This year's very best — the Michigan Notable Books

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

One of January's distinct pleasures is the annual Michigan Notable Books announcement from the Library of Michigan -- that institution's judgment on the very best titles published in the preceding year.

The library unveiled its 2021 list Tuesday (See list below), spotlighting 20 of what its selection committee regarded as the greatest reads from the past year that are either about Michigan, explore Midwestern themes, or were written by Michigan authors.

The library first launched Notable Books in 1991. "The library believes we have a singular culture in Michigan," said Head of Collections Tim Gleisner, "and that we should really celebrate that."

The committee always casts a wide net, pulling in both nonfiction and fiction. This year, members had to work through more than 250 submissions.

One of this year's 20 Michigan Notable Books is "Respect: The Poetry of Detroit Music" by Jim Daniels and M.L. Liebler.

The 2021 winners explore the contemporary poetry of the Anishinaabe ("Words Like Thunder"), a short-lived Mormon kingdom on Beaver Island ("The King of Confidence"), a young widow's speculation on loss ("Grief's Country"), and a memoir from Chasten Buttigieg ("I Have Something to Tell You"), husband of the one-time presidential candidate and incoming Secretary of Transportation.

Not surprisingly, Detroit looms large in the list with titles that include "RESPECT: The Poetry of Detroit Music," "City of Champions: A History of Triumph and Defeat in Detroit," and "A People's Atlas of Detroit."

"Respect" gets a workout this year. There's also a new biography aimed at younger readers, "RESPECT: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul."

In fiction, "You're in the Wrong Place" is a collection of linked stories set in Ferndale, "Black Bottom Saints" takes place in Detroit's legendary African-American neighborhood, and first-time author Lexie Bean has written a book for kids in the middle grades -- say fourth through eighth -- about being queer and confused in Houghton.

Kirkus Reviews called "The Ship We Built" by Lexie Bean a "remarkable, affecting novel."

"The Ship We Built" takes as its hero a fifth grader struggling with identity in a world where adults mostly let him down.

"The protagonist is a trans boy," Bean said, "but the story takes place in the late '90s, so he really doesn’t have that language. The word 'trans' doesn't appear in the body of the text."

Noting that such stories often focus on the coasts, he added that it was "important to me to do an LGBT narrative from Michigan and the Midwest as a whole." That said, Bean hopes the book will appeal to readers of all ages, "especially those with a hole to fill."

One of the real pleasures of his job at the library, Gleisner said, is informing the winners that they're now Michigan Notable Book authors. "They're often just overjoyed – and surprised," he said. "I had one tell me she started crying when she read the email."

For David L. Miles, curator at the Charlevoix Historical Society and author of "Boulders: The Life and Creations of Earl A. Young in Charlevoix," the news fell like a bolt from the blue.

"I have been hovering in the stratosphere ever since Dec. 10 when I was notified by the library," he said, "performing fist pumps and yelling 'Yes!'"

Miles' book, with photographs by Mike Barton and published by the Historical Society, spotlights Earl Young, a realtor who never studied architecture but designed and built some of Charlevoix's most-distinctive houses, and one drop-dead gorgeous waterside restaurant, The Weathervane.

"Boulders" explores the vernacular designs of Charlevoix's Earl Young, a non-architect who built the town's "hobbit houses."

Young's work has become a significant tourist draw. Miles says in the summer, more than 200 cars a day drive by the Park Avenue block with the heaviest concentration of Young's idiosyncratic, vernacular stone houses. Variously nicknamed the "mushroom" or "hobbit" houses, they're instantly recognizable by their curvaceous roofs.

For the time being, the book is only available through the Charlevoix Historical Society. (Call (231) 547-0373 or visit and click on "Shop.")

He started work on "Boulders," Miles said, "right after New Year's in 2019. It was 11 months of work," he added, before correcting himself: "No, nine months. You can't get anything done in Charlevoix in the summer."

2021 Michigan Notable Books

"Black Bottom Saints" by Alice Randall – Amistad

"Boulders: The Life and Creations of Earl A. Young in Charlevoix," Michigan by David L. Miles, photography by Mike Barton – Charlevoix Historical Society Press

"City of Champions: A History of Triumph and Defeat in Detroit" by Stefan Szymanski and Silke-Maria Weineck – The New Press

"The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X" by Les Payne and Tamara Payne – Liveright

"Grief's Country: A Memoir in Pieces" by Gail Griffin – Wayne State University Press

"Half" by Sharon Harrigan – University of Wisconsin Press

"I Have Something to Tell You: A Memoir" by Chasten Buttigieg – Atria Books

"Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero" by Kelly J. Baptist – Crown Books for Young Readers

"The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch" by Miles Harvey – Little, Brown and Company

"Lakewood" by Megan Giddings – Amistad

"The Mason House" by T. Marie Bertineau – Lanternfish Press

"A People's Atlas of Detroit" edited by Linda Campbell, Andrew Newman, Sara Safransky, and Tim Stallmann – Wayne State University Press

"R E S P E C T: The Poetry of Detroit Music" edited by Jim Daniels and M.L. Liebler – Michigan State University Press

"RESPECT: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul" by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison – Atheneum Books for Young Readers               

"The Ship We Built" by Lexie Bean – Dial Books

"The Star in the Sycamore: Discovering Nature’s Hidden Virtues in the Wild Nearby" by Tom Springer, illustrated by Patrick Dengate – Mission Point Press

"The Wicked Sister" by Karen Dionne – G.P. Putnam's Sons

"Wolf Island: Discovering the Secrets of a Mythic Animal" by L. David Mech, with Greg Breining – University of Minnesota Press

"Words like Thunder: New and Used Anishinaabe Prayers" by Lois Beardslee – Wayne State University Press                                        

"You're in the Wrong Place" by Joseph Harris – Wayne State University Press