Staff Picks of 2019

As 2019 comes to a close in a few weeks, JCPL staff looked back at our favorite books of the year. Browse the list below if you need something new to read or are just curious about what your Library’s staff read this year. And don’t forget, we always love giving recommendations! Call (423) 434-4450, visit www.jcpl.org, or drop by the Library to learn more about our physical collections, as well as the huge online collection of ebooks and audiobooks you have access to through Tennessee R.E.A.D.S. Follow Johnson City Public Library on Facebook and Instagram for updates to our collections, resources, and programs.

Lucy’s mother has an aneurysm while on a shark research expedition when Lucy is seven. Fast forward five years and you find her father is a rescue diver and is gone a lot. Lucy’s best friend, Fred, is extremely smart and has a scientific mind. Lucy is very artistic. The two of them work together on a field guide of animals they see over the summer, sharks in particular. Lucy delves into her mother’s passion and wants to learn more about sharks. The underlying coming of age story shows how Lucy’s relationships evolve as she comes to terms with death and overcoming fear.


Sometimes our lives are boiled down to one moment, one choice. This is that moment for Grant McKay. The Anarchist League of Scientists charges forward for one final adventure in Volume 9 of “Black Science”, as Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera bring their seminal pulp science-fiction epic to a mind-shattering finale.


Sarah Dove is no ordinary bookworm. To her, books have always been more than just objects: they live, they breathe, and sometimes they even speak. When Sarah grows up to become the librarian in her quaint Southern town of Dove Pond, her gift helps place every book in the hands of the perfect reader. Recently, however, the books have been whispering about something out of the ordinary: the arrival of a displaced city girl named Grace Wheeler.

If the books are right, Grace could be the savior that Dove Pond desperately needs. The problem is, Grace wants little to do with the town or its quirky residents—Sarah chief among them. It takes a bit of urging, and the help of an especially wise book, but Grace ultimately embraces the challenge to rescue her charmed new community. In her quest, she discovers the tantalizing promise of new love, the deep strength that comes from having a true friend, and the power of finding just the right book.

An exceptional picture book biography of Margaret Wise Brown, the legendary author of “Goodnight Moon”, “The Runaway Bunny”, and other beloved children’s classics, that’s as groundbreaking as the icon herself was. In 42 inspired pages, this biography artfully plays with form and language to vividly bring to life one of the greatest children’s book creators who ever lived: Margaret Wise Brown. Illustrated with sumptuous art by Sarah Jacoby, this is essential reading for book lovers of every age.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”

In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s ringing assertion: “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.

The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, “The Nickel Boys” is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

Growing up in Alabama, Renkl was a devoted reader, an explorer of riverbeds and red-dirt roads, and a fiercely loved daughter. Here, in brief essays, she traces a tender and honest portrait of her complicated parents―her exuberant, creative mother; her steady, supportive father―and of the bittersweet moments that accompany a child’s transition to caregiver.

And here, braided into the overall narrative, Renkl offers observations on the world surrounding her suburban Nashville home. Ringing with rapture and heartache, these essays convey the dignity of bluebirds and rat snakes, monarch butterflies and native bees. As these two threads haunt and harmonize with each other, Renkl suggests that there is astonishment to be found in common things: in what seems ordinary, in what we all share. For in both worlds―the natural one and our own―“the shadow side of love is always loss, and grief is only love’s own twin.”

Gorgeously illustrated by the author’s brother, Billy Renkl, Late Migrations is an assured and memorable debut.

As Random House’s copy chief, Benjamin Dreyer has upheld the standards of the legendary publisher for more than two decades. He is beloved by authors and editors alike—not to mention his followers on social media—for deconstructing the English language with playful erudition. Now he distills everything he has learned from the myriad books he has copyedited and overseen into a useful guide not just for writers but for everyone who wants to put their best prose foot forward.

As authoritative as it is amusing, Dreyer’s English offers lessons on punctuation, from the under-loved semicolon to the enigmatic en dash; the rules and non-rules of grammar, including why it’s OK to begin a sentence with “And” or “But” and to confidently split an infinitive; and why it’s best to avoid the doldrums of the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers, including “very,” “rather,” “of course,” and the dreaded “actually.” Dreyer will let you know whether “alright” is all right (sometimes) and even help you brush up on your spelling—though, as he notes, “The problem with mnemonic devices is that I can never remember them.”

Chockful of advice, insider wisdom, and fun facts, this book will prove to be invaluable to everyone who wants to shore up their writing skills, mandatory for people who spend their time editing and shaping other people’s prose, and—perhaps best of all—an utter treat for anyone who simply revels in language.

Did you know that chipmunks love to stay up past their bedtime? Or that dragons cry at happy endings? I bet you’d never have guessed that iguanas sometimes get homesick at sleepovers.

Sara O’Leary pulls back the curtain on the animal world and gives us an absolutely charming little one-line “fact” about one animal for each letter of the alphabet. Kids will love to see their own quirks reflected in these adorably rendered creatures, and perhaps will be comforted to know that–just like them–narwhals can be perfectly happy all on their own and quail also get tired of being told to be quiet.

This is more than just an alphabet book. It’s a charming, hilarious, and touching look at the diversity of personalities in the world–worth many, many rereads.

There are two kinds of traps in the Old West. One is the kind that Preacher and his buddy, Charlie, use to catch a mountain-load of fur pelts. The other is the kind that Charlie steps into—a trap set by a low-life gambler and his seductive partner in crime to swindle Charlie out of his fur money. Preacher hates to see a good friend get robbed. So he sets off after the grifters—on a riverboat bound for New Orleans. First, he infiltrates the criminal underworld of the French Quarter. Then, he’s enslaved on a pirate ship heading straight to hell. Now there’s only one way out for Preacher. Start a mutiny. Take over the ship. Then return to New Orleans to reunite Charlie with his money—and not to get butchered in the process.

Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.

So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. Written by one of today’s most exciting thinkers and writers, The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.

This beautiful, small-format book contains twelve inspiring and affirmational sayings that take on deeper meaning when paired with Jon Muth’s profoundly beautiful Zen books, many featuring the beloved panda bear, Stillwater.

January lives in a large mansion filled with treasures as the ward of the mysterious Mr. Locke. When January stumbles upon an old door impossibly standing in the middle of a field, Mr. Locke abruptly shuffles her away, denying the possibility that such a thing could exist. January then discovers an old book in the mansion, that contains a story much like her own. She soon finds that the book reveals the truth about a world full of doors and embarks on an adventure to discover the truth of her own story. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book for book lovers, part fairy tale and part epic adventure.

My favorite read of the past year is also my favorite read yet. It is a difficult, provocative book, written sometimes in a more standard fashion, sometimes in prose, and sometimes in a dreamy song. The story is full of triggering situations, but also filled with hope and healing. Hulme explores the common threads of Maori existence by meshing the struggle of keeping the old ways in a new world with the difficulty of exposing one’s own dark depths. An intense combination of painful self-discovery, Maori mythology, and soul-crushing humanity, The Bone People is the most labor-intensive book I have ever read, both in subject matter and in form, and by far the most satisfying.

Nearly a year later in the court of Harbeny, Lady Poppy and Sir Cyrenic must forge ahead without each other. Cyrenic adjusts to life after being released from the Sleepless Vow. And though Poppy has allies old and new, she buckles under the pressure to marry Lord Helder. The future looks bleak, but both Poppy and Cyrenic are fighters. Either they will claw their way out of the darkness or take as many enemies with them as they can. This second volume of Sleepless concludes the story of Poppy and Cyrenic.

In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same.

Kintsugi is the ancient Japanese art form in which broken pottery is repaired by banding all the pieces together with gold; drawing attention to the flaws and making the observer ponder the history of the piece.

Similarly, this book is about becoming resilient to and working past personal flaws by accepting the truth that no one is perfect. It is a book on self-actualization which encourages the reader to take an honest look at him/herself.

Every now and then, you read something that feels like it was meant for you. Like the author took a peek inside your head and crafted a story with pieces of what they found. I couldn’t have written this book, but I saw fragments of myself scattered throughout its pages. It’s a difficult novel to describe, so I won’t even try, other than to say it’s a tapestry of stories about how stories shape us. The book is magical.

This is a beautifully illustrated adaptation of “The Diary of a Young Girl”, written by Ari Folman and illustrated by David Polonsky. This adaptation was authorized by the Anne Frank Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. It is the first graphic edition of the diary, and includes direct extensive quotes from the definitive edition. The diary is very near and dear to my heart because I read the original at the age of 12, and it set me on the path of wanting to study the Holocaust. Having a graphic adaptation opens the door to more young adults to read this book and understand why this book is so important to the world.

After more than a decade, when sisters Nikki, Sami, and Tori Knotek hear the word mom, it claws like an eagle’s talons, triggering memories that have been their secret since childhood. Until now.

For years, behind the closed doors of their farmhouse in Raymond, Washington, their sadistic mother, Shelly, subjected her girls to unimaginable abuse, degradation, torture, and psychic terrors. Through it all, Nikki, Sami, and Tori developed a defiant bond that made them far less vulnerable than Shelly imagined. Even as others were drawn into their mother’s dark and perverse web, the sisters found the strength and courage to escape an escalating nightmare that culminated in multiple murders.

Harrowing and heartrending, “If You Tell” is a survivor’s story of absolute evil—and the freedom and justice that Nikki, Sami, and Tori risked their lives to fight for. Sisters forever, victims no more, they found a light in the darkness that made them the resilient women they are today—loving, loved, and moving on.

Written with all the scathing dark humor that is a hallmark of “BoJack Horseman”, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s stories will make you laugh, weep, and shiver in uncomfortably delicious recognition. In “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion,” a young couple engaged to be married is forced to deal with interfering relatives dictating the appropriate number of ritual goat sacrifices for their wedding. “Missed Connection—m4w” is the tragicomic tale of a pair of lonely commuters eternally failing to make that longed-for contact. And in “More of the You That You Already Are,” a struggling employee at a theme park of dead presidents finds that love can’t be genetically modified.

Equally at home with the surreal and the painfully relatable (and both at once), Bob-Waksberg delivers a killer combination of humor, romance, whimsy, cultural commentary, and crushing emotional vulnerability.

Summaries written by Library staff or adapted from Amazon.

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