Skip to main content
Year in review

Best Books of 2020

Laura Liedo for The Boston Globe

2020 was a hard year, both globally and personally. But it was a great year for books. Of the countless wonderful titles published this year, here's a subjective list of 55 we loved most in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and works for children and young adults. We hope you, too, will find some to treasure, and share your own new discoveries with us.

Advertisement Continue reading below

fiction

Tweet this Tweet this list
  • The Awkward Black Man

    By Walter Mosely

    This masterful collection of 17 short stories showcases quirky, memorable Black men at various stages of their lives; it’s a contemplative look at illness, loss, loneliness, and connections by one of our fiction masters.

    — Joshunda Sanders

    A book cover for The Awkward Black Man
  • The Cold Millions

    By Jess Walter

    In this fast-paced epic narrative of two brothers and a firebrand organizer for workers’ rights, Walter explores the limits and possibilities of loyalty to self, to one’s closest friends and relatives and what defines a life.

    — Joshunda Sanders

    A book cover for The Cold Millions
  • Deacon King Kong

    By James McBride

    This folksy and intricately woven tale centers on a man broken by time and redeemed by his relationship to Brooklyn, with the help of an endearing cast.

    — Joshunda Sanders

    A book cover for Deacon King Kong
  • The Death of Vivek Oji

    By Akwaeke Emezi

    Emezi’s novel is a riveting and touching tale of a young person yearning for freedom to express their gender in a family and culture that refuse to look at them in all their multitudes.

    — Joshunda Sanders

    A book cover for The Death of Vivek Oji
  • Leave the World Behind

    By Rumaan Alam

    Alam’s third novel, a National Book Award finalist, is a prescient page-turner, both timely and timeless in its explorations of class, race, and the conditions that the next generation will inherit.

    — Joshunda Sanders

    A book cover for Leave the World Behind
  • Luster

    By Raven Leilani

    Leilani’s debut novel, winner of the Kirkus Prize for fiction, is the seductive, incisive story of a twenty-something immersed in sexual dalliances that symbolize her thirst for more stable agency and power.

    — Joshunda Sanders

    A book cover for Luster
  • Memorial

    By Bryan Washington

    This book — an exploration of the romantic, familial, geographic, and culinary ties that often haunt us but in some ways, reveal us, too — is as deep as it is richly humorous.

    — Joshunda Sanders

    A book cover for Memorial
  • The Office of Historical Corrections

    By Danielle Evans

    An eponymous novella and sharp collection of stories mainly centering on Black women as the rightful revisionists of a history that tries to erase them.

    — Joshunda Sanders

    A book cover for The Office of Historical Corrections
  • Sharks In the Time of Saviors

    By Kawai Strong Washburn

    A gorgeous family saga steeped in Hawaiian culture, this unforgettable debut novel reckons with belonging, luck, fate, and the sacrifices we make for the ones we love most.

    — Joshunda Sanders

    A book cover for Sharks In the Time of Saviors
  • The Vanishing Half

    By Brit Bennett

    This elegantly reimagined take on passing also explores how we become who we really are and the true costs of hiding our full identities.

    — Joshunda Sanders

    A book cover for The Vanishing Half

nonfiction

Tweet this Tweet this list
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

    By Isabel Wilkerson

    A big book about our biggest problem. Wilkerson looks at structural inequality and bigotries in Germany, India, and the United States, identifying the insidious nature all forms of caste divisions share.

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
  • Having and Being Had

    By Eula Biss

    An incisive and insightful examination into the challenges and contradictions inherent in life under capitalism — what is value? What does class mean? What do we want? What do we need?

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Having and Being Had
  • Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

    By Robert Kolker

    The Galvins were a big, beautiful family haunted by a seemingly relentless diagnosis; journalist Kolker leads with empathy as he chronicles the eventual toll schizophrenia takes on six of the 12 Galvin siblings.

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family
  • Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto

    By Michelle Bowdler

    Starting with a bold investigation of her own rape and its aftermath, Bowdler examines and indicts our criminal justice system for its inadequate response to rape.

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto
  • Just Us: An American Conversation

    By Claudia Rankine

    Following her 2014 sensation, “Citizen,” here Rankine combines essays, poetry, and images to help spark real talk about race and racism — the conversation without which we can’t fully progress as a nation.

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Just Us: An American Conversation
  • Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir

    By Natasha Tretheway

    Former Poet Laureate Trethewey revisits the heartbreak of her mother’s murder at the hands of Trethewey’s stepfather; painful and poetic, this book dives deep into grief and trauma, love and memory.

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir
  • Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning

    By Cathy Park Hong

    An essay collection for our time. Hong takes on race, family, identity, and art with a bracing wit and sly humor.

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning
  • Uncanny Valley: A Memoir

    By Anna Wiener

    Leaving a publishing job to go work for a start-up at the birth of the big tech boom, Wiener had a front-row seat to the sight of an industry growing too fast — and recklessly — for anybody’s good.

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Uncanny Valley: A Memoir
  • Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory

    By Claudio Saunt

    A finalist for the National Book Award, Saunt’s magisterial history of “Indian Removal” is an essential chronicle of one of our nation’s worst crimes.

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory
  • Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

    By David Zucchino

    In this fast-paced history that reads like a novel, Zucchino tells a little-known story of an 1898 state legislature election in North Carolina and the violent resistance by which local white supremacists sought to overturn it.

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
  • Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

    By Katherine May

    Some people might be having a tough winter — OK, maybe all of us are having a tough winter! — and May’s book is the perfect antidote: a warm, wise, and personal guide to getting through the rough times.

    — Kate Tuttle

    A book cover for Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times

poetry

Tweet this Tweet this list
  • Be Holding

    By Ross Gay

    What begins as anatomy of a particular move by Julius “Dr. J” Erving becomes itself an athletic feat as Gay soars through history and syntax, leaving readers breathless, astonished, grateful.

    — Jason Myers

    A book cover for Be Holding
  • (Dis)placement

    By Esteban Rodriguez

    In poems that share the warped wonders of a Dali painting and the absurdly magnificent violence of a Cormac McCarthy novel, Rodriguez portrays the borderlands as cosmos and crossroads, with language by turns grotesque and gorgeous. A captivating, devastating book.

    — Jason Myers

    A book cover for (Dis)placement
  • Ensō

    By Shin Yu Pai

    Filled with crisp photographs and color prints, Pai’s “Ensō” spills poetry and a community-facing poetic practice across its oversized pages; mixing media and genre, “Ensō” turns on the generous wheel of poetry, personal history, and visual art.

    — Hannah VanderHart

    A book cover for Ensō
  • Guillotine

    By Eduardo C. Corral

    Corral’s language glitters and, yes, cuts, as he writes of desire and danger in his second collection. Haunted by the AIDS epidemic and the American carceral response to migration, these poems are extraordinary in music and depth.

    — Jason Myers

    A book cover for Guillotine
  • I Was Waiting to See What You Would Do First

    By Angie Mazakis

    Selected by Billy Collins as a finalist for the Miller Williams Prize, Mazakis’s debut balloons with bright interiority, humor, and loving attention to the gestures and distances between parent and child, Palestine and Ohio — “the beauty of the in-between.”

    — Hannah VanderHart

    A book cover for I Was Waiting to See What You Would Do First
  • Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems & Artifacts

    By Nikky Finney

    Finney’s fifth book of poetry — over 30 years in the making — brims with poetry and the relics of a life of poetry. “Love Child” welcomes her reader to an art-archive of Black life, joy, family, and history in America.

    — Hannah VanderHart

    A book cover for Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems & Artifacts
  • The More Extravagant Feast

    By Leah Naomi Green

    This debut’s contemplative, cosmic soul is rooted in the radiant particulars of a body, the earth. The title poem immerses us in death and birth, the mysteries of intimacy with what we eat, who we love.

    — Jason Myers

    A book cover for The More Extravagant Feast
  • Obit

    By Victoria Chang

    Anchored in bereavement, Chang’s “obituaries” are also buoyed by humor. These poems observe how parts of us die when relationships change, and are a gift to us in this year of collective grief.

    — Jason Myers

    A book cover for Obit
  • Rift Zone

    By Tess Taylor

    Taylor released two books this year: a Dorothea Lange documentary project, and this collection of original poems that mine personal, California, American history, and changes in climate and ecosystems for shimmering, shattering beauty.

    — Jason Myers

    A book cover for Rift Zone
  • Savage Pageant

    By Jessica Q. Stark

    Stark’s debut engages histories of spectacle and pageantry, centering on motherhood and Jungleland — an exotic animal park and home to MGM’s “Leo the Lion.” Via brilliant curation of archive, Stark exposes the optics of human fascination and desire.

    — Hannah VanderHart

    A book cover for Savage Pageant
  • Thrown in the Throat

    By Benjamin Garcia

    Winner of the National Poetry Series, Garcia’s debut is a fierce ode that finds its music in queer and anticolonial language. Angry, tender, and resounding with the speech of flowers, birds, and diamonds, every syllable carries a glorious charge.

    — Hannah VanderHart

    A book cover for Thrown in the Throat
  • The Tilt Torn Away From the Seasons

    By Elizabeth Linsey Rogers

    Rogers’s otherworldly debut glitters at the intersection of science fiction and lyric poetry, her imaginative poems rocketing into future climate disaster on Earth and the colonization of Mars—“a world as red as that / inside our bodies.”

    — Hannah VanderHart

    A book cover for The Tilt Torn Away From the Seasons

children's

Tweet this Tweet this list
  • Picture book

    Bedtime for Sweet Creatures

    By Nikki Grimes and Elizabeth Zunon

    A patient mother with a big imagination leads a lively, stubborn toddler who is absolutely not sleepy through a dreamy parade of animals on the way to bed. Richly textured illustrations pair a realistic family with a series of colorful, improbable creatures, making this a bedtime story to remember.

    — Laura Koenig

    A book cover for Bedtime for Sweet Creatures
  • Picture book

    The Blue House

    By Phoebe Wahl

    Leo lives with his dad in a leaky, creaky old blue house that feels like home. When the house is sold to a developer they rage and grieve together, and eventually find a way to honor the house they loved. Warm, lushly detailed illustrations celebrate a home that was imperfect but cozy and deeply loved, and both the dad and the story treat Leo’s anger and sadness with seriousness and empathy.

    — Laura Koenig

    A book cover for The Blue House
  • Picture book

    Dandelion’s Dream

    By Yoko Tanaka

    As a field of dandelions gets ready to bloom, one is revealed to be a tiny lion with a mane made of yellow petals. In a wordless adventure this little lion drifts through cities, oceans, and finally to a meadow where the journey ends. A playful, dreamy book made special by the fantastic illustrations, where shaded gray landscapes are interrupted by the bright pop of the lion’s yellow mane.

    — Laura Koenig

    A book cover for Dandelion’s Dream
  • Picture book

    In My Anaana’s Amautik

    By Nadia Sammurok and Lenny Lishchenko (Illustrator)

    An Inuit baby curled in the pouch of his mother’s parka narrates what he sees and feels, protected from the cold and snuggled safe. Each page of this sensory exploration begins with the title phrase and ends with a feeling that the little boy loves, and the illustrations fancifully translate those feelings into swirling pictures. A cozy peek into a baby’s small world and big imagination.

    — Laura Koenig

    A book cover for In My Anaana’s Amautik
  • Picture book

    In the Half Room

    By Carson Ellis

    A half woman sits in a half room, full of half things. Everything is perfectly divided right down the middle, until suddenly with a “shoooop” her two sides come together again. Simple text that matter-of-factly describes these impossible things and strange, ethereal pictures come together for a slight but thought-provoking book that lands somewhere in between soothing and unnerving. For the dreamy child who is comfortable sitting in the surreal and hasn’t developed the grown-up need to understand the why of a story.

    — Laura Koenig

    A book cover for In the Half Room
  • Picture book

    Lift

    By Minh Lê and Dan Santat (Illustrator)

    At a time when we all might be wishing for an escape to somewhere new, the magical elevator button that a girl imagines can transport her to fantasy worlds is very appealing. At first the strange trips in the elevator are an escape from an annoying little brother, but soon she finds that she wants to share this adventure with him. Immersive comic book-style illustrations will be appealingly grown-up for many kids.

    — Laura Koenig

    A book cover for Lift
  • Picture book

    Magnificent Homespun Brown

    By Samara Cole Doyon and Kayla Juanita (Illustrator)

    With language that will have kids listening carefully for the sounds the words make and warm illustrations that highlight every rich, warm shade of brown, kids will find poetry in the magnificent browns of sandcastles, eyes, honey, and hair. A joyful celebration of the color brown and of children loving the brown of their own skin.

    — Laura Koenig

    A book cover for Magnificent Homespun Brown
  • Picture book

    The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom

    By Colleen AF Venable and Lian Cho (Illustrator)

    This picture book is LOUD! A school bandleader’s descriptive introductions to the sounds that instruments make are interrupted by booming beats coming from an infectiously enthusiastic young drummer. The delightful chaos of the illustrations is a great supplement to the chaos of this silly school band, and together pictures and text make music-making look like a joyous riot.

    — Laura Koenig

    A book cover for The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom
  • Picture book

    On Account of the Gum

    By Adam Rex

    Everyone has a suggestion for how to get a big pink glob of gum out of a child’s hair, and in this cumulative story those suggestions get wilder and sillier every time you turn a page. The rhyming text is rib-achingly funny, and the girl’s furious face as she deals with the growing chaos on top of her head adds to the laughter.

    — Laura Koenig

    A book cover for On Account of the Gum
  • Picture book

    ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat

    By Raúl The Third

    Little Lobo has a long list of lunch requests from some hungry luchadores, and we are along for the ride exploring the street food in a bustling border town full of food trucks. Featuring vibrant, highly detailed illustrations, Spanish words labeling many items, and little jokes to discover, this is perfect for kids who love to pore over every detail — they’re sure to find something new each time they open this delicious adventure.

    — Laura Koenig

    A book cover for ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat
  • Middle grade

    Everything Sad is Untrue

    By Daniel Nayeri

    Nayeri's autobiographical novel based on his tween years as an Iranian refugee in Oklahoma is by turn laugh-out-loud funny and achingly moving.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for Everything Sad is Untrue
  • Middle grade

    Fighting Words

    By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

    Fittingly for a novel about surviving childhood sexual assault, Newbery honor winner Bradley pulls no punches as she skillfully shows her young narrator's strength.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for Fighting Words
  • Middle grade

    From the Desk of Zoe Washington

    By Janae Marks

    When Medford tween Zoe isn't working at her summer bakery internship, she's working to prove her incarcerated father's innocence in this timely mystery.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for From the Desk of Zoe Washington
  • Middle grade

    King and the Dragonflies

    By Kacen Callender

    This lyrical, bittersweet story of two young queer boys helping each other survive grief and abuse deserves the many accolades it has received, including the National Book Award for Young Readers.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for King and the Dragonflies
  • Middle grade

    Snapdragon

    By Kat Leyh

    In this delightful graphic novel, animal-loving tween Snapdragon helps the local "witch" with wildlife rescue and learns some real magic in the process.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for Snapdragon
  • Middle grade

    Show Me a Sign

    By Ann Clare Lezotte

    Deaf writer LeZotte draws on her own linguistic experience to bring this adventure story set among the historic Deaf population of 19th-century Martha's Vineyard to life.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for Show Me a Sign
  • Middle grade

    When You Trap a Tiger

    By Tae Keller

    Lily hopes to help her family by making a bargain with a tiger out of her grandmother's Korean folktales in this moving urban fantasy.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for When You Trap a Tiger
  • Young adult

    Clap When You Land

    By Elizabeth Acevedo

    National Book Award winner Acevedo's gorgeous novel-in-verse introduces us to two grieving half-sisters — one in the United States, one in the Dominican Republic — who meet for the first time after their father dies in a plane crash.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for Clap When You Land
  • Young adult

    Dragon Hoops

    By Gene Luen Yang

    Writer, artist, and teacher Yang's latest graphic novel combines memoir with an engaging history lesson as his champion student athletes teach him to appreciate basketball.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for Dragon Hoops
  • Young adult

    Elatsoe

    By Darcie Little Badger and Rovina Cai (Illustrator)

    The titular heroine of this fresh urban fantasy novel draws on the ghost-waking secrets of her Lipan Apache ancestors to solve her cousin's murder.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for Elatsoe
  • Young adult

    A Song of Wraiths and Ruin

    By Roseanne A. Brown

    This West African-inspired fantasy novel combines fascinating world-building with compelling characters who will leave readers begging for the sequel.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for A Song of Wraiths and Ruin
  • Young adult

    Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

    By Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

    Reynolds's remix of Kendi's adult work “Stamped From the Beginning” should be required reading — the authors’ engaging conversational tone delivers crucial US history lessons.

    — Renata Sancken

    A book cover for Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

Joshunda Sanders is a writer living in The Bronx.

Kate Tuttle , a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected]

Jason Myers is editor-in-chief of EcoTheo Review and lives outside Austin, Texas, with his family.

Hannah VanderHart is the reviews editor at EcoTheo Review and the author of “What Pecan Light” (Bull City Press, 2021).

Laura Koenig is the head of Central Library Children's Services at the Boston Public Library.

Renata Sancken is a teen services librarian at Memorial Hall Library in Andover and a co-host of the Worst Bestsellers readers advisory podcast.