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Our 25 can’t-miss books of 2019

The books you’ve just got to give or get for the holidays

Behold! It’s The Undefeated’s second annual list of books you’ve just got to read — right in time for holiday shopping season.

With only 25 slots, we try to cultivate a mix of adult fiction, nonfiction, children’s and young adult options. And of course we’ve got you covered on all things sports. Happy reading!


Patsy: A Novel by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s first novel, Here Comes the Sun, was a captivating critique of post-colonial Jamaica, told through the vehicle of a mother-daughter relationship. Patsy follows its title character out of Jamaica, where she is working an unfulfilling job just to cover monthly expenses, to New York, where Patsy reunites with her former lover and friend, Cicely. Nothing, of course, is neat and ideal. People and their priorities change, and Patsy is left to navigate the cruelties of being an undocumented immigrant in a city, a country, and a world that knows little about her.

A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes

A Jamaican fairy tale set in 1958, A Tall History of Sugar is a love story between an odd, intriguing child, Moshe, and his soul mate Arrienne, whom he meets on the first day of school. Where Moshe is laconic and excels in the realm of the visual, Arrienne acts as both narrator and translator in a story that spans slavery, colonialism, and the aftermath of both.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

Eating disorders often show up differently in black women, but there’s still a widely-held belief that they’re the province of white girls. Gray’s debut novel focuses on the Butler sisters, Viola, Althea, and Lillian, who are having serious issues with control, family, and food, even if their lives at first seem ideal and settled.

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

In the Highway 59 books, Attica Locke takes her readers deep into the heart of East Texas, where, aside from official borders, it gets more difficult to know where the Lone Star State ends and Louisiana begins. In the first book, Bluebird, Bluebird, Bill King, the leader of a white supremacist group, wound up in jail. Now, his 9-year-old son Levi is missing, and the story of Heaven, My Home, unfurls from there. You’re probably familiar with the work of Attica Locke, even if you don’t realize it. That’s because, besides her Highway 59 mystery series, of which Heaven, My Home is the second volume, she also writes for television — most recently, Locke wrote part two of the Netflix miniseries When They See Us.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

We’re fans of the entire diaspora here at The Undefeated. The Shadow King, the sophomore effort from Maaza Mengiste, takes place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and revolves around Mussolini’s invasion of the country in 1935. The lead character, Hirut, is a recently orphaned woman who goes to work as a maid in the house of an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army. Mengiste’s novel provides a rich, compelling view of history as seen from the perspective of those who are most often overlooked. In Mengiste’s hands, World War II becomes more than a story about conflicting white generals and the men they command.

The Last Thing You Surrender by Leonard Pitts Jr.

In The Last Thing You Surrender, Leonard Pitts Jr., the Miami Herald’s Pulitzer-winning national columnist puts his journalistic skills to work in a World War II saga in which those who were unlikely to interact find themselves thrown together and fighting for a common cause. Pitts’ three leading characters are all from Alabama: a wealthy white Marine, the black messman who saves him from a sinking ship, and the messman’s widow. Pitts’ novel is a close examination of how national loyalty survives, even when it’s colored by overwhelming bitterness, prompting questions about what we’re willing to fight for and why.

Shuri: The Search for Black Panther by Nnedi Okorafor, illustrated by Leonardo Romero and colored by Jordie Bellaire

If there’s any character one wants to follow deep into the world of Wakanda, it’s Shuri, the hidden nation’s smart-aleck inventor princess. Well-known fantasy writer Nnedi Okorafor expands into the world of comic-book writing with Shuri, and it’s a journey well worth taking, given Okorafor’s preternatural ability for world-building. When T’Challa goes missing, it’s up to Shuri to find him, all while working to save Wakanda from an existential alien threat.

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Gingerbread might be a fairy tale, but don’t dare make the mistake of thinking it’s just a retread of Hansel and Gretel. Oyeyemi is a veteran at approaching conventional fairy tales and doing with them what she wishes, which is what she did with Mr. Fox (2011) and Boy, Snow, Bird (2014). In her latest remix, Oyeyemi unfurls a mysterious tale about a teacher, Harriet, and her daughter, Perdita, who becomes deathly ill after eating too much gingerbread in an attempt to visit Harriet’s home country of Druhástrana, which may exist — or not. Trippy and unexpected, Gingerbread is filled with wild imagination and oddities, making it an ideal fairy tale for grown-ups.

Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson is probably best known for her award-winning children’s book, Brown Girl Dreaming. Red At The Bone is Woodson’s second book (following Another Brooklyn) about grown folks’ business. This one is a dive into the relationship between a mother and daughter — spiky, textural, and irreverent in the way such relationships can be. Set in Brooklyn, New York, in 2001, it’s a story of three generations, with the family’s youngest member, Melody, serving as the reader’s guide through the story of her family. Her custom dress, passed down from generation to generation, which she wears for her coming-of-age ceremony, serves as a throughline in a family story of striving, sexual exploration, and identity.


A Team of Their Own: How an International Sisterhood Made Olympic History by Seth Berkman

The story of the 2018 South Korean women’s hockey team was bound to be an interesting one. It was the only team in the Winter Olympics with members from the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea. While the unified team provided plenty of fodder for musing on international relations and diplomacy, Seth Berkman’s book never loses its focus on the team itself or the stories of the women who played on it. From struggling against stereotypes of femininity to fighting for recognition, respect, and decent equipment, A Team of Their Own elucidates the issues female athletes around the world still face, and the love of sport that compels them to play.

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Winner of the 2019 National Book Award for non-fiction, Sarah M. Broom’s memoir is a masterpiece of non-fiction storytelling. The Yellow House is a story of family, disaster, mourning, and memory, an elegy for everything lost, both tangible and not, as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The story grows beyond that of its focus: Broom’s widowed mother, Ivory Mae and her second husband, Simon Broom, and the yellow shotgun house in East New Orleans where Ivory Mae, widowed again, raises 12 children. It is a graceful story of America, separation, of displacement, and exploration of what truly makes home, well, home.

The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown

If you’re familiar with Keah Brown, you probably know her as the creator of the Twitter hashtag #DisabledandCute. Brown, a freelance journalist with cerebral palsy, is on a mission to change the way we think and talk about disability. She writes with charm and verve about her life, reminding us to see her — and disabled people at large — as people first, not repositories for pity or inspiration or disgust. Brown writes from an intersectional lens. She can’t separate her blackness from her disability, she argues, and neither should we.

The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley and the Debate over Race in America by Nicolas Buccola

You can watch James Baldwin’s historic 1965 debate at the Cambridge Union with William F. Buckley Jr. on YouTube. Linfield College professor Nicolas Buccola’s book reveals the story behind it. The two men were born just 15 months apart, yet grew up in separate Americas. Buccola provides an exegesis of the lives of both men, and an evaluation of a century-defining debate. The fault lines between Buckley and Baldwin are just as relevant as ever.

A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston by Robyn Crawford

In recent years, two documentaries have been released, each offering a snapshot of the triumph and tragedy of Whitney Houston’s life. But one person remained silent: her best friend and longtime lover, Robyn Crawford. Here, Crawford offers her story as protector of and advocate for one of the greatest pop stars of the 20th century. Crawford reveals the underbelly of Houston’s life: her family, who put their own interests above the singer’s health. But she also writes with tender clarity about her relationship with Houston and the heartbreak that came when the singer, succumbing to the pressures of religion and celebrity, chose to end their secret union.

Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side by Eve Ewing

Is there anything Eve Ewing can’t write? The prolific poet, comic book scribe and sociologist of Chicago now delves into recent history, chronicling the effects of closing 13 public schools on the South Side of her home city. Ewing provides context and explanation for how a school closing — that of Dyett High School, could prompt a monthlong hunger strike in protest. As Americans continue to argue over busing, school choice, and segregation, Ewing helps us make sense of a topic often fraught with unspoken racism.

The Book of Delights: Essays by Ross Gay

The first thing you should know is that the title is not a misnomer. In a climate of serious thoughts about serious subjects, Ross Gay truly does delight, bringing more poetry than usual to an essay collection that challenges the conventions of the form. Some of Gay’s essays are a mere paragraph, others are longer, but they are all about aspects of life worth celebrating. A worthwhile break from the monotony of worldly worries, The Book of Delights reminds its readers to treat themselves to a bit of beauty. We all deserve it.

White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson

Everyone seemingly has thoughts about cultural appropriation. Northwestern University professor Lauren Michele Jackson has more. In this debut essay collection, Jackson covers the Kardashians, Britney Spears and Paula Deen, each time going beyond the surface to reveal new ideas about a subject that never goes out of style.

Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier by Mark Kram Jr.

A boxer is only as great as his greatest opponent, and Mark Kram Jr.’s book about Joe Frazier is a well-researched tribute to the man best known for fighting Muhammad Ali. Smokin’ Joe turns Frazier into more than just the lesser-known man in boxing’s greatest rivalry, building out the story of “Billy Boy’s” South Carolina upbringing, his charity and his Olympic achievements.

Breathe: A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry

The Princeton professor, whose Lorraine Hansberry biography made our 2018 list, offers something equally vital this year. Imani Perry wrestles with her fear for how her home country will treat her children, and how they and she can overcome it. With elegant prose, Perry runs down the challenges of raising black boys and teaching them to love themselves by arming them with truth and self-belief.

You Throw Like a Girl: The Blind Spot of Masculinity by Don McPherson

A crucial read for anyone interested in learning more about how sports culture informs limited definitions of masculinity, and how such definitions are destructive for boys and men, and dangerous to girls and women. Don McPherson, a former NFL and college quarterback, urges readers to think critically about the unfair expectations society sets based on gender, and how to upend them.


A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks by Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by Xia Gordon

The poetry of Pulitzer-Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks is a must-have for any young lover of verse. Now, her story comes to life in this biography. Alice Faye Duncan wrote original poems to share the facts of Brooks’ life, which are incorporated with a selection of Brooks’ own verses. This book is as much a love letter to the process of writing as it is to Brooks herself.

A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison

Perfect for young girls who watched Hidden Figures with wide eyes, this book by Suzanne Slade and Veronica Miller Jamison tells the story of an amazing mathematician whose calculations were crucial to putting Americans on the moon. For adults who gobbled up Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book, A Computer Called Katherine offers a way to share the magic of Johnson’s story at bedtime.

The Fierce 44: Black Americans Who Shook Up the World by The Staff of The Undefeated, illustrated by Robert Ball

The Undefeated has published a children’s book, based on a staff project. Inspired by the presidency of Barack Obama (hence, 44 names), this book is a compendium of African Americans whose lives have inspired and transformed the world, from Oprah Winfrey to Alvin Ailey to Ida B. Wells.


Inventing Victoria by Tonya Bolden

Got a reader who’s a sucker for historical fiction? Tonya Bolden introduces Essie, who lives in 1880s Savannah, Georgia, but not for long. While working at a boardinghouse, Essie meets a guest who becomes her benefactor, whisking her away to Baltimore, where Essie becomes Victoria.

Oh My Gods by Alexandra Sheppard

What happens when you’re 14, living in North London, and your family turns out to be Greek gods? Helen Thomas, the protagonist of Sheppard’s debut young adult novel, finds out in gut-busting fashion as Helen navigates normal life, like crushes and school, with an abnormal secret.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.