These sisters read a book set in each state in 2018

Emily Morrow  //  Jan 3, 2019

These sisters read a book set in each state in 2018

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!

Elizabeth's map

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.

Rachel's map


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?


  • AlabamaRabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
  • Alaska: To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
  • ArizonaInsignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
  • ArkansasMaking Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood
  • CaliforniaThe Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin
  • ColoradoThe Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings
  • ConnecticutBrass by Xhenet Aliu
  • DelawareSunburn by Laura Lippman
  • FloridaThe Flamingo Rising by Larry Baker
  • GeorgiaAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  • HawaiiThe Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
  • IdahoAll Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki
  • IllinoisGoddess of Anarchy by Jacqueline Jones
  • IndianaThe Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues by Edward Kelsey Moore
  • IowaOur Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen
  • KansasThe Saint of Wolves and Butchers by Alex Grecian
  • KentuckyThe Vine That Ate the South by JD Wilkes
  • LouisianaUnder a Hoodoo Moon by Mac Rebennack
  • MaineThe Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
  • MarylandSong Yet Sung by James McBride
  • MassachusettsThe Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
  • MichiganYou Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits
  • MinnesotaEvergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen
  • MississippiVarina by Charles Frazier
  • MissouriPrairie Fires by Caroline Fraser
  • MontanaChampion of the World by Chad Dundas
  • NebraskaThe Meaning of Names by Caroline Gettert Shoemaker
  • NevadaSun, Sin, and Suburbia by Geogg Schumacher
  • New HampshireSummer Hours at the Robbers’ Library by Sue Halpern
  • New JerseyA Call from Jersey by PF Kluge
  • New MexicoThe Night Journal by Elizabeth Crook
  • New YorkThe Standard Grand by Jay Baron Nicorvo
  • North CarolinaThe Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
  • North DakotaLaRose by Louise Erdrich
  • OhioLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • OklahomaI Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows
  • Oregon: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
  • PennsylvaniaFive-carat Soul by James McBride
  • Rhode IslandThe Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake
  • South CarolinaThe Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd
  • South DakotaThe Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber
  • TennesseeBefore We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
  • TexasThe Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
  • UtahThe Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson
  • VermontRadio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben
  • VirginiaMislaid by Nell Zink
  • WashingtonLawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
  • West VirginiaMine Eyes Have Seen by Ann Rinaldi
  • WisconsinThe Driest Season by Meghan Kenny
  • WyomingAmerican Wolf by Nate Blakeslee
  • + Washington, DCTreating 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
  • ArizonaInsignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus and 24 Hours in Nowhere, both by Dusti Bowling
  • ArkansasMaking Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood
  • CaliforniaIn the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
  • Colorado: N/A
  • ConnecticutConfusion Is Nothing New by Paul Acampora (I tried to guess from context clues—this wasn’t explicitly set in CT though!)
  • Delaware: N/A
  • FloridaThe 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
  • IllinoisA Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck
  • Indiana: N/A
  • Iowa: N/A
  • KansasMoon Over Manifest by Claire Vanderpool
  • Kentucky: N/A
  • LouisianaBlackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly 
  • MaineOrbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt
  • MarylandOne for Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn
  • MassachusettsThe Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (This had several settings told in flashbacks, but circled back to Massachusetts)
  • MichiganThe 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
  • MississippiA Long Line of Cakes by Deborah Wiles and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  • Missouri: N/A
  • Montana: N/A
  • NebraskaGirl Out of Water by Laura Silverman
  • Nevada’Round Midnight by Laura McBride
  • New HampshireThe Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick
  • New JerseyThe 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 YorkThe Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore
  • North CarolinaThree Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage and One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock
  • North DakotaThe Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich
  • OhioLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • Oklahoma: N/A
  • OregonStray City by Chelsey Johnson
  • PennsylvaniaMe and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
  • Rhode IslandLandscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson
  • South CarolinaThe Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • South Dakota: N/A
  • Tennessee: N/A
  • Texas: N/A
  • UtahYou May Already Be a Winner by Ann Dee Ellis
  • VermontTruly Devious by Maureen Johnson
  • Virginia: N/A
  • WashingtonOur Only May Amelia by Jenni Holm
  • West Virginia: N/A
  • WisconsinHope Was Here by Joan Bauer
  • WyomingPaint the Wind by Pam Muñoz Ryan
  • + Washington, DCWhite Houses by Amy Bloom

Inspired to try your own reading challenge this year? Tell us about it! Tweet us @scholastic.