Need a Good Read? Browse Rita’s 2020 List!
A MiddleWeb Blog
I love to read. In fact, I love to read so much that I spend a huge chunk of my free time reading. In the summer you’ll find me in my hammock reading under a tree. In the winter you’ll find me cozied up on the couch next to the window under a quilt with my two dogs cuddled at my feet.
Honestly, I love books so much that I often dream I’m reading, and when I do – like those dreams of flying – I wake up feeling refreshed, renewed, and happy.
This COVID year has been a toughie. Not only have I needed to work harder than ever to keep the kids and staff in my life safe, but I got COVID myself and fought hard for weeks to recover.
That’s the bad part. The good part is that I’ve had more time to read than ever.
Reading for ourselves and our students
My belief is that copious reading (fiction as well as nonfiction) can make most teachers better teachers. It is easier to teach students not only the skills and strategies they need to read but also the joy and power of reading if we ourselves are readers. I also believe that holds true for teachers of almost every grade and content area.
Personally, I like to keep a log of the books I read. For years I listed them in my journals, but since 2009 I’ve used GoodReads. Because I work with my students to set reading goals (read how here), I do the same for myself. This year my goal was to read 80 novels and nonfiction books. Because of all of my extra reading time this year, I finished 93 books and loved almost all of them!
You can follow me on my GoodReads account here to see all of the books with my rating for each. Below is a list of my favorites from eight genres. The books may or may not have been written/published in 2020, but 2020 is the year I read them. I hope you have time to read this winter, and if you do, these are really good choices.
My favorite books of 2020
There, There by Tommy Orange. Twelve characters’ stories wind in and out of each other as all travel to a modern-day Pow Wow in Oakland, California. The writing is beautiful, the stories both hopeful and tragic, and the experience of reading it left me breathless for days.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. A page-turner of a tale about a mother and her son’s epic journey to illegally immigrate to America because they had no other choice. It will rip your heart out, but it brings understanding to an issue we hear about so often in the news. Truly, it’s a great read.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This book is as funny and romantic as it is smart. Quirky Don seeks a life-partner and finds somewhat eccentric Rosie. The themes of love, understanding, friendship, and acceptance are heartwarming in this quick read.
The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett. A laugh-out-loud horror story about a teacher who moves to a small town and finds the place loaded with demonic nastiness. This book is super short and doesn’t paint teachers in the best light, but it sure was funny and it sure was scary. Great combination!
The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey. If you read (or saw the movie) The Girl With All the Gifts, you’ll be familiar with the setting of this prequel of sorts. It’s a super smart, well-written zombie story that takes readers through a post-apocalyptic world and forces readers (in the best way) to flip the notions of good and evil on their heads.
If It Bleeds by Stephen King. Here is another foursome of wonderful novellas by Stephen King. I love King and have long felt he does his best writing in short novel form. These stories help readers wander that unique path King has carved where we can contemplate what it means to be human by looking at our fears and nightmares. Every story was a nail-biter.
Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine. If you don’t like gory, don’t read this one. It’s a mystery about a woman who finds out her husband was a serial killer (of the yuckiest kind). When she starts a new life with a new identity in a new place, her relative peace is shattered by a copy-cat killer. This book kept me guessing, and I loved the relationships at the heart of the story. Plus, an ass-kicker of a female lead is a huge plus.
The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay. Tremblay, one of my all-time favorite writers, is a working teacher and novelist. I haven’t read a book by him that I didn’t love. This one, about a narcoleptic private detective trying to solve a mystery about his father, was gripping, sweet, and funny.
I Found You by Lisa Jewell. Here you meet a woman who has moved with her children to a small town hoping to make a fresh start after years of bad choices and questionable mothering. She meets a man on the beach who has no idea of who he is or how he got there. As they puzzle the story out together, they become friends and help each other heal from the wounds of tough lives. I loved the perspective of this book as the mom, who wobbles between relatable and deplorable, navigates a judgmental school system where the teachers look down on her. It brought some perspective to my teacher-heart.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. I read several books about pandemics this year. This was the best. It told the story of a labor and delivery nurse in Dublin during the 1918 flu pandemic. The women she meets and treats all have their own tales, and though the story only spans three exhausting days, it paints an inescapable picture of hope and love that runs parallel to the pain of poverty and toil. As an aside, Donoghue is the author of best seller turned into movie, Room.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. It took me a long time to pick this book up. As a Jewish woman, I sometimes feel I have read enough about the Holocaust for a lifetime, but every few years a new story rises to the surface and I am swept up again in the heady mix of emotional responses to this gravely disgusting era in human history. Hope and heartache mingled on every page. I had COVID while I was reading it, and it sure helped me stop being self-absorbed and pitying about my difficulties. This book, based on a true story, tells about the death camp experiences of a man who saved himself and eased the lives of others by becoming the man who tattooed all of those numbers on all of those people who passed through the terrible gates of Auschwitz.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead is another of my favorite authors. I gobble up everything he writes and find him to be as approachable as he is smart (he totally responds to my tweets!) Nickel Boys is the story of two young men, one who did nothing wrong, who find themselves imprisoned at a reform school. It’s a fresh look at both Jim Crow and more modern times, as well as an interesting twist on classic tropes of redemption. And it won the Pulitzer Prize this year.
The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey. Carey made my list twice this year! Koli and his two best buds (a smack-talking AI named Monomo and a one-eyed middle aged healing woman named Ursula) have easily become one of my all-time favorite bands of quirky characters. This trio make their way to new lives in a world ruined for human beings by radical climate change, a world where trees will eat you up and so will other people.
Slayer by Kiersten White. So this is kind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan-fiction, and I think it didn’t get the best reviews because of that. But it is GOOD and it stands alone, meaning even if you haven’t obsessively delved into the Buffyverse like I have, you’ll understand it. It’s a perfect teen novel about how adolescents come to know and accept themselves and others. It is action-packed and funny but also smart and thought-provoking.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. Clearly I’m a sucker for science fiction/fantasy with strong female leads (see above.) The Hunger Games world is one that I have long loved getting lost in. Reading this book about a young Coriolanus Snow brought me right back to that world and I relished the backstory. My 15-year-old son read it and he also gives it a double thumbs up.
A Wolf Called Wander by Rosanne Perry. Beautiful illustrations made this book about a wolf whose pack is destroyed extra special. Every page was an epic adventure of courage and self-discovery, and I’ve not met a kid who hasn’t loved this story. It’s one of those books that I wish I hadn’t already read so I could read it again for the first time.
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling. Aven is a smart and kind middle school girl. She’s normal in every way and she was born without arms. Her family moves to an Old West theme park in Arizona and meets Connor, a boy who is normal in every way and has Tourette’s Syndrome. The two navigate the angst of being middle graders and solve the mystery of who Aven’s birth mother is and what happened to her.
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan. When Willow loses her parents to a car accident, she has to learn to navigate life without them. She cobbles together a family that includes Vietnamese immigrants, a somewhat odd school counselor, a Mexican born taxi driver, and a wayward cat. The magic of this book is that each character is interesting and rich, and it is impossible to not root for each to succeed.
The Decision by Kevin Hart. This is an audiobook and doesn’t have a readable version that I know of. I wrote about this in another post as a book that was not written for teachers but that teachers should read. I like it for teachers because it validated much of what I have always felt to be true about goal-setting and growth mindset. Also, it’s FUNNY!
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This short book is incredible and truly a must-read for educators. Coates tells the story of systematic racism in America through the lens of a father (Coates) writing a letter to his son. I learned more about what it means to live in a racist nation and how my white privilege plays out in the lives of others in the pages of this book than in all of my life before. Not only that. Coates is a literary genius and every sentence was woven into a tight and beautiful poem.
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom is a memoir of the author’s family through the generations in East New Orleans Louisiana. The writing is beautiful and the voices of the characters strong. It provides a peek at the more than 100 year history of one African American family as they deal with loss and love and floods.
The Leaders of Their Own Learning Companion by Ron Berger, Ann Vilen & Libby Woodfin. I have long supported the notion that if we want our students to be successful we have to put them in the driver’s seat for their own educations. This new companion guide to teacher Ron Berger’s seminal Leaders of Their Own Learning makes that point beautifully, and it is filled with tools and strategies for helping students set, monitor, and meet their own learning goals. Not only that, the authors clarify what it means to be a standards-based teacher more effectively than I’ve seen anywhere else.
The Distance Learning Playbook (Grades K-12) by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (with John Hattie). This is a VERY readable and user-friendly guide for teachers as we incorporate more and more distance learning into our daily lives. I found lots of good ideas and my pages are dog-eared from use. And it’s spiral-bound!
The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene. Greene has been around for years, and I honestly can’t believe it took me this long to become familiar with his work. He is a genius at helping children with extreme behaviors help themselves. After reading the book, I worked with my staff to implement his ideas, and I am not overstating when I say it really changed our school for the better.
I’ve written several other posts about reading (linked below). Please reach out and tell me about your favorite reads this trying year!
Rita Platt is a principal and NBCT in Wisconsin and recently received a leadership award from the Kohl Foundation. Her first book, Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Culture of Effort and Joy in the Classroom, is a Routledge/MiddleWeb publication. It’s a quick read, filled with practical ideas about creating a learning culture in your classroom and school (see this review by Anne Anderson). MiddleWeb readers receive a 20% discount at the Routledge site with the code MWEB1.