The Best Books of 2023
Can it be that the sun is setting on another year of reading? As the leaves turn—and as we all turn our heads to holiday gifts—our Blue Willow booksellers have curated a list of some of their favorite books of the year to recommend for you.
The below list is divided into categories: Picture Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult Fiction, Adult Nonfiction, and Cookbooks. Each book includes a personal review written by one of our booksellers. We hope that they help to guide you toward your next great read—or gift.
As always, we love to share personalized recommendations. Stop in and talk with us. We look forward to helping you find just what you're looking for.
Without further ado, we are very happy to present to you Blue Willow's Best Books of 2023!
by Jason Reynolds; illustrated by Jerome Pumphrey & Jarrett Pumphrey
Every once in a while, you read a picture book that is a sublime partnership between author and illustrator. This is one of those books. Reynolds's gorgeous poem celebrating Langston Hughes and the artists he inspired are paired with Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey's signature illustrations. Every detail is perfect and my heart is full every time I read this gorgeous book.
by Emma Straub; illustrated by Blanca Gómez
Kids of any age will delight in this colorful, imaginative book about hats. Can a bowl be a hat? What about an acorn on your finger? All ideas are welcome. A celebration of creativity... and, well, hats!
by Mac Barnett; illustrated by Christian Robinson
Mac Barnett's signature language and Christian Robinson's signature illustrations combine into a spectacular picture book that is a perfect fit for homes, libraries, classrooms - anywhere there's a reader with an imagination. Bravo!
by Brendan Wenzel
Author-illustrator Brendan Wenzel has done it again, creating a beautiful picture book filled with animals and joy and a sense of awe with the natural world. A gorgeous book to add to the collection of a little human you love…or your own.
by Gracey Zhang
Rubin loves the sounds made by his local orchestra and wants to learn to play the violin. When it's clear that his playing is less than perfect, he fervently practices under a vibrant forest. Once there, he finds a unique audience that boosts his confidence. A reminder to us all to keep our creative souls shining — and that you don't have to play perfectly to be a musician.
—Cathy & Liz
by Jon Klassen
Otilla has escaped a great danger and is running through the woods. She seeks refuge in a house on a hill and finds companionship in its keeper, a talking skull. Soon, the skull confides in Otilla that her brush with danger is not over yet: Each night, something terrible comes to the house, and it is up to Otilla to save them both. Klassen’s ink-and-graphite illustrations lend equal portions of chills and charm to his sparse and sturdy text. Subversive, foreboding, sublime.
by Gillian McDunn
Bex and Davey love hanging around the marsh in the summer, and they have their favorite place: The Thumb. They spend their days in a huge live oak tree, watching the crabs and the otters and getting to spend time away from the real world. There hasn't been any rain for a long time, and the drought means they discover a statue buried in the mud of the marsh. They also find out there is a plan to plow over their favorite hidden spot with a bridge and new construction. Suddenly, the summer becomes a race to find out more about the statue and to try to stop the construction from ruining their favorite hidden spot. But between the mystery and the worry, there's a lot more to the story. McDunn has crafted a beautiful piece of writing — not to be missed!
by Dave Eggers; illustrated by Shawn Harris
Johannes is a free dog who lives in a park by the sea. Each day, he makes his rounds and reports to the Bison, the Elders of the park. Things begin to change in the park and when Johannes commits a heroic act that brings scrutiny from the humans in the park, he has to make some decisions. With accompanying fine art landscapes into which Shawn Harris (Have You Seen a Flower) has inserted illustrations of Johannes, this is a gorgeous book, in both image and language. It's great as a read-aloud or a read alone. An utter joy!
by Kate DiCamillo; illustrated by Julie Morstad
A group of five puppets — a king, a wolf, a girl, a boy, and an owl — are purchased from a shop window and begin their journey. They are bought, sold, lost, and found until, through one remarkable play organized by two little girls, they discover their purpose. A beautiful little fairy tale that only Kate DiCamillo could write, full of joy, humor, adventure and love.
—Sandra & Aerie
by Rex Ogle; illustrated by Dave Valeza
With spot-on details, Four Eyes captures the struggles of middle school. Rex is nervous about the start of sixth grade. He hasn't had his growth spurt, his family doesn't have much money, and he needs glasses — which help him see clearly, but also magnify the target on his back. As Rex moves through his sixth grade year, he confronts bullying, new friends, and new perspectives that shape his life. An outstanding book about fitting in and figuring out a new way to look at life.
—Liz & Cathy
by Stephan Pastis
Saint is a precocious girl who likes pinatas, knights, Punch's Toy Farm, and the boy across the street, Daniel. When Punch's is torn down and Daniel's house is put up for sale, Saint is distraught. She spends her days trying to figure out how to save her town from these changes while her mom works late into the night. This magical, multilayered story follows Saint and Daniel as they grapple with loss, grief, and change. Pastis' black and white illustrations punctuate the depth of emotions felt by these memorable characters.
by Kathleen Glasgow & Liz Lawson
Castle Cove has a reputation for drama and incidents so it is no surprise when one takes place at the annual Sadie Hawkins dance. What does surprise everyone is Alice’s discovery of Helen Park standing over the bloody body of Rebecca Kennedy. After being spotted, Park makes a break for it, but Alice is quick on her tail as she calls for Iris' help with Kennedy. While the case appears to be an easy one to solve, Alice and Iris begin to doubt Park's ability of murder. They are, once again, determined to uncover what really happened that night. Highly recommended!
by Jamie Jo Hoang
A powerful book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience and the lasting trauma of war from local author Jamie Jo Hoang. Told in alternating viewpoints of Jane, in 1999, a high school senior, and her father, Phúc, in 1975, a boy fleeing war-ravaged Vietnam, the book is unflinchingly honest about the horrors of war, the lasting trauma unintentionally passed down, and the cost the American-born generation pays as they struggle to walk the fine line between their heritage and their home. Jane is desperate to escape her father's unpredictable anger, but worries who will protect her young brother Paul if she goes to college. In the alternating chapters, we hear her telling Paul about their father's perilous journey to escape the brutality after the war in Vietnam and how he faced a journey by boat with starvation, pirates, and confusion to finally arrive as a refugee in America.
by J. Elle
Ever since she can remember, Quell has been on the run with her mom, moving from place to place to hide Quell's magic. After an intruder tracks them down, Quell winds up with her grandmother, who runs the House of Marionne, a boarding school for those with magical powers. Lush world building, a swoony romance, and a new look at magic make this a read you won't want to put down!
by Angeline Boulley
Perry Firecatcher-Birch and her twin sister Pauline have been enrolled in their tribe's summer internship program, which helps teach the culture of their clan. Perry would rather be fishing. Her first assignment is to help at nearby Mackinac Island in the cataloging of Native American artifacts under the NAGPRA and MACPRA repatriation acts. But when Perry sees the unburied bones of possible ancestors as well as other precious artifacts, she is sickened. She steals heirloom seeds and, when caught, is fired and sent to her next assignment. This one involves the tribal police and missing teenage girls. She and her smart friends learn much about their culture as they help solve the mysteries. A great second book after Firekeeper's Daughter, whose main character Daunis is Perry's auntie.
by Jason June
All Riley Weaver wants is to become a member of the Gaybutante Society along with Sabrina, his lesbian best friend. Riley is femme and proud until obnoxious gay jock Skylar bets him that no masc cis gay man would ever want to date a femme like Riley. As his Gaybutante project, Riley decides to create a podcast detailing the dare, which his best friend Nick produces. Of course, complications ensue, feelings are hurt, and the story cleverly resolves itself. Like Riley, this novel is clever, funny, and full of acceptance. I loved it!
by Ann Napolitano
Captivating, heartbreaking, and endearing. This is a present-day homage to Little Women with four sisters who are very unique and who love each other fiercely. Through the course of the story events will splinter their relationships, and learning how they cope (or refuse to) makes this story one that you cannot put down. Amazing characters, true love, family dysfunction… this is a true masterpiece that should not be missed!
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Sally Milz is a writer on a sketch comedy show that airs live every Saturday evening. When pop star Noah Brewster guest hosts the show, he and Sally have an immediate connection that she destroys at the afterparty. Two years later, at the height of the COVID pandemic, Noah reaches out via email and the two of them reconnect, beginning a relationship with all the challenges of celebrity culture. This is a glorious stunner of a novel that I could not put down!
by Karin Lin-Greenberg
In the final days of a once-thriving local mall, a bookstore manager, a hair stylist, her son and her loyal client, and a food court cashier begin reevaluating their lives and choices, knowing a forced change is ahead. When a shocking act takes place in their midst, new and different changes occur — not only for them but for the entire community. Thought-provoking and lovely.
by Ann Patchett
In the spring of 2020, Lara's three adult daughters are home at the family cherry orchard in Northern Michigan. The girls want to hear about when their mom performed with a summer stock theater company called Tom Lake and briefly dated Oscar-winning actor Peter Duke. They've heard parts of the story before, but with time to spare and cherries to pick Lara reveals parts of the story her daughters never knew. This beautifully written family saga details the current lives of the family as they are together due to the pandemic and prompts Lara's daughters to reexamine their understanding of the world they thought they knew.
by Angie Kim
A Korean-American family in Virginia has their world toppled when the father doesn't come home after being out at a park with the youngest autistic son. Impossibly, Eugene, who has also been diagnosed with Angelman syndrome, arrives home disheveled, agitated; yet this bizarre state is ignored by his older sister, Mia. Mia, her twin brother, John, and their mom, slowly realize that Eugene, who doesn't speak, becomes the main suspect in this unthinkable incident. The investigation takes a threatening turn when detectives want to place Eugene in a detention unit which might or might not happen due to a Covid outbreak. As this suspenseful, touching story unfolds, perceptions about truth and happiness get questioned as do feelings about race and language. Is the ability to express oneself linked to intelligence? What influences someone’s happiness? Many secrets and misconceptions make this a dynamic, multifaceted novel. Angie Kim is a sublime writer. A must, must read!
by James McBride
The store in the title of this new novel by National Book Award winner McBride is a money-losing community center in the ethnically-mixed Pottstown, Pennsylvania, neighborhood of Chicken Hill. It's 1936, and Chicken Hill is home to Jewish working class immigrants from Romania, Bulgaria, and Lithuania who live side by side with Black Americans at a remove from the more respectable parts of the city. The shop is run by Chona, the disabled and very vocal wife of Moshe, who runs an integrated music hall. This is the setting for multiple story lines and some memorable characters, many of whom come together to rescue a 12-year-old deaf orphan who has been institutionalized. The stories told here explain as well as anything I've read — fiction and nonfiction — the difficulties faced by marginalized communities in early 20th century America. Highly recommended.
by Tracey Lange
Tara Connolly comes home to her brother, sister, and nephew after serving 18 months in prison on a drug trafficking charge. She loves them but there are so many issues facing them. And what is she to think about the fact that the police officer who put her away put money in her prison account? Her brother suffers from seizures brought on by a car accident which his father caused (before he ran from the family). Her sister is a hoarder and is not telling her boss at the bookkeeping firm the truth about her work. Brian Nolan, the police officer, has his own demons. But blood runs deep and they work through it and come out stronger.
by Alice Winn
Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood are dear friends and roommates at their boarding school. It's 1914 and the Great War has begun. Gaunt's family asks him to enlist to fight back against the anti-German sentiments they face and he does so immediately, both to help his family and to escape his feelings for Ellwood. Ellwood rushes to join him at the front, followed by so many of their classmates. The story of Gaunt and Ellwood's friendship and love, told through prose as well as letters, dispatches from the front, and school papers, brings home the devastating cost of war — its humanity as well as its inhumanity. Simply gorgeous.
by David Grann
The 1700s was the age of empire building for Europe. England and Spain were vying for supremacy on the high seas. In a climate of war, five English ships were sent out in convoy on a mission to seek Spanish galleons and claim them a prize; among the convoy was the HMS Wager. Their orders were to round Cape Horn and chase the Spanish through the Pacific, but the treacherous waters and terrific storms around the Horn had other plans. The convoy broken, the Wager was shipwrecked upon the rocks near a desolate island where her surviving men learned what true hardship and starvation can wreak upon one’s social graces. Strict naval order rapidly broke down. The more educated among the survivors kept careful diaries, one even frequently wrote out contracts for others to sign, so they could cover their backsides were they ever to return to England and tried and hanged for mutiny. The records were so sensational that they inspired fictional stories and influenced maritime odes in the years since. Any fan of maritime drama like Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander will enjoy shaking their heads in disbelief at this historical account of an ill-fated voyage on a tall ship and the incredible tales of her survivors.
by Ruth J. Simmons
An inspiring memoir from a native Texan that takes Ms. Simmons from a sharecropper's farm in East Texas to the hallowed halls of collegiate academia. As the youngest of twelve children, Ruth was spared some of the hardships and abuse handed out by her mercurial father. Her mother tried hard to keep the family afloat until her death. From the fields to the streets of the Fifth Ward, Ms. Simmons worked to educate herself in the Black-only schools where she thrived. After a college experience that was too social and too tame, she went on to be the president of Smith College, Brown University, and, most recently, of Prairie View A&M. Recommended for all ages, but every teenager should read this book and be moved to greater things!
by Michael Finkel
Art has been stolen for centuries. None have succeeded as art thieves as much as Stéphane Breitweiser. In almost 10 years he had pulled off more than two hundred thefts of art from many kinds from museums, cathedrals, and castles with the help of his girlfriend and lookout, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus. The two of them stole more than three hundred items until they were caught. Breitweiser was an unusual thief — he didn’t steal for profit. He stole for passion. This passion turned into an addiction, and ulitmately led to his downfall. This is a true story of how Stéphane and Anne-Catherine came to be a couple, their near decade-long crime spree, and how it all fell apart.
by Helen Ellis
Classic Helen Ellis humor in her new book of essays covering some of the more hilarious moments from her marriage, from its beginnings through its flourishing during the pandemic lockdowns, where she and her husband painted their TV room a bright coral and declared it the Coral Lounge. Laugh-out-loud funny and not to be missed! Personal favorites: the (hilariously long) email to the cat-sitter and "Woman under the influence of Joan Collins’ Dynasty."
by Cat Bohannon
A fascinating look into the female body and its importance over the past 200 million years. Discussing topics ranging from milk production to love, Bohannon presents many facts that many females, like myself, may have never known otherwise. Well written and recommended!
by Timothy Egan
Although this is primarily the story of one evil man who became very powerful in 1920s Indiana, it is also an expose of the zeitgeist of the 1920s, a decade that saw Prohibition, a harsh new anti-immigration law, and a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in America's midwest. D.C. Stephenson was a con-artist who became possibly the most powerful man in Indiana politics in the 1920s by attaching his personal charisma to the resurgent KKK movement and then buying judges, local politicians, police and even church leaders. As a Grand Dragon, the "Americanism" he preached was about the hatred of anyone who wasn't White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. In his private life, Stephenson was a liar, a cheat, a wife-deserter, a lush, and a predator on women. One of his attempted conquests was Madge Oberholtzer. Stephenson's brutal physical attack on Oberholtzer eventually led to Stephenson's arrest for murder, followed by a trial that revealed Stephenson's true character to the public. Whether or not this revelation led to the subsequent weakening of the Klan's hold on the minds of Indiana's population, it destroyed Stephenson's control of Indiana politics. Recommended especially to those interested in early 20th century U.S. history.
by Lois Ellen Frank
Years ago, I read a novel set in the Midwest in a restaurant where the the protagonist's parents had separate kitchens: One only cooked with ingredients from the "old world" and the other only cooked with ingredients from the "new world." Fast forward a few years, and I fell in love with Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. So I was immediately drawn to this in-depth study of using native plants in cooking. Frank provides lengthy, fascinating introductions to different foods that were part of the Native diet — from the harvesting to the seed saving. From this book, we have enjoyed two healthy bowls (zucchini, quinoa, and pinon salad, and sweet potato, kale and wild rice). Both were easy to make. My good friend Marta just recently brought us chile powder from her New Mexico trip. And I went to the intensive resource guide in the back to order Bineshii Ghost Wild Rice. What a treat. For the staff birthdays, it was pumpkin and ginger scones. Get adventurous, learn things, and eat well!
by JJ Johnson & Danica Novgorodoff
With beautiful photography and watercolor illustrations, this book takes a deep dive into that pantry staple from around the world — rice. Full of family recipes, new takes on old classics, and culturally significant dishes, this cookbook pulls recipes from around the globe to explore one of the most vibrant and lasting crops ever grown. Beginning with "Everyday Favorites" and moving through to dessert and drinks, there are so many great recipes in this book for both quick and simple meals as well as elaborate celebratory dishes that require more time in the kitchen. Two recipes jumped out at me to try immediately from this book — one a little more interesting and one a unique spin on a classic. The first, a recipe from South Africa called Geelrys, completely intrigued me. Spices, dried fruit, and brown sugar all go in the rice cooker along with chicken stock, butter and jasmine rice. What emerges is fluffed and topped with cashews and cilantro. My kids devoured it and I love that we’ve found a new side dish to keep in our repertoire! For a treat, I had to try the Coconut Tahini Crispy Rice Treats — a twist on the classic rice crispy treat. Sweetened with honey instead of marshmallows, it was nutty and delicious. This book will make a great addition to anyone's kitchen, and would even be a great coffee table book.
by America's Test Kitchen
America’s Test Kitchen's recipes are known for being delicious, solidly written, and predictably prepared. But what I really liked about this new cookbook was the format of planning whole themed meals, including mains, sides, desserts, and an adult beverage pairing, along with a timeline for preparation. One summer standout was a dessert from the book's Maine-inspired menu: lime possets with fresh raspberries. These are essentially little crust-free key lime pies served chilled in a small ramekin or jar (I suspect other citrus could be substituted with ease). These little desserts were tart, refreshing and simply perfect during our string of triple-digit days. As expected, the recipe is very exact and yields excellent results when followed to the letter. I have no doubt any of the recipes could stand very well on its own, but it is quite nice to have the guesswork taken out of what to serve alongside each one. This cookbook would make a fabulous gift for home cooks who enjoy hosting and are just looking for fresh ideas for whole menus with pretty much guaranteed results, start to finish.