Iowa City’s Picks for #17Booksfor17SDGs

From December 2-17, 2019, during COP25, the UNESCO Iowa City of Literature, along with 11 other Cities of Literature, participated in a #17Booksfor17SDGs campaign on social media. Each day was assigned with a specific Sustainable Development Goal, and each participating city posted one or a few book recommendations corresponding to that goal. The following books are Iowa City’s picks. If you want to see the selections from other Cities of Literature, check out #17booksfor17SDGs on Twitter and Facebook! 

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals designated by the United Nations in 2015 act as a call to action for all countries to adopt sustainable development practices to end poverty and hunger, promote economic growth, and simultaneously address climate change and preserve natural landscapes. To find out more about the Sustainable Development Goals and how they are measured, check out The Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform

Goal 1: No Poverty

Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto 

by Osha Gray Davidson 

The well-researched book tells the story of the farming crisis in the Midwest during the 1980s. The book explores the economic causes and how radical changes in farming expenses and price drops in farming goods beginning in the 1940s caused ⅔ of our country’s farmers to find themselves out of work, often times losing businesses that had sustained families for many generations. Davidson interviewed over 200 farmers, social workers, government officials and scholars to understand the detrimental ramifications on an environmental, psychological, and economic scale. 

Goal 2: Zero Hunger

Good Food, Strong Communities: Promoting Social Justice Through Local and Regional Food Systems 

by Martin Bailkey and Steve Ventura 

Good Food, Strong Communities explores what a sustainable food system should look like that ensures food security for all. Including case studies and strategies implemented  from cities across the U.S.-including Cedar Rapids, IA- this book maps out and clearly defines the basic principles of sustaining a good food system by focusing on policy, education, justice, sovereignty, and people of color.


Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power, and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System

 by Raj Patel 

In this book Raj Patel documents his hunt for answers to the core problems in the global food system. Through his research in all corners of the globe, he identifies and illustrates the problems of traditional farming techniques as well as criticisms of the organic food system, the fair trade model, and community supported agriculture programs. Patel also outlines the main causes of obesity, hunger, and women’s rights struggles in terms of food production. In highlighting these fundamental problems in the way we obtain food, Patel maps out the steps to solving the global dilemma that is our world’s food system. 

Goal 3: Good Health and Well Being

Hunger: A Memoir of my Body 

by Roxane Gay 

This powerfully written memoir by New York Times best-selling author Roxane Gay is an intensely raw account of her personal struggles with body image, food, and weight. Roxane Gay gives an extremely vulnerable account of how her relationship with food was shaped by childhood psychological trauma and speaks about the stereotypes placed on her because of her weight and what it means to be an overweight woman in today’s world. 

Goal 4: Quality Education

A Life on the Middle Wests Never-Ending Frontier 

by Willard “Sandy” Boyd 

Williard “Sandy” Boyd spent decades at the University of Iowa as a professor and natural leader to his students, and eventually became president of the University of Iowa. During his presidency, Boyd was tasked with leading the school through troubling times both the school and our entire country. Boyd left a lasting legacy on the University through his guidance by keeping education and cultural institutions a priority. 

Goal 5: Gender Equality

Her Body and Other Parties 

by Carmen Maria Machado 

Machado’s genre-bending collection of short stories is a feminist and LGBT manifesto focusing on unfortunate realities women face and all too common violences and disorders done to their bodies. Each story is a different level and blend of fiction, horror, and psychological realism. 


Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008

 by Connie Mutel 

In 2008, eastern Iowa experienced the most sizeable and most rapid flooding that has ever been recorded in the region. Business were destroyed and put out of business, farmers and residents were displaced, and our local water supply was threatened as the flooding crept closer and closer to the water plant. Connie Mutel splits 25 essays into four separate categories to explain the ins-and-outs of the 2008 flood, the history of flooding in eastern Iowa, and the likelihood of future disastrous flooding devastating the same areas. 

Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope

 by William Kamkwamba 

William Kamkwamba grew up in Malawi surrounded by magic and superstition. When Malawi was afflicted by famine in 2002, William was forced to quit school. During a time when food and water was scarce, having electricity was a luxury only found in dreams. With second hand textbooks and an abundance of junk to sift through, William built his own windmill that was able to power four lights. Soon after he built a water pump to combat seasonal droughts. This inspiring story tells how powerful an individual can be even in the face of adversity.

Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth 

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life on an American Family Farm 

by Ted Genoways

Ted Genoways tells the Hammond’s family history through their farm that has been passed down through generations, but the future of their farmland is threatened. The Hammond’s current struggles aren’t unique or new, in fact most family farms are threatened as the farming industry is continuously tackled with climate change, threats of oil pipes, new trade policies, and corporate farming. Genoways explores all these threats during his year with the Hammonds. With each harvest the same question looms larger; Will be farm be passed down to their children, or will the changes they’ve suffered be too great and cause them to lose their farm forever? 


Hog Wild: The Battle for Workers’ Rights at the World’s Largest Slaughterhouse

by Lynn Waltz 

In 1992, the world’s largest pork processing plant was opened in Tar Heel, North Carolina by Smithfield Foods. The slaughterhouse soon saw its employees driven elsewhere because of high rates of injury and dangerous working conditions. The remaining workers demanded higher wages and safer conditions. Over the course of nearly 20 years, many tried to start a union to no avail. The plant often fired union leaders and partook in other suspicious, corrupt behavior to avoid changing their hazardous conditions. Lynn Waltz tells a well-researched account of the plant’s continuous neglect of appropriate labor and environmental procedures, and the eventual justice to workers brought by the world’s largest meat packing labor union. 

Goal 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America 

by Stephen G. Bloom 

After moving to Iowa City in the mid-1980s, Stephen G. Bloom became fascinated by Postville, a tiny Iowa town that had just opened a kosher slaughterhouse run by a group of Lubavitchers, or orthodox Jews. These newcomers who rejected unspoken Midwestern rules were viewed by residing Iowans as stubborn, bold, even rude, while the Lubavitchers saw Iowans as intolerant, narrow-minded, and inflexible. This divide eventually came to a vote in 1997 on whether the Jews were allowed to stay or not. This book reveals the roles of cultural assimilation vs. maintaining cultures in small town America. 

Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities


by Margo Jefferson 

Margo Jefferson grew up in Chicago during the crest of the civil rights movement. Growing up, Jefferson’s family was part of the “colored elite.” Grappling with racism, depression, and feminism, her memoir is a testament to living during the one of the United State’s most historic decades during a supposed post-racial America. Check out our Writers on the Fly interview with Jefferson.


Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality 

by Tom Witosky 

On April 3, 2009 Iowa became the third state in the country to allow same sex couples to get married. Equal Before the Law tells the stories that led to a unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court in Varnum v. Brien to give all couples the right to marriage. Witosky tells an unbiased story with balanced arguments from a purely economic, legal, and political standpoint that makes the unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court a no-brainer. 

Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper 

by Art Cullen 

In 2017, a local newspaper to a small Iowa city of about 10,000 people won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the big corporate agri-industry in Iowa for polluting Storm Lake’s rivers and its lake. Art Cullen, editor of this family run newspaper tells his personal story of watching the fundamental changes in the midwest over the course of his career. Cullen also explains Iowa’s significance in national politics and attempts to predict where Iowa’s loyalties will lie in the 2020 election.  

Goal 12: Responsible Production and Consumption


by Taylor Brorby

Taylor Brorby uses poetry to combat environmental degradation in the Midwest Oil Fields. In his poetry, Brorby celebrates the natural landscape and creates a sense of nostalgia that force the reader to recall buried childhood memories of nature and the outdoors. His portrayal of the Great Plains landscape emphasizes the value in preserving and maintaining the land that many humans, animals, and plants alike call home.


Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America

 by Taylor Brorby 

Fracture features first hand experiences, investigative journalism, and other stories from over fifty writers to convey the complicated political and economic role in both local and global contexts hydraulic fracturing has in the United States. 



Goal 13: Climate Action

After the Flood

 by Kassandra Montag 

Human civilization is hanging off a cliff, literally. One hundred years from now sea-level rise has not just taken over coastal cities but entire continents, so only a string of mountaintop encampments remain. Former Nebraska native Myra and her seven year old daughter Pearl only seek dry land to trade supplies and information, otherwise they reside in their small boat, The Bird. Myra has mourned her oldest daughter Row since their Nebraskan home was destroyed by the floods and Row’s father took her amidst the chaos. Now, seven years later, Myra hears that Row was seen near the Arctic Circle. Mrya throws caution to the wind and heads north towards dangerous icy seas with Pearl in hopes to reunite with her eldest daughter. 


Sugar Creek Chronicle: Observing Climate Change from a Midwestern Woodland

by Connie Mutel 

Connie Mutel, senior science writer at the University of Iowa, shares the science behind the impending climate crisis, and why everyone should care about it. Alongside the scientific evidence of alarming climate changes, Mutel interlaces stories from childhood, personal anecdotes from a year spent in Iowa’s woodlands and stories from being a student. Through these stories Mutel demonstrates that climate change looks different for every person and every location, but it will impact everyone. In the final chapters Mutel issues a call to action and maintains a sense of hope while also conveying urgency in finding sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. 

Goal 14: Life Below Water

Round River

 by Aldo Leopold 

Round River is a collection of daily journal entries from conservationist Aldo Leopold. Written in a wide spread of geographic locations, Leopold writes about his day to day life in nature spent hunting, fishing, or simply enjoying the outdoors. 



Goal 15: Life on Land

Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Climate Catastrophe and our Last Chance to Save Humanity 

by James Hansen 

University of Iowa alum and Climate Scientist James Hansen speaks on the  overwhelming reality that is the climate crisis. Published in 2009, this book foreshadowed much of the political and environmental turmoil that we see on the news everyday. Hansen not only explains the science of human caused climate change with clear, indisputable arguments, but he writes with an emotional passion for his work that effectively issues a warning for future generations and a call to action for current world leaders.


Ecological Restoration in the Midwest: Past, Present, and Future

 by Christian Lenhart and Peter C. Smiley Jr. 

What was the Midwest before it became an industrial and agricultural powerhouse? This book answers that question by focusing on six case studies highlighting thirty ecological restoration efforts across the Midwest. From each projects’ initial development to its place in each region’s local community in the future, each project is part of a blueprint for ecological restoration projects worldwide.



Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions

On Such a Full Sea 

by Chang-rae Lee 

In this future-dystopian novel most of China is ecologically destroyed and no longer inhabitable, and it’s former residents have been relocated to walled-in labor colonies in the United States. Workers in the colonies work to provide resources to The Charters, or the elite class, and in exchange are provided with safety and security within the walls of the labor communities. Fan, a worker in the B-Mor (formerly Baltimore) settlement, leaves the government regulated confines of the colony and ventures into a crime stricken open country to find her partner Reg after he disappeared without an explanation or a single clue as to where he went. Check out our interview with Chang-rae Lee.


Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir 

by Andy Douglas

During Andy Douglas’ year singing in a choir made up of prison inmates and other volunteers at a medium security men’s correctional facility in Coralville, Iowa, Douglas crosses paths with inmates, other volunteers, and prison administrators, each with their own unique stories to share. Redemption Songs explores the role of music in the prison system, and how the arts can be a catalyst for growth, self-improvement, and healing. 

Goal 17: Partnerships

The Ungrateful Refugee 

by Dina Nayeri 

Dina Nayeri left her home in Iran with her mother when she was eight years old. After living in a makeshift refugee camp in Italy, she eventually granted asylum and migrates to Oklahoma. In this book Nayeri tells her own story and the stories of some of the other 25 million asylum seekers and refugees dispersed across the globe, all far from their home. Nayeri challenges the reader to look at the world from the eyes of a refugee or asylum seeker.

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