An apocryphal quote floating around dictates that all great literature is either a man going on a journey or a stranger coming to town. Leaving aside the limited thinking evident in this quote — what about the great literature where an animal goes on a journey??? — I am inclined to agree with one part of it. Road trip books make for some of the best literature around. The setting provides so much opportunity for discovery: of landscapes, fellow travelers, and of characters’ true selves. Traveling inevitably creates unforeseen problems to solve and prompts vulnerability for characters out of their element. Road trip books typically have a goal, even if the real treasure ends up being the friends made along the way.
I wanted to dig a little deeper than some of the obvious standards, like On the Road or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’ve toured the world of books by car, picking roadside stops among fiction and nonfiction, middle grade books and historical romance novels. Many people think of road trip books as a distinctly American genre, so I wanted to challenge that notion as well. In the end, I have a very special vacation slideshow to share with you, if I do say so myself.
In the Face of the Sun by Denny S. Bryce
A dual timeline is one of my favorite formats for a novel, so one with a road trip woven in is sure to catch my attention. This novel alternates between 1968 and 1928. In the latter timeline, audacious Aunt Daisy is rescuing her pregnant niece, Frankie, from her abusive marriage by escaping along Route 66. Meanwhile, we follow young Daisy in 1928 Hollywood, chasing her journalism dreams by writing for Black-owned papers. This compelling story is ideal for anyone who enjoys a family saga steeped in Black history.
How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
A YA romance road trip story that takes place on an influencer tour bus? Yes. Moon Fuentes is in the shadow of her famous twin sister, but agrees to sling merch for her over a summer. The forced proximity with her new nemesis, Santiago, blooms into something unexpected in this gorgeous book tinged with magical realism.
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal
This book highlights the ways religious pilgrimage intersects with the road trip format. Following three sisters who’ve drifted apart in adulthood, the novel reunites them in India. There they are carrying out their mother’s last wish to carry out her final rites at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This poignant novel navigates the complexities of tradition and modernity for the three British-born women while providing them with unexpected moments of discovery that are by turns humorous and heartbreaking.
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph M. Marshall III
The sad truth is that most road trip books set in America forget whose land they’re driving through. This heartwarming novel, however, provides readers an education in Indigenous history as the main character, Jimmy McClean, gets a lesson in his Lakota roots from his grandfather. Their travels bring them to sites relevant to the life of Tasunke Witko, better known as Crazy Horse.
A Week to Be Wicked by Tessa Dare
This might be my desert island romance novel. Minerva and Colin’s journey from Spindle Cove to Scotland, with Minerva’s fossil in tow, is the very best in historical road trip romance. It’s a nerdy woman meets charming rake story, and even writing this little blurb makes me sure it’s time for another reread. The entire Spindle Cove series is top tier romance, but it’s perfectly fine to start with this one.
Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden
Road trip books do turn up among graphic novels as well. Are You Listening? chronicles the journey across West Texas for Lou and Bea, two women struggling with grief and trauma. There’s a touch of magic in this book, represented by a cat who joins the trip. This is a demonstration of the opportunities for connection and real listening provided by a long, lonely road.
Getting Mother’s Body by Suzan-Lori Parks
I love when novels can provide two opposing characters with equally compelling motivations. When a letter arrives notifying Billy Beede, poor and pregnant, that a supermarket is going in where her mother’s body is currently resting, Billy takes action. She needs to find out whether Willa Mae Beede really was buried with a fortune’s worth of gems. Meanwhile, Dill Smiles, Willa’s love, wants to keep her in the ground. It’s a twist on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying that deeply examines desire, need, and greed.
All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad
While road trips are one of my favorite settings for books, characters discovering they never really knew someone close to them is one of my favorite plots. So All My Mother’s Lovers is right in my wheelhouse. In it, Maggie hand delivers letters on behalf of her suddenly deceased mother. The recipients of these letters upturn everything Maggie thought she knew about her family. This story’s meditation on grief, identity, and family is powerful and bittersweet.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
There is a simple way to describe the road trip in this novel. Two poets in Mexico City, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, travel to the desert to find another poet who has vanished. But that simple goal turns into a much more complex story that tracks Belano and Lima’s lives 20 years later. This novel, jam-packed with characters and ideas, is the ideal book for when you want a challenging book whose impact will travel with you through the decades.
Somewhere in the Darkness by Walter Dean Myers
Walter Dean Myers knew that kids deserve stories with real complexity, filled with believable characters and symbolism younger readers can grasp. Somewhere in the Darkness features the cross-country trip of 14-year-old Jimmy and his father Crab. Crab’s on the run from the law, but he’s seeking the man who can exonerate him. The road trip does not magically fix their troubled relationship, but it shows how understanding can blossom into forgiveness.
Nevada by Imogen Binnie (June 7)
As the old saw says, wherever you go, there you are. This is true for Maria Griffiths, a trans woman living in Brooklyn. When she feels like her life is falling apart, she steals her ex’s car and heads west. When she meets someone at a pivotal moment in their life, she finally realizes what she’s avoiding. This is a book that resonates with many trans readers for its honest depiction of the experiences, emotions, and thought patterns of its trans main character. Likewise, cis people can benefit from reading such a nuanced character study.
Love Is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar
Among nonfiction road trip books, Love Is an Ex-Country is vital for showing how travel in the United States functions very differently depending on what you look like. Jarrar is a fat, queer, Muslim, Arab American who recounts her trip from California to Connecticut in 2016. She encounters hostility, but as a victim of abuse as well as online threats against her life, she knows well how survival mode functions. It’s a brazen book that doles out plentiful laughs along with copious tears.
Night Hawk by Beverly Jenkins
One of the great things about Beverly Jenkins’s bibliography is that so many readers have different favorite books. Another of the great things about her work is that characters connect across series and time periods. So once you read Night Hawk, the historical romance in which bounty hunter Ian Vance is tasked with bringing sassy Maggie Freeman to justice, you’ll have to read everything else she’s ever written.
The Aeneid by Virgil
If it’s possible to underappreciate a classic, I dare say The Aeneid has met this fate. Retellings and adaptations of Homer’s epic poems abound. I say The Aeneid is due for such a treatment! The tale of Aeneas follows his journeys from the fall of Troy until he winds up in Italy, the ancestor of Romans. I love a good journey to the underworld, and The Aeneid has an especially heartbreaking one.
The New Life by Orhan Pamuk
Books about books! I can never get enough. Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s entry in the road trip canon chronicles the journey of Osman. He becomes enchanted by a novel and sets out to create for himself the life it promises. Reading this, you’ll wonder whether Osman has lost his grip on reality while you vicariously experience his travel from Istanbul to the Anatolian steppes.
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
The stories of the assassinations of U.S. presidents are so much wilder than what I was ever taught in school. Sarah Vowell has an incredible knack for storytelling and inspiring her readers to take an interest in the rich details in history. She uncovers fascinating stories wherever she goes. Because of reading her books, I find myself pausing to read the signs whenever I come across a historic place in my travels, a habit I have found deeply enriching.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward’s novel, at its essence a road trip Leonie takes with her children to reunite with their father, just released from the Mississippi State Penitentiary, is a true southern gothic Odyssey. This is a road trip book that nods to hallowed literature while investigating the claustrophobia that can accompany being enclosed in a car. Cars can be haunted houses, too.
Girls on the Verge by Sharon Biggs Waller
While many road trips are undertaken for fun, plenty come out of brutal necessity. Girls on the Verge follows Camille, who is pregnant in Texas and needs an abortion. When her best friend disagrees with her decision to end the pregnancy, she reaches out to a near-stranger for a ride. Then her friend has a change of heart, and the three end up in the car together on a journey demonstrating the lengths pregnant people have to go to to have control over their bodies.
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Here’s an ambitious and multi-media road trip book. Following a family traveling to the Southwest to learn more about Apache history, their story becomes embroiled with those of refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border. If you’re looking for a novel that is both incredibly daring while remaining true to its road trip roots, this one is timely and thought-provoking.
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
I’m sure I’m not the only one who loves books about animal journeys, as I mentioned up top. The Incredible Journey hit me at a very formative time. The Travelling Cat Chronicles feature a man named Satoru and his adopted stray, Nana, traveling around Japan in a silver van to visit some friends. You will not be surprised to find that the journey ends up having deeper meaning, as journeys always do. Yes this book does feature the cat’s perspective and — spoiler alert — yes, the book does follow to the end of the cat’s long and happy life.
I come by my love of road trips honestly. As a kid, all of my travel was by car, and I’ve driven in 48 of 50 states — I’m coming for you, Wisconsin and North Dakota! I’m even planning a couple of road trips for this summer. If you, like me, truly love a road trip, you’ll want even more suggestions, I’m sure. We’ve got thought-provoking and feel-good road trip books. And if you need an audiobook while you’re on a trip, pass me that aux, we’ve got some listening to do. Let’s hit the road.