YES! staff recommend books that influenced and entertained us this year.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
An article in YES! Magazine inspired me to read Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. “Can We Live Up to James Baldwin’s Hope for a Multiracial Democracy?” by Ruth Terry highlighted Baldwin’s unflagging determination to disrupt the lie of White supremacy—and the toll that took on him, including rage, attempted suicide, and substance use. As Terry grappled with her own anger at the tenacity of that lie, she questioned Baldwin’s belief that America can be better. I finished the article and realized I needed to read Baldwin myself.
I began with Go Tell It on the Mountain. It’s a passionate, lyrical book—semi-autobiographical—about young John Grimes and his family, his community, and his church in 1930s Harlem. It’s a loving and searing portrait, and it pulled me deep into every character’s heart and mind. It was the perfect introduction to Baldwin, whose words offer both reflections and provocations as we continue his work to create true racial justice. —Robin Simons
The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal by Mary L. Trump, Ph.D.
Mary Trump’s first book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, was remarkable for her unsparing portrait of the dysfunctional Trump family, whose wealth led to the rise of her infamous uncle to the presidency. In her second book, The Reckoning, the former president is still present, but he takes a back seat to the story of the nation that created him.
Mary Trump is a psychologist who specializes in trauma, developmental psychology, and psychopathology, and her real story is the founding trauma of America—the transatlantic slave trade, the systemic post-Civil War oppression of Black Americans and the terrorism of lynching, and the impunity from any repercussions that White Americans have enjoyed throughout. That’s created a nation built on racial trauma and a permanently traumatized population, both Black and White, that exhibits all the signs of PTSD. These forces have created today’s fractured civil society.
There’s more to that, of course, but as a guide through history seen through the eyes of a psychologist, this is an engaging read. —Chris Winters
Road Out of Winter: An Apocalyptic Thriller by Alison Stine
Alison Stine recently published her second novel, Trashlands, which I haven’t picked up yet, but her debut novel, Road Out of Winter, made a splash when it was published in 2020 as a solid entry into the new “cli-fi” subgenre of literature. The book won that year’s Philip K. Dick Award for distinguished original science fiction paperback.
It tells the story of Wylodine, a young marijuana farmer in a post-climate-change Appalachia that is in a permanent state of winter. A letter from her mother in California helps convince her to pack up her grow lights and a pouch of seeds and set off to start over. She has a rare talent, able to make living things grow in the frozen world, but that also puts her in danger. She and a small group of misfits head into the mountains, dodging a violent cult, fellow climate refugees, and other people trying to carve out an existence in a broken world.
Stine is a past contributor to YES! She’s also a published poet, and her prose in Road Out of Winter reflects that literary precision. The book quietly raises the tension and the stakes until Wylodine reaches the only conclusion she can. Life is what we make of it, even in the most trying of circumstances. —Chris Winters
On Tyranny Graphic Edition: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder, illustrated by Nora Krug
Historian Timothy Snyder is an expert on how tyrannical regimes take hold. He shared those insights in his 2017 bestseller On Tyranny, an elegantly concise book of lessons that were as pertinent to America under Trump as they were to Germany in the 1930s. Writer and illustrator Nora Krug knows something about tyranny, too, as she described in her graphic memoir about how ordinary Germans during the Nazi era slid into allowing atrocities.
The collaboration between Snyder and Krug in this year’s On Tyranny Graphic Edition brings their history lessons home in a way that is both personal and powerful. The graphic novel format encourages a close, thoughtful reading, while Krug’s illustrations spark new associations to Snyder’s observations about what each of us needs to do to resist tyranny. The overarching lesson is that the erosion of democracy can be gradual—but that awareness matters, as do individual actions to defend civil liberties and human rights. Keep the book handy, and open to any page for a dose of everyday courage. —Valerie Schloredt
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
You may know Colson Whitehead as the author of seven other acclaimed novels, including The Underground Railroad. His first was The Intuitionist, a dazzling turn that makes the novel’s high-concept premise convincing from the very beginning.
The novel incorporates multiple genres—racial allegory, speculative fiction, and a playful take on hard-boiled detective fiction. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the only Black woman working for a city department that ensures the safety of essential infrastructure—in this case, elevators that are more than elevators as we know them. When something goes wrong, it looks like Lila Mae was set up to take the fall. In The Intuitionist, the inner workings of the city, like its elevators, are both familiar and mysterious. Whitehead immediately pulls the reader into this world, and we’re eager to go along for the ride. —Valerie Schloredt
Lucy Jones argues that nature is a necessity for our physical and mental well-being. She calls it a support system that keeps us all alive. “Perhaps we are noticing this all the more now, as we are in danger of losing the living world as we have known it, and with it, potentially, part of ourselves.” While the average Brit spends between 1% and 5% of their time outdoors, she sets out to foster her new daughter’s love of the outdoors before it gets “distracted or influenced or cultured or educated out of her.”
Jones organizes the 174 pages of the book into the parts and life stages of a tree: from seedling to roots, branches to trunk, and bark to snag. She writes, “For centuries people have often acted on an intuitive sense that human beings require communion with the natural world for their emotional selves, for their nerves and their psyches. Now modern science is catching up.” Jones looks at the latest in neuroscience, microbiology, and other fields to show that nature has a measurable effect on human mental health. She delves into the findings from alternative approaches, such as nature prescriptions, forest bathing, and ecotherapy. She also emphasizes the inequities in access and connection to nature, as seen in the tight correlation between socioeconomic status and health outcomes.
Though the book is packed with powerful research, I was surprised by how personal and poetic it is. In describing her recovery from alcoholism, Jones writes at length about the impact of seeing the tree out her window: “Nature picked me up by the scruff of my neck, and I rested in her teeth for a while. … I was caught, a burr on the leg of her, hooked on wonder and abundance.”
Though I could not personally relate to some of Jones’ experiences, I could absolutely relate to the feelings nature conjured in her. Awe, she says, increases happiness and lowers stress. It makes us more ethical, kind, and generous. And perhaps most importantly, she writes, we can only get this from going outside: “Awe is Earth’s signature.” —Breanna Draxler
Poet Warrior: A Memoir by Joy Harjo
“She would now be called ‘Poet Warrior’
To assist in making her path on this earth
In times that would need what poetry
Could bring, for knowledge,
Compassion, and healing
And could be used as a tool for digging and defense
To unearth the truth, when needed.”
I picked up Poet Warrior because it was a Peak Pick at the Seattle Public Library, ended up buying my own copy, and want to give it as a gift as well. It continues the life story that U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo began in her first memoir, Crazy Brave. She writes about how she became a poet, her family, her tribe, the land, plants, and her teachers. Interspersed are poems she wrote, as well as a few poems by other writers who inspired her.
The book is about her journey, and her prose description of it is as poetic as the actual poems. There is a strong justice theme, and her values around teaching come through: “Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way through the dark.” She shares many lessons she has learned in her travels and that she, too, is still a student: “Some teachers are places, are oceans and mountains. Some are insects crawling the earth or flying. I am still learning.” It’s time for us to learn from Joy Harjo. —Audrey Watson
BOOKS FOR CHILDREN
The Awakening of Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson
Superhero origin stories have a common formula: The hero struggles with hardship, experiences an epiphany, and ends up fighting for justice. It is rare to find such narrative arcs in real life, but author Ilyasah Shabazz has written just such a story for young readers, The Awakening of Malcolm X, about her own father. The man who would grow up to become one of the most iconic figures in the Black Power movement and in American history spent his formative years struggling to find his way.
Malcolm X was indelibly shaped by incarceration, experiencing firsthand the cruelty of an institution that has trapped untold numbers of young Black people across generations. Shabazz fictionalizes the story of her father’s youth in a format that is readable and inspiring, especially for young people who might have first been exposed to the contemporary struggle for racial justice during the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings. —Sonali Kolhatkar
Christopher the Ogre Cologre, It’s Over! by Oriel María Siu
A new children’s book by Honduran academic and author Oriel María Siu explores the European settler colonialism of North America through clever rhymes and fictional monsters. Dr. Siu, as she calls herself, pulls no punches in taking on the horrors of Christopher Columbus’ exploits in Christopher the Ogre Cologre, It’s Over! Centered on a young female protagonist, this is the second in Siu’s Rebeldita the Fearless series.
With so few children’s books written by and for people of color, Siu’s new offering gives young Black and Brown children historical lessons to prepare them for an educational curriculum based on reality rather than the gauzy triumphalism of conventional history books. “This story of Cologre has not often been heard,” writes Siu. “But I’m telling the truth—this really occurred.” In contrast to the aggressive conservative targeting of critical race theory, this children’s book is unapologetic, retelling history from the point of view of survivors rather than colonizers. —Sonali Kolhatkar
When You Look Up is a gorgeously illustrated children’s book that shows how empathy flows from imagination and storytelling. When Lorenzo moves with his mother to a new town, he’s more interested in his cellphone than his surroundings—but that changes when he discovers a notebook hidden in an old desk. The notebook contains whimsical stories that stir his imagination and send him out exploring in order to better understand them. Readers move between the richly textured paintings that depict Lorenzo’s world and the bright cut-paper stories of the notebook as the two worlds begin to collide. Written and illustrated by Decur, a self-taught cartoonist and illustrator from Argentina, this oversize book is a true work of art that will enchant people of all ages. This book is available in both English and Spanish. —Natalie Lubsen
Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long
This book was supposed to be a Christmas present for my 2-year-old, but we were both too excited to unwrap it. With its bright illustrations and lyrics, the story could easily be sung rather than read (by someone with a better singing voice than mine). As the protagonist enlists neighborhood kids to join in her music-making, they engage in neighborhood projects along the way—cleaning up trash in the park, delivering groceries, and building a wheelchair ramp. Though marketed for ages 4–8, neither the themes nor the vocabulary are out of reach for younger ages. My daughter’s questions are the perfect opportunity to talk about making a difference in our community, as well as the need for equity despite the differences that make people unique.
The story speaks to our current moment of racial reckoning—“take a knee to make a stand”—as well as the rich history of activism it’s built on—“I dream with the cries of tried-and-true dreamers.” The final scene is a community mural of the growing parade of children under the words “We are the change.” It ends with an invitation to sing along. Which my daughter, partner, and I really can’t help but do, again and again. —Breanna Draxler