Sunday, January 3, 2021

Top 40 Favorite Books Read in 2020


This year was a strange one, and while many people expressed how hard it was to read this year, stories helped me through it.  I especially enjoyed audiobooks because I was walking A LOT.  
I read 165 books in 2020, so it is hard to choose my top 40, but here they are! Most of these titles were published in 2020, but a few of them are older.
If you're intrigued by any of these, I encourage you to order them through your favorite independent bookstore.  My favorite independent bookstores in the Cincinnati area are the Cincy Book Bus, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Bookshelf, and Blue Manatee Literacy Project.  If you are going to order from Amazon, be sure to order through Amazon Smile and consider The Book Love Foundation as your charity of choice.
Here were my favorites of 2020:


Shelves: 2020-bookenvironmentalindigenous-peoplesleaving-a-legacylyricalmock-caldecott-2021multiculturalown-voicespicture-bookreadsocial-justicesocial-responsibilitysocial-studies-connectionsstrong-girl-characterwaterweneeddiversebookswomen

This is a stunning #ownvoices book about Indigenous-led movements across North America to protect water.  I LOVE the illustrations, which led me to buying a print of the cover art.  It's gorgeous!  This one, along with the titles below, is one of my picks for winning the Caldecott or at least one award in this year's ALA Youth Media Awards on January 25th. 


This is an incredibly compelling and beautiful book about bees by the same team who wrote the award-winning Giant Squid. I'd say this one deserves to be an award-winner, too! Fleming's creative informational writing with Rohmann's amazing illustrations pull you right in.


What an incredible story about an inspiring woman, Mary Walker! She was born a slave in 1848, was married twice, and had 3 sons (one of whom was a WW I veteran), learned to read at 116 (talk about a lifelong learner!!), and died at age 121 in 1969. The Author's Note said she lived through 26 presidents and could still see and hear well, walk with only minimal help from a cane, and bake cakes. I would love to read more about her. Loved the end pages of photographs. Thankful for this biography and the beautiful illustrations by the award-winning illustrator, Oge Mora!


Beautiful book! Making sure we can pronounce students' names is so important! I love that you can watch a video of the author pronouncing the names throughout the book!

Shelves: 2020-bookcreative-nonfictioncuriositygiftedmath-connectionsmock-sibert-2021nonfictionreadsciencespace

This is a fascinating book about "a complex subject (size, scale, and almost unimaginable distance)..." I would definitely want this in a classroom and school library. Great for gifted kids.  Pair with We Dream of Space below in my middle grade list.


This is a beautiful and important book about a boy who stutters and a father who comforts him by saying, “You talk like a River.” The illustrations are gorgeous and impactful. I love Sydney Smith’s work in other books as well. Pair with A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz. Text set with Paperboy by Vince Vawter.


Oh my!!! The ending! I loved this sweet story of Charlie and Jack’s friendship, inspired by a true story. This team created Ida, Always which I loved!! I bought this one for my library.


Gorgeous. What an amazing book by Tami Charles and Bryan Collier. Adding it to my library. It’s the perfect book for baby showers, graduations, the beginning of school, the first teacher staff meeting....everything.

Shelves: 2020-bookafrican-americanbelongingblack-lives-matterblack-storiesdiversityempowermentidentityinspirationmock-caldecott-2021readsocial-emotionalweneeddiversebookswould-make-a-good-read-aloud

A fantastic new book from the team who brought us Crown: Ode to a Fresh Cut. I bought two of them and gave one away at a professional development about joy in the ELA classroom after reading it aloud. This book exudes joy!  Such energetic illustrations!


I loved this book - it tugs at the heartstrings. I loved the message about change and how to handle change in a positive way. The illustrations are beautiful. Art can transform and leave legacies. The fact that Katie Yamasaki is a muralist gave this book vibrancy, beauty, and power - all traits murals give to cities. This is a must book for libraries and classrooms!

I added a “gentrification” bookshelf for this book. Kids may not understand what that means - this story gives adults an opportunity to discuss issues around those movements.


I first learned of traditional tribal marks when reading Linda Sue Park's A Long Walk to Water because the Nuer and Dinka tribes were featured in the book, and they both practice facial scarification. In this beautifully illustrated and written book, Zura is worried about bringing her grandmother to her school's Grandparents Day because of her Nana Akua's facial markings, but Nana Akua comes up with an amazing idea.

Shelves: 2020-bookdiversityempathyfriendshipmock-caldecott-2021movingmulticulturalpicture-book

Oh gosh - this one pulls at your heartstrings. It brings back memories of several friends of mine who have moved away throughout my lifetime and the sadness it caused. Also, being the one who moved away. My daughters, too, have gone through that experience. Who hasn’t?! A universal story...

I love the last page. Beautiful illustrations. There are lots of kids out there (and adults as well) who need this book.

Shelves: 2020-bookcatsmock-caldecott-2021naturepicture-book

The illustrations! Gorgeous! One of the positives about the pandemic is the renewed appreciation of nature and the outside. This book captures that! Pair with Hike by Pete Oswald, another favorite picture book this year.


Activism, ableism, allyship, body positivity, community, empathy, equality, forgiveness, freedom fighting, gender, immigration, intersectionality, individuality, joy, justice, prejudice, privilege, protest, resistance, resourcefulness, silencing, volunteering=this bk. Wow!

Loved Jason Reynolds's introduction as well!



Wow!! This book is incredible! Even though I remember listening to and watching all the coverage of this event in the summer of 2018, this YA book brought it to life even more. Christina Soontornvat did extensive research to make sure we fully grasp the beauty of Thailand, the intricacies of the Tham Luang cave, the bravery and humanity of the boys and Coach Ek, and the absolute heroism and dedication of all the people who came to volunteer their time, expertise, and life and limb to get the soccer team out alive. Incredible photographs and information, sidebars, maps, diagrams, and infographics. I got choked up at the end, understanding how much people care about each other and are willing to help. We talk a lot about heroes; this book contains the real deal. This is a must have for classroom and school libraries!


I really loved this book. It opens when a disaster hits Ivy and her family - a tornado that leaves them homeless. In the midst of a real storm, Ivy also faces an internal storm of trying to figure out her identity. Does she like boys? Girls? Does she have a crush on June? What does that mean for her life, her friendships, and her family? I loved the relationships among the characters. This story is beautifully and expertly crafted, and this book is important for middle grade libraries, homes, and classrooms.

Shelves: 2020-bookbased-on-true-storybrothersdiversityeducationfearandcouragefriendshipgraphic-novelhopememoirmiddle-grade-bookmock-newbery-2021multiculturalnonfictionreadrefugeessurvivalweneeddiversebooksyoung-adult-book

This graphic novel about real life brothers, Omar and Hassan, and their experiences in a refugee camp in Kenya will open your eyes and heart to what it's like to be separated from home and family.  Ultimately, this story is hopeful. 

“The stars are scattered all over the sky like shimmering tears, there must be great pain in the eye from which they trickled.”
— Georg B├╝chner



This is an extraordinary historical fiction (hard to accept 1986 is now historical fiction) novel set in the year The Challenger disaster left so many of us devastated. I've never read a novel - adult or YA/children's that centered around the Challenger. I loved the main character, Bird, and her dreams of being NASA's first female shuttle commander. It was so hard to listen to the story unfold as an adult, knowing what happened, but as great children's literature does, hope prevailed. Seems fitting that I finished this audio by seeing the amazing "Christmas Star" (the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn) at the end of my evening walk on a clear, cold night. So much to talk about in this book! There is a question posed to the kids in this book about should we travel to space and spend so much research money. It would make a great argument prompt for middle schoolers! Pair with 2020 picture book Your Place in the Universe by Jason Chin, one of my favorite picture books this year!


I loved King's story. Kingston James, 12 years old, lost his brother, Khalid, and is convinced he is now a dragonfly.  He loved his brother, but one of the things Khalid told King when he was alive was to not hang out with Sandy, King's best friend, because Khalid warned him that other people would think King is gay since there was a rumor that Sandy was gay.  King decides to heed his brother's warning and stops talking to Sandy.  Then Sandy goes missing...
King learns a lot about himself and about being a good person as he realizes what Sandy means to him. This is an important book to have in a classroom and school library!


I love Lauren Wolk stories - she absorbs you into characters and nature in quiet but dramatic ways. Beware of any squeamishness you or kids you recommend this to might have since there are some natural remedies to curing illnesses and wounds that are intense...

Shelves: 2020-bookbeginning-of-schoolbook-love-summer-bk-club-2020diversityglobal-awarenesshopehuman-rightsinvitation-for-writingleaving-a-legacymentor-text-for-writingmock-newbery-2021picture-book-longpoetryreadsocial-injusticesocial-responsibility

This is a GORGEOUS book written by Irene Latham and Charles Waters (the Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship team) and beautifully illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini. There is lots packed in here - definitions of various form of poetry, powerful quotes, author reflections, and inspirational poems. This is a must have for classroom and school libraries! Read for Book Love Foundation Summer Book Club 2020.

Shelves: 2020-bookantiracismasianbiracial-multiracialbook-love-summer-bk-club-2020diversitygifted-girlshistorical-fictionhomeidentityme-toomock-newbery-2021pioneer-liferacismreadread-aloud-possibilitysetting

I LOVED this book and think it would make a great classroom read aloud. I've always loved pioneer/ wild West stories, and this one reconciles the problems of the Little House books. In fact, the Little House books inspired Linda Sue Park to write this story, and in her Author's Note says, "It is an attempt to reconcile my childhood love of the Little house books with my adult knowledge of their painful shortcomings." I loved that. This is rich storytelling (of course - Linda Sue Park wrote it!), and I believe would be a favorite among intermediate school readers.


Shelves: 2020-bookafrican-americanaudio-bookbrothersbullyingcoachesfamilymentor-menteemock-newbery-2021mock-printz-award-2021racial-tensionsracismreadsportsupper-middle-gradeweneeddiversebookswhite-privilegeyoung-adult-book

Loved listening to this upper middle grade/young adult story about two biracial brothers, one presents as black, the other white. Dante is called the "Black Brother" and is bullied and experiences racism at Middlefield Prep, a largely white, wealthy, private, elite school. The two brothers have completely different experiences because of the color of their skin. Donte decides he wants to learn how to fence, a popular sport at the school, and challenge his nemesis, "King" Alan. He finds a former Oympic fencer, who is on a journey of his own, and they come together to train, learn, and grow. I loved the explanation of "white sports" in the note at the end. Interesting!

Shelves: 2020-bookabuseafrican-americanaudio-bookblack-storiesfamilygenderidentityintersectionalitylgbtqiamemoirmock-printz-award-2021readsexualityyoung-adult-book

I listened to the audio, so I felt like I was in a conversation with George. This is a book about so many things, and George tells his truth in a frank and beautiful way. While some of it may make adults uncomfortable, I know that George's story may save the life, or at the very least, make the life a little easier of a teen or young adult who may not feel so alone after reading it. Schools and parents may push back at this one, but it is important to defend. And isn't that cover GORGEOUS?!

Shelves: 2020-bookafrican-americanantiracismaudio-bookblack-storiescapital-punishmentcharacter-who-writescrimecriminal-justice-systemfathersgifted-girlsmass-incarcerationmock-printz-award-2021prisonracismreadredemptionsocial-justicesocial-responsibilitystrong-girl-characterweneeddiversebookswriting-connectionsyoung-adult-book

Excellent! Pair it with Just Mercy or The Sun Does Shine for HS students. It's an honest and gripping look at how racism pervades the criminal justice system. I appreciated, though, that Johnson provided an example of a good police officer's point of view in Beverly's character, much like Thomas did in Hate U Give. Tracy is a tough, gifted character, tirelessly using her writing and voice to make change and seek justice. Loved it!

Shelves: 2020-bookacceptanceafrican-americanartaudio-bookblack-storiesbullyingcharacter-developmentcoming-of-agediversityfriendshipgendergender-fluidityidentityintersectionalitylgbtqiamock-printz-award-2021mysteryreadromancesexualitysocial-media-issuesweneeddiversebooksyoung-adult-book

I'm so happy I discovered Kacen Callender books in 2020! Loved Felix Ever After. Lots of discussion on intersectionality in this story. I liked the intrigue of who put up the "Dead Name" and Instagram pics in the gallery as well as Felix's art, discovery of the identity and term "Demiboy", and the romance.

Shelves: 2020-bookacceptanceafrican-americananti-bullyingantiracismcharacter-developmentclassismcolorismdiversityfinancial-struggleshairintersectionalitymicroaggressionsmiddle-grade-bookmock-newbery-2021multiculturalread

I was so excited to read the sequel to New Kid, and it did not disappoint! This one features Drew's struggle to accept his friend, Liam's, wealthy lifestyle. The story continues to highlight racism, colorism, classism, microaggressions, and also...growing up. The humor from New Kid is still woven throughout - I loved the parodies of popular graphic novels as the chapter title pages, and the "Easter eggs" of Craft's fellow YA authors hidden throughout. As an educator, the issues brought up around school inequities was spot on and could be a great catalyst for discussion amongst kids. I hope we get more books in this series!!

Shelves: 2020-bookaudio-bookbiracial-multiracialfamilyfinancial-strugglesforgivenessglobal-awarenesshispanic-latino-latina-latinxmock-printz-award-2021modern-slavery-human-traffickingmulticulturalmultiple-1st-person-points-of-viewperspectivepoetrypoint-of-viewreadsisters

Listening to Elizabeth Acevedo read her own words is such a treat. She is such a beautiful poet and narrator. The intriguing story, the suspense, and the beauty of forgiveness and family made listening to this book a captivating experience. Reminded me a little of a young adult The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve. 

Shelves: african-americanantiracismblack-historyblack-storieshistorynonfictionreadyoung-adult-book

Wow - I learned so much about Black history and how so much of it is nonexistent or revised through a White lens in our schools' history books. Jason Reynolds puts his spin on Kendi's original adult book so that it is accessible to teens. I watch the 13th Netflix documentary after reading it -would make an amazing text set. 

Shelves: audio-bookbook-clubempathyfamilyfearandcouragefriendshipgender-fluidityhumoridentitylgbtqiamental-illnessreadromancesexual-assaultsexualitysocial-justicesocial-media-issuessocial-responsibilitytherapy-and-therapistsweneeddiversebooksyoung-adult-book

I loved this one - read it for a local district's "Widening Your Lens" book club. I loved Riley and loved that the author left their gender undetermined, which exposes our own need to "know" what gender someone is. Why do we have such a need to categorize? Great book for discussions! I also loved how the author normalized therapy and how it can be so beneficial.


Wow! This is one of those unforgettable books! Kline takes some risks in this story - I won't spoil it - that I didn't think I'd recover from, but amazingly, it worked, and I did. I'll be recommending this one to lots of people! It's amazing that people survived the kind of conditions and abuse that these women did.

What a powerful book. Adunni's story is captivating, heart-breaking, and ultimately, hopeful. I want a sequel to see what becomes of her and if she achieves her dream of becoming a teacher, and ultimately, helps other girls find their louding voices! "So I nod my head yes, because it is true, the future is always working, always busy unfolding better things, and even if it doesn't seem so sometimes, we have hope of it." - Adunni

A beautifully written book about a "tasked" man's quest for freedom, love, and family. The symbolism of water, the mysterious "conduction", and the relationships throughout the book kept me captivated. I wish I had had someone to talk to about it while reading it - lots to unpack!  While reading it, I visited Cincinnati's Freedom Center.  I was able to connect much of what I was reading to real life events and stories.  It helped the book come alive.  If you are ever able to visit the Freedom Center, do it!  It's an amazing museum.

There are a few books that have stayed with me for a long time, and this will be one of them. Absolutely loved it! Stunning.  Lots of great interviews of Brit Bennett on this book.  Here is one with Trevor Noah on the Daily Show:

A middle grade book that also talks about passing as white is Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.

I was fully absorbed in this story about henna artist, Lackshmi, and her journey after escaping an abusive marriage.

This was an amazing story, and I didn't realize it was true until the end. It always amazes me that stories keep coming out of the Holocaust - each of them seeing it through a new/different lens. I never thought about who the tattooists were and that they could be prisoners themselves. This story was also a love story, and a beautiful one. Now I want to read the next one, Cilka's Journey.


Great book about creating intentional, impactful moments in your work, school, and life.

There is something so compelling about Matthew! I've been a fan of his for a long time and completely enjoyed this memoir, especially listening to him narrate. While there are times I shake my head at some of the things he says, he always makes me smile. I love his zest for life and love for his family and career. Matthew is also quite a writer! Can't wait for his next movie!

I LOVED this book - part  Book Love Foundation Summer Book Club! Muhammed's Historically Responsive Literacy Framework gives teachers a great structure for creating curriculum and nurture the genius in all students AND themselves:
1. Identity
2. Skills
3. Intellect
4. Criticality

You can get a chance to see her at the end of January as part of the Literacy Connection!

I chose this as a mother/daughter book club book after the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and more to begin a journey to uncover our own White fragility and privilege, learn more about racism, and embrace antiracism. I'm so glad we began with this book. It is a must-read! Can't wait to talk about it with my mom and daughters! 

There is a lot of criticism about this book as well.  I know I, as a white woman, can not stop here.  I need to read other books by BIPOC authors and ultimately, take action against racism and injustice.

I loved listening to this fascinating audio on octopuses (yes, she teaches us that this is the correct plural form of octopus). What I loved most is Sy Montgomery's passion for animals (no matter how strange or frightening to others) and her delight in observing octopuses. Because she is the narrator of the audio, you can hear her love for these creatures in her voice. Made me smile and ALSO love octopuses! Who knew I could?! This book inspired me to read another book by her, How To Be a Good Creature, that had been sitting on my bedside table for a while. I also read her picture book, Inky's Amazing Escape. I knew about Montgomery and was already a fan because of her Scientists in the Field books she authored. Another book I loved and read by her is Temple Grandin.  (Look at me shamelessly cheating on my "Top 40" by including a few other books I read and loved this year!)

I also want to watch the documentary My Octopus Teacher sometime soon!

And that's it!  It was SO hard to choose which books to feature on this post.  I hope you got some inspiration to pick up a few of these titles to read this year.  Let me know if you read any of these and what you thought, and tell me some of your favorites!

Here's to 2021 reading!  I linked up to #MustReadin2021 roundup here.