December 29, 2020

Top 20 Reads of 2020

While I may not have reached my reading goal for 2020, I still read so many amazing books. Here's my top 20 including middle grades, young adult, and adult titles.

My reading goal for 2020 was to read 2 books a week, a total of 104 books. I won't make it; I'm hoping to make it to at least 80 (I'm at 77 books with 3 days to go), but no matter the number, I still read so many amazing books this year. Here's my top 20.

Middle Grades Picks
Despite being a middle school teacher, I often find myself just liking, not loving titles targeted at this age group. Frequently the narrators annoy me with their immaturity and their trivial conflicts. I know they are young and it isn't their fault, but based on the titles listed below I think it is clear that I prefer books that tackle tough topics

1. Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
I listened to this one as an audiobook and loved the spunky narrator. Aven is born without arms and has recently moved so that her parents can manage a Western theme park. She navigates the challenges of middle school, disability, and friendship—all while solving a mystery. I enjoyed the second book in the series well, Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus, and I'm currently listening to The Canyon's Edge.

2. Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
My students and I had the privilege of attending an author visit from Donna Gephart last October and when I spotted this audiobook this spring, I was eager to give it a listen. The book is narrated by the two main characters: Lily, a transgender girl, and Dunkin, a boy dealing with bipolar disorder. It can be difficult to find a middle grades title that tackles gender identity or mental health issues, and Gephart does an excellent job with both.

This was another audiobook listen. My four year old daughter and I were both charmed by Roz, a robot trying to survive in the wilderness. The book is full of humor but also beautiful scenes of the robot's learned harmony with animals and nature. This would make an excellent read aloud.

This title was recommended to me after the controversy surrounding American Dirt earlier this year.
Inspired by true events, The Only Road is just as gripping and feels much more realistic and authentic than the adult novel. I listened to it on audiobook and ended up choosing it as a title for my upcoming literature circles themed around facing fear.

And another audiobook listen (perhaps I am also influenced by a great narrator)! This novel reminded me of an old favorite, The Skin I'm In by Sharon Flake. Genesis (like Maleeka of The Skin I'm In) is uncomfortable in her dark skin due to the colorism that exists in her own family and that she experiences at school. A move to a new school gives her a chance to start over and she doesn't want to mess it up.
While I may not have reached my reading goal for 2020, I still read so many amazing books. Here's my top 20 including middle grades, young adult, and adult titles.

Young Adult Picks
Maybe it is because I started out as a high school teacher or maybe it is because in my head I'm forever 21, but no matter the reason, young adult literature is what I read and enjoy most. Many of these picks I had the opportunity to enjoy before they were even published thanks to my continued relationship with Macmillan Publishers.

I devoured Courtney Summers' thriller from last year, Sadie, so I wasn't surprised that her debut novel had the same effect on me. In Cracked Up to Be, it is Parker against the world until her world comes crashing down (think Holden Caufield of Catcher in the Rye, but without all the whining). Parker is a teenage girl struggling with the pressure to be perfect; a feeling so many young women can relate to. You can read about my thoughts here on Instagram.

I don't think I could pick a favorite Ruta Sepetys book before, and after reading The Fountains of Silence, I know I definitely can't! I love how Sepetys writes historical fiction that focuses on lesser known historical events. Like Salt to the Sea, this novel follows several characters some visiting and some living in Spain during the fascist reign of General Francisco Franco. Centered around a hotel designed to attract Americans, the plot includes corrupt politicians, adoption schemes, a passion for photography, and a secret romance. Find out which Ruta Sepetys book others love best in this Instagram post.

This is one of three Stacey Lee novels I listened to on audiobook this year and they are all amazing. I could have easily included The Downstairs Girl or Outrun the Moon on this list. All three historical fiction titles are clearly the result of impeccable research and tackle the issues of race and gender equality. Under a Painted Sky is essentially a Western novel full of adventure and a little romance, but with a Chinese female teenager as the main character.
I was completely hooked on this cross between science fiction and fantasy (think royalty on other planets) and its gorgeous descriptions, skillful character development, and intriguing plot lines. Amani is kidnapped by the cruel regime ruling over her planet and becomes a body double for the empire's princess, Maram. What begins as a relationship filled with hatred transforms into respect and eventually friendship as Amani attempts to help Maram shift the course of her future as queen. I listed to book two in the series, Court of Lions, and wished there was a third!

This was a very recent audiobook listen and I loved that the book centered around a male protagonist, and his struggles without being focused on sports. The Closest I've Come is funny, yet at times also heartbreaking and deals with the themes of friendship, abuse, and machoism. Marcos keeps it real 100% of the time.

Is there anything that Jason Reynolds has written that isn't pure gold? Seriously though, I love his Track series and As Brave As You for my sixth graders. They are full of humor and characters who have struggles, but could also be role models because of their strong values. All American Boys, Long Way Down, and this one, When I Was The Greatest are amazing reads for upper middle school and high school with anti-violence themes that young people need to hear, written in a way that makes them think rather than feel like they are being preached at. I read and also enjoyed The Boy in the Black Suit shortly after this one. Read more of my review here.

I love twists on fairy tales and Girl, Serpent, Thorn blends together elements of Persian culture and myths to create a story where the princess is the monster. After spending much of her life in isolation because of her curse, Soraya falls in love and breaks her curse, but ends up cursing her family instead. As she struggles to outwit her captor, she falls in love again and realizes that perhaps her curse was actually more of a gift.

After finishing I'm Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, I  couldn't help but think of it as a sister to The Poet X and an older cousin to The House on Mango Street. The narrators push back against the expectations of their gender and race and all three have aspirations to become a writer. Read more of my review here.

The novel is narrated by Fabiola who has an innocence about her as she has just immigrated from Haiti with her mother, though her mother is detained forcing Fabiola to join her three cousins and aunt in Detroit alone. The narrative is interspersed with other characters’ backstories with their own unique voices and infused with Haitian voodoo and magical realism. Read more of my review here.

This historical fiction novel is set during WWII (my favorite kind of book), but is not just another war story. The novel focuses on life in a Chicago orphanage, but weaves in the issues of race relations and the treatment of women, plus there's ghosts, angry, protective ghosts. Read more of my review here.

Set in the fantasy world of the Narrows, Fable is a fierce teen determined to prove her worth to her father, the most feared and respected trader in the realm, but she must do so without revealing their relationship to anyone else. She teams up with West, a young trader (who turns out to be hired by her father to keep an eye on her) and his crew. Together they face off against enemies and claim a treasure lost in the most treacherous of straights. Filled with action, adventure, romance, a diverse cast, and pirates, it's a must read fantasy novel and I can't wait for its follow up, Namesake.

This novel was part sports drama, part suspense, and all parts excellent. I really appreciated the diverse cast of characters and the author's detailed character development. Nothing superficial here. I loved Ingrid, the main character, but also Caroline, her competition in the pool and also for the attention of Van, Ingrid's neighbor, former friend, and long time crush. The book's plot development is just as strong as its characters. At the start, Ingrid suffers a concussion at a diving competition which leaves her pool side for a month and a case of insomnia, which she rides out with Van. But there is also something strange going on in the abandoned house next door and Ingrid is desperate to remember what threw off the dive that caused her injury. The big reveal at the end of the book caught me off guard as much as it did Ingrid. Read more of my review here.
While I may not have reached my reading goal for 2020, I still read so many amazing books. Here's my top 20 including middle grades, young adult, and adult titles.

Adult Picks
I could probably count the number of adult titles I read this past year on one hand, but the ones I did read were really, really good. Okay, I counted; I read five and the three below are making the cut for my top 20 reads of this year.

My husband gifted me this book last Christmas thanks to his newly found love of NPR and it was haunting. Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys tells the story of Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, and is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, where he suffers horror after horror.

Loosely based on the author's own experiences during Hurrican Katrina, this novel focused on a 15 year ld girl who learns she is pregnant in the days before the hurricane hits. The language and description is beautiful. If I was still teaching high school and To Kill A Mockingbird, I'd replace it with this. Her essay in Vanity Fair about the death of her husband is also a must read.

This one was a gift this Christmas from my mother. I was immediately intrigued because the author is a local who teaches at my alma mater, Temple University, and the novel is set in Philadelphia. The main character, Mickey, is a police officer in Kensington where drugs and prostitution are ingrained in the neighborhood and Mickey's sister Kacey is guilty of both. When her sister goes missing, Mickey finds herself in the middle of police corruption that also brings her past missteps to light.

While I may not have reached my reading goal for 2020, I still read so many amazing books. Here's my top 20 including middle grades, young adult, and adult titles.

December 5, 2020

A Holiday Gift Guide For Your Favorite Ethical, Bookish Teacher

If the loved one you are looking for a gift for is a teacher who loves books and doing good in the world, then look no further than this list.
Note: This blog post contains affiliate links. 

During this holiday season, I find myself wanting to be even more generous and give gifts that are even more meaningful and personalized than ever to show my appreciation for my closest loved ones during this difficult time period. If the loved one you are looking for a gift for happens to be a teacher who loves books and doing good in the world, then look no further than this list.