Welp, that year is over. Not to say that a specific space of time can be a crapshow but hell if 2016 wasn't. That said, I think it showed more than ever the importance of books. You can find solace in them as well as inspiration. As per usual, my initial blog posts for the new year are to celebrate what I enjoyed in the previous year: Books and Dessert. So here's the latest in terms of the best books I read in 2016 (not ones that necessarily released that year).
When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz (2012) - Lemme preface for you that this was the year of poetry for me and you'll be seeing a bunch of it on this year's list. I had heard of Natalie's work before and read a piece here and there to which I quickly understood her genius in painting a powerful image with her words. But dang if this collection as a whole didn't blow me away! The titular piece alone is enough to make you delve in but pieces like "The Last Mojave Indian Barbie" and "How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs" show a wonderful dexterity of prose, poetry, metaphor, and imagery. If you haven't read this collection I'll sit here and wait until you do.
Blue Hallelujahs by Cynthia Manick (2016) - Cynthia was a guest on my podcast in it's first year and it's amazing to me this is her debut though her work has been published widely. This book is an introduction into the familial life and also the struggles and mostly the joys of a Black family. I gobbled this book up after leaving her launch party and quickly recommending it to friends.
The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter by Kia Corthron (2016) - As I've said again and again, do not be scared off by the 796 page count of this tome. It's a sweeping story of brotherhood over several generations from the beginning of the second World War through the Civil Rights movement to a few years ago. It's at once heartbreaking, engaging, and holds a mirror up to ourselves in terms of the duplicity of being on a side of history that means you can do horrible things and still survive it but lose a lot in the process. The research and people Corthron presents on the page are fully fleshed out, and for me, if you can hook me into your characters I'll stay for the entire ride. I had no problem on this journey and eagerly suggest others join in on it. After this year it's a tome we need.
March (Books 1-3) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell (2014-2016) - Book Three won this year's National Book Award for Young People's Literature, but in all honesty the content and presentation of March transcends all ages of readers. This book got me emotional, John Lewis is one of the last living of the Six Civil Rights Leaders at the height of the Movement. He's seen a lot and endured just as much and he's a man who loves books and people. His strength gives you strength with each panel and to see the dedication of him and so many others in history gives us a blueprint for the future and insight into our past. I'm thankful for John and for this series. Seriously, if you haven't read it and I do not know WHY you have not now is the time. RIGHT now.
Saga (Volumes 1-6) by Brian K. Vaughn and illustrated by Fiona Staples (2012-2016) - This was a comic book series that was hyped up to me soon after it's publication. And you know how I feel about things that are hyped up: Suspicious. Is it really that good? I went ahead and splurged on the first available six volumes of the series so I could binge on it up to mid-2016 to see how the forbidden Romeo/Juliet style romance between Marko and Alana is realistic, fantastical, and tugs at the heartstrings. You root for them as a struggling couple and new parents. How far will they go for their child and to save each other when at their worst and best? This series shows that you don't have to do a lot of bells and whistles for science fiction, you can give us the human element, diversity, and a great bit of action all in one that builds up to who-knows-what at the end of the day.
Poet: The Remarkable Life of George Moses Horton written and illustrated by Don Tate (2015) - In the debate on "smiling slaves" in other picture books I think Don's book was not given as much visibility as it deserved. What Don accomplishes in the telling and illustration of the life of George Moses Horton is that he does not dumb down anything at all. George is never truly "free" until very late in life. There is a reality behind the pain of slavery but also the personal satisfaction and vindication of knowing that you can succeed on your own and in certain ways despite your situation. In that sense, while a slave, George is always human and a man who is worthy of the voice he shares.
Booked by Kwame Alexander (2016) - Dare I say I loved this book more than The Crossover? Dare I say it??? This is a book I was so happy to get an early peek at and the life of Nick, the pending separation of his parents, his ever widening vocabulary while at the same time he has a lot of trouble communicating with the girl he likes, the soccer championship, his own insecurity and having to go against his best friend in said soccer championship is a welcome read with PoC kids at the center that is so relatable it makes me so very glad it exists.
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste (2015) - The titular jumbies are no joke folks! Baptiste does not pull punches when it comes to writing this middle grade novel about demons that have different characteristics on an island in Trinidad. Corinne La Mer will learn her connection to these creatures as well as the history as well as how that also ties into Caribbean folklore and our own in the United States. Fast paced and creepy The Jumbies is a book I'd heartily tell you to read and share with your kids...with the lights on.
The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig (2016) - Heilig's debut spans time, history, and many continents. Time travelers with a lot to lose make this a unique story weaving real history with an imagined one, the rules are clear and possibly a big issue for the main characters in this text. I enjoyed this book from start to finish even with the possible intro of a love triangle, at no point does Heilig ever pacify the reader but her intent is clear and works very well throughout. I'm looking forward to the sequel due out later this year.
The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin (2010) - When you have the opportunity to read a bunch of Baldwin be it speeches, essays, interviews, and so on you do it! There's so much to take from Baldwin's words and to have this overflow of interests as well as considerations from Baldwin on race, sexuality, writing, locale makes this a book a must have if you already (or don't) have Baldwin on your shelves.
The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward (2016) - After reading this collection I went back on a Baldwin blitz . I read the above as well as what this book responds to of Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. Every piece in this collection is strong as heck especially the poetry interludes from Jericho Brown, Natasha Tretheway, and Clint Smith. Mitch Jackson's "Composite Pops" and Carol Anderson's brief "White Rage" are just a few of the essays that talk to the wider scope of pain that Blacks feel but don't simply put it up for show but analyze and dissect it so that those of us who already understand find solace in this piece while, hopefully, others find understanding.
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz (2014) - This is one of those books that'll piss you off after reading it. But it's a necessary read to hear about the massacres of Native American people within the United States and Mexico at the hands of colonialists. This is the history lesson we don't hear about. It's the lesson that's swept under the table to protect feelings for some and keep many of us in the dark. It's a book you need to seek out and read to learn what forced assimilation and genocide really mean and how this nation was built on it. It's what will help you understand the audacity of the mindset of many that this is their land when really that narrative is fictional in so many ways.
Counting Descent by Clint Smith (2016) - I was introduced to Clint's work after reading his poetic contribution to The Fire This Time. It gutted me, so when I heard he had a new book coming out I needed to have it. Like Manick's debut Clint's also looks at the Black family dynamics as well as the personal, relationships are at the heart of this collection and he weaves these poems with a clarity that doesn't weigh you down.
Look by Solmaz Sharif (2016) - Told you there'd be a bunch of poetry on this list! A 2016 National Book Award finalist in poetry, Solmaz's debut has been lauded and for good reason. Look forces you to see the issues and doesn't hold back in terms of the political climate as well as how war, racism, and patriotism among other themes featured. This is a book you need to read more than once and it's also a book you need to sit with because there are a variety of poems you'll find yourself saying "umph" after finishing that last sentence.
Other very notable books I read this year include American Street by Ibi Ziboi, Delicious Foods by James Hannaham, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis, Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung, Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett, Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie & illustrated by Yuyi Morales, and The Last Interview Series from Melville Press.