Michigan’s long, vibrant history and varied, breathtaking terrains have inspired writers to capture its long-forgotten tales while also creating new ones. Michigan writers from all walks of life have been creating stories that capture the very essence of the mitten and what makes it such a wonderful place to live and experience. No one narrates the state better than a native Michigander, so if you’re looking to kick back with some the most intimate accounts of our state and what makes it special, here are five Michigan authors that should be on your reading list.
Born in Detroit, MI in 1923, Gloria Whelan has 31 books for children and young adults, both historical and fictional. Whelan developed a love of reading from a young age, and she grew up in Detroit before graduating from the University of Michigan. When she and her husband eventually moved to Oxbow Lake in northern Michigan, what was meant to be their quiet oasis was soon disturbed when an oil company wanted to drill on their land. Without access to the mineral rights, the family eventually had to relent the land, and the experience prompted Whelan to write the manuscript for A Clearing In The Forest. Six years after the incident, in 1978, it became her first published book.
Loosely based on her experience, A Clearing In The Forest is about an aging widow that works with a neighborhood youth to go up against a company that is threatening to destroy the woods near their northern Michigan homes. Another locally-set story, Once on This Island, takes place on Mackinac Island during the war of 1812, and it won Whelan the Great Lakes Book Award in 1996. Whelan’s lyrical style of writing and her deep, thoughtful story lines make her a must-read Michigan author.
You might know Terry McMillan as the author of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, both of which were made into award-winning movies, but she is also a Michigan native. Born and raised in Port Huron, McMillan has made a name for herself in the literary world writing multiple New York Times Best Sellers and other books turned into made-for-TV movies. However, she may be best known for her debut novel Mama in 1986. She won the Doubleday New Voices in Fiction award and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Her work is poignant and down-to-earth, allowing audiences to easily relate to both the struggles and the fun-loving humor in her novels. McMillan’s newest title, I Almost Forgot About You, uses her refreshingly honest writing style to delve into the journey of Dr. Georgia Young. Even though Georgia is a woman that seems to have it all, she does a complete 180 in life when she finds herself restless and bored. It is the kind of story that opens readers to the idea that there is so much more to life than the everyday routine, and it is up to us to go out there and find it. McMillan’s uplifting stories and strong female characters keep readers coming back for more.
Elmore Leonard was born in Louisiana in 1925, but his father’s job as a General Motors site locator meant frequent moves. Not long before Elmore turned ten, his family settled in Detroit. He was fascinated with western tales and began writing in the fifth grade. Throughout school, he also wrote for his high school paper before graduating and spending three years in the Navy. Afterwards, he returned to Michigan and went to the University of Detroit, where he began to focus on his career as a writer. Leonard graduated with a dual degree in English and Philosophy, and he got his first break in 1951, when one of his short stories was published. Three years later, his first novel The Bounty Hunters was published, and Leonard’s explorations of the western genre produced 3:10 to Yuma and The Captives, both of which were adapted for the big screen. While the western tropes were a favorite of Leonard’s, he ventured into crime stories in the 1960s as the popularity of westerns fell off. Living in the often dangerous city of Detroit, Leonard used his hometown as a setting for many of his novels, and people loved his raw, gritty writing with its complicated characters. Newsweek would eventually run a cover story featuring Leonard, referring to him as the “Dickens of Detroit.” His books Get Shorty and Jackie Brown were also turned into screenplays, and his work will long be remembered for its captivating storylines and tales of complicated men trying overcome their flawed natures.
Tom Stanton was born in Warren in 1960, and the surrounding Metro Detroit area has inspired much of his writing work. As a journalist, Stanton helped found The Voice Newspapers in Detroit, where he served as an editor for sixteen years before channeling his writing into books. He has numerous nonfiction books, including The Final Season which details the last season the Detroit Tigers played at Tigers Stadium. Stanton attended every home game that last season and provided a thoughtful look at the four generations of his own family that had spent decades watching games at the stadium and bonding over baseball.The Final Season won the CASEY Award from Spinning Magazine, and Stanton also won a Michigan Author Award in 2008. He has other books that revolve around baseball and its deep emotional ties, but he has also written about other subjects, coauthoring a book about Elton John with Claude Bernardin. Currently Stanton teaches journalism at the University of Detroit, and he released Terror in the City of Champions: Murder Baseball, and the Secret Society that Shocked Depression-era Detroit last year. His writing touches upon one of America’s favorite pastimes and captures so much of Michigan’s culture and history, it should be on every Michigander’s must-read list.
Jerry Dennis was born in Flint but grew up in northern Michigan, where he still lives today. Dennis became an independent writer in the late 1980s, and his collection of essays and short fiction pieces have been featured in The New York Times, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review and more than 100 other publications. In the 90s, his writing took him all over the world, where Dennis wrote regular columns for environmental publications such as Wildlife Conservation Magazine. He has written a variety of books that revolve around the environment and how people interact with the world around them. One of Dennis’ best selling books was The Living Great Lakes, which details his trip through the Great Lakes starting from Lake Michigan and ending in Bar Harbor, Maine. With a crew of five, they struggled with the everyday dangers of navigating multiple waterways as well as the difficulties of being trapped on a boat with the same people day in and day out. The book won the 2004 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, the Best Book of the Year from the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Stuart D. and Vernice Gross Award for Excellence in Literature, and the Great Lakes Culture Award. Dennis also won the 1999 Michigan Library Association Author of the Year award, and you can see him as a frequent guest speaker at universities and a variety of venues. His work for the University of Michigan’s Bear River Writers Conference includes teaching workshops in creative nonfiction, and in 2014 he started the Big Maple Press with artist Glenn Wolff and creative director Gail Dennis. They publish special editions of their books and sell them in independent bookstores. Dennis has managed to create a career out of his major passions while sharing his stories and knowledge with others, and if you are an avid outdoorsmen, his books are the perfect addition to your collection and provide a detailed look at some Michigan’s beautiful landscapes.
Who are your favorite Michigan authors? Let us know in the comments!