband, Irene discovers much more than she expected - including his entire double life.
This is book #1 in 3 book series, which means it ends without a fully satisfying ending and you'll want to keep reading. All three have been released, so you won't have to wait for publishing, but we wanted to make sure you knew what you were in for!
The Book Girls Say… If you have Elin Hilderbrand’s books set in Nantucket as much as we do, consider heading to the Caribbean with her this month. She is a bit of a local celebrity on St. John. Within this story, she drops the names of many local business owners, bar dwellers, and locations that you may recognize if you’ve traveled to this US Virgin Island.
by Alice Hoffman Setting: St. Thomas, US VIRGIN ISLANDS
In this historical romance, you’ll learn the family history of artist Camille Pissarro, the Father of Impressionism. His mother, Rachel, grew up on St. Thomas, but dreamt of a glamorous life in Paris. Rachel’s mother was a Jewish refugee, and dislike’s Rachel’s tendency to stretch beyond every boundary she’s given.
However, Rachel has an ally in their maid, Adelle and Adelle’s daughter, Jestine. This friendship doesn’t save her from being married off to an older widower in an attempt to save her father’s business. Eventually, Rachel finally gets a chance to live life on her own terms when her husband dies and his handsome young nephew arrives from France to settle the estate.
The Book Girls Say… This book is set in the 1800s, when St. Thomas was part of the Danish West Indies. In 1917, the United States purchased St. Thomas (along with St. John & St. Croix) from Denmark in 1917 for a total of $25 million and renamed the group of islands as the Virgin Islands.
by Megan O'Leary Setting: St. Thomas, US VIRGIN ISLANDS
It’s 2009 and life is good for Lizzie who works as a first mate on a tour boat based on St. Thomas. However, her “no worries” island attitude only works until something sinister happens and she gets a glimpse of what can happen behind the charming facade of her island home.
After a seemingly simple favor to a co-worker, Lizzie is pulled to the middle of a dangerous situation when a female vacationer goes missing. Even worse, she finds herself on the run from the police when a body appears in the harbor.
The Book Girls Say… This beachy vacation read is perfect if you’re looking for a light mystery. However, skip this one if you’re sensitive to a lot of drinking by the main character.
In reviews of this book, locals say it is very accurate in its descriptions of the island. While not native to the island, the author left Manhatten to live on St. Thomas full-time for four years starting in 2006. Although she temporarily returned to the US, she moved back to the Virgin Islands in 2016.
by Lisa Shiroff Setting: St. Thomas, US VIRGIN ISLANDS
Mandy is excited to leave her life on the US Mainland behind to run the Revenge Cafe on St. Thomas with her best friend, Chance. However, Chance fails to mention that people tend to die at the cafe. As Mandy investigates a murder on their property, she discovers that Chance has been playing outside the legal lines. Even worse, it looks like Mandy might be the next victim.
Mandy really wants to ignore all these new complications in her life and hide in a bottle of rum, but things keep happening. People from her past are trying to creep back into the present, there’s a ghost haunting the dining room, and the sexy police detective is vying for her attention.
The Book Girls Say… Throughout the book, the author incorporated the Creole English that is native to St. Thomas. In the preface, she explains, “To honor their distinct use of the language, I sought input from Islanders on pronunciation and even spelling to do my best to reflect it in this work.” You can find a glossary of some of these words with their American English equivalents on her website.
This book is included with Kindle Unlimited as of 3/13/23.
Books About American Samoa
The Samoan islands are located in the South Pacific, about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. Around the turn of the century, this island chain was split in two. In 1904, the eastern islands became territories of the United States, now known as American Samoa. The western islands, which are referred to just as Samoa, passed from German control to New Zealand in 1914.
Despite government differences, the two parts of Samoa retain very similar cultures, and both are equally stunning in their beauty. The non-American islands are much larger and are where you'll find most of the resorts, dining, and shopping options. The islands of American Samoa are smaller and less developed.
According to the 2020 census, American Samoa has a population of around 50,000 people (a decrease of 10.5% from 2010). Individuals born in American Samoa are United States nationals, rather than citizens. However, as nationals, they have the option to apply for citizenship if they choose. American Samoan residents can't vote in federal elections, but they do elect a nonvoting delegate to the US House of Representatives.
In this four-book series, Detective Apelu Soifua walks the line between US and Polynesian cultures. In the introduction to this new mystery series, Apelu has returned home to American Samoa after working as an officer in San Fransisco. On the small island, the cases feel more personal than they did in California.
When a white family’s home is burglarized in the capital of Pago Pago, it’s not the simple case it seems at first. The trail to the truth includes the difference between cultures, dead bodies, hidden codes, and lies.
The Book Girls Say… Author John Enright was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and lived in San Francisco and Hong Kong before relocating to teach at American Samoa Community College. He spent the next twenty-six years living on the islands of the South Pacific. Reviews praise the author’s ability to capture the essence of life in these Americanized, Polynesian islands.
This four-book series is currently available in print, but all the books are scheduled to be released in Kindle form in July. The first book is the lowest-rated of the series, but we wanted to give you the opportunity to start at the beginning if you’d like.
In this non-fiction by award-winning sports historian Rob Ruck, he uses football to examine the complex ties between American Samoa and the United States. This tiny Pacific archipelago produces more players for the NFL than anywhere else in the world outside of the fifty states, and Ruck traveled to the South Seas to better understand how and why.
In this gripping and bittersweet story, Ruck reports on what he found. In American Samoa, boys train on fields blistered with volcanic pebbles wearing helmets that should have been discarded long ago. Players incur far more neurological damage than their stateside counterparts. The football community in American Samoa is haunted by the memory of Junior Seau. After a vaunted twenty-year NFL career, Seau committed suicide, unable to live with the demons that resulted from TBIs.
The Book Girls Say… If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, consider also reading Gridiron Capital: How American Football Became a Samoan Game. In this 2022 book, Lisa Uperesa draws upon ethnographic fieldwork, archival research, and media analysis.
by Melinda Clayville Setting: Tutuila, Aunu'u, and Manu'a Islands, AMERICAN SAMOA
The Clayville family of five uprooted their family from Idaho in search of a better quality of life in American Samoa. Nate had always dreamed of living in the South Pacific, so he reached out to the American Samoan government asking if they could utilize someone with his skills and experience. The answer was yes, and soon the family was relocating to a tiny island with very few resources to help guide their way.
Three years later, Melinda published the book about American Samoa she wished her family had when they started their adventure. It’s part history book and part guidebook, aimed at sharing the beauty of American Samoa with the world.
The Book Girls Say… Different from other books on our list, this isn’t one you necessarily need to read cover to cover. This provides a window into the history and culture of American Samoa, something that is hard to find in many other books. However, it also includes lots of detailed travel information (arguably the best for this US territory) that’s not as relevant to those interested only in armchair traveling.
The Clayville family also documents their life in American Samoa through their AmSamFam blog and YouTube channel. If you really want to get a flavor of American Samoa, we highly recommend checking out some of their videos.
Books About Guam & the Northern Mariana Islands
Located in the western Pacific, the Mariana Archipelago includes 15 islands. The 14 northern islands are known today collectively as the Northern Mariana Islands, the largest of which are Saipan, Guguan, Rota, and Tinian. The southernmost island in the Mariana Archipelago is Guam.
At one time, all these islands were under Spanish colonial rule, but in 1898 Spain ceded Guam to the US.
In 1914, Japan took possession of the Northern Marianas. Three decades later, these islands were the sites of significant WWII battles between the US and the Japanese. In August of 1945, Japan surrendered, and the US military took control of the islands. And in 1975, the Northern Marianas became a US territory.
The Northern Mariana Islands are a commonwealth of the United States, and Guam is an incorporated territory. People born in both the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and Guam are US citizens. According to the 2020 Census, about 150,000 people live in Guam, and fewer than 50,000 people reside in CNMI.
Although Guam came under the control of the US half a century before CNMI, they share the indigenous Chamorro culture. The cultures of both have also been strongly influenced by American customs over the years. Nonetheless, their political separation has had different impacts on the islands and their cutlures. Further, Guam and CNMI's economies are heavily tied to tourism, placing the two in direct competition with one another.
This YA novel tells the story of a family in crisis after their mother commits suicide. Each member of the family is dealing with grief, guilt, and anger in their own way. And Isabel is the one trying to hold them all together.
Her father sleeps curled up on the floor right where Mama's body was found. Olivia wets her bed and repeatedly wakes from nightmares. And Frank has started carving his anger into his bedroom wall. Isabel is trying to help her family get beyond the pain and loss - to be the keeper of the night. But who will help Isabel?
The Book Girls Say… Reviewers describe the text of this novel as spare and poetic, told through short chapters with revealing titles.
Author Kimberly Willis Holt is a self-described Navy brat who grew up living all over the world, including in Guam. In this novel, according to Publishers Weekly, she has recreated “the sights, sounds, and smells of Guam.” One reviewer, who grew up on the nearby island of Saipan said, “It was a pleasure to read the references to Chamorro culture. Though the story was sad, I recommend it highly. It describes a little-known culture and family crisis through wonderful characters in a unique setting."
Phoenix Farmer moved from her home in Guam to California. Once there, her marriage to her high school sweetheart unraveled and Pheonix was forced to take a job as a secret shopper. With the help of a makeover from her best who visits from Guam, Pheonix starts to see herself in a new light. Soon she snags the attention of Thomas, the charming and handsome target she’s been assigned to evaluate. But before she can decide what to do about Thomas, her father falls ill and she’s pulled back to Guam.
The Book Girls Say… While only part of this book is set in Guam, the descriptions of the island and its culture have been praised by locals. We were excited to come across this laugh-out-loud contemporary novel that mixes romance, heartfelt emotion, and the culture of Guam. One Chamorro reviewer said, “I love that […] it shows the people of our island that you CAN write about your island and your culture in ways that you personally enjoy, ways that can be marketed and found interesting by a broader audience."
Author Tanya Taimanglo was born in Guam to parents of Chamarro and Korean descent. She attended the University of Guam where she studied English and Secondary Education. After teaching creative writing in Guam, she married her childhood best friend, a Navy Chief, and they now reside in California with their two children. She is also the author of several other books, including Sirena: A Mermaid Legend from Guam, and Attitude 13: A Daughter of Guam’s Collection of short stories.
Secret Shopper is available with Kindle Unlimited as of March 13, 2023.
Part memoir and part manifesto, this book is a collection of essays that tell a coming-of-age story and provide a call for justice. Aguon weaves together stories from his childhood in the villages of Guam with political commentary about issues ranging from nuclear weapons to climate change. He covers personal stories (like losing his father to cancer to working for Mother Teresa) as well as tackling some of the major issues of the day. He is entrenched in the struggles of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific to liberate themselves from colonial rule, defend their sacred sites, and obtain justice for generations of harm.
The Book Girls Say… Author Julian Aguon is a Chamorro human rights lawyer who lives in Yona, Guam. In just 128 short pages, his essays, poems, and speech pack a collective punch! This book is described as both a work or art and a work of advocacy.
by Max Allan Collins Setting: Saipan, NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS
One of the leading theories about the disappearance of Amelia Earnhart involves her crashing near the Northern Mariana islands.
In this historical mystery, detective Nathan Heller had been hired as Amelia’s bodyguard in 1935, two years before her infamous trip around the world. At that point, she had already been the subject of death threats, leading Nathan to believe there was more to her disappearance than a simple flying accident.
During WWII, Nathan was hired to help search for her in Japanese waters, but failed. Over twenty years later, in 1970, he travels back to Saipan determined to find the truth and looking for revenge for his earlier attempt.
The Book Girls Say… While this is the 9th book in the Nathan Heller series, it does read as a stand-alone. Don’t miss the appendix at the back of this book that clarifies which points of the book are historically accurate and which are speculation or fictional to enhance the novel. If you're interested in reading a non-fiction book about the theory that Amelia Earhart ended up on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, pick up Amelia Earheart: The Truth at Last by Mike Campbell.
Heads Up: This book was originally published in 1998 and some readers mention that it contains both racist and sexist language.
This book is included with Kindle Unlimited as of 3/13/23.
by P.F. Kluge Setting: Saipan, NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS
Set in early 2010s Saipan, The Master Blaster tells the stories of strangers who meet at the airport and make a bet about who will last the longest on Saipan. Each of these new arrivals are on the run from something in their old lives.
Jaded travel writer George, college professor Stephanie, businessman Mel, and Bangladeshi laborer Khan are looking for new beginnings. But, this island nation isn’t the paradise they hoped for. The Master Blaster is an anonymous person running a blog about Saipan. He clearly loves the island, but also writes to expose the prevalent corruption, greed, and income disparities. As you read, you’ll constantly want to guess the real identity of the Master Blaster.
You are welcome to choose any book you’d like to read for the challenge, but we hope this booklist provides a good starting point. If you have other book recommendations or have personal connections or experiences to share, we invite you to leave a comment below, or join the discussion over on Facebook.
Members of our email list and Facebook group, Read with the Book Girls, can log/rate their monthly challenge reads. The logs provide the data we use for the “BGG Reader Ratings” seen below some of our book descriptions. We also use this reader data to set up monthly discussion groups. We’d love you to contribute your rating after you’ve finished your read this month. You can find the links to the logs in your Friday emails each week throughout the month of the challenge.
Join the Read Around the USA Challenge
Book Recommendations for Other Regions of the USA
We’re publishing a book list for a new group of states each month throughout 2023. You’ll find a schedule of upcoming regions in this post.
Can you send me a printable list with the book titles but not descriptions?
This was a big request last year that we weren’t able to add to our plates in 2022. New for 2023, readers who support Book Girls Guide through our Buy Me a Coffee membership site will receive special monthly printable journal pages as a thank you bonus. The voluntary members (we call them our BFFs) help cover the cost of running the challenges so we can keep them free for everyone.
We’re so excited to be able to offer this fun perk this year!
The new pages will be pre-filled with every book title for each state, and include space for you to mark your interest level, make notes about whether you’ve requested the book from the library (or any other notes you’d like), and then fill in your rating. We’ll also include blank lines in case you have other books on your TBR (to be read) list that meet the prompt. We’d love you to sign up here!
That said, you’ll always find the most updated version of our recommendations with descriptions each month at no cost on our website. We do update the list and descriptions regularly based on reader feedback. But, we know some of you wanted to print the list to take to the library or bookstore, and we hope this helps.