Top Ten Books That Blew My Mind in 2014 (A Month of Favorites)


It is still WAY too early for me to be posting my Top Ten reading list for 2014. There are 2 weeks of reading left, and you never know what might happen: I could finish 3 of my Top Ten books in the next 14 days. It’s unlikely, but I’m open to the possibility. Luckily, today’s Month of Favorites post doesn’t necessarily have to be a Top 10 of the year. In fact, only two books on the list I’ve put together today may make my 2014 Top Ten list. Instead, I’m taking “blew my mind” to heart here and highlighting 10 books that defied expectations for me. These are books that kept me thinking long after I closed the cover, books that made me question what I think I know about myself as a reader, and/or books that changed dramatically for me after I discussed them with other readers.

willful creatures

I don’t know anybody who writes or thinks like Aimee Bender, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s hard to know how to categorize the stories in Willful Creatures. They’re surreal and bizarre and lots of very uncomfortable and weird and sometimes icky things happen. The sentence-level writing is often banal. And yet. I read this book in January and I’m still thinking of some of the images in December. Stories about potato children and families of pumpkin heads probably shouldn’t resonate emotionally, but somehow they do. Even as we were alternately baffled, repulsed, and mesmerized by it, this book was universally beloved in my Contemporary Literature class last spring. Everyone wanted to read more Aimee Bender.

true blue scoutsI hate books with talking animals, twangy Southern accents (one of the talking animals is named J’miah. Just stop right now.), and intrusive narrators who constantly interrupt the story to buddy-buddy up to the reader. Get on with the story already! And stop your drawling! (A note to my gentle readers: no need to defend the South. I am Southern and even use the word y’all later in this post.) So I should have loathed everything about Kathi Appelt’s True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. But I didn’t. I loved this book so much. Appelt has crammed everything but the kitchen sink into this novel: there’s a swamp man creature and a mystical dead grandpa and an alligator wrestler and lots of pie and marauding feral hogs. Yes, you read that right: marauding feral hogs. Oh, just go read it.

beauty queens

The premise of Beauty Queens deeply demoralized me: Survivor + Lord of the Flies + beauty pageant contestants? No thank you. I’ve also started and abandoned Bray’s Printz winner, Going Bovine, at least a dozen times, so I didn’t know if I’d be able to stick with this novel. But I have to say, it’s absolutely brilliant–a laugh-out-loud satire of everything that is stupid and wrong about the world we live in. Deeply feminist and deeply awesome. Bray herself narrates the audiobook version, which I highly recommend.

sam and dave dig a hole

What a weird and wonderful picture book Sam & Dave Dig a Hole is! What happens at the end? Who knows? Who cares? My favorite spread is definitely the one where the dog looks directly into the reader’s eyes and we’re both left marveling over the inept digging skills of Sam and Dave.


Before I read Jinx, I thought I didn’t like fantasy and magic stories. I made one exception to that general rule: Megan Whalen Turner’s wonderful series that begins with The Thief. Those books I reread just about annually. But it never occurred to me that my love for those books might translate into loving OTHER books with magic and adventure. And then came Jinx. I read it in a day and a half, and when I finished it, I seriously thought about turning back to page one and starting all over again. And now I can freely admit that middle-grade fantasy is one of my favorite genres. (And I loved the sequel, Jinx’s Magic, even more!)

this is how you lose her

I designed my spring Contemporary Literature course around the short story largely because I wanted to make other people read Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, one of my favorite reads of 2013. But I had no idea what we were going to talk about during our discussion. When I really really love a book, I struggle to put my thoughts into any kind of coherent form. Mostly I want to wave the book around in the air and grunt and clutch my heart and hope that other readers are feeling it as much as I am. As I was rereading it, I worried that maybe I’d miscalculated in assigning it. What if it’s a book that just isn’t very teachable? But our discussion turned into one of those talks where we need a classroom lined with white boards to capture all of our thinking because this book is about everything that matters in life and in literature, and even if I couldn’t articulate any of it, my students certainly could.

can we talk about something more pleasant

Roz Chast’s graphic novel memoir of caring for her aging parents, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, is one of the funniest and one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read. I laughed, I cried, I recoiled, and I wanted to curl up in a fetal position and moan for awhile when I finished it.


John Corey Whaley’s Noggin has a hell of a premise: terminal cancer patient decides to donate his head to science, gets cryogenically frozen, and wakes up five years after he died, attached to a new body, thanks to some pretty miraculous medical advances. To Travis, it feels like he’s barely been gone, but for his friends and parents, five long years have passed. This book is actually a surprisingly moving and meaningful exploration of what it means to grow up and figure out who we are. I’m not sure if I would have realized just how deep it is if the other members of my YA Book Club hadn’t had such thoughtful responses to it. This is definitely a book that changed dramatically for me after I listened to other readers’ responses.

grasshopper jungle

Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is the craziest book I read this year. What a ride! I think I will let the cat meme that shows up (as one of the first images!) when you do a Google search for the book title express my feelings for me:

what did i just readAnd finally,

millions of catsOMG, y’all. Have you read Millions of Cats lately? I remember LOVING this book when I was a child. Did I just black out the scene when ALL THE CATS DIED? I seriously had absolutely no memory of the scene of carnage and bloodbath where all the cats fight TO THE DEATH to prove who’s the prettiest cat of all. Millions of cat, yes, but also millions of cat SLAUGHTERED. All aglow with happy childhood memories of a favorite book, I picked this up to read aloud to my son. He is now traumatized for life. As am I. Thanks, Wanda Gag!






11 responses to “Top Ten Books That Blew My Mind in 2014 (A Month of Favorites)”

  1. Lisa Avatar

    This is exactly how I feel: “When I really really love a book, I struggle to put my thoughts into any kind of coherent form. Mostly I want to wave the book around in the air and grunt and clutch my heart and hope that other readers are feeling it as much as I am.” Thank you for putting it into words for me!

    I requested This is How you Lose Her. Thanks for the tip. I loved Libba Bray’s reading of Beauty Queens, and Noggin kept me sane during a very challenging part of my year. I can’t look at Sam and Dave Dig a Hole the same after hearing Jon talk about it at NCTE.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I feel the same way about Sam & Dave! And about Klassen’s other books, for that matter. I am really looking forward to going through I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat more slowly with my Children’s Lit students next semester. I really admire readers/writers who can find the words for their #booklove. (Carrie Gelson is amazing at that!) I find it so much easier to write about books I have problems with, which is probably a character flaw!

  2. G.B. Koening Avatar

    I love the premise of NOGGIN…I just gave me a writerly: “why didn’t I think of that?” moment!

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      It’s a great premise, isn’t it? Such an easy book to booktalk! You explain the hook and then everyone wants to read it!

  3. Joey @ anotherafterthought Avatar

    Your cat memes do good work in making me want to read Grasshopper Jungle despite knowing nothing about it (yet?) LOL. I am too amused.

    joey via. thoughts and afterthoughts

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      After checking out your blog, I would definitely recommend Grasshopper Jungle for you. I read it in a headlong rush. I’m thinking of a slower reread in 2015.

  4. Tara Smith Avatar

    So glad to see that cat meme response to Grasshopper – my feelings exactly. Also, good to know that Appelt’s book is worth the read. I feel the same way about talking animals from the good ole South books, and so I haven’t been able to commit myself to read it – now, I will. And, too funny about Cats…the cat meme photograph suits this book, too! 🙂

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I was so determined to hate True Blue Scouts, but it won me over. Funny that you also dislike talking animals from the good old South books! That cat meme connected to Grasshopper Jungle cracks me up every time I see it. It makes for a great book talk hook in my Adolescent Lit class. Just show them the cat meme, and then the ones for whom Grasshopper Jungle is the right novel absolutely have to pick it up and the ones for whom it is definitely NOT the right novel know they’d better avoid it!

  5. carriegelson Avatar

    Loved reading this post! I also just want to swoon and pass on my #booklove by osmosis to others but then the words come. When I don’t like a book, then I just kind of want to say “blah” It feels not worth my while to even say why. I want to be done with it . . . Noggin is on my book shelf so I will get to it soon. Grasshopper Jungle . . . hmm Still not sure if I will dare. LOVED Winger so maybe I have faith in this author! And I get to meet him in March! Very excited.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      Grasshopper Jungle…. it’s a bit like Noggin in that the high-concept hook is partly a vehicle to get to deeper thinking and exploration about what it means to be human and, especially, to be a teenager and be trying to grow up. One difference is that Noggin almost forgets its own high concept in the pursuit of small moments, whereas Grasshopper rides off howling into the wind on its high concept.

  6. […] compile a list of the 10 books that blew my mind in […]

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