Reads for the Rest of Us: 2021 Best of the Rest

The Feminist Know-It-All: You know her. You can’t stand her. Good thing she’s not here! Instead, this column by gender and women’s studies librarian Karla Strand will amplify stories of the creation, access, use and preservation of knowledge by women and girls around the world; share innovative projects and initiatives that focus on information, literacies, libraries and more; and, of course, talk about all of the books.

Each month, I provide Ms. readers with a list of new books being published by writers from historically excluded groups.

The aims of these lists are threefold:

  1. I want to do my part in the disruption of what has been the acceptable “norm” in the book world for far too long—white, cis, heterosexual, male;
  2. I want to amplify amazing works by writers who are women, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, APIA/AAPI, international, LGBIA+, TGNC, queer, disabled, fat, immigrant, Muslim, neurodivergent, sex-positive or of other historically marginalized identities—you know, the rest of us; and 
  3. I want to challenge and encourage you all to buy, borrow and read them!

You’ve read the other “Best of” lists—now read the other one. You know, for the rest of us.

Each year, I review my monthly Reads for the Rest of Us lists and choose my favorite books of the year. It was such a wonderful challenge to review all the lists and choose my top 50, but here they are. 

I hope you had a vibrant, positive, restful, loving and joyful year—and I wish you all the best in 2022.

Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption

By Rafia Zakaria (@rafiazakaria). W. W. Norton & Company. 256 pages.

American Muslim woman, attorney and political philosopher, Rafia Zakaria has written this unflinching and necessary indictment of white feminism and demand for a more radical, inclusive, transnational Black and Brown feminism.

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake

By Tiya Miles (@TiyaMilesTAM). Random House. 416 pages.

This is the extraordinary story of three generations of Black women and the cotton sack that held the evidence of their lives as it was passed down among them. With the bag, its contents and meager archival records, historian Tiya Miles intricately weaves together the stories of these women, from 1850s enslavement in South Carolina to freedom decades later. Unique and unforgettable, this volume is also a critique of the importance of archives and those who are routinely left out, to the detriment of us all.

America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s

By Elizabeth Hinton (@elizabhinton). Liveright. 408 pages.

This expansive and meticulously researched volume provides the context and history we need to not only understand the current moment of rebellion against police brutality and systemic racism, but to maintain the momentum on the way to necessary and lasting change. 

Beasts of a Little Land: A Novel 

By Juhea Kim (@juhea_writes). Ecco. 416 pages.

Set during the Korean fight for independence from Japan in the early 1900s, this kaleidoscopic debut is powerful, romantic and wholly unforgettable. 

Black Girl, Call Home 

By Jasmine Mans (@poetjasminemans). Berkley. 256 pages.

For this year’s Poetry for the Rest of Us column in April, I tried something a bit different: Instead of the usual blurb, I focused my thoughts about each collection into three words (okay, or phrases—it was hard!). For this collection I chose, “Pathways, coming of age, queer tenderness.”

Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism

By Harsha Walia (@HarshaWalia). Haymarket Books. 320 pages. 

In her latest illuminating call-to-action, award-winning writer and activist Harsha Walia examines how migration is part and parcel of colonization, capitalism and climate change. 

The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century

Edited by P. Gabrielle Foreman (@profgabrielle), Jim Casey (@jimccasey1) and Sarah Lynn Patterson (@Sarah_Patterson). University of North Carolina Press. 400 pages.

This essential history highlights the thousands of conventions organized by Black activists and held across the country to fight for civil rights and social justice throughout the 19th century. Contributors include P. Gabrielle Foreman, Daina Ramey Berry, Erica L. Ball and more.

Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir

By Akwaeke Emezi (@azemezi). Riverhead Books. 240 pages. 

In their intimate memoir in letters, the brilliant Akwaeke Emezi candidly shares their reflections on gender, embodiment, queerness, creativity and relationships with the same fierce dedication and candor that defines their bestselling novels.  

Detransition, Baby: A Novel

By Torrey Peters (@torreypeters). One World. 352 pages.

Welcome to a new kind of novel, one that doesn’t shy away from the complex realities of genders, parenthood, love and relationships. This is a refreshing debut. 

Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy

By Rachel Ricketts (@iamrachelricketts). Atria Books. 384 pages. Out now.

With Do Better, racial justice educator and spiritual activist Rachel Ricketts has provided a guidebook for self-care and healing while doing the exhaustive labor that comes with fighting white supremacy. 

The Echoing Ida Collection

Edited by Cynthia R. Greenlee (@CynthiaGreenlee), Kemi Alabi (@kemiaalabi) and Janna A. Zinzi (@JannaZinzi). The Feminist Press at CUNY. 328 pages.

This is the first collection of writings from Echoing Ida, a collective of Black women and nonbinary writers who report on reproductive justice, health, motherhood, justice and more.  

Feminist AF: A Guide to Crushing Girlhood

By Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk), Chanel Craft Tanner and Susana Morris (@iamcrunkadelic). Norton Young Readers. 240 pages. 

What better introduction to feminism than one written by the founding members of the Crunk Feminist Collective? Get one for your little cousin and then borrow it to read for yourself.  

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev 

By Dawnie Walton (@dawniewalton). 37 Ink. 368 pages.

Dawnie Walton’s immersive debut centers a dynamic star of the 1970s Afro-punk scene as she gives her oral history to a journalist decades later and uncovers universal themes of sexism, racism, creativity and truth.

Firekeeper’s Daughter 

By Angeline Boulley (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians) (@FineAngeline). Henry Holt and Co. (BYR). 496 pages.

This formidable debut YA thriller centers a young Anishinaabe woman who, after getting involved in an investigation of local murders and a new lethal drug, faces challenging questions of community, identity and truth. 

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019

Edited by Ibram X. Kendi (@DrIbram) and Keisha N. Blain (@KeishaBlain). One World. 528 pages. 

This is easily, already, one of my picks of the year. A transformative volume, it features contributions from 80 Black writers and ten Black poets—over half of whom are women, queer and/or transgender—who expertly and creatively cover this 400 year timespan, #RequiredReading. 


By Melissa Febos (@melissafebos). Bloomsbury Publishing. 336 pages.

To counter society’s patriarchal standards and stereotypes enmesh girls in a web of unreachable expectations of mind, body and soul, Melissa Febos offers ideas to disrupt the normative narratives surrounding girlhood and encourages us to recreate ourselves according to ourselves. 

Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay 

By Shanna Greene Benjamin (@phdshammy29). University of North Carolina Press. 272 pages. 

Illustrating the challenges and exclusion often experienced by Black women in academia, Shanna Greene Benjamin has written this compelling and unexpected biography of Nellie Y. McKay, a formidable scholar of contemporary literature and women’s studies.

Home Is Not a Country 

By Safia Elhillo (@mafiasafia). Make Me a World. 224 pages. Out March 2.

This stunning novel in verse features a young Muslim woman living in several worlds and feeling like an outsider in each. Through poetry and magical realism, Safia Elhillo takes on themes of family, oppression, identity and belonging.

How Beautiful We Were: A Novel

By Imbolo Mbue. Random House. 384 pages.

A tale for our times, Imbolo Mbue’s latest novel is one of collective resistance to colonialism and greed, when people in a small African village go toe to toe with an American oil company. Mbue’s remarkable storytelling makes this book shine.  

Hunting By Stars

By Cherie Dimaline (Georgian Bay Métis) (@cherie_dimaline). Amulet Books. 400 pages.

If you loved The Marrow Thieves, you’ve probably been waiting for this follow-up as eagerly as I have. And you will not be disappointed! Dimaline revisits Rose, Frenchie and the rest of the family to examine the legacies of Native American genocide. 

Infinite Country: A Novel 

By Patricia Engel (@patricia_engel). Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster. 208 pages.  

In her latest crucial novel, award-winning writer Patricia Engel tells a now eerily recognizable story of a Colombian family’s experiences with migration, mixed statuses and mercy. 

In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece

By Salamishah Tillet (@salamishah). Abrams Press. 224 pages.

Scholar and activist Salamishah Tillet has written the essential companion to Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, exploring its controversies, triumphs, legacies and lessons. 

In the Company of Men 

By Véronique Tadjo (@VTadjo). Other Press. 160 pages.  

From multiple perspectives, Tadjo examines the effects of pandemics like the Ebola crisis and the toll they take on our health, our communities and our humanity. Particularly relevant to our times.

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Novel

By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (@BlkLibraryGirl). Harper. 816 pages. 

This is the utterly remarkable fiction debut of award-winning poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, which centers a young girl who explores her own identity through her family’s sweeping legacy from slavery, through the Civil War to the present.

Milk Blood Heat 

By Dantiel W. Moniz (@dantielwmoniz). Grove Press. 208 pages.  

Set against the lush and unpredictable backdrop of Florida, these 11 stories present women and girls as we really are: complex, deep, smart, sour, joyful, tough, loving and powerful.

Mi María: Surviving the Storm: Voices from Puerto Rico

Edited by Ricia Anne Chansky and Marci Denesiuk. Haymarket Books. 330 pages. 

This latest volume of the brilliant Voice of Witness series is this collection of 17 oral histories from people who survived Hurricane Maria which hit Puerto Rico in 2017. This book is not only an illustration of the resiliency and community needed to survive a storm like this, but a testament to people around the world for whom climate change hits hardest. 

Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance 

By Moya Bailey (@moyazb). NYU Press. 256 pages.  

In this much-anticipated text, Moya Bailey examines misogynoir—a term she coined—and how Black women work to disrupt racist misogyny, to reclaim their autonomy and to tell their own stories, particularly in precarious digital spaces. 

Mouths of Rain: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Thought

Edited by Briona Simone Jones. The New Press. 224 pages.  

Dubbed as the companion anthology to Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s groundbreaking classic Words of Fire, this outstanding collection honors the legacy and contributions made by Black lesbian writers throughout the last two centuries.

My Monticello

By Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (@jocelynjohnson). Henry Holt and Co. 224 pages.

This collection of stories harmoniously weds the ugly with the beautiful, the terrifying and the brave, the disappointing and the hopeful, and makes for a brilliant debut.

Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies 

By Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg). University of Minnesota Press. 368 pages.

Probably unlike anything you’ve ever read, this remarkable novel is written in prose and fragments and is an alarmingly beautiful tale of decolonial resistance and the uncovering of a world of natural abundance, connection and compassion.

Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (@rdunbaro). Beacon Press. 392 pages.

In this hard-hitting volume, Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz challenges the “nation of immigrants” narrative and reveals the true intention behind this trope: to mask the truth of white supremacy, settler colonialism and genocide. 

On Juneteenth

By Annette Gordon-Reed (@agordonreed). Liveright. 144 pages.

Part memoir, part Texas history, this slim volume is the Juneteenth history we all need. The incomparable Annette Gordon-Reed provides this essential collection of essays reflecting on racism, history and home.

Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People 

By Kekla Magoon (@keklamagoon). Candlewick. 400 pages.

An extraordinary and comprehensive history of the Black Panther Party, now a 2021 National Book Award finalist. 

The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America

By Carol Anderson (@ProfCAnderson). Bloomsbury Publishing. 272 pages.

Dr. Carol Anderson’s latest book is essential for anyone concerned about the Second Amendment and its impact on African Americans in the U.S. Anderson deftly turns the debate over gun rights on its head by changing the framework to one of anti-Blackness, vulnerability and oppression.

The Seed Keeper: A Novel 

By Diane Wilson (Dakhóta). Milkweed Editions. 372 pages.

In elegant prose, Wilson tells a story of one woman’s reflections on her life, loss, family and the seeds she knows are her ancestors and an imperative legacy she must protect at all costs. 

Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir

By Ashley C. Ford (@iSmashFizzle). Flatiron Books. 208 pages.

Writer, educator and media personality Ashley C. Ford has written this powerful, personal memoir about growing up with an incarcerated father and the legacy of their complex relationship. 

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

By Heather McGhee (@hmcghee). One World. 448 pages.

It’s terribly difficult to sum this brilliant addition to the examinations of inequality, racism and democracy in this country in one sentence, so I will let Ibram X. Kendi do it for me: “This is the book I’ve been waiting for.”

Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism

By Aileen Moreton-Robinson. University of Minnesota Press. 288 pages. 

I would be remiss to not include the 20th anniversary edition of this central text in feminism and Indigenous studies. With a new preface, this ahead-of-its-time volume remains #RequiredReading for us all.  

This Book Is Feminist: An Intersectional Primer for Next-Gen Changemakers

Written by Jamia Wilson (@jamiaw) and illustrated by Aurelia Durand (@4ur3lia). Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. 160 pages. 

This volume is full of information, instruction and inspiration. Superbly illustrated, get it for feminists who are young and young at heart. 

The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation

By Anna Malaika Tubbs (@annas_tea_). Flatiron Books. 272 pages. 

To celebrate and honor Black motherhood, Anna Malaika Tubbs has written this triumphant debut exploring the lives and influence of Berdis Baldwin, Alberta King and Louise Little, the mothers of three of the most important figures in U.S. history. 


By Gayatri Sethi (@gayatrisethi). Mango & Marigold Press. 293 pages. 

This debut volume of prose, poetry and memoir is a one-of-a-kind model of critical self-reflection. Sethi delivers an imperative call to action for all of us interested in toppling the settler colonial, white supremacist cisalloheteropatriarchy.

Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement

By Tarana Burke (@taranaburke). Flatiron Books. 272 pages.  

Long before Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement, she was a survivor of sexual assault herself. Both Imani Perry and Kiese Laymon compare her debut memoir to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; survivors and others alike will be moved by this brave, empathetic story.

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America

By Keisha N. Blain (@keishablain). Beacon Press. 200 pages.

As talented a storyteller and cultural critic as she is a historian, Keisha Blain has written a history of Fannie Lou Hamer that also challenges readers to look to her legacy as a guide for tackling current issues of voter suppression, state-sanctioned violence, women’s inequality and racism.

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

Written by Rebecca Hall (@WakeRevolt) and illustrated by Hugo Martínez. Simon & Schuster. 208 pages.

In graphic novel format, scholar activist Rebecca Hall provides an imperative and little-known history of revolts led by enslaved women. Also part memoir, the book speaks to the erasure of Black women from the archive and the work needed to counter incomplete narratives. 

We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World

Edited by Carolyn Holbrook and David Mura. University of Minnesota Press. 224 pages. 

This collection is diverse, enraging, heartbreaking, impassioned and was November’s #RequiredReading.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice

By Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture). Haymarket Books. 200 pages. 

Through interviews, speeches, personal recollections and essential lessons learned, feminist abolitionist and organizer Mariame Kaba speaks to the necessity of collective action, critical analysis, intentional evaluation and compassionate vulnerability in the fight for true liberation.  

White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind

By Koa Beck (@koalani). Atria Books. 320 pages. Out now.

Koa Beck continues the current discussion on race with this essential examination of the racial prejudice and elitism of white feminism and how it continues to exclude and undermine our fight for full gender equity. 

White Magic 

By Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz) (@elissawashuta). Tin House Books. 432 pages. 

In this riveting and insightful collection of personal essays, Washuta candidly explores addiction, mental illness, coping (and not), relationships, land, pop culture, colonization, magic and cultural legacy. 

You Better Be Lightning 

By Andrea Gibson (@andrewgibby). Button Poetry. 128 pages.

Andrea Gibson is a gift to humanity. Read this collection, read their other collections and then do yourselves a favor and listen to them share their poetry audibly. It’s a whole other level.

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story 

By Nikole Hannah-Jones (@nhannahjones). One World. 624 pages.

This volume is a “dramatic expansion” of the original project and is this fall’s required reading.  

Up next:


Karla J. Strand is the gender and women’s studies librarian for the University of Wisconsin. She completed her doctorate in information science via University of Pretoria in South Africa with a background in history and library science, and her research centers on the role of libraries and knowledge in empowering women and girls worldwide. Tweet her @karlajstrand.