My 2021 Best Book List

It’s been… well, quite a year. Thankfully, there is reading. These are the books that moved me, taught me, lead me to wonder, question, re-think, and improved my life, personally and professionally. I am deeply grateful for them, for the opportunity to learn and experience and come alongside these authors. I hope you enjoy this list, and I am wishing you a healthy, happy, and peaceful 2021. Let me know your favorites from this year! I would love to hear them.

Finding The Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard

“I imagined the flow of energy from the Mother Tree as powerful as the ocean tide, as strong as the sun’s rays, as irrepressible as the wind in the mountains, as unstoppable as a mother protecting her child.”🌳

Dr. Suzanne Simard is now part of the growing number of inspirational, transformative, passionate, driven and brilliant women who inform my thinking, actions, writing and perspectives on the world. The binary and limited way forests were viewed, as competitive organisms, clear cut then re-planted in rows with set monetary value, was dead wrong, and Dr. Simard takes us on her life journey, from her logging family with deep roots (oh, yes I did) in the forests of British Columbia, to show us a new way of thinking. For anyone who knew in their bones that the forests were wise, thought they had more value beyond lumber, for anyone who knows that forests and trees connect, heal and transform our lives, and the ecosystem, or anyone curious about it, this book is for you.

The book is full of nature and science, and takes some focus and attention. It brought me back to my natural science courses at Colorado State.

The other thing I want to point out is that this book is not *just* for science lovers. You will see a holistic view of the forest ecosystems, connecting deeply to indigenous practices and beliefs.

Also, very inspiring and simultaneously maddening, in the book Dr. Simard is a woman having to navigate traditionally academic/scientific male spaces, as a young mother, and how she was gaslit, ignored, and persevered anyway with her research, vision and ideas. A way to live.

How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith

Poetic, lyrical, deeply researched and affecting, Mr.Clint Smith reveals through connections to place, people, story telling, and history the hard truths of America and its institutions. I learned more history here than in my entire K-12 education. And how I had been duped, shielded, into not knowing much of this until adulthood. As a country we cannot move forward until we truly see what has been shown to us by this brilliant scholar and writer.

The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed.

An up close and personal view of a family living in LA during the time of the Rodney King assault, trial, acquittal and unrest. So powerful in both the inside view of this time, and LA, and a girl finding her way through family, identity, and friend shifts. Powerful prose the intersectionality of being both black and female. And on being disbelieved, a system rigged: “Whenever a black or brown person gets shot by the police, it’s always ‘what did they do to deserve it’. The assumption is that it’s always deserved, somehow. Or ‘they should have listened. We don’t get the benefit of the doubt.” Family links to victims of the Tulsa massacre and generational racial trauma. Builds understanding. Vibrant writing, fluid. Love the characters and family like I know them. I’m sorry it’s over.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

Take up space. Don’t shrink yourself for anyone. You are worthy of love and respect unconditionally. Stand up for yourself without being a bully. Even to your mother. Or your sister. Bravo, @authorlisafipps 💕💕! The world, my girls, and my students, needed this book. Thank you! 

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

I have long struggled to reconcile with my history of watching (not reading) Little House on the Prairie and it’s seriously problematic representations (and lack there of) of indigenous people, issues of race, and gender. But it was there I learned about addiction, grief and loss, sexual assault, greed, and resilience as a kid. I grappled with these books in the classroom as well, so beloved by many. Thankfully, I have a new book to recommend now, which tackles the time period beautifully with a new heroine, Hannah, who is Asian American, and faces a community uncomfortable with her very existence in their small midwestern newly settled town. Her story illuminates a more accurate story of this time period, while holding on to the elements of small town prairie life in the 1880s. The author, Linda Sue Park, says that the book is “an attempt to reconcile my childhood love of the Little House books with my adult knowledge of their painful shortcomings.” I am so thankful to her for this, and will put it into the hands of Little House fans and readers.

Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Teaching by Alex Shevrin Venet.

I read this book and felt grounded before starting with students at the beginning of the year. It had me thinking deeply about unconditional positive regard, building relationships rooted in equity, and creating cultures of care. Thank you Alex!

I’m reflecting on what works to reduce bullying “is creating equitable, affirming school environments.”

And how race and gender intersect with school leadership and the importance of examining identities as a school leader.

Thinking of how to communicate daily to students—“I care about you. You have value. Nothing you can do will change that.” 💕-

Teachers and school leaders, please get this book! Would be a inspiring staff read.

Happiness is a Choice You Make by John Leland, sketchnote by Katy Farber

Happiness is a Choice You Make by John Leland

Back early last year, since most of us couldn’t spend time with their elders right, it felt important to me to read their stories and wisdom. While the title invoked in me some feelings of toxic positivity (just choose to be happy!!) the book itself is full of delightful lessons and a way to rethink growing old. I loved spending time with each of these souls, especially Jonas. I’ll leave you with a favorite quote, since you might not be able to read it:

“The good things in life— happiness, purpose, contentment, companionship, beauty, and love— have been there all along. We don’t need to earn them. Good food, friends, art, warmth, worth— these are things we have already. We just need to choose them in our lives.” 

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, sketchnote by Katy Farber

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

“You can tell your story any way you damn well please. It is your solo.”

I adore Jandy Nelson’s writing, how raw, emotional, and metaphorical it is, like a shiny, silver liquid on the page. In this book, Nelson explore the many layers and ways of grief, and love, and it is stunning. Nelson shares so many gems of wisdom, and phases and concepts I didn’t know I needed.. such as: “Delight quotient.” and “Messessentialism” to name a few. For anyone who has lost a close loved one, you will feel seen, you will know that others think, how can the sun still shine, how can people live their lives, when I have lost so much, and my world has fallen? And how I can feel joy again when my sadness is so big?

Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden


I’m sitting in the afterglow of puffins! I love these very real and authentic middle grade characters so much I’ll hold on to them forever— each unique and beautiful. They are my students, my daughters, their friends. They are loss and beauty and glitter and sunshine. This book is deeply grounded in Vermont, in what divides and connects us, and the ways we can make a difference the lives of others. No one is too young to do that. And, an example of the power of changing your mind and heart when you have new information. Oh, does the world need that. A fabulous and inspiring read aloud- what I hope to do next.

I am so excited to dig into more books in the new year. What a wide, beautiful world of literature exists for us to experience, grow, learn, stretch, and feel. Sending you love and warmth and health and time for reading in 2022!

For teachers who taught in the first full pandemic year, 2020-2021

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on photo site, Unsplash

I shared this poem with our team of teachers gathered this week for the Middle Grades Institute, but really, it is for all teachers who taught in this pandemic year.

We cannot begin this, this 28th year of MGI, w/o acknowledging that this year was different than any other year in so many ways. Before we really get into our work this week, we wanted to take a few moments and recognize the monumental efforts you put forth this school year.

Here is a poem for you, for us, teachers who taught in the pandemic year, 2020-2021.

You showed up
with your body
and your mind
and your heart
day in and day out
while most of the world
worked safely at home.

You showed up
when unprotected
and uncertain
that you or your family
would be safe.

When the ground beneath your feet
shifted everyday.
Your feet searching for purchase
and sand pouring between your toes
as you tried to stand up.

You showed up
smiled and greeted
elbow bumped and air high fived
you questioned and encouraged
and you read aloud books
your throat sore
your voice muffled.

You wiped down tables
and markers
you ate lunch in your car
or in the hallway
or in the utility closet.

You did this every day
until many nights
you could only sit on the couch
and stare.

You showed up
making facial expressions
as hard as you could
with just your eyes
and you wore that mask
for 7 hours at a time
while the rest of the world
complained about wearing them
for 5 minutes in the gas station.

You showed up
as families changed
nerves frayed
kids cried or acted out
and you let them know
that you were there with them.
They were not alone.

You advocated and emailed.
You knew who needed food
and who needed help with the first steps
and who might just need to say hi.
You lost sleep and had laughs.

You planned remote, hybrid, in person lessons
with new tools and new skills and deep breaths
and followed up when you didn’t see a student
for days.

Then you STILL went grocery shopping
took care of parents, children, neighbors, partners.
You missed birthdays and vacations and reunions
managing your own disappointments
and helping others with theirs.

You did first shift, second shift, third shift.
While trying to care of the delicate bird
of your mind
keeping fear at bay

sometimes.

You showed up. In all the ways you could.
Every. Single. Day. All Year. Long.
It was monumental and heroic and held up the world.

(I wish you rest and joy and rejuvenation
and family and love and all good things this summer
and may it protect and heal you.)

(And I know the teacher as hero trope is problematic in so many ways, but I couldn’t help it here.)

You Got This: Managing Shot Fears

Stacy, healthcare hero!

I walked into the echoey school gymnasium, jangly with nerves. My breath was shallow. I have been teaching in-person since September, managing student risk, my personal risk, and my family’s risk for so long that part of my brain was constantly occupied with surviving and helping others stay safe. I couldn’t even imagine what it might feel like for that part to rest, even just for a little while. I was certain something would go wrong. They would say, HA! This shot is not for you. But I knew that action is the enemy of anxiety, and I had to stay with it. 

I engaged in a strategy to distract myself. Talk to the inspiring human giving me this shot! Her name was Stacy, she has three kids, all still remote learning, and she is worried about them. “This is how we will end this thing,” she said, efficiently prepping me and asking questions about my work, remote and in-person learning, and my family. Before I knew it, the shot was over. 

It is okay to be scared, nervous, or worried about getting a shot. It is evolutionarily normal! We are mammals, after all, trained to keep ourselves safe from sharp things. But in this case, the safest move, in the long run, is to sign up, make a plan, get in line and get your shot. If you are worried, nervous, or scared, please first know it is totally okay to have those feelings. Then, think about how you can manage them. Because there ARE several tried and true ways to do that, techniques that have proven helpful (like distraction, for me) during shots or other stressful situations. Luckily, the Meg Foundation has outlined these strategies for us on their new Hack the Vax site.  

Pick one of these by going to the site for specific directions, and make your plan:

Distract Yourself! 

Pick something to focus on to make yourself feel good. This could be a funny video, a picture of family members you will see (and hug!!) soon, or a favorite song. In my case, it was talking with the brave health care worker who was kindly giving me my shot (Stacy). 

Breathe. 

This simple yet highly effective tool will help you calm your nervous system right down. I have a few of my favorite types of calming breathing techniques. One simple one is to slow down your breathing intentionally. According to author James Nestor, we breathe too much, especially people with anxiety or a fear-based condition. So, the simple act of inhaling through the nose for 5 seconds, and then exhaling slowly for 5 seconds (or longer if you can), will trigger a relaxation response in the body, which is just what you need. 

Reward Yourself! 

Pick a treat to reward yourself with after the shot. Something you don’t usually get yourself. Maybe a steaming, large mocha latte? A fresh donut from that new bakery you haven’t tried yet? A manicure? Something that you will look forward to while you are waiting and getting the shot. Get yourself that treat right after! You deserve it. You are protecting yourself and humanity and did a hard thing. That most certainly deserves a treat.

There are several other strategies here at the Meg Foundation, and they have resources for adults AND kids (Got needle-phobic kids? This is the place for you). 

Think, plan, and go get your shot while managing your fear, and pass on these techniques because you never know when someone else is feeling nervous. You can make your own plan here and conquer your fears. 

Have family members and friends that need your support? Here is how you can help. Create a (Hack the Vax) plan. Think about someone you know who might be scared of needles and getting the shot. Help them make a plan for which tip or technique they will use to manage it, and encourage them to make an appointment, and go face their fear and do a hard thing. You can help others protect themselves, their loved ones, and their community! 

My deepest thanks to Stacy for distracting and connecting with me, and helping me protect my family, my students, and their families. I encourage you to move forward with plans for yourself, your child, or your friends and loved ones. You got this, and you are not alone. 

This post is made possible with support from the Meg Foundation. All opinions are my own.