Explore the best books about the 1960s, a decade marked by the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, antiwar sentiment, and 60s counterculture.
When you think about the 1960s, you think of a world in upheaval. With the Civil Rights Movement sweeping through the United States and the growing antiwar sentiment to the Vietnam War, the decade saw a rise of the 60’s counterculture.
You see this divisiveness in books set in the 1960s with characters swept up in the desire for change that won’t come fast enough.
Today, I’ve put together a list of books about the 1960s. You’ll find something for everyone: fun 1960s historical fiction, nonfiction books about the 1960s, and even a few classic 1960s books worth a read.
Best Books About the 1960s
Lessons in Chemistry
Elizabeth Zott has always defied stereotyping, especially as the only woman chemist at the Hastings Research Institute in the 1960s. After falling in love with another chemist who sees her for who she is, life throws her a curveball. Now as a single mom, she unexpectedly finds herself the host of a tv cooking show. When women who watch her begin to question the status quo in their own lives, Elizabeth becomes a target of those who find the change unwelcome. In one of the best books about the 1960s, Garmus presents an engrossing progressive historical fiction read with heartfelt depth and a searing look at sexual discrimination in the past (and today).
William Kent Krueger
In the sleepy town of New Bremen, Minnesota, death will forever shape one young man. In 1961, Frank Drum is having a typical teenage summer with his family: his minister father, his doubting mother, his talented older sister, and his quiet younger brother who stutters. When deaths start accumulating by accident, nature, suicide, and murder, Frank’s ordinary life is rocked by the secrets and motives of an adult world he doesn’t fully understand.
Deacon King Kong
In 1969, a grouchy old deacon named Sportcoat walks into the courtyard of a housing project in Brooklyn and shoots the local drug dealer. Thus ensues the story of the lives impacted by the shooting: the victim and the cops, the minority residents and white neighbors, and the deacon and the church members. With a unique cast of characters (all with unique names), McBride showcases a character study of 1960s New York.
If you want a book about the 1960s that will make you laugh, look no further than Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. A few of the scenes were just so side-splittingly funny that even thinking about them now still makes me chuckle, which is amazing because The Help is not a humor piece. It’s a moving tale of the lives of women in the deep South in the 1960s. Between Aibileen and Minny, “the help” of the title, the women they work for, and Skeeter, a young 22-year-old writer who wants to tell their stories, you get a layered approach and character study of a tumultuous time in US history.
The Secret Life of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd
At age 14, Lily Owens runs away from her father and moves with her nanny to Tiburon, South Carolina. There they are both taken in by the Calendar Sisters, a charming but eccentric trio of beekeepers. As the white Lily comes of age, she learns about womanhood and the Black Madonna from these four Black women she has come to consider her family. A heartwarming tale set amid the racial tensions of the 1960s, The Secret Life of Bees is a delightful coming-of-age 1960s story perfect for book club night.
Go Like Hell
A. J. Baime
In the 1960s, Henry Ford II teamed up with a young Lee Iacocca and former racing champion Carroll Shelby to bring glory back to the faltering Ford Motor Company. Their ambitious plan: design, build, and race a car that would beat Ferrari on the European racing circuit. Although Ford v. Ferrari, the film adaptation starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, is excellent, Baime’s nonfiction book is a must-read among the books about the 1960s.
Book Club Books About 1960s
All the Children are Home
In a small town in Massachusetts in the 1960s, Dahlia and Louie Moscatell have finally found a rhythm as long-term foster parents. Then a social worker begs them to take on one more foster child – a six-year-old indigenous girl who will change their family dynamics forever. Patry Francis hits the emotions hard in this powerful story of love and family and the struggles of the foster care system. You’ll cry with their heartaches and rejoice in their victories, and I can emphatically declare this one of the best book club books about the 1960s.
In the Time of Butterflies
In the last days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, three sisters are assassinated for working to overthrow the government. Alvarez mixes fact and fiction as she recounts the lives of the Mirabel sisters – outspoken Minerva, faithful Patria, sensitive Maria Teresa, and cautious Dede.
In 1969, Ginny Richardson gives birth to a beautiful baby girl named Lucy whom the nurse instantly whisks away. For Lucy has Down’s Syndrome, and her father immediately sends her to Willowridge, a school for the “feeble-minded.” Two years later, Ginny discovers Lucy abused and neglected, and she must fight to keep Lucy against all costs. Similar in scope to The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the story serves as an awful reminder of how poorly people treated special needs children.
Publication Date: 6 August 2019
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Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you like stories that bring 1960s history to life, you’ll want to read Adichie’s book on Nigeria’s Biafran War. In the 60s, Biafra made an unsuccessful bid to establish an independent country leading to civil war. Shown through five characters: a revolutionary professor, his houseboy, his young mistress, her sister, and a shy Englishman, Half of a Yellow Sun is an unforgettable story that gives you a deep look at a tumultuous period of African history.
The Dearly Beloved
If you enjoy books set in the 1960s, you don’t want to miss this Read with Jenna book club pick. When James and Charles become co-pastors of a New York City congregation, their families become tied together for decades. Instead of following his father’s footsteps as a Harvard professor, Charles turned to the ministry but still married Lily, a fiery intellectual who doesn’t believe in God. In contrast, James comes from a hard life in Chicago, but falling in love with Nan, the devout daughter of a minister, has helped him try to keep his doubts at bay. As the two couples try to navigate a turbulent decade, they must cope with their differing views on love, marriage, children, and faith.
Bestseller Books on the 1960s
In 1960s Harlem, Ray Carney has a reputation as an upstanding used furniture salesman. Although Carney strives to live up to what he knows he can be, times aren’t like they used to be, and he occasionally supplements his income with a side gig fencing items for the underworld of Harlem. When Carney’s cousin ropes him into being the fence for a heist gone wrong, Carney finds himself caught up with shady cops and local gangsters.
Publication Date: 14 September 2021
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In 11/22/63, English teacher Jake Epping discovers that his friend Al has a portal in his diner storeroom that leads back to 1958. As Jake emerges into the past, he starts by trying to change the life of one of his students and eventually concocts a plan to prevent President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but playing with time always has unintended consequences as we see in this time travel book.
The Boys from Biloxi
In the 1960s, Keith and Hugh were best friends and baseball all-stars. But as they grow older, their lives take different trajectories. Keith’s father becomes a legendary prosecutor determined to clean up Biloxi and Hugh’s dad works his way up to become the head of the local mob. As both boys follow in their father’s footsteps, they find themselves on opposite sides of the law in Grisham’s 1960s legal thriller.
The Nickel Boys
Set in Jim Crow-era Florida, one innocent mistake sends young Elwood Curtis to a juvenile reformatory school: The Nickel Academy. There Elwood and other black youths meet with horrid abuse, both physical and sexual. Based on actual Florida reform schools, The Nickel Boys reveals an awful part of US history, forcing you to acknowledge the horror of the past and ponder how it affects the present.
Literary giant David Mitchell tells the story of a fictional British band in the 1960s whose quick success burns out just as quickly. Jumping narratives between the three main performers – female lead singer Elf, down-on-his-luck bassist Dean, and manic guitarist Jasper – the story covers love, death, drugs, sex, and the consequences of fame. Longtime fans of David Mitchell will be pleased to find plenty of references to his other works.
More Books Set in the 1960s
When Margreete’s dementia becomes too bad to allow her to live alone, her daughter Liddie moves her family from Michigan to the coast of Maine. There they struggle with the changing family dynamics and the tumultuous events of the 1960s.
Publication Date: 20 April 2021
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We Are All Good People Here
Susan Rebecca White
In 1962, wealthy Southern belle Eve Whalen meets her college roommate Daniella Gold and they quickly become best friends. Daniella begins to open Eve’s eyes to the injustices of the world which the well-meaning but naive Eve thinks she can change in an instance. Over time, Daniella works hard to change the world from within the current social system, while Eve becomes extremely radicalized.
Publication Date: 6 August 2019
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Songs in Ordinary Time
Mary McGarry Morris
Morris paints an intimate picture of 1960s Vermont in this Oprah Book Club pick. Single mom Marie Fermoyle is doing her best to raise her three children without any support from her alcoholic ex-husband. When Marie meets a new man, she instantly falls for his talk of opportunities and riches, but Marie’s youngest son learns a devastating secret that could spoil all her hopes and dreams.
The Soul of a Woman
Bestselling author Isabel Allende meditates on what it means to be a woman and how feminism has shaped her throughout her life. After witnessing her mother struggle to raise three children alone, Allende swore she’d have the life her mother couldn’t. Throughout her life and her three marriages, Allende has witnessed the changes in the feminist movement, how much it has accomplished, and what is left to be done.
Brown Girl Dreaming
Growing up as an African-American in both South Carolina and New York during the 1960-70s, Jacqueline Woodson never truly felt at home in either place. Caught between the highly urban New York and the Southern views of South Carolina, she learned to find a place in the world by balancing the best of each. Told in enchanting verse, the story of her childhood is poignant and moving.
Classic 1960s Books
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Poet Maya Angelou’s memoir of the early years of her life is touching and heartbreaking all at the same time. Growing up with her grandmother in a small Southern town, she details how affecting the segregation was as a young black girl, as well as the feeling of abandonment from her mother. Covering many hard topics – including her sexual assault at a young age – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the best memoirs of all time.
In Cold Blood
Truman Capote was the founder of narrative nonfiction with his page-turning look at an unspeakable crime. On November 15, 1959, in the small farming town of Holcomb, Kansas, two men brutally murder the Clutter family in their home for no apparent reason. Through extensive interviews from the first days on the scene and following the events all the way to the execution of the murderers, Capote suspensefully unfolds the whole story of exactly what happened and more intriguing of all, why it happened.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
In the Oregon state mental hospital, Nurse Ratched rules her ward with an iron fist, using medication and the threat of electroshock therapy to keep the patients in line. Yet her orderly routine is thrown into chaos by the newest patient, McMurphy, a fun-loving trickster using the mental ward to avoid prison. The epic battle of will between the antihero and the tyrannical nurse delves into the fine line between sanity and madness in one of my favorite classic page turners that is just as good, if not better, than the movie adaptation.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Malcolm X with Alex Haley
Malcolm X was one of the most influential persons in the 20th century, and you can read about his life as told to acclaimed author Alex Haley. Entering prison as Malcolm Little, he embraced Islam while inside and emerged as Malcolm X, a fierce advocate for Black empowerment, Black pride, and pan-Africanism.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
In a series of essays, Joan Didion conveys the essence of life in the 1960s, mostly focusing on California. Placing herself at the center of each piece, Didion’s reporting describes the grim realities behind San Francisco’s perceived utopian 1960s counterculture in blunt terms. With essays on John Wayne and Howard Hughes and growing up in California, Didion’s collection is renowned for its distinct styling.
Which Books About the 1960s Are You Most Interested in Reading?
What do you think? Do you enjoy reading books about the 1960s counterculture? What 1960s books would you recommend? As always, let me know in the comments!
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