As I completed my yearly self-imposed reading challenge, I thought it made sense to share a few of my favorites with others. Using GoodReads to log my completed books, the 5 star ratings are helpful, but rarely feel right. When I started writing this set of reviews, they had a similarly traditional feel, but still didn’t feel right. I had to look for inspiration elsewhere and luckily, my three-year-old niece provided.
This Christmas, while opening her presents, she exclaimed, “I love my feelings! I love my heart!” I think this is the little kid equivalent of tears of joy. Using this as inspiration, I have only included books that have made me love my feelings, love my heart, or inspired me to change.
Quick note – This is my first time sharing a list of books I would recommend to others, so I figure it might help to let you know a little about me as a reader. I am essentially a non-fiction reader, so that is what I naturally grab off a shelf. When I grab fiction books, I gravitate toward young adult and children’s literature. I happen to really like them, but it also helps me connect with the students in my school. I love talking to them about books I love.
Books that filled my heart with all the feelings
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds
Oddly, this was the last book I read this year, but I’m placing it first on my list because it was valuable in so many ways. Reynolds is quickly climbing to the top of my favorite author’s list. His Track Series uses a track team to tell multiple stories of teenagers who run for different reasons, all working through challenges, some typical of teenagers, others beyond what they should have to navigate. This book of connected short stories has a similar feel. At times it is fun and funny, and at others it’s depth is palpable. The fact that he can weave these stories together speaks to his skill as a writer, but also the idea that communities cannot be simplified to certain problems.
My favorite story – The Low Cuts Strike Again – captures all the best elements of the book: humor, mystery, sadness, and purpose. Most of the kids in this story appear to be working through an obvious set of challenges. Once you get to know them, however, you realize that they are each unique and deserve their story to be told. I know the characters aren’t real, but it is easy to imagine the real life stories that go untold every day. It doesn’t feel like Reynolds is writing to a tell a good story. He is writing to change the way we look at the world.
You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P by Alex Gino
Jilly P is a pretty typical pre-teen, whose family welcomes a baby girl into the world and then finds out their new daughter is deaf. Each family member navigates this in their own way and made me ask the question, who would I be? Gino weaves two narratives – the family entering the deaf community while also working through their own extended family issues of racism. What felt most honest to me was that all of the characters make huge strides forward in terms of understanding, and they also make unintentional and hurtful mistakes toward people they care about. The way the characters voice their frustration, awkwardness, desire to both confront and hide from their mistakes felt real. The book explores these different topics with curiosity and honesty and while it has a relatively happy ending, it isn’t simple and allowed me as a reader to be in my own feelings, including the awkwardness.
Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
This is the only adult fiction book on the list, one that I rarely read, but am so glad that I did. It is a beautifully written, painful-to-read story based on the Dozier School for Boys, a real reform school in Florida that opened in 1900. I’m not sure I can do this book justice; it is not just a story of an innocent boy receiving an unjust punishment; it is not just about someone who is trapped trying to survive and get out.
The fact that it is based on reality, that it is placed at the height of the civil rights movement, but the impact is still so clearly present today (the school only closed in 2011 and the graves that were found inspired the story) brings a pain and importance to the story that is undeniable. This is a different kind of ‘love my feelings, love my heart’ than someone might want, but I love books that help me connect to feelings in different ways and this is clearly one.
Books that connected my heart to others
Hold Fast by Blue Balliett
I’m realizing my list is full of authors I love or am growing to love and Balliett fits that list. This book is good, but hit some notes that were unexpected and made me love my heart and feelings in a different way than the others. I usually love her books for the puzzle solving mysteries. This one has a similar feel, but takes on homelessness as the main character’s family has to move into a shelter to overcome their current situation. See this experience through the eyes of a young girl provided a different glimpse into that world, way different than any other writer has shared with me before.
The puzzles in this book also hit home as it used the writing of Langston Hughes, a favorite of mine that I loved sharing with my third graders years back. This led me down my own beautiful rabbit hole. It let me to find The First Book of Rhythms, which was mentioned in the book. It was really hard to find, but it is an exquisite children’s book that explores all the rhythms of the world around us. Then I researched Balliett, only to find out she was a third grade teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, which was home to John Dewey, who wrote one of my favorite education books of all time and helped inspire me to teach. Hold Fast is a favorite as much for the character’s journey as my own.
Obviously, this isn’t a new book. It is my second or third time reading books four and five, but the first time reading them aloud to my son. This experience, which is going on year two now, has given me so many good feelings. These books were different than the first three. Everything changes at the end of book four, when Cedric dies. The tone of the story and the urgency shift dramatically and you can feel it throughout The Order of the Phoenix. A few other parents had stopped after book three, waiting a little longer to let their children in on the darker side of Harry Potter. For better or worse, we moved ahead and my son has not let me stop. I have enjoyed the fact that my son is realizing books can be different than just for fun or for learning. There is value in reading about and trying to understand big topics like death and the abuse of power. We don’t have to talk about them directly for him to start considering them. Our conversations about the books shifted – he was appalled at Umbridge’s detentions, excited by Dumbledore telling off the ministry, scared for Harry when he realized that Voldemort was controlling him. Luckily, he didn’t have any bad dreams of his own. We’re taking a short break before we start The Half-Blood Prince, but we’ll be ready for them soon.
Adding to the fun of this series, a colleague of mine turned me on to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, one of my favorite new podcasts. The hosts, both divinity school graduates, treat each book as sacred, exploring each chapter through a chosen theme and using different sacred practices to consider ideas more deeply. For me, this is an almost perfect combination of fun and meaningful reflection.
Honorable Mention: Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly,
Books inspiring personal change
These two books provide amazingly simple and practical insight into the minds of children and how our actions as adults impact them. The authors are able to break down the science simply and make it understandable in a way that allows you to feel confident trying it out. Both books provide explanations of how our children act in various scenarios and ways we might counter their frustrations (and our own) in order to reach better and longer-lasting solutions. Each book also has an accompanying workbook you can use to develop a more personal plan for working with your child. Most importantly, it makes you think carefully about the choices you are making as an adult. It helps us understand what our kids can control and what they can’t and, more importantly, what we can control, which is a lot. We don’t always have to solve our kid’s problems for them but we do have to help them through a given moment. These books have helped me take on that mentality and work with my son and students confidently, even when I know I don’t, and probably won’t, have an answer.
The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker
This book is a perfect combination of fun anecdotes and ideas you can apply to your life today. The main goal of the book is to help people gather more effectively, meaningfully, purposefully. If you have any leadership over meetings of colleagues, families, or friends, you should read this. I have already put a number of the strategies from the book to use and seem to be constantly thinking of them as I take part in any gathering, from work to family. Parker’s principles made me rethink every meeting I have had over the last few months. The ideas are so simple and applicable, it is difficult not to see how they might play out in your own gatherings. The best part is that the ideas don’t just benefit the leaders of meetings, but the participants as well. If you lead, it should help you get where you want to go, but it will also help each member of the meeting feel like they have made a positive contribution to the meeting and the larger group as a whole.
Measure What Matters by John Doerr
Doerr, a former tech salesperson and current venture capitalist, explains an idea he learned from Intel’s former CEO Andy Grove and used to help Google increase their productivity. OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are the heart of the book, but it also touches on culture building and the way to lead with OKRs in mind. It is clearly written for businesses, but it has made me think carefully about the way we work toward goals at our school. The idea of creating objectives and key results that are more actionable, more measurable, and ways to communicate them across groups, could be invaluable to our growth. During a given school year, the daily teaching takes the lead, and without well-defined, measurable objectives, few real goals are met. While the strategies and ideas are not all applicable in a school setting, the main ideas make this well worth the read.