#17Booksfor17SDGs 2020 Picks

By Brooke Sarrazin, Marketing Assistant

Last month our organization and 14 other sibling Cities of Literature took part in our second annual “17 Books for the 17 SDGs” social media campaign. From December 7-23 each city posted a book with ties to their city that corresponded with one of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The idea behind the campaign is to raise awareness for the SDGs, and to provide readers with a complete list of books that relate to sustainable development in their community. Below you’ll find Iowa City’s book picks coupled with a brief description of each goal and links to supporting information.

Goal 1: No Poverty

Poverty is found in every corner of the world, whether or not it is seen by a community’s most affluent population. The UN defines poverty as persons living on less than $1.25/day. Since the COVID-19 crisis, the number of people living in poverty began to increase for the first time since 1990, reversing 30 years of progress. Poverty targets the most vulnerable and least powerful populations which is why poverty often follows conflict, natural disasters, crises, and political instability. Refugees and forcibly displaced persons are among the most impoverished and most difficult to lift out of poverty. According to the World Bank, there are about 79.5 million forcibly displaced people, and since 2010 there have been historically high numbers of refugees, internally displaced persons and asylum seekers. The displaced themselves are often escaping conflict or persecution and are extremely vulnerable and impoverished. Often times, the host communities themselves are struggling with their own poverty hardships and struggle to find adequate resources to support an influx of refugees.

Our pick for SDG 1 is Exodus by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate ‘Gbenga Adeoba. Exodus focuses on forms of migration due to slave trade, war, natural disasters, and economic opportunity. This book works to tell experiences of the exiled and displaced through poetry.

More about SDG 1. 

More about the link between forced displacement and poverty. 

Goal 2: Zero Hunger

Food is a necessity. Currently around 9% of the global population is suffering from hunger, and this number grows each year. The COVID-19 crisis has put even more people at risk of malnourishment because of the world’s sudden economic downturn that COVID-19 caused. According to the UN, a drastic change in global food and agriculture systems is necessary to provide every single human with proper nutrition and reliable food sources. Prioritizing small scale farms, increasing food production yields, and utilizing sustainable agriculture practices are central to solving world hunger, yet they are also a growing challenge as the climate crisis looms larger.

Our pick for SDG 2 is American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, published by Graywolf Press. This book follows Mockett as she immerses herself into a rural, evangelical Christian culture that has tended to the wheat farm owned by her family for over a hundred years. American Harvest takes a newly focused look at Midwestern rural life and food production.

More about SDG 2. 

Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being

Prior to 2020, substantial progress had been made to increasing global life expectancy, reducing child mortality, and improving overall human health. However, the COVID-19 crisis has reversed some of this progress as many lives across the globe have been negatively impacted directly or indirectly by COVID-19. Achieving good health and well-being globally means eradicating human suffering as much as possible. This looks different in every community. This could be increased HIV/AIDS prevention, increased pollution control, installing better sanitation procedures, increasing access to health-care facilities, providing better substance abuse treatment options, or any other infrastructure a community may need to increase human well-being.

Our pick for this goal is Transcendent Kingdom by Writers’ Workshop graduate Yaa Gyasi. This novel follows the story of a Ghanian family living in Alabama. Gifty, seeking a PhD in neuroscience from Stanford, is grappling with her brother’s death from overdose and her mother’s severe life-threatening depression. Gifty looks to her studies and religion in hopes to explain the hardships her family has endured.

More about SDG 3. 

Goal 4: Quality Education

Education disparities among race in the United States cannot be ignored. We felt that our book selection for this goal must reflect that. SDG 4 Target 4.7 pledges to ensure students will learn about all facets of sustainable development and human rights including but not limited to lifestyle choices, gender equality, promoting peace and appreciating cultural diversity.

Our first pick for SDG 4 is Call My Name, Clemson: Documenting the Black Experience in an American University Community by Rhondda Robinson Thomas, published by University of Iowa Press. This book tells the history of the land that Clemson University currently sits on from being Cherokee territory up until the University’s integration in 1963. This is a history book that does not leave out any narratives, and pays specific attention to African American’s history sustaining the University and links slavery to the development of higher education institutions in America.

More about the history of slavery on college campuses. 


Our second pick for SDG 4 is Narratives, Nerdfighters, and New Media by Jennifer Burek Pierce, published by University of Iowa Press. Especially during the COVID-19 crisis, technology is vital to education now more than ever. This book takes a look at education and reading in a digital age and indicates that this is where the future of learning is heading. By establishing paper literature and new media as partners instead of competitors, Pierce successfully explains the triumphs of the Nerdfighter community.

More about SDG 4. 


Goal 5: Gender Equality

According to the UN, 1 in 5 women reportedly experiences sexual or physical violence from an intimate partner within the last year, and 49 countries have no laws to protect women form domestic violence. The COVID-19 crisis has intensified domestic violence as many women have found themselves quarantined with an abusive partner. Gender equality, like all 17 SDGS, is multifaceted and present in every country, however respect for women begins in the home.

Our pick for SDG 5 is Valentine by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Elizabeth Wetmore. In 1976 Odessa, Texas, the women know all too well that the imminent economic book also brings certain danger to women. This is an exemplary novel that defines how intersectionality ought to be present in any social justice conversation.

More about SDG 5. 

More about COVID-19 and domestic violence. 

National Domestic Violence Hotline. 

Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Less than 1% of all the water on Earth is freshwater available for human use. Among the many things 2020 has taught us, one of the most potent lessons is the importance of good hygiene. Hand washing saves lives. However, not everyone has access to a clean, reliable source of water. According to the UN, billions of people still lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation. This is why it is so important to conserve and keep our water resources clean.

Wetlands are ecosystems that are saturated with water seasonally or all the time. Wetland are critical in improving water quality, preserving biodiversity, and act as a flood buffer. The world’s wetlands are being threatened by industry exploitation, pollution, and climate change. In the United States, preserving and restoring wetlands is a main key to achieve clean water and sanitation for all.

Our pick for SDG 6 is Last One Out Shut Off the Lights by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Stephanie Soileau. Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is an evocative portrait of the last-chance towns of southwest Louisiana, where oil development, industrial pollution, dying wetlands, and the ever-present threat of devastatin hurricanes have eroded their inhabitants’ sense of home. These eleven piercing stories feature indelible characters struggling to find a foothold in a world that is forever washing out from under them, people who must reckon with their ambivalence about belonging to a place so continually in flux.

More about SDG 6. 

More about wetlands in the United States. 

Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

Each year renewable energy becomes more efficient and more affordable, however the current rate of growth is not enough to minimize the effects of climate change. According to the UN, the energy sector if the biggest contributor to climate change and burning fossil fuels accounts for 60% of global Greenhouse Gas emissions. In the United States’ energy industry, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a growing practice to extract natural gas from shale rock located deep beneath Earth’s surface. If left unchecked and unregulated, fracking can contaminate water supply, use enormous amounts of water resources for extraction, and contribute to air pollution and GHG emissions.

Our pick for SDG 7 is Gold Cure by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Ted Mathys. Lustrous, tender and expansive, Gold Cure moves from boomtown gold mines and the mythical city of El Dorado to the fracking wells of the American interior, excavating buried histories, legacies of conquest, and the pursuit of shimmering ideals. Ted Mathys skewers police brutality in a 16-part poem built on the bones of a nursery rhyme and drives Petrarchan sonnets into shale fields deep under prairies. In crystalline language rich with allegory and wordplay, Mathys has crafted a moving elegy for the Anthropocene.

More about SDG 7. 

More about fracking in the United States. 

Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Small businesses are essential to economic growth. The Midwest’s farming industry was vastly changed after the rise of industrial agriculture. Small family owned farms diminished, and the remaining ones had to alter what they grew and how they grew it to stay afloat.

Our pick for SDG 8 is Farmscape by Mary Swander, published by Ice Cube Press. Farmscape is inspired by the community play which documents the contemporary Midwest farmscape. Savor the taste of organic vegetables on a truck on its way to the local farmer’s market, suit up in protective clothing and a mask before you enter a hog confinement operation. Experience the David and Goliath story of an organic farmer up against the economic forces of the 3500 acre agri-business operation next door. In the end, you’ll understand that during the pioneer days, farming completely changed the ecosystem of the prairie. A hundred and fifty years later, this landscape is dramatically changing again. This book contains the full readers’ theatre script as well as commentary on both Farmscape and the Changing Rural Environment by Anna Lappé, Frederick Kirschenmann, Gene Logsdon, J. Harley McIlrath, Francis Thicke, Jim O’Loughlin, Mary Klotzbach, Claudia Prado-Meza, Leigh Adcock, Jason Arbogast, Laura Sweeney, and Vicki Simpson.

More about SDG 8. 

Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

One of the UN’s targets for SDG 9 is to “develop quality, reliable, sustainable, and resilient infrastructure, including regional and transborder infrastructure, to support economic development and human well-being, with a focus on affordable and equitable access for all.” Industrialization is proven to be good economic growth, however it is not necessarily good for human well-being unless it is sustainable, inclusive, and takes employee safety and well-being into account. According to OSHA, about 15 workers died on the job per day in 2019. This average is far less than the 38 fatalities on the job per day in 1970, though many of these deaths are likely from preventable accidents.

Our pick for SDG 9 is Brightest Place in the World, a novel by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate David Phillip Mullins. Inspired by true events, The Brightest Place in the World traces the lives of four characters haunted by and industrial disaster. On an ordinary sunny morning in 2012, a series of explosions level a chemical plant on the outskirts of Las Vegas. The shock waves are felt as far away as Fremont Street. Homes and businesses suffer broken windows and caved-in roofs. Hundreds are injured, and eight employees of the plant are unaccounted for, presumed dead. Against the sordid backdrop of Las Vegas-and inspired by the PEPCON disaster of May 4, 1988-this engaging novel is a story of grief and regret, disloyalty and atonement, infatuation and love.

More about SDG 9. 

More about worker fatalities in the United States.

Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities

We chose to include more books for this goal than any other because unfortunately, there is a lot of inequality in this world. SDG 10 is to ensure that no one gets left behind in the Sustainable Development Goals and to prevent countries from adopting a “help some now, help all later” approach. Educating yourself about inequality is a very important first step to eradicating inequality, and we encourage you to educate yourself and your peers beyond the books we have listed.

Our first pick for SDG 10 is Minor Feelings by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Cathy Park Hong. Binding the essays in this book together is Hong’s theory of “minor feelings.” As the daughter of Korean immigrants, Cathy Park Hong grew up steeped in shame, suspicion, and melancholy. She would later understand that these “minor feelings” occur when American optimism contradicts your own reality-when you believe the lies you’re told about your own racial identity. Minor feelings are not small, they’re dissonant-and in their tension Hong finds the key to the questions that haunt her.

Our second pick for SDG 10 is Such a Fun Age by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Kiley Reid. Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what the wants and has made a living, with her confidence-driven brand, showing other women how to do the same. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlain’s toddler one night, walking the aisles of their local high-end supermarket. The store’s security guard, seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make things right. With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what is means to be “family,” and the complicated reality of being a grown up. It is a searing debut for our times.

Our third pick for SDG 10 is Real Life by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Brandon Taylor. Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends-some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defense while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community. Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

More about SDG 10. 

Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Building sustainable cities and communities means creating new infrastructure that can adapt to climate change, and altering existing infrastructure to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Our pick for SDG 11 is Green, Fair, and Prosperous: Paths to a Sustainable Iowa by professor and director of the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, Charles E. Connerly, published by University of Iowa Press. At the center of what was once tallgrass prairie, Iowa has stood out for clearing the land and becoming one of the most productive agricultural states in the nation. But its success is challenged by multiple issues including but not limited to a decline in union representation of meatpacking workers; lack of demographic diversity; the advent of job-replacing mechanization; growing income inequality; negative contributions to and effects of climate change and environmental hazards. To become green, fair, and prosperous, Connerly argues that Iowa must reckon with its past and the fact that its farm economy continues to pollute waterways, while remaining utterly unprepared for climate change. Iowa must recognize ways in which it can bolster its residents’ standard of living and move away from its demographic tradition of whiteness. For development to be sustainable, society must balance it with environmental protection and social justice. Connerly provides a crucial roadmap for how Iowans can move forward and achieve this balance.

More about SDG 11. 

Check out our Iowa City Book Festival event with Charles Connerly!

Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

Everything we use and consume ends up somewhere. Every bottle, grocery bag, food scrap, even toothbrushes! Practicing sustainability means consumers and manufacturers alike adopt a cradle-to-grave approach wherever possible to minimize waste. This means that anything produced can either be recycled or can decompose under the proper conditions.

Our pick for SDG 12 is Lost in Waste by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Catherine Haustein. Being a chemist has never been too exciting for Cali Van Winkle, but being a chemist in the independent city-state Cochtonia, formerly known as Iowa, comes with a lot more challenges. Cali and genetically modified “Icon” Eve Whitehead compete as Team Beautiful and Damned for the opportunity of easier lives in their tightly controlled society, but their assignment is garbage-literally. They must find practical uses for Cochtonia’s putrid sewage lagoon, the WasteBin, where unsustainable plastics float around, the excrement of genetically modified creatures rots, and the occasional human being gets dumped. It’s a disgusting task until Cali and Eve discover something very rare living near the WasteBin: virile males. Suddenly their assignment isn’t so rancid, and the very thought of experiencing true love becomes their motivation, but there’s far more to CrispEr males Remmer and Layal than they’re willing to admit. After all, they are genetically modified erotic escorts. But when the men and women are separated by a strange chain of events, the women must focus on winning the competition and gaining the status that will allow them to be with their men-if they can find them.

More about SDG 12. 

Goal 13: Climate Action

The urgency to induce action against climate change increases each year. There is very strong evidence to indicate that climate change is exacerbated by human activities. It is important to remember that climate change looks different in every country, and even in every state in the United States. However, climate change threatens biodiversity everywhere.

Our pick for SDG 13 is With Wings Extended: A Leap into the Wood Duck’s World by Greg Hoch, published by the University of Iowa Press. A century ago, many people had given up on the wood duck, dooming it to extinction along with the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. Today, the wood duck is one of the most familiar and most harvested ducks in the eastern half of the country, and one of America’s great conservation stories. In With Wings Extended, Minnesota conservationist Greg Hoch introduces readers to a duck they probably recognize but may not know well. Hoch illustrates the complexities of wildlife and habitat management that landowners as well as state and federal wildlife agencies deal with on a daily basis, and takes readers through the life stages of what is largely considered the most beautiful duck in the world. In this fascinating and practical read, Hoch blends the historical literature about the species with modern science, and also shows how our views of conservation have changed over the last century.

More about SDG 13.

IPCC report on land-climate interactions. 

Goal 14: Life Below Water

Many businesses, communities, local economies, and people’s livelihoods rely on fisheries and life below water. However underwater ecosystems, like any ecosystem, have a delicate balance and a slight tip of the scale can have dramatic, long lasting impacts. Water pollution and exploitation of fish resources are causing alarming rates of fish population decline in communities that rely on the fishing industry and are upending their economies. In order to mitigate this, sustainable fishing strategies must be in practice. Understanding a body of water’s role in the well-being of a community is the first step to restoring underwater ecosystems.

Our pick for SDG 14 is To the Lake by Kapka Kassabova, published by GrayWolf Press. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa. Two ancient lakes joined by underground rivers. Two lakes that seem to hold both the turbulent memories of the region’s past and the secret of its enduring allure. Two lakes that have played a central role in Kapka Kassabova’s maternal family. By exploring on water and land the stories of poets, fishermen, and caretakers, misfits, rulers, and inheritors of war and exile, Kassabova uncovers the human destinies shaped by the lakes. Setting out to resolve her own ancestral legacy, Kassabova located a deeper inquiry into how geography and politics imprint themselves upon families and nations, one that confronts her with universal questions about human suffering and the capacity for change.

More about SDG 14. 

Goal 15: Life on Land

Every being and object on Earth has intrinsic value, meaning that everything holds value simply in its existence, even if humans don’t see that value. According to the UN, 75% of Earth’s surface has been altered due to human activities such as agriculture, deforestation, urbanization, and illicit poaching. These vast alterations of landscapes often leave many species and ecosystems vulnerable to endangerment or extinction.

Our first pick for SDG 15 is Wildland Sentinel: Field Notes from and Iowa Conservation Officer by Iowa Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Erika Billerbeck, published by the University of Iowa Press. In America’s Midwest, where “wilderness” is in short supply, working to defend what’s left of Iowa’s natural resources can be both a daunting and entertaining task. In Wildland Sentinel, Erika Billerbeck takes readers along for the ride as she and her colleagues sift through poaching investigations, chase down sex offenders in state parks, and face the chaos that comes with disaster response. Using an introspective personal voice, this narrative nonfiction work weaves stories of Iowa’s natural history with a cast of unforgettable characters. Wildland Sentinel touches on what it means to be a woman working in the male-dominated field of conservation law enforcement.

Check out our Iowa City Book Festival event with Erika Billerbeck!

Our second pick for SDG 15 is Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean, published by Ice Cube Press. Poetic, beautiful, meditative, and informative. Through short writings and photographs, Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean enter a conversation to inspire new understandings of the Midwestern tallgrass prairie with word and image. Tallgrass Conversations encourages looking and listening to the prairie through the heart and mind as well as eyes, ears, and other senses, advancing both conversation and creative efforts on behalf of the tallgrass prairie. A superb look at how to best learn to live with tallgrass prairie, or anywhere you call home.

More about SDG 15. 

Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions

Goal 16 seeks to establish concrete human rights in every corner of the world. Right now, millions of people’s human rights are tragically taken through human trafficking, warfare, persecution, and displacement. Strong institutions free of corruption must be kept to ensure human rights for all, though institutions most affected by corruption are the judiciary and police, according to the UN.

Our first pick for SDG 16 is White Poison by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Michael Harris. Were up to 3,000 Shasta Indians fed strychnine-laced beef and bread at a treaty-signing feast in far Northern California in 1851? And was this Gold Rush atrocity, with 10 times the death toll of Wounded Knee, somehow covered up and forgotten for a century and a half? Michael Harris’ new novel White Poison tries to exhume the truth about this alleged massacre and other, better documented clashed in Siskiyou County and Southern Oregon between settlers and Natives-none of which he learned about in school, though he grew up in the area.

Our second pick for SDG 16 is the Bicultural Iowa Writers’ Fellowship anthology series: We the Interwoven. The traditional story of Iowa is one of farming-based settlements and European immigrants. But today’s Iowa is a different story- a uniquely beautiful tapestry woven from people of many backgrounds, many of whom are experiencing America for the first time through the lens of our state. This new story needs to be told, especially by the voices of those who are experiencing it firsthand, so that we can all gain new perspectives of who we are as Iowans.

More about SDG 16. 

Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals

The SDGs can only work if every country, every state, every business, and every community makes an effort. Every goal requires cooperation, guidance, and alliances that transcend borders.

Our first pick for SDG 17 is Borderline Citizen by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Robin Hemley. In Borderline Citizen he tells vivid, though-provoking, deeply personal, and sometimes humorous stories of people and places on the margins. he takes us to a “British pub to outdo all British Pubs’ in the Falkland Islands, a cemetery in a small town in Northern Italy for WWI soldiers whose deaths were “strikingly meaningless,” to a European outpost of Russia in the former German city of Konignberg for Russian Federation Day, and to Omaha, Nebraska to visit one of the world’s largest indoor rainforests. He introduces us to a young Afghan refugee barely hanging on in Australia, an outspoken black nationalist living in exile in Cuba with 32 FBI warrants against her, and a Chinese billionaire whose ornate mission in his impoverished ancestral village boasts among many classical Chinese statues a “statue of an American soldier, machine gun in hand,” just to cover all the bases. We meet many whose sense of patriotism or nationalism has been strengthened or cut adrift by circumstance and history and who help him make a case for his own multiple sense of belonging.

Our second pick for SDG 17 is Things to do in Hell by Iowa Writers’Workshop graduate Chris Martin. Join Martin for a poetic walking tour of hell-or is it heaven? In this wickedly clever collection, Martin asks how we go about living in the tension between protesting lunatic politicians and picking up the kids form school, mourning a dying Earth and making soup, combating whtie supremacy and loving our dear ones. Martin’s poems pick at the tender scabs protecting our national and individual identities and call for more honest healing. Things to Do in Hell channels 2016 anger into 2020 action with sophisticated, rhythmic verse that compels us to beat our swords into ploughshares and join the fight.

More about SDG 17. 


To view book picks from other Cities of Literature, check out the hashtag #17Booksfor17SDGs on Facebook and Twitter!



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