The Best Books of 2018
Choosing a favorite book is always the most impossible decision. Authors say it’s like choosing a favorite child. For readers, it’s more like choosing a favorite molecule of air to breathe. It’s air, for crying out loud. We’re generally in favor.
Nevertheless, as the year winds down toward its close, we find ourselves reflecting on the very best literature that 2018 had to offer. No small task! Thousands upon thousands of books were published this year. Here at the shop, we read quite a few. Over 150 were recommended to you right here on the blog. And those were sometimes hard to choose. It’s no wonder that this post is several weeks in the making.
The twenty-five titles below represent our very favorites from a wonderful year in publishing. You’ll find books for readers of all ages and inclinations. Books about food, books about war, books about spies, books about poverty, books about crime, books about race, and gender, and sexuality, and love. And that’s the beautiful thing about books, really. There’s always something for everyone. Books have the power to transform, unite, inspire, excite, and delight us. They can show us our own lives; they can show us lives that we otherwise couldn’t imagine. They can show us the lives of potatoes.
Feel free to browse through all twenty-five titles, from picture books all the way through weighty nonfiction, or use the links below to jump straight to the section of your choice. Be sure to read the author Q&As, where applicable (we’ve done a few of those this year, too). They are, to a one, wonderful. It’s always nice to learn more about the people who tell such splendid stories. And do come and visit us in the shop sometime soon—we’re creating a display full of these selections. And books, unequivocally, make the best gifts.
PICTURE BOOKS | MIDDLE GRADE | YOUNG ADULT | GRAPHIC NOVELS | ADULT FICTION | ADULT NONFICTION | COOKBOOKS
Carmela Full of Wishes
by Matt de la Peña; Illustrated by Christian Robinson
It's Carmela's birthday and she gets to spend it with her big brother, running errands in the neighborhood. Throughout the trip, she searches for the perfect wish. With her brother's help, she finds just that. Matt de la Peña's beautiful language combine with Christian Robinson's signature illustrations to create a timely book for everyone to enjoy. Highly recommended.
Crash, Splash, or Moo!
by Bob Shea
Welcome to a crazy game show hosted by Mr. McMonkey! Action Clam and Cow compete to win a golden banana—and you need to guess whether they will crash, splash or moo on each stunt. A silly, very fun story that will delight all readers!
Read a Q&A with the author on our blog.
What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?: The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan
by Chris Barton; Illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Chris Barton tells the remarkable story of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, from her childhood in Houston through her time in politics to her teaching career at the University of Texas. He frames the story around her distinctive, powerful voice and reminds the reader of the difference Jordan made in our country. Gorgeous illustrations highlight the story of this outstanding public servant. For every school and library in Texas, as well as family bookshelves.
by Laurie Keller
Potato cannot wait to buy a pair of pants at Lance Vance's Fancy Pants Store, but a mean Eggplant is in the way so Potato waits and watches as the other potatoes show off their new clothes. Potato gets more and more frustrated and finally confronts Eggplant with a surprising result. Slapstick humor combined with Laurie Keller's storytelling make this an uproarious new picture book!
by Jacqueline Woodson
Six 5th and 6th grade students find themselves with one hour a week to discuss whatever they want. At first, they don't speak much at all. But as the school year goes by, they open up about their very different lives. Haley's mom is dead and her father is in prison. Esteban's father has gone missing. Ashton is bullied and Holly struggles with her ADHD. Woodson's writing is spare and elegant, yet accessible. The Blue Willow staff read this together this summer and highly recommend it for all.
Mac B., Kid Spy #1: Mac Undercover
by Mac Barnett; Illustrated by Mike Lowery
When Mac Barnett was a child, he spied for the Queen of England. No, really, he did. Here are some of the stories of his adventures. The voice in this series is perfect, as are Mike Lowery’s illustrations. This series will appeal to so many different kinds of readers who will enjoy laughing aloud while they might actually learn something about Mac, spies, and the world around them!
Read a (totally serious) Q&A with the author on our blog.
The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle
by Leslie Connor
Mason Buttle is the biggest, sweatiest kid in his grade and struggles to read and write. But those are the least of his troubles, compared to his struggle to overcome the death of his friend Benny in the Buttle family orchard. When his new friend Calvin disappears, Mason is under more suspicion. His struggle to find Calvin and heal the rifts in his heart and his community will capture readers' hearts. I love Mason Buttle—the voice Leslie Connor gave him, his dear sweet heart, and his courage to revisit the loss of a friend. Like Out of My Mind, Mason's story reminds us to see those who don't easily fit in; to love and support them whenever possible. A lovely novel for grades 4 and up.
The Parker Inheritance
by Varian Johnson
Twelve-year-old Candice and her mother are spending the summer in Lambert, South Carolina, in her grandmother’s old house, where she discovers a letter containing a puzzle promising a fortune to the town and to the person who solves it. Together with neighbor and fellow book-lover Brandon, Candice unravels each clue, revealing the town’s secrets and hidden history. From the author of The Great Greene Heist comes a smart, Westing Game-like puzzle mystery that skillfully addresses historical racial segregation, present-day discrimination, friendship, love, and bullying. Highly recommended for 5th graders and above—including adults!
Read a Q&A with the author on our blog.
The Poet X
by Elizabeth Acevedo
High school sophomore Xiomara Barista hovers on the cusp of adulthood, struggling to identify her place in her family and neighborhood. She details her neighborhood, her growing interest in a boy, and her twin brother's distancing of himself through perfectly chosen words that offer a glimpse into her emotional journey. Acevedo has created a gorgeous coming of age novel in verse that should be read by teens and adults alike. Remarkable.
The Last Best Story
by Maggie Lehrman
Rose and Grant have been close friends since they started working on the school paper when they were freshmen. They were going to change the world, one story at a time. Now it's prom night and they're not close anymore. The reasons why are revealed against the backdrop of the prom, complete with a prom crasher, an emergency lockdown, and an after party. It's romantic comedy you can't put down that has depth, great voices, and strong characters. A sure winner for grades 9 and up!
Children of Blood and Bone
by Tomi Adeyemi
Zélie was born with magic in her blood. As a child, she watched helplessly as an oppressive government hunted down and killed her people, including her magic-wielding mother. Amari and Inan were born into royalty, children of the genocidal king who led the deadly crusade. In this stormy series-starter from Tomi Adeyemi, the lives of these three narrators collide in spectacular fashion, throwing the future of their shared kingdom into uncertainty. Full of rich characters and strengthened by its dose of West African mythology, Children of Blood and Bone delivers both as a heroic fantasy adventure and as a vivid allegory in the time of Black Lives Matter. Best for ages 14 and up.
The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang
Sebastian is a prince with a big secret, and Frances is a talented seamstress who crosses his path. He’s losing his footing as he walks a knife-edge between joy and shame; she could catch him at the risk of cutting herself. Graphic novelist Jen Wang has created a charming fable set in fin-de-siècle Paris that’s full of beautiful period details and clever visual gags. More than that, she’s placed memorable and expressive characters in a tender, sweet story—Sebastian and Frances are 16, and they discover one another just as they’re discovering themselves. A lovely, gender-fluid fairytale about the importance of loving oneself.
by Ngozi Ukazu
Eric Bittle is from Georgia and loves skating, baking, and vlogging. This funny, charming graphic novel details his first two years on the hockey team at Samwell College in Massachusetts. We meet his teammates, watch his vlogs and cheer for him as he tries to get past his fear of being checked. Along the way, Eric comes out to his teammates, falls in love, and begins to find a place for himself on campus. I cannot wait for volume two!
An American Marriage
by Tayari Jones
What a glorious novel about love, parenthood, and marriage. Roy Jr. and Celestial have returned to Elon, Louisiana, for a fraught visit to the home where Roy grew up with stern but loving parents. They spend the night at a local motel where they are awakened by the police, who arrest Roy for the rape of a motel guest. He’s innocent, but is nevertheless convicted and sent to jail for twelve years. Roy and Celestial write letters to one another in an attempt to safeguard and salvage their marriage through his prison term. Jones has drawn such complete characters that I felt like I was there in prison with Roy, in Celestial’s shop, or at Roy's childhood home. A must-read.
by Madeline Miller
We all know Circe as the witch that Odysseus encounters in Homer's epic, but before that she was the daughter of a titan and a nymph, living an isolated eternity in her father's household as power changed hands from the ancient Titans to the brazen Olympians. Upon learning that she and her siblings were born with the powers of sorcery, the young gods see fit to banish Circe to the island of Aeaea to live out her endless days alone. However, even the vengeful gods can become bored after a few millennia, and Circe attempts to find a way to live a meaningful life within the confines of her banishment. Though our protagonist is a goddess, this story is a powerful testament to humanity. Miller has once again taken threads of myth and rewoven them into a story that is bound to become a modern classic.
— Madeline (not Miller)
by Tommy Orange
In this series of interconnected stories of contemporary Native Americans who live in Oakland, California, the author uses the English language with breathtaking virtuosity to bare the soul of a culture that has lost a great deal of itself, searching for the There that is no longer there. The many characters are all urban Indians—full-blooded, half-breed, quadroons, sixteenths—whose families have lived in Oakland for decades, producing college students, drop outs, postal workers, social workers, janitors, unwed mothers, alcoholics, wife beaters, and young men who are trying to make some extra money by robbery. As the characters' stories unfold, the focus of their lives becomes the Big Oakland Powwow, and, as the event approaches, the tension builds toward a satisfying denouement. This is truly an amazing work of literary brilliance that reveals an often-ignored aspect of this country's diverse social history. Highly recommended.
Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen
by Sarah Bird
A worthy entry into the canon of strong female protagonists, Bird's new novel imagines the life of a real historical figure, Cathy Williams, a former slave, who, after the Civil War, enlisted in the Buffalo Soldiers disguised as a man. Narrated by Cathy, whose voice will stay with readers for a long time, this novel is part history (well-researched), part adventure (some rather vivid descriptions of the horrors of war and interracial and inter-class violence), and part love story (Cathy falls in love with her commanding officer). Bird has done an excellent job combining historical facts with a credible story of some unforgettable characters in this story of the life of a remarkable woman. Recommended.
The Wedding Date
by Jasmine Guillory
Alexa and Drew meet in an elevator and both notice their mutual attraction. Drew asks Alexa to be his date at a wedding that weekend and they have far more fun than either anticipated. But Drew's work is in Los Angeles, while Alexa's is in Berkeley. Despite the distance, they can't stop thinking about each other and try to make a long distance relationship work. A clever romance full of believable characters who find their way to a happy ending. Such fun!
Read a Q&A with the author on our blog.
Then, read another one. (No, really.)
While you're at it, check out the semi-sequel.
A Shout in the Ruins
by Kevin Powers
The ruins of war are long lasting—the Civil War is still alive in parts of the south. Kevin Powers mines this subject beautifully—and darkly—in his second novel. From the power-hungry plantation owner who buys his neighbor's land while he is away fighting, leaving him with nothing, to the elderly George being evicted from his 1950s home to make way for a new highway in Richmond, we learn powerful lessons of love, regret, fear, and the pervasive, horrid ways we treat our fellow man. Each story rings sorrowfully true. Highly recommended.
by Sarah Smarsh
Written as a letter to an unborn child, Heartland dives deeply into the rural poverty that Smarsh’s family has been a part of for generations. Strong women facing difficult odds raise Sarah. It's part memoir and part commentary on the cultural and monetary divide in middle America. Smarsh lays out succinctly how it is nearly impossible for people to "pull themselves up from their bootstraps" and how invisible they are to the privileged class. It's a must-read.
Read a Q&A with the author on our blog.
The Library Book
by Susan Orlean
In 1986, the Los Angeles Public Library burned. The fire raged for more than seven hours; over one million books were damaged or destroyed. The Library Book starts off like a gripping true crime investigation into the arson, then transforms. As the narrative picks up steam, Orlean weaves a skein of diverging threads into the plot. Some are personal—parts of the book read like a memoir. Some are told chronologically, others in bits and pieces. And some are there just for the hell of it. Along the way, Orlean dabbles in investigative journalism, packs in plenty of cameos by larger-than-life historical figures, and waxes poetic on the importance of shared public space. In the end, The Library Book emerges as much more than the story of a fire. It’s an ode to librarians, a celebration of stories, and a history of LA through the lens of its libraries. Orlean writes with catching enthusiasm—you'll be engrossed before you know it. Highly recommended.
The Spy and the Traitor
by Ben Macintyre
John Le Carré calls this "the best spy story I have ever read," and I'm inclined to agree. Two things make it such: first is Macintyre's brilliant storytelling capability, and second is the fact that it's a true story, thoroughly researched and spine chilling in its detail. Oleg Gordievsky was a KGB agent in the 1970s and 1980s who became disillusioned with the Soviet system and decided to live the increasingly complicated life of a double agent, working for Britain's M16. Stationed in London in the late 1980s, he fed valuable information to the British at a crucial time in Russia's relationship with Britain and the U.S. He was eventually betrayed by the infamous Aldrich Ames of the CIA. Macintyre interviewed many of the actors in this drama, and the result is a vivid and exciting story that kept me on the edge of my seat while reading. Highly recommended.
The Best Cook in the World
by Rick Bragg
There are few Southern writers more revered than Rick Bragg. His Alabama roots have nurtured his take on the rural South. In this ode to his sweet mama, he pairs a lifetime of stories with down-home recipes. The kitchen is the crossroads of all that is family, and each generation brings their own approach to the table. Enjoy every story and try a few recipes—I love the pimento cheese!
The Noma Guide to Fermentation
by René Redzepi & David Zilber
We've all learned that it's all about the gut when it comes to healthy eating. The people at NOMA are dedicated to finding ways to incorporate fermented foods into our recipes. With a well-rounded amount of detail about the whys, they inspire those of us to stretch and find new flavors and foods. This is for your resident mad scientist!
Now & Again
by Julia Turshen
Following up on her wonderful first book, Small Victories, Julia Turshen again guides us through ideas and recipes for using what we have in our pantry and refrigerator. What works the best are her sidebars: they are chock full of ways to tweak a recipe to accommodate palates and pantries. She thinks like a real cook. Use it up. Try something different.