“When you’re young, you do so many things hoping to be noticed. The way you dress or stand, the music played loud enough to catch the attention of another person who might know a song, too. And then there are things you do as you step out into the world, the real world full of strange adults, testing out what it means to be generous or thoughtful. In that instant, before every memory was placed along some narrative arc, before the act of remembering took on a desperate air, I simply felt lucky enough to witness something so effortlessly kind—to see my friend do something that was good.” —Stay True by Hua Hsu
Though snow has yet to stick, we’re starting our To-Be-Read piles for winter—and thinking of all the books we were glad to read this year. Read on to discover our personal December Staff Picks from the library…
I want to share three of my favorite reads from this year.
The first is from the children’s graphic novel collection: Sunshine by Jarrett Krosoczka. “When Jarrett J. Krosoczka was in high school, he was part of a program that sent students to be counselors at a camp for seriously ill kids and their families. Going into, Jarrett was worried: Wouldn’t it be depressing, to be around kids facing such a serious struggle? Wouldn’t it be grim? But instead of the shadow of death, Jarrett found something else at Camp Sunshine: the hope and determination that gets people through the most troubled of times.” One of my dearest, oldest friends, worked at that very summer camp every summer for four years and felt just as Jarrett did, and I could never really understand his joy until reading this touching graphic novel.
The second book is from the teen novel collection: The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen by Isaac Blum. I was not prepared to enjoy this book so much, but I absolutely loved every minute of it.
My final book is Wildoak by C.C. Harrington, from the children’s Maine Student Book Award section. It was also one that I only chose to read because none of the others I was interested in on the list were in and I ended up adoring this sweet but tense and sad story of a girl, a baby snow leopard, and a forest. The forest is a magical old growth forest, one of very few left in Europe, and it is in danger of being razed to make way for a dangerous copper mine. Will Maggie succeed in saving not only her snow leopard friend, but the forest as well?
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is my end of the year pick!
Goblins may seem an unexpected choice well after Halloween, but much like Dickens, Eric Kimmel understands that cold winter nights pair well with ghosts and ghouls. Invoking a central figure of European Jewish folklore, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins masterfully balances humor, mystery, fear, and fable. A delightful tale truly deserving a place in Hanukkah canon, and one I enjoyed countless times growing up.
I recently sped through the engrossing historical fantasy To Shape A Dragon’s Breath, by Moniquill Blackgoose (Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe). Anequs is 15, growing up with her family on Masquapaug, and sees a dragon flying off to the east—and then finds its abandoned egg. She brings her egg back home to her people to tend to, and is thrilled when she feels an immediate bond with the hatchling. Then she learns she has to travel to the Anglish school to learn how to “safely” raise her dragon. Anequs faces many hurdles set up by the colonizers, who have very specific ideas of how dragons and Indigenous girls should behave. If you grew up immersed in Anne McCaffery’s Pern books or are just looking for a fascinating new fantasy world to explore, I highly recommend Anequs’s adventurous coming-of-age story as she fights to protect herself, her dragon, and her people.
I love listening to audiobooks on CloudLibrary. On this, I’m not alone; Portland Public Library’s cardholders listen to about 6,000 books a month! In 2023, I listened to 25 audiobooks. (I may sneak in one or two more before 2024.) These were my top three:
Third Place: Vladimir, by Julia Jay Jonas: This satirical look at small-town academia explores the trope of the lecherous professor. At turns hilarious and completely over the top, Vladimir kept me engaged and laughing.
Second Place: The Writing Retreat, by Julia Bartz: A group of young women attend a writing retreat at the home of a famous novelist. What happens when participants start disappearing? This well-paced and shocking tale is an excellent addition to the subgenre of thrillers focusing on authorship. I couldn’t stop listening!
First Place: Secret Identity, by Alex Segura: Secret Identity is a noir about New York City’s comic book industry in the 1970s. Our comics-loving heroine secretly co-authors a promising new comic. When her co-author is murdered, she finds herself at the center of a decades-long criminal mystery. The story is incredible, the narrator is multi-faceted, and the production quality is excellent; comic sequences include original sound design. This is the total package!
For the person on your list who is interested in art and celebrity in the age of social media, you can be sure Monsters by Claire Dederer will be the gift that sparks real (and sometimes uncomfortable) conversation over the holidays. What could be better?
For the activist and/or poetry lover on your list I recommend No Country For Eight-Spot Butterflies. It is a slim volume of essays and speeches on “resistance, resilience, and collective power.” This moving and eye-opening collection is written in beautiful prose by Chamorro climate activist and human rights lawyer Julian Aguon, who uncovers the reality of militarized colonialism in Guam. These essays read as poetic memoir and contain a story that everyone should learn.
For your own enjoyment this season try the Irish language film The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin) based on the much loved Foster by Claire Keegan. At the center of the movie is the feeling of being, in foster mother Eibhlín’s words, “minded,” and is the perfect mix of warming and mournful for these dark cold nights.
This pick is for the birders! If you love Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin App or Allaboutbirds.org, then you need to know that you can get free access to the even more impressive encyclopedia of bird knowledge Birds of the World with your library card! Merry “Weird Duck Time” to all who celebrate.
If instead you are using your time researching the perfect present for someone special, here’s a little reminder that the library also gives you access to ConsumerReports.org! Just enter your library barcode number when it asks for “Patron ID,” and those head-to-head comparisons will make your shopping easy.
In a year of great reading, two books stand out:
In his memoir, Stay True, Hua Hsu writes of his college years in the 90s—a time when he defined himself by his opinions on pop culture. Hsu becomes friends with another Asian American student, Ken, whose tastes are “mainstream” (quite unlike Hsu’s, he’ll have you know!). But the two of them bond over the fun of discussing their different opinions and, most importantly, figuring out what it all means—it being history, race, identity in the United States, and identity in the music, books, and films they consume. When Ken is murdered so senselessly and randomly, Hsu is left with intense and long-lasting grief. And he’s written the most perfect tribute to his friend. I hope that Ken, somewhere, knows this.
In America Redux, Ariel Aberg-Riger uses archival photos, maps, and artwork to help readers “see” American history and its ripples today. Each chapter explores a different theme or moment: How did the AR-15 become “America’s rifle?” How did the U.S. shift from car-free to car-dependent? What does LuLaRoe have to do with history, anyway? This book presents American history honestly—a history that features exploitation and white supremacy, alongside a tradition of activism, art, and courage to fight for a country of justice. I finished the book with a sense of hope.
As the year draws to a close, lately I’ve been thinking about grief and loss, the many different losses that weave together and accumulate over time. Last night I sat down with the practical, easy-to-read What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help You through Any Loss, (by mental health professionals Eleanor Haley and Lista Williams) and I felt relief at having one small, useful resource to start out with—to help me consider the complexities of grief, the multifaceted ways it impacts a life and the world, and the responses a person might have to loss, any loss: the loss of a person, of housing, of community, of a relationship, of health, and more.
I’m curious to explore more books, but for me, this was a helpful beginning. A thoughtful, no-fluff (but empathetic) look at loss and grief, some better understanding, a way through days to come.
For the new year, there’s a big stack of books and movies on my holds list. Some serious, some fun, some poetic, with friendship, family, food detectives, dogs, dreams, history, mountains: Ink Girls, Held, Behind You Is the Sea, Diary of a Void, Wandering Stars, City of Laughter, You Dreamed of Empires, The Kamogawa Food Detectives, Róise & Frank, No Bears, The Eight Mountains, Refused a Second Date, The Night Parade, Footmarks, and Been Outside.
Hope you all have a good stack for winter, too, for cold days and starry nights ahead.
I love best-of-the-year lists. They always give me great ideas for things to watch and read, and they also give me an opportunity to measure my acumen against the professional critics’. When a book I love makes a best-of-the-year list, I always feel extra smart. This year I’ve been watching the lists for one of the best books I’ve read in a long time: Anansi’s Gold, by Yepoka Yeebo.
The book is both a riveting true-crime thriller and a fascinating introduction to late-20th-century Ghanaian history via the life and crimes of a swindler par excellence. Author Yeebo’s leading man, John Ackah Blay-Miezah, parlayed a spurious rumor of gold smuggled out of the country by its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, into a two-decades-long con that spanned continents. A journalist from Ghana, Yeebo brings a deep understanding of the damage done by Blay-Miezah’s chicanery, always keeping her gaze and readers’ on the fragility of truth. It’s one of those books I want everyone I know to read.
And look who agrees with me! Kirkus Reviews, the New York Times, and National Public Radio—if you don’t take my word alone, maybe they can convince you to dig into the life and crimes of a man with charisma and chutzpah like none other.
As always, thanks for reading! You can find all of our staff picks compiled in the list Stay True: December Staff Picks.
Looking for more reading (or movie) recommendations? We’re here to help. You can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or get a list of personalized recommendations tailored to you interests by using our Your Next Great Read service (for kids, teens, or adults).posted: , by Elizabeth