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The Best Books You’ve Never Heard of (Spring 2022)

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Are you always trying to keep up with the latest buzzy books and new releases? There’s an undeniable draw to reading what everyone’s talking about, but there’s also value in deliberately picking up books that don’t get that same amount of attention. When it seems like “everyone” online and off is talking about a certain book, that usually just means it got a lot of publicity money. So if all we pick up are “buzzy” books, all we’re reading are the books publishing has told us to read.

That’s why every few months, we like to shine a spotlight on the books we’ve read and loved that don’t get the attention they deserve. While BookTok and Bookstagram might tell you that a New York Times Best Seller or a title often assigned in high schools is “underrated,” we’re more interested in the truly under-the-radar reads. These are books that have under 250 ratings (not reviews) on Goodreads. For context, The Hunger Games has over 7 million ratings on Goodreads, and In Watermelon Sugar has 17,000.

Get ready to discover some of your new favorite books that deserve a lot more buzz than they’ve gotten!

the cover of An Illuminated Life

An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone

When The Personal Librarian, a historical novel about J.P. Morgan’s librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, came out in 2021, I was surprised to find how few people have read the nonfiction book about her. This deeply researched book paints a portrait of Greene that is as real as it is confusing. How did the daughter of the first Black graduate of Harvard decide to pass as white? How were her personal and political views so fractured? More than any biography I’ve ever read, this one shows how people really do contain multitudes. Instead of making her a tidy and consistent character, this book shows the true complexity of her astonishing and fascinating life. —Isabelle Popp

the cover of Thirty Talks Weird Love

Thirty Talks Weird Love by Alessandra Narváez Varela

This YA novel in verse follows a teen girl in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico who meets her future self. Adult Anamaría keeps giving her cheesy advice about being kind to herself and saving some girl that teen Anamaría has no interest in. She doesn’t need any saving; she’s a hardworking perfectionist who’s doing just fine. Until she realizes maybe she’s not, and suddenly the advice her future self has been giving her starts to make more sense. The novel was inspired by the author’s experiences as a teacher and deals with heavy — but important — topics that are sure to encourage thought-provoking discussions. —Rachel Brittain

the cover of The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak

The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak by Grace Lau

Whether you’re new to poetry or a regular poetry reader, The Language We Were Never Taught to Speak is sure to delight you, surprise you, and make you think. This debut poetry collection had me all-in from page one with a poem about RuPaul’s Drag Race, and by the time I reached a poem about Killing Eve, I was an eternal fan. It’s a wonderfully queer, fresh, rebellious collection infused with pop culture, politics, and family history. Lau’s poetry is so smart and full of life, and I truly can’t wait to read her next collection. —Susie Dumond

the cover of Queers Dig Time Lords

Queers Dig Time Lords edited by Sigrid Ellis and Michael Damian Thomas

Now stick with me, because I know this is a niche topic, and it’s also almost ten years out of date by now, but what if I told you this includes an essay from Amal El-Mohtar (of This Is How You Lose the Time War fame) that still bounces around my brain almost a decade after reading it?

“Consuming film and television and books [as a queer woman of color] is often like being handed beautiful, elaborately sculpted meals with bits of cockroach poking antennae and carapace out of the sauces and soufflés. You try to eat around the bugs, try to surgically remove them, but you can’t quite get away from the fact that they’ve flavored the dish and will probably make you sick. But you have to eat, or go hungry.”

Of course, it also completely lives up to the title and explores the queer history of Doctor Who that I wasn’t aware of. If you’re a fan of the show, it’s a must-read, but honestly, I think Amal El-Mohtar’s essay is worth the cost of admission alone. —Danika Ellis

The Big Reveal by Jen Larsen book cover

The Big Reveal by Jen Larsen

I adored this frank and funny YA novel about a girl who just wants to dance. It felt like Moxie, but set at a theater boarding school and combined with some modern-day Hairspray. It was a ton of fun while also hitting on some incredibly relevant and heavy topics. Addie is an extremely talented dancer who also happens to be fat. She’s proud of herself and her background and works her butt off to get into an exclusive dance program. The only problem: she realizes she doesn’t have enough money to go. Along with the help of her friends at her theater school, they put on a top-secret, speakeasy-style burlesque show to help raise money for Addie’s program. But as soon as the show is revealed, the slut-shaming and body-shaming comes out of the woodwork, and Addie is newly fearful and confused at what is happening. The show forces Addie and her friends to confront feminism and what it truly means for all people, how they can be supportive to others, and how to fight back against those who want to put them down. It was a glowing book where a fat girl gets to succeed and shine and be her very best self while also getting to learn from mistakes and grow as a person — just like anyone else! I was so excited to see Addie get to be the main character in her own story and truly take center stage. —Cassie Gutman

the cover of Palestine +100

Palestine +100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba edited by Basma Ghalayini

In this collection, 12 Palestinian writers present short stories imagining the future — taking their uncertainty, generational trauma, memories, and terrors and crafting possible future worlds for the Palestinian people and nation. The stories are unified by their common themes — walls, parallel words, various forms of apartheid; collective memory and forced forgetting; virtual reality; fierce government surveillance, drones, and spies. These stories were well worth the investment — from Saleem Haddad’s eerie false utopia in “Song of the Birds” to the surreal, often absurd “The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid” by Mazen Maarouf, translated by Jonathan Wright. It’s an incredible collection, first published by Comma Press in the UK and then by Deep Vellum in the U.S., and it deserves a wide readership. Any fan of sci-fi will love this collection, but as a bonus, it provides space on the page for often marginalized voices. —Leah Rachel von Essen

Book cover for A Girl Called Rumi

A Girl Called Rumi by Ari Honarvar

Based on the author’s own experience emigrating to the USA from Iran as a child refugee, this story starts in Iran.

The main character, a 9-year-old child, is given the task of buying naan. But on her way to fulfill the obligation, she is pulled in by the magical and mysterious power of a storytelling session taking place in the town’s square.

She forgets the bread, but the stories stay with her, even as the conflict around the country spreads.

In America, older and independent, she has built a life, but as she returns to Iran with her ill mother and brother, the stories from the past arise once again.

Taken from the past to the present, and back again, we get to understand the power of stories, and especially of poetry. —Carina Pereira

the cover of Tender Spot

Tender Spot by Naomi Shihab Nye

This is a collection of selected poems from various chapbooks along with a few new poems. Naomi Shihab Nye is a Palestinian poet who writes about her Arab heritage and the wonder in small things. The tenderness in her poetry urges us to slow down. It’s an entire experience to let her words wash over us with their soft strength. I read this poetry collection over months and it brought me peace, insight, and reassurance throughout. —Yashvi Peeti

the cover of The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book: Revised and Expanded

The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book: Revised and Expanded by Gord Hill

This is a graphic history book that covers the colonization of the Americas and Indigenous resistance to it, which is obviously a huge topic to try to tackle in one volume, but these short glimpses offer a great entry point. It was originally published in 2010, and this version is not only in color, but also updates it so it runs up to the current day. This history taught in white spaces often robs Indigenous people of agency, so these stories are a much-needed counterpoint, showing how Indigenous people across continents and centuries have been fighting back against colonialism. This is a fantastic entry point for learning about the history of colonialism in North America, especially (though it also includes Central and South America). —Danika Ellis

Can’t get enough hidden gems in the world of books? Try our previous editions of The Best Books You’ve Never Heard of!