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Season 4, Episode 4

Best of the Year Roundup

February 3, 2022

We're counting down our top 10 books of 2021. Book recommendations for young adult and middle grade readers.

Titles Mentioned in This Episode

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Charity 0:01 This is Charity and Jen of Planet Book brought to you by the Springfield-Greene County Library District. On each episode we discuss our favorite YA and middle grade books and anything else having to do with reading. Got a book or topic you'd like to hear us talk about email us at Thanks for joining us. Hey, Jen.

Jen 0:18 Hey.

Charity 0:19 This is a great episode, I'm excited to hear about your choices. We're talking about our top 10 books of 2021. Jen's gonna share five, I'll share five. And these aren't books necessarily that maybe came out in 2021, although some of them did. But they're our favorites that we read over the year, and everyone does their top of the year. So why not Planet Book? So here we are.

Jen 0:45 Right. And actually, I thought we had to keep it to 2021. So like, mine are probably all 2021.

Charity 0:53 Hey, that's great.

Jen 0:55 But I'll tell you lists like this are the hardest for me. It's like Sophie's Choice. It's so hard to put like-to rank something. You know I'm not a ranker. Like, I'm the kind of person I'd be fine if there weren't grades that, you know, like, tell me what to do and what I need improvement in and you don't have to grade something. So don't think of this as grades just-and I'm also going to try to pick things that weren't necessarily number one on these lists that I've looked at some of the list and these were my favorites that somehow are kind of not on the list.

Charity 1:31 Okay, I think that's a good point. I did not look at other lists, because I don't know I try not to look at lists too much. But I think some of mine are gonna be new, but some of them aren't. So they may not be on the radar for some readers. So let's just go ahead and kick it off. One of my favorite middle grade titles, and it was hard trying to find a middle grade title because honestly, 2021 I read mostly adult titles, and then YA and middle grade, not as much, but I really enjoyed Katherine Applegate's Willodeen. Have you read that one?

Jen 2:12 No, I haven't.

Charity 2:14 Oh, my gosh, it is a delightful, whimsical, light fantasy, is what I'd call it, and it's got these cute little creatures. And it's kind of a, it's like an eco story. Like, it kind of explores how humans impact their environment. And the very thing that they need to kind of sustain them and that everyone loves is what starts to go away because of how they are negatively doing damage, you know, doing damage to their, to the ecosystem and the nature. And so there's one little girl who recognizes this and her and a friend, and they try to, you know, make a change and turn the tide on that. But it is just so lovely. And they're creatures I want to-I can't remember what the creatures are called. I want to say they were called humming bears, humming bears. And it sounds like a cross between a hummingbird and a bear. And so they're these tiny little bears, and they sounded so cute and adorable. And like she would put it in her pocket. And it's like, oh my gosh, I wish this was a real creature that I could have as a pet. So, Katherine Applegate, she is a great writer. And for those middle grade fantasy readers, Willodeen was a really good one. And it's illustrated by Sophie Blackall, who's, you know, Caldecott award winning and so it's really lovely.

Jen 3:44 That one's on my to-read list because I love her. I love Sophie Blackall as well. I saw something that she had done the drawings for, and was like, oh, I need to read that.

Charity 3:56 Yes, it's very good.

Jen 3:57 Well, mine's also it's just going to be considered a graphic novel, but it's definitely-it's not sci fi. But here's the thing, you don't have to explain how time travel works to me, as long as in the book, the characters are doing it. I don't really want to know the details. So if you're looking for a time travel story that gets into the nuts and bolts of it, this isn't going to be for you. It's Jukebox by Nidhi Chanani and it's about a girl who can't find her dad and they have this shared love of music and going to record stores. And so she goes to one of his favorite spots and finds this jukebox and these notes and it ends up that she and her cousin or friend can go back in like if they play a record, they can go back to one of those concerts back in time. And so you get to see these kids getting to experience Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye.

Charity 5:09 Oh, wow.

Jen 5:10 Yeah, yeah. And you get to see how the father has, and the daughter have been able to like forge this love of music and experience by sharing this love of music. So I've really enjoyed this and at the very end, there's a playlist of everything. So I always love something with a, you know, an end cap list. That's always always fun for me. But the characters are Indian, the dad's white, the mom's Indian. And then the cousin is also I think Indian, but it's two young girls are the main main characters. And they nerd out over this music and they try to find the dad and anyway, it's really fun and the illustrations are super cute and colorful.

Charity 6:05 That sounds like a fun one. So, while you're talking, I am going to correct myself because I misspoke. Willodeen by Katherine Applegate is not illustrated by Sophie Blackall. And that's another book. So listeners you're getting like a bonus title here that is the Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

Jen 6:23 That was it, yes.

Charity 6:25 And you know if I can have an honorable mention, it would be that one, another fantasy with kind of a historical element. And it is wonderful and lovely. So that-Sophie Blackall illustrated the Beatryce Prophecy written by Kate DiCamillo which did come out in 2021. So there you go, an extra title for you for 2021.

Jen 6:45 Yes, and I will say that I loved Jukebox so much that I've already-I own a copy.

Charity 6:49 Oh wow.

Jen 6:50 It would be great to give as a gift to middle schoolers.

Charity 6:54 Okay.

Jen 6:55 I think boys or girls because if you've got a music nerd in your life, they are going to like this book.

Charity 7:04 That sounds incredible. I love the reference to all of those great legendary performers. So like, if middle grade readers don't know about them, they sound like they probably will be prompted to learn about them and listen to their stuff. That's awesome. Well, my next title I read not too long ago. It's a graphic novel. In our library system we have it catalogued as YA but I wasn't really sure why so it could also be middle grade. So let's just say this is like-it'd be a good middle grade YA crossover. It is virtually a wordless graphic novel, and it's called Oksi. Oksi by Mari Ahokoivu. And it is based on Finnish folklore. And this legend, again, people and how they're interacting with nature, and nature and kind of the spirit realm. The illustrations are, like watercolor, rather monochromatic with pops of warm colors like yellow and red. But it is just-it's haunting and beautiful. And it's real thick, but don't-like it's virtually wordless. So don't let that throw you if you see it on the shelf.

Jen 8:23 Yeah.

Charity 8:24 It is really, really beautiful. And I'll be honest, and say I'm not sure that I totally understood all of it. And I feel like I need to go back and kind of read a little bit about the folk tale that this story is based on. But for fans of graphic novels, it is gorgeous.

Jen 8:42 And I love books that do send you down that rabbit hole too. Like, oh, I don't know much about this folklore in this culture. Let me try to find out more because I feel like I'm missing something like I enjoyed it. But like, maybe I'm missing something.

Charity 8:57 Yeah. So I think if you did go down that rabbit hole, you know, like, I'd want to go back and read it again. With that understanding and, you know, you'd probably get even more meaning from it but Oksi. It was really beautiful.

Jen 9:11 Well, and I'm going to just briefly talk about this favorite because we interview the author. But I will say that probably one of my most recommended middle grade novels has been Ground Zero by Alan Gratz.

Charity 9:26 I was gonna put that on my list, but I thought well, I won't. But yeah, I would-I second that totally. I cosign totally.

Jen 9:33 Yeah. And briefly it's about a kid that was in the towers during 9/11 and a young girl that is in the conflict in Afghanistan. She is from Afghanistan and the Taliban is attacking her village. So you get to hear perspectives from young people. One in America in the 90s, I mean, sorry 2001 and then one in close to present day Afghanistan. And it really helped me understand the conflict in a way I wasn't able to until I read a piece of fiction. And I think I had avoided such a heavy topic and now that makes me sad that I had because now I understand it more from reading fiction. So, Ground Zero Alan Gratz.

Charity 10:24 Alan Gratz is amazing. Listeners, you've got to keep listening through this whole season because we interview him and he talks about this book and others. Oh, he is like the king of the middle grade thriller, like and historical fiction.

Jen 10:37 So good.

Charity 10:38 So, so good.

Jen 10:40 And sadly like I've been comparing a lot of my reads to this. It's like he set the bar really high.

Charity 10:47 He did and you know what I like he is such a good writer. I want him to write for adults like can you like, write more Alan Gratz. You're so good. Okay, well, I am going to cross over. I don't even know what title I'm on. Now. I think I've talked about two because that Beatryce Prophecy was like an extra. So I'm going to talk about one of my favorite YA titles that I read and I think it did come out in 2021 called What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo. Oh, my goodness. I read this near the end of ‘21 when I was in the mood for like, dark, scary, creepy things. And all I'm gonna say is that it's the story of, you know, a modern day girl who comes from a family of monsters who are able to shift from like monsters into normal looking humans. And kind of all hell breaks loose at some point in the story, but it is so fascinating. It's all these-every character is a different sort of animal monster creature. There's a little paranormal aspect. And even though it's YA it felt it didn't read like a teen novel it did. So I feel like this is another one that would be a good crossover for-

Jen 12:05 With What Big Teeth is a romance involved? Or is it a girl like in family conflict? Is it mainly one character or multiple?

Charity 12:15 Well, you really do see the whole family. There's not a romance. But the main character has to basically save her family.

Jen 12:24 Okay.

Charity 12:25 But they're a family of monsters and so there are a lot of complications that come with that.

Jen 12:32 I was just asking, because a lot of times with the paranormal monster thing there's, like, think Twilight, whatever. It's always romance. So this could be a great suggestion for the people that are like, please anything but romance.

Charity 12:45 No, there's no romance. This is strictly this protagonist dealing with her crazy monster family. And I would love to see this adapted for the big screen, I think it would be amazing. So that's What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo.

Jen 13:01 Okay. I'm going to talk about Nubia, the Real One. And it's a DC reboot of the character Nubia. And she is an African American superhero with two moms who are trying to keep her superpowers on the down low. And really is able to deal with the police brutality that is happening and has happened for a while with black youth. And imagine being a superhero handcuffed by a police officer, because you were pointed out as a suspect, because you were at the scene of a crime.

Charity 13:47 I'm intrigued.

Jen 13:48 And so because it is a DC superhero, it's not like it's super weighty and you have to like literature capital L. But it is a really good way to explore those topics and then feel like there's, you know, something you can do versus like, right now we kind of feel powerless, you know, in terms of what's going on, and sometimes it's easy to feel powerless. But I would definitely say Nubia, especially since Marvel gets all the love, usually in this kind of stuff.

Charity 14:25 That's right. DC needs to get some love.

Jen 14:27 And if they keep doing smart characters like Nubia, maybe they'll get more.

Charity 14:33 No really I am not really into the comic book stuff, but I'm intrigued with that one. So I'm gonna put that on my list.

Jen 14:39 Well it's more pastels. It's not like the primary color comic kind of like that you get with Superman or whatever. It's definitely a new take, a new direction for DC so I'm excited about maybe they're going to start getting stuff right.

Charity 14:58 Oh, I love that. Okay, so moving into more YA, I'm actually going to talk about this one. In our library system, we have it as adult fiction and I think that's because it gets a little violent, well, quite a bit violent, and gory. But it would be a great one for older teen readers who are into those kinds of stories. And that's Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian and it's a thriller. The main character, I want to say her name is Chloe, she's a psychopath. She attends college strictly to get revenge on a guy who raped her when she was a kid who is attending this college. So she has like, she's got this whole plan. She's followed him to this campus, and she has a whole plan. And the classes are secondary, the whole college experience is secondary to her getting revenge on this guy. And she's part of a group of psychopaths that are in this research study by a professor on campus, and then one by one, something starts happening to them. And so then they, the ones that are left have to kind of band together to figure out like, who's doing this. And so because they're all psychopaths, so it's like, well, who do we trust?

Jen 16:22 Right, right. It's kind of some Hannibal Lecter stuff going on there.

Charity 16:25 It is so good.

Jen 16:26 What was that called?

Charity 16:27 It's called Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian. It is a nice dark, sinister, revenge thriller.

Jen 16:37 Wow, that one sounds so up my alley. I love a good bad guy. And I love-like, I think at one point, in one of our episodes we talk about, it's nice to see that we've come to the point in feminism where women can be bad guys. Like from the get go, you don't have to be good. You don't have to be the perfect woman. You can just start out as a sociopath and, and be as bad as the next.

Charity 17:04 I will say too like the main characters, they're all psychopaths. But they're likable. And so I felt like that was incredible that the author was able to take these people who have all done really terrible things, because you do get into their backstory a little bit. Make them likable, and like you are cheering for them. So you want to see them make it.

Jen 17:26 To our teen listeners, with all these years of experience under my belt, I've had a few people I've known in my life that have admitted to me that they you know, they couldn't get in the Army because they were antisocial or considered psychopaths or whatever. But they are usually some of the funniest like, you would never guess that they would be that way. And so like that actually kind of fits to what this author is writing about. Because like, usually, if you're not the victim of this person, they're really likable, like wolf in sheep's clothing.

Charity 17:59 So that was one of my favorites from this last year for sure.

Jen 18:06 Okay, well, my final pick is going to be White Smoke by Tiffany Jackson. And it was between this one and Ace of Spades. But I've noticed Ace of Spades is on a lot of lists. So I'm going with White Smoke by Tiffany Jackson. And also because so many of the other choices sometimes we pick with the upper grades are violent. This is just a good old fashioned ghost story. It's about a teenager who moves from LA to a small Midwestern town because the parents are getting a free home due to this kind of gentrification project. So because the parents are getting a free home, there are certain stipulations like they can't go into the basement. Iit's locked, they can't go back and forth. So if you hear anything going on in the basement, you're just not going to know what it is.

Charity 18:59 Oh my gosh, no, no.

Jen 19:02 All the other houses on this street, Maple Street, are abandoned, and the town's Maplewood. And so Maplewood basically has for profit prisons. So when she goes to school for the first day, she's like, there's only 25% boys here. So she has to like work on making herself not attractive. Because like, if you get a boy's attention, it's like let's take her down.

Charity 19:30 Oh my gosh, I'm intrigued. This sounds great. But also, I would never live in that house. I don't care if it's free. No.

Jen 19:39 This is kind of like the Evil Dead reboot in that she is coming to this-part of the reason why everyone's moving is because she had a Percocet and marijuana addiction but it was the Percocet that caused her to OD. And she, and I think librarians will appreciate this book because one of her phobias that she was medicating for was like bedbug, obsession about bed bugs because she had lived in a home that had bedbugs. And so is it withdraw? And you know, so she's got all these tactics, like, I'm not gonna sit on a cloth surface. And so you kind of get to hear the inner workings of like-and some of my co workers really, because libraries, we have to check for bedbugs in every material, and I do have co workers that go home and like throw their clothes in the dryer and she would be the person like she's getting naked at a lot of points in the book in front of her brother. She's like, I'm sorry I'm scarring you, but I don't want to have bedbugs in the house. So I'm going to take my clothes off. So she's a really likable, nuanced character. And she's in this creepy house. You know, the whole family's in this creepy house. She has a stepsister that's, you know, a little weird kid, you know, what I call creepy children. The children are yes, definitely that creepy kid that's talking to the ghost. And then there's this whole other side issue going on on this whole gentrification project. Are they going to try to displace this community to-you know, anyway, I really enjoyed it. It was a fast read and if she wrote a follow up to this book I would read it.

Charity 21:25 Wow, I have never read her. But you just made that sound amazing. And so I'm gonna put that on my list.

Jen 21:32 We were talking about it and the tagline was Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out. So that is a perfect description.

Charity 21:40 And that mashup sounds incredible, because I loved both of those. Well, my last pick is by Mindy McGinnis and I've talked about her in previous seasons. But I read another title by her this last year called Female of the Species. And Jen, I love that all of your picks were totally different. But all of mine are kind of along the same vein. So this is another dark YA thriller and it doesn't have a great ending. The main character has lost her sister, and so she is trying to avenge her sister's death. And she's just a really complicated character and you feel for her. And all the other characters are kind of a mess, and she gets herself into some crazy situations. But all along like it's really kind of heartbreaking because it's just all a result of her loss and her grief. But Female of the Species, Mindy McGinnis just writes such a tight, suspenseful story with complex characters, and I love that and so I liked that one.

Jen 22:53 I will help us end on a light note, and I'm trying to branch out my reading. I picked up a couple of romances. One was called XOXO. It's a K-pop romance about a Korean American girl that happens to bump into this K-pop star that she didn't know was a K-pop star in her uncle's karaoke bar in LA. And of course, she's a cellist you know, superstar cello, or sorry, prodigy cellist and gets to go to a private school in Korea where this guy that's the K-kpop star is also attending. So I didn't finish it, because I knew it was going to end happily, you know what I'm saying? You know, I really did think though, like, if you've got some K-pop star, it's like, all the girls I know are super into K-pop. So this would be a fun read. If you just wanted to, like escape into a romance.

Charity 23:53 Well, and the romance genre, like it's really kind of blowing up. I mean, it's so much more than those little romance paperbacks that your grandma used to read. Like, I mean, they're doing some really diverse and refreshing takes on that genre. So there's some good titles coming out.

Jen 24:15 I picked that one because as a mom with an Asian American son, I'm just so happy to see an Asian American male I mean, sorry an Asian male as the lead love interest because for a long time, they were just side characters. And so that's why I attempted to read this but still, it was pretty formulaic, which gives comfort to a lot of people but not me.

Charity 24:40 But you did like it?

Jen 24:42 Right. I was just like, I liked it enough. But it was still like, yeah, I didn't finish it. But I could tell that like people that were into K-pop this would be a fun read.

Charity 24:52 Yeah, I wonder if-I mean, I know romances like you got to have that happy ending, but I wonder if there is like a horror romance out there? Like I wonder, you know?

Jen 25:04 Oh yeah, have you ever-did you read Warm Bodies?

Charity 25:06 No.

Jen 25:07 It was about a zombie. So the zombie eats brains. And when he eats brains, he gets their memories. So he eats this young kid's brain that was in love with this girl. And so this zombie starts falling in love with this girl.

Charity 25:23 You know what, I have heard about this. It's been on my radar. I just haven't read it.

Jen 25:27 So they do exist.

Charity 25:30 Well, there you go. There is our take on the top 10 Best reads for us from 2021. And we'd love to hear what you think. Share your favorite title.

Jen 25:42 What's everyone else's favorite? I really am curious. Because I feel like when we look at top 10 lists, it's mainly middle aged women like us throwing out these titles. What are your favorites?

Charity 25:53 Yes. What are readers reading? Yeah. So share your favorites with us. Jen, thanks for another great episode.

Jen 25:59 Thank you.

Charity 26:00 Send your book and show suggestions or comments to along with your favorite books of the year. We'd love to hear from you. Check out the library's website at the for these and other great book recommendations and follow us on Facebook for the latest news and events. This has been a production of the Springfield-Greene County Library District. Thanks for listening.

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