Twin sisters Elizabeth Krych and Rachel Van Houten set themselves a unique reading challenge in 2018: Read a book set in each of the 50 states.
We sat down with them to find out how they did it, how they fared, and what they learned!
First, a little bit about the sisters:
Elizabeth is the associate production director of Scholastic's Trade pulishing department. Rachel is a senior coordinator of academic services at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The sisters are identical twins and lifelong readers who grew up near Rochester, New York.
How did you come up with the idea?
Elizabeth: Rachel and I had (competitively, of course) used Reading Bingo boards created by Deimosa Webber-Bey to track our reading in previous years. I’ve always loved maps. I recall doing a summer reading program at our local library in Webster, New York, that involved a giant map of New York State on the wall.
Rachel: Although we now live 3,000 miles apart, we are in constant contact about what we’re reading! We didn’t formally make any “rules” about the venture, although I assumed we’d only count books that we hadn’t read before. And of course, the book had to be wholly or partly set in the state for it to count. Other than in our frequent letters and emails, we kept each other up-to-date by sending pictures of our respective maps back and forth!
How did you research and identify titles for each state?
Rachel: We started the project a few weeks into 2018, so I looked back through my book journal and started filling in my map with the states I’d already covered since the start of the year. I hunted for new reads the old-fashioned way: scanning the Little Free Libraries on my block, keeping up with The New York Times Book Review for new releases, and searching the online catalog of my local libraries by state and city names.
Elizabeth: At first I picked up books as they came to me, around the office or browsing in the library, but about halfway through the year I figured I couldn’t leave it to chance so I started using the “Subject” search in the New York Public Library website to seek out and sift through titles set in the specific states I had yet to find a book for.
Did you stick to the same genres or did you vary things up?
Rachel: I tend toward literary fiction, but my list ended up including a few works of nonfiction (history, biography, memoir, even a book of etiquette!) and a few Scholastic YA novels that Elizabeth sent me.
Elizabeth: My final list is dominated by middle grade and Scholastic titles — not coincidentally, since sample copies appear frequently around the office!
Did this challenge cause you to pick up any books that you might not have normally?
Rachel: Probably only about a third of the books I read for this project were new novels that I would’ve read anyway. Everything else was extra.
I normally primarily read female authors, but I also read a few male authors who I might not otherwise have read, like crime/thriller author Alex Grecian. This project definitely exposed me to more writers of color, like James McBride and Edward Kelsey Moore.
Elizabeth: I’ve lived in England a couple of times and probably well more than half of what I read is by British authors, so was a good exercise to engage with books from writers of many different backgrounds around our own vast country. I probably read way more “domestic fiction” books than I would normally, that are focused on family dynamics, and I passed on a lot of books in my favorite genres (fantasy and historical fiction) as a result! I found that I went back and revisited several award-winning titles that were published in the gap in my own life between being the target audience for children’s books and working in publishing, so books published around 1995–2005.
What was your favorite book you read?
Rachel: In terms of can’t-put-it-down page-turners, no question my favorites were An American Marriage and Little Fires Everywhere. But I also really enjoyed the time-shifting tale The Maze at Windermere and the gentle memoir-style novel The Flamingo Rising.
Elizabeth: I’ve been recommending Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling to everyone and I also enjoyed her more recent book, 24 Hours in Nowhere. And Truly Devious ended on a jaw-dropping cliffhanger—I was so disappointed/excited to realize that the suspenseful tale is the beginning of a trilogy, and the solutions to its many mysteries will have to wait for the next volumes!
What did you learn?
Rachel: Just like real traveling, one has to make room for the unexpected detour. It became apparent about halfway through the year that a lot of the novels I was reading for this project had a common plot arc: a young, independent, strong-willed female protagonist making a life for herself in the face of situational adversity. I think we can identify a robust sub-genre of historical fiction that is rewriting the HERstory of the “American dream” from the contemporary perspective (ex. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Evergreen, and The Night Journal). On the opposite side, there is also a clamoring voice in American fiction that all is far from well (ex. Red Clocks, Brass, and You Don’t Have to Live Like This).
Elizabeth: I diligently read quite a few books whose location was undetermined because I had a feeling that a specific location would be revealed, but to no avail! Maybe it was just my frustration at not being able to log the book on my map, but it seemed like some books that perhaps aimed for universality by not being set in a named placed ended up feeling a bit unfocused because they lacked local detail.
I learned I need even more of an incentive to stick to a plan like this, so unfortunately my map is not at all complete. My reading time is generally limited to my subway commute, so several weeks were absorbed by stories that take place overseas: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkias, and some of the twelve-volume Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken.
Okay, we HAVE to know: What books were on your lists?
- Alabama: Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
- Alaska: To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
- Arizona: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
- Arkansas: Making Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood
- California: The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin
- Colorado: The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings
- Connecticut: Brass by Xhenet Aliu
- Delaware: Sunburn by Laura Lippman
- Florida: The Flamingo Rising by Larry Baker
- Georgia: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- Hawaii: The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
- Idaho: All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki
- Illinois: Goddess of Anarchy by Jacqueline Jones
- Indiana: The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues by Edward Kelsey Moore
- Iowa: Our Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen
- Kansas: The Saint of Wolves and Butchers by Alex Grecian
- Kentucky: The Vine That Ate the South by JD Wilkes
- Louisiana: Under a Hoodoo Moon by Mac Rebennack
- Maine: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
- Maryland: Song Yet Sung by James McBride
- Massachusetts: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
- Michigan: You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits
- Minnesota: Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen
- Mississippi: Varina by Charles Frazier
- Missouri: Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser
- Montana: Champion of the World by Chad Dundas
- Nebraska: The Meaning of Names by Caroline Gettert Shoemaker
- Nevada: Sun, Sin, and Suburbia by Geogg Schumacher
- New Hampshire: Summer Hours at the Robbers’ Library by Sue Halpern
- New Jersey: A Call from Jersey by PF Kluge
- New Mexico: The Night Journal by Elizabeth Crook
- New York: The Standard Grand by Jay Baron Nicorvo
- North Carolina: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
- North Dakota: LaRose by Louise Erdrich
- Ohio: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
- Oklahoma: I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows
- Oregon: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
- Pennsylvania: Five-carat Soul by James McBride
- Rhode Island: The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake
- South Carolina: The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd
- South Dakota: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber
- Tennessee: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
- Texas: The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
- Utah: The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson
- Vermont: Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben
- Virginia: Mislaid by Nell Zink
- Washington: Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
- West Virginia: Mine Eyes Have Seen by Ann Rinaldi
- Wisconsin: The Driest Season by Meghan Kenny
- Wyoming: American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee
- + Washington, DC: Treating People Well by Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard
Elizabeth: I was about par halfway through the year, but I didn’t really come close to finishing. As the year came to an end I got too distracted by “Best Of” lists and got distracted from my strategies to finish the project. No offense against the states I missed: It wasn’t you, it was me!
- Alabama: Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley
- Alaska: N/A
- Arizona: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus and 24 Hours in Nowhere, both by Dusti Bowling
- Arkansas: Making Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood
- California: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
- Colorado: N/A
- Connecticut: Confusion Is Nothing New by Paul Acampora (I tried to guess from context clues—this wasn’t explicitly set in CT though!)
- Delaware: N/A
- Florida: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya
- Georgia: Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake
- Hawaii: N/A
- Idaho: N/A
- Illinois: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck
- Indiana: N/A
- Iowa: N/A
- Kansas: Moon Over Manifest by Claire Vanderpool
- Kentucky: N/A
- Louisiana: Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly
- Maine: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt
- Maryland: One for Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn
- Massachusetts: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (This had several settings told in flashbacks, but circled back to Massachusetts)
- Michigan: The House With a Clock in Its Walls by Jonathan Bellairs (This is the only title I reread from childhood. It still holds up!)
- Minnesota: N/A
- Mississippi: A Long Line of Cakes by Deborah Wiles and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
- Missouri: N/A
- Montana: N/A
- Nebraska: Girl Out of Water by Laura Silverman
- Nevada: ’Round Midnight by Laura McBride
- New Hampshire: The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick
- New Jersey: The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta (Granted, this is only set in the Garden State at the outset, but I figured, you can take the demon-slaying princess out of Jersey, but . . .)
- New Mexico: N/A
- New York: The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore
- North Carolina: Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage and One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock
- North Dakota: The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich
- Ohio: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
- Oklahoma: N/A
- Oregon: Stray City by Chelsey Johnson
- Pennsylvania: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
- Rhode Island: Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson
- South Carolina: The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis
- South Dakota: N/A
- Tennessee: N/A
- Texas: N/A
- Utah: You May Already Be a Winner by Ann Dee Ellis
- Vermont: Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
- Virginia: N/A
- Washington: Our Only May Amelia by Jenni Holm
- West Virginia: N/A
- Wisconsin: Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer
- Wyoming: Paint the Wind by Pam Muñoz Ryan
- + Washington, DC: White Houses by Amy Bloom