Best Books of 2017

There were so many wonderful books published in 2017, it was hard to pick my favorites. But there were a few that I especially loved. Here they are:


Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe – by Kapka Kassabova


In this book, the author returns to Bulgaria (where she was born and spent her childhood) after a long absence. Her goal is to better understand the human and cultural impacts of the Iron Curtain border that intersected this area of the world, and this goal leads her into an exploration of the concept of borders themselves and how they impact the current immigration crisis in Europe. She crosses the borders between Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece many times over the course of her journey — a powerful experience for her after growing up near a border that seemed truly uncrossable. Her interviews with the people she meets in these borderlands unlock astonishing stories, as well as a variety of perspectives on the impact of recent history in the Balkans.

Short Stories

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories – by Penelope Lively

Purple swamp hen

This was my first venture into the work of Penelope Lively, and I’m eager to read more. I found each of these stories to be sharp, engaging, and witty. At first glance, the stories seem to be about the mundane — a broken down van, an elderly lady doing her weekly shopping, an uncomfortable lunch meeting. But each story delves into the recesses of the human soul, and reveals something extraordinary and unexpected by its close.


Stone Sky – by N.K. Jemisin

stone sky

When the first two books of a trilogy have been as widely lauded and won as much critical acclaim as The Fifth Season and Obelisk Gate have, I always worry that the author won’t be able to stick the landing with the final book. I shouldn’t have worried in this case. The ending is masterful. This trilogy creates one single (several thousand page long) story arc, and this final book brought the story to a thundering, earth-shattering close. This is not light and fun fantasy — it delves into difficult themes such as abuse, trauma, power inequality, and rebellion. The world-building is captivating, the storytelling is masterful, and the ideas and struggles are deep and powerful.

Science Fiction

Binti: Home – by Nnedi Okorafor


This book (the second installment in the trilogy) is refreshingly different from classic science fiction. The author is Nigerian-American, and her works generally focus on African-based science fiction and fantasy. This book explores a kaleidoscope of different elements: a tribal girl struggling with the pull between her ambitions and the traditional expectations of her community, the tensions of a burgeoning friendship between this girl and a squid-like being who is the traditional enemy of her people, telepathy and unexplained mental powers, tribal magic and alien beings. I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the third volume of this unique and beautiful trilogy.


Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult – by Bruce Handy

wild things

This book will appeal to adults with a literary bent who still enjoy reading kids’ books — in other words, right up my alley. It’s a delightful romp through American children’s classics as varied as Goodnight Moon Charlotte’s Web, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8. The book isn’t intended for a scholarly audience, but it does explore children’s books as literature — digging into the lives of the authors, the thematic and structural elements (why do anthropomorphic animals feature so strongly in children’s lit?), and what children’s books from different eras say about the changing way we see our kids.

Young Adult

The Hate U Give – by Angie Thomas

hate u give

The main character in this book is 16-year-old Starr, a girl who regularly moves between two worlds — the world of the underprivileged black neighborhood where she lives and that of the mostly white suburban school she attends. The uneasy peace she’s carved out for herself between the two worlds begins to splinter when she witnesses the death of her childhood best friend at the hands of a white police officer. The story is raw and powerful, but it’s also told with nuance and compassion. This isn’t a political tirade disguised as fiction — it’s a deeply felt story exploring many facets of a terrible situation.

Middle Grades Fiction

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus – by Dusti Bowling

events in the life

This is the story of Aven, a delightfully spunky girl who was born without arms (but likes telling people that she lost them wrestling an alligator), as she moves to a new town in order for her parents to take over the management of a run-down wild west amusement park. It’s a fun book, full of adventure, humor, and pluck, and I found it refreshing to read a book about a character with physical differences that didn’t treat those differences as the most important aspect of the story or of her as a person.

Graphic Novel

The Best We Could Do – by Thi Bui

best we could do

This powerfully rendered graphic memoir follows a Vietnamese-American woman’s exploration of her family’s past. She delves into her parents’ backgrounds, their lives in Vietnam, and their eventual journey to America as refugees. The theme of motherhood weaves throughout the book, as the author (a new mother herself) seeks to understand her own mother’s past through the lens of motherhood. For a more in-depth look at this book, check out this post.

Diversity in Verse Novels – Part II

I love reading verse novels. There’s something so alluring about them. If you’re not familiar with the genre, it’s a form in which the entire story is told in a series of non-rhyming poems, usually from the perspective of the main character (or switching back and forth between several characters). I find it to be a unique and beautiful way to get inside the thoughts of a character.

It’s a wonderful genre for diverse stories. The format of narrative poems allows for such intimate access to each character’s point of view. I find that even if the character is very different from me, I can understand his or her perspective more easily when I engage with poems like these.

I’ve already written one post about diversity in verse novels (you can find Part I here), but I just had to share a few more of my favorites.

Brown Girl Dreaming – by Jacqueline Woodson

brown girl dreaming.jpg

This memoir, written as a series of narrative poems, tells the story of the author’s childhood during the 1960s and 70s. I was particularly struck by her comparisons of the culture of her home in New York with the culture of her mother’s family in South Carolina. Deftly written and inspiring.

The Crossover – by Kwame Alexander

the crossover.jpg

The language in this novel packs a punch. Each poem is full of movement and motion, sizzling across the page. The story is about basketball, but it’s also about brotherhood, about navigating adolescence, about working through family tension. It’s an engaging story, and a joy to read.

Audacity – by Melanie Crowder


This powerfully written story was inspired by true events in the life of Clara Lemlich. It deals with immigration, antisemitism, women’s rights, labor rights, and protest, all in a very readable and accessible way. A Jewish immigrant from Russia in the early 20th century, Clara refuses to accept the terrible working conditions prevalent in her new community in New York. Her story is inspiring and expertly told.

Red Butterfly – by A.L. Sonnichsen

red butterfly

Kara has never met her birth mother. She was abandoned as an infant but taken in and cared for by an American woman living in China. She’s knows that something is unusual — even wrong — about her life, but she can’t quite figure out what’s going on. Why is she kept out of sight in their tiny apartment in Tianjin? Why can’t she and her American mother join Daddy in the U.S.? An intriguing and compelling story about adoption, family, and being undocumented.

Serafina’s Promise – by Ann E. Burg

serafina's promise.jpg

Serafina dreams of becoming a doctor someday. But her dream would require her to attend school, and money for a uniform and supplies is non-existent. Besides, Serafina’s mother needs her at home, to prepare for the arrival of the new baby — the whole family is hoping against hope that this time the baby will live past infancy. Set in Haiti, against the backdrop of the 2010 earthquake, this book is filled with hope and determination.

Best Books of 2016

There were so many wonderful books published in 2016, it was hard to pick my favorites. But there were a few that particularly stuck out to me. Here they are:


War and Turpentine – by Stefan Hertmans

war and turpentine.jpg

This book took me completely off guard. It’s a fictionalized account of the author’s grandfather: his life as an artist, the trauma of WWI in Belgium, and the shattering of an old way of life. Perhaps because it’s fiction that borders on memoir, the characters seemed so real, so vivid, so fragile. I’m looking forward to re-reading it again and again over the years.


Lab Girl – by Hope Jahren

lab girl.jpg

I’m fascinated by memoirs by people who are passionate about things I know very little about. That was definitely the case with Lab Girl. Hope Jahren is a scientist studying trees and plant life, but her memoir covers so much more than science. It’s the story of a woman trying desperately to prove herself in a field full of men. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship with her oddball lab partner Bill. It’s the story of a fight against mental illness and a tenuous questioning of the workings of the mind. Hope tells her story against the backdrop of short essays about the trees she studies, and it ties together to create a thing of beauty.


A House Full of Daughters – by Juliet Nicolson

house full of daughters.jpg

Not many people can trace the women in their family back seven generations the way that Juliet Nicolson can. But she has fascinating stories to tell of the women in her family all the way back to the 1830s. In the midst of telling her own family story through the eyes of its women, she traces the historical context of these women’s lives as well as exploring the angst-ridden relationships of mother and daughter that travel throughout the years. I found it to be beautifully written, and intriguing in its scope and focus.


The Rain in Portugal – by Billy Collins

the rain in portugal.jpg

I’ve loved Billy Collins’ poetry for years — he treats poetry so lightly and includes such winning humor, yet his poems have moments of true depth and poignancy as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. He covers topics as various as jazz music, a lonely summer from his childhood, and the ghosts of siblings he never had.


The Gene – by Siddhartha Mukherjee

the gene.jpg

This fascinating and highly readable book offers the history of genetics in a way that blends history, science, sociology, and personal narrative in a compelling way. Mukherjee draws us in with his own family story of genetically transmitted mental illness, and then takes us on a fascinating history of how the gene was discovered and explored. He starts with Pythagoras and Aristotle and takes us through the mapping of the human genome. In an age of so much change and discovery in the field of genetics, I found this book to be particularly intriguing.

Science Fiction

The Paper Menagerie – by Ken Liu


This grouping of science fiction short stories blew me away. Each story is original, unusual, and written with subtlety and grace. The sheer diversity among the stories caught my attention — some are more traditional science fiction with astronauts on ships; others are speculative fiction about how history could have been different; some are set in our own world with one thing slightly “off.” There’s a murder mystery with a cyborg detective, a tale about the last living Japanese man, a story about humanity’s shift into a robotic form. Overall, it’s a book with gripping storytelling, compelling new ideas, and beautiful prose.


The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

the girl who drank the moon.jpg

This is the story of an enmagicked girl, a snarky witch, a disgruntled swamp monster, and paper cranes that come to life. The world-building is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, and the story wends between humor and pathos in a compelling way.

Middle Grades Fiction

The Wild Robot – by Peter Brown


I found myself utterly charmed by the antics of Roz, a robot who comes to consciousness one day, finding herself alone on a wilderness island. She explores the secrets of her own existence and develops relationships with the animals who inhabit the island. The juxtaposition of the mechanical and the wild creates an intriguing world, and the illustrations that appear throughout the book only add to the delight.

If you have a middle grades reader in your house, be sure to check out my post on the 10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016 as well!

10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016

So much fantastic middle grades fiction came out this past year. Here are the 10 that particularly captivated me:

1. Wild Robot – by Peter Brown


This quirky and charming story follows the adventures of Roz, a robot who wakes up alone on a wilderness island.

2. The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill


This evocative fantasy tells the tale of an oppressed village, a enmagicked girl who drinks light from the moon, and a snarky witch.

3. When the Sea Turned to Silver – by Grace Lin

when the sea.jpg

An exciting tale of adventure and discovery that features a variety of Chinese folk tales and beautifully rendered illustrations.

4. Wolf Hollow – by Lauren Wolk


At times rather brutal in its content, this book follows the compelling tale of a young girl caught up in the defense of an ostracized World War I veteran in small town Pennsylvania.

5. Anna and the Swallow Man – by Gavriel Savit

anna and the swallow man

The haunting tale of a young girl and the stranger she meets as they both try to escape from Nazi-occupied Poland.

6. Paper Wishes – by Lois Stepahban

paper wishes

A moving story about a young Japanese-American girl in a World War II era internment camp.

7. Grayling’s Song – by Karen Cushman

grayling's song.jpg

An engaging journey-style fantasy, with a memorable cast of characters.

8. Full of Beans – by Jennifer Holm

full of beans.jpg

A mischievous boy in Depression-era Florida tries to earn money and interacts with the “New Dealers” who come to implement changes in his town.

9. It Ain’t So Awful Falafel – by Firoozeh Dumas

it ain't so awful

The charming story of an Iranian girl adjusting to life in the states during the 1970s. Funny and serious at the same time, it explores the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis.

10. The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price – by Jennifer Maschari

charlie price

This unusual and compelling story makes use of magical realism in its exploration of a young boy’s grief over losing his mother.

Picture Books about Sweden

There are some really lovely children’s books by Swedish authors that have been translated into English. Here are a few that we found and loved as we did our unit study on Sweden.

Pancakes for Findus – by Sven Nordqvist

pancakes for findus.jpg

This is the first in a series of books about an eccentric old man and his cat. Their misadventures are fun and humorous, and the story is accompanied by detailed illustrations that add to the humor in the book. It’s one of those books where the humor is found in the combination of the text and the illustrations — there’s not quite enough information in either to get the full joke, but together they’re hilarious.

Children of the Forest – by Elsa Beskow

children of the forest

This sweet story follows a family of little people (they’re about the size of squirrels), as they live out their daily lives in the Swedish forest. Their adventures are intriguing — they ride on bats, kill snakes, and harvest mushrooms for the winter. The illustrations are quaint and charming, and the story is sweet and memorable.

Per and the Dala Horse – by Rebecca Hickox

per and the dala horse

This brightly illustrated retelling of a classic folk tale features three brothers making use of their inheritance, a toy horse that proves useful in unexpected ways, and adventures with trolls.

The Tomten – by Astrid Lindgren

the tomten.jpg

A gentle and charming tale of an old Tomten who watches over the farm when everyone is sleeping. This reminded me a bit of tales of the Brownies and Leprechauns, except that the Tomten is kind and doesn’t get into mischief. The illustrations are lovely, and they show the beauty of the snowy winter landscape.

Lucia Morning in Sweden – by Ewa Rydaker

lucia morning.jpg

This book holds a special place in my heart, because the mother of a friend of mine from growing up was Swedish, and she would lead us in the celebration of St. Lucia Day every year. I have fond memories of getting up early with my friends (after we’d stayed up far too late the night before) and donning a white nightgown and candle-lit crown in order to bring treats and sing to our parents or friends in their beds. This book is a lovely description of the traditions of this festival, and brought back sweet memories for me personally.

The Boy Who Ate More Than the Giant – by Ulf Löfgren

the boy who ate more.jpg

This collection of Swedish folk tales is well told, and features humorous illustrations to go along with the stories. A few of the tales are somewhat gruesome in their details (as traditional folk tales often are), but they’re also very clever and witty.

Longer Read-Alouds:

Swedish Fairy Tales – translated by Holger Lundbergh

swedish fairy tales.jpg

This is a truly beautiful collection of Swedish fairy tales, featuring lovely full-page and full-color illustrations. There are 21 stories in all, by a variety of different authors — including Elsa Beskow and Anna Wahlenberg. The tales feature magicians and mountains, trolls and tomten. The stories are all very readable, and full of a magical richness that’s quite different from the traditional French and English fairy tales that I’m used to.

The Children of Noisy Village – by Astrid Lindgren

children of noisy village.jpg

This lovely chapter book follows the life of 9-year-old Lisa and her siblings and friends as they go to school, celebrate holidays, and get into mischief. It was published in the 1960s, so I’m sure it’s a bit dated, but I loved peeking into the everyday life of these Swedish children. My son loved this book as a read aloud — its descriptions of daily life were intriguing to him, and he wanted to re-enact some of their escapades afterwards.

Pippi Longstocking – by Astrid Lindgren


No list of books about Sweden is complete without Pippi Longstocking. This delightful story about a vivacious 9-year-old with superhuman strength who lives on her own and defies all the conventions is such fun to read. My son thought it was hilarious, and while it doesn’t explicitly discuss Swedish culture very much, it’s considered such a classic of childhood in Sweden that I had to include it in our reading.

Other Resources:

Traditional Song of St. Lucia Day

Are We There Yet? (Sweden) –  3 episodes about kids visiting Sweden

10 Good Things to Know about Sweden

Fantasy Books for Grown Ups

I grew up on fantasy. My favorite childhood climbing tree was named “Narnia” and my friends and I once had a lively game of “Quidditch” on a frozen pond (it involved a blend of hockey rules and Quidditch rules, with brooms instead of hockey sticks). Fantasy novels with young protagonists are nostalgic for me, and I still pull out A Wrinkle in Time or The Book of Three when I’m having a bad day.

Sometimes, though, I’m in the mood for a good fantasy novel that was written with adults in mind. It took me a while to find “grown up” fantasy books I connected with, and it felt for a while as if all of the memorable fantasy worlds had been hijacked by 12-year-olds. Over the years, though, I’ve found more and more well-written, compelling fantasy books that interact with the world on a more adult level. Here are a few that have captured my imagination.

The Golem and the Jinni – by Helene Wecker

golem and the jinni

This book uses the evocative backdrop of late 19th century New York—with all of its immigrant communities and people trying to create new lives for themselves—to explore questions of what it means to be human through the eyes of two magical beings. Chava is a golem, brought to life by a rabbi with an eye for the dark arts. She ends up in the Jewish section of New York, trying to blend in with the humans around her and make a way for herself. Ahmed, a Jinni, lives in the New York neighborhood of Little Syria, his spirit burning and restless. The historical fiction elements of this book blend seamlessly with the fantastical aspects, and create a truly compelling read.

The Snow Child – by Eowyn Ivey

snow child

Set in the Alaskan frontier in the 1920s, this book follows a childless couple as they meet (and accept into their family) a magical girl made of snow. It’s a beautiful blend of deeply felt historical fiction and ethereal Russian fairy tale elements. This book resonated with me on several levels—it contains poignant moments of human joy and suffering as well as a kind of magical realism that I found to be quite captivating.

In the Night Garden – by Catherynne Valente

in the night garden

This book has a strange beauty that is hard to define. In an Arabian Nights type motif, a young orphan girl tells tale after tale (and sometimes many tales within tales) to a runaway prince. The stories interweave into a complex tapestry–including tales of stars who bleed light, of towered maidens who turn into beasts, of seaworthy ships grown from live trees. There are stories with roots in many languages and traditions, and the overall effect of the blend of tales is darkly ethereal and fascinating.

Uprooted – by Naomi Novik


When I started this book, it seemed like a fairly straightforward re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, but it soon turned into something far more rich and complex, in a darkly compelling way. The world, which is based partly in Eastern European folklore, opens up in unexpected ways over the course of the story, as the characters face a sinister evil that lurks in the nearby Wood.  It’s an unusual and intriguing read, and one that I will not soon forget.

5 Books for Francophiles

1. How Paris Became Paris – by Joan deJean

how paris became paris.jpg

An intriguing and very readable account of Paris’ transformation from a medieval collection of buildings and monuments into the first modern city of public urban spaces and planned boulevards.

2. The Greater Journey – by David McCullough

the greater journey

This fascinating collection of stories features a wide variety of 19th century Americans who spent time in Paris. Some of them are famous — think James Fenimore Cooper or Oliver Wendell Holmes — and others less so. But all of them came away from their time in the Old World changed in some way. David McCullough weaves a compelling narrative, and one that helped me to understand some of the history and roots of the lasting fascination with France in America. Read more

3. Three Tales – by Gustave Flaubert

three tales

This slim collection of three stories by Gustave Flaubert provides a very accessible introduction to classic French literature. Flaubert’s writing has a beautiful simplicity and elegance, and his portrayal of the human soul is quite poignant.

4. My Wish List – by Grégoire Delacourt

my-wish-list-cover (1).jpg

If you’re looking to read a contemporary French novel, this book is a wonderful place to start. The main character, Jocelyne, wins the lottery but then hesitates to cash the check, wondering how it will change her life and if it would really be for the better. The cast of characters are delightfully real and quirky, and it’s psychologically rich novel.

5. Flirting with French – by William Alexander

flirting with french

I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir about a man who decides to learn the French language when he’s in his 50s. It addresses a lot of the issues and theories in foreign language acquisition, but in a very accessible and often very humorous way. If you’ve ever found yourself frustrated by trying to learn a language, you’ll relate to this book.