All Reviews

Review by

Once upon a time, we didn’t have cell phones. Emergency Quarters, written by Carlos Matias and illustrated by Gracey Zhang, takes us back to those days, while coming with a perfectly worded note for those young enough to not remember technology-free days. Emergency Quarters follows Ernesto through his first week of going to and from school without his parents. Before he heads out to walk with his friends, his mother gives him a payphone quarter to tuck safely away. Full of independence and responsibility, but not completely immune to temptation, Ernesto may be a child of the ’90s, but the essence of his story is timeless.

Carlos Matias narrates skillfully, conveying the thoughts of a child with lines like “But I got emergencies.” Ernesto comes across as generally thoughtful, observant and sincere: a character you can’t help but like. He is even adorably funny, such as when he declares he’s “Feelin’ freshhhh!” Matias uses descriptions, alliteration and assonance to craft a story perfect for reading aloud: just the right length, with good variety between dialogue and narration, and natural flow and rhythm.

Gracey Zhang’s illustrations make Emergency Quarters feel retro in the best way. It’s a comfortable mix between Sesame Street, Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein that is instantly recognizable to those who grew up in that era. Wonderfully messy with imperfect lines and wonky angles, Zhang’s art is filled with more details than you could ever absorb. Every page is so alive and full of energy, I just wanted to visit Ernesto’s world. From Ernesto’s warm, happy house to the busy sidewalks, Zhang fills the neighborhood with kind and expressive faces that radiate safety and belonging.

While Emergency Quarters feels a bit like a tribute to the older generations who navigated their school route with a coin tucked into a pocket, its story will resonate with kids of all ages. Spending time with friends and sharing that little bit of independence. Hearing our parents’ reminders in our heads as we make decisions. And sometimes slipping up, knowing that even if the quarters aren’t plentiful, the love absolutely is.

From Ernesto’s warm, happy house to the busy sidewalks, the neighborhood of Emergency Quarters is alive and full of energy, and its story will resonate with kids of all ages.
Review by

With Bibsy Cross and the Bad Apple, award-winning author Liz Garton Scanlon launches a new chapter book series starring a lovable protagonist “with a whole lot to say.” Eight-year-old Bibsy loves school and learning (especially about science), and she has adored all of her teachers—that is, until third grade, when her teacher is stern Mrs. Stumper, who “doesn’t seem that keen on Bibsy either.”

Bibsy enjoys sharing ideas and stories with her class, but Mrs. Stumper thinks Bibsy’s interjections are often “a stone too far.” All too often, when Bibsy and her encouraging parents share their nightly “sweet-and-sour” good news and bad news at dinner, Bibsy’s sour is about her stressful relationship with her teacher. Fortunately, Bibsy is resilient. As her parents note, “If there is one true thing about Bibsy, it is that her sours almost always become sweet.”

So when the upcoming science fair gives Bibsy a chance to flex her creativity and enthusiasm for learning by conducting experiments and creating a poster with her best friend, Bibsy might just gain the courage to speak up for herself one more time—and encourage Mrs. Stumper to change her approach to discipline, not only toward Biby but also toward her other students.

Scanlon’s story, which is written in conversational free verse, combines an exuberant, endearing protagonist with an empowering, STEM-focused plot. Ho’s cheerful black-and-white illustrations are punctuated with bright spots of red that are as bold as Bibsy’s personality. Readers who fall in love with Bibsy are in luck: Knopf is simultaneously publishing a second novel in the series about Bibsy’s attempt to win the library’s bike-a-thon. Hopefully many more adventures will follow.

Within the conversational free verse of Bibsy Cross and the Bad Apple, Liz Garton Scanlon and Dung Ho combine an exuberant, endearing protagonist with an empowering, STEM-focused plot.

How do you like your horror? Perhaps you’re a fan of creeping dread, or gory goings-on are more your speed? The White Guy Dies First: 13 Scary Stories of Fear and Power, editor Terry J. Benton-Walker’s anthology featuring authors of color, explores a variety of tropes for readers who enjoy disturbing, thought-provoking fare.

Despite their varied approaches, settings and baddies, all the ominously entertaining stories in The White Guy Dies First have two things in common: They center people of color and, per the book’s title, the white guy indeed dies first. Also evident throughout is an appreciation for horror. As Benton-Walker—author of the bestselling Blood Debts and Alex Wise series—notes, “The genre has always been a medium to deliver terror that’s most often intertwined with a deeper message, which can be far more horrifying than any superficial scare.”

Chloe Gong’s blood-spattered slasher, “Docile Girls,” features Adelaide Hu, head of the prom committee that includes her ex Jake Stewart and his snide friends. Jake had relegated her to “an exotic smiling accessory,” but on the fateful night before the big dance, Adelaide is anything but docile. And in Mark Oshiro’s suspenseful home invasion story, “Wasps,” Nina Ortiz defends her Abuela Carmen’s Brooklyn house from a gentrifier who wants to take their home—despite not knowing just how dark things can get in the Ortiz family’s basement.

There’s body horror (Naseem Jamnia’s “Break Through Our Skin”) and occult magic (Lamar Giles’ “The Protégé”), too. And an angry, hilariously profane haunted house narrates Benton-Walker’s own contribution, “The Road to Hell,” in which a Florida manse that spent centuries wanting love from occupants who “abandoned me, deeming me unlovable, unworthy . . . haunted” pulls out all the terrifying stops in an effort to make its current residents stay put.

Readers won’t want to put down The White Guy Dies First until they turn the last spooky page of this creative and creepy collection in which expectations are subverted and underrepresented groups claim their power from ghouls and demons both real and supernatural.

 

Readers won’t want to put down The White Guy Dies First, a creative and creepy collection in which expectations are subverted and underrepresented groups claim their power from ghouls and demons both real and supernatural.
Review by

Who doesn’t love a friendly little ghost? Readers will fall in love with the delightful hero of Wolfgang in the Meadow, who yearns to be a master of causing fright, but whose happy place is basking in the wonders of a nearby meadow. When he’s not casting spells and “twirling in the air,” Wolfgang loves to hug trees, pick wildflowers and gaze at the sky. His goal is to follow his hero, The Mighty Hubert, as guardian of the Dark Castle. After 999.5 years of his reign, Hubert is about to pick his successor.

As Wolfgang studies the dark arts, he no longer has time to enjoy the splendors of the sunny meadow. Once he achieves his goal and holes up in the castle, he starts to flounder because something is missing. How can Wolfgang continue following this dream while not losing his essence as a nature-loving ghoul?

Author-illustrator Lenny Wen achieves eye-catching contrasts between the gentle meadow and fearsome manor with a combination of graphite and acrylic gouache. Children will delight in the spooky, darkly-tinted Dark Castle, which brims with lightning bolts, skulls and secret potions. The tone is perfect for young audiences, with well-balanced—“frightful,” but ultimately nonthreatening—scenes featuring pint-sized spirits. Nightmares are highly unlikely to ensue from all of this spooky cuteness. These eerie scenes stand out vividly against the bright colors of Wolfgang’s meadow, and together they provide a visual feast that helps readers understand the pleasures of both of Wolfgang’s passions, and how one feeds the other. Wolfgang himself—whose huggable shape resembles a puffy marshmallow—pops out amidst the lush green landscape, filled with wildflowers and woodland creatures.

With Wolfgang in the Meadow, Wen has created a fine story arc about making one’s own way in the world, defying stereotypes and the pleasures of leading a well-rounded life. It’s full of heart and humor, and Wolfgang’s dilemma will speak to readers of any age trying to navigate clashes between joy and ambition.

Wolfgang in the Meadow is full of heart and humor, and Wolfgang’s dilemma will speak to readers of any age trying to navigate clashes between joy and ambition.

We are inundated by media updates about global warming, from statistical warnings and satellite images to news and weather reports on the latest storms, fires and floods. These ever-present alerts often focus on what’s happening to the land, but what about threats to the unique ecosystems of our oceans?

This vast water world is the focus of marine biologist and author Helen Scales’ latest book, What the Wild Sea Can Be: The Future of the World’s Ocean. Organized into three sections covering the ocean’s history, vanishing species and habitats, and the ocean’s restoration and future, the book takes a global perspective while also highlighting how specific regions and their wildlife are affected by the changing climate. Statistics drive home the immediacy of the crisis: “Within just the past fifty years, as people have been overexploiting species, destroying habitats, and releasing pollutants, the total mass of vertebrate life in the ocean has halved.”

Scales explores key issues impacting marine life, from warming waters, to disease-causing bacteria and viruses, to plastics contamination, along with striking examples of how these trends play out. For example, whales have a particularly high risk of microplastics consumption due to the shrimp and krill they eat: During migration to the coast of California, blue whales consume more than 10 million of these plastic particles, which can accumulate in tissues and alter expressions of genes, per day. Ecosystem shifts cause invasive migrations that upset the ecological balance, such as that of lionfish; native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, they are now found along America’s east coast and in the Mediterranean. These invasive lionfish number five times their population in their native waters, and they threaten to consume other species to extinction.

But as the title suggests, the book is not all gloom and doom. In her introduction, Scales encourages readers to take part in “mental time travel” and “keep seeing the glory and feeling wonderment in the ocean.” By offering hopeful scenarios and advice for making “conscious decisions about the future of the earth’s biodiversity,” she provides the reader with a level of positivity not often heard amid the overwhelming climate news that can often make us feel helpless. “I hope this book will offer an antidote to the rising tide of eco-anxiety and fears for the future of the planet,” Scales writes. “Turn that fear into commitment and initiative.” What the Wide Sea Can Be provides a glimmer of light in a darkening world.

Helen Scales’ inspiring What the Wild Sea Can Be addresses climate-caused threats to our oceans, while providing a glimmer of light in a darkening world.
Review by

New York City’s East Side at the turn of the 20th century comes vibrantly alive in The Incorruptibles: A True Story of Kingpins, Crime Busters, and the Birth of the American Underworld. In the late 1800s, Eastern European Jews began fleeing Germany’s pogroms and Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the largest ghetto in history. The East Side became their American ghetto, soon in the grip of an underworld of gamblers, grifters and pimps, and an upper world of titans of manufacturing and politics. Then along came Abe Shoenfeld and his vice squad, the Incorruptibles.

Dan Slater (Love in the Time of Algorithms) stumbled upon Shoenfield’s “reams of reportage and intelligence about the Jewish underworld of pre-World-War-I New York.” Combined with reporting from newspapers of the day, as well court cases, sales receipts, government findings and memoirs of those involved, Slater provides rich context for the setting the Incorruptibles hoped to reform. In a city plagued by abominable labor conditions in factories, the political machine of Tammany Hall and corruption blocking the path to justice, Shoenfeld’s homegrown vice squad was determined, against all odds, to be incorruptible.

Slater recreates the notorious stars of this underworld—the likes of dapper Arnold Rothstein, ruthless Big Jack Zelig and comically clueless gangster Louie Rosenberg—and the women in their shadows, some of whom, like Louie’s widow, Lily Rosenberg, kept their own notes. He also weaves in the critical impact of fomenting antisemitism throughout the country. The vices plaguing the East Side were being attributed to Jewish immigrants at large, rather than the small cabal of wealthy schemers and corrupt politicians. Slater shows how this metastasizing hatred of Jews foreshadowed Nazi Germany.

While the need for reform was an easy message to sell to the public, actually prohibiting popular illegal activities like gambling and prostitution proved hard. Working with a scrupulous lawyer named Harry Newburger and detective Joseph Faurot, whose technical acumen, like bridging telephone wires to listen in to private conversations, revolutionized criminal investigations, the Incorruptibles prompted The World to print on the front page: “BIGGEST GAMBLERS QUIT; BROADWAY SECTION CLEAN.”

If this was the sole substance of Slater’s book, it would be a singularly worthy read. Yet it is so much more. The Incorruptibles is a compelling crime story, colorful history and an ominous warning about antisemitism.

Dan Slater’s vibrant The Incorruptibles chronicles the homegrown vice squad that took down New York City’s most notorious turn-of-the-century gangsters.
Review by

Drew Beckmeyer’s The First Week of School is a game changer, an exceptionally creative back-to-school book that practically turns the genre on its head. It’s full of droll humor that will appeal to readers young and old. As the title suggests, it chronicles a first week inside an elementary school classroom, offering a bird’s-eye view of a variety of perspectives. In a clever, understated nod to the way people tend to pigeonhole both themselves and others, the students are given simple monikers such as the Artist, the Inventor and the Sports Kings, “who usually spend all Recess arguing about teams and never get to actually playing.” But at one point, readers learn that “The Artist is actually the fastest runner in the grade.” Beckmeyer even shares the perspective of Pat, the class’s pet bearded dragon; as well as the teacher (“the teacher gets her eighth cup of coffee before lunch”).

The plot thickens on Tuesday, when an alien called Nobody is beamed down from a spaceship, although everyone at school simply assumes this is the new student who was supposed to arrive next week. All sorts of unexpected, imaginative interactions occur: Nobody and Pat have a slumber party; the Inventor finds mysterious machine parts under his desk; Nobody takes an interest in the shy Artist’s drawings and even mounts an exhibition.

The First Week of School is a sophisticated picture book that packs an amazing punch, brimming with atmosphere and personality—and a wide range of activities, including a STEM lab, gym, show and tell, and recess. It overflows with wry comments, such as an escalating exchange about reading levels during storytime that ends with one student announcing, “I actually memorized this whole book. I read at a twentieth-grade level.”

Beckmeyer’s art style carries a childlike feel, adding authenticity to his narrative voice. Rendered in crayon, his many aerial perspectives take the reader from outer space and zoom in on the sun setting over the ocean and hilly terrain surrounding the school, then on the schoolyard and parking lot, eventually beaming readers—as well as the visiting alien—right into the classroom. In addition to being chock-full of pure entertainment, the diverse perspectives offered in The First Week of School remind readers of all ages that there are many ways to approach a classroom and the many unique, surprising personalities inside.

The First Week of School is a sophisticated picture book that packs an amazing punch, brimming with atmosphere and personality
Review by

More than a fan letter to Judy Blume or a hit-by-hit summary of her career, The Genius of Judy: How Judy Blume Rewrote Childhood for All of Us defends a critically engaged thesis: Blume meant so much to so many because she took the ideas of second-wave feminism and recast them as compulsively readable narratives. Blume was, biographer Rachelle Bergstein writes, “the Second Wave’s secret weapon.”

By writing about everything from menstruation (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret) to masturbation (Deenie) to teens who have sex without regret (Forever), Blume took growing up seriously, and took the girls’ pleasure seriously, too. She came of age as a writer and woman during the height of the Second Wave and the sexual revolution. Bergstein traces the interlocking of the women’s movement with Blume’s oeuvre, putting her books in conversation with seminal feminist texts like Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Feminine Mystique. Blume’s biography fits right in: Bored and frustrated by her duties as a housewife and mother, writing gave Blume “the zap of something familiar from her girlhood: something electric and joyful. A distant, yet sacred, creative force welled up inside her.”

As a result of Bergstein’s biography, any fan of Judy Blume will gain fresh context on how her body of work amplified and reflected feminist thinking at the time. For instance, thinking about Wifey as Blume’s version of Erica Jong’s feminist classic The Fear of Flying prompted me to reread Wifey—and to enjoy it more. Bergstein excels at this kind of analysis. Her chatty, entertaining summaries of Blume’s books provide important context without getting lost in the weeds.

Blume gathers her laurels today not only for writing honestly about women’s and girls’ experiences, but also for her resistance to book banning. (According to Bergstein, Blume was the most banned author in the 1980s; her books have been fingered in the most recent bans as well.) Those concerned by the current wave of book banning will find Blume’s advocacy for authors and libraries both heartening and instructive. While readers might wish that Blume had participated in The Genius of Judy directly by offering an interview or access to private archives, Bergstein’s groundbreaking book is analytical, smart and accessible, ultimately demonstrating how Blume’s work has contributed to ongoing cultural shifts across multiple generations of women.

 

More than just a fan letter to Judy Blume, The Genius of Judy shows how the groundbreaking author’s work has impacted multiple generations of women.
Review by

Get ready to fall in love with Max, the irrepressible elementary school narrator of That Always Happens Sometimes. He’s full of energy and enthusiasm that constantly erupts like a volcano.

In Kiley Frank’s clever text, Max poses a series of questions that reveal his personality, such as “Have your electric pencil sharpener privileges ever been revoked because of an unfortunate incident with a crayon?”  On each spread, K-Fai Steele’s illustrations beautifully capture Max’s gusto and the path of debris—not to mention consequences—that follow. His parents and teachers try to rein him in with multiple checklists (items include “keep hands to myself”) and interventions (tennis balls on the legs of his chair to squelch his noisy movements).

Both Frank and Steele excel at conveying much with small, powerful flourishes. For instance, in the chaotic aftermath of Max’s parents trying to get him to school on time, Frank writes, “The car ride to school was very quiet,” while a full-page spread uses just a few strokes to show Max in the back seat clutching his backpack and his father gripping the steering wheel, fury flashing in his eyes and tight-lipped mouth.

Frank uses Max’s questions to reveal life at home and at school, and poses variations on his answers to move the story along in creative ways. Max repeatedly notes, “That always happens sometimes,” or “I always feel that way.”  One day, however, he says, “This has never happened before,” as he participates in an intriguing team-building exercise that produces surprising and affirming results for all.

Young and old readers alike will recognize themselves or someone they know in Max. That Always Happens Sometimes is a delightful book guaranteed to bring on both laughs and greater understanding of the many Maxs in the world.

That Always Happens Sometimes is a delightful book guaranteed to bring on both laughs and greater understanding of the many Maxs in the world.

In his introduction to The Art of Gothic Living: Dark Decor for the Modern Macabre, author Paul Gambino says that “Modern Gothic decor is the physical manifestation of the Goth ideology.” Just what that ideology is, however, is undoubtedly up for debate. That’s what makes Gambino’s selection of 15 different homes from three continents so intriguing: There’s extraordinary variety even in such a niche subculture. A former church in western Ohio features arched stained-glass windows and doors that open up to a cemetery directly across the road. A Tudor manor house from 1559 in Somerset, England, has a cabinet full of wax moulage heads that were previously on display in medical museums and illustrate various diseases and abnormalities. There’s even a 1,000-year-old castle in Rome that was the summer residence of two popes, Leo XII and Paul V. But this book is as much about the collections inside the homes as the homes themselves. One has shelves of antiquarian books about the occult and natural history, while another has an almost encyclopedic archive of spiritualist ephemera. Readers will also meet the curators and inhabitants of these homes. Adam and Laura, a pair of stage actors whose passion for Victorian decor was inspired by both opera and ’90s goth music, live in a third-floor walk-up apartment in New Jersey. They count among their treasures a shrunken human head from the 1930s, a sloth bear rug and a “mated pair” of taxidermied passenger pigeons. “We feel very comfortable surrounded by this decor,” Adam says. And readers will be delighted to explore such surroundings.

 

The devil is in the details in Paul Gambino’s survey of modern gothic decor, The Art of Gothic Living.
Review by

Alisa Alering’s debut, Smothermoss, is a novel of violence, trust and the landscape of Appalachia. The mountains and hollows, the moss, quartz, water and trees are all painted in their full aliveness.

In the 1980s, Sheila, Angie and their mother are trying to figure out how to survive. Working long shifts at the asylum, their mother is rarely present, and while the two sisters share a small room, their diverging curiosities, interests and ways of being make it hard for them to relate to and understand each other. Sheila goes to work, she worries, she feeds the rabbits. Angie explores, she knows the neighbors, and she draws mysterious creatures on her own deck of tarot cards which almost seem to self-animate.

The community shifts when two female hikers are murdered on the Appalachian Trail, and  worry arises that the murderer has yet to leave the area. The secrets of what happened hide in the landscape. As the novel progresses, the land takes over—the mountains crack and communicate, and the rocks and stones have stories to tell.

In many ways, Smothermoss resembles a Southern gothic fairy tale, with elements—like the invisible rope attached to Sheila’s neck—that require a certain suspension of disbelief, and the setting of the 1980s South, a challenging place to find one’s voice. Ultimately, the story carries you away, with brief chapters, crisp scenes and high stakes. Each scene builds in tension and a sense of wonder, surprising you with the direction these sisters’ future may take.

Alisa Alering paints the mountains, hollows, moss and quartz of the Appalachian landscape in all their full aliveness in Smothermoss, their gothic debut.
Review by

It’s clear from the jump of Jasmin Graham’s marvelous Sharks Don’t Sink: Adventures of a Rogue Shark Scientist why the author feels such a kinship with the titular fish. Sharks, who have survived five mass extinctions, are survivors. As Graham narrates her journey to becoming a marine biologist, from a childhood spent fishing with her Black family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; to founding Minorities in Shark Sciences, an organization that funds research opportunities for people of color; to becoming a “rogue” scientist, we see that Graham, too, is a survivor resistant to easy classification.

In conversational prose that makes marine biology both accessible and exciting to a layperson, Graham describes the slings and arrows of shark research as a Black woman who has an infectious curiosity in and reverence for the natural world and refuses to be pushed out of it by the white men who still dominate shark science. As some of these men devolve into a screaming match about affirmative action at a professional conference, Graham locks eyes with the only other person of color, thinking, “What on earth have we gotten ourselves into?” Five years later, Graham had enough. In 2022, after questioning if she should leave science entirely, Graham became a rogue scientist, without a permanent academic affiliation. Like her beloved sharks, she adapted.

Along with Graham’s abiding love of all things oceanic, the other most potent force in Sharks Don’t Sink is her persistent belief in community. Graham pays tribute to the many scientists who paved the way for her, from a professor who offered her master’s level work while she was still an undergraduate, to the field-defining work of Japanese American shark researcher Dr. Eugenie Clark. This careful tending by her community has allowed Graham to thrive as a “Black, proud, nervous, and nerdy” scientist who has become one of the most prominent voices in marine conservation.

The cartilaginous skeletons of sharks have made it nearly impossible to leave fossil records.  Likewise, the history and triumphs of too many Black women scientists have been lost. Graham’s story of charting her own course is both an important record and a delight. “You don’t need to change the world,” Graham writes, as she thinks back on the group of Black friends she made as a child at her mostly white magnet school. “You just need to change your small piece of the world.”

 

In Sharks Don’t Sink, marine biologist Jasmin Graham pushes for diversity in her field while also celebrating her deep, abiding love for the titular fish.

When I first saw Parachute: Subversive Design and Street Fashion, I didn’t think I was familiar with the Montreal-based brand, which was founded by American architect Harry Parnass and British designer Nicola Pelly in the late 1970s. But after spending only a few minutes with the book, I realized I was wrong. Parachute’s influence on New Wave style was so pervasive that it was almost impossible to miss. Think about exaggerated trench coats or kimono-style jumpsuits, and you’re likely thinking of Parachute-influenced designs. Though the brand’s heyday was the ’80s, the book itself feels very current, with text in both English and French and a dynamic layout that changes from section to section. Author Alexis Walker is associate curator of dress, fashion and textiles at the McCord Stewart Museum in Montreal, and she presents her subject as if in a comprehensive museum archive. It’s rare to see a brand as subversive as Parachute become so influential, and the book gracefully walks the line between commerce and art. In a chapter dedicated to Parachute’s enduring, collaborative relationship with the musician Peter Gabriel, Gabriel is quoted as saying “Parachute always seemed different—smarter and highly original.” This book is that, as well.

 

The dynamic, photo-heavy Parachute shows the titular brand’s influence on fashion and culture.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Reviews