As Kansas celebrates its sesquicentennial, we look to books to get an idea of the past, present and future of the state: where we came from, where we're going, and who we are as Kansans.
So we've chosen a list of books that anyone who wants to understand Kansas should read. Books that reflect the state's image back to its people, and project its image to the rest of the country. Most are by Kansans; some simply capture an image, portray an ideal, or deeply detail one aspect of the Sunflower State. We asked several book people around the state for input; their opinions helped shape the choices.
This list is by no means comprehensive; rather, it is intended as a jumping-off point for anyone interested in learning more about the state — or wanting to revisit some old favorites.
For all ages
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"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum
The first in a series of books about a Kansas farm girl and her travels to the magical land of Oz has delighted children for more than a century. Dorothy's fervent wish to return home to Kansas drives her quest to the Emerald City and the Wizard of Oz. Though the movie gave us the phrase "we're not in Kansas anymore," which has entered the American lexicon, the book anchors Kansas as the home one always wants to come back to.
"Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The classic narrative of pioneer life seen through the eyes of a young girl is the best-known of Wilder's series — and the only one set in Kansas. The book tells the story of the Ingalls family's move from Wisconsin to Kansas, and their discovery of the hardships and many joys of life on the plains.
"Sod and Stubble" by John Ise
The author's autobiographical "nonfiction novel" focuses on life as a homesteader from the point of view of a child, whose family encounters setbacks and successes, the harshness and unpredictability of nature, and the growth of a new community.
"I have recommended this book to many people, old and young, and everyone who has read this book thinks it is great." —Kansas historian Leo Oliva
Sunflower State history
The name Craig Miner is synonymous with Kansas history. Miner wrote numerous detailed, well-researched — and lively — books about all aspects of Kansas and Wichita history. Start with these two: " Kansas: A History of the Sunflower State, 1854-2000" and " West of Wichita: Settling the High Plains, 1865-1890" ; then move on to " Next Year Country: Dust to Dust in Western Kansas, 1890-1940" and " Wichita: The Magic City."
"All the history books by the late Craig Miner should be included because Miner was, in my mind, the best historian and writer in our 150 years of statehood. I am not the only historian who has said many times, 'I wish I could write like Craig Miner.' What a treasure he has left us." —Leo Oliva
The character of Kansas
"The Learning Tree" by Gordon Parks
Parks' "novel from life" is set in Cherokee Flats (based on Parks' hometown of Fort Scott) and follows a young black man coming of age amid racial prejudice and violence in the Kansas of the early 20th century.
"In 'The Learning Tree,' native Kansan Gordon Parks not only told the story of being an African-American youth in a small town but, with its publication and subsequent film, also demonstrated what a person with talent and determination can accomplish." —Roy Bird, director of the Kansas Center for the Book at the State Library of Kansas
"The Barnstormer and the Lady" by Dennis Farney
Walter and Olive Ann Beech, the founders of Beech Aircraft Corp., helped Wichita make the transition from cowtown to Air Capital of the World. Their story shows how times have changed in the short history of aviation, and how much they did to change the times.
"What's the Matter With Kansas" editorial by William Allen White and book by Thomas Frank
Frank took the title of his 2004 exploration of politics in Kansas from an 1896 editorial by White in the Emporia Gazette. Bookending the 20th century, both pieces offer perspective on the political mindset of Kansas, warts and all. White's piece is all emotion; Frank is more analytical, basing his commentary on statistics and historical facts.
White, the longtime editor of the Gazette and the namesake of KU's journalism school, also wrote an acclaimed autobiography, numerous essays and nonfiction on politics, and even some fiction.
"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote
A starkly chilling account of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in western Kansas and the trial and execution of the killers, "In Cold Blood" has become the model for the "nonfiction novel."
"A classic work in American letters that captures both our fascination with Middle America as a safe and innocent place, and as a place where violence can erupt as quickly and as devastatingly as a cyclone." —English professor Thomas Fox Averill, Washburn University
"Picnic" by William Inge
Inge's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, like much of his work, is set in a small Kansas town and focuses on everyday people in somewhat constrained lives and their hidden, awakened desires. "Picnic" follows the events leading up to a Labor Day picnic, as a stranger disrupts the lives of a widow and her two daughters.
Cowboys and Indians
"The Last Cattle Drive" by Robert Day
The tale of a modern-day (well, in the days of pickups and blacktops) cattle drive undertaken by a stubborn rancher and his motley assistants, Day's classic novel is a romp of a story with nuanced characters, memorable scenes and poignant humor. It's as much about the people as it is about the cattle drive, and Day has brilliantly captured the personalities of Kansas residents and of the state itself.
"Should be required reading for every resident of this state." —Sarah Bagby, Watermark Books
"Perhaps one of the best-known and popular novels set in our state, 'The Last Cattle Drive' by Robert Day — who comes from Western Kansas — delivers a style and voice which catches the personality of the plain people of the state." —Roy Bird
The Spanish Bit Saga by Don Coldsmith
Coldsmith, who served as a medic during World War II and spent decades as a physician in Emporia, turned to writing later in his life, and proved prolific and popular. His "Spanish Bit" series comprises 29 novels about Plains Indians during the arrival of Spanish explorers — and their horses.
"Kansas Poems of William Stafford" edited by Denise Low
A native Kansan who spent most of his adult life in Oregon, Stafford nonetheless revisits the images of the Plains throughout his poems. Low, a former Kansas poet laureate, called his poetry "subtle, dark, Godly and paradoxical at once."
"The best poetry about Kansas in a single volume. It is timeless and should be read by every Kansan." —Leo Oliva
Best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes spent his childhood in Lawrence, an experience that inspired much of his work as an adult.
"While his works speaks to higher causes — human dignity, personal freedom, and the abolition of slavery — Hughes's inconsistent experiences as a mixed-race youth in the Lawrence area form the basis of his art." —Denise Low in "Langston Hughes in Lawrence"
The first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, Brooks was born in Topeka and maintained ties to Kansas throughout her life. Langston Hughes noted in a review of "Annie Allen," Brooks' collection that won the Pulitzer, that "the people and poems in Gwendolyn Brooks' book are alive, reaching, and very much of today."
Goldbarth, the Adele M. Davis distinguished professor of humanities at Wichita State University, has published numerous poetry collections, plus essays and a novel. He is the only poet to win the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry twice, and he has also won the Mark Twain Prize for Humor. Goldbarth "brings a profound depth of language experience to his work," said Denise Low in the Ad Astra Poetry Project. "He studies cultural and historic texts and alludes to them freely. Intellectual thirst is a striking aspect of his writing — and another is his extensive vocabulary."
"The High Plains" and "No Rain from These Clouds" by Kenneth Wiggins Porter
Porter was a scholar and a poet from Sterling; his scholarly interests included frontier history and, in particular, African-American cowboys and frontiersmen. The Depression and the Dust Bowl inspired his poetry of Kansas.
"His colloquial style, his deep understanding of place, his celebration of the people and their attitudes while at the same time challenging Kansans to make better use of the environment are the qualities in his two collections of poems written during the Dust Bowl." His work "gave a new voice to Kansas poetry, encouraging others to create from place rather than from the traditions of academic verse or English poetry." —Tom Averill
The nature of the Plains
"Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains" by James R. Mead
Mead, one of the founders of Wichita, wrote this account of settling in Kansas in the mid-19th century. He describes his dealings with American Indians, hunting a wide variety of game, and the often harsh life on the prairie. Mead knew Jesse Chisholm, and was instrumental in establishing the Chisholm Trail as the main cattle route from Texas to Kansas, and in bringing the Santa Fe railroad to Wichita.
"PrairyErth" by William Least Heat-Moon
Its title taken from an old word for prairie soils, "PrairyErth" is the author's tour through the tallgrass prairies of Chase County in the Flint Hills. History, nature, geology and the people of the Plains are all represented in this sweeping work.