It’s time for my favorite post of the year: my top ten favorite reads of the year.
Brendan Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat is by far my favorite picture book of the year. Its simple concept (the cat looks different depending on what kind of animal sees it) contains one of the most important lessons I believe that we can learn about ourselves and the world: things look different depending on your subject position, perspective, and experiences. What a profound lesson in empathy. There is nothing didactic about this text: Wenzel leaves so much space for the reader to work. The art is simply dazzling. I can’t even decide which spread I like best. One day it’s the cat viewed through the fish’s eye; the next it’s the mouse’s perspective; then I think I like the bee’s view best. I don’t want to shortchange the text either. Repetition is used here to great effect. It’s a gorgeous read-aloud. They All Saw a Cat manages to be one of the most elegant books I read this year as well as the most fun–not an easy feat.
I’ve never read sci-fi before, which is probably one reason I was profoundly disoriented at the beginning of Ancillary Justice. The main character is a former spaceship? How can you possibly write one novel–much less THREE–from the perspective of a former spaceship? And there’s plenty of weird technical language that I found off-putting. Entire sentences that I couldn’t parse. But there was something oddly compelling that kept me reading through the first couple of chapters, and then I was hooked, for three books straight. And I loved all three enough to include each of them on my top 10 of the year list. These are deeply intellectual books that tackle big questions about identity. Gender is explored in the first book, while race and class predominate in books 2 and 3. There are no easy answers but much to ponder as well as plenty of page-turning action and rich character development (yes, even of spaceships.)
Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty is best read as a book about how to live. Kalman fully captures the existential angst we all experience and shares her unique approach to managing life. It’s hard to think of a writer and artist with a more curious spirit. She is so full of wonder at the world and all its people and their quirks. It’s hard not to fall in love with the world all over again when reading her books.
Between the World and Me was one of the most provocative and original books I read this year. By turns deeply personal, historical, and philosophical, this book packs so much into its 175 pages. It is a short book but not a small book. There is rigorous thought, poetic language, and fresh insight. I will need to read it again to fully grasp the subtleties of Coates’s wide-ranging arguments.
Everything Leads to You is the kind of book that sneaks up on you. It was the first book I finished in 2016, and while I liked it very much, I would not necessarily have predicted it would make it onto my favorites list at the end of the year. But something about it has stuck with me for the entire year and made me feel happy every time I’ve thought about it. Something about the characters’ interesting work and the love and care with which Lacour recreates the L.A. setting. A story world I could happily move right into.
I think I say this about every new Melissa Sweet book, but she’s really outdone herself with Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White. What a perfect marriage of biographical subject and author/illustrator. Every page of this book invites so much noticing and wonder. There are rich pleasures here: not just the art and Sweet’s own finely written interpretation of White’s life but many of White’s own words. It’s a joy to meet them on the pages of this biography.
Jason Reynolds creates such endearingly flawed and struggling characters. This is a quintessential read for reluctant readers: fast-paced, full of action, full of brisk writing, a book that doesn’t want to be put down. But also a book with so much on its mind thematically. What can we run from in our pasts and what we do have to face? How can facing our past through connection and community with others heal? That’s really it. There is something healing about Reynolds’s novels. There is love and compassion at their center.
Emily St. John Mandel proves that there can be heart and humanity even in a post-apocalyptic world. I have no patience with most post-apocalyptic fiction because characters in these novels become so deformed by their experiences that they forget what it means to be human: we are social beings who need other humans to survive. I’m just not convinced that post-apocalypse we’re all going to turn on each other. St. John Mandel writes like a dream and creates a world I just didn’t want to leave at the end of the novel.
Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is a devastating indictment of what can only be described as a morally corrupt justice system that frequently lacks mercy, compassion, and, yes, justice, for the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our society. Not one word of this book is easy, but it’s absolutely necessary to read.
In a year of strong middle grade titles, Pax was my favorite (and has one of my favorite covers too). It is distinguished in every way, and even the one thing that didn’t seem at first to work (the unspecified time period and setting) ultimately worked beautifully to underscore the universality of theme. It’s gorgeously written yet never overwritten. I didn’t care quite as much about the human characters as I did about the foxes, but I think that’s right. Pax is a book that fully satisfied as I was reading it and has lingered in my imagination and become even richer upon reflection. I was very worried about Manchee Syndrome as I was reading. (If you’ve read Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series, you probably had a moment there when you threw the book across the room.) Will the beloved pet have to die a horrible and brutal death just to reinforce how much humans suck? But thankfully, Pennypacker found a more emotionally complex way to manage the human-animal dynamic.
Since it wouldn’t be a good top ten list if I didn’t throw in an extra book, here’s my bonus book: my favorite read-aloud with my son. We busted through the three novels in Choldenko’s series in a matter of days as my son was recovering from a concussion and banned from all electronics. Moose and Natalie became part of our family as we read these books, as interesting and real to us as the real people we know. We talked about them and thought about them when we weren’t reading. And we were both sad to get to the end of the last book. The series gave me another gift I couldn’t have imagined: a vacation with my son. A year ago, he told me he thought he would be ready to try a vacation “maybe in three years.” But after reading Al Capone Does My Shirts, he was so eager to get to San Francisco and see the Golden Gate Bridge and the fog and the hills and, of course, Alcatraz itself that he asked if we could go in June.
Come back on Wednesday to see my list of ten favorite nonfiction picture books of 2016 and on Thursday for my list of ten favorite picture books of 2016.