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:

Memoir

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

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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.

Fantasy

Stone Sky – by N.K. Jemisin

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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

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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.

Non-Fiction

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

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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.

Newbery Award Winners 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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Even before the announcement about this year’s Newbery winners, I’d already fallen in love with this amazing book. I highlighted it in my posts on the  10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016 and the Best Books of 2016. It’s a delightful fantasy book, both funny and compelling, about a cranky and forgetful witch, a young girl who drinks moonlight, a village being forced to sacrifice its children, and a madwoman in a prison cell who can make paper cranes fly.

Wolf Hollow – by Lauren Wolk

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This poignant (though sometimes brutal and harrowing) book centers on a young girl in rural Pennsylvania, the cruel and conniving bully who moves to town, and a reclusive WWI veteran. It’s a story of both cruelty and compassion, and of the bravery it takes to stand up for someone who can’t stand up for himself.

The Inquisitor’s Tale – by Adam Gidwitz

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This quirky and thought-provoking tale is set in medieval Europe. It includes an interesting cast of characters: a young girl whose character is loosely based on Joan of Arc, an impossibly strong former oblate with Saracen heritage, and a Jewish boy who recently escaped an ethnically motivated attack on his village. Religion is a main theme of this book, yet the tone remains respectful and subtle in its interaction with many religions. In among the fun antics and exciting story line, a number of thought-provoking questions are raised, and I think it would be a fascinating book to read aloud and discuss.

The book is thoroughly researched, and that research comes through most clearly in the book’s style and tone. The quirky and unexpected aesthetic of the book is often a result of actual medieval tales woven into the story line, and I was often reminded of the unusual tone that comes through in works like The Lais of Marie de France or The Canterbury Tales. The illustrations add a great deal to this aesthetic as well, imitating the curious marginalia of medieval scholars.

Freedom Over Me – by Ashley Bryan

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In this compelling picture book, we hear initially from a white woman named Mrs. Fairchilds as she prepares to auction off her late husband’s estate, and then from each of the eleven enslaved people who are considered part of that estate. Their words come in the form of a series of narrative poems, sharing with us their sorrows, hopes, and dreams.

While the historic documentation of this slave sale (which is included in the book) gives only the name and price for each person sold, the poems imagine their true interior selves, full of memories of the past, dreams for the future, and a hope for freedom. I was particularly struck by the sections in which people shared their memories from their lives in Africa, and the meanings behind their African names. The contrast between the piece of paper that reduces these people’s lives to a monetary price and the poems that express their humanity and dignity is quite powerful and striking.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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:

Fiction

War and Turpentine – by Stefan Hertmans

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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.

Memoir

Lab Girl – by Hope Jahren

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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.

History

A House Full of Daughters – by Juliet Nicolson

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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.

Poetry

The Rain in Portugal – by Billy Collins

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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.

Science

The Gene – by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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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

paper-menagerie

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.

Fantasy

The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

wolf-hollow

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

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

8. Full of Beans – by Jennifer Holm

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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

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

Diverse Books for Back-to-School

The voices vary. But whether it’s a girl from Iran adjusting to school in America, a deaf girl learning to incorporate her hearing aid into her school life, or a native boy attending a white school off the reservation, they all have stories to tell and perspectives to share. School isn’t the only topic addressed in any of these books, but it serves as a central space in all of these stories, as the characters work out their struggles and identities.

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel – by Firoozeh Dumas

it ain't so awful

This is the funny and heart-warming story of Zomorod, a young Iranian girl who changes her name to Cindy in order to fit into 1970s America. The Iranian hostage crisis occurs as the story progresses, forcing Cindy to confront her cultural identity in new ways. (Ages 10+)

Save Me a Seat – by Sarah Weeks and Rita Varadarajan

save me a seat

It’s the first week of 5th grade for both Ravi and Joe. Ravi was the star student in his school in India, but he can’t seem to get the hang of this new school in the US. School has always been difficult for Joe because of his auditory processing disorder, but he’s expecting this year to be even worse. A difficult first week of school unites the boys in ways they didn’t expect. (Ages 8+)

Unidentified Suburban Object – by Mike Jung

unidentified

Chloe is fed up with being the only Korean-American in her school. She’s tired of her band director comparing her to the famous Korean violinist, Abigail Yang, and she’s tired of everyone assuming that she’ll be good at math and music just because of her heritage. Her frustration and confusion isn’t helped by the fact that her parents refuse to discuss their Korean heritage. Told in Chloe’s spunky first-person voice, and ramping up into a fun sci-fi themed adventure, this book is hard to put down. (Ages 8+)

Full Cicada Moon – by Marilyn Hilton

full cicada moon

The year is 1969, and Mimi has just moved to a small town in Vermont with her Japanese mother and African-American father. Her mixed ethnicity is enough to set her apart, but she’s also a girl with stereotypically “male interests” — she’d much rather attend shop class rather than home-ec, and wants to go to the moon someday. Told in a series of narrative poems, this story is strikingly beautiful and stays in the imagination long after the book is put down. (Ages 8+)

El Deafo – by Cece Bell

el deafo

Cece lost her hearing in a childhood bout of meningitis. This is her warm and funny memoir (told in the format of a graphic novel) about what it was like to grow up and attend school with a bulky hearing aid strapped to her chest. (Ages 8+)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – by Sherman Alexie

absolutely true diary

When Junior decides to attend a mostly white school that’s off of his reservation, he’s almost immediately confronted by the issue of his split identity. The other members of his native tribe consider him a traitor and white-lover for attending the new school, and his classmates single him out as the only Indian in the school. Written in a strong, robust voice, and dealing with issues of racism, poverty, and alcoholism in a realistic yet compassionate way, this book is a powerful addition to the conversation around diversity. The book doesn’t shy away from confronting difficult subject matter, and is recommended for ages 12+.

 

Save Me a Seat – by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

save me a seatIt’s the first week of 5th grade for both Joe and Ravi, and things are not going well. Joe was expecting trouble — he’s been the target of the school bully for years, and he knew this year would be worse for him since his mom just took a job as the school lunch monitor. School has never been easy for him, since he struggles with Auditory Processing Disorder, but until this year, lunchtime was his favorite part of the day. Now that is ruined too.

Ravi, on the other hand, was not expecting any difficulty. He was the top student at his school in Bangalore, as well as being popular and a good cricket player to boot. He’s sure he’ll fit right in at his new school in the US. Yet it seems that misunderstanding and humiliation are waiting for him at every turn. His teacher mispronounces his name, and the class as a whole can’t seem to understand his accent. He’s sent to the resource room for help with his English skills, even though English is his first language. Everything he does to try to establish his competence and identity winds up slapping him in the face. He’s bullied and teased by the people he thought would be his friends, and he can’t seem to find his footing at this new school.

The book switches back and forth between Joe and Ravi’s perspectives, often addressing the same events from different points of view. The narration flows seamlessly, and the reader comes to know and understand both boys individually. They have very distinct voices, and the immediacy of the writing makes it seem as though they’re talking to us. This is a story about the dangers of relying on assumptions and stereotypes, and about the trust and growth that come from learning to see another person’s point of view. Both boys grow and mature in their own ways over the course of this difficult week in their lives.

My only complaint was that the book ended too abruptly. The two boys recount their experiences throughout the first week of school, but it’s not until Friday that they give each other a chance and end up becoming friends. There is so much potential in their friendship, and I would have loved to see a more fleshed out exploration of their relationship. So much of the book takes place when both boys are isolated and alone. I wanted to see how they worked through their differences and became close.

At the end of the book, the authors provide some additional cultural resources. There are two separate dictionaries (one with terms that Ravi uses and another with terms that Joe uses) — a tool that could surpass its obvious use as a source of definitions. American students who are needing to look up terms like “dosa” or “tennikoit” might find it thought-provoking to see entries for “M&Ms” or “snow globe” in the accompanying dictionary. It can be enlightening to see how many things are familiar to us simply because of our cultural context. The book also closes with two recipes — one for the apple crisp that Joe’s mom makes, and the other for naan khatais that Ravi’s mom makes. Making and sharing food cross-culturally is always a good starting point in building solidarity and understanding.

Overall I found this book to a very satisfying read. I came to feel a close connection to both boys, and was drawn in to see what would happen to them. It’s a beautiful reminder to seek to understand the people around us, and not to judge based on preconceptions and assumptions.