Ask Approved: 21 of the Best Reads of 2020

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When it comes to the book-publishing industry, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been far-reaching — and, honestly, something of a mixed bag. For one, folks are spending more time at home, so whether they need to learn a new skill, deepen their knowledge or escape to a virus-free world for a few hours, books are a welcome solution.

In fact, the Los Angeles Times found that Bookshop.org, an online retailer that aims to support independent bookstores in response to Amazon’s growing influence, saw a 400% increase in sales since the shutdown in March, and, to date, has raised over $9.56 million for indie sellers. However, an increase in demand for print books has put some strain on the production of those books, which means a rise in ebook and audiobook sales and subscription sign-ups for services like Libro.fm and Audible. And while it’s great that folks are getting their reading materials somewhere, the rise in ebook sales, specifically, means less revenue for authors, publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

All of this to say, it’s been a year of ups and downs — but, on the actual book-release side, it’s been a lot of ups. While we can’t squeeze in all of our favorites from 2020 here, we have rounded up a stellar sampling of must-reads.

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Debut author Leah Johnson has written an incredible first novel — one that the publisher describes as "a smart, hilarious, Black girl magic, own voices rom-com by a staggeringly talented new writer." Chances are, if you haven’t read You Should See Me in a Crown, you’ve at least seen other people reading this bonafide hit (and soon-to-be classic).

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In the novel, Liz Lighty, who has "always believed she’s too Black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed Midwestern town," dreams of getting away by way of an elite college with a world-famous orchestra — well, until her financial aid falls through. After realizing there’s a scholarship available for prom queen and king, Liz has to endure the competition — and alluring new girl Mack — as she navigates high school, relationships and settling into her own queerness and queer joy.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

New York Times bestselling author Brit Bennett has crafted a stunning novel about twin sisters who, despite being inseparable as children, choose to live in two very different worlds — one Black and one white. After running away from their small Black community in the South as teens, one sister ends up living in that very town they tried to leave, while the other secretly passes for white, even to her husband.

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Although they have seemingly ended up in very different places, with very different outlooks and identities, the sisters find that their fate is intertwined. "Bennett’s tone and style recalls James Baldwin and Jacqueline Woodson," writes Kiley Reid of The Wall Street Journal. "But it’s especially reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s 1970 debut novel, The Bluest Eye." Without a doubt, The Vanishing Half is a soon-to-be classic.

Homie by Danez Smith

Graywolf Press notes that Danez Smith’s Homie is a "magnificent anthem about the saving grace of friendship," one that was written in the wake of the loss of one of Smith’s close friends. The poems collected here confront topics like violence and xenophobia and the feeling that nothing is quite worthwhile in the face of these, and other, hateful forces. That is, until you get that one text — that one knock on the door — from a friend who knows just what you need.

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Without a doubt, these poems are some of Smith’s most powerful. Their ode to friendship has been called "expansive" and "big enough to hold a vast mosaic of emotion and style, of life and death, of survival and resilience, of pain and joy" by Lambda Literary. Fellow poet Tish Jones perhaps put it best, saying, "Homie is how we survive ― in verse," which feels particularly necessary in 2020.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

In this debut paranormal novel, Yadriel, a young trans boy, is determined to prove himself, and his gender, to his traditional Latinx family. This leads Yadriel to perform a ritual — one he hopes will help him find the ghost of his murdered cousin. But things don’t always go as planned, especially when you’re dealing with the supernatural. The ghost Yadriel actually summons is Julian Diaz, the resident bad boy, who has some loose ends to tie up before he passes on. And the longer the two boys work together, the more Yadriel wants Julian to stay.

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Early on, Entertainment Weekly dubbed Cemetery Boys "groundbreaking" — and that couldn’t be more true. "It was [...] really important for me to write a book where LGBTQIA and Latinx kids could see themselves being powerful heroes," author Aiden Thomas said in an interview. "Right now, these kids are living in a world where a lot of hate and suffering is zeroed in on them. I wanted them to see themselves being supported and loved for who they are. I wanted to write a fun book with good representation that they could escape into and have a happy ending."

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

In Felix Ever After, Stonewall and Lambda Award-winning author Kacen Callender crafts a landmark YA novel about Felix, a transgender teen who fears that he’s "one marginalization too many — Black, queer, and transgender — to ever get his own happily ever-after." When a transphobic student publicly posts Felix’s deadname and photos on campus, our protagonist plots his revenge — and, throughout the course of the novel, navigates both self-discovery and a blossoming, unexpected first love.

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Intricately plotted and beautifully written, Felix Ever After is an essential read. In a starred review, Booklist notes that "From its stunning cover art to the rich, messy, nuanced narrative at its heart, this is an unforgettable story of friendship, heartbreak, forgiveness, and self-discovery, crafted by an author whose obvious respect for teen readers radiates from every page."

Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha

Almost American Girl marks another work of nonfiction, but, this time, one that sits firmly in the graphic memoir category. In the work, the on-the-page version of author Robin Ha is quite close to her single mother, so when a vacation to Alabama leads to a surprise, permanent relocation, Robin is upset — not just because her mom is getting married and uprooting their life in Seoul, but because she wasn’t let in on the plan beforehand.

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Completely cut off from her friends, unable to speak English and grappling with a new step-family, Robin turns to comics — an escape that begins to shape Robin’s future. Booklist notes that, "With unblinking honesty and raw vulnerability...presented in full-color splendor, [Ha’s] energetic style mirrors the constant motion of her adolescent self, navigating the peripatetic turbulence toward adulthood."

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

"It’s Lovecraft meets the Brontës in Latin America," The Guardian notes, "and after a slow-burn start Mexican Gothic gets seriously weird." If that doesn’t grab your attention, we’re not sure what will. Set in 1950s Mexico, this bestseller puts a twist on the gothic horror genre while still checking all of the genre’s boxes: an isolated mansion, a charismatic aristocrat and a brave young woman.

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When she receives a letter from her recently married cousin, Noemí Taboada sets off from High Place, a house in the Mexican countryside, to save her kin from impending doom. Of course, it wouldn’t be gothic horror if the house wasn’t full of secrets. "Deliciously creepy… Read it with your lights on," Vox warns, "and know that strange dreams might begin to haunt you, as they haunted Noemí."

Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall

Mainstream feminism has its detractors, but it also has its internal failings. Through a series of essays, Mikki Kendall spotlights the ways in which mainstream feminists stymie the movement by not taking into account the basics of survival — access to food, quality education, safe neighborhoods, safe medical care and a living wage.

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While feminism stands for equity by definition, its aims often help out its most privileged supporters and leave out BIPOC, disabled and LGBTQ+ folks. "If Hood Feminism is a searing indictment of mainstream feminism, it is also an invitation," NPR notes. "[Kendall] offers guidance for how we can all do better." Without a doubt, this landmark work cements the fact that Kendall is a leading voice in Black feminist thought and feminism.

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom With Illustrations by Michaela Goade

"Water is the first medicine," reads We Are Water Protectors. "It affects and connects us all." Inspired by the myriad Indigenous-led movements happening across North America, this breathtaking picture book is a sort of call to action, wrapped in lyrical prose and watercolor illustrations crafted by #OwnVoices writer Carole Lindstrom and artist Michaela Goade.

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Booklist notes that the book was "written in response to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline [and] famously protested by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe" and that "these pages carry grief, but it is overshadowed by hope in what is an unapologetic call to action." No matter one’s age, We Are Water Protectors is a must-read, one that gets to the heart of the things that matter and puts Indigenous ideas, groups, creators and leaders rightfully at the center of the movement to safeguard our planet from human-caused climate change and destruction.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Without a doubt, Isabel Wilkerson is best known as the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of bestselling book The Warmth of Other Suns, and, much like that popular and essential work, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents aims to examine truths that are often left unspoken, or go unaddressed, in America. As its name suggests, the book examines the caste system that shaped our country — that continues to define our lives and create hierarchies.

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"As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance," Wilkerson writes. "The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power — which groups have it and which do not." This immersive, essential read will open your eyes to all that lies beneath the surface, and, hopefully, once you’ve seen it you won’t be able to look away.

All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson

Journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson explores his childhood and college years in a series of personal essays that tackle topics like gender identity, toxic masculinity, Black joy and brotherhood. School Library Journal points out that All Boys Aren’t Blue’s "conversational tone will leave readers feeling like they are sitting with an insightful friend."

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Since we don’t often see a memoir written specifically for young adults, this intimacy makes the book all the more meaningful, especially for young queer Black readers. This can’t-miss memoir-manifesto is also beautifully written — full of lovely language and untold amounts of guidance and support. "This title opens new doors," Kirkus Reviews notes. "[...T]he author insists that we don't have to anchor stories such as his to tragic ends: 'Many of us are still here. Still living and waiting for our stories to be told―to tell them ourselves.'"

Teen Titans: Beast Boy by Kami Garcia With Illustrations by Gabriel Picolo

Author Kami Garcia and artist Gabriel Picolo brought us the bestselling Teen Titans: Raven a little while ago, detailing Raven Roth’s pre-superhero origins. Now, the creative dream team is back with Teen Titans: Beast Boy, a coming-of-age graphic novel entry about everyone’s favorite green, shapeshifting teen, Garfield Logan.

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For the uninitiated, DC’s Teen Titans sees a changing lineup of young adult heroes taking on bad guys, but Beast Boy happens before any of that. For as long as Gar can remember, he’s been overlooked — and eager to stand out in his small-town high school. Despite his best friends’ insistence that he shouldn’t care what the popular kids think, Gar accepts a life-altering challenge, but it’s not just his social status that’ll change as a result.

The City We Became (Great Cities #1) by N.K. Jemisin

"Every great city has a soul. Some are ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York? She's got six." And that’s just the jacket copy for The City We Became. In the novel, some of the world’s biggest cities are revealed to be alive. When New York City tries to join in, its sentience is spread to living embodiments of the metropolis’ boroughs.

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Written by Hugo Award-winning author N.K. Jemisin, this glorious and gripping work of speculative fiction will transport you right into a vividly imagined version of NYC where five strangers must come together to protect the city they love. The New York Times praised The City We Became, noting that it "takes a broad-shouldered stand on the side of sanctuary, family and love. It's a joyful shout, a reclamation and a call to arms."

The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures by Noelle Stevenson

In the book world, Noelle Stevenson might be best-known as the author-illustrator of Nimona and creator of Lumberjanes, two bestselling queer comic series. Outside of publishing, Stevenson was the creator of and showrunner for Dreamworks’ lauded reimagining of She-Ra, which came to an end earlier this year. But Stevenson also has some personal stories to share, and the result is The Fire Never Goes Out.

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This illustrated memoir is full of essays and personal mini-comics that chart eight years of her young adult life — and all of the ups and downs that punctuated that span of time. Full of wit and vulnerability, The Fire Never Goes Out spotlights how the intertwining of one’s art (and career) with one’s personal growth and discovery can be the most difficult — and fulfilling — landscape to navigate.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones, who is a member of the Blackfeet Native American Nation, wrote one of the year’s most highly anticipated horror novels — and all that anticipation certainly pays off. The Only Good Indians centers on the tale of four childhood friends who grow up, move away from home and then, a decade later, discover that a vengeful entity is hunting them for an act of violence they committed long ago.

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The novel combines horror, drama and social commentary quite flawlessly, proving NPR’s statement that "Jones is one of the best writers working today regardless of genre." Rebecca Roanhorse, the bestselling author of Trail of Lightning, wrote that "Jones boldly and bravely incorporates both the difficult and the beautiful parts of contemporary Indian life into his story, never once falling into stereotypes or easy answers but also not shying away from the horrors caused by cycles of violence."

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

In this successor to her bestselling novel Homegoing, author Yaa Gyasi follows up her debut with something so raw and intimate. In Transcendent Kingdom, Nana, a gifted high school athlete, is a victim of the opioid epidemic, while his sister, Gifty, is a PhD candidate at Stanford who struggles between finding herself in hard science and faith.

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And in the wake of Nana’s death, the siblings’ Ghanaian family, who call Alabama home, must grapple with grief, faith and addiction. Entertainment Weekly has noted that Transcendent Kingdom is "poised to be the literary event of the fall," while bestselling author Roxane Gay has called it a "gorgeously woven narrative… Not a word or idea out of place."

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Charles Yu won the 2020 National Book Award for Interior Chinatown — and for good reason. Dubbed "one of the funniest books of the year" by The Washington Post, the novel centers on Willis Wu, a man who doesn’t think he’s the protagonist of his own life. Instead, Willis views himself as "Generic Asian Man," or some other background character or prop. That is, until he stumbles upon the secret history of Chinatown and his family’s legacy.

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In exploring race, pop culture, assimilation, immigration and more, Interior Chinatown is part-Hollywood satire and part-moving masterpiece. "Yu has a devilish good time poking fun at the racially blinkered ways of Hollywood," the New York Journal of Books notes. "[Interior Chinatown is] rollicking fun, and its reclamation of Asian American history, with all its attendant sorrows and hopes, holds out the possibility of a new, true story ahead."

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald had an instant bestseller on her hands with H Is for Hawk, an award-winner about Helen, who was dealing with grief over her father’s death, and her goshawk Mabel, whose temperament was not unlike Helen’s. In some ways, that book reinvigorated the nature-writing genre, proving that the lessons we learn from the natural world can make for the stuff of moving memoir.

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In her latest work, Vesper Flights, Macdonald collects both old and new essays on a wide range of topics into a poignant look at what it means, and how it feels, to make sense of the world around us. The Wall Street Journal calls the book "Dazzling… Macdonald reminds us how marvelously unfamiliar much of the nonhuman world remains to us."

Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

In her debut novel, Kalynn Bayron sets her story 200 years after Cinderella found her prince. The fairy tale is over, and, as the title states, Cinderella Is Dead. Following Cinderella’s success story, teenage girls are required to attend the kingdom’s ball so that the men in attendance can select their future wives. Not a suitable match? Well, the girls that go unchosen aren’t ever heard from again.

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All of this is made way more complicated when Sophia realizes she would rather marry Erin, her childhood best friend. Fearful of what’s to come, Sophia flees the ball and ends up in Cinderella’s mausoleum, where she meets a descendant of the princess’ family. The two team up to take out the king — and, in the process, they uncover some rather interesting secrets about the kingdom’s past…

The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

If there’s one thing we can’t get enough of during this depressing year, it’s the thrill of first love — and all of those other life experiences that just aren’t the same in 2020. Luckily, The Gravity of Us offers a welcome escape. The YA novel centers on Cal, a teenager with half a million followers on social media, who finds himself a fish out of water when his family relocates from Brooklyn to Houston for his dad’s work.

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Of course, his dad’s work is a bit more unconventional: He’s a NASA astronaut, readying to embark on a highly publicized mission to Mars. Soon enough, Cal falls head-over-heels for Leon, a fellow "Astrokid," and all seems well and good until Cal discovers something about the Mars program. "[It’s a] big-hearted, witty, and intensely relatable debut," writes bestselling YA novelist Karen M. McManus (One of Us Is Lying). "[It’s] about reaching for your dreams without losing what grounds you."

Save Yourself by Cameron Esposito

When Cameron Esposito was a kid, she wanted to be a priest. What bowl-cut-touting, unaware queer kid wouldn’t, especially when said kid is raised Catholic? Well, Esposito ended up being a wildly successful stand-up comic, which, if you think about it, is kind of like delivering a sermon. Kind of. In Save Yourself, Esposito supplies funny, insightful tales that range in topic from her coming out while at a Catholic college to the messiness of first love.

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Esposito says she wrote the memoir because it was something she needed as a kid, "because there was a long time when she thought she wouldn’t make it" as a queer person so used to seeing stories of tragedy play out for folks like her. "Esposito writes with her signature deadpan humor," The Seattle Times notes, "but her story is much more nuanced than your typical celebrity memoir."

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