The Best Books I Read in 2017: Middle grade, YA & Adult

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?

Middle Grade
The Tea Dragon SocietyThe 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. WhiteSome 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 GirlRoller 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.

 

Young Adult
Tiger LilyTiger 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.

FlygirlFlygirl by Sherri L. Smith

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.

Adult

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia WoolfA 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 (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1)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 TeenWhat 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 ChristiansThe 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 CircusThe 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 WomanShrill: 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.

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The importance of spotlighting #ownvoices titles

I’ve written a bunch here about the #weneeddiversebooks conversation and organization since it emerged in 2014. Last year, a related conversation around the authorship of diverse stories was spurred by a suggestion from YA writer Corinne Duvyis. Since then, people have been using the hashtag #ownvoices to  share book recommendations that are written by people from the same diverse group/s as the characters.

Highlighting such titles doesn’t mean that people can’t write outside their own experiences and groups, but it does recognize the importance — for both dominant and minority group audiences — of hearing from marginalized voices themselves. It also acknowledges the institutional barriers that diverse authors face in getting published and publicized in the first place.

You can find tons of great reading suggestions by searching #ownvoices on Twitter. Also, for the month of September the Reading While White blog is featuring a daily review of an #ownvoices book. That’s given me some exciting titles for my to-read list, such as “Little White Duck,” a graphic memoir by Na Liu about  growing up in China in the 1970s.

And if you’re still wondering about the issue of writing outside your own experience, I love YA author Lamar Giles’ response to that in this post on BookRiot.

3 Children’s Books to Read After You’ve Seen ‘Selma’

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights marchers’ arrival on the steps of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery. If you haven’t yet seen the movie “Selma,” about struggle for African-Americans’ voting rights, you should. If you have seen it, here are three books to read with your kids (or for yourself!) next.

1. “John Lewis in the Lead,” written by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, illustrated by Benny Andrews

This picture book biography provides more detail on the life of one of the main characters in “Selma”: John Lewis, a 25-year-old organizer who went on to become a U.S. Congressman representing Georgia. When watching “Selma,” it wasn’t apparent to me that Lewis had been at the lead of a range of other nonviolent resistance actions before stepping onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This book is a good introduction to those other events in the Civil Rights Movement. The narrative is unfortunately written rather passively, but I liked seeing illustrations by Benny Andrews, an African-American artist about whom another picture book bio was recently published.

John Lewis in the Lead

2. “March” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

I mentioned “March: Book One” in my February diverse reading post. I haven’t read  Book Two. Both are graphic novels, also about the life of John Lewis, but for older kids and adults. Book One covers Lewis’ youth, his first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his involvement in Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins. Book Two focuses on his involvement in the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the March on Washington. There is supposed to be a third volume in what will then be the “March” trilogy, and I’m guessing it’ll feature the march from Selma to Montgomery.

March! Book one March Book Two

3. “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom” by Lynda Blackmon Lowery as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley

This middle grade book tells us, in first person about the experiences of the youngest participant in the Selma march. The drama of the movie “Selma” is all about the attempts to march, but in Blackmon Lowery’s narrative we get to see details of the march itself, like where they slept and what they did when it rained. I was impressed that the voice sounded like a teenage version of the author, although she is of course far from that age now. I also liked getting to read about her impressions of some of the other participants, like Viola Liuzzo, an activist housewife who was shot by the Ku Klux Klan shortly after the march.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom

Your turn: What are your favorite books about the Civil Rights Movement and its many participants?