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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!

Ottauquechee’s Diversity Detectives in:

The Case of The Library Diversity Audit

Whose stories are being told in your library? Whose stories are being left out?

Look around your library. It is such a beautiful space. It’s filled with vibrant colors and flexible furniture, student art and encouraging signs and posters. Maybe it has a makerspace. And it’s stocked full of books of all shapes, sizes and colors. Every book imaginable is available somewhere, from a YA-version Hamlet, to Winnie the Pooh and The Big Friendly Giant. Plus of course, Catcher in the Rye. You’ve got some new classics as well: Twilight, Hunger Games, City of Bones. Your collection is amazing. Why on earth would you need a library audit?


What’s a library audit?

Librarians audit their collections for any number of reasons. Books like to live, they like to find readers. Part of library management is curating which books to add and which to discard.

But recently, quite a few librarians have noticed that their collections represent only a minority of voices in the communities they serve. Publishing has favored a limited number of narratives. Those narratives feature a large number of protagonists who are white, who are male, who are able-bodied, who are straight. Those characteristics taken together reference a small set of the population. Therefore, many librarians are finding it useful to use lenses of diversity in conducting their audits. As you buy new books, and as you discard older ones, having lenses of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation and economic class — even a subset of those lenses — can make a collection more useful to its community.

And why did Ottauquechee need one?

“I thought about my students. Do they see themselves in the library?”

The Ottauquechee School, in Quechee VT, is home to an amazing library space. Work tables cluster under a wall of windows. Beanbags and soft, plush reading chairs beckon invitingly. Laptops sit ready atop a tech bar, and a whiteboard asks students to write questions for an upcoming discussion. And Ottauquechee School librarian Becky Whitney wanted to make sure the collection was just as welcoming as the space itself.

I was inspired from the Deeper Learning Conference we attended in 2018, and in one session we attended, called Little People have Big Ideas: Implementing a Social Justice Lens in Elementary, with Jeffrey Feitelberg, elementary students did a classroom library audit. And I always felt, because I didn’t have my own classroom, that I couldn’t make systemic change. I only see the students for 45 minutes a week  — and then sometimes there’s holidays or vacations and field trips and then it’s two weeks until I see them. And I thought, “There’s really no way to make these great PBL projects in library.” It’s just not enough time to make it meaningful.

But when I went to that session, and the presenter talked about the kid’s classroom library, I just thought “I could do that with a very small segment of the library,” and then use it as a research project.  The diversity audit, it kind of takes my responsibility and my passion and melds them.

Then I thought, there are a few students of color at our school. Where are they reflected in the library? 

Becky knew that conducting a diversity audit of the library would not just improve the range of the collection, but teach students to be more critical readers. It would teach them to think powerfully about empathy and inclusion. So she got to work.

The Diversity Detectives are on the case


Becky began by showing this inspiring video of 11 year old Marley Dias, a Black 6th grader who wanted to see herself in more books. Marley noticed the books she was reading in school were mostly about “white boys and dogs”. She wanted more books with characters who look like her.  Her mother asked her, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” What Marley did was begin a movement demanding more racial diversity YA books. She went looking for #1000Blackgirlbooks, crowd-sourcing a collection of books with a Black female protagonist. She distributes the books to school libraries. The movement went viral, and kicked off a lot of powerful conversations for librarians around race in YA publishing.

But for Ottauquechee students, Marley’s activism provided a relatable example. Whose stories would they find in their own library? Whose stories did they want to find? Could everyone see themselves in the collection?

Dream of a Common Language

Becky introduced and unpacked the 4 Agreements of Courageous Conversations (Singleton & Linton)  to her students:

  • Stay engaged
  • Speak your truth
  • Expect discomfort
  • Expect non-closure

They would use these four guidelines as a way to move through tough topics together.

Becky also worked with a community partner in this project, John Hall, the chair of the committee for Racial Inclusion and Equality in Hartford.

And what he said was, “Just the discussion was the important and powerful piece. The research is great, buying new and diverse books for the library is great,” but I would have done that anyway. So, including the kids in the discussion, including the kids and giving them agency, and giving them a voice in what kind of library, whose story are we telling — making them realize, the lack of diversity not okay. 

Becky also defined specific lenses students could use in the audit. They could look for stories that featured diversity around race, religion, disability, and culture. Becky and her students chewed over the vocabulary together. They examined current data on the state of children’s book publishing and representation, then they moved into interest-based groups. They in effect became Diversity Detectives, studying Ottauquechee’s library collection for clues to inclusion.

Tackling the stacks…

library audit rubric

…and making the case

The Diversity Detectives studied different sets of books in Ottauquechee’s library, using their Courageous Conversations agreements and the diversity lenses. They worked on analyzing the data they collected, then they created infographics in Canva. Here is a single point rubric Becky created for assessing the infographics. Lastly, students will share the infographics with their whole school community in the hopes of continuing discussions of inclusion.

Now be the change you want to see in the world.

For librarian Becky Whitney, this wasn’t just a theoretical exercise. The Diversity Detectives’ research will directly inform the direction Ottauquechee’s library collection takes as it grows. Taking the infographics and associated research into account, she will be partnering with the Diversity Detectives on recommended new purchases and culls. She also reached out to a local bookstore, in Norwich VT. The Norwich Bookstore’s proprietor, Liza Bernard, has agreed to share with students how she purchases books and what influences those decisions. All part of making sure this exercise remains more than academic. Becky hopes to come home from Norwich Bookstore with about 20 new titles based on the students’ research. Conversations around inclusion and diversity will have real-world relevance in Ottauquechee. They will shape the library collection, and hopefully extend to other areas of students’ lives.

Teaching the library audit

Becky ponders how she has challenged herself to move beyond her own initial discomfort with addressing these issues in school:

I’ve forced myself to be uncomfortable. I’m forcing myself to be aware of the language I use. And I had never understood that as fully as I have now because of the amount of research that I did, to make sure that I knew what I was talking about. It’s kind of like the whole — white fragility thing, and the whole thing about “I’m uncomfortable talking about race, and so I’m just going to not really talk about it.”

Students are leading these conversations and growing their agency, voice and understanding of critical issues in the process. And teachers are giving them the opportunity to share power and critically analyze their library spaces.

What does your library collection look like? How do you choose whose stories are included?

Further reading:

The 8th grade consultants shaping education at Burke Town School

The power of the student consult

If you’re wondering what engages, excites and motivates students, the answer is easy: ask them.

Creating opportunities for students to give feedback on plans, projects, assessments and activities builds a collaborative learning community, and creates leadership and student voice opportunities.

Here’s how one school gave student consultants a shot.

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