Motherwell’s favorite books of 2020

multiple book covers

Books offer something particularly essential this year: respite from the uncertainty of our current climate and, at times, inspiration for a new way forward. We’ve selected twelve of our favorite books from 2020—from moving, intimate fiction to insightful, well-researched non-fiction—all of which touch on parenting or family-related themes one way or another. Here are our picks:

Wintering, by Katherine May. A gorgeous meditation on the season of winter and also the idea of wintering—what it is to slow down, take stock, and build reserves during trying times. From September to March, May takes us on a journey through a particularly fallow period of her own life, all the while shedding light on world-wide traditions and spectacles that come with cold weather. Overall, this book is an uplifting perspective on the importance of accepting moments of pain and sadness as a natural precursor to rising again.

Tomboy, by Lisa Selin Davis. An excellent study, at once highly readable and impressively researched, that tackles the history and future of tomboy-ism. Davis deep dives into the complex relationships between sex, gender, identity, and sexuality and aims to make sense of how our language, our toys, our predilections, our clothes can serve both to define us and straightjacket us. We live in a strange time that is more gender segregated than ever before, but also a time that is more understanding than ever before of gender’s inherent fluidity. Ultimately, this book is a clarion call for honoring such diversity and for all children to be allowed—encouraged really—to explore their gender freely.

Why We Can’t Sleep, by Ada Calhoun. An honest and straightforward exploration into the stresses that keep Generation X women up at night. Through extensive research and hundreds of interviews, Calhoun gives a voice to middle age struggles—divorce, debt, perimenopause, exhaustion, job instability—and empowers a generation of women who were raised to “have it all.” Why we love it: While writing this book to tackle her own mid-life crisis, Calhoun manages to help the reader feel less alone.

Boys & Sex, by Peggy Orenstein. After her powerful, and eye-opening, exploration of girls and sex, Orenstein now turns her attention to our sons. With characteristic wit and exhaustive research, Boys & Sex deep dives into topics such as masculinity, intimacy, porn, and consent, and ultimately illuminates avenues forward as to how we can help our boys to become better men. “I already knew that Americans talk precious little to their daughters about sex, but I’d soon learn they talk even less to their sons.”

Untamed, by Glennon Doyle. This bestselling memoir is a much-needed tonic, a manifesto even, empowering women everywhere to embrace the untamed versions of themselves: to get back, that is, to who they were before society caged them with its crippling expectations and stereotypes. Doyle is a motivational writer who uses her own life—in this instance, her decision to leave the father of her three children and find love, finally, with a woman—as fodder to help others embrace meaningful change.

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
A haunting debut novel about consent, abuse, memory, and the possibility of healing. Vanessa Wye is a lonely, poetic 15-year-old when she embarks on a romantic relationship with her English teacher. It becomes the animating force of her life and one she is desperate to conceive of as a matter of love not rape. Alternating between the early days at her Maine boarding school where it all began and 2017, the height of the #metoo movement which brings fresh allegations against the same teacher, this story is complex to the bone.

The Trying Game, by Amy Klein. Amy Klein understands first-hand what it’s like to go through the fertility process; she had nine rounds of IVF before becoming a mother. In this honest, compassionate and straight-forward guide, Klein pens a fact-based and empowering resource for women and demystifies the struggles and confusion surrounding infertility. 

How to Be a Person, by Catherine Newman. We absolutely adore Catherine Newman’s writing. Witty, sharp, often poignant, always insightful, her dispatches from the trenches of motherhood have kept us sane—and entertained—for years. Now she has turned her attention to helping our kids become functioning adults by offering 65 hugely useful, super-important skills to learn before they’re grown up—from cheering up sick people to hand-washing dishes to patching jeans. “One thing we know,” Newman writes, “is asking, ‘What can I do to help?’ is a sure way to be your best self.” 

Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi. A beautiful follow-up to her debut Homegoing, this novel traces a Ghanaian family in Alabama. Particularly apt to 2020, Gyasi contemplates the tension between science and religion, family and addiction, and finding home as immigrants encircled by overt and subtle racism. The protagonist, Gifty, navigates a complicated relationship with her mother and attempts to recalibrate her belief system in spite of the immense loss and suffering that surrounds her. Gyasi has crafted a powerful story of family and renewed faith that cannot go unread. 

Group, by Christie Tate. In her best-selling debut memoir, Christie Tate brings the reader right into the room, offering hope (and much detail) as she reveals her therapeutic journey battling self-esteem and intimacy issues, as well as an eating disorder and a childhood trauma. Motherwell had the opportunity to talk to Christie about who she is as a mom, and how the skills she’s learned in group therapy have made her better equipped to parent. Read it here.


, by Stephanie Danler
.  A beautifully written memoir from the bestselling author of Sweetbitter. Danler laces together stories from her childhood at the hands of two substance-abusing parents with the current trials and tribulations of her romantic life, including her struggle to break from the grips of a passionate affair with a married man. Set against the backdrop of California, which becomes almost another character in the book, Stray is a tough and tender read at once.

The Undocumented Amerícans, by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. The antithesis of performative, Villavicencio’s book challenges readers to confront the way undocumented immigrants are treated in the United States by hearing from them directly. Her empathetic and thorough reporting reveals the forgotten stories of day laborers who cleaned the debris of 9/11, communities in Flint who were the last to know about toxic drinking water because reports were published exclusively in English, and families dependent on natural medicine because hospitals turned them away. Written by one of the first undocumented immigrants to attend Harvard, this is required reading.

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