Narrowing my favorite books of the year to a manageable list is, thankfully, a struggle. This is why I always default to a top 10, not a top 5 or, heaven forbid, a top 3. And like choosing favorites among your children, ranking the best books of the year is impossible. I'm able to determine my very favorite, most years, by determining which book I recommend to anyone and everyone, but beyond that, my top 10 is all equal. I like them all for different reasons!
Before I get to my list, a few stats.
I read 119 books between Jan. 1 and Dec. 12. This is an above average year for me, I think because of this newsletter. (My yearly average over the last decade is 100 books.) Of those books:
Some notes on that breakdown: I don't try to read books by women, but year over year find that my list is heavily weighted toward female authors. I do seek out books by authors of color, and I was surprised to find they represent slightly less than a third of my list. Graphic novels are new to me; my boys love them and I'm starting to understand why. Finally, my list gets a little fuzzy around kids' books. I often forget to track the books I read aloud with the boys.
- 70 percent were written by women.
- 29 percent were written by authors of color.
- 22 percent were nonfiction.
- 5 percent were graphic novels/series.
- 14 percent were children's or YA novels.
The Animators, Kayla Rae Whitaker
When I finished this book, I sighed contentedly and stared at the cover for a few minutes. Whitaker’s writing is poignant and fresh, and I loved the story she told about creative life, friendship and family. I literally laughed and cried, and I still am thinking about who owns the stories of our lives. I keep recommending this novel to people and can't wait to see what Whitaker writes next. (Keeping my Muppet arms of exuberance in check when I met her at a book festival was a feat of self restraint.)
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
In a year when women seemed to have had enough, this book arrived right on time. Ng considers motherhood and female ambition in a compelling novel about things left unsaid and unexamined in suburban America.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
Ward is a brilliant writer. If you haven’t read her, you should, and this is a good place to start. Casual readers will find a well-told, emotional story about the impact of family and history. If you pay attention to things like story structure and pacing, Ward will blow you away.
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
The Make America Read community had a great discussion about this book way back in the spring, I still am recommending it to people. A literary and timely look at immigration, it’s also a page-turning, intimate and deeply satisfying read.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab
This book is not for everyone. It takes a minute to get used to the structure. But Saunders weaves together a story about grief and humanity that manages to be both national and personal.
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
This is the kind of book you read in an afternoon, ignoring everyone around you. I particularly appreciated the way Thomas writes her teen protagonists: They're smart — smarter and more resilient than many adults realize — but also make stupid decisions in the way teens do.
Founding Brothers, Joseph J. Ellis
Ellis shows us the flaws and motives of the Founding Fathers, making them men instead of myths. The structure of this book also makes it extremely accessible: Short chapters arranged around episodes during America’s formative years. If you’re looking to read more history, this is a great starting point.
No matter how old I get, I'll still be the nerdy girl who loves getting lost in a good fantasy novel. But the older I get, the tougher it is to find really great fantasy series. I know the genre really well, and I have too many favorites. An author has to surprise me with characters or build an exceptional, vivid world — Schwab did both with this trilogy.
The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen
You're probably going to be sad reading these short stories that explore longing and family, immigration and expectations. They're worth it.
Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann
In a previous newsletter, I said journalists write some of the best nonfiction, and here's a book that makes my point. Grann turns obscure history — people killing members of the Osage tribe who had become rich with oil money and the founding of the FBI — into a compelling, accessible story.
As I said to introduce this list, I always struggle to narrow down my favorite books of the year. If you'd like to hear me blather on a bit about my top 5, check out the latest episode of Our Midwestern Life podcast. (Thanks, Abby for talking books with me!) Keep reading, too, for some honorable mentions shared with my favorite game: Like This, Read That.
And if you, like me, can't get enough of best-of lists, here are some of my favorites: Book Riot, New York Times, Buzzfeed and NPR's Book Concierge.
I'd love to hear what books you loved best this year. Share your recommendations on social media with #MakeAmericaRead.