I read the first three books in Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series in late 2014. I was working and living at a church camp in Washington, and my mental health was at the bottom of dumpster. In particular, I was being gaslit by my misogynistic boss. It wasn’t exactly the same as how Arobynn and the King of Adarlan were treating Celaena, but the strength she had inspired me to take my life back into my own hands and to get out of the toxic work and living situation. I am forever thankful for strong female protagonists who empower readers to demand better in their own lives.
I’ve read many awesome books this year, but these three really stood out. Reading Gender Queer blew my mind, and helped me realize I’m non-binary. I felt so seen and understood. The House in the Cerulean Sea is such a beautiful, magical and heart-warming book that I can imagine reading again and again. The queerness, the wittiness, the brilliant commentary on life, love and what’s truly worth fighting for. Lastly, I’ll Be the One is such an entertaining, funny, and important novel. It’s rare to read about an Asian-American, bisexual and fat teen who loves herself for exactly who she is. There’s K-pop, dancing, friendship, romance, and lots of laughs. I’m so grateful to have found and read them this year.
With the Enola Holmes movie recently out, I decided to reread the original series. Short and geared towards ages 10 – 14, the main character is the younger sister of Sherlock Holmes. I love much about this series, but what struck me on this reread were two things – Enola’s fierce determination for her being a girl to be a strength, not a weakness, and that running away was never framed as being the solution for when the main character has ‘failed’. So often girls disguise themselves as boys and “prove” themselves just as good. In the series, Enola being female is framed over and over again as a strength, as something that allows her to succeed even in a society geared towards men. Her disguises are female and information she was taught as a girl is useful (this shouldn’t be as refreshing as it is). As for running away, winning is frequently framed in terms of who’s able to win a physical fight. Any other win is “making up” for weakness. As if outwitting, outplanning, or outrunning someone is lesser than beating an opponent to a pulp. Enola runs and is proud of her speed and ability to escape. If there is any failure, it’s getting in a situation where she needs to in the first place. Ideally, she gets the information and sends it to the police or her brother for them to handle. In-person confrontation isn’t seen as necessary. She doesn’t berate herself for being too weak and she doesn’t go out of her way to learn how to fight. And I am so, so grateful for that. Over all, Enola’s opinion essentially is, “If you can’t see how strong being a girl makes me, that’s your problem and I will gleefully use that against you.”
My school district is doing online-only school right now. The literacy coach and I usually host seasonal book clubs and decided to try one virtually this year, not sure of what to expect. We decided to read Dear Martin by Nic Stone and opened up the club to staff and students. Nearly 50 people joined, and the students were excited and engaged. Their insights made me like Dear Martin even more than I did the first time I read it over the summer.
The same school also launched an equity committee this fall, and I’m a member. We decided to read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Just like with Dear Martin, I’d already read this book, but going through it again with my colleagues and hearing their points of view has made the book even more special to me.
One of the biggest surprises of my reading year has been the graphic memoir Good Talk by Mira Jacob. I purchased this for my high school library and when it arrived, I was automatically intrigued, even though I don’t typically like graphic novels. I took this book home with me and devoured it. I love so much about Good Talk, including the illustrations, the wit, and the way the author discusses family strain due to politics. This book is a gem.
Here are the other books for which I’m thankful this year:
- Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
- Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran
- Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas
- Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Trying to narrow this list down to just a handful of book that really mean a lot to me and have made me thankful for their existence was harder than I expected. I wanted to have books that are newer, but also some that have been around for a long time. In coming up with my list it made me realize that I really, really appreciate contemporary fiction about real and relatable issues. Those are the ones that have stuck with me and gotten me through the hard times. While one (okay maybe two depending on your feelings) book can be seen as somewhat controversial due to recent remarks from the author, it’s a book I have to include anyway because it’s meant a lot to me for a long time. So, here’s my list and brief reasons for each:
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton – I read this for the first time in 6th grade and fell in love. It was my dad’s favorite book when he was a kid and so that really meant a lot to me. He passed away a little over a year and a half ago and so going back to this book and it’s film adaptation, really mean a lot to me because of that.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – I read this for the first time in middle school as well. Even though I had a lot of friends, I just really related to Charlie in a lot of ways and the way he wrote letters really stuck with me. Even nowadays, I find myself writing random notes or journal entries as if they are to a random person because of this book. It’s also a book that’s made me feel that even when things are awful, you can always make it through.
- 180 Seconds by Jessica Park – I stumbled upon this book in Kindle Unlimited about 2 years ago. It’s definitely a New Adult book but it kicked me in the gut and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It’s about a 3rd year college student and her dealing with falling in love and her mental health issues. It really hit home in a lot of ways and one of my libraries has a paperback copy of it. One day I’ll read it again.
- The Meaning of Birds by Jaye Robin Brown – This is one of the newer titles on my list. This book starts with Jess’s girlfriend suddenly dying and her having to deal with all the grief of it. I read this book not long after my dad passed away and I think it really helped me accept things. It’s an excellent book for helping with grief as well as an excellent LGBTQ+ title.
- We Used to be Friends by Amy Spalding – is about two girls who used to be best friends and their story of how that friendship ended and them looking back on it not long after. I ended a 13 year friendship last summer and read this book not terribly long after doing so. It was incredibly relatable because of that. So it’s also a title that stuck with me.
This was actually harder than I thought, being a librarian and a lover of books in general. Here is my list of books that top my list:
The Giver by Lois Lowry: I know there are many people who don’t like this book, mostly because of its ambiguous ending. And you definitely can’t judge this book by its movie (please don’t!!) I think this was my first dystopian novel (before that was a thing) and the idea of a society that functioned without emotions was at once fascinating and horrifying to me when I first read this in middle school. I was hooked.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: Not to copy Nicole, but this was also a favorite of mine. It was a kind of mind-blowing book I read in high school (I remember it being advertised on MTV! That is how old I am!) The journal/letter style was definitely something I related to, as an avid journal-writer. Then there was the way I could relate to Charlie, even as a teen girl, and feel so heartbroken for him. This was also the first book I read that directly addressed sexual abuse and I understood that it was an important book. I even gave it to my English teacher to read. (Yes, I was a bit of a nerd.)
Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison: I love Bridget Jones, I love British humor, I love this book and the rest of the Georgia Nicholson series. I laugh out loud in public reading these books. They are pure teen angst/slap-stick comedy and I recommend them to everyone I know. I can’t wait until my daughter (who is 6) can read them. Well, I can wait for a little, I guess!)
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang: This was one of the first graphic novels I ever read and it changed the way I thought about graphic novels. I was assigned this book in one of my MFA in Writing courses and when I reached the end, I was so amazed at the way everything came together that I was a little emotional! I recommended it to a boy a couple of years ago during our summer reading program and he wrote that it was the best book he had ever read and wanted more like it. It was one of those librarian moments when you know you are in the right place.
(Apparently I have a thing for yellow covers??)
One book I am incredibly grateful for is Dear Martin by Nic Stone. When I moved to a library with a more diverse population, I realized I needed to read more diverse books, and this was one of the first I read. This story truly opened my eyes and made me think. I can honestly say I learned something new from this book. I’ve reread it every year since and still find value in it. In many ways, when everything happened this year with George Floyd, I found comfort with this book, in at least I knew how it all turned out.
I keep returning to Libba Bray’s 2009 release Going Bovine. It’s highly-acclaimed, a NYT bestseller, a Printz winner … and in so many ways it’s the book of my heart. (I mean, aside from the fact that there is a character named Jenna, plus the book’s pub date is my birthday. I met Libba and told her that, and she signed my copy by writing, “To Jenna, I wrote this for your birthday! Truth!”)
Going Bovine is a delightfully bizarre, surreal fever dream and it’s not for everyone. Its bold weirdness, its boundary-pushing narrative, its audacity to be a retelling of Don Quixote, and its commitment to deadpan absurdism are all things that feed my soul. Going Bovine, a novel that follows high schooler Cam on his mad-cow-disease-induced, road-trip hallucination is Libba Bray’s follow-up to her dreamy, supernatural, Victorian Gemma Doyle series. I loved that trilogy, but I love even more that Bray refused to be boxed-in to writing about magical girls for her entire career. This experimental novel showed me the width and breadth that Young Adult fiction can achieve – and I am so thankful that this offbeat book exists for weirdos like me.