From the Shelf
What It Means to Stay Home
My 17-month-old son has spent the majority of his life at home, so the beauty of And the People Stayed Home (Tra Publishing, $18.99), a picture book by Kitty O'Meara that honors the importance of staying home and staying in during the Covid-19 pandemic, is probably lost on him. As someone who remembers a time when we used to go places and do things, however, I find myself drawn to its quiet, subtle way of capturing all that staying home has meant.
Alone Together, edited by Jennifer Haupt (Central Avenue, $16.99) explores this theme in more depth through interviews, essays, poems from 90 contributors. Zadie Smith's Intimations: Six Essays (Penguin, $10.95) considers the experience of living through a global pandemic. The slim collection graced many "best of 2020" lists, and I've just asked my local indie to put a copy on hold for my next curbside pickup.
In addition to making me ever more grateful to have a place to call home, the experience of staying in for so many months left me curious about the very concept of home. I dug out my old copy of Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Anchor, $17), and found in Bryson's balance of serious thought, humorous comments and random tidbits for trivia a lens through which I am re-experiencing my own home.
Similarly, in Be My Guest (Knopf, $19.95), Priya Basil uses the act of serving food to others as a way of exploring identity and community. While it may be some time before we're in a position to host others, this book, like all others on this list, brings a newfound appreciation of all that we had, all that we still have, and all that we can look forward to again--hopefully in the not-too-distant future.
In this Issue...
by Natalie Goldberg
Natalie Goldberg entwines her lifelong Zen and writing practices through the deceptive simplicity of haiku.
by Gary Paulsen
Acclaimed children's author Gary Paulsen creates a spectacular memoir that will engage readers as intensely as his award-winning fiction.
by Charlie Gilmour
This heartfelt and candid memoir views fatherhood through the lens of a young man's accidental domestication of a magpie.
Review by Subjects:
Original Title Quiz
Pop quiz: "Can you guess this book based on its original title?" Mental Floss asked.
"A 'lost' recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his then-fresh epic poem 'Howl' in 1956 will be released for the first time in April," Variety reported.
"This miniature Quran bears witness to an immense history," Atlas Obscura noted.
Open Culture showcased an interactive online edition of Elizabeth Twining's Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants (1868).
"Russian kids illustrate J.K. Rowling's new book." (via Russia Beyond)
From Dr. Johnson to Germaine Greer, Robert McCrum recommended his "top 10 Shakespearean books" for the Guardian.
Rediscover: Jean Valentine
Jean Valentine, "a former New York State Poet whose minimalist, dreamlike poetry was distinguished by crystalline imagery followed by an unexpected stab of emotion," died December 29 at age 86, the New York Times reported. Valentine, who published 14 poetry collections, received the 2004 National Book Award in poetry for Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003 and was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Break the Glass. At 30, Valentine "had never been published and was about to give up on poetry when she won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1964," the Times noted, adding that the untitled manuscript she had submitted as her application was published a few months later as Dream Barker and Other Poems.
Valentine served as the New York State Poet from 2008 to 2010. She also collaborated with the Russian poet Ilya Kaminsky to interpret into English the work of Marina Tsvetaeva. In her 80s, Valentine was awarded Yale's prestigious Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. The judging committee wrote: "Jean Valentine is fearless when moving into charged territory. Without compromising substance or sacrificing a reckoning with painful reality, inequity and loss, there is solace and spirituality, and she radiates responsibility as a voice of clarity and compassion." Her most recent collection is Shirt in Heaven (2015), published by Copper Canyon Press ($16).
The Writer's Life
Ilyasah Shabazz and Shani Mahiri King: Historical Truth
Ilyasah Shabazz, third daughter of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, is an educator, activist, motivational speaker and award-winning author of Betty Before X and X: A Novel (with Kekla Magoon). She is also an advocacy worker and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Shani Mahiri King is a law professor at the University of Florida, where he is director of the Center on Children and Families and an associate director of the Center on Race and Race Relations. He is a writer (Have I Ever Told You?) and scholar in the area of children's rights and family law.
Here, the two discuss education, historical truth and their recently published books, Shabazz's YA biography The Awakening of Malcolm X (written with Tiffany D. Jackson; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17.99) and King's middle grade Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter? (illus. by Bobby C. Martin Jr.; Tilbury House, $17.95).
Ilyasah Shabazz: Let's start on the topic of honoring and informing people about Black figures. We are both educators and college professors, and what we have in common is that we are controlling our own narratives to ensure that our stories are accurate and that young people are learning truths. We are providing information about those who have equally made significant sacrifices and contributions to our historical society so that all of our children, including BIPOC, have an opportunity to open a book and see a positive reflection of themselves and based on historical facts.
(Shala W. Graham Photography)
Shani Mahiri King: Yes, and it is also important that children have a positive sense of others. This is true in all of your work, like Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X (which I LOVE by the way!).
Shabazz: I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed it.
King: Also for me, this means, in part, fostering a positive view of one's race and talking about race with children in different ways. As we both know, there is a lot of science which suggests that children see race from a very, very young age. Even before they can speak. I think that one wonderfully accessible and concrete way to begin to discuss race with kids is through children's literature.
|Shani Mahiri King
(photo: Donielle Nardi)
Shabazz: Agreed--if George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Shakespeare and even Sigmund Freud are celebrated figures in our nation's textbooks, it is equally important that Geronimo Pratt, Gloria Richardson, Dr. King and Malcolm X are celebrated. Which is exactly what you do in your new book.
King: Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter? is a two-part book that was designed with this in mind. The first part is an inspirational narrative that is grounded in Black history. It embodies what one might say to their children--or want to say to their children--every single day. The second half reflects a deeper dive into Black history, by sketching the life trajectories of over 100 of the major historical figures mentioned in the first half--including your father, Malcolm X.
Shabazz: Did you know that he is quoted 537,000 times per hour in social media? In spite of an attempt to mischaracterize his integrity, Malcolm X has become one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century. Young people are turning to Malcolm X because they are discovering that he spoke truth, and truth is timeless. I wrote The Awakening of Malcolm X to provide an intimate look at Malcolm X's young adult years in prison. It's one that I hope will invite larger discussions on Black power, prison reform and civil rights.
King: I love that it's written for teens. Why did you decide to write for a younger audience?
Shabazz: We are educators and are both committed to educating young people as truthfully as we can. I am a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where I teach the course Perspectives on Justice in the Africana World. We understand that our young people are tomorrow's gatekeepers, and that they must understand the value of being critical thinkers--and as young leaders they have the capacity to recognize injustice not from the perspective of "Black" and "white" but from the perspective of "right" and "wrong."
King: Yes, exactly. My life also has really been dedicated to the next generation. I've spent much of my career as either a lawyer for kids or someone trying to promote large-scale institutional change for children, specifically from traditionally underserved populations. Who knows how these things work, but it could be because my mother was a social worker who grew up in the 1960s in the United States and always had giving back to the next generation in her ethos. My books always come from the same place: conversations with my kids. It's either conversations I have or conversations that I want to have with them.
Shabazz: And part of that empowerment also comes from demanding the truth of history. We are demanding a "just" educational curriculum. We are demanding "truth" about history and that these truths are reflected in our historical books.
I feel it's such a blessing to have the opportunity to write historical novels for this and future generations of young, bold leaders committed to building a fair and just world.
King: Why did you choose to have a co-author?
Shabazz: Two brains are always better than one. I feel absolutely humbled and honored to have brainstormed, worked with and learned from some of our nation's top and award-winning novelists: Kim McLarin, Kekla Magoon, Renée Watson and, in the case of The Awakening of Malcolm X, the extraordinary Tiffany D. Jackson.
How did you come to work with your artist?
King: I was already familiar with graphic designer Bobby C. Martin's amazing work. When I realized that we would be collaborating, I was excited. I knew he was the one to bring something powerful, unique and fun to the table. His work is reminiscent of cut paper, positioned in unique and dynamic ways. It is really a wonderful medium for this project--and an important topic that needs to be covered in a distinct, fun and creative way in order to appeal to kids.
Our collaboration was really the epitome of artistic freedom. I want to be clear, though, the design is 100% his brilliance and creativity. The collaboration was a seamless one and a lot of fun.
This has been such a fun and inspiring conversation!
Shabazz: You and I, Shani, agree that every child deserves an opportunity to know that they are worthy of self-love, worthy of a quality education and worthy to participate in mainstream society if they so desire--that they certainly can be both educated and inspired by BIPOC.
King: It is so important that we validate the place of all people in society, including Black people. This is true whether we have Black children or not, and whether or not teachers have Black children in their class.
It's so important for kids to be able to see themselves in the pages of books. It really helps kids become who they are.
by Robert Jones, Jr.
"They stepped on people's throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn't breathe." That's just one of the many lines from The Prophets, a novel set in the antebellum South, that will jolt readers awake to contemplate the horrendous legacies of the past.
This dazzling debut from Robert Jones, Jr., creator of the social justice community The Son of Baldwin, is as captivating as it is brutal. There are passages that will make readers cringe in horror, it's true, but one can do no less when looking back at the monstrous period of American slavery. There are also scenes of immense beauty that inspire awe for the strength of the human spirit.
At its heart, The Prophets is a story of love--romantic love--between two young, enslaved men, Samuel and Isaiah, and a society that would not allow them joy. "They thought we was something dirty, but it won't nothing like that at all," remarks one of the lovers. Each chapter is named after a book of the Bible and invites examination of those ancient religious stories through the perspective of American history.
The Prophets is a stark reminder of a horrific past, but also looks to the future with hope. Jones shapes the narrative with a deft and evocative lyricism and introduces characters that are multi-layered and pulsing with human vulnerability. That is sure to guarantee The Prophets a place among the literary greats. --Grace Rajendran, freelance reviewer and literary events producer
Discover: The Prophets is a lyrical and formidable revisiting of American slavery and the forbidden love between two young enslaved men.
A Crooked Tree
by Una Mannion
"The night we left Ellen on the road, we were driving north up 252 near where it meets 202 and then crosses the Pennsylvania Turnpike." Una Mannion's debut novel opens with this unsettling event, setting the stage for a coming-of-age story infused with a desperate tension and threat of vengeance that amplify its emotional wallops. A Crooked Tree is poignantly narrated by 12-year-old Ellen's older sister Libby, 15, full of normal teen angst while also struggling with her father's death, her mother's neglect and her oldest sibling Marie's impending departure for New York.
After being forced out of the family car by her angry mother, Ellen shows up bloodied and shell-shocked at the home where Libby is babysitting. She reports jumping from the car of a disturbing man with waist-length white hair and long fingernails, having asked him for a ride up Valley Forge Mountain. Fearful of being separated if authorities discover how they live, Libby tells only Marie. But three people knowing a secret is two too many, and soon the man they dub "Barbie Man" has reason to return for revenge.
As the plot swirls towards a showdown, Mannion deftly weaves the varied plot threads into a magnificent whole. Like the crooked tree near the fort built with her best friend, Libby's mettle is bent and tested by forces spinning out of control as she tries to keep her family safe. A tale of trust, friendship and valor set against a backdrop of wicked apprehension, Mannion's work is spectacularly accomplished. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: A family, already struggling, is further threatened when 12-year-old Ellen is picked up hitchhiking by a disturbing man while after a family argument, setting in motion destructive forces.
The Other Mother
by Matthew Dicks
Matthew Dicks (Twenty-One Truths About Love) captures the yearning and uncertainty of youth in this reflective coming-of-age story about a teenager who believes a stranger has replaced his mother.
Fourteen-year-old Michael Parsons is drowning in secrets, like his crush on pretty, popular next-door neighbor Sarah. But the biggest secret, hidden in a yellow envelope under his mattress, belonged to his father. Even if he wanted to show it to his mother, she's gone. An impossibly identical imposter with the "same curly brown hair with a little streak of gray on the side.... Same blotchy freckle on the back of her left hand" has taken her place. Only Michael notices the change, and he knows no one will believe him. This other mother's appearance is too convincing. He can only muddle on as though life were normal, even though normalcy died with his father three years ago. Since then, Michael can't stop filling up and exploding with anger despite his guidance counselor's help. As he and Sarah embark on a friendship he never expected, Michael discovers the power of empathy and the solace of trusting others. When Sarah doesn't believe his imposter theory, Michael knows he has to find out what happened to his real mother before she's gone forever.
Based on a real condition that causes the sufferer to believe a loved one is an imposter, The Other Mother celebrates the healing magic of friendship and reclaiming one's self. Told in Michael's wry, often anxious voice, this quietly triumphant feel-good novel addresses the burden of grief, the complications of family and the mysteries of first love. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: Beset with secrets and stress, a teen believes an identical duplicate has replaced his mother in Dicks's tender coming-of-age story.
Mystery & Thriller
Picnic in the Ruins
by Todd Robert Petersen
A murdered, self-taught archeologist dentist, a National Park ranger, a disillusioned German dermatologist, an assassin named Scissors, two hapless brothers (one "tall and thin and off-kilter," the other resembling a "burnt stump"), a Japanese video game designer, a Princeton doctoral candidate, a conspiracy theorist recluse, sister wives and numerous other intriguing characters converge near Bryce Canyon National Park in Picnic in the Ruins, Todd Robert Petersen's darkly comic, madcap thriller with overarching social themes.
When artifact collector Bruce Cluff is killed, several maps are stolen from his home. What the maps show and who wants them is the greater plot arc, supported by a series of underlying threads that add to the mystery and lunacy. Sophia Shepard is researching her thesis on the ethics of preserving ancient artifacts ("One person's artifact is another person's ancestor"). Tourist Reinhardt Kupfer, disillusioned with the U.S. and his tour group, departs on his own "quest." Paul Thrift, park ranger and Sophia's semi-romantic friend, takes her on an outing to one of the secret map locations where she learns things she doesn't want to know. Not long after, they find themselves in a shootout and on the run with Reinhardt.
Unsurprisingly, Petersen (Rift) teaches creative writing and screen studies at Southern Utah University. Picnic is wildly creative and easily envisioned. The cultural appropriation and preservation lessons are thick, but they come by an honest need to avoid being engulfed by the blackly humorous, action-packed adventure. This fun caper stands up to some needed mindfulness. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: Competing interests over Native American artifacts and National Park land result in murder, mayhem and all-around insanity in this action thriller set in Utah and Arizona.
People Like Her
by Ellery Lloyd
People Like Her, a domestic thriller by husband-and-wife writing team Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos (under the pseudonym Ellery Lloyd), is a devilishly smart look at the competitive world of Instagram influencing. Emmy Jackson might have left her career as a fashion editor behind when she had children, but motherhood gave her a new, expanding career as an Insta-mum. With an agent, a new assistant and a growing, rabid fanbase, Emmy's professional future looks bright, but her novelist husband, Dan, is tired of Emmy's success and desperate for a breakthrough of his own. A mysterious stalker begins to orbit closer to Emmy and Dan, and it isn't just the cracks in the foundation of their marriage that might ultimately bring down their house.
Even with a slew of domestic thrillers crowding bookshelves, People Like Her stands out with its impeccable character development, sinister twists and razor-sharp cultural commentary. The book splits into three perspectives--Emmy, Dan and their unnamed stalker--and balances precariously between the push and pull of three insatiable personalities. The menacing stalker is the most overt threat and keeps the novel's tension running high, but Emmy and Dan's ever-escalating attempts to win readers' sympathies ultimately steal the show. By introducing the stalker's perspective early on, the novel distracts its readers by inviting them to anticipate when this malevolent force will break onto the scene. Even with constant vigilance, or perhaps because of it, readers won't be able to see every twist coming. And the twists themselves are sure to induce nightmares. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor
Discover: A clever, caustic, fast-paced thriller, People Like Her provides a suspenseful and deeply critical look at popular culture and influencers.
Bryant & May: Oranges and Lemons
by Christopher Fowler
While many long-running series follow their detectives as they grow old, Arthur Bryant and John May have been complicated older men for as long as readers have known them, and that's far from the only unusual characteristic of Bryant in particular, whose methods border on the metaphysical. Oranges and Lemons, the 17th volume in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series by Christopher Fowler, has everything fans have come to expect. It's pure joy to suspend disbelief to follow the team of quirky characters through the intricate, gloriously improbable plot, set in a vivid modern-day London.
A politician is nearly killed by a falling pile of fruit crates, and in his usual style, Bryant brings in a professional magician to prove it was an attempt at murder. When another prominent Londoner is stabbed in broad daylight by an assailant who scatters five farthings at the scene, the race is on to stop a series of killings that seem to be connected by an old rhyme (the "oranges and lemons" of the title).
The 17th volume in a series is generally not the ideal starting point for new readers, but the characters are so clearly drawn and the plot so intriguing that it can stand on its own; the references to other cases and stories may be less an annoyance and more an inspiration to go back and read the earlier volumes. --Linda Lombardi, writer and editor
Discover: This latest volume in a series set in a vividly rendered modern-day London features two elderly detectives who lead a unit that handles unusual crimes.
Biography & Memoir
I Just Wanted to Save My Family: A Memoir
by Stéphan Pélissier , Cécile-Agnès Champart , trans. by Adriana Hunter
The title alone is a universally resounding cry for help: I Just Wanted to Save My Family. It also proves to be French legal expert and first-time author Stéphan Pélissier's best defense to challenge a guilty verdict that demands seven years of imprisonment.
Pélissier and his wife, Zena, a Syrian immigrant pursuing her Ph.D. in penal law, meet on a dating site in April 2011. After an initial (almost comical) misunderstanding about commitment and other women, the pair share an idyllic courtship, discussing marriage after only six months. The Syrian war prevents both families from being present at the couple's French wedding, and the violence continues to escalate in the ensuing years. France is the logical destination for the relocation of Zena's family, but they are inexplicably denied asylum. Relying on illegal migration networks becomes the only alternative for escape. Parents Saif and Wafaa, sister Mayada and brother Anas--with the last-minute addition of cousin Samer--abandon Syria in the summer of 2015, resolved to reach France. Their perilous odyssey is interrupted in Greece, where the potentially fatal threat of crossing into Italy is so great that Pélissier travels to Athens determined to secure a legal ferry crossing for his extended in-laws. His brave intentions land the entire group in Greek prison, with Pélissier charged by the Greek government with human trafficking, sparking a labyrinthine, four-year journey for justice.
Co-written with Cécile-Agnès Champart and translated by the prodigious and award-winning Adriana Hunter, Pélissier's earnest memoir provides testimony to resilience, justice and, most of all, the unbreakable bonds of familial love. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon
Discover: I Just Wanted to Save My Family becomes both a personal goal and legal defense in a Frenchman's odyssey--as absurd as it is harrowing--to help his Syrian wife's family reach safety.
Psychology & Self-Help
Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing
by Olga Mecking
With simple strategies based on expert advice and cultural observations, Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing by Olga Mecking encourages taking breaks.
Niksen--Dutch for nothing-ing--is what Mecking, a decade-long resident of the Netherlands, has pinpointed as key to the country's high happiness ranking. "With a generous social support system, short workweeks, and a lot of time off, this country is almost a niksen paradise," she explains. This allowance for downtime, she notes, provides ample benefits: increased clarity, creativity, productivity and effectiveness. Other countries could adopt this model if they overcame a critical obstacle: the compulsion to stay busy. "Busyness has now become the ultimate status symbol" because a person has visible value when they are seen working. Particularly for women, the expectation that they constantly plan or spend leisure time on self-care means doing nothing never happens. But by reevaluating goals and habits, resisting societal pressures to overperform and accepting help, individuals can introduce short yet meaningful periods for niksen.
Citing experts in psychology, happiness, boredom, stress and productivity, as well as providing appendix material with additional resources and an extensive bibliography, Mecking outlines why and how to take true breaks. She proposes niksen to augment one's lifestyle, chiding wellness trends that require intense time commitments or demand self-improvement. By differentiating niksen from mindfulness and rumination, she elucidates how uncommon restful moments have become. Yet she expresses hope that, beginning with the individual, society can follow these clear and effective steps to managing stress, living healthier and increasing happiness. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer
Discover: This calming wellness guide espouses the benefits of doing nothing.
Nature & Environment
Featherhood: A Memoir of Two Fathers and a Magpie
by Charlie Gilmour
In Featherhood, Charlie Gilmour's relationship with an unintentionally domesticated magpie becomes the lens through which he examines his relationships with his biological father and his stepfather--and his own impending role as a father himself.
Gilmour's biological father, Heathcote Williams, was an eccentric "squatter, writer, actor, alcoholic, poet, anarchist, magician, revolutionary, and Old Etonian." Add to that list serial abandoner of families, and one starts to get a sense of the stranger-than-fiction absentee father figure Gilmour spent his first 27 years chasing, and, he recalls with regret, imitating: "I carried on paying tribute to Heathcote: stealing and pyromania and pranks."
When Gilmour's fiancée rescues an injured magpie, that tribute continues in the most unlikely of ways: Heathcote once domesticated and lived with an injured jackdaw (also a member of the corvid family of birds), and now Gilmour finds himself the adopted father of a magpie, a bird that long overstays its convalescence and becomes a permanent, "chaotic, inquisitive, destructive" force in Gilmour's life.
The (unintentional, but not unwelcome) adoption of the bird parallels Heathcote's somewhat rapid decline into ill health, prompting Gilmour to consider the roles of both of his biological and stepfather in his life to date--and whether he is ready to claim the title of father as his own: What makes a father? What does it mean to care, and why does it matter? Gilmour writes with candor about his failings--as a son, as a spouse, as a potential father--and in so doing, proves the importance of vulnerability and honesty in parenthood in this moving memoir of three fathers (and a magpie). --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: This heartfelt and candid memoir views fatherhood through the lens of a young man's accidental domestication of a magpie.
Reference & Writing
Three Simple Lines: A Writer's Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku
by Natalie Goldberg
Each book Natalie Goldberg writes builds on the one before. Writing Down the Bones, her first, gave amateurs--those writing for the love of it--ample leeway to doodle, explore and dream on the page. In that book's chapter "A Sensation of Space," Goldberg cites haiku from Shiki, Issa, Buson and Basho. Those four send her on the title pilgrimage of Three Simple Lines.
While each of her books stands alone, Goldberg's fans will be astonished at how Three Simple Lines brings her body of work full circle--her Zen practice, her writing practice and the ways in which each enhances the other. It's a tribute to her teachers, her students and to Allen Ginsberg, who introduced her to these four Japanese haiku masters. Some chapters are only four pages long; all leave readers with big ideas to digest. "Basho, Buson, and Issa deepened haiku, and it was used as an expression of an awake experience, like a Zen koan and a Way of practice.... Shiki practiced haiku in new ways," she writes, "to express the poet's inner life simply and sincerely as an object of poetry."
In 2014, Goldberg (The True Secret of Writing) set out to find Buson's grave; she called her 2016 trip to Japan her "Basho trek." In between, she decided to "make a concerted effort to write haiku" with a local monthly haiku study group. She demonstrates the fluidity between teacher and student, the desire to share knowledge and the willingness to learn. She closes the book with six rules of haiku penned by one of her students, and sends readers on their way. --Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor
Discover: Natalie Goldberg entwines her lifelong Zen and writing practices through the deceptive simplicity of haiku.
Children's & Young Adult
Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood
by Gary Paulsen
In a memoir that reads like the fiction that has made him famous, Gary Paulsen leads his audience through the rugged terrain of his childhood, a period that profoundly inspired his Newbery Honor-winning classic wilderness and survival stories The Winter Room, Hatchet and Dogsong. In Gone to the Woods, the beloved author candidly lays bare the details of his tumultuous youth.
Paulsen detaches from his narrative, using a third-person perspective and referring to himself always as "the boy." This approach pulls the reader closer to young Paulsen as he stumbles through adolescence. With little guidance from his absent parents, he finds comfort in places of isolation, such as the woods or the basement of his apartment building. Paulsen exposes his early life with raw honesty and heartwarming humor, which allows readers to intimately experience the boy's mortification at getting stuck in a train toilet or celebrate alongside him in his triumph over savage geese.
Some of the most inspiring moments come in Paulsen's discovery of the library and the joy of reading. "Somehow, without thinking, the library became part of what he was, what he did. A safe place. Like the woods." It was here he met the woman who introduced him to the magic of books, inspired him to write and showed the 13-year-old "how to feed his brain." This awakening of Paulsen's love of story ignites hope in his dark world, offering readers a buoyancy that counters the heaviness of his struggles.
Gone to the Woods is labeled for middle grade children, but this literary treasure is written for book lovers of any age. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: Acclaimed children's author Gary Paulsen creates a spectacular memoir that will engage readers as intensely as his award-winning fiction.
Moose, Goose, and Mouse
by Mordicai Gerstein , illust. by Mordicai Gerstein , Jeff Mack
In Moose, Goose, and Mouse's back-of-book note, Jeff Mack says that his friend Mordicai Gerstein, who died in 2019, "wrote in just about every genre of children's literature." Actually, Gerstein's final work falls into a marvelous category all its own: animal-centered runaway-train stories powered by rhymes and loopiness.
One rainy day, the eponymous animals have had it with their cold, moldy, leaky old house. "I want a house that's sunny," says Mouse. "I want a house that's funny!" says Moose. "I want one with a bunny," says Goose. So they hop aboard a train and set off in search of a new home that fits the bill. When the rope tethering the engine to the caboose, which the friends are riding in, snaps, the car goes cannonballing, ultimately colliding with a tree and flipping over. The upshot? Moose, Goose and Mouse find themselves in the sun with a "loose caboose for a house" ("SUNNY, FUNNY") while a floppy-eared new friend ("BUNNY!") looks on.
When his health was declining, Gerstein (The Fisherman & the Whale) asked Mack (Ah Ha!) to collaborate on the book's art, and they forged a dynamic style that seems to have been spun from a toddler's funny bone. Each protagonist--all-legs-and-antlers green Moose, noodle-necked blue Goose and whirligig-tailed magenta Mouse--exerts a distinct visual pull. As Moose, Goose, and Mouse reaches its final destination, it carries the message that problems can be solved and that friendship--including Gerstein and Mack's--can lead somewhere beautiful. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author
Discover: Mordicai Gerstein's final picture book, centered on three animal housemates in search of a new home, is a giddy runaway-train story powered by rhymes and daffiness.
Into the Heartless Wood
by Joanna Ruth Meyer
Into the Heartless Wood is an intense and haunting fairy tale tinged with horror, romance and magic, and filled with beautiful imagery of nature and love.
The Gwydden's Wood is ruled by a witch who uses her eight tree-siren daughters as weapons, "commanding them to sing, to lure men and women into the wood and devour them." Seventeen-year-old Owen and his sister stumble to the precipice of this fate, but are saved by the Gwydden's youngest daughter, Seren. After his rescue, Owen--intrigued by the "monster" who defies her purpose of being--visits Seren in the forest every night. Their forbidden friendship blossoms into romance, and Seren's desire to "be more than the monster [her] mother created" grows. When secrets and an ancient curse drive Owen and Seren apart, they find themselves on opposite sides of a centuries-old feud and must find a way to break the curse to free themselves.
This fourth YA novel by Joanna Ruth Meyer (Echo North) is gorgeously written, deeply intense and emotionally fulfilling. Owen's and Seren's story is portrayed vividly through a series of moments of euphoria and heartbreak. Whether it's a scene of them dancing on a hilltop until dawn or a tree-siren-caused train derailment, Meyer uses poetic language and imagery to ratchet up the intensity. Meyer also uses a blend of prose (Owen) and verse (Seren) to parallel Seren's transformation. As Seren becomes more humanlike, her short lines and simple sentences become more complex. This all creates an atmospheric fairy tale that is bewitching and unforgettable. --Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader
Discover: This dark fairy tale weaves together magic, romance and nature with lyrical words and imagery.