With the exception of a few years in college, I have lived in communities filled with people mostly similar to me. As a result, I have had to reach out of my little bubble and seek resources to learn how to improve as a friend, neighbor, and colleague to BIPOC and LGBT+
I learn best through the written word, so much of my journey has happened through reading others’ stories. Recently, I have seen several non-fiction book lists circulating focused on systematic racism. Those lists are fantastic and comprehensive, so I won’t try to add to them. However, if you are looking for some good reads in the memoir and fiction genres, here are a few that allowed me to see life beyond my bubble.
Being a better human is a lifelong journey… what books do you suggest I read next?
An American Marriageby Tayari Jones – When a book is chosen for Oprah’s list, the hype often creates unrealistic expectations. I certainly fell into this trap with this one. My initial thoughts upon reading: “good book but kind of slow.” However, many months later, I still think about this book. A story that takes time to digest, as it should.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez – Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. Boy and girl fall in love. But young love is far more complex when both boy and girl, and their entire community, are Latin American immigrants—both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – When suburban blue-eyed tots go missing, their faces are plastered across every media outlet imaginable. But what about the countless other children that also disappear? While set in the Siberian peninsula, this story could have easily been told anywhere in the United States.
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger – Often, I try to seek understanding by reading about lives far different than mine. However, sometimes I learn the most from books that hit closest to home—a required read for all my fellow bubble dwellers.
The Great Believersby Rebeccah Makkai – A National Book award short-lister. The Eighties AIDS epidemic, shared honestly and vulnerably through fiction.
The Handmaid’s Taleby Margaret Atwood – This one had much hype as of recent, thanks to the award-winning series on Hulu. And it lives up to it and then some. A cautionary tale on how quickly a society’s norms can shift for the worst.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng – Long before it became a Kerry Washington / Reece Weatherspoon Hollywood sensation, this book rode the word-of-mouth wave in my neck of woods – Northeast Ohio. Set in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, this page-turner carefully threads in the privilege discussion.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – There was a season in my early to mid-twenties where I read nothing but chick lit. See Bridget Jones Diary and its various knockoffs. I’m a *wee* bit older now, and stories of “single girl on the town with her hodgepodge of quirky friends” typically do not land like they used to. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed getting to know the character Queenie, a Jamaican British woman living in London, a young woman trying to figure out life amidst the complications of mental illness and race.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen – 2016’s Pulitzer winner. The book’s narrator straddles life – as a communist double-agent, as a half-Vietnamese/half-French man, as a resident of Saigon and LA. This book straddles both thrilling and thinking.
There, There by Tommy Orange – Multiple Native American characters and storylines crisscross throughout the book, converging at a PowWow in Oakland, California. Nearly all the Native American novels I had read previously were centered on a reservation or some other equally desolate location. So it was enlightening to get a glimpse of the lives of urban Native Americans. Another book that still gnaws at me months later.
American Prison by Shane Bauer – I have never set foot in a prison. But thanks to the author’s vivid storytelling, I feel like I was walking the rounds with him as he worked at a private prison in Louisiana. A fascinating memoir, threaded with history and current trends in the penal system.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – This book is not my life. Which is exactly why I needed to read it.
Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah – You do not need to be an avid Daily Show follower to appreciate Noah’s memoir. In fact, the show is on way past my bedtime, so I have actually never seen him on it. However, his accounts of growing up in apartheid South Africa were uncomfortably riveting. An absolute must-read.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson – Normally, I probably would not have picked this one up. Prison stories are just not my thing. But it’s persistence on the top of the Amazon Best Sellers list, and my effort to read outside my comfort zone, nudged me to give it a try. And I am so glad I did as it really was not about prison at all.
The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantu – Cantu is a Mexican-American. He was also a US Border Patrol agent. If you want a border story that is light on political rhetoric, but heavy on humanity, this is it.
Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change by Ellen Pao – Ellen’s lawsuit against a top Silicon Valley venture capital firm kicked off a long-overdue movement to bring diversity and inclusion to technology. There’s much more work to do, but the future of women and people of color in tech looks much brighter due to Ellen’s bravery.
Young Adult & Middle Grades
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – I heard this book was banned by some school districts, so I had to read it. I am wild like that. This coming-of-age book, set on a Native American Reservation, immersed me in a culture I should know more about. (Young Adult)
Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac – Both my boys read this for school, and both absolutely loved it. Based on a true story, it shares how American Indian’s used their native tongue to aid the war effort. (Middle Grades)
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander – My oldest told me I HAD TO READ THIS. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the book was actually a poem in disguise. Beautiful prose and beautiful storyline. (Middle Grades(
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – If you read just one book from all my recommendations, this is the one. Our racial divide told through the eyes of an inner-city-living, prep-school-going teen girl. There are no lectures and no politics. Just compelling storytelling that will stay with you for long afterward. (Young Adult)
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L Sanchez – Being a teenager sucks. But mix in being a first-generation American with a recently deceased (and idolized) sister, and things get even more complicated. Julia, the main character, is written so authentically that you sometimes think she is real. (Young Adult)
What If It’s Us By Becky Albertalli – An old, fashioned teenage romance novel with a refreshing nowadays spin – the lead characters are two teen boys. (Young Adult)
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American Cityby Matthew Desmond – Desmond lived in trailer parks and the inner city to better understand the housing insecure. I felt his take was nuanced – holding the system, the landlords, and the renters all accountable.
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder – Those “Tiny Home” home-improvement shows are so addictive – chuck consumerism in favor of a small abode and simple lifestyle. However, for some Americans, the nomadic RV lifestyle is complicated and more financial necessity than choice.
The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark – Like many, when I heard about the water crisis in Flint, I was confused about how it could have possibly happened in this age of governmental regulation and environmental awareness. This is how.
The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell – Some of the past few years’ most iconic images were of submerged citizens and their homes in Houston, Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys. With sea level on the rise, hurricanes intensifying, and coastal development continuing, these scenes will become increasingly commonplace, disproportionally affecting people of color and the poor.