I’m back with a continuation of yesterday’s post on my favorite picture books I read in 2017. Today’s list covers my favorites from middle grade through adult.
What were the best books you read last year?
The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill
I love everything about this book! Manga-style illustrations are infused with fairy tale magic resulting in wonderfully diverse characters, adorable dragons, memory-evoking tea, and a gentle friendship story about a capable girl learning both the craft of blacksmithing and the art of tea dragon caretaking.
In addition to the story there are some delightful “Extracts from the Tea Dragon Handbook” at the end. Reading it enriched my second and third looks at the tea dragons’ quiet behavior throughout the illustrations. The handbook includes descriptions of four tea dragons not featured in this book; I sure hope that means we’ll get to see them in a sequel!
Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet
This book made me want to buy a farm house in the woods where I can live and write. (Except I wouldn’t want to take care of pigs.) A lovely biography of a beloved writer, illuminated by all kinds of archival document treasures and Melissa Sweet’s wonderful collage and illustration work. Quite long, so more for an older elementary school crowd, especially those who’ve read White’s books!
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Roller Girl evokes all the joys and frustration of pre-teen friendship in the fun, off-beat setting of a roller derby camp.
Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson
This book is enchanting, clever and also heartbreaking. Heartbreaking not because of a single event but the accumulation of small ones gone wrong, mostly due to the folly of youth and inexperience. It’s the truth of that woven into this fantasy world that made me cry — and pick it up to re-read immediately.
I picked this up at the library with only a glance at the synopsis — seeing that it was about a young woman training to be a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot, a WWII program) was enough of a hook for me. But within a few pages, and after getting confused by the cover art versus the opening narration, I learned that there’s an extra layer of social complexity at play in Flygirl. The light-skinned black main character, Ida Mae, is not only breaking gender barriers as a pilot; she’s also defying Jim Crow roles by passing as white to enlist. The book’s historical setting is thoroughly researched and the plot is crafted with strong, believable emotional stakes. Sometimes Ida Mae’s internal feelings could be delivered more subtly, but that didn’t prevent me from becoming totally absorbed in this story. Would love to see this as a movie.
A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa
One of my favorite books I read this year. The subject is inherently interesting to me, but it also very well executed. Each literary friendship the authors selected has a narrative arc and the writing rich with description that make it easy to imagine the time, place and people. So it almost feels like reading one of the subjects’ novels rather than a work of nonfiction.
Additionally, I loved reading about Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s own writing friendship and their research process for the book. Unfortunately, gaps in historical records led to a lot of sentences that begin with phrases like “She must have felt …”. I don’t mind their informed conjectures but the repetition of those phrases disrupted an otherwise active and engaging writing style. I also wasn’t overly compelled by their arguments that female literary friendships have been vastly overlooked in contrast to male literary friendships. I was not familiar with any of the latter examples they cited, but that may just be because I don’t dwell in the world of literary biographies. Other readers may be more convinced of the argument that this book is a historical corrective. Either way you see that, it’s a wonderful read for anyone who enjoys British literature, women’s history and shine theory.
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Totally absorbing. A rich world full of enchantment, complicated characters and political twists that will keep you guessing as to whose story you can really believe. And the ending! Gah. If you’re averse to cliffhangers, wait till the next book comes out before you start this one.
What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen by Kate Fagan
A tough read given the subject — a college athlete’s suicide and the broader issues around mental health among American youth — but also a must-read for anyone working with teens. Fagan sensitively crafts a heart-wrenching narrative while acknowledging the things she/we cannot know about what was going on in Maddy’s mind leading up to her death. I do wish some of the data and other research referenced had been footnoted for further reading.
The Reappearing Act: Coming Out on a College Basketball Team Led By Born-Again Christians by Kate Fagan
I picked up “The Reappearing Act” from the library on a Saturday afternoon and finished it by Sunday morning. Why couldn’t I put it down? Because this slice-of-life memoir has all the page-turner-y goodness of a novel, plus the authenticity of author’s real struggles as a gay college athlete circa 2001. Fagan deftly alternates between the process of coming out over several basketball seasons and flashbacks to earlier memories that play off the main action as it unfolds. The result is a narrative arc propelled by both vivid details and emotional heft.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Cirque du Soleil. If you love all of these things, you’ll love The Night Circus.
*This was actually one I returned to and re-read because I loved it so much in 2016.
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
Don’t wait. Read this now. Funny, relatable, smart and compassionate essays on being a fat woman in a world that disdains both those characteristics.