The holiday season is fast approaching and it’s time to take a look at the best books to give as gifts in 2020. After all, it’s never too early to start thinking about what to get for the book-lovers in your life. Given the mayhem 2020 has brought with it, a little peace and quiet with the right book might be just the ticket. Whether you’re looking for a fantastical read or a good book to inspire a trip outdoors, I’ve got you covered. With everything from bestsellers to first books, this list has it all.
I’ve broken the list down into categories to make it easier for you to locate the special book to meet your gift-giving needs. Happy shopping!
Because who doesn’t judge at least some books by their covers? Also, I can’t be the only one who likes illustrations in my books.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nexhukumatathil
Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s illustrated collection of personal essays is nothing short of lush. This is a slim but graphically striking book. The author is also a poet, and it shows in her language. She uses plants and animals as the organizational framework of this intriguing read.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
This weird western is a visceral unraveling of the American frontier narrative. Filled with earthy descriptions and unsettling images, Zhang troubles the Old West. Bending genre and gender, How Much of These Hills is Gold will leave a lasting impression on your imagination.
The exquisite floral drawings that adorn the pages of Floriography pair perfectly with writer and illustrator Jessica Roux’s overviews of each plant’s symbolic meanings and usages during the Victorian era. Whether this book goes to a flower lover or a history buff, it’s sure to make an impact when the wrapping paper comes off.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
A gothic horror novel featuring a house with a dark secret and a family with a dark past, Mexican Gothic is the story of one woman’s attempt to save her newlywed cousin from an unknown horror. Silvia Moreno-Garcia plays with gender roles and colonial histories to create a terrifying tale that’s impossible to put down.
50 Adventures in the 50 States by Kate Siber
Kate Siber’s ideas for outdoor adventures are complemented by Lydia Hill’s colorful vintage-style illustrations. The combination of suggested activities (one for each state) will have you reaching for your road atlas. Or Google Maps. This book is the perfect coffee table book for outdoor enthusiasts, road-trippers, and nature lovers alike.
Books With a Social Justice Focus
These books might help make sense of what’s happened in 2020 and move toward positive change in 2021.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
This book is important. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson considers race in the U.S. in terms of a caste system. She begins with history, following that up with comparisons to India and Nazi Germany. After that, Wilkerson plunges headlong into an investigation of how caste functions and how that looks in the U.S.
Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s mixed-media exploration of race is, in a word, powerful. Framed as a conversation, the book asks readers to engage. To embrace discomfort. To think deeply about racism in the United States today. Rankine includes photos, snippets from social media, newspaper articles, historical documents, and more in this thought-provoking conversation starter of a book.
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall
Mikki Kendall doesn’t pull any punches in her examination of mainstream feminism. While mainstream (white) feminism may like to talk about intersectionality, Kendall delves into the many ways in which it more often functions to oppress a vast majority of women. Feminism by the few, for the few, as it were. These essays are beyond relevant—they’re essential. Depending who’s doing the reading, this may not be an easy read but it’s an important one for all feminists regardless of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, or other factors.
When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
It might seem odd to list a work of fiction—let alone a thriller—as a book with a social justice focus. But When No One is Watching takes gentrification and race as the premise of the horrors it contains. Sure, it’s fiction. It’s also a really daring look at the insidious ways gentrification disproportionately impacts communities of color.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Minor Feelings is part memoir, part history lesson, and part cultural criticism. As she theorizes about the dissonance between what the dominant culture tells minorities is true about themselves and what their experiences indicate is true (i.e. “minor feelings”), she takes the reader on a journey through key moments in history—her own and the nation’s.
Books About the Natural World
These books are for the nature lovers in your life. With focuses ranging from environmental activism to the simple beauty of nature, you can’t go wrong.
Habitat Threshold by Craig Santos Perez
American Book Award winner Craig Santos Perez’s latest poetry collection is an urgent call to action. Tackling climate change head on, Perez’s experimental poetic forms enlist readers in the immediacy of this global issue. The poems, at once emotional and intellectual, foreground indigenous epistemologies as ways to approach our worsening environmental crisis. Habitat Threshold is a prime example of how art can successfully function on both an aesthetic and a political level.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Dara McAnulty is a teenager who is also autistic. His love of nature permeates the pages of this book, which has been compared to some of the greatest nature writing out there. The book covers one year of McAnulty’s life and chronicles the beauty of the natural world.
The Bear by Andrew Krivak
Set in a future where only two humans remain on earth, this novel tells the story of a father and daughter as they live in nature. A deep appreciation of the natural world permeates the book. The prose is lovely and the story is intriguing.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
Biologist Merlin Sheldrake explores all manner of fungi in this fascinating book. Sure, there are mushrooms. But there’s also yeast, the Wood Wide Web, and more than you ever dreamed possible in the world of fungi. The introduction begins, “Fungi are everywhere but they are easy to miss.” After that, it’s a deep dive into the engrossing existence and many manifestations of fungi.
Talking with Bears: Conversations with Charlie Russell by G.A. Bradshaw
Charlie Russell was a Canadian naturalist known for his love of and work with bears. Talking with Bears is a fine example of the power of stories. The conversational tone of Bradshaw’s prose takes readers through Russell’s philosophies and pays homage to bears and nature alike.
A Year in Nature: A Memoir of Solace by Clare Walker Leslie
Composed of passages and pictures from wildlife illustrator Clare Walker Leslie’s personal journals, this is a memorable book. Brief and light, it makes for a pleasant read. Leslie’s ruminations on life and nature are both thoughtful and thought provoking.
Books With an Escapist Bent
Well, 2020 has been a rough year. These books might help bring a little imaginative distance from everyday woes.
Indians on Vacation by Thomas King
Thomas King’s trademark wit infuses this story about a couple’s trip to Europe. Bird and Mimi follow a trail of old postcards to trace the travels of Uncle Leroy years before. This is an irresistible read. It’s got history, politics, and humor—and an unforgettable holiday abroad.
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Hugo and Nebula Award–winning writer N.K. Jemisin doesn’t disappoint in this first installment of her Great Cities series. As the diverse cast of characters collide and attempt to save themselves and their city, all manner of chaos ensues. There are mysteries to solve, bigots to deal with, and interdimensional gentrification to deal with. It’s a wild ride that’ll get you thinking about the rhythms of whatever city you call home.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
Stephen Graham Jones writes horror in a way uniquely his own. This highly anticipated novel doesn’t disappoint. A vengeful elk spirit and a youthful violation of tradition make a gruesome recipe for bloodshed. The inevitable showdown between Jones’s final girl and her murderous opponent is perfection.
The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult
The premise of Jodi Picoult’s latest novel is simple. Airline passengers brace for a crash and the protagonist thinks not of her husband but of a man from her past. From there, this spellbinding novel raises questions about the impact of our choices and what it means to live a “good” life.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Addie LaRue makes a desperate bargain to live forever but be forgotten by everyone she meets. For over 300 years she lives an amazing but invisible life—until she encounters a man in a bookstore who remembers her name.
Books By Women, About Women
These books may be written by women and feature amazing female characters, but they’re not only for women!
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
The power of this story will sweep the detritus of our present moment out of your mind. The Once and Future Witches is a tale of three sisters, witches, women’s rights, and more. It’s a captivating and immersive read.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
Originally published in 2008 and finally translated into English and released this year, Mieko Kawakami’s novel is a pensive read. Wrestling with beauty ideals and femininity, silence and fear, it’s an unusual read. It’s also totally worth it!
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
This is a story about family, race, and passing. Twin sisters Stella and Desiree are born and raised in Louisiana where they witness the horror of their father’s lynching. Years later, they run away together but get separated. The Vanishing Half follows Desiree and her daughter, Jude. When Jude moves to California for college, she encounters Stella and the family’s lives collide.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
The Pull of the Stars tells the story of a nurse in Dublin during the Spanish Influenza. Julia Power works in the maternity ward for quarantined patients. As she and two other women—a doctor and a volunteer helper—work side by side to help their patients, a larger story of rebellion unfolds.
Literature to Get You Thinking
That’s the goal, right? These books are page-turners. Provocative and engrossing, they’ll keep anyone’s nose buried for a few hours!
Night Theater by Vikram Paralkar
A recently dead family visits a doctor one night. He works to repair their bodies before sunrise so they might have a second chance. Paralkar’s paranormal novel explores the injustices of inaccessible health care in an unexpected and incredible way.
Thresh Holes by Lara Mimosa Montes
Described as an “almanac of place and memory,” this poignant poetry collection bridges past and present with powerful results. Lara Mimosa Montes takes on trauma and violence with thoughtful care and questioning.
The Resurrection of Fulgencio Ramirez by Rudy Ruiz
This is a magical realist tale of star-crossed lovers in the border town of La Frontera. After his short-lived but disastrous youthful romance with Carolina Mendelssohn, Fulgencio Ramirez grows up to become a pharmacist. One fateful day, he sees that Carolina’s husband has died. There’s a family curse, immigration politics, and love. What more could you ask for?
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
Natalie Diaz explores the politics of racism and settler colonialism in this dynamic poetry collection. This is her second book, and she doesn’t disappoint. Centralizing bodies and desire, Postcolonial Love Poem is a raw interrogation of the personal and political at once.
Uncanny Valley: A Memoir by Anna Wiener
Anna Wiener’s witty and relevant memoir is, well, interesting. It’s about the tech industry in all its glory, excess, and peril. The “peril” part of things is what makes the book so fascinating. We live during a time when the tech industry is lauded for its progress, for the ways it leads to advancement. But Wiener’s memoir about her experiences in the industry problematizes that, raising important questions around the impact of tech on democracy (and more).
The Best Books To Give As Gifts
No book is has universal appeal, but these come close. Encompassing fiction, memoir, poetry, and nonfiction, this list has is sure to inspire.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
Barack Obama’s memoir is out now. A Promised Land is the first of two volumes. It takes readers from Obama’s political beginnings to Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALS in 2011. This book is beyond highly anticipated.
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Akwaeke Emezi’s hard-hitting novel works backwards from the fact of the protagonist’s death to the complexities of their life. As Emezi unwinds the details of Vivek Oji’s life, they also unpack a Pandora’s box of social and cultural expectations. This is a book that will engage the reader’s heart.
Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline
It begins with a missing husband, a revival tent in a Walmart parking lot, and a creature called a rougarou. Cherie Dimaline’s fast-paced horror novel delves into grief and loss (both personal and cultural) to tell a story that’s impossible to ignore. Empire of Wild is about love and sovereignty, history and the things that are worth fighting for. Also, it’s an excellent book. If you’re on the fence, hop off and buy it.
OBIT by Victoria Chang
Victoria Chang takes grief and turns it inside out. Using the obituary as the foundation for her poetic impulses, she writes through the loss of her mother to speak to the myriad ways losing a loved one changes one’s world. OBIT is intensely personal. It’s also somehow universal. Reading Chang’s grief on the page reflects the reader’s grief back at them. In this way, there’s comfort in sitting with another’s grief. It’s an unexpectedly healing collection.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s sophomore novel explores mental health, science, immigration, and religion all in one go. The protagonist is a PhD candidate in neuroscience whose work attempts to unravel the workings of addiction and depression—two conditions that have impacted her family. Gyasi’s knack for bringing a reader’s emotions to the surface is on display in this compelling book.
Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith
This collection of essays asks readers to slow down and think about our current global situation. Zadie Smith, perhaps best known for her fiction, writes through the global pandemic. These six essays make room for introspection and reflection.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
This incredible study of breath fuses medical science with ancient breathing practices (like Pranayama, for any yogis reading this). It’s a surprising investigation of how humans breathe and how intentionally altering the breath can have a tremendous impact on various aspects of human health. I’m not typically a nonfiction enthusiast, but this book was fascinating through and through.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
A Finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, Interior Chinatown is innovative. Written in the form of a script, the novel deconstructs a host of stereotypes about Asian Americans. It’s unconventional for sure, but it’s a great read. Packed with humor and hard-hitting social commentary, this is the kind of book that’s impossible to put down. In trademark style, Yu has created a fascinating premise for the story he tells.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
What do you get when you combine a cruise ship, sharks, and Hawai’ian gods? You get this astounding novel. It begins in the mid-’90s when a young boy falls overboard and is delivered to safety by sharks. From there, it jumps to the boy’s adulthood and follows him and his siblings as they go about their lives. The fantastical elements in the book only add to the superb story Washburn has created.
No Good for Digging: Stories by Dustin M. Hoffman
The stories in No Good For Digging have fascinating premises. Described as a book about the blue-collar experience, Hoffman’s tales are at times whimsical, humorous, and intense.
The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older
Known best for his fantasy and YA fiction, Daniel José Older’s latest novel is a powerful read. It begins with a haunting and a ghost who doesn’t know how she died. All she knows is that her death is tangled up with the Cuban Revolution, and she feels a burning rage toward her one living sister. As the story unfolds, she haunts her nephew and together they piece together the mysteries surrounding her death.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
As with all of Louise Erdrich’s writing, The Night Watchman features wonderfully complex characters who grapple with histories and contemporary manifestations of settler colonialism in the United States. The book is based on Erdrich’s grandfather’s life and engages with mid-20th century termination policies. It’s a rich story that readers—Indigenous or otherwise—will enjoy for its beautiful language and powerful implications.
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende’s latest novel grapples with exile and hope. It’s historical fiction that delves into the Spanish Civil War and the fate of two refugees who flee to Chile. As always with Allende, this is a story of love even as it is a story about repression and war.
Still need suggestions for the best books to give as gifts this year? Check out these posts:
You could also check out this year’s Riot Roundups of best books from each season: