Approaching a new year is a giant blazing invitation to get our priorities straight, whether we love or loathe setting New Year’s resolutions. This list includes all kinds of things I truly love and that will help any sort of creative adventurer prioritize their creativity and making stuff in 2019. (Some of these are affiliate links.)
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I have a weird love of year-end lists. I don’t know what it is about them that makes me so happy, but they’re just so desperately satisfying. Mmm.
This list isn’t of books that came out this year (with one or two exceptions), but rather of books I loved reading in 2017. I had a pretty odd year, and lost my reading mojo for a fair chunk of it, so the vast majority of books I loved were ones I read aloud with my six-year-old (he loved these, too). And now that he’s reading on his own, I’ve included some that he loved reading solo as well.
Adult Books I Loved
American War, by Omar El Akkad. I’ve recommended this book more than any other I’ve read in the last few years. It got stuck deep down in my brain, and I thought about it for weeks after finishing it. It’s timely, and well crafted, and smart.
My Bread, by Jim Lahey. This was the year I got into making bread, starting with Lahey’s perfect, simple no-knead recipe.
Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen, by Richa Hingle. We aren’t vegan, but amongst us we have a variety of food restrictions that leads us to mostly cook non-dairy, and I’ve long been what I like to call a lapsed vegetarian. This book is a gem.
The Sisters Grimm, by Michael Buckley. The kid picked this one off a shelf at the bookstore based on its cover, and we loved it. We just found the next two books in the series at his school’s used book sale, and I’m excited to read them with him in the coming year.
The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall. I didn’t know this was the first in a series when we picked this book up. It was so thoroughly enjoyable, and so cozy to read curled up together, that I’ll insist we read another one next summer (summer, it must be!).
The Contract, by Derek Jeter. My baseball-obsessed kid has demanded we read many a mediocre baseball novel, and I admit I was not very confident about this one, about Jeter, the former Yankees captain, when he was a kid. I’m pleased to say I was not only pleasantly surprised, I absolutely loved this book (and the others in the series so far), and of course the kid did, too. They’re full of Grand Life Lessons but aren’t at all preachy. And since we already know that as an adult, Jeter does indeed fulfill his childhood dream of playing for the Yankees and indeed becomes one of the most celebrated short stops in baseball history, those lessons seem even more impactful.
The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events), by Lemony Snicket. We’ve been babysitting a dear friend’s hardcover collection of this series, and though I’ve never read it, I started to suspect the kid would be ready for it. Ready is an understatement. He’s absolutely riveted by the literal series of unfortunate events the three Baudelaire children endure. I admit I’m quite pleased to see he shares his mother’s appreciation for dark stories. (Next year, look for some Neil Gaiman on this list…)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Illustrated Edition, by J.K. Rowling and artist Jim Kay. We continued the tradition we began on the kid’s fifth birthday, giving him the newest illustrated Harry Potter book (this year the second book for his sixth birthday; and yes, we have the third book wrapped to give him on his seventh at the very end of the year). Not only does this schedule allow us to progress through the books slowly, which I’m keen to do because they start to get more intense after the third, it also forces us to enjoy the series over years and years. Not that we wouldn’t anyway; I’ve no doubt he’ll read these books over and over throughout his life, as I have (well, throughout my adult life, that is).
Jim Nasium is a Strikeout King, by Marty McKnight. This one was a gift from my in-laws, and the kid was delighted by it. Interestingly, he had his first experience putting down a book when he just couldn’t get into Jim Nasium Is a Soccer Goofball. I had to assure him it’s okay to put down a book unfinished (see the section of books I loved, above, for an idea of how many books I started this year but didn’t get through – this is my shortest-ever list of loved books.)
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I was introduced to Harry Potter on my twenty-third birthday. I was working as a counselor with the teen travel camp at the JCC in Wilmington, Delaware when, during the second week of camp, one of my co-counselors, whom I hardly new, handed me a hardcover copy of The Goblet of Fire.
The book was massive. And it was the fourth book in a series I’d never heard of. Also, why was someone I barely knew giving me a birthday present?
But I was totally polite. I thanked her warmly.
And then I went to a bookstore to find the first book, because obviously if I was going to read this thing it was going to be in order.
And that was that. I didn’t love the first book, but I was thoroughly enamoured of the excitement around the books (which I finally noticed now that I was in the know).
I found J.K. Rowling’s prose to be a little rough around the edges, but man did I love Hermione. And Hagrid. And hippogryphs (were they in Book One? No matter.).
The day Greg and I got married for the first time (in our living room, four months before our bigger wedding), his grandfather took the lot of us – over a dozen extended family members – to see the first Harry Potter film. It was opening weekend. Some people slept through it. Greg and I loved it. We made an annual tradition to see the new Harry Potter movie each fall on that date, until they shifted to releasing new installations in the summertime. So then we’d go around my birthday instead.
As the series progressed, I began to appreciate it more and more. Always a fan of not pulling punches, especially in children’s literature, I loved that the books got darker and darker, more intense and scary. I liked that the tales became more nuanced and complex. And how Rowling’s prose seemed to improve with each book, keeping up with the increasing sophistication of her characters as they grew up.
The new illustrated version of The Philosopher’s Stone came out the fall before my son turned five, and I bought a copy the moment I discovered it. I kept it wrapped on a high shelf until his fifth birthday, and on that night we started reading it together.
During that reading, I discovered I’d been too harsh when I was twenty-three. Reading the book aloud to my awed child, I saw how inevitable it was that this tale became a classic. Watching my son’s face as he discovered along with Harry that wizardry is real… Well. This book is damn near perfect. (We read the second illustrated version around his sixth birthday, and will read the third after it comes out around his seventh.)
Today, on the twentieth anniversary of the release of the first Harry Potter book, I’ve been smiling all day. How wonderful that books bring these spectacular stories into people’s lives all over the world. That they give children and adults alike something to dream and think about, to pretend and imagine.
When did you first discover Harry Potter? What do you think about it, all these years later?
For the last couple of years, I’ve been reading novels with my currently (almost) six-year-old at bedtime. We still love picture books, but the vast majority of the time we spend reading together is accompanied by novels. New, old, fantastical, everyday – we read it all.
Soon he’ll be reading on his own, but we’ll continue to read novels together at bedtime. I’m sure of it. For now, I wanted to start a list of the books we’ve most loved together. The ones that mesmerized him and me both. The ones that were so delicious to read aloud I’ve wanted to shout from my front porch that everyone should join in immediately. (And also some that seem determined to be listed despite a lack of adoration on my or my kid’s part. Because not all books become beloved, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fun or important to read.)
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Roald Dahl is perhaps the reigning master (so I declare) of writing books that are meant to be read aloud. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one that’s accessible even to the youngest children, and it affords a fabulous opportunity to discuss what it means to be poor, and kind, and selfish, and greedy.
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles de Lint is a bit more sophisticated and subtle than some of the other novels on this list, and I think a fair amount of the story went over my son’s head. That said, he thoroughly enjoyed it. There are heavy themes of death and resurrection, and I found the book to be absolutely stunning.
No list would be complete without Harry Potter, and I highly recommend the illustrated versions. The Philosopher’s Stone was released in the fall of 2015 and The Chamber of Secrets a year later. I hope they keep to a yearly release schedule, so my kid’s maturity level can keep pace as the stories get more intense.
This is a short one, and a sweet one. The Pirate Pig was our introduction to Cornelia Funke’s writing, and though I thought it was merely okay, the kid loved it and insisted we read it again immediately. Three times over.
Though the story centres on travel through space and time – a concept wholly over the heads of most primary-grade children, let alone preschoolers – Fortunately the Milk, by Neil Gaiman is so delightful, and so amenable to reading silly voices, that even if half the story is lost to confusion it’s still super fun to read aloud.
There are several books in the Princess in Black series about a frilly princess who hides a monster-fighting alter ego. These are short books relative to most others on this list, but they’re terrific. My son loves them.
The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes, is about Billy’s time in second grade. It’s a lovely family portrait that I as a parent could relate to as much as my son could as a kid. It’s a quiet book about normal life, and it’s great for sparking conversation about the everyday ups and downs of school and friends and work and family.
I loved From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a kid growing up in New York City, and started thinking about it when I took the kid to Manhattan for a few days last spring – and to his first major art museum (the MOMA, not the Met). We told our neighbour about our trip after we returned home, and he thought the same thing. The next day he came over with a copy of this book, and the kid loved it.
The six-book Imaginary Veterinary series by Suzanne Selfors is truly outstanding, and I don’t know why it’s not a more prominently popular series. The protagonists become great friends, and the books are full of humour, fantasy, and great problem solving. Especially recommended for kids who aren’t ready to be scared.
This one is a true delight to read aloud, and provides a solid invitation to discuss guns. Not that we all want to discuss guns with our kids, but when I discovered the role the farmers’ shotgun plays in this story, I decided it was time to discuss the power of those weapons. Also, we laughed a lot through this story.
This one is an exception, because The Hobbit is actually a total slog to read aloud. The book could have a third of its text cut out without affecting the story at all. But it’s saved by the parts with the Gollum, which are truly inspired to read aloud. And if you’re familiar with the story you can skip parts as you read.
Ok, no this is the best Roald Dahl book the read aloud. The fantastical vocabulary of the Big Friendly Giant is the best, and this was the first novel to elicit uncontrollable giggling from the kid. I suspect that when he gets older, he may consider this one of the first books he truly loved.
The year is up! And I’m happy to report that I finally got back into my reading groove in 2015 – due in no small part to my kid’s love of reading novels together. I’m going to guess that half of the 33 books I read this year were with him (not counting picture books). Let’s find out (he just turned five, FYI). Here are the books I read in 2015, in chronological order:
Ascend, by Amanda Hocking (I think it was Kobo’s annual Boxing Week sale that lead me to buy this trilogy – also, I was interested in reading some self-published fiction. The books were okay. I don’t remember much about them at this point, but I read them all, which means they didn’t suck. [Check out the Kobo sale – it’s a great way to discover new authors and books, at a huge discount. Come to think of it, I also bought Castle during the sale last year.])
The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley (if you’re a romance skeptic like I am, I highly recommend it; the writing is outstanding and the characters are fabulous)
The Sasquatch Escape, by Suzanne Selfors (if you get my weekly newsletter, you’ll perhaps recall that I raved about this series – if you have a middle-grade reader in your family, or if you enjoy reading novels aloud with your kids, I can’t recommend this whole six-book Imaginary Veterinary series highly enough)
Smells Like Dog, by Suzanne Selfors (this series is more sophisticated than the Imaginary Veterinary series, and though we made it through this book, the kid didn’t get as much from it, and we stopped halfway through the sequel; we’ll pick it all back up when he’s older)
The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (not nearly as good as the first in this crime series, written by J.K. Rowling under a pseudonym; in fact, this book was kind of tedious, and I nailed the whodunit barely a quarter of the way into the book, which was a big disappointment)
The Martian, by Andy Weir (one of my reading highlights of the year; total page-turner and well written to boot; the characters are outstanding; the movie – if for no other reason than its gutting of an outstanding female character, and frankly there’s more reason than that – hardly does the book justice)
Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo (outstanding start to a through-and-through fabulous YA fantasy trilogy)
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, by Charles de Lint (probably for kids older than mine, but he seemed to enjoy it; it’s a great book that’s different in tone and pacing than anything we’d read together before or since)
Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith (unlike The Silkworm, this book was a delight to read; loads of character development, and gruesome crimes and criminals)
Hm. Seems I didn’t start tracking the novels the kid and I read until the middle of the year. I imagine my total is closer to forty books, then. As planned, the kid and I started reading the new, gorgeously illustrated Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on his birthday this past weekend. He’s loving it, and so am I. I’m also back to reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which I put down ages ago because it’s so gorgeous I couldn’t bear to finish it, and I’m also reading Lair of Dreams, by Libba Bray, the second in a trilogy that’s not finished yet.
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