Children’s book author and illustrator Ashley Bryan with his modern classic “Beautiful Blackbird.” Courtesy of the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival

One thing the pandemic has done is eliminate your excuse for not reading more.

Maine authors have created some of the classic books of all time, along with best-sellers and Pulitzer Prize-winners. Their stories about Maine and their Maine viewpoints are rich and varied. Reading as many as you can only enriches your awareness of the state, your sense of being a Mainer.

So now may be the time to dive into some essential Maine reads. It might be a beginner’s course for some – sort of a Maine Lit 101 – or a refresher course for others. To compile a list of Maine must-reads, we gathered book suggestions from the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, as well as several Maine book stores, including Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, Annie’s Bookstop in Wells and Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shops.

We took the suggestions and culled them down to just a few essential reads, in five categories. So after considering our list, you may want to check with your local bookstore or library for more good ideas. Consider this your Maine literary starter kit.

CLASSICS

“The Country of the Pointed Firs” by Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) was recommended by several booksellers. Jewett was born and spent much of her life in South Berwick. The book came out in 1896 and was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. It tells the story of an unlikely friendship in a small, coastal Maine fishing village, and deals with isolation and hardship.

Another commonly recommended book was “One Man’s Meat” (1942) by E.B. White. White was a long-time resident of Brooklin, near Blue Hill, and is probably best-known for the children’s classics “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” The book is a collection of essays, mostly about his experiences on a Maine farm after moving from New York.

CONTEMPORARY

“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was later made into an HBO film starring Oscar-winner Frances McDormand. It’s a collection of short stories set in small town called Crosby and focused on the title character, a retired school teacher who dislikes change, in places and in people. Strout, a native Mainer who lives in the midcoast, is also author of “The Burgess Boys” and “Amy and Isabelle.”

Another novel from recent years that won the Pulitzer (in 2002) was “Empire Falls” by Portland author Richard Russo. Russo has a knack for stories in gritty factory towns filled with working-class heroes. “Empire Falls” is about a Maine mill town divided by class and the life-long dramas that unfold. It was also made into an HBO movie, starring Paul Newman, and was filmed in the real Maine mill towns of Waterville and Skowhegan.

AUTHENTIC

Some books are simply set in Maine, and some give you a really unique, authentic Maine vibe. One of the latter is “The Beans of Egypt, Maine” (1985) by Carolyn Chute. It’s the story of the Bean clan of the small town of Egypt, with members in jail, “perpetually pregnant” or mired in poverty, among other struggles.

Another very personal book with a Maine vibe is “When We Were the Kennedys” (2012), a memoir about growing up in the paper mill town of Mexico, near Rumford, by Monica Wood. The memoir focuses on how Wood’s family survives after her father – the mill-working family breadwinner – dies on the way to church in the early 1960s.

STEPHEN KING

Maine’s most famous author, by far, has sold more than 350 million books. So it’s a fair bet that if you tell someone you’re from Maine, they’ll start talking about a Stephen King book. Instead of being caught off guard, read a couple or four. The staff at Sherman’s recommended “Salem’s Lot” (1975) as a good King starter book, because of its “blend of King’s trademark character writing and spookiness.” It was his second published novel, and features a writer returning to the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot in Maine, only to discover something other-worldly happening to town residents. For a different kind of King book, try “Hearts in Suspension” (2016), focusing on King’s time at the University of Maine in Orono in the 1960s. The book includes a novella, an essay, columns King wrote for the student newspaper, and stories from friends and fellow students.

CHILDREN’S

“Blueberries for Sal” (1949) by Robert McCloskey combines several of the categories here, being a classic with a very Maine vibe. McCloskey, who also wrote the famed children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings,” spent summers on a small island in Penobscot Bay and set several of his books in Maine. This one is about blueberry picking on an island, with McCloskey’s daughter as the model for the title character. The illustrations and story are charming and timeless.

“Beautiful Blackbird” (2003) by Ashley Bryan, a famed artist and author who lived on Little Cranberry Island for many years, is a more recent children’s classic. The book is about tolerance and diversity, among other things, and is staple of classrooms everywhere. It won the Coretta Scott King Award, given to authors whose books “demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.”

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