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Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities in the United States and is home to a history that dates back to far before the country’s founding. There are plenty of books about Philadelphia and several set in the city itself.
Whether you’re interested in a good mystery, crime thriller, non-fiction narrative, or simply want to learn more about the city, here is a carefully selected list of books set in Philadelphia you won’t want to miss.
Leaving Cecil Street: A Novel by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
This is one of the most intriguing novels about Philadelphia. It tells the story of two girls who become friends on the stoop in their West Philly neighborhood. Leaving Cecil Street is a coming-of-age novel that captures the black experience in Philadelphia. It explores the bond and struggles of families as they strive to grow in a community defined by love and religion.
Since Diane McKinney-Whetstone grew up in the neighborhood, it is only natural that the story is based on her experiences as a teenager.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
If you enjoy coming-of-age and young adult novels, With the Fire on High is another excellent pick. The story is centered on a teenager in Philly named Emoni Santiago. It follows her struggles as she tries to juggle motherhood, passing her senior year, and supporting her abuela. She finds solace in cooking and has dreams of working in a professional kitchen. When she gets an offer to invest in her cooking skills and take them to the next level, she wonders if it will all be too much for her to handle.
Third and Indiana by Steve Lopez
Third and Indiana features several characters who are intrinsically drawn together by a 14-year-old named Gabriel Santoro. It is a book about adult relationships and tells a story of life in the dangerous Badlands section of the city.
The novel is set around the intersection of Third Street and Indiana Avenue in the Fairhill area. It brings to life the realities of gang activity and the drug dealing notoriety of this neighborhood.
John Wanamaker: Philadelphia Merchant by Herbert Ershkowitz
John Wanamaker: Philadelphia Merchant tells the story of the man who revolutionized retail in America. This biography covers his early days in 1861 and his rise into wealth. It offers some critical perspectives on the business enterprise and also shares interesting facts about Wanamaker’s personal life.
For example, he once provided employment to 8,000 Philadelphians who were excluded from other businesses. These included black people and women. The life of this controversial man is worth reading about.
The Squad by Dr. Michael D. Wright Sr.
Filled with comedy, suspense, and deep sadness, The Squad tells the story of the author during his time as a paramedic in Philadelphia. Michael Wright is a 23-year veteran of the force, and he writes this book from a compelling first-person perspective. He also concludes each chapter with a witty moral of the story.
Small Lives by Jac Simensen
Best suited for those looking for a short read, this book tells sultry stories of love, seduction and intimacy in the 20th century. Small Lives also includes insane tales almost too surreal to be believed.
Although this book is not entirely set in Philadelphia, it dabbles through the Main Line in a mischievous voyeuristic manner. It also brings familiar places to life.
The Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry: A History of Misery and Medicine by J. P. Webster
Although Philly is a pioneer in medicine, its history is dark and grimy. A History of Misery and Medicine tells the story of how the mentally ill were stigmatized by society and treated as social outcasts.
It describes the history of Quaker City Hospitals and how it was used to house those with developmental issues which were exiled by their families. The hospital was a vile place to live and work and held gripping tales of profound horror.
Cellar of Horror: The Story of Gary Heidnik by Ken Englade
As amazing as Philly is, it is still the place where serial killer Gary Heidnik performed hideous acts. This true-crime book is one of the most read Philadelphia books. Cellar of Horror tells the story of a neighborhood gripped by fear because of the crimes committed by Gary Heidnik.
The story of young women who were held captive in Heidnik’s basement on North Marshall Street is one that would haunt the city for years. This book describes each gruesome crime in the most graphic way possible. It also tells how he was captured and gives insight into the families of the victims.
Rittenhouse Square by Arthur R. G. Solmssen
Top on the list of dramatic novels set in Philadelphia, Rittenhouse Square takes a look at Philly’s high society. The author is a European lawyer who is a member of the high society, and he writes about the exploits of Ben Butler.
This lawyer has to decide between wedding a rich and boozy divorcee and working at one of the most powerful law firms in the city. The scathing exploration of Philly’s most upscale neighborhood (Rittenhouse Square) against the city’s slums cover makes for a very intriguing read.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
A modern fiction book set in Philadelphia, Such a Fun Age, tells the story of a young African American woman. The main character is a babysitter who works for a wealthy white woman.
The story unfolds as she is accused of kidnapping the child in a grocery store, and a series of events follows. This book covers issues of race, class, and youth, and brilliantly intertwines the characters’ lives.
P is for Philadelphia by Susan Korman
Illustrated by the School District of Philadelphia middle school students, the P is for Philadelphia picture book takes readers on an alphabetical tour of the city. Starting out with A is for Athlete, each letter shares background information about Philly’s history, culture, customs, and people.
Although recommended for kids aged five and above, adults can also enjoy this as a light read.
God’s Pocket by Pete Dexter
Described as a ‘nasty little novel,’ God’s Pocket tells the story of life in a white working-class enclave in the 1980s. Filled with witty, barbed asides from the author, this book features an insular tribal character and paints a loving portrait of a South Philly neighborhood.
The story is told in an engrossing fashion that keeps the readers entertained and informed as they flip the pages.
In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner
Two sisters. A shared shoe size and nothing else in common. In Her Shoes was made into a movie in 2005 and starred Toni Colette and Cameron Diaz. It is set in Philadelphia and follows the dramatic lives of these two sisters whose differences are so glaring.
The narrative of sibling rivalry is sold in scenes of shared boyfriends and shared shoe sizes. But the realities of shared childhood trauma bring to light what family really means.
Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
This New York Times Bestseller tells the story of Pat Solitano Jr., who had just been released from a mental health facility. He believes that his life is a movie orchestrated by God and that once he gets his life together, his movie will end happily (which is the ultimate return of his estranged wife, Nikki). Soon, he meets a tragically widowed lady named Tiffany, who makes him an offer.
Silver Linings Playbook brilliantly takes us into Pat’s mind and shows the world from his altered and endearing perspective. It is a funny, easy story that helps readers see depression and mental illness in a different light.
The book was made into a movie, which was also filmed in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Lovely Bones is one of the most polarizing novels set in Philadelphia. It details the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a teenage girl. It then follows her family as they seek justice for her and search for her killer.
This book shows how her family learns to live without her as she watches over them from above. It is set in the Philadelphia suburbs (specifically Norristown in Montgomery County) and gives an in-depth look at a family’s journey from grief to acceptance.
Love Walked In by Maria De Los Santos
What is better than a love story set in a Philly coffee shop? Love Walked In is an easy-to-read romance novel that tells the story of Cornelia, whose life changes when Martin walks into her hip coffee shop.
The story unfolds from there and gives readers a glimpse into what life is like when you fall in love in Philadelphia.
The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly by Susan Muaddi Darrai
The Inheritance of Exile is is a collection of stories that center on four Arab-American women. It follows their lives as they try to navigate South Philadelphia and the Middle East. Their parents are Palestinian immigrants, and this new life creates an ethnic challenge that they struggle to reconcile. This book is rich with Arab culture and describes the sights and sounds of the Philadelphian neighborhood through the eyes of its Arab-American characters.
This article is just a small sample of the literary treasure available in the City of Brotherly Love. Hopefully, it will add some new must-reads to your reading list. You can impress your friends with your extensive knowledge of literature set in the city of Philadelphia.