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  • Writer's pictureNicole Stewart

February Midwest Connections Picks

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

Following the fate of one family over the course of two decades in Nigeria, this debut novel tells the story of each sibling's search for agency, love, and meaning in a society rife with hypocrisy, but also endless life.

Midwest Connection: Tola Rotimi Abraham lives in Iowa City and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in journalism. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she has taught writing at the University of Iowa.

Perfect for: Readers of literary fiction and stories of family bonds. For fans of Margaret Wilkerson Sexton and Michael Donkor.

Pick this up if you liked: Housegirl by Michael Donkor Stay With Me by Ayò̥bámi Adébáyò̥ She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Praise for Black Sunday: "[A] piercing, supple debut . . . Abraham stuffs her novel past brimming, but its sophisticated structure and propulsive narration allow her to tuck in a biting critique of corrupt colonial religion and universally exploitative men . . . Twin sisters cut adrift in a perilous, duplicitous world learn that 'only the wise survive.' A formidable debut."    -- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Abraham’s fierce debut follows four Nigerian siblings living in Lagos from childhood in 1996 through early adulthood in 2015 . . . The novel’s strength lies in its lush, unflinching scenes, as when a seemingly simple infection leads gradually but inexorably to a life-threatening condition, revealing the dynamics of the family and community along the way. Abraham mightily captures a sense of the stresses of daily life in a family, city, and culture that always seems on the edge of self-destruction."    -- Publishers Weekly

"Abraham's debut novel tackles weighty topics like rape, self-discovery, and the mischief of prominent religious figures with a refreshing elegance. Bibike and Ariyike are nuanced characters who often make decisions with a jarred moral compass. Abraham gently ushers readers into both sisters' perspectives, inviting us into their journey to autonomous peace."    -- Booklist


A visceral, vivid, and urgent novel about a young black man growing up on Chicago’s South Side—an arresting debut from a sparkling new literary talent.

Midwest Connection: Everywhere You Don't Belong takes place in South Shore, Chicago, and Missouri. Gabriel Bump grew up in South Shore.

Perfect for: Fans of Tommy Orange, Jamel Brinkley and Jesmyn Ward, and for readers looking for an honest and moving story about growing up.

Pick this up if you liked: There There by Tommy Orange The Leavers by Lisa Ko Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Staff Pick (Nicole):

"I haven't been able to stop thinking about this book since I finished it. The story of a Chicago teen, born and raised in South Shore, coming of age in a city that always feels like it's on the verge of self-destruction is complex, funny, sparse, and devastating. Gabriel Bump is like a prose sniper; his words will have you bleeding all over the page before you even realize you've been hit. An amazingly powerful debut!"

Praise for Everywhere You Don't Belong: “This book is astonishing. You'll be smiling even as your heart is breaking, and you'll tip willingly into this world Bump offers you because what appears again and again are spectacular beams of light, also called love, also called hope, also called family. Gabriel Bump has established himself as a stunning talent to be reckoned with.”    -- Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King

“[A] pointedly affecting debut novel . . . With deft writing and rat-a-tat, laugh-until-you-gasp-at-the-implications dialog, Bump delivers a singular sense of growing up black that will resonate with readers.”    -- Library Journal (starred review)

"[An] astute and touching debut . . . Bump balances his heavy subject matter with a healthy dose of humor, but the highlight is Claude, a complex, fully developed protagonist who anchors everything. Readers will be moved in following his path to young adulthood."    -- Publishers Weekly

“A sharply funny debut novel that introduces an irreverent comic voice . . . By telling it in short vignettes rather than a traditional narrative, he creates striking images and memorable dialogue that vibrate with the life of Chicago's South Side . . . genuinely hilarious.”    -- Kirkus Reviews


Defiantly uplifting, Twenty by Debra Landwehr Engle is a transformative story about making peace with the past and allowing joy to bloom in our daily lives.

Midwest Connection: Author Debra Landwehr Engle lives in Madison County, Iowa.

​Perfect for: Anyone struggling with depression/mental health, divorce, or grief, as well as fans of magical realism.

Pick this up if you liked: All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffen Every Note Played by Lisa Genova The Testament of Harold's Wife by Lynn Hugo Praise for Twenty: “Impressive and surprising . . .in less than two hundred pages the author delivers a thought-provoking story about what it means both to live and die.”    -- Booklist “A book to hold against your heart long after the last page is turned.”    -- New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs Twenty reminds us to live with our hearts wide open even when they’ve been broken, and how to love even when it hurts.”    -- Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Perennials “Written with such strong and heartfelt faith in the magic and power of never-ending love, it will renew your own.”    -- Judy Reene Singer, author of In the Shadow of Alabama “Reading Twenty is like walking into what C. S. Lewis called the ‘thin place’—that land so close to Heaven, you can practically touch it. Engle takes us through an emotional struggle in which life and death are the two prizefighters, making us believe there is so much more behind the comedies and tragedies of our lives. Coming to the end of Engle’s remarkable story allows every reader to experience a ravishing victory not only for Meg, the protagonist, but for their own soul as well.” ​   -- David Paul Kirkpatrick, former President of Paramount Pictures, Former Production Chief of Walt Disney studios


In this bighearted middle-grade debut, Martin McLean struggles to find his voice—and his inner diva—as he navigates friendship, family, first crushes and a whole lot of glitter.

Midwest Connection: Alyssa Zaczek is originally from Chicago and now lives in St. Cloud, Minnesota. 

Perfect for: Contemporary fiction readers, ages 8-12.

Pick this up if you loved: Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart The Truth About Twinkie Pie by Kat Yeh The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez

Staff Pick (Dawn):

"A full-hearted, optimistic, feel-good book that takes junior high angst and isolation and crushes them under sparkly stilettos. Martin is sailing into seventh grade with a shelf full of Mathlete trophies, good friends, and a supportive mom -- but he's struggling to express himself and work through the big questions coming at him. When a class bully pushes Martin into a panic attack, his mom calls on confident, fashionable Tío Billy to help. Billy introduces Martin to his world of drag and something clicks -- in a shower of incandescent fabulousness -- for Martin. A+ Inclusion, diversity, and kindness."

Praise for Martin McLean, Middle School Queen:

“An amusing story that's bursting with diversity at every turn. . . . A tasty treat.”    -- Kirkus (Starred review)

"... a good-humored romp with a highly empathetic hero. What’s not to like?”    -- Booklist

Martin McLean, Middle School Queen is a thoughtful exploration of how we contain multitudes. This accessible, inclusive novel shows we are as infinite as the universe and have the potential to be as bright as the stars. You’ll cheer and root for Martin (Lottie) as he figures out how to celebrate all the parts of who he is. This book will leave you feeling triumphant!”    -- Donna Gephart, award-winning author of Lily and Dunkin and The Paris Project

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