New Jersey is home to an assortment of historical events and influential communities that have impacted local and national history. Learning about the area can truly bring the communities we inhabit to life, as well as keeping the history alive of the people who came before us. Reading about individual stories and lives set in your hometown or nearby communities creates a sense of pride, honor, and nostalgia. It’s easy to get lost in a book and imagine yourself in the character’s shoes. Living in that same place adds to the experience, especially when these stories make it to the big screen or in a book. So whether you need a book for your summer at the shore or for your red eye flight to London, think of picking up something local. We’ve done the research and compiled a list of books for you that are fully or partially set in the Northern New Jersey area.
Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret | North Jersey
Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret was published in 1970 by New Jersey native Judy Blume. Blume was born in 1938 to a Jewish family from Elizabeth in Union County. The book’s protagonist, Margaret Simon, spent the first 11 years of her life in New York City. When her father received a new job, the Simons moved across the river to New Jersey.
Where exactly they settle is hard to tell, but given Blume’s hometown, one could assume it’s somewhere in North Jersey. This coming-of-age novel explores Simon’s pre-teen years as she navigates her mixed-faith background, puberty, boys, and more. Throughout the book she often prays to God beginning her prayers with, “Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. A film adaptation of the book starring Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, and Abby Ryder Fortson was released last month.
Bread Givers | Elizabeth
Published in 1925, Bread Givers is a three-volume novel written by Anzia Yezierska. This coming-of-age story set in the 1920s follows the protagonist Sara Smolinsky, an Orthodox Jewish girl and the youngest of four daughters. The story begins in the Lower East Side of New York City on Hester Street. The family eventually moves to Elizabeth, NJ, when Sara’s father sees an ad for a grocery store in the city for just $400. Sara finds 1920s Elizabeth to be more rural than her life in New York City and saw it as an agriculturally-based community. A century later, this description might surprise those in New Jersey, and Sara might find parts of present-day Elizabeth more like Hester Street.
Cheaper by the Dozen | Montclair
The 1948 novel, Cheaper by the Dozen, is a semi-autobiographical book written by siblings Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. It recounts a mildly fictionalized version of their childhood growing up in Montclair in a family of 12. The Gilbreth family lived at 68 Eagle Rock Way in Montclair. The real-life patriarch of the Gilbreth family, Frank died in 1924 which is where the first book ends. He had walked down to Lackawanna Plaza to catch the commuter train to the Big Apple. He made a call to his wife Lillian while at the station and mid-conversation, it disconnected. Frank had suffered a heart attack and passed away. A second book, Belles on Their Toes was published in 1950.
The first film adaptation of the novel appeared on the big screen in 1950. Since then, two remakes were done, the most popular being the 2003 version starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. A 2022 reboot of Cheaper By the Dozen was produced starring Gabrielle Union and Zach Braff who grew up in South Orange, just miles down the road from where the real Gilbreth family lived.
Goodbye, Columbus | Newark + Short Hills
New Jersey native Phillip Roth has written a variety of books taking place in the Garden State. Roth grew up in a Jewish family in the Weequahic section of Newark. Goodbye, Columbus is a collection of five short stories: “The Conversion of the Jews”, “Defender of the Faith”, “Epstein”, “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings”, and “Eli, the Fanatic”. The short stories focus on the concerns of second and third-generation assimilated Jewish Americans as they leave the ethnic enclaves of their family and go on to college, toward white-collar professions, and move from urban centers to life in the suburbs.
The story’s narrator Neil Klugman works at the Newark Public Library and lives in a working-class neighborhood with his aunt and uncle. One summer he falls for Brenda Patimkin, a student at Massachusetts’s Radcliffe College. Patimkin is from a wealthy family living in the affluent suburb of Short Hills in Millburn and her background contrasts with Klugman’s. The film adaptation of the book starring Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw debuted in 1969. It was the 10th most popular film that year.
Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People’s Power | Orange
Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People’s Power by Ernest and Mindy Thompson follows the story of Ernest Thompson who dedicated his life to organizing the powerless. Thompson was born in 1906 and grew up in Maryland. He later moved to Jersey City where he organized one of the great industrial unions, the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America. He brought this spunk to Orange, New Jersey where he led the charge for school desegregation and black political representation.
Murder at the Falls | Paterson
Published in 1993 by Stefanie Matteson, Murder at the Falls is a mystery novel. Actress Charlotte Graham and her friend Tom Plummer are dining at a classic Jersey diner in Paterson when they witness the fatal fall of a trendy young artist from Paterson’s famous waterfalls. The duo set out to uncover the truth behind the young artist’s plunge.
The 18 Penny Goose | East Orange
Published in 1998 by Sally M Walker, The 18 Penny Goose is a children’s book catering to those with a third-grade reading level. The book follows Letty Wright, a young girl with her family living on a farm in Essex County during the American Revolution. It showcases her family’s decision to flee British raiding and what they encountered when they returned.
The book is based on the Wright family which included Elizabeth, John, and their three kids Letty, Sarah, and John who lived in what is now East Orange during the revolution. The British conducted raids throughout the area and the real-life Wrights fled for their safety in the spring of 1778. John Wright’s desire to flee was most likely influenced by a prior experience. In 1776, he was badly injured during the Battle of Peck’s Hill after holding off the British Highland troops alongside two other patriot soldiers.
When the Wright family returned after fleeing, they found a British note. The British soldiers had slaughtered all the Wright family’s geese, except one, which the book names Soloman. After eating them, a soldier left a bag around Soloman’s neck with 18 English pennies, one for each of the slain geese. Descendants of the family are still in possession of 11 of these coins.
Most of the Wright family mentioned in this story are buried at the First Presbyterian Churchyard in Orange. They all survived the revolution, but Sarah and the younger John, along with two younger siblings died in October 1784, possibly from an illness.
Radium Girls | Orange
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore discusses the lives of female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting radium dials. She writes of the victims of Orange radium poisoning who worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation. In 1927, Grace Fryer filed suit against the company and Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, Albina Larice, and Quinita Larice McDonald joined her.
The 2018 drama Radium Girls starring Joey King followed the lives of sisters Bessie and Josephine Cavallo who lived with their grandfather in New Jersey. Both sisters work at American Radium, where they paint watch dials. The real-life Albina Larice and Quinita Larice McDonald worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation alongside their sisters. The Cavallo sisters from the 2018 film are based on the Larice girls.