Recommended Reading: We Are Family
Get ready to read! Here is a list of recommended books that address our Action Book Club theme: We Are Family, celebrating families of all kinds and how they shape us. We think you’ll find something that inspires you.
Everyone can take part in the Action Book Club program. That’s why this list of suggested books—recommended by Little Free Library stewards, communities, and advisers—includes options for young readers, middle readers, and adults. Do you know of another great book that fits this theme? You’re welcome to read that instead; we’d love to hear your book ideas.
The New York Times is a partner of the Action Book Club! The New York Times’ Learning Network is providing a curated collection of articles relating to our “We Are Family” theme that complements our reading list. We hope you enjoy this resource.
For even more book ideas, check out our previous Action Book Club themes on unity, diversity, and more.
Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson (40 pp, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2018). When Carmela wakes up on her birthday, her wish has already come true—she’s finally old enough to join her big brother as he does the family errands. Together, they travel through their neighborhood, past the crowded bus stop, the fenced-off repair shop, and the panadería, until they arrive at the Laundromat, where Carmela finds a lone dandelion growing in the pavement. But before she can blow its white fluff away, her brother tells her she has to make a wish. . . . . With lyrical text and evocative artwork, this book a moving ode to family, to dreamers, and to finding hope in the most unexpected places. Ages 4-8.
Donuts with Dad by Margaret Bernstein, illustrated by Lincoln Adams (28 pp, Halo Publishing, 2018). Donuts with Dad is a delightfully delicious outing between father and daughter. Any dad can enjoy sharing the imaginative adventure with his child. Sprinkled with daddy swagger, it’s sure to spark many lively read-alouds as fathers boast of their skills from hair-styling to teaching basketball moves. Parent and child can use the story as a take-off point to plan and enjoy their own special days together. Ages 5-12.
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales (40 pp, Neal Porter Books, 2018). In 1994, Yuyi Morales left her home in Xalapa, Mexico and came to the U.S. with her infant son. She left behind nearly everything she owned, but she didn’t come empty-handed. She brought her strength, her work, her passion, her hopes and dreams. . . and her stories. Dreamers is a celebration of what migrants bring with them when they leave their homes. It’s a story about family. And it’s a story to remind us that we are all dreamers, bringing our own gifts wherever we roam. A parallel Spanish-language edition, Soñadores, is also available. Ages 4-8.
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (48 pp, Roaring Brook Press, available October 2019). Told in lively and powerful verse by debut author Kevin Noble Maillard, Fry Bread is an evocative depiction of a modern Native American family, vibrantly illustrated by Pura Belpre Award winner and Caldecott Honoree Juana Martinez-Neal. Fry bread is food. It is warm and delicious, piled high on a plate. Fry bread is time. It brings families together for meals and new memories. Fry bread is nation. It is shared by many, from coast to coast and beyond. Fry bread is us. It is a celebration of old and new, traditional and modern, similarity and difference. Ages 3-6.
Gondra’s Treasure by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt (40 pp, Clarion Books, 2019). Gondra has inherited traits from both her eastern (Asian) dragon dad and western (European) dragon mom and enjoys them all. She’s especially happy that she’s a combination of both. Cheerful banter and hilariously adorable dragon portrayals present a warm, appealing family portrait. The beautiful and fanciful illustrations are rich in whimsical details that invite repeated readings. Ages 4-7.
Here and There by Tamara Ellis Smith, illustrated by Evelyn Daviddi (32 pp, Barefoot Books, 2019). A young boy, Ivan, experiences the early stages of his parents’ separation and finds hope in the beauty and music of nature. This tale of personal growth will provide a much-needed mirror for children in times of change—and an important reminder for all that there’s beauty everywhere you look. Ages 5-8.
I’ve Loved You Since Forever by Hoda Kotb, illustrated by Suzie Mason (32 pp, HarperCollins, 2018). I’ve Loved You Since Forever is a celebratory and poetic testament to the timeless love felt between parent and child. This beautiful picture book is inspired by Today show co-anchor Hoda Kotb’s heartwarming adoption of her baby girl, Haley Joy. With Kotb’s lyrical text and stunning pictures by Suzie Mason, young ones and parents will want to snuggle up and read the pages of this book together, over and over again. In the universe, there was you and there was me, waiting for the day our stars would meet…. Ages 4-8.
My Footprints by Bao Phi, illustrated by Basia Tran (32 pp, Capstone, available September 2019). Every child feels different in some way, but Thuy feels “double different.” She is Vietnamese American and she has two moms. Thuy walks home one winter afternoon, angry and lonely after a bully’s taunts. Then a bird catches her attention and sets Thuy on an imaginary exploration. What if she could fly away like a bird? What if she could sprint like a deer, or roar like a bear? Mimicking the footprints of each creature in the snow, she makes her way home to the arms of her moms. Together, the three of them imagine beautiful and powerful creatures who always have courage—just like Thuy.
Marvelous Maravilloso: Me and My Beautiful Family by Carrie Lara, illustrated by Christine Battuz (32 pp, Magination Press, 2018). Marvelous Maravilloso follows a young girl as she finds joy in the colors of the world all around her. Her vantage point is particularly special as she comes from a bi-cultural family, and is able to appreciate the differences between her parents, as well as her own unique and beautiful color. As she is coming into her own identity and exploring what this means for her, she comes to appreciate how all families are uniquely beautiful. Ages 4-8.
Ojiichan’s Gift by Chieri Uegaki, illustrated by Genevieve Simms (32 pp, Kids Can Press, 2019). When Mayumi was born, her grandfather created a garden for her. It was unlike any other garden she knew. It had no flowers or vegetables. Instead, Ojiichan made it out of stones: big ones, little ones and ones in-between. Every summer, Mayumi visits her grandfather in Japan, and they tend the garden together. Raking the gravel is her favorite part. Afterward, the two of them sit on a bench and enjoy the results of their efforts in happy silence. But then one summer, everything changes. Ojiichan has grown too old to care for his home and the garden. Will Mayumi find a way to keep the memory of the garden alive for both of them? Ages 5-8.
Saturday by Oge Mora (40 pp, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, available October 2019). Today would be special. Today would be splendid. It was Saturday! But sometimes, the best plans don’t work out exactly the way you expect…. In this heartfelt and universal story, a mother and daughter look forward to their special Saturday routine together every single week. But this Saturday, one thing after another goes wrong—ruining storytime, salon time, picnic time, and the puppet show they’d been looking forward to going to all week. Mom is nearing a meltdown…until her loving daughter reminds her that being together is the most important thing of all. Ages 3-6.
When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita (32 pp, Lee & Low Books, 2019). When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl. His parents gave him a pretty name, his room looked like a girl’s room, and he wore clothes that other girls liked wearing. After he realized he was a trans boy, Aidan and his parents fixed the parts of his life that didn’t fit anymore, and he settled happily into his new life. Then Mom and Dad announce that they’re going to have another baby, and Aidan wants to do everything he can to make things right for his new sibling from the beginning—from choosing the perfect name to creating a beautiful room to picking out the cutest onesie. But what happens if he messes up? With a little help, Aidan comes to understand that he already knows the most important thing about being a big brother: how to love with his whole self. Ages 4-7.
Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn (304 pp, Bloomsbury, 2019). Fiction. Cat and her brother Chicken have always had a very special bond—Cat is one of the few people who can keep Chicken happy. When he has a “meltdown” she’s the one who scratches his back and reads his favorite story. She’s the one who knows what Chicken needs. Since their mom has had to work double-hard to keep their family afloat after their father passed away, Cat has been the glue holding her family together. But even the strongest glue sometimes struggles to hold. When a summer trip doesn’t go according to plan, Cat and Chicken end up spending three weeks with grandparents they never knew. For the first time in years, Cat has the opportunity to be a kid again, and the journey she takes shows that even the most broken or strained relationships can be healed if people take the time to walk in one another’s shoes. Ages 8-12.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (256 pp, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2019). Fiction. “With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . . The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. ’Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” raps twelve-year-old Josh Bell. Thanks to their dad, he and his twin brother, Jordan, are kings on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood—he’s got mad beats, too, which help him find his rhythm when it’s all on the line. As their winning season unfolds, things begin to change. When Jordan meets a girl, the twins’ bond unravels.Told in dynamic verse, this fast and furious middle-grade novel that started it all absolutely bounces with rhythm and bursts with heart. Graphic novel also available. Ages 10-12.
The Far Away Brothers: Two Teenage Immigrants Making a Life in America (Adapted for Young Adults) by Lauren Markham, (288 pp, Delacorte Press, 2019). Nonfiction. Ernesto and Raúl Flores are identical twins, used to being mistaken for each other. As seventeen-year-olds living in El Salvador, they think the United States is just a far-off dream. But when Ernesto ends up on the wrong side of a brutal gang, he flees the country for his own safety. Raúl, fearing that he will be mistaken for his brother, follows close behind. Running from one danger to the next, the Flores twins make the harrowing journey north to their older brother in Oakland, California. While navigating a new school in a new language, struggling to pay off their mounting coyote debt, and anxiously waiting for their day in immigration court, Raul and Ernesto are also trying to lead normal teenage lives—dealing with girls, social media, and fitting in. With only each other for support, they begin the process of carving out a life for themselves, one full of hope and possibility. Ages 12 and up.
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington (336 pp, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019). Fiction. Makeda June Kirkland is eleven years old, adopted, and black. Her parents and big sister are white, and even though she loves her family very much, Makeda often feels left out. When Makeda’s family moves from Maryland to New Mexico, she leaves behind her best friend, Lena―the only other adopted black girl she knows―for a new life. In New Mexico, everything is different. At home, Makeda’s sister is too cool to hang out with her anymore and at school, she can’t seem to find one real friend. Through it all, Makeda can’t help but wonder: What would it feel like to grow up with a family that looks like me? Through singing, dreaming, and writing secret messages back and forth with Lena, Makeda might just carve a small place for herself in the world. For Black Girls Like Me is for anyone who has ever asked themselves: How do you figure out where you are going if you don’t know where you came from? Ages 9-11.
Hotel Dare by Terry Blas, illustrated by Claudia Aguirre (144 pages, KaBOOM!, 2019). Graphic novel. Olive and her adopted siblings Charlotte and Darwin are spending the summer with their estranged grandma at her creepy hotel and it’s all work and no play. They’re stuck inside doing boring chores but they soon stumble upon an incredible secret…. Behind each room door of the hotel lies a portal to a different strange and mysterious place. The simple turn of a knob transports them to a distant magical world filled with space pirates. Behind the next door are bearded wizards. Down the hall is a doorway to a cotton-candied kingdom. But once the doors are opened, worlds start colliding, and only one family can save them before they tear themselves apart. Ages 8-12.
The House that Lou Built by Mae Respicio (240 pp, Wendy Lamb Books, 2018). Fiction. Lou Bulosan-Nelson has the ultimate summer DIY project. She’s going to build her own “tiny house,” 100 square feet all her own. She shares a room with her mom in her grandmother’s house, and longs for a place where she can escape her crazy but lovable extended Filipino family. Lou enjoys her woodshop class and creating projects, and she plans to build the house on land she inherited from her dad, who died before she was born. But then she finds out that the land may not be hers for much longer. Lou discovers it’s not easy to save her land, or to build a house. But she won’t give up; with the help of friends and relatives, her dream begins to take shape, and she learns the deeper meaning of home and family. Ages 8-12.
Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby (288 pp, Algonquin Young Readers, 2019). Fiction. Fig, a sixth grader, loves her dad and the home they share in a beachside town. She does not love the long months of hurricane season. Her father, a once-renowned piano player, sometimes goes looking for the music in the middle of a storm. Hurricane months bring unpredictable good and bad days. When Fig’s dad shows up at school, confused and looking for her, it brings social services to their door. As the walls start to fall around her, Fig is sure it’s up to her alone to solve her father’s problems and protect her family’s privacy. But with the help of her best friend, a cute girl at the library, and a surprisingly kind new neighbor, Fig learns she isn’t as alone as she once thought . . . and begins to compose her own definition of family. Hurricane Season is a radiant novel about taking risks and facing danger, about friendship and art, and about growing up and coming out. And more than anything else, it is a story about love—both its limits and its incredible healing power. Ages 9-12.
I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib (160 pp, Clarkson Potter, 2019). Graphic memoir. I Was Their American Dream is at once a coming-of-age story and a reminder of the thousands of immigrants who come to America in search for a better life for themselves and their children. The daughter of parents with unfulfilled dreams themselves, Malaka navigated her childhood chasing her parents’ ideals, learning to code-switch between her family’s Filipino and Egyptian customs, adapting to white culture to fit in, crushing on skater boys, and trying to understand the tension between holding onto cultural values and trying to be an all-American kid. Malaka Gharib’s triumphant graphic memoir brings to life her teenage antics and illuminates earnest questions about identity, family, and culture, while providing thoughtful insight into the lives of modern immigrants and the generation of millennial children they raised. Ages 12 and up.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (480 pp, Amulet, first published 1869, movie tie-in 2019). Fiction. Readers have been falling for the March family for over 150 years, and Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation is bringing the childhood classic to the big screen for a new generation of fans in 2019. Little Women tells the timeless story of sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy as they navigate hardship and adventure in post-Civil War Concord, Massachusetts. Ages 10 and up.
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (464 pp, Balzer + Bray, 2019). Fiction. Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least win her first battle. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill. But it’s hard to get your come up when you’re labeled a hoodlum at school, and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. So Bri pours her anger and frustration into her first song, which goes viral…for all the wrong reasons. Bri soon finds herself at the center of a controversy, portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. But with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri doesn’t just want to make it—she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be. Ages 14 and up.
Relative Strangers by Paula Garner (368 pp, Candlewick, 2018). Fiction. Eighteen-year-old Jules has always wished for a close-knit family. She never knew her father, and her ex-addict mother has always seemed more interested in artistic endeavors than in bonding with her only daughter. Jules’s life and future look as flat and unchanging as her small Illinois town. Then a simple quest to find a baby picture for the senior yearbook leads to an earth-shattering discovery: for most of the first two years of her life, Jules lived in foster care. Reeling from feelings of betrayal and with only the flimsiest of clues, Jules sets out to learn the truth about her past. What she finds is a wonderful family who loved her as their own and hoped to adopt her—including a now-adult foster brother who is overjoyed to see his sister again. But as her feelings for him spiral into a devastating, catastrophic crush—and the divide between Jules and her mother widens—Jules finds herself on the brink of losing everything. Ages 14 and up.
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart (352 pp, Henry Holt, 2019). Fiction. Five years. That’s how long Coyote and her dad, Rodeo, have lived on the road in an old school bus, criss-crossing the nation. It’s also how long ago Coyote lost her mom and two sisters in a car crash. Coyote hasn’t been home in all that time, but when she learns that the park in her old neighborhood is being demolished―the very same park where she, her mom, and her sisters buried a treasured memory box―she devises an elaborate plan to get her dad to drive 3,600 miles back to Washington state in four days…without him realizing it. Along the way, they’ll pick up a strange crew of misfit travelers. Lester has a lady love to meet. Salvador and his mom are looking to start over. Val needs a safe place to be herself. And then there’s Gladys.… Over the course of thousands of miles, Coyote will learn that going home can sometimes be the hardest journey of all…but that with friends by her side, she just might be able to turn her “once upon a time” into a “happily ever after.” Ages 9-12.
This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura (400 pp, Harper Teen, 2019). Fiction. Katsuyamas never quit—but seventeen-year-old CJ doesn’t even know where to start. She’s never lived up to her mom’s type A ambition, and she’s perfectly happy just helping her aunt, Hannah, at their family’s flower shop. She doesn’t buy into Hannah’s romantic ideas about flowers and their hidden meanings, but when it comes to arranging the perfect bouquet, CJ discovers a knack she never knew she had. A skill she might even be proud of. Then her mom decides to sell the shop—to the family who swindled CJ’s grandparents when thousands of Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during WWII. Soon a rift threatens to splinter CJ’s family, friends, and their entire Northern California community; and for the first time, CJ has found something she wants to fight for. Ages 13 and up.
What Momma Left Me by Renée Watson (240 pp, Bloomsbury YA, 2019). Fiction. Serenity is good at keeping secrets, and she’s got a whole lifetime’s worth of them. Her mother is dead, her father is gone, and starting life over at her grandparents’ house is strange. Luckily, certain things seem to hold promise: a new friend who makes her feel connected, and a boy who makes her feel seen. But when her brother starts making poor choices, her friend is keeping her own dangerous secret, and her grandparents put all of their trust in a faith that Serenity isn’t sure she understands, it is the power of love that will repair her heart and keep her sure of just who she is. Ages 10-14.
Advanced and Adult Readers
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate (368 pp, Ballantine, 2019). Fiction. Memphis, 1939: Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty. Aiken, South Carolina, present day: Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption. Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Lisa Wingate’s riveting and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how the heart never forgets where we belong.
How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together by Dan Kois (336 pp, Little, Brown, available September 2019). Nonfiction. Dan Kois and his wife always did their best for their kids. Busy professionals living in the D.C. suburbs, they scheduled their children’s time wisely, and when they weren’t arguing over screen time, the Kois family—Dan, his wife Alia, and their two pre-teen daughters—could each be found searching for their own happiness. But aren’t families supposed to achieve happiness together? In this eye-opening, heartwarming, and very funny book, the fractious, loving Kois family goes in search of other places on the map that might offer them the chance to live away from home—but closer together. Over a year the family lands in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and small-town Kansas. Will this trip change the Kois family’s lives? Or do families take their problems and conflicts with them wherever we go? A journalistic memoir filled with heart, empathy, and lots of whining, How to Be a Family will make readers dream about the amazing adventures their own families might take.
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow (272 pp, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). Fiction. Azalea “Knot” Centre is determined to live life as she pleases. Let the people of West Mills say what they will; the neighbors’ gossip won’t keep Knot from what she loves best: cheap moonshine, nineteenth-century literature, and the company of men. And yet, Knot is starting to learn that her freedom comes at a high price. Alone in her one-room shack, ostracized from her relatives and cut off from her hometown, Knot turns to her neighbor, Otis Lee Loving, in search of some semblance of family and home. Otis Lee is eager to help. A lifelong fixer, Otis Lee is determined to steer his friends and family away from decisions that will cause them heartache and ridicule. After his failed attempt as a teenager to help his older sister, Otis Lee discovers a possible path to redemption in the chaos Knot brings to his doorstep. But while he’s busy trying to fix Knot’s life, Otis Lee finds himself powerless to repair the many troubles within his own family, as the long-buried secrets of his troubled past begin to come to light. Set in an African American community in rural North Carolina from 1941 to 1987, In West Mills is a magnificent, big-hearted small-town story about family, friendship, storytelling, and the redemptive power of love.
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (400 pp, Knopf, 2019). Fiction. A mother and father set out with their two children, a boy and a girl, driving from New York to Arizona in the heat of summer. In their car, they play games and sing along to music. But on the radio, there is news about an “immigration crisis”: thousands of kids trying to cross the southwestern border into the United States, but getting detained—or lost in the desert along the way. As the family drives—through Virginia to Tennessee, across Oklahoma and Texas—we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can almost feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, harrowing adventure—both in the desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations. Told through several compelling voices, blending texts, sounds, and images, Lost Children Archive is an astonishing feat of literary virtuosity. It is a richly engaging story of how we document our experiences, and how we remember the things that matter to us the most. With urgency and empathy, it takes us deep into the lives of one remarkable family as it probes the nature of justice and equality today.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal (368 pp, Pamela Dorman Books, 2019). Fiction. Two sisters, one farm. A family is split when their father leaves their shared inheritance entirely to Helen, his younger daughter. Despite baking award-winning pies at the local nursing home, her older sister, Edith, struggles to make what most people would call a living. So she can’t help wondering what her life would have been like with even a portion of the farm money her sister kept for herself. With the proceeds from the farm, Helen builds one of the most successful light breweries in the country, and makes their company motto ubiquitous: “Drink lots. It’s Blotz.” Where Edith has a heart as big as Minnesota, Helen’s is as rigid as a steel keg. Yet one day, Helen will find she needs some help herself, and she could find a potential savior close to home. . . if it’s not too late. Meanwhile, Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, grows up knowing that the real world requires a tougher constitution than her grandmother possesses. She earns a shot at learning the IPA business from the ground up—will that change their fortunes forever, and perhaps reunite her splintered family? Here we meet a cast of lovable, funny, quintessentially American characters eager to make their mark in a world that’s often stacked against them. In this deeply affecting family saga, resolution can take generations, but when it finally comes, we’re surprised, moved, and delighted.
The Most Fun We’ve Ever Had by Claire Lombardo (544 pp, Doubleday, 2019) Fiction. When Marilyn Connolly and David Sorenson fall in love in the 1970s, they are blithely ignorant of all that’s to come. By 2016, their four radically different daughters are each in a state of unrest: Wendy, widowed young, soothes herself with booze and younger men; Violet, a litigator-turned-stay-at-home-mom, battles anxiety and self-doubt when the darkest part of her past resurfaces; Liza, a neurotic and newly tenured professor, finds herself pregnant with a baby she’s not sure she wants by a man she’s not sure she loves; and Grace, the dawdling youngest daughter, begins living a lie that no one in her family even suspects. Above it all, the daughters share the lingering fear that they will never find a love quite like their parents’. As the novel moves through the tumultuous year following the arrival of Jonah Bendt—given up by one of the daughters in a closed adoption fifteen years before—we are shown the rich and varied tapestry of the Sorensons’ past: years marred by adolescence, infidelity, and resentment, but also the transcendent moments of joy that make everything else worthwhile. Spanning nearly half a century, and set against the quintessential American backdrop of Chicago and its prospering suburbs, Lombardo’s debut explores the triumphs and burdens of love, the fraught tethers of parenthood and sisterhood, and the baffling mixture of affection, abhorrence, resistance, and submission we feel for those closest to us.
Natalie Tan’s Book of Love and Fortune by Roselle Lim (320 pp, Berkeley, 2019). Fiction. At the news of her mother’s death, Natalie Tan returns home. The two women hadn’t spoken since Natalie left in anger seven years ago, when her mother refused to support her chosen career as a chef. Natalie is shocked to discover the vibrant neighborhood of San Francisco’s Chinatown that she remembers from her childhood is fading, with businesses failing and families moving out. She’s even more surprised to learn she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant. The neighborhood seer reads the restaurant’s fortune in the leaves: Natalie must cook three recipes from her grandmother’s cookbook to aid her struggling neighbors before the restaurant will succeed. Unfortunately, Natalie has no desire to help them try to turn things around—she resents the local shopkeepers for leaving her alone to take care of her agoraphobic mother when she was growing up. But with the support of a surprising new friend and a budding romance, Natalie starts to realize that maybe her neighbors really have been there for her all along. Lush and visual, chock-full of delicious recipes, Roselle Lim’s magical debut novel is about food, heritage, and finding family in the most unexpected places.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (256 pp, Penguin Press, 2019) Fiction. Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born—a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam—and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard. With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn (432 pp, Liveright, 2019). Fiction. When Patsy gets her long-coveted visa to America, it comes after years of yearning to leave Pennyfield, the beautiful but impoverished Jamaican town where she was raised. More than anything, Patsy wishes to be reunited with her oldest friend, Cicely, whose letters arrive from New York steeped in the promise of a happier life and the possible rekindling of their young love. But Patsy’s plans don’t include her overzealous, evangelical mother—or even her five-year-old daughter, Tru. Beating with the pulse of a long-witheld confession, Patsy gives voice to a woman who looks to America for the opportunity to choose herself first—not to give a better life to her family back home. Patsy leaves Tru behind in a defiant act of self-preservation, hoping for a new start where she can be, and love, whomever she wants. But when Patsy arrives in Brooklyn, America is not as Cicely’s treasured letters described; to survive as an undocumented immigrant, she is forced to work as a bathroom attendant and nanny. Meanwhile, Tru builds a faltering relationship with her father back in Jamaica, grappling with her own questions of identity, and trying desperately to empathize with her mother’s decision. Expertly evoking the jittery streets of New York and the languid rhythms of Jamaica, Patsy weaves between the lives of Patsy and Tru in vignettes spanning more than a decade as mother and daughter ultimately find a way back to one another.
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok (341 pp, William Morrow, 2019 ). Fiction. It begins with a mystery. Sylvie, the beautiful, brilliant, successful older daughter of the Lee family, flies to the Netherlands for one final visit with her dying grandmother—and then vanishes. Amy, the sheltered baby of the Lee family, is too young to remember a time when her parents were newly immigrated and too poor to keep Sylvie. Seven years older, Sylvie was raised by a distant relative in a faraway, foreign place, and didn’t rejoin her family in America until age nine. Timid and shy, Amy has always looked up to her sister, the fierce and fearless protector who showered her with unconditional love. But what happened to Sylvie? Amy and her parents are distraught and desperate for answers. Sylvie has always looked out for them. Now, it’s Amy’s turn to help. Terrified yet determined, Amy retraces her sister’s movements, flying to the last place Sylvie was seen. But instead of simple answers, she discovers something much more valuable: the truth. Sylvie, the golden girl, kept painful secrets…secrets that will reveal more about Amy’s complicated family—and herself—than she ever could have imagined. A deeply moving story of family, secrets, identity, and longing, Searching for Sylvie Lee is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive portrait of an immigrant family.
Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs (400 pp, Grove, 2018). Nonfiction. Born on a farm and named in a field by her parents―artist Chrisann Brennan and Steve Jobs―Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s childhood unfolded in a rapidly changing Silicon Valley. When she was young, Lisa’s father was a mythical figure who was rarely present in her life. As she grew older, her father took an interest in her, ushering her into a new world of mansions, vacations, and private schools. His attention was thrilling, but he could also be cold, critical and unpredictable. When her relationship with her mother grew strained in high school, Lisa decided to move in with her father, hoping he’d become the parent she’d always wanted him to be. Part portrait of a complex family, part love letter to California in the seventies and eighties, Small Fry is a poignant coming-of-age story from one of our most exciting new literary voices.
The Travelers by Regina Porter (320 pp, Hogarth, 2019). Fiction. Meet James Samuel Vincent, an affluent Manhattan attorney who shirks his modest Irish American background but hews to his father’s meandering ways. James muddles through a topsy-turvy relationship with his son, Rufus, which is further complicated when Rufus marries Claudia Christie. Claudia’s mother—Agnes Miller Christie—is a beautiful African American woman who survives a chance encounter on a Georgia road that propels her into a new life in the Bronx. Soon after, her husband, Eddie Christie, is called to duty on an air craft carrier in Vietnam, where Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” becomes Eddie’s life anchor, as he grapples with mounting racial tensions on the ship and counts the days until he will see Agnes again. These unforgettable characters’ lives intersect with a cast of lovers and friends—the unapologetic black lesbian who finds her groove in 1970s Berlin; a moving man stranded in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, during a Thanksgiving storm; two half-brothers who meet as adults in a crayon factory; and a Coney Island waitress whose Prince Charming is too good to be true. With piercing humor, exacting dialogue, and a beautiful sense of place, The Travelers is both an intimate family portrait and a sweeping exploration of what it means to be American today.
Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson (288 pp, Soho Press, 2019). Fiction. With his single mother in jail, Sequoyah, a fifteen-year-old Cherokee boy, is placed in foster care with the Troutt family. Literally and figuratively scarred by his mother’s years of substance abuse, Sequoyah keeps mostly to himself, living with his emotions pressed deep below the surface. At least until he meets seventeen-year-old Rosemary, a troubled artist who also lives with the family. Sequoyah and Rosemary bond over their shared Native American background and tumultuous paths through the foster care system, but as Sequoyah’s feelings toward Rosemary deepen, the precariousness of their lives and the scars of their pasts threaten to undo them both.
- What does “family” mean to you?
- Discuss a family member that has had a significant impact on your life.
- In the book you read, how did family influence the main character?
- How can family shape who we are—for better or worse?
- What are some ways you can support the members of your family?
- Think about the families in your community. Are there populations that need additional care and support?
Recommended Reading: Previous Themes
Looking for more book ideas? Check out the recommended reading lists for our previous Action Book Club themes:
Moving Forward – On growth, resilience, and well-being for all.
Come Together – On unity, equity, and understanding in a divided world.
Everyday Heroes – On acts of bravery, character, and kindness that transform our world in ways big and small.
Many Voices – On diversity, our differences, and the similarities that connect us all.
Good Neighbors – On the power of community, kindness, and taking action where you live.