Editors’ Picks: The Best Narratively Stories of 2021

From the one-eyed African queen to undercover anarchists, don't miss our team's favorite stories from the past year.

Editors’ Picks: The Best Narratively Stories of 2021

The Shot-in-the-Eye Squad

Story by Wil Sands 

Photos by Wil Sands

As Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation, the rubber bullets and tear gas canisters started to fly. This epidemic of “blinding by police” inspired our unlikely network of survivors.

“Wil Sands shows us the price paid by those who dared stand on the front lines demanding justice in the streets last year after Geroge Floyd’s death—including the photojournalist documenting these historical protests. Wil’s unique perspective shows us the ramifications endured by those who were met by violence and were blinded by the same police force that is meant to serve and protect. More jarring, Wil takes us through his journey as he lives the photographer’s worst nightmare–being shot in the eye and knowing his sight will never be the same.” – Yunuen Bonaparte, Photo Editor

How I Wrote Myself into a Real-life Romantic Comedy – That Turned into a Survivalist Thriller

Story by Melissa Johnson

Illustrations by Genevieve Ashley

As a filmmaker, I thought I could write the screenplay for my own love life. When I got lost in a hailstorm at 12,000 feet, searching for my ex, I realized I desperately needed a new ending.

“Melissa’s story has stayed with me since the moment we read the submission—her modern, honest, original take on romance in this unexpected and cinematic lost-and-found love story was captivating and inspiring.” – Farah Mohammed, Contributing Editor

“A harrowing and hilariously cringe-inducing tale of romance, adventure, and the lies we tell ourselves—about who we are, who other people are, and what ‘the truth’ even means. This is easily one of my favorite pieces of memoir we’ve published in the four years I’ve been working at Narratively.” – Rob Williams, Copy Editor

Meet the Obsessive Role-Players Who Live Inside the World of Grand Theft Auto

Story by Meghan Gunn

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Renegade developers co-opted this controversial video game’s source code to build a complex alternate universe where breaking character is the cardinal sin. Millions tune in to watch.

“I found this story a delight because it so effectively transported me into a very specific and niche subculture. The piece is also incredibly well-written and deeply reported. I played some GTA as a kid and it was fun to reminisce about my childhood while fact-checking it. Also, it taught me what ‘malding’ means, and I do not think I will ever forget the term!” – Kudrat Wadhwa, Editorial Intern

The Undercover Anarchists’ Secret Construction Collective

Story by Ella Fassler

Photos by Yehyun Kim

In a sleepy corner of Connecticut, a radical band of leftists are sneaking out after dark to tackle the homelessness crisis that has spread to every corner of America.

“I really loved this article that Ella wrote because it is an example of some members of a community doing work to help provide shelter, when local and federal governments have been extremely slow to act to address the houseless crisis in the United States.” – Julia Métraux, Contributing Editor

“This piece is so well written (and edited); it gripped me from the beginning. The mission of the group is noble, plus I have a soft spot in my black little heart for anarchists—and people who work with their hands.” – Shawna Kenney, Contributing Editor

Diary of a Bachelor Who Suddenly Became a Solo Dad to a Teenage Girl

Story by Kern Carter

Illustrations by Mary Kirkpatrick

I was an 18-year-old father who couldn’t be there for his baby. I know, you’ve heard this one before. How about this part? Twelve years later Krystasia’s mom walked away and never came back.

“Kern Carter’s prose is so intimate and vivid and vulnerable. It’s one of those memoir pieces where after you’ve read it, you feel like each person in the story is an old friend who you know so well, and you can’t wait to hear what happens next in their lives. I also can’t wait to see what Kern writes next.” – Brendan Spiegel, Co-Founder & Editorial Director

Queen of the S.R.O.

Story by Ray W. Hayden

Illustrations by Nicole Rifkin

In gritty 1980s New York, one West Village flophouse became a last-chance refuge for addicts, criminals, LGBTQ runaways, and anyone with nowhere left to go. And my mom was their queen.

“In this raw, emotional and heartfelt memoir, Ray Hayden looks back at his challenging relationship with his addict mom, Peggy, who was unable to care for Ray yet became den mother to a diverse subculture of outcasts surviving on the fringes of ’80s New York. On one level, this is Ray paying homage to the mother he never had, but on another it’s about redefining family, and a celebration of how the power of community can thrive in the most unlikely places—and both messages are so incredibly important today. ” – Noah Rosenberg, Founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief

The One-Eyed African Queen Who Defeated the Roman Empire

Story by Adhiambo Edith Magak

Illustrations by Claire Wyman

Cocky male monarchs underestimated Queen Amanirenas for her gender, her race, and her disability. Each time, they did so at their own peril.

“In addition to being an epic, exciting and action-packed period piece, I love the way this story puts a disabled, diverse female character at the forefront. That character keeps readers engaged with her jaw-dropping display of tactical genius during high-stakes negotiations and all-out battles alike.” – Joe Lugo, Director of TV, Film & Video Development

These Forgotten Essays Reveal the Secrets and Dreams of Jewish Teens As Hitler Drew Near

Story by Kristina Gaddy 

Photos courtesy the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research New York. Photo illustrations by Yunuen Bonaparte

A 1930s writing contest celebrates the inspiring endurance of the teenage spirit — in the form of heart-bursting crushes, angsty soul-searching and secret sexcapades.

“A piece about the author coming across (hundreds of!) autobiographies written by Jewish youth in the 1930s, this had some of my favorite story elements from the get-go: teenagers, history revealed, underdogs. The author does an excellent job here of weaving through several of these teens’ stories and relating their experiences back to those of today’s youth, pointing out the uncanny similarities and the universalities of the teenage experience overall, even in a time of war. It’s moving, heartbreaking and so, so relatable.” – Jesse Sposato, Deputy Editor of Client Projects 

My Bizarre Reign as New York’s King of “Virgin Russian Hair”

Story by Vijai Maheshwari

Illustrations by Ryan Raphael

Complete strangers wiring me $15k on the spot, smuggling blond ponytails across the Atlantic, secret rendezvous under the overpass — I just may have had the weirdest side hustle of all time.

“I love when Narratively stories introduce me to worlds and subcultures I’d never heard of. This story about the Eastern Europe-to-New York wig hair supply chain did just that. Ryan Raphael’s header illustration was spot on, gently recalling—in my mind—the glowing briefcase from Pulp Fiction; a fitting match for a fascinating story full of so many characters.” – Vinnie Neuberg, Illustrations Editor

The Masked Vigilantes Coming for Your Horrible Boss

Story by Alessio Perrone

Photos by Marta Clinco

Fed up with low wages and abuse, these outraged employees are naming and shaming “shitty owners” in splashy protests complete with megaphones and bags of poop. But have they gone too far?

“Narratively started 2021 off strong with this compelling story about an Italian labor rights group, the White Masks. This piece is deeply reported and includes gripping video evidence, vivid characters and a thrilling narrative arc. At its core, Perrone’s story is grappling with a huge moral dilemma: If a worker is being exploited, what can they do about it? What should they do, and what crosses the line into cold-hearted revenge? The visuals for this piece—the black-and-white faces of masked protesters—are also really stunning.” – Julianna Drew Björkstén, Editorial and Development Assistant