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My Top Ten Books of the 2020-2021 School Year

This year has been a long one, but one thing that went well is the amount of reading my students and I did. As of today, I have finished 69 books, and I still have about three weeks to go. Find calling a title a “favorite” is difficult for me, I have narrowed down my list to a “top ten.” The order below depends on the day. (I’ve already changed it at least 12 times, and there are other titles I’m reading now that could have made the cut.)

10. Starfish by Lisa Fipps (realistic fiction in verse)



 These are just some the awful nicknames Ellie hears often from an early age, even from her own mother. It seems almost everyone in her life believes her weight is a problem, except her father. Her mother hides her food and makes her try various diets, and even considers bariatric surgery. At school, no one sticks up for her, especially after her best friend Viv moves away. Ellie knows she must follow her self-created Fat Girl Rules if she wants to survive, and she does. Ellie has her pool, where she can be a starfish and just float, a place where she’s weightless. After a particularly horrible incident at school, Ellie’s dad takes her to see a therapist, who helps her begin to heal, as well as use her gorgeous, powerful voice.

I’ll truly never forget Ellie. She’s a beautiful human being, inside and out. An empowering book to teach all readers that size doesn’t matter, as well as how debilitating words can be.

9. Grown by Tiffany Jackson (mystery)

17-year-old Enchanted Jones wants to be a famous singer, so when the legendary R&B superstar Korey Fields sees her audition one night, he immediately takes her under his wing. Months later, Enchanted wakes up groggy with blood all over her, and Korey Fields is lying next to her, dead. What follows is what happened before the murder: an inside look into what Enchanted thought would be her dream come true. Instead, she was sucked into a hell she couldn’t get out of, no matter what she, or her parents, attempted to do.

Another gripping read from Tiffany Jackson! This story was oh so difficult to read, for Jackson doesn’t hold back on the descriptive details when it comes to the horrific abuse Enchanted suffered through. But, this story must be read. It must be shared. Time for some tough conversations about rape culture and older men who prey on teenage girls.

8. We Are Not Free by Traci Chee (historical fiction)

14 Japanese American teens weave a story together, starting three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 14-year-old Minnow begins with the harsh, appalling racism that many Japanese-Americans faced during this time. Soon executive orders are given, and anyone of Japanese decent, including those that look Japanese but aren’t, are rounded up and sent to internment camps. At times, the teens stay strong, for they have each other. Other times, they witness such atrocities that they don’t know how to go on.

This book taught me so much, from the stories, to the photos, to the author’s note. Yes, I knew about the internment camps, but Traci Chee made me feel like I was there. I cried, I laughed, and I even felt anger and shame, for so many Americans committed such horrific acts against their own people.

7. Stamped (for Kids) adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul (nonfiction)

“RACE. Uh-oh. The R-word.” This nonfiction title, which is adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul from Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, tells the 400+ year story of racism in America in a way young readers can understand. My son, who’s 11, and my daughter, who’s 9, both understood the majority of it and had a lot of great questions. By the end, it was my children telling me they learned so much. More importantly, they want to learn more.

6. Four Hundred Souls edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain (nonfiction)

It began in August of 2019, when the first 20 enslaved African men and women were delivered in Jamestown, Virginia. What follows in 400 years of true African American history, oppression, struggles, and achievements, from the British ships that stole Africans from their homeland to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. This collection of 90 essays and poems–edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain and written by many famous historians, scholars, and poets–tell the real stories. The ones that our white-washed history textbooks left out. “But as the narratives in Four Hundred Souls reveal, Black people have never stopped dreaming, or fighting for those dreams to become a reality.” These stories capture “a spirit of determination,” as Blain stated. These 90 powerful pieces share how much Black people have overcome, as well as how much work still needs to be done.

5. Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden (realistic fiction)

Meet Libby. She is a budding artist who is tired of most people–teachers, classmates, and neighbors–assuming she is a bully just like the rest of her family. In fact, Libby is far from it, and she knows it. To prove this to herself, she uses her artistic ability to make colorful notecards with positive messages on them, and leaves them for others to find. Little does she know that her words set off a chain reaction that will lift up three other kids who need her encouragement at that time.

Libby and the three other children are all unique and imperfect, but there’s so much to love about each of them. This powerful book that will encourage readers to pay it forward. My own two children created notecards just like Libby did and posted them around our neighborhood.

4. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee (nonfiction)

Heather McGhee, an expert in economic and social policy, shares why the economy often fails its people. After extensive research into many aspects of it, she found one root problem: racism. Though many of us may not realize it, over centuries, racism has seeped into every aspect of our lives. They’re all interconnected, from public education, to integration, to the housing market. The question is, can we fix this? McGhee argues yes. She introduces the zero-sum policy–the idea that progress for some must come at the expense of others–and proves it wrong. McGhee’s compassionate, yet honest account introduces us to the tremendous challenges our country still faces. Racism has cost us so much, but reminds us that there is reason for hope. We can still prosper together, and honestly, we have no other choice right now. As McGhee says, “We need to refill the public pool of good for everyone.”

3. Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas (realistic fiction)

17-year-old Maverick Carter is the proud son of King Lord legend, Adonis Carter. Life in Garden Heights isn’t easy, but Maverick has a smart, beautiful girlfriend, and a cousin who is more like a brother. He doesn’t want to sell drugs, but when he finds out he is a father himself, he doesn’t have a choice. He’s got to provide for his son, for money is tight at home, even with his mother working two jobs. After getting a part-time job at a local store, Maverick begins realizing that being a King Lord is keeping him from being the man, boyfriend, and father he needs (and wants) to be. But you can’t just leave the King Lords, and his part-time job doesn’t pay what selling drugs does. But just when Maverick thinks he has the right plan, a murder in the Garden changes everything.

I finished this book within 24 hours! Maverick’s story is beautiful, powerful, and oh so important. I loved seeing all of the connections to The Hate U Give, and even to another YA author’s book as well (see if you can find it!). You’ll fall in love with Big Mav all over again, and you’ll have that much more sympathy for him when he makes mistakes, and sometimes learns from them.

2. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (nonfiction)

Award-winning author Isabel Wilkerson introduces readers to the American caste system, “a rigid hierarchy of human rankings” that’s hidden under race and class. Wilkerson masterfully links our caste system with those of Nazi Germany and India, often showing how the American caste system influenced theirs. She explains the cruel logic of caste, for there must always be a “bottom rung” that’s subjected to little respect, and rarely gets the benefit of the doubt and access to important resources. It’s a cruel system that shows what Black people are truly up against.

Wow. Where do I even start? Wilkerson’s research is quite extensive; she weaves facts in with engrossing stories from real people, like Satchel Paige, Dr. King, people she interviews, and many of her own, showing the numerous ways caste is experienced every single day. Oprah’s right: “This is required reading for all of humanity.”

1. In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner (realistic fiction) 

Cash Pruitt lives in Sawyer, Tennessee, a small town filled with gorgeous rivers and rolling hills, but also addiction. He already lost his mother to drugs, and his Papaw is dying from emphysema. The only positive that addiction brought into his life is Delaney Doyle. She’s a scientist at heart who teaches Cash so much about the world. They provide one another distractions, and are each other’s lifelines.

On one of their trips into the wild, Delaney makes a scientific discovery that changes their lives: she earns both Cash and herself full scholarships to a Connecticut boarding school. Deciding to go, Cash can’t help but wonder what this school will do for him. His experience ends up being more than he could ever have imagined.

This book truly has it all! I laughed, cried, and took about eight pages of notes because of all the beautiful language I wanted to save. Jeff Zentner has a remarkable talent for creating realistic, lovely, unforgettable characters. I fell in love with so many of them for the oddest of reasons. Zentner has truly outdone himself, for this is a literary masterpiece. Be sure to grab a copy when it comes out in August.

So that’s my top ten of this school year. I would love to hear what others are reading (and loving), so please share your favorite(s) in a comment below.

Sarah Krajewski teaches high school English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 19th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to encourage her students to read and write. At school, she is known for helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

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