Cat Acree

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Menopause is profoundly misunderstood and misrepresented, in part because the generations who’ve been through it aren’t, generally speaking, inclined to talk publicly about it. Only in the last decade or two have people so openly discussed infertility and miscarriages. Perhaps we can hope that once this younger generation enters perimenopause, it will no longer feel like such a mystifying hormonal event horizon. But so far, there have been few works of contemporary fiction about menopause, and even fewer that are as erotic and funny as All Fours, the first novel from artist, filmmaker and author Miranda July in nearly a decade.

July’s protagonist is an unnamed artist with intentionally clear ties to July’s own identity, and the plot is described simply enough: The artist plans to drive across the country from Los Angeles to New York City, leaving her husband and child for several weeks. Instead, she stops at a motel a mere 30 minutes from her home. Beginning with an expensive and exquisite redesign of her motel room, followed by a charged relationship with a guy who works at Hertz, she sets out on a no-holds-barred pursuit of desire, selfhood, sex and liberation.

A character arc is typically shaped by an incendiary realization, but July’s artist experiences such revelations on a weekly, if not daily, basis. She holds a misconception, she unlearns it, she reframes and continues on. This process—truly, the cyclical experience of having a curious brain—allows the artist’s mind to feel like your own. It also structures All Fours like a classic quest narrative, as new emotional and sexual adventures open up after each sequence of self-discovery.

The cover of All Fours is an image of a cliff by Albert Bierstadt, a 19th-century German American painter who’s known for his lush Western landscapes. Bierstadt’s cliff is shadowed and steep, and from the valley below bursts a golden light so intense that it washes out the trees, the clouds and anything that might be in the distance. For many women, menopause is that cliff: dangerous, distant and a bit unreal. July’s protagonist hurtles toward that cliff inelegantly and imperfectly but, as much as she possibly can, honestly—and that commitment to honesty at the expense of normalcy is what makes this book queer. The cost of the “unconventional” life she seeks is significant; look at the conversations that must be had, the choices that must be made to disrupt the status quo in favor of living truthfully. Her unmasking and remaking are incendiary, but also, look how hard she holds on to what she loves most: her family, her connections, her spark.

Because there is no end to her quest (that’d be death, the real cliff), there can be no victory, but All Fours is undeniably victorious.

There have been few works of contemporary fiction about menopause, and even fewer that are as erotic and funny as All Fours, the first novel from artist, filmmaker and author Miranda July in nearly a decade.
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It’s common practice among many publishers to leave translators’ bylines off book covers—an act of erasure that reinforces the widely held belief that original texts are sacred and thus superior to any translation. Jennifer Croft, who is best known for her translations of Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s books, is challenging readers and critics to rethink this flawed paradigm.

“Our contemporary notion of authority depends upon the existence—still—of a single trustworthy individual. In literature, this figure is the author, the inimitable person who chooses and disposes words,” Croft writes in “Superlichen,” an essay published in Orion Magazine in 2023. “In this mystical-commercial understanding of literature, translators are necessarily suspect. They adulterate the truth, making it impossible to trust. When translators are truly necessary, they’re ideally neither seen nor heard. That way we can tell ourselves that the Original has remained mostly unscathed on its journey into English.”

But books thrive in translation. They reach new readership, and in some cases, the quality of the original text can even improve. Croft, who won the International Booker Prize in 2018 for her translation of Tokarczuk’s Flights, urges readers to consider translation to be co-creation, a labor of interdependent individuals who are building a completely new work of art.

“The translator is the one who writes every single word of the book that you end up reading,” Croft says, speaking from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on a late December morning—the kind of gray day that’s well suited to a discussion about her puckish, unnerving debut novel. “The writer is obviously the person who’s behind everything, which in a way, of course, is true. But I feel like people aren’t fully grasping the essentially, fundamentally collaborative nature, that [a translated work] is a co-authored book. So I really wanted to show that playing out in an exaggerated, humorous way.”

“What is a faithful translation? What is your duty to a text and a person and a vision and also a readership?”

The Extinction of Irena Rey, which earned Croft a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2022, is the story of eight translators who are initially introduced not by name but by their languages of translation (English, Spanish, Serbian, etc.). It’s 2017, and they have convened at the idyllic home of (fictional) world-renowned Polish author Irena Rey. Her house resides at the edge of the Bialowieza Forest, a primeval wood spanning the border of Poland and Belarus. Over the course of the next several weeks, they will translate her presumed magnum opus, Grey Eminence.

Translators aren’t always in contact with an author while translating, but Irena prefers to be highly involved in the process. The translators are forbidden from translating other authors—except two Polish poets widely considered untranslatable—and they must follow Irena’s many house rules, which include no drinking, no eating meat and so on. It is full isolation, full adoration, full commitment to Irena’s genius. But suddenly, Irena vanishes, and the translators are left reeling.

Having lost their moral center, the translators move en masse from room to room, from forest to pub and back to Irena’s house, wondering if Irena’s dead and completely freaking out. It’s such an ominous, claustrophobic setup that the reader would be forgiven for not realizing at first just how funny it all is. There’s a lot of shrieking and kissing and running around with a frantic narrative pace that resembles an old episode of “Scooby-Doo.”

During the gang’s search for clues, they come across some postcards, which only serve to further confuse them. “Postcards are like translation,” Croft says. “There’s the inherent hybrid and potential for clashes between the one side that has the picture and the other side that has the message.” There’s also the potentially troubling political significance of the type of imagery that is selected to represent a place, which can be stereotypical or limiting, “and then it may end up forcing the place to become more like the postcard.”

Croft explains that when postcards were first introduced in the 1860s, they were a revolutionary innovation that allowed more people to send mail, which previously had been a luxury exclusive to the upper classes. “[But the elite] were horrified by the idea that the hired help would be able to read their words,” she says. “I love looking at old postcards, because sometimes you can sense there’s a code happening or a private reference that you just cannot possibly understand.”

The implications of obscured, divided or layered interpretations run rampant in Croft’s novel, which opens with a preface titled “Warning: A Note from the Translator.” We learn that the book is a work of autofiction by Spanish (whose real name is Emi), subsequently translated by English (real name Alexis). Alexis’ translator’s note is dismissive, even derisive, and her footnotes are deliciously scathing. As a translator, she’s doing the unthinkable: sharing her true feelings about the book and even illuminating choices made in the translation process. (For example, when Emi refers to her own “pubis,” Alexis adds the footnote, “Here I have preserved her ridiculous word.”) Their feud renders the story’s perspective so canted, so untrustworthy, that we have no idea which version of events to believe.

“What we do enriches the cultural ecosystem, the linguistic ecosystem. The original text doesn’t even really matter that much.”

Even without quarreling co-authors, autofiction as a genre is a thorny bramble between memoir and fiction, memory and embellishment. The genre is particularly popular with French- and Spanish-language readers. Croft’s first book, Homesick, is a work of autofiction that she wrote in Argentine Spanish while living in Argentina, and it was only sold to an English-language publisher under the condition that it be published as a memoir, presumably because American readers aren’t as comfortable with the gray areas between truth and fiction.

“[Homesick] was kind of inspired by my childhood but [is] definitely not a factual account,” Croft says. “I think that frustration of always talking about what is true and what is not probably fed into the writing of [Irena Rey]. I think also I may have rebelled and made it even more outlandish. Obviously I’ve never fought a duel in a forest.”

The duel is only one of the many ludicrous outcomes of the translators’ search for Irena. It’s also, importantly, between two women: Emi and Alexis. “I actually wrote my PhD dissertation about duels in 20th-century fiction. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t find a single example of a women’s duel, or even a duel between a man and a woman,” Croft says. “A classic dueling premise is to fight over an ethical question. In this case, English and Spanish are fighting—well, at least Spanish believes that they’re fighting over the nature of truth, essentially. What is a faithful translation? What is your duty to a text and a person and a vision and also a readership? How do you truthfully or faithfully convey a sacred message to the world?”

The duel occurs in the Bialowieza Forest, which serves as a classic source of menace and myth. Forests exist in fiction to haunt us, and this one feeds off a history of violence, with corpses from World War II providing nutrients for a fungal network that subsequently feeds the trees and understory, which then feed the deer that feed the Polish villagers, and so on. In fact, the original title for the novel was Amadou, the name of a fungus that parasitically infects trees, serving as an essential decomposer in the forest, and which can also be used as both tinder and fabric.

“Obviously I’m an advocate for translation, and I love translators,” Croft says. “But I also wanted to think about the potentially darker side of translation in a lot of different ways, which goes hand-in-hand with thinking about the power of the translator.” However translation alters the original, or even betrays it, “what we do [as translators] enriches the cultural ecosystem, the linguistic ecosystem. The original text doesn’t even really matter that much. What matters is this potentially really lovely afterlife that [a work] can have, and all of the echoes and reverberations that it can have throughout that ecosystem.”

The concept of a literary afterlife opens us to seeing books as living, changeable works of art, in which language can die and be reborn in translation. Certainly by the end of The Extinction of Irena Rey, the structures that uphold notions like artistic celebrity and all-powerful genius have rotted through and collapsed, and from the remains, something new grows.

Read our starred review of The Extinction of Irena Rey.

Jennifer Croft author photo © Nathan Jeffers.

With her mischievous debut novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey, Jennifer Croft draws readers deep into a gnarled forest in which eight translators search desperately for their beloved, vanished author.
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Far too often, translators’ bylines go missing on book covers and in reviews. The author is seen as the one true artist, whose translators exist in service to them. Jennifer Croft, the International Booker Prize-winning translator of Polish author Olga Tokarczuk (and many other authors), has become a leading advocate for changing this perception, encouraging readers to view translated books as acts of co-creation rather than pale shadows of their original text. In her satirical debut novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey, Croft serves up all the controversial, inherently political questions posed by translation, and warps them into a ghoulishly funny tale.

As the book begins, the eight translators of world-renowned Polish author Irena Rey have arrived at the author’s home at the edge of the Bialowieza Forest, a primeval, endangered wood that sprawls across the border of Poland and Belarus. All the translators are initially referred to by their languages of translation (English, Slovenian, Serbian, Swedish, etc.), and the narrator of these events is Spanish, who insists that the translators are wholly devoted to the author and her original text. “Irena’s works were eternal,” Spanish says, “but our translations were no more enduring than socks.” As they prepare to translate Irena’s new novel, Grey Eminence, they cocoon themselves in her world, fully isolated and committed to her unusual rules. But Irena’s behavior is bizarre. She’s reluctant to give them the manuscript, and after a couple of days, she vanishes. The translators are left scrambling to figure out where she went, and over the course of “seven toxic, harrowing, oddly arousing, extremely fruitful weeks,” they race from one clue to the next, terrified and paranoid, getting more and more lost in the proverbial woods.

Croft’s novel employs a beguiling structure that serves to undermine any sense of truth we might try to reap from Spanish’s version of events. Spanish’s book is not a memoir but a work of autofiction, and it has been translated by English, who has illuminated the book with a vicious preface and copious footnotes, often mocking Spanish and offering a peep show of (some of) the changes made in translation. The reader is left to wonder which writer, if any, can be trusted.

Through this trippy mix of high concept and high tension, Croft takes a real chunk out of the convention of deifying the author as an all-powerful genius to whom translators must be beholden. Reading The Extinction of Irena Rey is like encountering a mischievous forest spirit, full of riddles and gloriously disorienting, then somehow getting back out of the woods alive.

Read our interview with Jennifer Croft on The Extinction of Irena Rey.

In her satirical debut novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey, Jennifer Croft serves up all the controversial, inherently political questions posed by translation and warps them into a ghoulishly funny tale.
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Cyrus Shams is, in his own words, “another death-obsessed Iranian man,” fixated on death—but more than that, on martyrdom. He needs his death to matter, for the act of his dying to have a purpose.

Cyrus’ family inheritance is one of pointless death. His mother died when her plane was shot down by American forces over the Persian Gulf; she was traveling to visit her brother, a man decimated by his experiences fighting in the Iran-Iraq War. Cyrus’ father died soon after Cyrus left for college. Uneasily sober after years of chasing addiction, Cyrus decides to write a book on martyrs. To help himself get started, he seeks out an artist in New York City, an older Iranian woman named Orkideh, who, in a Marina Abramovic-style performance, has made herself publicly accessible while she dies of cancer by spending the end of her life in the Brooklyn Museum.

Over several days, Cyrus and Orkideh speak on death, art, nation, victimhood, gratitude and family. In between scenes of their easy connection, we read poems from Cyrus’ book and witness flashbacks to Cyrus’ mother’s, father’s and uncle’s stories. There are also chapters recounting supernatural conversations from Cyrus’ dreams, between his mother and Lisa Simpson, Orkideh and the American president of 2017, his father and the poet Rumi, and an imaginary brother and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Martyr! has a certain loudness, between the echo of a weighted Iranian history, the roar of Cyrus’ broken family legacy and his intense internal warfare. Even the book’s title can be taken as a shout, its exclamation point signifying an accusation or revelation. That which quiets the noise is simple enough, delivered in sublime prose from Iranian American poet and debut novelist Kaveh Akbar: “Love was a room that appeared when you stepped into it,” he writes late in the novel. Akbar has previously published two collections of poetry (Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Pilgrim Bell), and his writing makes just enough time for beauty while never languishing.

Throughout Martyr!, language is a saving grace, if imperfectly so. “I get frustrated this way so often,” Cyrus’ mother says in a flashback. “A photograph can say ‘This is what it was.’ Language can only say ‘This is what it was like.'” Similarly, although a novel cannot capture what life is, its truths and inventions can powerfully gesture toward what life is like: full of both pain and pleasure, with death inevitable, and love a choice.

Kaveh Akbar’s writing makes just enough time for beauty while never languishing: “Love was a room that appeared when you stepped into it,” he writes in Martyr!, his debut novel.
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It was Hernán Cortés who made the ludicrous claim that Moctezuma voluntarily surrendered sovereignty of the Aztec empire to the Spanish conquistadores. Cortés’ narrative is not easily believed, especially considering that he quotes Moctezuma as referencing the Christian Bible, but certainly there are those who believe that the Aztec people, either out of naiveté or superstition, could have been duped into a bad bargain.

Mexican writer Alvaro Enrigue’s agile modernist novel You Dreamed of Empires offers a reimagined encounter between Cortés and Moctezuma, with far more political machination at work than superstition. It all kicks off with the Spaniard trying to hug the Aztec emperor on first greeting—a bad move considering Moctezuma’s impulsivity and comfort with executions. Although the moment somehow doesn’t end in blood, readers know that the ultimate outcome will undoubtedly be disaster.

Over the course of one day in November 1519, conquistadores bumble around the labyrinthine city of Mehxicoh-Tenoxtitlan. Their horses, lost in Moctezuma’s palace, are a novelty to their hosts but unfortunately decimate the emperor’s collection of exotic fruits. Meanwhile, Moctezuma languishes in his room, treating his depression with hallucinogenic mushrooms and cacti, while his sister (and wife) Atotoxtli tries to figure out how to save the kingdom. “If there’s anything Spaniards and Mexicans have always agreed upon,” Enrigue writes, “it’s that nobody is less qualified to govern than the government itself.”

Readers of Enrigue’s 2016 novel Sudden Death have already encountered his way of dealing with lopsided accounts of Latin American history. In both books, there are translator characters deliberately mistranslating, effortless comparisons to the Roman empire, plenty of feathered capes and a porous fourth wall. On several occasions, Enrigue yanks us out of the story to look at events from our 21st-century vantage point, such as when Moctezuma is admiring the sound of withered fingers swaying in the breeze “to the beat of some music he couldn’t place,” and we learn that it’s the 1973 song “Monolith” by T. Rex. And as beautifully written as the novel is, especially in its descriptions of the metropolis of Tenoxtitlan, You Dreamed of Empires is also bone-dry funny: “In Mexico, authority has always flowed from the smack of a flip-flop.”

When history is retold in such an irreverent, unprecious manner, there are no winners—except the reader.

You Dreamed of Empires offers a reimagined encounter between Cortés and Moctezuma. When history is retold in such an irreverent, unprecious manner, there are no winners—except the reader.
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After decades of being a largely underserved area of scientific study, fungi are finally having their moment. The phenomenon feels not unlike the overnight appearance of a mushroom; all it took were the right conditions for the right fruiting body. The conditions: a reading public amid COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020, aching for connection. The fruiting body: British biologist Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life, who showed us just how interconnected we really are.

Gently, affectionately and in the loveliest prose, Sheldrake invited us to discover the unfathomable fungal networks that run throughout our soil, binding and building our whole world. Illuminated with sweet illustrations drawn by Collin Elder in ink from an ink cap mushroom, Entangled Life felt like a classic naturalist’s journal. Except for these drawings and a slim centerfold of photographs, readers were left to imagine the worlds that Sheldrake described. With Entangled Life: The Illustrated Edition, the bestselling, award-winning book transforms into a visual spectacle that contains 100-odd full-color otherworldly images of mushrooms, lichens, mycelium and more.

Mushrooms poke up in jaunty angles like whimsical umbrellas, some neon-bright and avant-garde, others gooey and grotesque. Delicate mycelial networks appear like white lace stretched across great caverns of rotting wood. Globular spores shine like blown glass. There are more intense colors and complex structures than can possibly be described, even in Sheldrake’s gorgeous language, which has been significantly abridged by the author for this edition. The section on psilocybin is particularly well illustrated, featuring photographs of Maria Sabina, the Mazatec curandera who led sacred mushroom ceremonies in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, in the early 1900s.

Many images are on an almost incomprehensibly small scale, with electron microscopy revealing fungi living inside a root or dust seeds binding with mycorrhizal fungus. The simultaneous grandness and tininess of mycology overwhelms; by the end of the book, microscopy of spores starts to resemble mushrooms on a rotting log, the scales bleeding together in a riot of colors and textures.

The message of Entangled Life is to be open to new ways of thinking—to be a little less focused on orienting ourselves, and more willing to see the world anew. This is the gift that Sheldrake continues to give us: He reveals fungal life as both more familiar and more abstract than we imagine, and encourages us into the space between the known and the as-yet unknown.

Read our interview with Merlin Sheldrake.

British biologist Merlin Sheldrake shows us just how interconnected we really are with these otherworldly images of mushrooms, lichens, mycelium and more.
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Your first book, Entangled Life, became such a success upon its publication in the spring of 2020. It was both a product of and a contributor to a new global phenomenon: our fascination with fungi. You’ve said that the book’s reception came as a surprise, but here you are now, transforming it into an illustrated gift edition, filled with stunning macrophotography of lichen and mushrooms, and microphotography of spores and nematodes. What does it mean to you, to present your book in this new format?

So much of fungal life takes place out of the reach of our unaided senses that it can be hard to find a way into their worlds; we need all the help we can get and sometimes words can only get us so far. To come closer to fungi we have to look at them. Indeed, much of our modern scientific understanding of fungi—and life in general—has been transformed by microscopes that enhance our ability to see, rendering the invisible visible. My own understanding of fungi, like those of many of my colleagues, has similarly been transformed by the many hours I’ve spent looking at fungi, often gazing down a microscope. The illustrated edition of Entangled Life is a way to invite readers into some of these astonishing visual worlds and celebrate the remarkable artist-researchers who have painstakingly captured these images. I think it is a beautiful book to hold and explore.

How did you go about abridging the text? Did the imagery guide you in any way, or was it the other way around?

It was a challenge! When writing, I often found myself imagining the book’s themes and stories as cords that I could splice, braid and weave. I soon realized that abridging the text meant more than just cutting words and sections; I had to make sure that I had suitably re-woven the threads. Sometimes I was guided by the imagery, and sometimes I had to let the text tell me how it wanted to flow. I had anticipated that this would be a frustrating process, but in fact it turned out to be satisfying, and I’m happy with the outcome.

Speaking of this new widespread appreciation for fungi, what do you think it’s all about? We can certainly look back to Michael Pollan’s 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind, and the 2019 film Fantastic Fungi, and we can make assumptions about how 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic led people toward yeasty hobbies like brewing and baking, and toward greater desire for mycelium-like closeness. Or perhaps it’s been driven by a desperate hope that fungus will save the world by eating all our plastics and all our problems. What do you believe has most captured our attention about fungi, and why now?

I think there are a few reasons. The first is quite simple: We know more about fungi than we used to thanks to the development of technologies—like DNA sequencing—and decades of brilliant work by mycologists all over the world. The more we have learned, the more we have been able to appreciate the vital roles that fungi play in Earth’s systems.

“These are remarkable depictions of symbiosis in action: You can see the fungi clasping the algal cells. It’s so intimate.”

Second, as environmental emergencies have worsened, a growing awareness of the interconnectivity of all life forms has permeated public consciousness. This has coincided with the rise of network science and network models, now used to make sense of everything from human social lives to biochemistry. Fungi are interconnected organisms—most live their lives as networks and form literal connections between organisms—and so make powerful poster organisms for both ecological and network thinking.

Third, I think the growing interest in psychedelics has also played a part. Much of the recent wave of research into psychedelics has taken place with psilocybin, found in “magic” mushrooms, and I think the astonishing and puzzling effects of this compound have helped awaken curiosity to fungi more generally.

Fourth, as you suggest, people have been captivated by the many ways we might partner with fungi to help us to adapt to life on a damaged planet. Ongoing environmental devastation has brought about renewed interest in the fungal world, and radical mycological possibilities abound, from fungal medicines to fungal foods, to new building materials and more.

So much of your discussion of fungi is about relationships and challenging the definition of the individual–which is another reason we might assume your book has reached so many readers. (Imagine if human social media could provide the level of connection of the mycorrhizal “wood wide web”!) Yet this illustrated edition features fungi portraiture, with close-ups of individual fruiting bodies in their best light. I wonder, when looking at these photographs, do you see an individual?

No, I don’t. Mushrooms are loosely analogous to a plant’s fruit. When I see an apple, I see a representative of an apple tree with tangling branches growing upwards, and tangling roots growing into the soil. Likewise, when I see a mushroom, I see a representative of a sprawling fungal network, itself potentially linked up to one or more plants. We are only ever looking at part of the picture.

Some of the book’s images feel more abstract to the untrained eye. If you know what you’re looking at, an image may inform and illuminate; to the layperson, the same imagery can confound. Which images have been most illuminating to you, and which have been most challenging?

One of the things I was trying to do in this book was to play with scale, moving from images of comparatively large subjects like mushrooms and humans to microscopic subjects like spores and mycelial networks. I’ve found an interesting effect arises when one shuttles between scales: The familiar can become unfamiliar, as if we’re looking at something for the first time. A familiar looking mushroom might suddenly look strange, and a microscope image of a mycelial network might feel like a vast landscape or a dense forest in which one could get lost. In this way I’ve found that many of the images that are most bewildering are also the most beautiful.

As we learn in the section on lichens, the creation of the word symbiosis completely transformed the field of ecology as well as our overall understanding of the way the world works. It was a shift away from the hypercompetitive notion of “red in tooth and claw” evolution, instead acknowledging the complexities of relationships in the natural world. Have any of the images in this book dramatically shaken up your field the way this word did? 

So many of these images represent key concepts and perspectives, but some of my favorites are the images of lichens captured and created by Toby Spribille and Arseniy Belosokhov. These are remarkable depictions of symbiosis in action: You can see the fungi clasping the algal cells. It’s so intimate. I’ve never seen such good images of lichens.

In the opposite case to symbiosis, sometimes words fall short, like when using the word brain to describe the signals sent through a mycelial network. There are also pitfalls in relying too heavily on metaphors, as symbols don’t always translate from one person to the next. And sometimes, the answer to a question is still just “we don’t know,” such as the question of what psilocybin teaches us about the human mind. How do you reconcile the unknown with your scientific pursuit to know?

Much of the practice of the sciences involves choosing how to relate to the unknown. Fungi make questions of our categories, and thinking about them makes the world look different. It was my growing delight in their power to do so that led me to write this book in the first place. I have tried to find ways to enjoy the ambiguities and mysteries that fungi present, but it’s not always easy to be comfortable in the space created by open questions. Then again, when you answer a question, it ceases to be a question. I’ve learned to enjoy the exhilaration of unanswered questions and the way that they pull one forward into deeper inquiry.

“There are so many ways to be a fungus, just as there are so many ways to be an animal. . . . A great white shark might be scary. But the fact that the shark is scary wouldn’t necessarily make you scared of all other animals.”

Two of your own images are included in the book. What brings you the most joy or pride about them?

I love the way that they depict the remarkable intimacy of the physical relationship between plant and fungus. Of course, the images have additional layers of meaning for me: They are representations not only of the fungi living in the roots of a plant, but of the rest of the plant and its web of relationships within a tropical forest in which I spent a lot of time.

Although this illustrated edition has so many incredible images, it’s impossible to rely wholly on vision when it comes to fungi. Our eyes and cameras can only perceive so much. I wonder if this required imagination is why, even in a mushroom-loving cultural moment, some people still fear fungus and its unknowns. What would you say to those whose imagination turns to fear?

Fear of fungi runs deep in some cultures, whether because of poisonous mushrooms, the threat of fungal pathogens or the fact that so many fungi are decomposers and therefore associated with death and decay. In reality, fungi are a kingdom of life, as broad and busy a category as animals or plants. There are so many ways to be a fungus, just as there are so many ways to be an animal. A particular fungal pathogen might be scary, just as a great white shark might be scary. But the fact that the shark is scary wouldn’t necessarily make you scared of all other animals. Faced with fear about fungi, I would turn my mind to their many essential life-giving properties and the many ways human existence is unimaginable without them. No plants could exist without fungi, for example, nor would bread, alcohol, soy sauce or any number of lifesaving fungal medicines.

What is your advice for all amateurs crouching over a patch of forest, hoping for their own encounter with a mushroom or lichen?

One of the most important things is to sit and let one’s eyes adjust. It often takes a while for fungi to jump out at you. Sitting quietly, with a softer focus, can be a helpful way to tune in.

The only way your readership hasn’t been able to experience your book’s content is by taste and smell, so I must ask, is a fermentation guide in your future?

Not currently, although my brother Cosmo and I have recently released a line of live, fermented hot sauce!

Read our review of Entangled Life: The Illustrated Edition.

Merlin Sheldrake has transformed his bestseller, Entangled Life, into a photography book with an abridged text. The psychedelic and disorienting imagery it contains stars mushrooms and lichens, spores and gills, a glorious unseen world now in Technicolor.
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In his sublime 2021 novel, When We Cease to Understand the World, Chilean author Benjamin Labatut depicted the breakthroughs of real scientists and mathematicians as divine revelations and Greek tragedies. If When We Cease to Understand the World felt like the searing flash of a hydrogen bomb, The MANIAC is more of a measured descent into years of research and invention, with little sense of what’s to come beyond a pervasive, unnameable dread.

The novel is divided into three sections, the first of which is most similar to Labatut’s earlier work. “Paul, or The Discovery of the Irrational” tells the heartbreaking story of Jewish Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest’s succumbing to hopelessness amid the rise of Nazism, and his subsequent murder-suicide of himself and his son. The scene leading up to Ehrenfest’s final acts describes him moving like an automaton, a desperate machine that can do nothing but forfeit the game.

The second section is composed of a chorus of embittered, fearful and resigned voices, each sharing their impressions and memories of Hungarian genius Jancsi (Johnny) von Neumann, the inventor of game theory and a toxic proto-tech bro obsessed with finding “a mathematical basis for reality.” The final section recounts a contemporary John Henry-style battle against the machine, as Lee Sedol, a South Korean master of the game Go, faces down the artificial intelligence program AlphaGo. There is no dialogue in the novel, only quotations, and much of the narrative is told in summary—even the Go tournament is more analytical than propulsive.

Although The MANIAC is a sort of biographical fiction, its subject, artificial intelligence, is neither human nor much beyond its infancy. Labatut uses the language of parenting, birth, gods and creators, but this is no Frankenstein, and there’s no way to know what this baby will become. Von Neumann suggests that it could be our own new god, and indeed, as the lines of logic, gameplay and consciousness blur at the novel’s end, Sedol’s finale is nearly reverent.

For readers who come with curiosity and skepticism—the very mindset that has brought about our most disruptive evolutions in tech—Labatut’s book will provoke and inform, leaving us no more sure-footed in our nascent age of AI but certainly more aware.

If Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World felt like the searing flash of a hydrogen bomb, The MANIAC is more of a measured descent, permeated by a pervasive, unnameable dread.

We All Want Impossible Things is ostensibly a novel about death—but it pulses with life.

Ash is a food writer who is separated from her husband, Honey. Their relationship is basically over, but they’ve been too lazy and cheap to file for divorce. Even so, Honey often visits, offering food and emotional support in equal measure. Their eldest daughter is away at MIT and mostly communicates via emoji-laden text messages. Their younger daughter often skips school to watch HGTV and has, on more than one occasion, caught Ash in the midst of a romantic encounter. 

Ash is surrounded by people; they wend their way through her world much like the cats that circle her feet. And Ash needs all of them, because her best friend, Edi, is dying. 

Edi and Ash have been in each other’s lives since nursery school. They love each other well, quickly forgiving sanctimonious moments but just as easily calling each other on their bull. For three years, Edi has had ovarian cancer, and now her doctors are predicting that she will die in a week or two. Every hospice in New York City has a waitlist, so Ash recommends an option near her home in western Massachusetts, and Edi’s husband reluctantly agrees.

But death doesn’t come quickly. Instead, We All Want Impossible Things is full of moments both mundane and painful, hilarious and heartbreaking, as Ash waits for life after Edi. The complications of love, parenting and saying goodbye all mingle together in rich detail as Ash, who is nonreligious, seeks some sort of divine kindness in the face of death.

Catherine Newman, who has previously authored two memoirs and several books for children, drew from her experience of caring for her dying best friend (which she wrote about in the essay “Mothering My Dying Friend,” published in the New York Times in 2015) to craft her first novel for adult readers, and she fills it with heart-rending, lovely moments.

We All Want Impossible Things is full of moments both mundane and painful, hilarious and heartbreaking.
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Christian mystics are a point of obsession for the hero of Tess Gunty’s debut novel. “They were spectacularly unusual,” Blandine gushes early in The Rabbit Hutch. They loved suffering, she says. “Mad for it.”

She’s especially interested in Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, polymath, composer and doctor who constantly played up her femininity to make herself less of a threat to male members of the clergy. As the novel opens, we learn that Blandine, inspired by her 12th-century hero, will “exit her body.” 

But before readers fall in step with Blandine’s miraculous, possibly ominous ascension, Gunty first draws us into the years leading up to this event, and into the world of the Rabbit Hutch (officially called La Lapinière Affordable Housing Complex), an apartment building in Vacca Vale, Indiana.

A Midwestern crossroads that’s limping along after the collapse of the Zorn Automobiles empire, Vacca Vale is a fictional stand-in for South Bend. In a matter of decades, Midwestern gloom has slipped into doom, and like many small towns, Vacca Vale (which is Latin for “goodbye, cow!”) has been earmarked for a heavily marketed “revitalization plan,” which everyone knows translates to “demolishing your town’s one great thing and replacing it with luxury condos.”

Blandine is our guiding light as we navigate this darkening mood. A former foster kid who’s now living in the Rabbit Hutch with three roommates, Blandine is a daring, defiant young woman who’s searching for divinity with scorching ferocity. Despite her persistence, she has not gone unscathed: She dropped out of high school after a complicated, crushing relationship with her charismatic theater teacher, and Gunty’s navigation of this trauma is one of the novel’s quietest strengths. Blandine’s experience is nothing less than a catastrophe hemmed in on all sides by the forces of normalization. After all, as she points out, a 17-year-old girl is considered to be within the age of consent by the state of Indiana.

Blandine is the core of The Rabbit Hutch, but if she were a cathedral, her two flying buttresses would be Joan and Moses. Joan, a lonely older woman who also lives in the Rabbit Hutch, is employed by an obituary website. Her job is to delete comments that disparage the dead, so she must remove a response from Moses on his mother’s obituary. (“THIS WHOLE #OBITUARY IS A BOLD-FACED LIE,” his comment begins.) To punish Joan for this act of censorship, Moses flies to Vacca Vale to exact his special form of retribution: He will cover himself from head to toe in the goo found in glow sticks, break into Joan’s apartment and dance around in the dark to frighten her. 

Alongside these three characters, we hear from a bunch of additional folks, and as Gunty introduces each new voice, she makes storytelling seem like the most fun a person can have. She draws us along with rapturous glee while layering her symbolism so thick that the story should, by all rights, drown in it. But The Rabbit Hutch never loses focus thanks to Blandine, who has a kind of literary superpower: She’s aware of her place in the story, points out Gunty’s metaphors, arches a brow at the symbols and has something to say about all of it. This isn’t to suggest that the novel’s fourth wall is broken, but it does feel wafer-thin, just as the veil between the divine and the corporeal seem as gauzy as a worn T-shirt.

“We’re all just sleepwalking,” Blandine says to Joan. “I want to wake up. That’s my dream: to wake up.” As she moves toward wakefulness, Blandine becomes no less than a bona fide contemporary mystic, cultivating her own sense of belief and solidifying her existence as vital enough to subsist. Redemption is possible, and Gunty’s novel consecrates this noble search.

Despite its doomed Midwestern setting, Tess Gunty’s debut novel makes storytelling seem like the most fun a person can have.
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It’s rare for a novelist to read their own audiobook. Most authors who step up to the mic are recording nonfiction, with fiction audiobooks typically being performed by a voice actor or full cast. But Booker Prize finalist Mohsin Hamid possesses transportive powers as an audiobook narrator, and with new recordings of his first two novels, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (4.5 hours), he has now narrated all five of his books.

Told in a first-person monologue by a Pakistani man named Changez to an unnamed American at a cafe in Lahore not long after 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist makes for an especially powerful listening experience as, over the course of one evening, a sense of dread builds and demands a reckoning. For his first ever interview on his work as a narrator, Hamid took a video call at his home in Pakistan to discuss this “one-man play.”

When writing The Reluctant Fundamentalist, how much did you think about what it would be like to step into the role of author-narrator-character?
I sort of wrote all of my books as audiobooks. I didn’t realize this until years later, but I really do think of literature or fiction as something we absorb through our aural circuitry more than our visual circuitry. Many of us read books with our eyes—some people read with their fingers or with their ears, as with audiobooks—but so many of us grew up reading with our eyes, so it’s a very visual experience, and the way things look should be important. But I tend to feel that the circuitry involved is still very much the circuitry of sound and language and rhythm and cadence. 

One of the formative moments for me as a writer was taking a creative writing workshop with Toni Morrison back in 1993 spring in college. . . . And one thing she did in her class is that she would read our work aloud back to us. She could make a Corn Flakes box sound like poetry. She was the greatest reader I ever encountered, and when she would read . . . I thought, “Wow, I can really write! I’ve got it!” 

She said things like, “You want to keep your reader a sort of half-heartbeat ahead of the action, so that what comes next can be a surprise, but it should feel like it was inevitable.” . . . One of the ways we do that in cinema, for example, is through the soundtrack, which suggests movements and motions and directions even while the visuals are doing something else. In written fiction, cadence and sound and rhythm can begin to establish these sorts of movements and directions, so that you have the chance of this feeling of inevitability.

“I’d always imagined it as this almost stage story, and suddenly I was on this stage, and it felt oddly like coming full circle.”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist wasn’t originally conceived as a 9/11 novel. You finished its first draft prior to that day, but as the world changed, so did your book. Now we have the opportunity to revisit your 9/11 novel with the gift of hindsight. What do you think is its place in our current reading environment?
It’s hard for me to answer that. I remember once being at this literary festival in Mantua, Italy. And as I say this, I should make clear that my life is not spent at literary festivals in Mantua, Italy. It was as exotic for me to be there as it is to say it to you now, but there I was under some clock tower in the open air, the stars above us, and Russell Banks was there. . . . I knew that a book of his had come out recently, and I had asked him if he was happy with how it had done and, you know, the usual chitchat you try to make with some literary icon when you’re this young kid who’s written a book or two. And he said something that stuck with me. 

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

He said, “You know, it’s too soon to say. . .  . It’s not until about 10 years after a book comes out that you begin to have a sense of what it’s doing. And the reasons why people are still reading it 10 years on are probably what you actually did. That’s what people got from it.” This is the kind of thing you go to literary festivals for, so that some much more experienced writer can unload this wisdom on you. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is now 15 years old, so it’s past the Russell Banks 10-year law, and I think people still seem to be reading it.

I wrote that book very much with the idea of the reader as a kind of character. Not that the novel is addressed to you, necessarily, but the book is a kind of half novel. We never hear half of the story; we never hear Changez’s interlocutor really say anything. Even more than most novels—or all novels, by virtue of being pieces of ink printed on paper that require a transmutation by the reader that makes them come alive—this book, because so much of it is missing, [forces the reader] to try and restabilize this narrative. The book was intended as a way for the reader to encounter how they feel about the story. What are the instincts that it provokes in them? What are their inclinations? Who do you think is threatening whom? Why? And it leads you, in a sense, to a position that isn’t quite resolved, and so you have to figure out either how to resolve it or what that unresolved state makes you feel. And I think it still does that, I imagine. 

The form of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is this dramatic monologue, is really akin to a one-man play. So in doing an audiobook, I was performing that one-man play. I’d always imagined it as this almost stage story, and suddenly I was on this stage, and it felt oddly like coming full circle.

Read our starred review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist audiobook.

That dramatic monologue is so effective as an audiobook. The listener is called upon in a very different way than with other novels. We feel like we’re being addressed.
That’s good to hear. It is a very direct form of address. It has to be. And in that book in particular, voice is so important because Changez, we learn, is ostensibly Muslim. But he doesn’t pray, he drinks, he has sex, he doesn’t quote the Quran or think about the doings of the Prophet. . . . His Islam appears to be a sort of tribal [affiliation]. It’s sort of “these are my people, I belong to something,” much more than it is an operating system, you know, like MacOS.

Some people might imagine that Islam has a kind of . . . rigidity or formality, that it has a kind of, you know, menace. I think these sorts of perceptions that many people do have about Islam—who are not Muslims or don’t know very many Muslims, particularly in that post-9/11 environment—the novel doesn’t give those attributes to Changez, but it does use a voice that can invoke those attributes. So you can end up believing things about this guy, not because he thinks in a certain way or even does anything, but just because it sounds like he might. 

And so the reading of that book was very interesting and actually fun because Changez speaks in this very formal, kind of anachronistic way, and that formality is also a distancing, and it builds to what feels like a kind of menace because, you know, so often we assume that a more colloquial, friendly form of address is not threatening, but Changez’s quite formal address [makes us wonder,] “Why is he keeping me at a distance? What does he intend to do to me? What kind of person speaks in this way? Why does he think like this?” 

I used to talk about The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a thriller in which nothing really happens. And I think that sense of thrill comes from the fact that we are already frightened of each other. There’s a preexisting thrill in the reader—whether it’s a reader who sympathizes with Changez and is frightened of the American, or sympathizes with the American and is frightened of Changez—and the novel tries to invoke within the reader a feeling of that discomfort that we were all encouraged to have in those years, that we belonged to these different groups and that we had to be in conflict.

And as audiobook listeners, we’re even more vulnerable to what the story wants to invoke in us. We’re passive receivers; we’re not even moving our eyes across the page.
Weirdly enough, it’s closer to the experience of Changez’s interlocutor in the book itself. The confined space of this conversation, where somebody is forced to listen to somebody else for hours, is more akin to an audiobook experience, where you’re sort of sitting there and this person is coming at you with their voice.

“I used to talk about The Reluctant Fundamentalist as a thriller in which nothing really happens. And I think that sense of thrill comes from the fact that we are already frightened of each other.”

Are you a frequent audiobook listener?
I tend to feel that the inbound-information-to-my-eyes thing is a little bit overloaded. Either I’m reading stuff online or I’m actually reading a book or I’m writing something, and then when I’m not, there’s a complex series of advertisements directed at me and my kids’ devices, and I think that I long to just have my eyes be free. And that’s when the idea of just listening to something becomes so attractive. My daughter does the exact same thing, but she listens to music for hours every day, and she’s dancing in her room by herself, and she has that relationship with music that teens and preteens sort of have had from time immemorial. It’s just ears. It’s ears and your body in space.

You know, I’m now reminded of this thing that Philip Gourevitch once said to me when he was editor of The Paris Review. He said, “It’s strange, but we get more short story submissions than we have subscribers.” . . . I feel a little bit like that, where I’ve recorded this handful of audiobooks these last few years, but how many have I listened to? I think I’m like the Paris Review submitter of audiobooks. I talk a good game, but I don’t really walk the walk as far as listening is concerned. So it’s a bit shameful, but anyway, I’m a writer, so I make the things. I don’t listen that much.

Photo of Mohsin Hamid by Jillian Edelstein

Fifteen years after its initial publication, The Reluctant Fundamentalist gets a haunting new audiobook recorded by its author.
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Whether fathers are superheroes or average guys, human or animal or even mechanical, Father’s Day is a day to celebrate dads of all kinds. These four picture books will enchant young readers and provide the perfect bedtime reading, any day of the year.

SUPER DAD?

He might not have a spandex uniform, and he might not have super powers . . . actually, there are lot of things this super Dad can’t do, and My Dad, My Hero by Ethan Long lists all of them. A little redheaded boy with a pet parrot follows his father through his day-to-day routine, watching him fumble and bumble through life. The boy catches a peek of his dad without super strength when Mom has to help him open a jar of pickles. His dad is definitely not invincible, since he cuts himself shaving three times. He doesn’t dress like a hero with a cape hiding underneath his clothes, but he does have a tiny bit of toilet paper trailing from his shoe. Dad’s foibles could have been a joke that kept on going, but the story takes a different direction. As he thinks back to throwing a baseball, playing Battleship and washing the car with his down-to-earth dad, the boy realizes “my Dad does spend a lot of time with me.” And that makes him both "super" and a "hero" in the eyes of his son.

My Dad, My Hero pokes fun at the big guys we love the most, but it also celebrates them in spite of their imperfections. The retro Ben-Day dot-style of illustration coupled with the comic book layout gives this picture book the nostalgic feel of an old-school superhero graphic novel. Dad's dialogue in every scene is limited to sound effects and grunts, which allows the little boy’s narration to say it all.

TWO SIDES TO THE STORY

Sadie and her dad are finally going to the zoo, and nothing—not an escaped tiger or even some rain—will stop them from getting there. Everything always gets in the way of the zoo, but Sadie is determined that today will be perfect. During the ride there, when Dad says, “Sadie, it’s raining,” Sadie is 100-percent positive that it’s not. When she looks out her window, the sun is shining and people everywhere are enjoying the beautiful weather. Dad’s side might be gloomy and raining, but Sadie sees sunflowers and people watering their lawns. They finally arrive at the zoo, but when Sadie gets out to inspect Dad’s side, she announces, “I don’t want you to get wet . . . We should come back to the zoo another day.” Then, just as they begin to head home, the sun comes out on both sides of the car. With huge eyes, Sadie announces, “We’re going to the zoo,” and away they go.

My Side of the Car is written and illustrated by father-daughter duo Kate and Jules Feiffer, who actually had this very conversation (and to this day, Kate is convinced she was right!). Drawn with watercolor and pencil, the loose-line illustrations show a wonky red car driving down a forest road with one side in puddles and the other in the sun. Both sides are created in wild scribbles, as though the illustrations themselves come straight from a child. Dad is wonderfully patient with the forgivably stubborn daughter, and his silence in the face of her unflinching optimism makes her perfect day seem possible. My Side of the Car is a funny book with a wonderful appreciation for a child’s perspective.

A PRIZE FOR DAD

Squirrels love their dads, too, and the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed squirrel in Blue-Ribbon Dad really loves his. The story begins at noon, announcing a countdown for the next five hours until Dad comes home from work. Between moments of the countdown, the little squirrel thinks of all the great things his father does for him, such as waking him up in the morning, helping with his homework and teaching him to tie his shoes. At hour four, Mom begins to bake a cake for the father’s return, while the little squirrel goes in search of his glue, glitter and clay. The two continue the countdown while hard at work, only stopping to think of how Dad reads bedtime stories and comes to swimming practice. Then—finally!—Dad comes home to Mom’s cake and the little squirrel’s homemade Blue Ribbon to celebrate just how great a dad he is.

Simple text and cuddly characters make Blue-Ribbon Dad an ideal book for fathers and new readers to share. Author Beth Raisner Glass tells the story in sing-song rhyme, perfect for sounding out letters and letting little ones everywhere fall in love with reading (“When it’s time for haircuts / My dad sits next to me. / We each look in the mirror, / As handsome as can be!”). Illustrator Margie Moore gives the story its traditional charm with black pen and watercolor squirrels on cold-press paper. Blue-Ribbon Dad loves dads so much, it includes a free punch-out blue ribbon for children to give to their own fathers.

ONE LAST LAP BEFORE BED

Mitchell will not go to bed—but when his dad surprises him with a very special driver's license, bedtime can’t come fast enough! His new car is up on his dad’s own shoulders, and after some quick inspections of the tires (feet), the engine (tummy) and the windshield (glasses), Mitchell and his dad are off! “VROOM!” says his dad as Mitchell hits the gas and (after ramming a wall and quickly hitting reverse) zips around the corner to bed. The next night, Mitchell loves to honk the horn (Dad’s nose) as they screech around corners with a red-dash trail behind them to reveal their wild route. When it’s time to refill the gas tank, Mitchell and his car have a bit of a disagreement on the fuel (cookies!) and soon it’s time for bed. Mitchell falls asleep and dreams of driving through a vibrant yellow field with a cookie gas station in the distance.

A fast-paced, laugh-out-loud book, Mitchell’s License is a great Father’s Day gift for the guys who know just how to keep their rambunctious drivers happy. Author Hallie Durand finds the funniest ways for Mitchell to drive his dad, such as backing him out of the garage by yanking on his ear and “[turning] on his headlights and [pulling] up to the cookie jar.” Illustrator Tony Fucile’s digital art has a pencil-and-marker look that captures a cool young dad with a soul patch who is a curly-haired ball of energy. For father-son car lovers everywhere, Mitchell’s License is just too much fun to read only once before bedtime—your little driver will want at least one more lap before he drops into bed.

Whether fathers are superheroes or average guys, human or animal or even mechanical, Father’s Day is a day to celebrate dads of all kinds. These four picture books will enchant young readers and provide the perfect bedtime reading, any day of the year. SUPER DAD? He might not have a spandex uniform, and he might […]
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The month of October is great for family activities, whether you’re carving pumpkins, picking apples or telling ghost stories over s’mores. It all leads up to one of the best nights of the year, filled with candy and crazy costumes (and the thrill of being just a little scared!). These four picture books run the gamut from heartfelt to hilarious to get kids into the true spirit of Halloween.

THE BONDS (AND BONES) OF FRIENDSHIP

Friendship conquers all in Bone Dog, the tender and spooky Halloween tale by Eric Rohmann. In the spirit of Día de los Muertos, this vivid picture book couples trick-or-treating with the powerful connection between a child and his lost loved one.

Gus and his bushy-tailed dog Ella are best friends, but one night, as they sit before a glowing full moon, Ella announces, “I’m an old dog and won’t be around much longer,” though she promises to always be with him. In heartbreaking comic book-style frames, Gus slowly moves on from the death of his dog.

On Halloween night, Gus finds himself surrounded by a rattling group of graveyard skeletons. They close in, threatening Gus with puns (“Bone appétit!!” and “You’ve got guts, kid . . . but not for long!”). Suddenly, skeleton Ella appears, and she and Gus howl at the moon until a parade of barking dogs run the spooks off the page. The last to be seen of the skeletons is a proud dachshund trotting away with a femur. And just before Ella disappears, she reminds Gus that she will always be with him.

Rohmann, winner of the 2003 Caldecott Medal for My Friend Rabbit, creates a funny, memorable ghost story while simultaneously addressing the loss of a pet. The chunky illustrations with thick black outlines, created with a hand-colored relief print technique, transform soft blue hues into a textured Halloween evening.

Particularly touching for young ones dealing with loss, Bone Dog is a Halloween book with heart.

A GROSS-OUT GUESSING GAME

What’s In the Witch’s Kitchen? invites young readers on a tour through the icky old witch’s toaster, teapot and other kitchen items. Nick Sharratt, prominent British children’s author and illustrator, makes learning fun with this touchable Halloween must-read.

Each turn of the page reveals a new question, such as “What’s in the jar in the witch’s kitchen?” On the adjacent page is the item in question, with a flap that can be lifted in either direction to reveal two different answers. Kids can practice their directions as they guess which way to lift the flap (“Open it left or open it right. Will it be a nice surprise? Will you lose your appetite?”), exposing either “Lollipops!” or “Rabbit plops!” Little learners will squeal with delight as they discover snakes or cupcakes in the tin, and bats with fleas or tasty cheese in the fridge. It is not until the very last page that readers meet the purple-haired witch, who bursts through the back door with a pop-up “Boo!”

The neon-colored digital illustrations and kid-friendly paper engineering make What’s In the Witch’s Kitchen? a fun activity for learning directions and getting in the spirit of Halloween. The witch’s kitchen is decorated with classic Halloween images, perfect for recognizing moons, brooms and newts. This is a book that turns reading time into really big fun.

A TOOTHSOME TREAT

All the members of Gibbus Moony’s vampire family are nectarians—they eat only fruit—but when Gibbus grows his first set of grown-up fangs, he wants to bite “something big. Something that moved. Something that . . . noticed.”

And so the little vampire, in red overalls and a green cape, begins to stalk about, gnawing on toys and the ears of his slumbering grandpa. Gibb then heads outside to seek juicier prey, where he meets his new human neighbors, a boy named Moe and his biting little sister.

Gibb prepares to chomp, but freezes when Moe complains about his sister: “Biting’s for babies . . . Slobbery, stinky, diaper babies.” Suddenly, being a nectarian doesn’t seem so bad! Gibb shares an apple with his new human pal, who declares the fruit “totally toothsome!” The day ends with a promise of baseball and dinner with the whole vamp family—and some pineapple upside-down cake!

Jen Corace’s pen, ink with watercolor and acrylic illustrations are the true charm of this book. Corace’s fine art prints have gained a following online and her first book, Little Pea, captured the lovable rebellion of a little veggie. She brings Moony and his family to life with crisp, whimsical scenes that feel both uncluttered and fun. Along with Leslie Muir’s tooth puns (“Fangtastic!”), they make Gibbus Moony Wants to Bite You! totally toothsome indeed.

BEDTIME FOR LITTLE MONSTERS

Though Halloween tales and lots of candy may keep kids far from their beds, sleep must come eventually. There is no better way to wind down trick-or-treaters than with Creepy Monsters, Sleepy Monsters by children’s book legend Jane Yolen.

The creepy-crawly rhyming lullaby follows monster kids as they rush out of school for an autumn afternoon (“Monsters run, Monsters stumble, / Monsters hip-hop, Monsters tumble . . .”). Some are as big as a whale (with three eyes!), some have horns (one, two or three!) some slither and some have tails—but they do the same things human kids do. After an afternoon of play, the rumpus disperses and two little monsters head home to begin their nighttime routine: a dinner of gruesome worm burgers, a bath and prayers, then to bed. The story winds down with a medley of monster growls, burps and snarls until trickling off into the perfect “zzzz.”

Illustrator Kelly Murphy (Masterpiece) was hand-picked by Yolen for this rambunctious read-aloud, and her soft oil, acrylic and gel medium illustrations transition from hues of gold and green to blue and purple, leading monsters and readers alike toward sleep. It’s the perfect end to a spooky October day.

The month of October is great for family activities, whether you’re carving pumpkins, picking apples or telling ghost stories over s’mores. It all leads up to one of the best nights of the year, filled with candy and crazy costumes (and the thrill of being just a little scared!). These four picture books run the […]

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