A lot of ink has already been spilled over the unique character of 2020, a year that defied all of our expectations to deliver the best and the worst plot twists of our lives. And while it may be that we're living through a period in history that will be "super cool to read about," we woke up every day eager to read anything but the latest presidential Twitter rant or another lukewarm media condemnation of Far-right violence. At times reading felt impossible, at other times it felt like all we had.
So what books were we getting lost in between Zoom calls or stuffing into care packages for quarantined loved ones? With the world outside feeling strangely like fiction, we found ourselves both living and reading in the liminal space between nonfiction and fantasy. The books we embraced, from works of futurism to activist social science, contributed to a vision of our lives beyond carceralism, white supremacy, and ecological crisis.
(See also, our 2019 Best Sellers & Collective Picks.)
Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction.
By Arundhati Roy
It's not often we are able to read about history as it’s taking place, but that's what Roy has done in Azadi; providing us up to the minute commentary on world events… Arundhati Roy's Azadi is a collection of essays and speeches describing India's recent descent into totalitarianism that speaks to the heart and the mind. Intelligent and thoughtful and written with empathy, it brings the reality of the situation home in way few other writers can.
—Richard Marcus, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement
Edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
This is the collection that so many of us have been waiting for, capturing the knowledge generated by grassroots experiments undertaken by bold, imaginative activists working to respond to and prevent violence. We will be using this as a reference book for building community responses to harm and violence for decades to come.
—Dean Spade, author of Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next)
Deciding for Ourselves: The Promise of Direct Democracy
Edited by Cindy Milstein
These accounts and reflections are stupendous. They empower us with evidence of something we already know, from somewhere deep: that we have the power to govern ourselves and our communities… In this book, we can study our chosen history, learn from and with our extended ideological family, admire the fierceness of the people’s imagination in the face of the State’s repression.
—Marieke Bivar, Fifth Estate Magazine
In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action
By Vicky Osterweil
In Defense of Looting is a clear and damning indictment of the origins and evolution of property rights, race, and policing in the United States. Ultimately, Osterweil demands we not only overcome the respectability politics animating our desire for 'peaceful protests,' but that we ambitiously work to abolish the racial capitalist logics at the heart of American empire.
—Zoé Samudzi, coauthor of As Black As Resistance
Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger
By Lama Rod Owens
This work is personal, political, and practical. Lama Rod Owens is wildly generous in letting us see him wrestle his way through his own pain, rage, and arousal. He weaves us from his own story to ours, from his Blackness, gayness, his prophetic nature, to our collective need to feel, harness, and express anger. And then every other page offers practices, practical guidance on how to be in right relationship to anger, to understand the power and wholeness of rage. What a gift!
—adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy
Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms
By Victoria Law and Maya Schenwar
Prison by Any Other Name sounds an alarm about the extension of the prison through ‘alternative to incarceration’ projects. It demonstrates that these ‘alternatives’ continue the work of imprisonment in different ways. It also points us towards a way out of criminalization. The book is an important addition to the new canon of work focused on mass criminalization in the U.S. READ. THIS. BOOK.
—Mariame Kaba, author of We Do This Til We Free Us
Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression
Edited by Julia Feliz and Zane McNeill
Feliz and McNeill approach queer veganism through the lens of "consistent anti-oppression" with a strong focus on interrogating and challenging white supremacy, patriarchy, and abelism in both queer and animal liberation movements. Queer + Trans Voices is an incredible collection that accessibly opens a neglected field of inquiry to a non-academic audience!
Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals
By Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Reading Undrowned, I am re-convinced of the revolutionary potential of the life sciences, and in particular, of the necessity of a Black feminist biology. Alexis Pauline Gumbs listens so carefully to everybody—humans, whales, dolphins, corals, all beings, living and ancestral. It is a blessing that she has shared with us both what she has heard and the experimental methods for how she enacted her expansive listening.
—Kriti Sharma, author of Interdependence: Biology and Beyond
By Olin Unferth
Deb Unferth's hilarious, off-kilter genius is on dazzling display in this novel. Come for the brilliant insights about our faltering civilization. Stay for the revolutionaries and the chickens. You are really really going to love these chickens…
—Jenny Offill, author of Weather: A Novel
By Rebecca Roanhorse
This is the novel I've been waiting for. This is the novel we've all been waiting for. Everything's different now, with Black Sun. Different and better. Stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best fantasy out there. There's Martin, there's Jemisin, and now there's Roanhorse.
—Stephen Graham Jones, author of The Only Good Indians
By Afia Atakora
Conjure Women is a beautifully written novel that explores bondage and freedom through the lives of vividly drawn women who will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page. Afia Atakora is a writer of extraordinary talent and depth, and this spellbinding debut is a must-read.
—Anissa Gray, author of The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls
Empire of Wild
By Cherie Dimaline
Empire of Wild is doing everything I love in a contemporary novel and more. It is tough, funny, beautiful, honest and propulsive—all the while telling a story that needs to be told by a person who needs to be telling it. The book feels like now, and we need more stories from Native communities to feel that way. She knows this community and this community will know she knows it when they read her, but it will resonate with so many more. Cherie Dimaline is a voice that feels both inevitable and necessary.
—Tommy Orange, author of There There
Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction
Edited by Joshua Whitehead
A variety of Two-Spirit/queer Indigenous authors explore events during or after an apocalypse. Most of the stories share a sensibility rooted in the fact that for all Indigenous people, but for Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous people especially, there has already been a vast apocalypse… These stories are a welcome breath of fresh air in the often hyperindividualist, survivalist subgenre of postapocalyptic fiction, and are essential reading for anyone committed to the possibilities of sf as a means to create new and different futures.
—Nell Keep, Booklist
Punching the Air
By Ibi Zoboi
Stories, at their best, will break something old in you or build something new. Remarkably, Punching The Air does both. Zoboi and Salaam have created nothing short of a masterwork of humanity, with lyrical arms big enough to cradle the oppressed, and metaphoric teeth sharp enough to chomp on the bitter bones of racism. This is more than a story. This is a necessary exploration of anger, and a radical reflection of love, which ultimately makes for an honest depiction of what it means to be young and Black in America.”
—Jason Reynolds, author of Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks
By Tochi Onyebuchi
Moving from South Central Los Angeles to Harlem to Rikers Island to a speculative near-future in short bursts of fierce feeling, Riot Baby… is as much the story of Ella and her brother, Kevin, as it is the story of black pain in America, of the extent and lineage of police brutality, racism and injustice in this country, written in prose as searing and precise as hot diamonds… I read this book with frustrating double vision: seeing with one eye the gorgeousness of Onyebuchi's writing, the visceral heat of it, and with the other the vast indifference of the people who most need to be confronted with its power.
—Amal El-Mohtar, co-author of This Is How You Lose the Time War
Where the Wild Ladies Are
By Aoko Matsuda
Aoko Matsuda (translated by Polly Barton) collects a set of linked short stories reimagining Japanese folktales in contemporary settings, shot through with exceptionally witty societal critique… [R]ather than vengeful ghosts out to punish the living, Matsuda’s apparitions are complicated people in their own right with histories and interests.
—Lee Mandelo, author of Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction
For Young Readers
Antiracist Baby Board Book
By Ibram X. Kendi
If you’ve been fretting over how to explain critical race theory to your baby, you’re in luck, and the wait is over… Kendi boils down the complex and ever-changing definition of “racist” and “racism” into nine, easily-digestible and simple steps packaged sweetly for newborns to three-year-olds. Even more, this book gives you more than just critical race theory as Kendi gently guides your baby toward not just being an antiracist but also becoming a budding political activist.
—Katie Miller, “Ibram Kendi’s Board Book Teaches Even Babies To Hate White People,” The Federalist
Beware the Werewolf
By Andres Miedoso
Every dog has his day… if by day you mean the night of the full moon! In their latest adventure, best friends Andres and Desmond come face-to-snout with their local werewolf and learn that sometimes the "big bad" is just badly misunderstood. With just the right amount of humor and spooky suspensefulness—and chock full of phenomenal black & white illustrations—Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol is one of our go-to chapter book series for emerging readers.
Fauja Singh Keeps Going
By Simran Jeet Singh
While there have been other children’s books with Sikh characters, Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Ever Run a Marathon is the first children’s picture book by a major publisher to feature a Sikh character. Author Simran Jeet Singh beautifully shares Fauja Singh’s life story in a way that highlights his unique resilience and is somehow also relatable to both children and adults, especially immigrants.
—Nikki Singh and Ravleen Kaur, Brown Girl Magazine
By Claribel A. Ortega
Ghost Squad manages to be both creepy and heartwarming, fulfilling a need for stories that are both deeply relatable and culturally specific. Highly recommended for kids looking for a spooky read, a whole lot of feelings, and a story they'll not soon forget.
—Mark Oshiro, author of Anger is a Gift
I Am Brown
By Ashok Banker
The little girl kicking her legs on the front of I Am Brown will also raise a smile with her contagious grin. A celebration of having brown skin, the debut picture book from the bestselling Indian author Ashok Banker has a simple conceit, repeating: “I am…” to build up a picture of all the different things brown children can be, do, eat and wear... Coupled with Sandhya Prabhat’s illustrations of children laughing and playing, which spill joyously from the pages, it’s a note-perfect hymn about acceptance, pride and belonging.
—Imogen Carter, The Guardian
I Am Not a Label: 34 Disabled Artists, Thinkers, Athletes and Activists From Past and Present
By Cerrie Burnell
The first word that springs to mind upon opening I Am Not A Label is: ‘finally’. What a delight to find a book brimming with deaf and disabled role models who are the star of each story. This book is overdue, and it’s fantastically written and curated, hitting the mark for a mind-opening and world-expanding read for children, young people and adults, too.
—Kate Lovell, Disability Arts Online
Just Like Me
By Vanessa Brantley-Newton
‘I am a canvas / being painted on / by the words of my family / friends / and community’... [I]n Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s Just Like Me this is the poem that kicks off the entire book. Ostensibly this is a book that kids (according to the publisher) will use to find the poem that’s “just like them”. I can see that, but when I look at the 28 poems I see an amalgamation of different ways of looking at girls. I see poems that delve deeply into their subjects and others that just crest the surface. A book that is more than just the sum of its parts.
—Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal
The Old Truck
By Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey
This charming debut is by brothers who divide the writing and the art, which mixes ink-stamping and digital techniques in a glorious sunshine-washed palette. It’s a simple, beautifully constructed story about continuity and ingenuity… The Pumphreys have created a book that’s both timeless and au courant.
—Maria Russo, co-author of How to Raise a Reader
Once Upon an Eid
By S. K. Ali and Aisha Saeed
Fifteen Muslim authors contribute to this celebratory story collection centered around Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. Joyful reunions, irritating relatives, fancy clothes, and special, heartfelt gifts appear in many of the tales, giving an overall tone of warmth and playfulness, and even the stories that take a more somber approach end with possibilities of hope and optimism.
—Kate Quealy-Gainer, Project Muse
Race to the Sun
By Rebecca Roanhorse
Thanks to Rebecca Roanhorse and Race to the Sun, you’re about to plunge headfirst into the fabulous, scary, wonderful story-world of the Diné, also called the Navajo. Even if you already know something about traditional Navajo tales, you are going squee with delight, because you have never experienced them like this before… Keep your hands and feet inside the novel at all times, or some monster might bite them off.
—Rick Riordan, author of The Lightning Thief
By Deva Fagan
Fagan establishes a warm, complicated world where magic is an accepted part of life—there are sorcerers, merfolk, and sea serpents—though wielded by only a few… A gorgeous fairy tale that touches on the benefits of cooperation and the beauty of discovering one’s own particular brand of magic.
—Emily Graham, Booklist
By Kat Leyh
Snapdragon is a unique and perfect story about a witch in the woods, girls who live in a trailer park, and the unexpected web of connections tying everyone together. It’s a book about finding your power, in more ways than one. I laughed and cried, and you will, too!
—Molly Knox Ostertag, author of The Witch Boy
This Book Is Anti-Racist
By Tiffany Jewell
WOW. Have you ever wanted to better understand who you are? What’s happening to us in this racially-divided world, and what we can do about it? This Book Is Anti-Racist is bold in its honesty, and brilliant in its illustrative breakdown of an essential vocabulary on race and identity. This racial and intersectional literacy tool models what creative anti-racist work can look like. It has renewed us to keep up the fight.
—Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi, authors of Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture, and Identity
We Are Water Protectors
By Carole Lindstrom
Goade’s watercolor illustrations fill the spreads with streaming ribbons of water, cosmic backdrops, and lush natural landscapes… Lindstrom’s spare, poetic text flows with the “river’s rhythm." Written in response to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, famously protested by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe—and others—these pages carry grief, but it is overshadowed by hope in what is an unapologetic call to action.
—Ronny Khuri, Booklist
Your Name Is a Song
By Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
A young Black Muslim girl leaves her first day of school feeling defeated because nobody can pronounce her name. So on the walk home, her Ummi offers a lesson on the musicality, rhythm and magic of names from around the world. Illustrated with an uplifting palate of oranges, yellows and greens, Your Name Is A Song is hearty encouragement for kids who endure these mispronunciations themselves and a lesson in empathy for readers of all ages.
—Annabel Gutterman, Rebecca Katzman and Shay Maunz, Time