HARI SREENIVASAN: Now a look at some of the outstanding books of 2016.
Jeffrey Brown sat down recently with best-selling authors Jacqueline Woodson, the 2016 National Book Award winner for fiction, and Daniel Pink, at Politics and Prose, a popular bookstore here in Washington, D.C.
For Daniel Pink, the highlight of the year was Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”
DANIEL PINK, Author, “Drive”: This is an incredible book.
It’s by a guy named Matthew Desmond, who is a sociologist at Harvard. But this is not a dry, academic book. In fact, it almost reads like a novel, a very harrowing novel. He spent about a year living in two different low-income parts of Milwaukee.
And this book, I think, shines a light on things that middle-class people don’t really understand. First of all, most low-income people in this country do not live in public housing. They operate in the private rental market.
The second thing is that they’re spending 60 percent, 70 percent, sometimes 80 percent of their income on housing. And it’s not sustainable. And so what happens, they scrape together money for a deposit. They pay the first month’s rent. Then they can’t sustain it and they get evicted.
And so these evictions are happening not in thousands, but by the millions. It’s actually a virus in the system. And so I consider this book in the same kind of historical tradition as James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” Michael Harrington’s “The Other America.”
I think this book, if you have a friend who is a public official, hand him or her this book. It’s that important. And this book raises some serious questions about what kind of country do we want to be.
JEFFREY BROWN: This wasn’t on your list, but you know this book?
JACQUELINE WOODSON, Author, “Another Brooklyn”: Yes. I’m just dittoing everything he says about it. It’s such an important book.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK. So, what do you want to start with?
JACQUELINE WOODSON: So, I want to start with “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds, which is considered a — quote, unquote — “middle-grade book,” but it’s for anyone who has ever had a family, ever loved running, ever felt outside of a place.
And this book does everything. So, my 8-year-old loves it. My 14-year-old loves it. I love it. And it just crosses a lot of boundaries in beautiful ways.
And it’s about a young boy who joins a track team. And he comes from an underserved family, a single mom and finds a new family in this track team, but also becomes this amazing runner, and has started out by running away from this tragedy that happens in his family. I won’t give it away.
But it’s such a satisfying story, and you meet all of these amazing young people.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK.
DANIEL PINK: So, I’m going to give this to my 14-year-old runner.
JACQUELINE WOODSON: Oh, cool.
DANIEL PINK: But I will read it first.
JACQUELINE WOODSON: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dan, next?
DANIEL PINK: Well, I have got this book right here.
It’s “March: Book Three” by John Lewis and a couple of colleagues. This is actually a graphic memoir. It’s the third book in a trilogy that John Lewis, the legendary civil rights figure, the current Georgia congressman wrote.
JEFFREY BROWN: He lived it.
DANIEL PINK: He lived it.
And this is about an extraordinary moment in time. It’s 1963 to 1965. And the tumultuousness of that period is breathtaking. And it’s captured, because of the form, I think, in this incredibly cinematic way. This is a book about violence perpetrated against people because of their skin color. This is a book about irregularities in our voting system and the integrity of our democratic process.
This is a book about a world that seems like it’s spinning out of control. So, it’s endlessly relevant.
JACQUELINE WOODSON: I completely agree. I think that’s such an important book.
DANIEL PINK: And what is interesting is that John Lewis actually got interested initially in the civil rights movement because of a comic book. So part of it, he’s paying homage to this tradition that you can tell serious stories and talk about serious issues in graphic form.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jacqueline, number two?
JACQUELINE WOODSON: While we’re talking about graphics, I have to bring up Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Black Panther.”
He was the first black superhero in 1966. T’Challa comes from a fictional place in Africa and is this amazing superhero. It’s about a lot of stuff that we’re talking about now. It’s about race. It’s about power. It’s about just trying to change the world.
And it’s fascinating. So, I am a big Black Panther fan, even though I wasn’t as a child. I didn’t read comic books. I read “Mad” magazine. But I have turned a corner.
DANIEL PINK: “Mad” magazine is like one of my few formative experiences, absolutely. “Mad” magazine teaches a whole generation of people to be irreverent toward power.
JACQUELINE WOODSON: It’s so true, that question of, you can really do that?
DANIEL PINK: Yes, and get away with it, and you actually make money it from too.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right.
Daniel Pink, number three?
DANIEL PINK: So, I have got this one here, this terrific book called “Lab Girl.”
When I read this book, and I loved it, I was thinking about the pitch meeting for this book, because I can’t imagine it went all that well, because this is a memoir of a geobiologist. I can’t imagine people jumping up and down over this.
But what I love about this book is that this is a great book about science. And there is this one scene in there that I find just unforgettable, where she’s working for her Ph.D., and she discovers something that nobody ever imagined.
And in that moment, she realizes that, an hour ago, nobody knew this thing, and she knew it. And even more than that, at that moment, she is the only person on the planet who knows this thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, it’s scientific discovery.
DANIEL PINK: I mean, it’s thrilling. I love this book. I think it’s an important book now.
I don’t think that science has had a good year. I don’t think women have had a good year. So a book by a woman scientist is a great pickup for the end of the year.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jacqueline, what is in your last for this section of our time?
JACQUELINE WOODSON: OK.
This is a book, “You Can’t Touch My Hair,” Phoebe Robinson. And I was torn in choosing this over the other two books, because of — they’re all phenomenal. And I will talk about the other two later.
But it was because I didn’t think this got the attention that it deserved to get. And people don’t know about it. And it’s a book about race. It’s a book about what it means to grow up female in this country and female and black.
JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, the whole title, “You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain.”
JACQUELINE WOODSON: “Things I Still Have to Explain.”
And, basically, she is talking about what happens when you grow up black, and you have to explain your hair, right? You have to explain people wanting to put their hands in your hair. You have to explain your body. You have to explain — she ends up being the only black girl at an all-white school.
And so there’s a lot of explaining that goes into being African-American, also dates interracially and has to kind of explain that to the black community.
But it’s this dialogue that I think we’re finally beginning to have across lines of race. And she makes people feel safer talking about race.
So I think it’s kind of the gateway into having these bigger dialogues that we need to have in this country, given where this country is right now.
So, “You Can’t Touch My Hair,” Phoebe Robinson, it’s funny. It’s thoughtful. She’s wickedly brilliant and comes to the table with everything from Queen Latifah, to NWA, to Obama, Oprah.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right.
We will continue the discussion online with lots more recommendations.
And I will invite the audience to join us there later on.
For now, Jacqueline Woodson, Daniel Pink, thanks very much.
DANIEL PINK: Thanks, Jeff.
JACQUELINE WOODSON: Thank you.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Right now on our Web site, find holiday book recommendations from “NewsHour” staff. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.