What’s it about: Clayton Byrd loves nothing more than playing his blues harp with grandfather – Cool Papa Byrd. When Cool Papa Byrd passes suddenly Clayton struggles to adjust. He leaves home hoping to catch up with Cool Papa’s band of Bluesmen and finds an unexpected adventure on the way.
My favorite things: There’s a reason why Rita Williams-Garcia has won so many awards – she’s a masterful writer who never shies away from difficult topics. She takes a tale of love, loss, and grief and makes it thrilling but relatable. She weaves music throughout the story, making Clayton’s world come alive. No character is two dimensional, rather, she writes everyone as a full and complex person.
Who it’s great for: Middle-grade readers looking for a story that treats black boys as real people and not as stereotypes. Fans of Williams-Garcia’s other work. Readers interested in the roles music can play in life.
What it’s about: A sixteen-year-old girl who has extreme anxiety which leads to thought spirals that can only be controlled through compulsive, self-harming actions and how she deals with her mental illness while she continues to also be just a normal teen with crushes on boys, a best friend, and straight As in school.
What made me pick it up: John Green is a phenomenal writer who structures his stories so the blows come at you hard and fast at the end and leave you happy/sad and bawling. He just gets teens and how to write them and when I found out he had incorporated aspects of his struggle with mental health into this book I admired him all the more.
My favorite things: My favorite thing is also the thing I hated the most and what made me keep getting exasperated and putting the book down and walking away. Green writes so honestly and in such a raw way about this character’s experience of thought spirals and the compulsive behaviors they lead to which she feels will help that it was hard to read about her suffering. I needed frequent breaks because staying in the fictional situation for too long made me uncomfortable for her and sad for her and in pain for her. It is masterful, but it may be a trigger to some individuals, and it is certainly overwhelming to read if you have any amount of empathy at all. I like how he portrayed it as a struggle by a normal person who has a normal life and only ever aspires to be her authentic, balanced self able to do normal things. Most of all I was brought to tears by the honest depiction of the process of treating and managing a mental illness and the very hard-earned hope that can come from continuing to try.
Who it’s great for: Anyone who has struggled with or known someone who struggled with mental illness. Readers who need hope.
Pick this up in your local library or get a copy online somewhere like Amazon (affiliate link).
What it’s about: A young teen girl dealing with a new school and a new family situation while finding her place on a new track team.
What made me pick it up: I’ve been wanting to read something by this author for a while. When I saw this audio was available I placed a hold.
My favorite parts: As a former track runner I enjoyed the depictions of how important running is for a runner, as well as how much it is a team sport even though it seems so individualistic. Made me want to run a relay again. I also enjoyed how much this was a just a plain every day story about a regular girl and her situation and how she is dealing with it. It was incredibly authentic both in relationships and experiences.
Who it’s great for: Older chapter book readers looking for a good, but realistic, story. Those looking for proof that you can come through any situation. Runners and wannabe runners.
What it’s about: After a tragic loss of her first love, Louna no longer believes in happily ever after which is tough because her day job as a wedding planner has her surrounded by a thousand versions of just that.
What made me pick it up: Sarah Dessen is one of my favorite YA authors and one of my most enjoyed author follows on Twitter. I was excited to learn about this new book and grabbed it as soon as I could.
My favorite parts: Dessen doesn’t shy away from real teen behavior or feelings which I appreciate. Louna has suffered a catastrophic loss and spends her time with two cynical parental figures who no longer believe in love. Her growth throughout the story and courage to be honest with herself and willing to consider love again is powerful. More than anything Dessen shows how sadness and hope go hand-in-hand.
Who it’s great for: Teens of all ages. Dessen fans. Anyone looking for a hopeful love story that stays on the realistic side.
What it’s about: A graphic memoir exploring love, art, loss, memory, and mortality.
What made me pick it up: I can’t seem to pass up a graphic memoir.
My favorite things: Radtke’s art is done in a simple grayscale that perfectly complements her story. I loved the way she tied together her own restlessness with an examination of mortality. The way she chronicles her own loss and grief through a growing fascination with deserted towns is honest and compelling.
Who it’s great for: Readers looking for an engaging exploration of mortality and meaning. Fan’s of artists’ memoirs.
What it’s about: How Sandberg found resilience while grieving the sudden death of her husband. It also has personal stories from other individuals, as well as psychological research on what helps build resilience.
What made me pick it up: This got a lot of good reviews and I’m a big fan of Grant’s (if you haven’t, pick up Originals).
My favorite things: This book is so raw and honest I was in tears in places. Sandberg manages to effectively write about her grieving process and do so while providing hope for others in grief. It was a beautiful combination of vulnerable personal storytelling and incorporation of useful research.
Who it’s great for: Anyone grieving a loss or recovering from trauma. Readers who enjoyed Sandberg’s previous book, Lean In.
What it’s about: A man begins to grieve the loss of his wife from the 2015 Paris terror attacks.
What made me pick it up: It was short and I had read really positive reviews of it.
My favorite things: This story is as stunning as it is brief. Just 130 pages but you will cry your way through the author’s devastation on each one. I appreciate his excruciating honesty and the beautiful tribute he created for his wife.
Who it’s great for: Anyone who has lost a loved one unexpectedly. Those that want to face the world with hope instead of fear or anger. Fans of When Breath Becomes Air.
What it’s about: Poems about the difficulty growing up biracial in Mississippi when anti-miscegenation laws still existed, interspersed with poems of grief about losing her mother, and poems that explore the roles of black soldiers during the Civil War.
What made me pick it up: I was putting up a new display in our book drop window when I found this gem of a return. I’m not going to lie, I picked it up because it was so slim. I held onto it because I haven’t read a collection of poems recently. And I finished it that night because these poems are that good.
My favorite things: This book may be brief but it is powerful. You can see why she won the Pulitzer Prize and was the US Poet Laureate. Haunting is the word I would choose to describe these poems. They are beautiful and honest and informative if you haven’t personally experienced these issues. I enjoy books like this so much that keep returning to mind long after I finish them.
Who it’s great for: Teens or adults. Anyone interested in being carried away to another emotional state or time in history. Readers looking for new poems.
Pick up a copy of this book at Amazon (affiliate link) or your local library.
Best Nonfiction: A Thousand Naked Strangers by Kevin Hazzard
What it’s about: A former paramedic in Atlanta tells you how he got into the gig and what it was like patrolling some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.
What made me pick it up: It has a good font on the cover. It’s about a paramedic. It was nonfiction. Sold!
My favorite things: This book is a trip! The author drops you right into the action and keeps it going the whole time. As someone who works with a sometimes outrageous public I could both relate and still be surprised by his narratives. You feel like you’re riding along on his emergency calls. Also, it’s hilarious.
Who it’s great for: Teens or adults. Anyone interested in nonfiction, especially about medicine. Those looking to be shocked and awed and made to laugh out loud.
Best Fiction: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
What it’s about: A man who loses his wife of 40 years and his job all at once and how he picks up the pieces, or doesn’t.
What made me pick it up: It came highly recommended from a coworker. I’m obviously into books about older men adjusting to some massive change in their later lives, so I placed it on hold. Also, I liked the font on the cover.
My favorite things: This book is perfect. I am still in awe of the mastery of character and emotion (and audio narration, as I listened to it) in what is Backman’s debut novel. It’s the best combination of happysad I’ve read all year, hence why it’s on this list. More than that though, this shows the complexity of grief and community and how much we can misunderstand an individual just because of the front they put up. You will love Ove. You will ache for him and laugh at his antics and root for him. You will recognize him in your grandfather or your neighbor and you will not forget.
Who it’s great for: Adults looking for an outstanding novel. Anyone who wants to laugh while they are crying or vice versa. Fans of the movie UP.