My Top-Rated Books of 2016

As this is my first book-related post, I thought I’d provide a bit of context. I primarily read Young Adult (YA), with a particular fondness for YA fantasy. I read some Adult Fantasy and some Middle Grade and, at the end of the year, a lot of picture books. Everything else is more scattered/rare. Above the fold are my top books of the year; below are my top books in each of the main categories I read.

Top Books Overall

  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. This is a memoir in free verse of growing up as a black girl in the 60s and 70s in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York. It’s very family-focused but also talks a lot about the movements going on in the country and how they influenced Woodson and her family.
  • If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. This is beautiful, and it’s an #ownvoices trans story. (The author, cover model, and protagonist are all trans women.) The book is about Amanda, a trans girl who has just moved to live with her father, where no one knows her. Flashbacks are used well, and the book explores Amanda’s relationships with her parents, new friends and boyfriend, and with herself. I kind of want to give this book to everyone. (Please read the dedication and also the author’s note.)
  • When The Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore. McLemore’s prose is gorgeous, from the dedication on. (Yet again, please read the dedication.) This is a story of people loving each other deeply and learning how to love each other. It focuses on the relationship between Miel, who fell into the town from a water tower and grows roses from her wrists, and Samir, a part-Pakistani trans boy who paints moons and hangs them all over town. It’s about secrets and family and love, and it is a gift.
  • House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle. This is set in the late 1800s in a Choctaw community in Indian Territory. Tingle writes faith and family so well, and the weaving of timelines, stories, and characters here is masterfully done.
  • The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. This is maybe fantasy, or maybe post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Jemisin does incredible things with characters and narration (and I can’t say much more about that without spoilers). The earth/vibration based magic is awesome, and Jemisin creates such distinct characters and communities here.
  • Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts. Conway is a difficult man to capture well. He exaggerates, he plays, he’s larger than life. Roberts writes him honestly, writes the math approachably, and isn’t afraid to include herself in the narrative when necessary. Probably my favorite math biography now.

YA Fantasy

Yes, you might note that in the list above, only When the Moon was Ours might count as YA fantasy, and I’d classify it more as YA magical realism. Here’s the best of the YA fantasy I read this year:

  • The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh. This is the second book of the Wrath & the Dawn duology. It picks up right where the first book left off, and I think it’s better than The Wrath and the Dawn. I really appreciated all of the character arcs, and the women here — not just Shazi, but all the women — are awesome.
  • Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. I haven’t read the rest of this series yet, but I enjoyed this first book, and I’m excited to read more in the world. There are all kinds of details that I loved — minor characters, banter, and tidbits about the language.
  • Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott. This is the second book in the Court of Fives trilogy. It’s a lot more political (and less about the game of Fives) than the first book, but I think it has a stronger plot. (I also tend to like political plots.) This is full of complex and smart (if not always responsible) female characters, which is a delight. I’m really looking forward to the final book next year.

YA Historical

I read a lot more YA historical fiction than normal this year, and lots of it was fantastic.

  • Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee. Chinese-American girl and a runaway slave go west with a group of cowboys. This is very much a found/chosen family story, and I love the friendships and other relationships. There’s also a lot of interweaving of character’s different traditions and stories.
  • Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee. This is set around the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The main character, Mercy, has great voice. She’s determined, focused, and ambitious but also incredibly generous, and that’s never presented as a contradiction. The side characters are wonderful and varied as well.
  • If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth. This is about a boy, Lewis, growing up on a Tuscarora reservation (in New York) in the mid-70s. Lewis goes to school off the reservation, and this book really focuses on cross-cultural relationships, especially Lewis’s couple of close friendships and dealing with bullying. It also says a lot about music, poverty, and growing up in military families.
  • Like Water on Stone by Dana Walrath. This is in free verse and is about a family shortly before and during the Armenian genocide. It alternates POVs among three siblings, and I loved the portrayal of Armenian culture and the Caucasus.

YA Contemporary

I already mentioned If I Was Your Girl, which you should read yesterday.

  • None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio. None of the Above is about a high school girl who finds out that she is intersex. Her reactions and those of the people around her felt realistic, and I liked the character growth and shifting relationships. It’s really rare for books to make me cry, and this did, multiple times.
  • A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman. This is a book in free verse about Veda, a girl who dances bharatanatyam competitively and then, due to an injury in an accident, has one leg amputated below the knee. The form works well with the idea of dance, and I liked how Veda’s relationships with dance and her body changed through the book. Here’s the Disability in Kidlit review, which is largely favorable.
  • Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed. This book left me feeling a little raw (and at two am, too, because I didn’t want to stop reading). It’s about a Pakistani-American girl forced into an arranged marriage. It’s emotional and hard to read but feels incredibly realistic, and the culture and setting are portrayed beautifully.
  • See No Color by Shannon Gibney. This is a relatively short book about Alex, who is biracial and a transracial adoptee. The characterizations here were wonderful, and I loved the baseball storyline. I wished the book were a little longer (I thought the ending was abrupt), but that was my only complaint.
  • Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero. Gabi’s a senior in high school with a lot of stuff going on in her family and her friend group (deaths, unexpected pregnancies, etc). I liked Gabi’s voice a lot, and I loved how she turned to poetry.
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. This is the story of the relationship of two Mexican-American boys, and it’s lovely and so full of art. The friendship between Ari and Dante is so strong and important and yet so difficult, which is both hard to read and probably my favorite thing about this book (along with the boys’ relationships with their parents).

Middle Grade

I actually didn’t read most of the Dark is Rising books until this year. I know, I know. Here are some of the other good children’s/middle grade books I read this year.

  • El Deafo by Cece Bell. Shannon Hale loves this book and recommends it at every opportunity, and it deserves it. This is a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about growing up deaf, full of humor and really focused on relationships with family and other kids.
  • The Reader by Traci Chee. This is fantasy set in a world where books are very rare; the people who read have magic. The storylines are about family and memory and the things we do for each other, for the living and the dead. Also the book is formatted in delightful ways; get a hard copy if you can. The main character ends up YA-aged, but I’ve seen this classified as MG and think it fits at the upper end of MG.
  • Kat, Incorrigible and Renegade Magic by Stephanie Burgis. This is definitely my favorite middle grade series right now, though I haven’t read the third book yet. Kat is a delight, the books are a lot of fun generally, and I like the magic system (especially in book 2).
  • George by Alex Gino. This is about a trans girl, Melissa, who is in fourth grade. I really appreciated how Melissa’s relationships with her best friend, her brother, and her mom were portrayed, and in general I’m so glad this book exists. It’s definitely accessible to the lower end of MG.

Picture Books

  • Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. This has gotten a lot of attention, and it’s deserved. This is a story of Ada, a young Black girl interested in science. I thought it did a really good job of portraying science as a process of asking questions, coming up with models, and gathering evidence.
  • Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. This is about Rosie, a girl who does engineering projects in her spare time. It’s about iteration, learning from failure, and not being ashamed of her work and what she loves.
  • Look Up!: Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh and Raul Colon. This is about Henrietta Leavitt, who noticed a pattern in brightness of stars that led to a better understanding of how large the universe is. This also portrayed a scientific process well. Here, it was about carefully analyzing data, noticing patterns, and asking questions about those patterns. (There’s not one single way to do science, so seeing multiple good narratives about how science is done was exciting.)
  • When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky by Lauren Stringer. This is mostly about The Rite of Spring, how it came about and how revolutionary it was. It’s a cool topic for a picture book, and the art drew on post-Impressionist and Cubist pieces of the time, as well.

Adult

  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. This is about a boarding school for teens who have come back from portal worlds. The tone/atmosphere of this novella is lovely and my favorite thing about it. This was also the first time I’d read an on-page ace character. I loved the variety in portal worlds, the fact that the worlds are being mapped, and all the politics/interpersonal dynamics around the worlds.
  • Feedback by Mira Grant. This occurs in parallel with Feed, during a presidential election twenty-some odd years after the zombie apocalypse. The book follows a delightfully diverse team of bloggers who are reporting on one of the Democratic candidates for president. The narrator is Ash, who is Irish, cheeky, stubborn, and loves too hard. This doesn’t follow on from the first three Newsflesh books, but if you intend to read them, read them first. Many spoilers here.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik. This is adult fantasy (with a very YA-reminiscent character arc) with fantastic relationships among characters, significant growth/change in the characters, and an interesting magic system.
  • Second Position by Katherine Locke. I read this book and didn’t stop talking about it for a week. First off, it’s a good ballet book. Most of the details feel right, and the importance of ballet in the lives of the characters and their relationships comes through really strongly. But I also love the romance. It feels very demi to me, though that’s not on page, because of how important the strength of Aly and Zed’s friendship was and how minimized physical attraction was. (Locke has stated that the demi-ness was intentional.)
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