I read 30 books in 2019! And I’m pretty proud of that. Here are some noticings about all the books I read:
- I read 3 graphic novels, 8 fiction novels, 16 non-fiction works, and 3 books of poetry.
- 25 of the 30 books were written by women and/or non binary folks.
- 16 of the 30 books are written by authors of color.
- More than half the books I read this year were in the non-fiction category.
- Only two books are actually could actually be found in the education section of a bookstore, but I feel many of them informed my teaching practice.
- I think all but two of the authors are still living, and Rachel Held Evans died this year.
My favorite type of book is one that makes me think differently and experience catharsis. With that criterion, here are my favorite from 2019: Refugee, When Breath Becomes Air, Fun Home, Lord of the Butterflies, Big Magic, Free Cyntoia, and I’m Still Here.
30. The Sun and All Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur
Many thank yous to my future brother-in-law Cam for buying me this wonderful book as a Secret Santa present that ultimately became my 30th book read for 2019. I absolutely love poetry, and really enjoyed Milk and Honey a couple years back. This collection of poems is organized into five sections, and the first was actually my least favorite. Each section spoke louder to my heart as they passed. I love poetry. I love when people let us glimpse their hearts in the strands of words they sew together. I love how I see her humanity in her work. So happy to have this art on my shelf.
29. Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed
I am really trying to make sure I read more young adult books. This has been a popular one from my classroom library, so I finally checked it out. I have to admit, it was way more intense than I thought it would be in the middle of the book, and I was furious with the protagonist Naila’s parents. Because it’s YA, there are eye-rolling worthy parts when she describes her teenage love and also times I wanted to yell at her and say: “How are you not figuring out what is happening?! Your parents are trying to arrange a marriage for you!” It’s actually got a lot of plot that I didn’t see coming and reminded me that there are people who really value traditional views of women, even though it basically infuriates me. Even though my prediction for how the book ultimately came true, there were chapters where I really wasn’t certain how the book would end. I can see a lot of teenagers really enjoying this one.
28. Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System by Cyntoia Brown-Long
This book surprisingly gives me so much hope despite the horrific details she accounts for in her story. After I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander a few years ago, my eyes were opened to the dysfunction and injustices of incarceration, especially against communities of color. Inmates’ lives matter. They are human beings who should not be defined by mistakes. I know I feel grateful to have been sheltered from a lot of hardship and I know that my white skin allows me to get away with a lot of things when people of color don’t always get that same benefit. What happened to Cyntoia is devastating, and the reality is she isn’t an anomaly. There are many young Americans facing ridiculously harsh sentences and environments while in prison. I want to be a part of a society that redefines what rehabilitation looks like and offers restorative justice. People who experience prison don’t deserve to be discarded; they are made in God’s image too.
27. I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
Wow. Wow. Wow. I borrowed this book from a colleague, and I decided to buy my own copy once I returned it. Austin has put so many powerful insights to words that have really challenged me, encouraged me, and re-ignited my sense of urgency to be an anti-racist white person in my personal and professional life. Here’s one of the many quotes I was inspired by: “When white people stop short of reconciliation, it’s often because they are motivated by a deep need to believe in their own goodness, and for that goodness to be affirmed over and over and over again. These folks want a pat on the back simply for arriving at the conclusion that having people of color around is good. But reconciliation is not about white feelings. It’s about diverting power and attention to the oppressed, toward the powerless. It’s not enough to dabble at diversity and inclusion while leaving the existing authority structure in place. Reconciliation demands more” (p. 171).
26. The Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen
This was a short Audible feature that I actually indulged in. I’m very much a millennial, and I very much struggle with burnout. I feel like I’m always working, always strategizing, always seeking opportunities, always networking, etc and it’s never enough. I have my Master’s degree, but it’s not enough to pay our bills and have fun with our kids. I like how Petersen’s thoughts really focus on the systemic issues of burnout. SOme favorite quotes: “I’ve spent a lot of time and energy grappling with the idea that burnout is now a thing, for lack of a better word, just because white middle class people started feeling it. My loans and my mental load and my compulsion to always be working suck, but as a white woman in a very white place, I don’t experience the extra stress of what would happen if I were pulled over by a cop or someone in my family were in the wrong place at the wrong time…it’s not the burnout olympics. That acknowledging the layers and complexities of someone else’s burnout doesn’t minimize your own.”
25. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
I’m not sure why, but it took me months to finish this book, and it’s actually very funny. I believe it deserved more of my undivided attention, but I listened to the audiobook (which I recommend because of her British accent), but always while multitasking. I would try and listen as I fell asleep, and I think I listened to some of the same chapters multiple times, over and over again trying to figure out where I had dozed off. Anyways, I love Eleanor Oliphant as a character, so earnest and pure and completely disregarding of social norms without really knowing or understanding why. It’s a delightful story with a surprising ending. But thank you to my sister Liz for recommending and sending this story to me.
24. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
This is one of those texts that had to be put in my face nearly five times before I actually opened it up and read it. A friend had told me about it. I got a copy of it for my classroom library. I recommended it to several students. But still, I hadn’t actually read it. Then, at the middle school recently, I saw a copy in the lost and found. It stayed there for almost a week before I put it in my bag and brought it home to read. Despite its cartoonish drawings, the content of the story is really not a spectacular thing for middle school aged children to be contemplating at school… there are some pretty vivid illustrations of sex that I personally would not want a group of 7th grade kids to be reading together in my classroom. Needless to say, the story is so thoughtful. I love any book (Glass Castle, Educated) that can tell the truth about a parents’ flaws while still honoring them, and this story does that beautifully. If you are a literature person like me, you’ll love the Joyce and Fitzgerald references too. I definitely want to read more of her stuff.
23. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond
So, I now carry this book around with me at my job. I am on leave from my classroom position this year to coach about 45 teachers throughout my district through the lens of racial equity. This is basically my educational Bible. I hope colleges are making Hammond’s work required reading. It’s a must read for anyone who works in schools. I first heard about the book maybe 4 years ago, but the brain part scared me off. It looked too textbook-y and scary to me. Ms. Hammond even came and facilitated professional development for my district a couple of years ago, and I loved it, but the book continued to sit on my nightstand. Finally this summer, I took an online course for graduate credits that studied this book. I’m disappointed with myself that I didn’t dig into it sooner. The book is completely accessible for people who don’t think science is a strength, and it has radically impacted my understanding of teaching. Game changing ideas for me that are worth learning about: amygdala hijacks, being a warm demander, and process goals in addition to content goals.
22. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
I sort of nerded out with this one and actually read the book and listened to the audio version, which is narrated by the author. It felt like going to coffee with Brene for 6 hours and me just listening to every word. When I liked something, I would mark it on the actual page. If you don’t know much about Brene Brown, she is worth learning about. You can start here by watching her TED talks or by streaming her Netflix special called The Call to Courage. She speaks on a lot of the same insights from Daring Greatly. I studied it for a teacher book club, and I decided if I were a principal, I’d make it somewhat of a bible or manual to inform my leadership in the building. Since I am a classroom teacher, I can use it as a manual to inform my leadership in the classroom. It’s really a book for everyone though. One of my favorite quotes: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and looks like courage.”
21. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Where do I even begin with this beautiful story? I devoured it at Johnson Lake in Lexington, Nebraska when I maybe *should* have been hanging out with family and in-laws, but I escaped into this book instead. I absolutely love that feeling of not wanting to put a book down or leaving my own reality for a bit through someone else’s narrative. My friend Lindsey let me borrow her copy because there are hundreds of people waiting for it at the library. It’s trendy, and I’m glad. It’s Owens’ first book (besides journals and more scholarly writing) which is very impressive. Things I love: strong female character, wonder of nature, power of literacy, vulnerability of love, concept of parenthood… the list goes on.
20. This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins
This has to be the most honest account I have ever read. And I will need to read it again, for sure. Morgan Jerkins is likely the smartest person I have ever read, and I feel like she has taught me more in her book than years of professional development. Then again, perhaps I wouldn’t have been ready to truly listen to her narrative because it’s raw, mature, and lightning-like. So many sentences strike me as profound, prophetic, and amazing. I listened to her read it so that I could really hear her voice and her text the way she wanted it to be heard. There were so many times I paused the audio in near disbelief after the effectiveness to which she had just shared an insight. As a white woman attempting to be racially conscious as a human being and an educator and as someone who calls myself a feminist, I was seriously educated by Morgan Jerkins. Read this if you can handle the very intellectual criticism and some of the most well-reflected life stories I’ve ever heard.
19. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
I won’t sugar-coat it: this book is pretty sad, but I made it through without really crying. It’s a memoir about the author’s experience giving birth to a stillborn child. She writes in such a matter of fact way that really honors her grief. I found her writing helped me give words to some of the painful emotions I have been feeling while experiencing postpartum depression since Ari’s birth and remembering some of the memories of my miscarriage from December 2017 that my PPD seems to be triggering. McCracken affectionately refers to her son as “Pudding” and I feel as though we were able to get to know Pudding, even though his earthly life was only in utero. My biggest relatable moment was when she talks about being pregnant for the second time, after her experience delivering a stillborn, and how often people ask “Is this your first?” It’s such an innocent question, but for her, it’s such a constant reminder that her first child was stillborn and his life has ended but his memory has not. Grieving is more and more the activity I need to make time for, and I imagine others do too. This story is not for the lighthearted, but it is a beautiful capturing of an experience of loss that is important to consider. If you liked When Breath Becomes Air, I think you’d like this too.
18. Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka
Reading this book is confirmation that I actually like graphic novels. Even as a reading specialist and English teacher, I always assumed graphic novels were only written about superheroes, and I just wasn’t that interested. But my mind has been switched! This book is a beautiful auto-biographical story about a young white boy being raised by his grandparents because his mother is a heroin addict and his father has never been in the picture. He writes about his discovery and love for art and drawing, his friendships, and his journey of growing up in a non-traditional family. I actually strongly related to him because although I wasn’t raised by my grandparents, my mother has been largely absent from my life, and I feel like that’s a story that doesn’t get told as often. Definitely buying this one for the classroom library.
17. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
In full disclosure, I listened to this story on Audible, and I LOVED IT. I didn’t really know what it was about going into it and actually got so sucked into the plot and the tensions because (little did I know) it pokes at the ultimate question of my life: “What makes a mother?” This is the question underneath most questions for me as I navigate my day and Ng tells a story with a variety of types of mothers, how they became mothers, etc. There is some high school drama, which I don’t mind despite its familiarity to my work day and just enough suspense to get you curious about where the story is going and how the story is going to end. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was pregnant with Zadie was to “parent the child in your arms, not the one in your head.” I appreciate how Ng sort-of explored this concept indirectly. The only bummer about the audiobook? I’m so curious about how to spell some of the characters’ names and have no clue! Haha.
16. Lord of the Butterflies by Andrea Gibson
This past year, I fell in love with Button Poetry- a publishing company based here in Minneapolis, who also published this book. There is something so powerful about stringing words together that can punch you in the face, make me exhale “wow” outloud to a room with only a sleeping baby in it, and send tears down my cheeks. I love the emotion stored in poems. I even started really trying to write my own, and am super proud of myself for submitting some of my poetry to a Button Poetry chapbook contest while on maternity leave. Gibson’s poetry really challenged me to sit and reflect on topics society wants to be hard like mental illness, incarceration, the queer community, the second amendment, etc, while also challenging me to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. So glad I read this book, and can’t wait to buy one for my classroom library.
15. Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson:
A couple years ago, I listened to a few episodes of the podcast “2 Dope Queens” starring Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson (author of this book). I remember cleaning the kitchen as I listened, laughing and thinking “Oh my gosh- can she say that?” They went on to get a HBO special for their comedy of the same name, which I still haven’t seen, because I really need HBO!! Anyways, I finally got around to reading this book, which isn’t even Robinson’s first or only, and I’m glad I did. I love her (mostly) unnecessary abbreviations and nicknames for things which she spells out in the book and often make the words longer. Anyways, I know I’m not alone in feeling the dumpster fire imagery for this country and for myself sometimes, and Robinson names it, laments it, and still creates space to laugh. I liked it.
14. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
I first learned of this book while browsing at a bookstore a year or so ago. I was fascinated by the premise: the economy sucks, people of all demographics are losing their jobs, can’t pay their mortgages, and end up living out of their cars. The story follows a couple called Charmaine and Stan who learn about an opportunity to live in a twin city called Consilience (con + resilience) where every other month you can live in a nice home and on opposite months, you live in the Positron prison. This concept is designed to solve both joblessness and homelessness, but as most utopias go, it’s not as perfect as it’s cracked up to be, and like any system, someone is making a profit. If it’s possible to offer criticism to Atwood, I have to mention the strange plot moves she makes with sex. It’s a very sex-positive book, but for me, it’s way too much. Affairs, prostitutes, sexbots, seriously… it gets really weird. Wasn’t a fan. But I am always impressed by her imagination when it comes to inventing future realities that may or may not be that far-fetched.
13. Tina’s Mouth by Keshni Kashyap
This was such a fun book to read. First of all, it’s a graphic novel. I always thought I would hate graphic novels, but it turns out they are quite enjoyable and don’t have to follow a superhero plot line. In this book, you follow Indian-American sophomore Tina who has to keep an existential diary for her English class. She writes her entries to Sartre and takes you through her 10th grade year of high school complete with crushes, extra-curricular activities, eating lunch alone, family and friend drama, and learning how to be. Fun read that I’m excited to tell my students about.
12. Yesterday I Was the Moon by Noor Unnahar
I fell in love with poetry the last two years. I’m not sure why I didn’t expose myself to poetry earlier, but now that I have, it’s such a sweet love. I even started writing my own, and have discovered it to be an amazing outlet for processing my emotions. I adore the poets Nayyirah Waheed and Rupi Kaur, so in my search for more raw voices like theirs, I stumbled upon Noor Unnahar. I am super into these poetry books with poems and drawings mixed together, and so are a lot of teenagers these days. Excited to add this one to the collection.
11. Becoming by Michelle Obama
I listened to this through Audible, and I miss the Obamas so much more now. I feel so lucky to have gotten this peak behind the curtain of their successes, their family, their journey to becoming such amazing leaders in the United States. Michelle Obama embodies dignity, grace, advocacy, and hope. I have no idea how she is able to keep such a strong composure in everything she does. And I feel so personally honored for the sacrifices she made (she had an incredible career as a lawyer) in her choice to support her husband as the first black American president. I love what she reveals in the epilogue tying everything all together: “For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously to a better self.” She continues to learn and grow and reflect. She will never run for office which makes me grieve, but I am so inspired by her to remember my own role in our country’s democracy, to keep listening, fighting for justice, voting, and hoping.
10. This is Not a Test by Jose Luis Vilson
It took me a couple chapters to actually get into this book, but once I got into the groove, I really appreciated a lot of what Mr. Vilson has to say. He is a black, Haitian/Dominican activist and teacher in New York. I’d say my main takeaway was about “teacher voice” and the notion that nobody really asks teachers for ideas and solutions on how to better the educational system on a nation-wide level and on a building level. It made me realize that I don’t think I do a great job of asking students for ideas and solutions on how to better their own experience within the system and in my classroom. If you want to read more about this book, I wrote a longer post for my SEED class here.
9. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I’m not totally sure why I kept putting this book off- I’m sure it is equal parts my weakness when it comes to guts and blood and my intuition that reading it would be a cathartic experience, which it absolutely was. I wept audibly the last 20 or so pages, out on the couch, after everyone else had gone to bed. These tears were in the same family as the ones I had cried the night after my miscarriage surgery- just raw, guttural release of the desire to process life’s meaning when it’s so filled with both wonderful and tragic waves. Ann Patchett says she “would recommend this book to anyone, everyone” and I support that claim wholeheartedly.
8. In Conclusion, Don’t Worry About It by Lauren Graham
Okay, this is more of a chapter than a book. Honestly, it took me about 25 minutes to read while I was pumping breast milk from my body, and that includes at least one interruption from a kid. The book is an extended version of a commencement speech she gave to the 2017 high school class of her alma mater. It’s a perfect book for actors, but since I teach high school seniors, I think many of them would like it as well. My favorite realization was that I spend time a lot of time waiting for my “starring” role (not literally on the stage, but usually different seasons of life or something that I’m really looking forward to) when at the same time, there are people aspiring to be in the role I currently have. So she suggests to “treat every day like you’re starring in it.” She also makes it clear that starring means sharing joy in any part you have, not gloating in the spotlight. I like that.
7. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Yes, this is the same author as Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, I understand that may simultaneously excite some and make others roll their eyes. I stumbled upon this book because I was hoping to find the perfect gift for my sister-in-law for Christmas since I drew her name in Secret Santa. I found this title on a recommendation list for people with Enneagram 4 scores, so I bought it. I started reading it to see if it would be a good gift. I figured if I didn’t really understand it, she would probably like it because she is profoundly imaginative and I am not. Turns out, it ended up being a book I didn’t wrap for her but recommended to Ben instead. I actually love the way Gilbert talks about creating. She really got me thinking about how all of us are makers, to some extent, and ideas are all around looking for hosts to bring them to life, so to speak. If you are a writer, artist, musician, painter, sculpter, photographer, creator of anything, read this book.
6. Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger
This book is the same age as me, and it’s a murder mystery, so it takes a bit of imagination to remember a world where no one had cell phones. I loved that it was set in northern Minnesota and that I could learn a bit more about the Boundary Waters and some of the indigenous tribes present there, although I do question in the back of my mind if a white male author really has permission to tell native stories. There was more death than I am comfortable with, but it was fun to piece the story together and try to figure out what happened and who did what.
5. Refugee by Alan Gratz
I read this book in two days. I really couldn’t put it down. It’s a young adult story, well three stories, following the lives of three young adult refugees in different countries and different time periods (Germany, 1940s; Cuba, 1990s; Syria, 2010s). Ben quickly read it after I finished. It was assigned to me for my SEED class, and I’m so glad. This book gave me so much gratitude for the many blessings in my life, especially as I read it by the Christmas tree with my then three week old baby at my side. This story very much brought me to action and allowed both Ben and I to brainstorm what we can do about the refugee crisis.
4. Inspired by Rachel Held Evans
I have a complicated relationship with the Bible. I grew up in a rather fundamentalist Christian home that viewed Scripture as a form of law, and so that’s what I believed for the first two decades of my life. I didn’t really question it too much; just accepted it as truth as a sign of what I assumed was a strong faith. But then I went to college, even a Christian college, and actually started picking apart what I thought to be true then putting it all back together, this time in a different shape. I normally have a hard time reading books from the “Christian” genre, but I actually really enjoyed this. The author is clearly competent and can weave words together about hard topics in a way that makes them accessible to an average girl like me. Highly recommend to anyone who calls themself a Christian.
3. #Not Your Princess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale:
This collection of writings functions more like a yearbook or magazine of memories, poems, insights, and thoughts. It can be read in one sitting or from more investment in each entry. Reading it felt like I was in a museum exhibit for an hour, looking around and synthesizing patterns from each page to the next. This would be an excellent book for high schoolers who don’t want to read or haven’t finished a book in years because it’s just over 100 pages and is filled with pictures that don’t look childish. With over 50 Native American women contributors, this work showcases the very necessary indigenous perspectives that are often overlooked.
2. Dream Country by Shannon Gibney
This is a book I’d love to teach and probably will in the form of a book club choice for books that take place on more than one continent. It was published in 2018 in Minneapolis and two of the five sections are set in Minnesota, so it feels super relevant. I consider it to be the teen-friendly version of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi; this is more accessible. It spans five generations of a family that finds themselves slaves in the southern United States, returns to their “homeland” Liberia as colonizers, and ultimately ends up in Minnesota. I never knew about the American Colonization Society (ACS) which worked with freed slaves and free blacks to organize their return to Africa in the 1820s, this time as colonizers themselves. Fascinating.
1. What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey
I never knew Oprah had a memoir until I got to help a Business Innovations class at my school organize some book clubs, and this was one of the picks. It’s a collection of some of Oprah’s favorite columns from her magazine over the years, offering glimpses of truths she has come to acknowledge in her life. I wish I would have read it as a teenager. I might not have been able to fully grasp her lessons then, but she offers a lot of therapy-like wisdom in each entry.
See you in 2020!
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