Top 19 Reads of 2019

Top 19 of 2019.png

As 2019 comes to a close, it’s time to reflect on the stories that moved me this year – for better or for worse. I read about 275 books in 2019, and there were so many fabulous reads that this list was darn near impossible to narrow down! This list spans middle grade through adult, and it’s featured in no particular order. I’ve included a blurb about each book, to give you a little bit of info and help you decide if the book is right for you or your reader.

(There are about 20 more Honorable Mentions down below ’cause choosing just 19 to feature would have taken me until 2021 to complete.)

Here we go – my top 19 reads of 2019!

Note: If you purchase something through the links below, it may earn Fitz Between the Shelves an affiliate commission at no cost to you. This post is not sponsored. All reviews are my own (and shared because I love talking about books!).

 


Birthday, Meredith Russo

Eric and Morgan were born in the same hospital on the same day, and they’ve had a mystical connection ever since. Birthday gives us a peek into their lives once each year on their shared birthdays, which means we only get 24 hours to see how they grow, change, love, and grieve each year, both together and apart. Eric and Morgan are incredibly complex, realistic characters, and the world Russo creates around them is simmering with tension. The result is a breathtaking journey  in beautiful and complicated relationship. Meredith Russo might be the author of my dreams. She writes beautifully, with so much heart and emotion, and her stories take the real-life issues impacting LGBTQ+ and trans teens and make them universally accessible.This book was handed to me by a student this year and it had me in tears, both happy and sad. I didn’t think Russo’s writing could impress me more than it did in her first novel, If I Was Your Girlbut she’s proven me wrong. I loved this tender, heartbreaking #OwnVoices novel, and I bet you will too.

Laughing at my Nightmare, Shane Burcaw

Shane Burcaw is hilarious. He’s breaking all kinds of ground as a public figure, nonprofit founder, businessman, ladies man, comedian, and YouTube star with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. I have a special connection with SMA, but even if I didn’t, I would have loved Laughing at My Nightmare. Burcaw is just so blunt and sarcastic with the realities of his life – from eating and playing sports to making friends and being intimate with romantic partners. He takes us along as he grows up, navigates high school and college, gets his first girlfriend, and eventually founds his nonprofit (also called Laughing at my Nightmare). And on every step of the way, he takes the stereotype of the angelic, cheerful, relentlessly optimistic disabled character and turns it on its head with plenty of crass stories, poop jokes, and cursing. The book is so fun to read and provides such great opportunities for learning and discussion, if I worked in a high school library, I’d use it as a book club every year. I’ll have to settle for pushing you to read it and casually leaving these links to Burcaw’s Instagram and YouTube channel (Warning: YouTube videos are hilarious, honest, and definitely not kid friendly).

More to the Story, Hena Khan

Did anyone else read Little Women over and over as a kid? Although I haven’t read the novel in probably 20 years, I have such fond memories of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and the whole gang (my favorite was Jo, because duh). There have been some wonderful reimaginings of Louisa May Alcott’s classic over the years (this one made it to honorable mention status down below), but More to the Story, by Hena Khan, was just wonderful. In this modern retelling, four sisters living in Georgia fight, learn, and grow together as their family and the world around them changes. In Khan’s version, papa takes a gig in Abu Dhabi, the opening scene features the family celebrating Eid (the Festival of Breaking the Fast, celebrated by Muslims all over the world), and main character Jameela is a driven and stubborn journalist in training. It’s feminist, funny, romantic, inclusive, and a million other adjectives that your reader needs in their life. Read it and compare it to the original; read it on its own; read it and go see the new movie. Just read it!

This is How it Always Is, Laurie Frankel

I doubt that I need to do much advertising for a book with a Reese’ Book Club sticker on the front cover, but here’s my blurb anyway: This is How it Always Is is a wonderfully readable and immersive adult novel about modern parenting, marriage, and the highs and lows of life with children that couldn’t care less about the life you have planned for them. The story centers around Claude, the youngest son who determines that they are truly Poppy, the youngest daughter; but just like real families that love and protect trans and nonbinary children, there’s so much more to the story. I’m thankful to author Laurie Frankel and Reese Witherspoon’s team for writing and promoting a narrative about protecting, loving, and cherishing a trans/nonbinary child, as I imagine that this story will change many minds and make the world a little safer for some of our most vulnerable little ones. Read it and gift it to your friends and family, because it’s scientifically proven that literary fiction makes human beings more empathetic, and the more people fall in love with Poppy, the better the real world will be.

Here to Stay, Sara Farizan

We talk a lot in our library about looking past the single story, and Here to Stay is a novel that takes that obscure idea and makes it tangible. Bijan is a high school student who loves comics, feels awkward around girls, and dreams of becoming the hero of the school basketball team. He’s a complex person with a lot going on – but all his classmates can seem to see is his brown skin and his Middle Eastern heritage. And when Bijan starts to get noticed for his basketball skills, his classmates’ jealousy bring that single, damaging story right to the surface. Here to Stay gives a human face to the everyday Islamaphobia and racist microagressions that most young readers don’t even realize they’re absorbing and carrying with them. But more important than this clinical description, is the fact that it’s a damn good novel. Bijan is a wonderfully well-rounded underdog that you can’t help but love, and a shining example of boys that can feel things, cry, and score the winning basket with a girlfriend cheering in the stands. It’s binge-worthy, swoon-worthy, and eye opening. Plus, my middle schoolers fight for it. Check and mate.

 

Damsel, Elana K. Arnold

From my original review of Damsel, in January – “Damsel is, in some ways, your expected fairy tale: Prince Emory must slay a dragon and rescue a maiden in order to become king. But Damsel takes the point of view of our beautiful, dainty vessel, the maiden so often ignored or oversimplified in the classics. Damsel’s maiden has no memories of her life before her “rescue”. She wakes in the arms of the prince, with no knowledge of who she is or where she came from. Over and over again, she is protected and guided by her future husband…or is it constrained and abused? (As most women know, it can be such a fine line.) Damsel is crafted with the flourish of a happily ever after tale, but it tells a story that is coldly and cruelly similar to a woman’s present reality. The reminder of a woman’s place and her worth, the gaslighting and emotional abuse, the curse of living as generic property given individual value only through male ownership… it all had me completely unraveled. Exquisitely smart and well written, but deeply painful to read. The best books make you feel, even if you don’t like the feeling. And in those terms, Arnold’s Damsel is at the top of the heap.” I’ll have to leave you with that, because I’m still totally wrecked by Damsel and not ready to talk about it, almost a year later. The story has stayed with me, for better or for worse, through the hundreds of novels I’ve read this year. I can’t find many readers that have loved this one the way I have – will you read it and then come have a cup of tea and talk to me about it??

The Benefits of Being an Octopus, Ann M. Braden

By now, you all know the idea of children’s books as windows and mirrors, either reflecting the lives of the readers back at them in a way that helps them to better understand their world, or giving that reader the opportunity to peek into the life of someone different than them in – you guessed it – a way that helps them to better understand their world. Whether it’s a window, a mirror or a bit of both, The Benefits of Being an Octopus is truly stellar for every reader. Zoey is a smart and capable kid whose life is almost completely out of her control – she has no say in where she lives, what she wears or eats, or how she spends her time. Being a kid is a luxury she just doesn’t have access to. But the people in her life don’t seem to understand that, and she can’t find a way to please her mother, her teachers, her siblings, and everyone else. As the difficulties pile up, she can’t deal with the pressure much longer… until some surprising words of wisdom shift her perspective. As a teacher, this book opened my eyes to the battles that many of my students may be silently bringing with them to school. Fans of Crenshaw and How to Steal a Dog  will love this story. Easy to read, deeply impactful, and one of those “once you know, you know” kind of novels, Ann M. Braden truly gave us a gift with this one.

New Kid, Jerry Craft

Speaking of gifts – I bought multiple copies of this book to be holiday gifts, and our library has three copies, too. New Kid is the story of Jordan, one of the only students of color at his prestigious private school. The groundbreaking graphic novel follows the budding artist as he travels every day, both physically and emotionally, from his home in Washington Heights to Riverdale Academy Day School and back again. Jordan’s classmates and teachers have no idea of the impact of their words and actions on Jordan’s health and well-being; and in the same breath, Jordan learns that his own assumptions and behaviors don’t always have the results that he intended. This peek into the life of a smart, sensitive child of color is priceless and incredibly well done. New Kid is funny, touching, honest, and surprising, and in such an accessible and enjoyable color graphic novel format, it’s the only book of its kind. Required reading, in my opinion: Just try to read the sequence of Jordan morphing into different versions of himself as he rides the bus from his neighborhood to his school, and not come out on the other end a different person. I read this one over and over again and get something new every time.

The Lovely War, Julie Berry

Make sure you have a clear five or six hours in your schedule before you open The Lovely War, because once you start this one, you won’t be able to stop. Part epic historical fiction and part fantastical story of battling Greek gods, The Lovely War is captivating and totally unique. In one layer, Aphrodite is caught having an affair and is put on trial Mount Olympus-style; in another, humans Hazel and James fall in love just as he is sent to war, and must desperately try to survive and find their way back to one another. It’s a love story; wait, no, it’s a war story; ah, but it’s actually an epic of mythology; or is it a love letter to the power of music, or the tragedy of war, or the strength of the human spirit? The Lovely War is difficult to describe accurately (but if you want more information, the Washington Post did a far better job than I could), but please don’t let my poor summarizing skills keep you from picking this one up. It is absolutely stunning.

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire, Susan Tan

In a year of illustrated chapter books that felt a little underwhelming, Cilla Lee-Jenkins stood out. Cilla-Lee is about to become a big sister – but, more importantly, she’s about to become the world’s greatest author. She just needs a little more time. Don’t all of her teachers, friends, parents, and family members get that it takes time and space to create a work of genius? Cilla may be little, but she tackles big thoughts: Why can she only be with one half of her family at once, but never together? Why are Nai Nai and Ye Ye’s Chinese traditions so different than those of Grandma and Grandpa Jenkins’? How is she supposed to answer when the stranger at the grocery store asks her, “No really, where are you from?”, when she gives the answer of, “Down the street”? And, most importantly, will her novel be enough to make sure that her family doesn’t forget about her once the new baby comes? Cilla is so honest, determined, and curious, that you can’t help but adore and root for her. I love the way she teaches writing skills as she goes (explaining things like plot, character, and conflict), and that she helps readers to consider the importance of identity and exploring their own. A slam-dunk.

Autoboyography, Christina Lauren

An openly gay teen moves to a small Utah town, where he’s suddenly…. shoved back into the closet. As a senior with one foot out the door, hiding for awhile doesn’t feel like a huge deal, until he meets the Teaching Assistant for his novel writing seminar and – you guessed it! – falls head over heels in love. The twist in this one? The object of his affection is the son of the town’s Mormon mega-pastor, a twenty-something that is struggling with his own sexuality and how it fits into his faith. It’s Sebastian’s desire to marry his love of God with his sexuality that truly captivated me – it’s not very often that religion is explored genuine depth in kids’ and young adult literature. Mixing frivolous teen love scenes with intricate religious introspection, Autoboyography is a story of love, faith, and family, and how to be true to yourself when your life doesn’t fit into the expected path. Fans of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and What if It’s Us will devour this one. It’s a beautiful novel, and months later, I still find myself considering its questions.

 

Speechless, Adam P. Schmitt

“How do you give a eulogy when you can’t think of one good thing to say?” Thirteen-year-old Jimmy has been forced together with his cousin Patrick for as long as he can remember. And time with Patrick comes with a few certain things: broken toys, bruised feelings, physical injury, and emotional disaster. Patrick just can’t seem to control his feelings and actions like he’s supposed to, and nobody understands why. And then, Patrick dies suddenly – and the whole family is left to grapple with the complicated memories he left behind. Told in flashbacks and flashes in the time between Patrick’s death and his funeral, Speechless is the story of a boy that nobody understood, and the complications of navigating and grieving the loss of a real, imperfect person. While it sounds bleak, Speechless is actually a genius in the way that it mixes the heartbreak with plenty of  warmth, humor, honesty, and optimism. Author Adam P. Schmitt creates a realistic picture of a family unsure of how to feel, and draws you in for a climax that you won’t soon forget. This one is a sleeper pick that most readers haven’t heart of, but it’s brilliant.

 

24 Hours in Nowhere, Dusti Bowling

A dangerous abandoned coal mine, a group of misfits and bullies, and one long night complete with stalking mountain lions, unidentified substances, mysterious skeletons, epic disasters, and tons of speeding dirt bikes… some authors just know what kids like. Gus accepts a challenge from a bully to solve a centuries-old mystery (because it sounds better than eating a cactus) – and what results is an action-packed page-turner that will draw in reluctant and passionate readers alike. Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus was one of my favorite middle grade reads ever, so I was excited to try this unrelated follow-up from author Dusti Bowling, who has a knack for taking messages kids need to hear and wrapping them up inside of books that they want to read. (Kate Messner is incredible at this, too – I especially love her books The Seventh Wish and Breakout.) I loved that it was heartwarming, featured three-dimensional characters, and blasted past the single story of kids living in poverty; my readers just love that it’s exciting and fun to read. Either way, 24 Hours in Nowhere is a winner.

 

Roll with It, Jamie Sumner

Ellie’s a girl who tells it like it is. That surprises some people, who see a kid in a wheelchair and think she’s going to be all sunshine and cuddles.” Does it get any better than that opening line? Turns out it does, if you keep reading. Ellie is a challenge-accepting, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer-ing, I-can-do-it-myself-ing heroine determined to help her family and become a famous baker (and, as a rarely harped upon subplot, she also happens to have cerebral palsy). Ellie and her mother move in with their grandparents to help deal with Grandpa’s increasingly dangerous dementia, and the number of stubborn, ass-kicking women increases to three… in one very small house. Starting a new school, making new friends, and dealing with changes in family and in life are real-life moments that kids love to read about, and it is nothing short of fantastic to see these things experienced by a kid who uses a wheelchair as a tool to move around. Disability representation in childrens literature has a long way to go, but it feels like this novel by Jamie Sumner is a big step – while Ellie spends a couple of scenes at the doctor, it breaks the stereotype by purposefully not throwing pity parties, and showing that kids with illnesses and disabilities have lives outside of what’s happening with their health and bodies. Even better, it is fun, funny, and engaging (and Ellie is fierce as all get-out). Let’s all buy six copies so the publishers get the message that kids with health issues deserve interesting stories and epic heroes, too.

 

Guts, Raina Telgemeier

So by now, you probably know that Raina Telgemeier is magic and speaks kid in a way that will go down in history. Her stories have done for graphic novels what Harry Potter did for kid lit – redefined the industry and turned it into a booming wonderland for artists and storytellers (purchase her box set here and revel in the glory of your kid’s delighted screams). You would think that that would be her peak, but no – this year, she changed the conversation about adolescent mental health with her new graphic novel memoir, Guts. As a kid, Telgemeier struggled with anxiety; big, gut-wrenching, keep you home from school and make it impossible to live your everyday life anxiety. It’s the kind of anxiety that’s becoming more and more prevalent in children, and it’s still something that most adults don’t talk about. So when she dedicated an entire graphic novel to a concrete illustration of experiencing normalizing anxiety, she pretty much broke the internet with her “hey, you’re not broken, I feel it too“. I want to say that every kid should own a copy of this book, but honestly, as an adult that has experienced anxiety, I know that it was meaningful for me, too. So I’ll just say that every person should have a copy of this one. Are you convinced yet?

My Brother’s Husband Part 1 and Part 2), Gengoroh Tagame

If you follow me on Instagram, you might remember that this one cracked me wide open this year. From my original review: “Yaichi, a single dad in Japan, has never thought to question his beliefs on homosexuality and the challenges gay couples face in Japan. He’s never had a reason to… until his twin brother’s widower, Mike, shows up at his door, mourning and desperate to learn more about Ryoji’s family and homeland. As Yaichi watches his daughter Kana get to know ‘Uncle Mike’, and as they both grow to love their new family member, Yaichi is forced to reconsider what he has determined as right and wrong… as well as memories of his relationship with his twin brother. It’s incredibly powerful as Yaichi suddenly starts noticing Japan’s intrinsic biases and prejudices against homosexuality and non-traditional families… and as he starts to question: Is staying silent and not expressing outright disapproval, as he’s always done, enough?? Some books leave you better when you’re finished, and My Brother’s Husband was one of those books for me. It’s also an accessible manga that’s very easy to read and follow, so if you’re looking to dive into graphic novels or manga, this is a great place to start. (One note: The series is technically written for adults, but I didn’t spot anything inappropriate for younger readers.)

Blended, Sharon Draper

Sharon Draper is still the queen of middle grade lit. Known for her blockbuster hit Out of My Mind, my readers love Draper because she writes openly about the kind of subjects that kids hide in dark hallways to hear their parents discussing after bedtime. In Blended, it’s a double whammy: 11 year old Isabella works to understand her mixed race identity (thus the title, Blended) and an incident with a police officer puts the normally taboo issues of police power and brutality on the table. Draper handles the subjects responsibly, making them kid-friendly, but she doesn’t babytalk or sugar coat, and I think that that balance is why my readers wait in line for this one. With a rare five-star review on Common Sense Media, Blended is a parent favorite, too: “This novel is a perfect mixture of a coming-of-age story, identity development, family dynamics, and social commentary. Kids will enjoy Blended for its realistic portrayal that makes them think but doesn’t talk down to them. Adults will love it because it’s a great catalyst for discussions on difficult topics.

 

Heroine, Mindy MicGinnis

How does a person become addicted to drugs? How long does it take? What does it look like? How do you recognize the signs, in yourself or someone else? I definitely had these questions in high school, but the only drug education we got was of the “never touch drugs and our lesson is over thanks now let’s study math” variety, so I never had a chance to ask them. Mickey is on her way to a college softball scholarship when a car accident shatters her hip, derailing her plans. The pain is excruciating… except when she takes the prescribed opioids. They let her move, study, go to school, and even start playing and lifting again. So when the prescription runs out, Mickey has to decide: Give up on her present and her future, or find another way to deal with the pain? Herione is gripping, terrifying, and, having known and loved an addict in my life, pretty darn realistic. It reads like a step-by-step explanation of how teens can go from “regular kids” to OD victims in a matter of months; but it does nothing to glamorize or sell the lifestyle. Let’s be straight forward: Almost every teen wonders about drugs. Most won’t bring questions or curiosities to the adults in their lives. Books like Herione can help to answer the questions that will likely never make it to the dinner table in a way that could save lives. Stark and realistic, Heroine is a necessary narrative for teens coming of age in a growing opioid crisis.

Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga

The cover on this one will have kids scrambling to see what’s inside (especially after the massive popularity of Amina’s Voice and Amal Unbound), and once they turn the first page, they’ll be hooked until the end. Jude’s story begins in Syria, where she has lived happily with her mother, father, and older brother her entire life. But when things in her hometown grow dangerous, she and her mother move to America to join her uncle and his family, leaving her beloved father and brother behind. Readers will fall in love with the friends Jude makes in her English as a Second Language class, learn and celebrate with Jude as she wears hijab for the first time, and cheer (and maybe cry a little bit?) as Jude finds her voice and learns that feeling comfortable in a new place doesn’t have to mean losing what you love about your home. It’s beautiful and painful to watch Jude learn about her new life and culture in America; I was so impressed with the way author Jasmine Warga balances Jude’s excitement over new opportunities with the mourning of the life and traditions she had to leave in Syria. Other Words for Home is a novel in verse with heart, empathy, and curiosity bursting from its graceful lines.

 

Honorable Mention:

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