Michigan Notable Books 2023: 20 great reads that tell stories of the Mitten (2023)

Ellen Piligian| Special to the Detroit Free Press

If you’re looking for some great reads, you’ll find them among this year’s Michigan Notable Books list, from mystery to memoir to fiction that asks “What if?”

In the list, compiled by the Library of Michigan, there’s a young adult rom-com and a picture book on architecture. There's an autobiography by one of the Four Tops and a biography on a Detroit hip hop artist whose influence forever changed music. Discover the story of one of pro wrestling’s most mysterious figures or dive into Zingerman’s journey to worldwide brand. Memoirs include one by a mother who lost a daughter, another by a daughter who lost her mom.

You’ll go into Detroit’s urban history and through the Upper Peninsula, discover stories of Native Americans and Arab Americans and what it’s like to live as a life-long stutterer.

The diversity is downright breathtaking.

Not that it’s planned. “We have no formula. It’s not like we say we need one kids’ book or one nonfiction book that features diversity,” says State Librarian Randy Riley, part of the committee that's selected the titles the past two decades.

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Mostly they ask: “Is there something representative of the state as a community?” he says. “There’s going to be something for everybody.”

The committee — a dozen Michigan librarians, reviewers, historians and the like — poured over about 250 titles this year. Each book, published during the previous calendar year, must be about or set in Michigan, or written by a Michigan author.


“It’s really cool for some that are not such big books if they get a second and third printing,” Riley says. “It’s nice to have even a small part in that.”

Honing in on 20 titles is not a perfect science. The first 10 are pretty easy to agree on, says Riley. “By the last five, it’s all over the board to get a consensus.”

One title that captured their attention in particular was “Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm” by Dan Charnas.

“It’s a really different kind of book,” says Riley. ”I don’t think a lot of people know him.”

That’s exactly what inspired Charnas, who likens the influence of James “J Dilla” Yancey to that of Louis Armstrong and James Brown. Today, Dilla’s synthesizer and drum machine are in the Smithsonian.

“He affected the way music sounds for 20 years without being properly credited. He pioneered a completely new time feel,” he says of how Dilla collided two rhythms, straight and swing.

“We call that Dilla Time. I named it because it didn’t have a name. Of all music now, you can hear it in some form or fashion,” he says.

A founding member of Detroit’s Slum Village, Dilla grew up to a jazz musician father and opera singing mother, doing all of this from the family home’s basement in Detroit’s Conant Gardens starting in the mid-1990s. He died at the age of 32 in 2006 of a rare blood disease.

Today, his influence lives on through the likes of Janet Jackson, The Pharcyce, Dr. Dre, Pharrell, and friend and producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, says Charnas, who teaches a class at New York University on Dilla.

The book is also part musicology and a “love letter” to Detroit, which Charnas calls his “second home” since marrying writer Wendy S. Walters, who grew up in Troy.

Charnas recalls his first trip to Detroit in 1999 as a record executive to meet Dilla. “I had no idea how big he was,” he says, joking that he mainly brought his camera to get pictures of the Motown Museum. Within a few years, Dilla’s sound was everywhere.

It was his second trip in 2008, to meet Walters’ family, that Detroit captured his imagination. “The geography was alive for me,” he says. In 2017, he created his class on Dilla out of student demand. The book seemed inevitable.

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For Charnas, the Michigan Notable Books honor is “a full circle moment.” His hope for readers? To recognize this came from a child of a city the state didn’t always support, he says. “You never know where this beauty and innovation is going to come from.”

A more intimate book on the list, “It’s Hard Being You: A Primer on Being Happy Anyway,” shares first-time author Sharon Emery’s story of survival through such tragedies as the drowning death of a daughter followed by her sister’s suicide and her brother’s too-young death shortly thereafter.

Emery also includes her struggles as a lifelong severe and incurable stutterer through a 30-year career in journalism, and later as a public relations executive.

As Riley notes: “How can you look at some of the challenges she’s faced and not think that’s a remarkable story?”

Emery never intended to write a book. She planned to compose a couple of essays to share with her surviving children about her daughter’s drowning and sister’s suicide mostly to hold tight to her memories. An editor friend encouraged her to do more.

“I didn’t think I was capable of writing a book,” says Emery, of Lansing. “I felt I had plumbed these two events and had come out with all the nuggets I could.” She realized there was more, including her lessons learned as a stutterer, something she once shared in Tedx Talk.

Emery calls the MNB honor “my Pulitzer Prize. I didn’t expect to get any readers outside of my three children and now I’ve got thousands.”

Her hope for readers? “To figure out the events of our lives and how they allowed us to survive it,” she says. “I’ve survived well and you can, too.”

There are also two novels by first-time authors who drew on their Native American heritage.

“The Peacekeeper” imagines a never-colonized North America with an Ojibwe detective working to solve two murders as he learns about his family and himself.

Author B.L. Blanchard, who was born in Sault Ste. Marie, is a member ofSault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, also known as Ojibwe. She says she talked to family and members of her tribe there for much of her research.

With modern Chippewa culture so impacted by colonization, Blanchard wanted to explore a world in the Great Lakes region where they kept their land, their culture and were free to speak their native languages, something that was illegal until the late 1970s.

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Blanchard, who lives in California, wanted to show there is more to their story than the important but prominent stories about that generational trauma.

“I wanted to smash a lot of people’s stereotypes of Indigenous people: how we live, what we look like, what our views are,” she says. “Whatever you’re picturing, I’m probably not it.”

Author Anna Rose Johnson, of Wisconsin, is also a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. She based her middle grade historical novel, “The Star That Always Stays,” on her 14-year-old great-grandmother’s struggle to hide her Indigenous heritage during WWI, something she did to keep her family safe after her mother remarried.

Johnson discovered this doing genealogy research and realized it could be a compelling story. “That she was of Ojibwe and French descent added an interesting layer that isn’t featured very often in middle grade fiction,” she says. Already it’s been named one of NPR’s “Books We Love.”

Here's the full list, with many more great reads:

Michigan notable books 2022

Book descriptions were provided by the Library of Michigan and lightly edited by the Free Press.

'As Long as I Know You: The Mom Book' by Anne-Marie Oomen, University of Georgia Press

Follow Michigander Anne-Marie Oomen’s journey to finally knowing her mother as well as the heartbreaking loss of her mother’s immense capacities. It explores how humor and compassion grow belatedly between a mother and daughter who don’t much like each other, all while navigating the stress and family decisions brought about by a parent with dementia. "As Long as I Know You" is a personal map to find a mother who may have been there all along, then losing her again in the time of COVID-19.

'Blood and Fire: The Unbelievable Real-Life Story of Wrestling’s Original Sheik' by Brian R. Solomon, ECW Press

For a half-century, the Sheik terrorized fans and foes, becoming wrestling's most feared villain. Yet away from the ring, Lansing native Ed Farhat was a veteran, family man and businessman whose real life was shrouded in mystery. For the first time, "Blood and Fire" tells the whole story.

'Chevy in the Hole: A Novel' by Kelsey Ronan, Henry Holt and Co.

Shortly after overdosing, August (Gus) Molloy packs it in and returns home to his family in Flint. This latest slip and recommitment to sobriety doesn’t feel too terribly different from the others until Gus meets Monae, an urban farmer trying to coax a tenuous rebirth from the city’s damaged land. Through her eyes, he sees what might be possible in a city everyone else seems to have forgotten or, worse, given up on. But as they begin dreaming up an oasis together, even the most essential resources can’t be counted on.

'Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm' by Dan Charnas, MCD

Equal parts musicology, biography, and cultural history, "Dilla Time" chronicles the invention of a new kind of beat by the most underappreciated musical genius of our time, Detroit’s own J Dilla.

'Ferne: a Detroit Story' by Barbara Henning, Spuyten Duyvil

"Ferne" is a stunning re-creation of the life of the author's mother. Ferne Hostetter died when Henning was 11. The weaving together of family photos, newspaper clippings and extracts from historical sources about the 1920s through the 1950s gives Henning's book a tremendous power as it ponders the magnetic power of lost chances.

'Guardians of Michigan: Architectural Sculpture of the Pleasant Peninsulas' by Jeff Morrison, University of Michigan Press

"Guardians of Michigan" profiles the extraordinary architectural sculpture found in both the pleasant peninsulas of the Great Lakes State. Author Jeff Morrison spent years exploring Michigan’s largest cities and smallest towns, using telephoto photography to capture the sculptural details hidden from the naked eye and researching the beautiful historic architecture he encountered.

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'Hadha Baladuna: Arab American Narratives of Boundary and Belonging,' edited by Ghassan Zeineddine, Nabeel Abraham, and Sally Howell, Wayne State University Press

"Hadha Baladuna" ("this is our country") is the first work of creative nonfiction in the field of Arab American literature that focuses entirely on the Arab diaspora in metro Detroit, an area with the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the U.S. Narratives move from a young Lebanese man in the early 1920s peddling his wares along country roads to an aspiring Iraqi-Lebanese poet who finds inspiration in the music of Tupac Shakur. The anthology pivots to the experiences of growing up Arab American in Detroit and Dearborn, facing identity struggles in an unaccepting community, exploring political activism dating back to the 1960s and living amid Dearborn’s shifting demographic landscape.

'I'll Be There: My Life with the Four Tops' by Duke Fakir with Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, Omnibus Press

Spanning decades, this is the remarkable, heartfelt memoir from Abdul (Duke) Fakir, the last surviving member of the Four Tops. Amidst a backdrop of Detroit, "I’ll Be There" features revealing anecdotes from the group’s formation, members' early days as backup singers for the likes of Jackie Wilson and their years working with Berry Gordy at the legendary Motown Records.

'It’s Hard Being You: A Primer on Being Happy Anyway' by Sharon Emery, Mission Point Press

Mid-Michigander Sharon Emery struggled with the losses and limits she faced, but couldn't change no matter how hard she tried. And she did try. First with her incurable severe stutter that made her career in communications a regular battle, then with the death of her daughter, Jessica, and the too-early deaths of her younger siblings. This memoir is a guide for her children on their own life journeys, stressing the amazing resilience of human beings. Exhibit A: herself.

'Love Radio' by Ebony LaDelle, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

In this young adult romantic comedy, 17-year-old self-professed teen love doctor Prince Jones has his own segment on Detroit's popular hip-hop show. After meeting Dani, an ambitious writer who hates all things romance, Jones has only three dates to prove to her that he's worth falling for.

'Magic Season: A Son’s Story' by Wade Rouse, Hanover Square Press

Before his success in public relations, his loving marriage and his storied writing career, part-time Saugatuck resident Wade Rouse was simply Ted Rouse's son. A queer kid in a conservative Ozarks community, Wade struggled at a young age to garner his father's approval and find his voice. For his part, Ted was an all-business engineer, offering little emotional support or encouragement. But Wade and Ted had one thing in common: an undying love of the St. Louis Cardinals. For decades, baseball offered Wade and his father a shared vocabulary — a way to stay in touch, to connect and to express their emotions. When his father's health takes a turn for the worst, Wade returns to southwest Missouri to share one final season with his father.

'The Peacekeeper: A Novel' by B.L. Blanchard, 47North

In her first novel, Blanchard, originally from Sault Ste. Marie, imagines a North America that was never colonized. The plot finds a broken Ojibwe detective embarking on an emotional and twisting journey toward solving two murders, rediscovering family and finding himself.

'Satisfaction Guaranteed: How Zingerman's Built a Corner Deli into a Global Food Community' by Micheline Maynard, Scribner

In this road map for manifesting joy and purpose in business, a noted national journalist looks at the inception, growth, future and unique management style of Zingerman's, a beloved $70 million-dollar Michigan-based specialty food store with global reach.

'Scarlet in Blue: A Novel' by Jennifer Murphy, Dutton

A psychological novel about a mother and daughter who, after a lifetime on the run from a dark and dangerous past, land in a small Michigan town that may hold the key to ending their fugitive lifestyle.

'Shapes, Lines, and Light: My Grandfather’s American Journey' by Katie Yamasaki, Norton Young Readers

This striking picture book, told through the art and words of his granddaughter, celebrates the life of acclaimed Japanese American architect Minoru Yamasaki. Despite the anti-Asian sentiment in post-World War II America, Yamasaki left his mark on Michigan and the world.

'The Star That Always Stays' by Anna Rose Johnson, Holiday House

Teenage Norvia has grown up on Beaver Island, picking berries, listening to her grand-père’s stories of their Ojibwe ancestors and finding comfort in the stars above. Now she's 14 and living in Boyne City, Michigan, and her mother, who is remarrying, forces her to pretend she's not Native American. While faced with numerous changes and the looming threat of world war in 1914, Norvia must find the courage to reveal who she truly is.

'The Turtle of Michigan: A Novel' by Naomi Shihab Nye, Greenwillow Books

Eight-year-old Aref is excited to reunite with his father in Ann Arbor, Michigan where he will start a new school. Though Aref misses his grandfather, his Sidi, he knows that his home in Oman will always be waiting for him.

'Uphill: A Memoir' by Jemele Hill, Henry Holt and Co.

The Detroit native and former ESPN personality shares the whole story of her work, the women of her family and her complicated relationship with God. In this eloquent memoir, she reveals how she is forging a new path beyond her family’s cycle of intergenerational trauma, regardless of life’s uphill battles.

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'We Kept Our Towns Going: The Gossard Girls of Michigan's Upper Peninsula' by Phyllis Michael Wong, Michigan State University Press

Discover the stories of the Gossard Girls, the women who sewed corsets and bras at factories in Ishpeming and Gwinn from the early 20th century through the 1970s. As the Upper Peninsula’s mining and timber industries became increasingly exhausted, the Gossard Girls’ income sustained their families and the local economy. Their political and economic strength led to a successful four-month strike in the 1940s that capped an eight-year struggle to unionize. The book follows the daily challenges and joys of these mostly first- and second-generation immigrant women who navigated shifting ideas of what single and married women could and should do as workers and citizens.

'What the Fireflies Knew: A Novel' by Kai Harris, Tiny Reparations Books

Told from the perspective of almost 11-year-old Kenyatta Bernice (KB), this coming-of-age novel follows her as she is sent to live with her estranged grandfather in Lansing. As everything and everyone changes around her, she's forced to carve out a different identity for herself and to find her own voice.


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