In November, many people post pictures to express the things for which they’re most thankful. Because I love talking about books, because I think words matter that much, because I think stories have the power to transform and challenge us, I’m going to post a book a day for which I’m thankful. Please join in, if you’d like!
Day 1, Book 1 ~
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
A dear friend’s mom (thanks, Laurie Blackwell!) pointed me to this book about 18 years ago. It’s a tender, but unsentimental story set in a small town in the plains of Colorado. The book weaves together the lives of a high school teacher, confronted with the task of raising two boys alone as his wife leaves him, and a pair of bachelor brothers who take in a pregnant teenager. It’s a beautiful story about redemption and risk.
Favorite Quote: “You’re going to die someday without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind anyway.”
Day 2, Book 2 ~
Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate
A librarian in the middle school (where I teach 8th graders) pointed me to this lovely, heartbreaking book. I picked it off the shelf, read the first few lines, and then stole enough minutes to finish it later that evening. It’s a beautiful novel-in-verse (think poetry that tells a story) about a Sudanese refugee trying to find his way in the bitter cold of Minnesota after being separated from his mother and witnessing the murders of his father and brother. Confused in this land where nothing seems to make sense, Kek finds ways to make connections that transcend his harsh reality of loneliness and tragedy. It’s a Young Adult book, but not to be missed by anyone who loves beautiful language and stories that build empathy.
Day 3, Book 3 ~
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
In addition to being important, beautiful, thoughtful, and captivating, this book’s backstory alone makes it a must-read. Published amid controversy and criticism in 1937, the book was rescued and reissued in 1978 and today recognized as one of the most important books in the canon of African-American literature. This book changed me as a reader. If you haven’t read it, you should. If you’ve read it, you should read it again.
Day 4, book 4 ~
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Here’s another YA book not to be missed by all. Told from the unique perspective of Death, this WWII novel is one that I hand to most ambitious 8th-grade readers, with hopes they will re-read it again someday. The compelling story is matched with beautiful language.
Favorite quote: “Usually we walk around constantly believing ourselves. ‘I’m OK,’ we say. ‘I’m all right.’ But sometimes the truth arrives on you and you can’t get it off. That’s when you realize that sometimes it isn’t even an answer — it’s a question. Even now, I wonder how much of my life is convinced.”
Day 5, book 5 ~
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
A tattered cover is a sure sign of a well-loved book. I love this story of 14-year-old Lily, her blurry memories, and her “stand-in-mother” Rosaleen.
Favorite quote: “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
Book 6, Day 6 ~
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
If ever I’m asked to answer the dreaded question about my favorite book and narrow all the way down to one, it always comes back to Traveling Mercies. I kid that Anne Lamott is my literary godmother, but I’m not really joking. My very first read of this book (that nearly half underlined) was as a senior in college on a spring break trip with friends. Pushed out of our South Carolina campground by torrential rains and sopping wet tents and sleeping bags, we sat in an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant and read Lamott’s memoir aloud to each other over egg rolls and Kung Pao chicken. We were seniors now and the world — and our futures — seemed extra brittle and unsure. The waiter kept bringing us fortune cookies and didn’t seem at all bothered by the young group of women holding a literary event in his restaurant. To this day, when I’m having trouble writing or finding words, I can refuel from reading Lamott.
So often, writing that dances with the spiritual is burdened with “Christianese” — heavy with assumptions, as if faith comes with a secret language with access given only to the most elite. But, Lamott breaks down these barriers and is able to talk about grace and forgiveness and immortality without sounding the least bit condescending or patronizing. I love her and I love this book.
So many favorite quotes, but here is one: “It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”
Day 7, Book 7 ~
Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan
“Your father’s the glitter but I’m the glue,” Kelly Corrigan’s mother told her while in high school. Now, navigating the world of adulthood, Corrigan is employed as a nanny in Australia, a role of “fill-in mother” that causes her to unravel the story of her own childhood and particularly her relationship with her mother. The ways in which Corrigan comes to realize her mother’s imprint on her life carves a path for readers to better understand not just this particular relationship, but the universal, complex, tangled connection between families.
As a former Au Pair (Switzerland in 2001), a mother, a daughter, and a writer of memoir, this book hit a lot of sweet spots for me. I found it helpful, endearing, relatable, and entertaining. And my mom did, too.
Day 8, Book 8 ~
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Anne Patchett
As I finished the last page in this collection of essays, I found myself wishing for an encore. Covering everything from her dogs and her stint in the LA Police Academy to her tough nun elementary school teacher, and, of course, her marriage, these essays do what great essays do: tell good stories juxtaposed with thoughtful reflection and commentary. While Patchett begins the book by explaining that her essay writing began as a practical way to make a living as a writer, the essays she’s collected along the way are a testament of all the life she’s lived.
Favorite Quote: “Sometimes love does not have the most honorable beginnings, and the endings, the endings will break you in half. It’s everything in between we live for.”
Day 9, Book 9 ~
Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
I finished reading this one aloud to my boys tonight. It’s a tender story of a resilient 11-year-old, Jack, who is left behind in an Acadia National Park Campground by his mother whom he loves, but doesn’t quite know how to handle when she begins “spinning.” Afraid of anyone finding out he’s alone, afraid of being taken away from his mom forever, he sets off to navigate the state of Maine on his own, with only a plastic elephant to keep him company. Like YA classics Hatchet or My Side of the Mountain, this book has a heart-racing survival bent to it that often appeals to middle-grade readers, but it also leaves space for discussion of bigger issues like mental illness, independence, and why it can be scary (but best) to ask for help.
Favorite quote: “Elephants can sense danger. They’re able to detect an approaching tsunami or earthquake before it hits. Unfortunately, Jack did not have this talent. The day his life was turned completely upside down, he was caught unaware.”
Book 10, Day 10 ~
Bossypants by Tina Fey
If you missed this book when it came out five years ago, it’s not too late. I read it when I was balancing having an infant (baby #3) and was just back to work, and it was just the dose of laugh-out-loud hilarity and self-deprecating humor I needed in that stage. I finished the book being a bigger fan of Fey’s and feeling better about being a bit of a Bossypants myself.
Memorable quote:” If you retain nothing else, always remember the most important rule of beauty, which is: who cares?”
Day 11, Book 11 ~
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
This YA book hooked me immediately, and it’s often handed from one of my students to another. It’s one of those books that deals with sticky, mature issues (teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency), but does so with much care that it’s not one ounce gratuitous. The story is real, vulnerable, tough, and raw — and acknowledges the muck and mire that can be adolescence, with enough grace to be hopeful.
Quick synopsis: The book begins with 12-year-old Jack receiving the news that he’s getting a new foster brother, Joseph. Jack knows only three things about Joseph: he almost killed a teacher, he was incarcerated, and he became a father (to a little girl named Jupiter) at only 13. Set on a rural Maine farm, the boys learn to navigate their new relationship as unconventional brothers, while confronting Joseph’s festering wounds.
You will not regret reading this book, and I’ll bet, like my students, that you’ll immediately pass it on to someone else.
Side note: My students also like knowing that the author, Gary Schmidt, teaches at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, and lives on a farm in nearby Alto.
Day 12, Book 12 ~
Just Mercy: A Story of Mercy and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Also available — as pictured — in a YA version.)
Touted as a modern-day To Kill a Mockingbird, my husband and I both listened to Bryan Stevenson read his nonfiction novel, Just Mercy, and it gave us plenty to process and talk through. I nearly had to pull my car over to weep as I listened to one particular death row scene. A modern-day Attitcus Finch, Stevenson has dedicated his career as a lawyer to giving voice to the voiceless and vulnerable. The books offers a haunting and unsettling look at America’s criminal justice system and, in particular, the death penalty. This book is a soon-to-be-movie and, of course, you should read the book first.
Quote: “But simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
Day 13, Book 13 ~
Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher
I realize this is an unconventional choice for a favorite book, but when I stack up the books that have changed me, or challenged my thinking, this one is up there at the top. I remember sitting on the beach one summer reading this and knowing that a lot of what I did in the classroom would never be the same. In this book, Gallagher outlines how well-intentioned teachers have ruined reading for many and how to get back on the right track. If you want to hear me get a little fired up, ask about my views on students getting choice in what they read, opinions informed by Gallagher and many of his friends.
Key quote: “Shouldn’t schools be the place where students interact with interesting books? Shouldn’t the faculty have an ongoing laser-like commitment to put good books in our students’ hands? Shouldn’t this be a front-burner issue at all times?”
Day 14, Book 14 ~
Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro
The last time we moved, my husband questioned the need to lift, carry, and transfer my bins of the past — my huge and heavy rubbermaid totes filled with letters, journals, scrapbooks. I gave into the idea of throwing out my faded, old pink cowboy boots (though truthfully, I wish I’d kept them, too), but I unwavering on the boxes. However weighty, however seldom they were opened, they were to come with me. These pieces of the past, records of who I used to be, would not be recycled, would not end up rotting in some landfill. I was so captivated by this memoir by Dani Shapiro, which mainly focuses on memory and marriage, and delves deep into her old memory boxes. In doing so, she provides a framework for the complicated task of weaving our past and present selves into a complex tapestry of memories that leaves readers with a keen awareness of the complexity of memory and self-evolution.
Quote: “Years vanish. Months collapse. Time is like a tall building made of playing cards. It seems orderly until a strong gust of wind comes along and blows the whole thing skyward. Imagine it: an entire deck of cards soaring like a flock of birds.”
Day 15, Book 15 ~
Everything Happens for a Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler
I downloaded this one on Audible right after hearing an interview with the author on NPR’s Fresh Air. Upon listening to the interview and the book, I found myself wishing I could meet Bowler for coffee. A professor at Duke Divinity School, specializing in the history of the “American Prosperity Gospel,” Bowler grapples with a cancer diagnosis as a young mother at only 35 years old. After studying those who believe that God will heal if you just pray hard enough and want it bad enough, Bowler finds herself wishing for the same “outrageous certainties.” Tender, thoughtful, and real, the stories and ideas in this book have been marinating in my mind since I read it.
Quote: “What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, ‘You are limitless?’ Everything is not possible. The mighty kingdom of God is not yet here. What if ‘rich’ did not have to mean ‘wealthy’, and ‘whole’ did not have to mean ‘healed’? What if being the people of ‘the gospel’ meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”
Day 16, Book 16 ~
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
This book is small but mighty. Dueling narratives tell the true stories of two eleven-year-olds from Sudan. Nya, a girl in 2008 is responsible for fetching water from a pond that is two hours’ walk from her home, a trip she must make twice each day. Salva, a boy in 1985 becomes one of the refugees known as the “lost boys” of Sudan, traveling the African continent on foot searching for his families and a safe place to stay. Like many books I’ve posted here, it’s often marketed for middle-grade readers, but would also be a quick, fascinating read for any adult, or a great family read aloud. At the end of the book, Linda Sue Park weaves together these two stories in a way that is memorable and stirring.
Day 17, Book 17 ~
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
I had the chance to hear Tim O’Brien speak a couple of years ago as part of Hope College’s Big Read and it made me appreciate him and his writing even more. Based on his experiences in Vietnam, this episodic collection, which was published in 1990, it blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction while considering what do soldiers carry with them in war, when they return home, in their memories? It’s disturbing, but beautiful. Lyrical, but unsentimental. For a writer, it’s also a handbook on technique and style, a “marvel of storytelling which matters not only to the reader interested in Vietnam but to anyone interested in the craft of writing” (The New York Times).
Memorable quote: “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are.”
Day 18, Book 18~
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
My golden, Murray, wanted in on this picture, but since he and Lamott are two of my most constant writing companions, I obliged.
I already wrote about Traveling Mercies and its impact on me as a person of faith and a writer, but Bird by Bird cannot be left out. When I need help getting started, I grab this book. When I’m trying to teach writing, I grab this book. When writing feels lonely and hard and I’m convinced I have nothing left to say, I grab this book. It’s funny, inviting, accessible, and incredibly helpful.
I have two copies, but my favorite is the one with the yellowed pages, my maiden name and the year 2000 scrawled inside the front cover, and most of the pages underlined and dog-eared.
One of those underlined passages: “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
Day 19, Book 19 ~
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
On this Thanksgiving day, it only seems appropriate that I celebrate this eclectic memoir told through a series of Encyclopedia-style entries. I first learned of this book in a workshop on teaching writing. We imitated a couple of excerpts from the book, and I was hooked and quickly incorporated the same imitations in my own classrooms. My favorite was imitations of a piece called, “Thankful.”
I wrote about this in a blog post a couple of years ago as I shared a compilation of thankfulness from several of my college students: “I’m thankful for sunsets, hot coffee, sugar cookie dough, and happy endings. For allergy medicine and athletic shorts. I’m thankful for my mother’s home cooked meals, especially when they involved mashed potatoes. For hikeable mountains and swimmable lakes. I’m thankful for handwritten letters. For forgiveness. I’m thankful for mac ‘n’ cheese, washing machines, and spontaneity. That my family loves baseball. That baseball exists in the first place. I’m thankful for starry nights. For fireworks. For sunflowers. I’m thankful for the kindness of strangers, XL t-shirts, and Instagram. For laughter that makes your stomach hurt and books to get lost in. I’m thankful that at the end of each day is sleep. For people who miss me when I’m gone. I’m thankful that children mispronounce words and for warm towels just out of the dryer. For chocolate cake and dirty white Converse that never get old. I’m thankful for sarcasm. For failure. I’m thankful for grace.”
I also think about this entry every time I bowl:
On another note: you don’t miss this New York Times piece Rosenthal published just 10 days before her tragic death in 2017.
Day 20, Book 20 ~
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
I can’t get enough of novels-in-verse, and this is another one of my favorites. I found myself literally taking pictures of pages I didn’t want to turn. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, and living back-and-forth between South Carolina and New York, Woodson weaves a memoir that’s touching and poignant. Read it aloud to your kids, read it aloud to yourself in tiny morsels, read it in one sitting. You’ll be glad you did.
One those picture-worthy excerpts:
“Deep winter and the night air is cold. So still,
it feels like the world goes on forever in the darkness
until you look up and the earth stops
in a ceiling of stars. My head against
my grandfather’s arm,
a blanket around us as we sit on the front porch swing.
Its whine like a song.
You don’t need words
on a night like this. Just the warmth
of your grandfather’s arm. Just the silent promise
that the world as we know it
will always be here.”
Day 21, Book 21 ~
The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak
Of all the bedtime stories I read to my boys, this one was the most requested and guaranteed the most giggles. Given to them by our dear babysitter, the book really does have no pictures. As it says, “ It might seem like no fun to have someone read you a book with no pictures. It probably seems boring and serious. Except… Here is how books work: Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say. No matter what.”
My boys adored this book that made adult say silly things, and it’s an easy quick read that I never minded because we could end our days with laughter. This would be a perfect idea for Christmas gifts for little ones!
Day 22, Book 22 ~
Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker
In our modern-day social media storm of trends and follows and comment trails that resemble fights on an elementary school playground, I realize some have mixed feelings about Jen Hatmaker. I don’t. I like what she has to say, what she writes, and who she is. This is my favorite of her books: a 7-month spiritual social experiment in which she made do with less to discover more. I find Hatmaker’s writing to be funny, witty, convicting, and wise.
Quote: “We cannot carry the gospel to the poor and lowly while emulating the practices of the rich and powerful. We’ve been invited into a story that begins with humility and ends with glory; never the other way around.”
Day 23, Book 23 ~
Here if you Need Me: A True Story by Kate Braestrup
This is one of those books that sat on my to-read stack (it’s a tall one) for a long time, and when I finally picked it up this summer, I devoured it, quickly filling it with underlines and sticky notes and margin notes.
After the tragic death of her husband, Braestrup does what he always said he’d do someday, and goes to seminary. Vulnerable and smart, Breastrup tells the story of her own grief, of raising grieving children, and of working with the lost and found as a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service.
One of the most poignant scenes for me was near the end of the book, as she delves into the complexity of the pain of losing her husband with the miraculous ways her life was altered. “I can’t make those two realities — lost and found — fit in some tiny pattern of divine causality. I just have to hold them on the one hand and on the other, just like that.” This is also what she manages to do in her writing — hold facts and reality on one hand and the intangible and sacred on the other, almost as if she is balancing earth and heaven.
Day 24, Book 24 ~
Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
In addition to loving the whimsy of this book’s cover, I adored the micro-memoirs inside and the collective story they told. Always a fan of short chapters that pack a big punch, I could have read this entire collection in one fast sitting, but found myself returning slowly and re-reading, soaking in these tiny moments and stories again and again.
As the book’s very title, Heating and Cooling, suggests, Fennelly’s is a master of contrasts. In a split second (or a split sentence), Fennelly can turn from humor to heartache. Yet through her carefully crafted chapters, sentences, and plot lines instead of finding emotions — joy vs. grief, humor vs. tragedy — at odds with each other, we are led to see their connection, to understand that the assumed proximity from one feeling to the next is often an illusion.
A micro-memoir for you:
“I’m fond of recalling how my mother was fond of recalling how my great-grandfather was the very first person to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on the second day.” — “I Come from a Long Line of Modest Achievers”
Day 25, Book 25 ~
Prisoner B-3087 or anything by Alan Gratz
I love using the first lines of Prisoner B-3087 to pull students in: “If I had known what the next six years of my life were going to be like, I would have eaten more. I wouldn’t have complained about brushing my teeth, or taking a bath, or going to bed at eight every night. I would have played more. Laughed more. I would have hugged my parents and told them I loved them.” Based on the true story of a young boy who survived 10 different concentration camps, this book opens students eyes and hearts to the realities of the Holocaust.
Gratz’s other YA books are also not to be missed. I’m currently reading aloud Refugee to my boys, which is told from three perspectives: Josef escaping Germany in 1934, Isabel escaping Cuba in 1984, and Mahmoud escaping Syria in 2015. I think I’m learning as much as they are!
Grenade is Gratz’s newest book, just released in October, about a young boy drafted into the Japanese army and a US marine whose paths and lives collide.
Day 26, Book 26 ~
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Best known for The Kite Runner, I liked this book by Khalid Hosseini just as much, if not a little more. The setting is again Afghanistan, but the story is told through the eyes of two women. Like Hosseini’s other books, the story is achingly sad, but the writing is beautiful and stretches the readers’ understanding and empathy.
Notable quote: “I know you’re still young but I want you to understand and learn this now. Marriage can wait, education cannot. You’re a very very bright girl. Truly you are. You can be anything you want Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.”
Day 27, Book 27 ~
Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner
I read the first essay in this book, “Dwarves in the Stable,” 18 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. A quick, simple summary would reduce it to less than it is, but it’s a story of family, of what goes unsaid, of making sense of how we love those closest to us imperfectly but unconditionally. Buechner’s writing causes me to slow down, to sort alongside him. It causes me to see the beauty in the broken and the healing and hope in vulnerability.
A quote that has become my mission statement as a writer: “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours… it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”
Day 28, Book 28 ~
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
Right after college, I spent six months working as an au pair in Switzerland. I landed on Sept. 11, 2001, and that began my rocky experience: tongue-tied in a country where I didn’t know the language and a foreigner in a house where I didn’t know the culture, I was homesick, off balance, and teetering on the verge of an adulthood I wasn’t really sure I wanted to enter. It was also a time when I began to write because I needed to — because it was my way of finding my voice when language was failing me and offered me an attempt at making sense of my life when the events weren’t following the map I had planned out. On those Swiss railcars, traveling between towns and villages, staring out the Alps and Lac Léman, I carried a bag with a journal and this book, which I had purchased as a pocket edition. I would read a section and then write, read a little more, and then write a little more. Even today, I can pick up the little book, take out the train ticket from Geneva to Crans that still serves as a bookmark, read a short section, and then go running for a pen and my journal.
One of my favorite underlined passages: “It is very important to go home if you want your work to be whole. You don’t have to move in with your parents and collect an allowance, but you must claim where you come from and look deep into it. Come to honor and embrace it, or at least, accept it.”
Day 29, Book 29 ~
Sold by Patricia McCormick
Written in sparse vignettes, this YA book tells the story of Lakshmi, a 13-year-old girl from Nepal whose family is desperately poor, but content with the simple pleasures her life has to offer. This all changes when harsh Himalayan monsoons wash away their crops, and her step-father says she must move away from home to help support her family. Initially told she will be working as a maid for a wealthy woman in the city, she eventually learns the brutal truth: she has been sold prostitution. Heavy and intense, but never gratitutious or sensationalized, this books helps teenage readers understand the atrocity of human trafficking in the most powerful way: through a personal story. Once again, the Young Adult distinction means this book is appropriate for teens; it does not mean it should be missed by adults.
Quote: “Trying to remember, I have learned, is like trying to clutch a handful of fog. Trying to forget, like trying to hold back the monsoon.”
Day 30, Book 30 ~
This Room is Mine by Betty Ren Wright
I’ve wavered and gone back and forth again and again on what my 30th and final book will be. I decided on this one — it’s an antique now, and out of print, but my cousin found a rare copy and generously gave it to me last Christmas. This is the book our grandma read us over and over as children. The book’s story, in which two sisters share a room and have a spat which leads to the unsuccessful dividing of the space in half, was familiar since I grew up sharing a room with my younger sister. But more important is that memory, that feeling, of being cuddled up close to Grandma and being read to. For so many of us, books are magic, and that magic began when a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, teacher or babysitter read to us. Even now, reading aloud to my kids is one of my favorite things. In a loud world, it creates a quiet space for asking questions, going new places without ever leaving home, celebrating stories, and just being together. It’s a gift worth celebrating. It’s a gift worth giving.