Their Eyes Were Watching God: Recommended Readalikes

Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

Throughout your childhood, your parents are some version of “Mom and Dad.” They’re two adults who are supposed to love you, take care of you, and make sure you’re safe. Beyond that, though, you don’t really know much about them. They’re almost entirely blank slates until you find a Metallica shirt purchased from a concert in your dad’s closet or a watercolor painting with your mom’s cookbooks in the attic; suddenly, you realize these two people have had entire lives before you came along. More so, all of the adults in your life have lived lives you’ll never truly know. Young readers looking for explorations of family history and the complexity of familial connections might enjoy the following books:

  • Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
    Twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker doesn’t really understand much about her father, Gideon. He’s a drifter. He’s a railroad worker. He’s her only parent. But beyond that, he’s a bit of a mystery. When he takes a job and sends her off to live in his hometown of Manifest, Kansas with a friend for the summer, she sees a chance to change that. She discovers a hidden box full of mementos including some old letters, starting her on a journey through the town’s colorful and shadowy history, in which her father played a role. Parallel storylines, alternating between 1936 and 1918, are sure to keep readers on their toes and interested. Pour yourself some lemonade or sweet tea, if you have either, and settle down for this 2011 Newbery winner.
  • Becoming Naomi León by Pam Muñoz Ryan
    Another story of absent mothers and the search for familial history, ten-year-old Naomi and her younger brother travel with their grandmother to Oaxaca, Mexico in search of their father. There she discovers the rich depths of her heritage and the intimate bounds that connect her to her roots. When she finally meets her father, who is a carver like she is, she begins to find her identity and discover who she really is inside. When they return to San Diego, California, Naomi has grown into a true leon (lion).
  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
    Those who have been with us since the beginning know that we recommended this for our Addy episode, but we just couldn’t help ourselves from recommending it again. One Crazy Summer is the first in a trilogy about the Gaither Sisters: twelve-year-old Delphine, nine-year-old Vonetta, and seven-year-old Fern. The three are sent from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know. After a cold welcome, all three girls are sent to a nearby Black Panther summer camp, where they begin to learn about their mother and her place in the historical resistance movement.

Teens and adults who already know “Mom and Dad” are “Andrea and Jose” might try some of these heavier titles:

  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
    Macon “Milkman” Dead III is the main protagonist in this complex, hybrid coming-of-age family saga masterpiece. Born the day after a neighborhood eccentric leaps off a hospital roof with claims he will fly, Milkman grows up bored, privileged, and in desperate search for his own flight. As he travels from his hometown to the place of his family’s origin, in search of gold his father and aunt are rumored to have left behind, he meets a wide range of “strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world.” None of these characters feel extraneous; each brings a depth of individual history that merges with both Milkman’s journey and the movement of the book itself. This interwoven tapestry of stories highlights the necessity of finding one’s own story in connection with the past, a theme that all readers will be able to connect with.
  • The Dew Breaker by Edwige Danticat
    The Dew Breaker is interesting in that it can either be read as a collection of short stories or an entire novel of interlinked tales. According to an interview with the author, “The term “dew breaker” is a Creole expression for a representative of the dictatorship in a rural area — a person with free reign in the area, acting as judge, jury, and executioner. A dew breaker comes in the early morning to claim his victims, breaking the dew on the grass.” All of the stories center around such a person, a torturer, who commits crimes in Haiti and then moves to America to assume a new identity. The stories focus on the lives of women and their relationships, both with their communities and across generations. This one might be a little intense for younger adults, but such is life.
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
    Reader, we had to suggest this one, though we suggest you read Jane Eyre first. Unlike its source material, Wild Sargasso Sea is not a book filled with budding romance and the approving eye of society. Rather, Rhys explores themes of dominance and dependence by exploring the marriage between Mr. Rochester and Antoinette Cosway, the woman in the attic. Coerced into a marriage through power, Antoinette slowly transforms into Bertha, a woman driven to madness by the weight of a society that isn’t entirely her own. Rhys does an incredible job of creating a continuous, underlying sense of dread and stress during the entire book, allowing readers to glimpse into Antoinette’s emotions. This is another book that skillfully explores the complexities of family history and the inner workings of forgotten characters.

This blog is created by Hannah and Ella in conjunction with the These Books Made Me podcast, a Prince George’s County Memorial Library System production. Check out the corresponding episode, Their Eyes Were Watching God, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you normally listen to podcasts. Or you can simply click on the link to the episode to listen.

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These Books Made Me is a podcast about the literary heroines who shaped our childhoods. @PGCMLS

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These Books Made Me

These Books Made Me

These Books Made Me is a podcast about the literary heroines who shaped our childhoods. @PGCMLS

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