Each December, my Twitter feed is buzzing with Top 10s and Top 20s, and I AM A SUCKER. FOR ALL OF THEM. I have an incredible online professional network, and I love hearing about the books that have inspired and excited my teaching friends from all over the world. I find some of the best titles from these “Best Of” lists, and they often shape my reading journey for the next year. For years, I have been an enthusiastic consumer of these lists, but I have never had the guts to make one myself. Until now.
In case you need some background, I’m not a professional book reviewer. I work a full-time job (with a couple of side hustles), often teach and coach after school, and have a busy personal life. I don’t receive Advanced Readers Copies and have to wait in library hold lines just like everybody else. I haphazardly read old and new books, and my selection criteria makes no sense (unless “OH this one is close to my hand and I like the cover” is part of a scientific process that I don’t know about). I provide these disclaimers because I know that there are fabulous new books that I missed out on this year, and that some of these books are old news. If I’m missing anything great, please, fill me in!
Another note: My timeline is a bit messy. I review and snap photos of books as I read them, but because I try not to post more than twice a day, it can take anywhere from one to four months for the photo to make it to my Instagram (I mean, those cute photos of kids reading and #brianthecat are not going to post themselves). To fit my 2-3 posts a week format on the blog, it’s another three to five months before most Insta reviews make it here. To give you some context, that review of Piecing Me Together I just published this week? Featured on Instagram in July; actually read in April. For this list, I’ll be selecting from the titles published on the blog during 2017. To get a sneak peek of the best books coming your way soon, check out the list at the bottom of this post.
Let’s do this! My favorite reads from 2017, in no particular order, are after the jump.
Jason Reynolds, co-author of All American Boys, brings a new story full of racial tension, misunderstandings, and diverse characters struggling to move out of the shadow of stereotypes. Castle "Ghost" Crenshaw is just focused on surviving – it's all we can think about after his father was arrested for chasing him and his mother out of their home with a loaded gun. But when he stumbles upon the track team practice and realizes that there are those that run TOWARDS things instead of just running AWAY, his life starts to change. Ghost had a great plot and would provide an excellent opportunity for discussion. But I struggled to get past one big hump: in the opening pages, Ghost, who we are immediately are told is a guarded and tough dude, spills what is supposed to be his deepest, darkest secret to the reader without a second thought. It left me feeling confused about his character, and kept me from fully diving in. I enjoyed his developing relationships with his teammates and loved Coach – but I never recovered from that "wait, what?" in the opening pages. This worthwhile read from the fabulous Jason Reynolds didn't connect for me on the first read, but you better believe I’ll be trying again. #amreading #bookreview #book #librarian #middleschool #ireadya #youngadult #yalit #weneeddiversebooks #runner #run #youngadultbooks
Ghost, by Jason Reynolds
Castle “Ghost” Crenshaw has been running for as long as he can remember. It isn’t until he accidentally joins the school’s track team that he learns the difference between running toward something and running away. Full disclosure: I had to read Ghost twice before I really got it. It was worth it.
I want more Nimona in my life. One of my favorite YA authors, Rainbow Rowell, said this book was "full of humor and heart" and that's not only true, but fitting coming from Rowell, as this graphic novel reads like a fun and offbeat Rowell story. Fans of Rowell's butt-kicking diverse characters and exploration into what makes us human will love Nimona from the first page. Nimona is a hero, a villain, brave, terrifying, and a personification of humanity, all wrapped into one pierced, tattooed, and spiked package. It's time to teach our girls to be strong and loud; to take up space and make noise without apology. Nimona is ready to help. Mature content makes it appropriate for middle schoolers and up. If you know and/or love a girl at that age, buy her this book and have a great conversation about how heroes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and act for all sorts of reasons. Tell her that she doesn't need to wait to be rescued. She can do it herself. #bookreview #amreading #book #reader #weneeddiversebooks #lgbtq #ireadya #youngadult #librarian #library #rainbowrowell #middleschool #graphicnovel #femenist #wow #hero #girlpower #whoruntheworld #yougogirl #girlsruntheworld
Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson
One of my favorite girl-power graphic novels ever. I said it best in my original review: “Nimona is a hero, a villain, brave, terrifying, and a personification of humanity, all wrapped into one pierced, tattooed, and spiked package. It’s time to teach our girls to be strong and loud; to take up space and make noise without apology. Nimona is ready to help.”
Another mature middle-grade novel masquerading as a kid friendly book, Al Capone Does My Shirts is a heavy hitter – and it hits it out of the park. With a Gary D Schmidt-like level of comedy and tragedy, Capone's hero, Moose, does his best to navigate his family's new life on Alcatraz Island thanks to his dad's job. Moose's family revolves unhappily around Natalie, his sister, who has a mental disability (in the epilogue, we learn that Natalie most likely had autism). His mother is obsessed with "curing" Natalie and finding a way to give her a "normal" life – but can you really "fix" someone who doesn't realize or care that they're "broken"? Author Gennifer Choldenko creates an interesting point of view from which to study autism, and the way that our understanding and treatment of those with special needs has changed since the chronological setting of the novel in 1930. I loved Choldenko's characters, choice of setting, and style of writing. Implications of mild sexual and criminal content and poignant interpersonal conflict make this novel a better fit for older readers. #amreading #bookcover #book #librarian #bookreview #yalit #ireadya #youngadult #yabooks #autism #weneeddiversebooks #middleschool
Al Capone does my Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko
Character-driven historical fiction that touches on big young adult themes with the lense of living with, and loving, someone with special needs. Fabulous.
You know the saying, Go Big or Go Home? Author Jewell Parker Rhodes decided to do both. Deja’s new "home” is Avalon, a homeless shelter in New York City, with her mother, father, and two younger siblings. As if Avalon isn’t strange enough, her new school isn’t helping, with its weird range of international students and its new goal to teach Deja’s 5th grade class about the events 9/11. When her new teacher begins asking her to think about home, family, and identity, Deja begins an emotional journey that will change her inside and out. Towers Falling is an enormous novel in a teeny tiny package. Open the cover, and Deja’s story will expand to fill the space where you’re reading – sometimes to the point that it is hard to breathe. Although written for middle-grade readers, this novel is heavy and complicated and will leave many readers feeling upset. It is a perfect selection to read as a class, group, or with a parent, as younger readers will have lots of questions and concerns. Add Towers Falling to your must-read list and get ready to share some difficult but worthwhile experiences with your reader(s). History, even at its most tragic, is a part of each of us and must be explored, not avoided. Embrace this opportunity to learn, and cry, together.
Towers Falling, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
My first read that features 9/11 as historical fiction. Hard to believe. Deja’s character is big and heartwrenching and lovely and is still with me, even to this day.
Eleanor lives a tidy life with her parents in their small brown house. Everything Is orderly and quiet and makes perfect sense. And then, she meets Queen. Here's the thing: I’m weird. Eccentric, if you’re putting it kindly. I’ve never bothered to hide my weirdness; but unabashed quirkiness can be lonely, and I spent a lot of my time feeling out-of-place in my weirdness until I met my husband. A fellow weirdo, meeting him was like finally exhaling. My weirdness fit. He made me feel like me. Maybe that’s why A Boy Named Queen touched me so much – reading about Eleanor and Queen felt so familiar and warm and joyful. Author Sara Cassidy treats Queen’s 77 pages like a short story, with not a word or image wasted. Every single passage is meaningful and carefully crafted, each puzzle piece needed to create the bigger picture. I loved this book. I loved Queen and I loved Eleanor and I loved every little piece. It is a book about nothing, and a book about everything. I’ll be buying two copies of A Boy Named Queen – one for my school library, and one for me personally to keep and read again and again, smiling every time.
A Boy Named Queen, by Sara Cassidy
Written with all the conciseness and eloquence of a short story, this novella made me proud to be a weirdo. Because despite all of the labels we get as we go through this life, its what we are on the inside that counts.
WHATTTTT WHATWHATWHAT. Man, I thought ghost stories were terrifying when they were in traditional form – and then I read this ghostly graphic novel, Anya’s Ghost. Teenage Anya is sick of bullies, being invisible to boys, and dealing with her “fobby” Russian family. So when she ends up with the mysterious ghost of a young girl following her and helping her gain some social clout, she’s enjoying it too much to ask questions. But eventually, she realizes that the ghost’s intentions aren’t quite what she expected – and she’s put herself and her family in a dangerous situation. Dark, spooky, and different than anything I’ve ever read before, Anya’s ghost is a sure hit for YA graphic novel lovers. Language, sex, and otherwise mature content make Anya’s Ghost better for older readers, even though younger ones will beg for it. My only regret was reading this book at night, by myself, and then trying to fall asleep 😳 #awake #neversleepingagain
Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol
This graphic novel is consistently described by my middle schoolers as “creepy but awesome.” I agree.
What is it like to be the child of a parent secretly suffering from mental illness? In So B. It, a novel I reviewed earlier this year, mama’s mental illness is obvious, and Heidi gets by with help from kind strangers. But in Small as an Elephant, Jack’s mother is charismatic and unpredictable, looking to outsiders like a mysterious but perfectly capable mother – hiding her bipolar disorder and it's dramatic effect on her son’s life. In the middle of a vacation, Jack wakes up to find his mother gone along with all of their luggage and money. No note, no voicemails, nothing. Determined not to get her in trouble by contacting the police, Jack attempts to live using just the contents of his backpack and anything he can steal or borrow until he can track her down. As he travels, sleeping in stores, stealing candy, and avoiding police, Jack tries to understand whether what's happening is his fault – and what his future will hold, whether he finds his mother or not. Despite its dark subject matter, Small Like an Elephant is a favorite of my fifth graders and an enjoyable read. Thoughtful readers will be left with earnest questions about parenthood, mental disability, and how to determine blame in a situation where everyone is trying their best. A great story to start a discussion about empathy, perspective, and the stigma of mental health and asking for help.
Small as an Elephant, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
This peek into the life of a child with a parent struggling with mental illness is a quick read, an empathy builder, and a great conversation starter.
Sharon Creech doesn’t just write stories – she creates visual soundscapes that fill the air around you as you read. Her writing is like jazz, with the reader be-bopping and toe tapping their way through a story without even realizing it, only noticing the music after the cover is closed and the room seems weirdly silent. Written in Creech's signature mix of poetry and prose, Moo follows Reena, her little brother Luke, and her parents as they move from New York City to small town Maine. Getting used to farm life is challenging enough before their quirky neighbor Mrs. Falala decides to – eh hem – help them out by giving them some extra work to do. It's a pleasure dancing through Moo’s story, learning more about the characters, getting into the rhythm of small town life and it's bicycles, sudden thunderstorms, and nosy neighbors. A funky book that adults are likely to enjoy as much as their little readers. Joy and sadness take equal roles in this duet, but like all of Creech’s masterpieces, the result is all heart. Featuring a killer cow solo 🎶🐄
Moo, by Sharon Creech
Sharon Creech + novel in verse + farm animals. Done deal.
Beautiful cover hiding a dark and captivating story. Annabelle is just wishing her life in Wolf Hollow was more exciting when a new girl named Betsy moves from the city to stay with her grandparents. Betsy is a bully in every sense of the word, and she is determined to shake Wolf Hollow to its core. Although many suffer from her mischief, she fixates on destroying Toby, the cryptic war veteran that wanders around the Hollow, silent and unattached. When Betsy disappears, the town comes together to try and find her before its too late – and to figure out where they can place their blame. I’ve heard it described as a story about kindness and bullying, but that was not what I took from Wolf Hollow. I saw it instead as a sobering tale about lies, trust, and the pieces of ourselves that we push down to the very bottom, hoping that no one else will ever discover them. Dark subjects include physical violence and injury, severe consequences, missing and injured children, and PTSD. Listed as grades 5-8, but I would only suggest this to my most mature fifth graders. Serious readers will enjoy, but middle-graders looking for a fun and fluffy story won’t make it through the first few chapters of shivers and goosebumps.
Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk
Historical fiction that doesn’t read like historical fiction (in the best way). A dark, haunting story that makes you consider the power of your words and actions. Also, that cover!
Red carpet ready 📸 Better Nate than Never is hliarous. Nate Foster (or N-n-nate F-f-foster, as he generally stutters in front of large groups) is a perpetual underdog from small town Pennsylvania who decides to sneak to NYC without telling his parents for a Broadway audition. For his trip, Nate prepares by packing $10, a box of donuts, his sheet music, and an old cell phone that can hold a charge for about 6 minutes. When Nate’s plan to return to Pennsylvania before his parents realize he’s missing does awry, all you-know-what breaks loose. Nate is self-deprecating and quick witted just like that friend you always want to sit next to during a boring meeting – he keeps even the most mundane of action sequences entertaining. Although the text rambles a bit at times, Nate’s character is so strong that it just feels like a friend going off on a rant. I laughed and sang and rooted for Nate the whole way through. Musical and Broadway allusions will delight music lovers, and Nate is the perfect champion for oddballs, weirdos, and questioning kids everywhere. Nate gets a standing ovation 👏🏽
Better Nate than Never, by Tim Federle
Nate’s hilarious and endearing coming-of-age tale will have you wishing you could be best friends in real life. I dare you not to root for this underdog.
How does one review a Jerry Spinelli book, exactly? I realize that it’s probably not great to give every single one of his books a standing ovation, and yet… can we just give everything with Spinelli on it six out of five stars, please? Maniac Magee is the OG of orphan stories, as far as I’m concerned. Maniac loses his parents at a young age and spends his life running, attempting to stay distant, pretending that he isn’t longing for a home. But here's the problem: he is such a kind, genuine, caring kid that nobody can really stay at arms length. Maniac is such a full character, surprising the reader with his humanity at every turn. His misadventures, tragedies, and the connections that he makes along the way are exceptional. Spinelli makes Maniac look at racism and the world's intolerances in such an honest and childlike way, it will make readers of all ages think – and rethink. With devastating luck that middle school heartbreak addicts will love, Maniac Magee is the perfect answer to, "Do you have any more of those sad but happy stories?"
Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli
Did you not see the author? It’s Jerry Spinelli. I don’t need to say anything else. How I went so long without reading this one, I have no idea.
Can I just write a blanket review for everything Gary D. Schmidt has ever written? It would involve lots of OMG and YES and crying emojis. A companion novel for Okay for Now (maybe you’ve heard me mention how much I love that book 99 million times? Perhaps? I can do it again if that would help), The Wednesday Wars tells the story of Holling Hoodhood, son of an architect, brother of a self-proclaimed flower child, student of the inimitable Mrs. Baker. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Holling is stumbling through middle school – not Catholic, not Jewish, not poor, not rich, but perpetually in-between. When his religious classmates spend their afternoons in their respective buildings of worship, Holling is the only student left behind with Mrs. Baker, the tough and stoic teacher that helps him to learn more than just Shakespeare. This book is hilarious and heartbreaking in that trademark Gary D. Schmidt way. The context of the time in history comes alive through Holling and his community. I’ve met a lot of great underdogs in my reading adventures, but no one can paint an unsung hero like Schmidt. Holling Hoodhood will join Doug Swieteck in my hall of fame. Stop reading this and go read something by Gary D. Schmidt instead.
The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt
My love for Gary D. Schmidt kept going strong in 2017. I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Here’s a newsflash – human beings are emotional. All of them. The girl ones, and – gasp – the boy ones. And yet, it has become shameful for boys to show emotion. I notice it in even my youngest students – the boys are ashamed to worry or cry. It drives me nuts. So Alvin Ho was a breath of fresh air. Alvin is anxious and fearful and he knows it. He shares his worries with his family and friends, who help him to work through them. And when he’s upset? HE CRIES. BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT HUMAN BEINGS DO. And you know what? The world keeps turning. And that is what boys need to see. It’s not all emotional vulnerability and overcoming anxiety – Alvin Ho is goldmine for silly cartoons, funny jokes, and laughable moments. I loved Alvin, his little sister Anibelly, the whole Ho family. And so do my students! I tried to grab the next Alvin Ho adventure, but the entire series is checked out – and this one was yanked out of my hands by a fourth grader the second I turned the final page. Run, do not walk, to order the Alvin Ho series for your readers. Diverse, hilarious, and full of social-emotional goodness, they are the complete package.
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and other Natural Disasters, by Lenore Look with pictures by LeUyen Pham
One of my only lower-grade reads to make the list, Alvin Ho is funny, curious, and a great role model for young boys. Wonderfully, this is one in a series.
This book made my world stop turning. From the moment I started reading Pax, I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep until I finished it. Told from two different points of view, Pax tells the story of a boy’s forced separation from his beloved pet fox from both perspectives – human and animal. Except author Sarah Pennypacker creates in Pax an animal so human and gives Peter such raw, animal emotions that sometimes it's hard to tell which is which. Pax and Peter are determined to find other another regardless of the many obstacles that separate them – hundreds of miles, tragedies of war, dark and complicated memories. Ambiguous historical setting and abstract animal thoughts may bother some, but it didn't slow me down a bit. Pax is very intense and will be too much for young or sensitive readers. For every one of us that has ever truly loved an animal, this book is heartbreaking. But if you don't mind being shattered, it is gorgeous, and worth every tear 😭🤧
Pax, by Sarah Pennypacker
Can’t talk about Pax yet. Still crying. I got so into this one, it almost made me forget that I was laid up on my couch with a back injury.
I wish I could step into the brain of Peter Brown. Author and illustrator of picture book mega hits like Creepy Carrots and My Teacher is a Monster, I feel like his brain would be like stepping into a cartoon twilight zone. Brown’s middle grade debut, The Wild Robot, is a lot of fun, with a great message. A cargo ship carrying a large shipment of robots crashes off the coast of a small island. Only one robot washes up on the shore unscathed – and through a series of fateful events, robot Roz ends up not only activated, but as a valued member of the island’s community. The Wild Robot is straightforward, just like the text in Brown’s picture books – no frills or fancy language to be found; imaginative readers will appreciate this, as it leaves room for daydreaming. With short chapters and frequent illustrations, it almost reads like a series of picture books published together. The Wild Robot would make a great read-aloud and is sure to attract a wide range of readers. I love the way Brown lets readers hurt and question along with Roz as the native residents of the island exclude her because she looks and acts different, and then come to realize just how much this different creature has to offer their community. There are amazing conversations to be had here, and Brown makes it happen like no one else. I dare you to read without getting attached to sweet, lovable Roz and her island family. Brown leaves the door open for a sequel, and I look forward to it. #brianthecat #meow
The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown
The book so beloved, it inspired an entire Tech-mas season. Roz the robot’s exciting and heartfelt journey will engage readers of all ages. I can’t wait for the sequel.
This book made me the HAPPIEST! My kindergarteners were out of their minds excited when the opening pages to We Are Growing showed Elephant and Piggie praising it as one of their favorite reads. And from there, We Are Growing just gets better and better. Blades of grass growing in a yard start to grow differently – one is curly, one is crunchy, two are sharp… they are all the “something”-est. Except one little blade of grass, who can’t figure out what he’s supposed to be. They are all focused on the way they look until the lawn mower comes around… and they realize that they’ve had more in common than not all along. A great reminder for little readers that everyone grows at different speeds and in different ways – but we are all the “something”-est! My classes laughed and laughed and begged to hear it again, and I bet your readers will, too.
We are Growing, by Laurie Keller
One of my favorite read-alouds of the year. Quirky and funny with a great message, my kindergarten and first graders still ask for it weekly.
One of the most powerful graphic novels I have ever seen. Don Brown takes an already complicated, terrifying, and gruesome story and amps up the volume in Drowned City, a graphic novel detailing the events of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans. The stark illustrations and straightforward text describe the monster storm in a way that makes it easy for readers to understand, and while reading, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the events. Due to the nature of the material, the book is intense – and Brown doesn’t shy away from the terror. Illustrations show people struggling to survive in raging waters and drowned victims floating, not to mention the aftermath of survivors living miserably in filth while waiting for assistance. The text also refuses to sugarcoat the events – Brown calls out the local and national government and assistance organizations for their actions. Parts of the book can be hard to take, but Drowned City is a great example of the power of graphic novels to tell difficult (and in this case, historically significant) stories in a unique and powerful format. We have referenced it multiple times in our graphic novel unit this year. This graphic novel is a home run, and a must-have for GN collections for middle grades and older. #stabsummerreading
Drowned City, written and illustrated by Don Brown
And thus began my love affair with non-fiction graphic novels. A chilling and important retelling of the events of Hurricane Katrina.
Jade lives in the “bad” part of town. Her dark skin, curvy body, and unruly hair make it easy for people to assume that they know all about her – and she is so tired of fighting the stereotypes. Even the people trying to help make her constantly aware of how broken she seems, always providing her with great “opportunities” and nominating her for programs to make her better, different, to get her out. Jade summarizes it beautifully in one heart wrenching quote – “Why am I only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” Piecing Me Together had a visceral effect on me. I read the book in the midst of several difficult conversations about implicit bias; by the end it felt like my entire career, based on providing opportunities and experiences to students that seemed as though they needed or wanted them, had been wrong. After some reflection, I see now that the truth is somewhere in between what I’ve lived and what Jade writes – that I have done more good than harm, but that as an educator I need to be more mindful with my “help” and my intentions. Piecing Me Together is about finding yourself, finding your voice, and learning to be okay with all of the different pieces that make up a complicated and beautiful human life in any color. The book has nothing inappropriate to restrict age, but many of the weighty issues will be lost on younger readers (I would probably recommend to mature 4th graders and up). I highly recommend this book not only to students, but also to teachers hoping to better understand the students that they love and have dedicated their lives to serving. #stabsummerreading
Piecing Me Together, by Reneé Watson
Almost a year after reading, Jade’s question still sticks with me – “Why am I only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” Some books change you. Piecing Me Together was one of those for me.
*Some of the best titles that I read this year won’t make it to the blog until 2018. Keep an eye out for these favorites:
- Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan
- The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
- Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan
- American Street, by Ibi Zoboi
- One Half from the East, by Nadia Hashimi
- Same Sun Here, by Silas House and Neela Vaswani
- The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon
- The Selection, by Kiera Cass
- The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz
- Noggin, by John Corey Whaley
- The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner
- When Dimple Met Rishi, by Sandyha Menon
Plus many, many more that haven’t made it to Instagram yet – and many of those were excellent. (To give you an idea, I have a backup of about 65 reviews. I know! I’m working on it.)
I hope that your 2017 was as exciting and fulfilling as mine. Here’s to another year of stories, sharing, and learning in 2018!