Top Reads for 2020

More from my bookshelf  |  Best of 2020

Here are my top 20 reads for 2020: Four each in Equity, History, Leadership, Education, and Spiritual Growth. 

Racial Equity

We are at a tipping point in society’s understanding of racial equity. There are many great books telling WHY we need to be concerned, aware, and take action on behalf of a more just society. My interest tends toward what action steps can be taken to move us toward educational justice. The first two books below, Caste and Truth, tell in detail how we got to this place and time. The last two, New Kid and Lost Friends, provide clues as to what we can do about it. See also The Years that Matter Most, Opportunity for ALL, and Excellence Through Equity (in Education below).

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

by Isabel Wilkerson  | Sold by: Random House LLC  | Aug 4, 2020

Compares “caste” in India, the U.S., and Nazi Germany, noting the parallels and unpacking what it is and how it works.  Caste is deeply embedded in culture, creating roles (similar to a theater cast) that we all play. Artfully written with deep research and many analogies. Simultaneously hard to put down and deeply troubling. Explains so much about racism in America. An excellent book.

His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope

by Jon Meacham and John Lewis  | Aug 25, 2020

The compelling inside story of the history of the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of John Lewis. Tells how John Lewis was there at the beginning, quiet, unassuming, dedicated to non-violence despite repeat beatings and dozens of arrests. A good companion to John Lewis’ memoir, Across that Bridge.

New Kid

by Jerry Craft  | Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers 2019

My first graphic novel! Author tells the story, in words and pictures, of what it is like to be the New Kid—and a student of color—in an elite private school. Vignettes provide insights into micro-aggressions and provide hints as to what schools could do to become more just places.

The Book of Lost Friends

by Lisa Wingate  | Sold by: Random House LLC  | Apr 7, 2020

Artfully told at two levels: a teacher trying to reach non-dominant students and 100 years earlier when the great-great-grandparents were struggling through reconstruction, Jim Crow, and sharecropping. The title comes from actual personals published in the Lost Friends columns and read aloud in pulpits across the south, helping reunite families separated by slavery and the Civil War.


Seeing the “hinges of history” is fascinating. What made history happen? Leaders, circumstances, wars? And I either want history told as story, or story told as history (historical fiction). Churchill tells how leaders used events to influence history. Pilgrimage and Heretics paints the grand sweep of history showing how art, science, politics, and religion intersect. And Author in Chief is used as a shoehorn to fold in several great anthology-type books filled with vignettes.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

by Erik Larson  | Feb 25, 2020

Based on many family journals, this history reads like a fast-paced novel. Churchill has debts to pay, a coming-of-age daughter, a wayward son, and may be voted out of office. But he carries on, wooing the U.S., defying Hitler, and imparting courage to the British as 1000s die in the nightly bombing raids. Gives hope and encouragement for our times. If Churchill and the UK can survive unimaginable hard times, we can carry on through COVID a while longer.

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith

by Timothy Egan

Journalist tells of the pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome with lots of stories and history. Great NW writer. Combines stories of the journey with little-known stories from history.

Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World (Hinges of History Book 6) Kindle Edition

by Thomas Cahill  (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition

Book 6 in the series. Author is widely read and pulls together information from numerous fields to give the reader a “you were there” feel for history’s great moments and movements.

Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote

by Craig Fehrman  | Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc  | Feb 11, 2020

Tells three stories in one: the history of publishing in America; the history of autobiography; and the history of how our presidents have come to write their memoirs. In times past, that was seen as bad form. Today, the blockbuster has become part of the expected legacy of each president.

More: Three more great anthology type books, each of which includes dozens of short leadership stories: Mobituaries (Mo Rocca) tells long-forgotten stories, obituaries, of those who shaped our times. 100 Bible Verses that Made America (Robert J. Morgan) tells the stories of 100 great Americans. Profiles in Audacity (Alan Axelrod) tells of groundbreaking decisions, like Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb.


Far too many leadership books to narrow down to just four! Positive Teams and Dare to Lead are fitting for our times: how to lead in uncertainty through teamwork and collaboration. Ride of a Lifetime is a well-lived and well-told story filled with good principles to live by. Accelerate, Loonshots, and Upstream are also time-relevant: how to innovate and thrive in uncertainty.

The Power of a Positive Team: Proven Principles and Practices that Make Great Teams Great

by Jon Gordon  | Sold by: JOHN WILEY AND SONS INC  | Jun 11, 2018

Super short and packed with good ideas for growing positive teams through culture, commitment, communication, and caring.

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

by Brené Brown  | Sold by: Random House LLC  | Oct 9, 2018

A perfect book for our times. All about empathy and creating trust through positive relationships—work that requires courage (which can be learned), vulnerability, and “rumbling” in the arena.

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company

by Robert Iger 2019

As one might expect from a CEO of a giant entertainment empire, the book is well-written and entertaining. Informative on the finer points of films, mergers, and acquisitions. And forthright about leadership lessons learned and mistakes made along the way.

Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World

by John P. Kotter 2014

John Kotter is famous for his leadership books. Leading for Change and Heart of Change advocated an eight-step process for successful change. Since then, Kotter has been studying the increasing pace of change by looking at the top 1% of successful companies. Needed, he says, is a “dual operating” system: management for efficiency, leadership for innovation. He outlines a process to make this happen.

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

by Safi Bahcall 2019

Great stories about getting better. How we won World War II. And how Polaroid and Kodak started and then missed the digital revolution. Two ways to make change: incrementally step by step, and by great leaps of innovation. Tells when and how to plan for each. Great read.

Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen

by Dan Heath | 2020

Another great book by Heath (Switch, Made to Stick). Prevention is the focus. He has great examples, from dental care and auto safety to Chicago Public Schools and how they increased graduation rates dramatically. Offers specific ideas for gathering and using data to get better.


My go-to books are those that tell about “district” improvement—typically less than a half-dozen per year. Opportunity for All is a compendium of ideas on the best improvement ideas in education. The Years that Matter Most and How Schools Work are filled with lots of promising ideas to make schools more equitable. And Excellence Through Equity is the best of the bunch for concrete, proven ideas on equity.

Opportunity for All: A Framework for Quality and Equality in Education

Jennifer O’Day and Michael Smith

A good overview for district leaders. Outlines policies and practices that seem promising, and those that have not worked as well. Focuses on systems and continuous improvement.

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us

by Paul Tough  | 2019

Your SAT/ACT scores determine where you are admitted. Colleges walk a narrow line between admitting diversity and meeting tuition targets. You are your test score. Offers intriguing excerpts, such as Uri Treisman at University of Texas who has helped students of color and low SAT scores do well in mathematics.

Excellence Through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student

by Alan M. Blankstein, Pedro Noguera, et al. | 2016

The best overall perspective. Edited book includes chapters on the full range of issues that need to be addressed including both culture and academics. Chapters near the end give examples of several districts that have made significant progress and point the way to some promising practices.

How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education

By Arne Duncan

Former Secretary of Education tells the story of improving Chicago schools: he started an after-school tutoring program. Explains federal policy and offers six steps for improving schools: pre-school; after-school; SEL; quality teachers and principals; pathways; and college/career choice for all.

Spiritual Growth

Two books here—Canoeing and Seize the Vuja dé—that could be included above under leadership. Big ideas about how to lead in today’s changing world. And two more attuned to our spiritual journey: Fear Not and Anxious for Nothing. Books that provide for spiritual balance and direction in uncertain times.

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory

by Tod Bolsinger | Apr 24, 2018

Draws parallels from Lewis and Clark (canoeing up to the Rocky Mountains) and what that means for us when we enter uncharted territory. This is a great read. Great lessons for our times.

Seize the Vuja dé

by Steve Moore  | Sold by: Services LLC  | Sep 6, 2012

Based on a series of blogs. Short hard-hitting chapters on how the world is changing around us and what that means for leadership. Informative, entertaining, and many nuggets of wisdom.

Fear Not Tomorrow, God Is Already There: Trusting Him in Uncertain Times

by Ruth Graham  | May 2, 2017

Billy Graham’s daughter offers 100 Certain Truths for Uncertain Times. I always keep one read going, spiritual or secular, that points the way forward with optimism and hope. This book does that well.

Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World

by Max Lucado 2017

Biblical perspectives on hope and confidence. Finding CALM in scripture: Confidence in God; Asking for peace; Leaving burdens behind; Meditating on truth.



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Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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