Deborah Hopkinson

Yes, you read the title correctly. This is indeed an autobiography of our galaxy, and yes, it is nonfiction. The Milky Way's debut book—a creative, humorous and enormously entertaining one at that—comes to us earthlings via Dr. Moiya McTier, who studied both mythology and astronomy at Harvard before earning her Ph.D. in astrophysics at Columbia University. 

The galaxy begins its life story this way: “Take a look around you, human. What do you see? Actually, don't answer that. Why would I bother listening to you when I know you'll get it wrong?” The Milky Way, it seems, is rather a stuck-up know-it-all. (Superior, omniscient, haughty—perhaps a bit like your cat. As Dr. McTier explains in the acknowledgements, whenever she needed to get into the Milky Way's voice, she would look at her cat, Kosmo.) Although, once you stop to think about things from our galaxy's perspective, it's easy to see why. After all, the Milky Way is more than 13 billion Earth years old and home to more than 100 billion stars. Impressive, to say the least.

Read the Milky Way’s behind-the-scenes story of how an ancient galaxy managed to land a book deal.

And that's just the beginning. In chapters covering its early years, growing pains, constellations and modern myths, the Milky Way details a page-turning life story, full of drama (massive black holes!), major changes (the death of stars!) and tumultuous relationships with neighboring galaxies, such as Andromeda. It is quite adept at explaining complex scientific concepts to us (vastly more ignorant) humans, but the most surprising aspect of this book is that the Milky Way has a buoyant sense of humor, as well as a passion for “inspiring others.”

As with any translation from another tongue, readers may marvel at the role of the translator in creating a book that is both informative and truly inspirational. Here, it's clear Dr. McTier has harnessed the sense of marvel she felt as a child, when she imagined the sun and moon as celestial parents who watched over her and talked to her on a regular basis. That childlike wonder, combined with her expertise in mythology and astronomy, makes her the perfect human to assist in telling this story.

At any rate, since the Milky Way took the time to help us all understand more about our universe, it would be only polite to put this highly recommended title at the top of your reading list.

As told to Dr. Moiya McTier, the Milky Way details its page-turning life story, full of drama and humor.

We may think we know what intelligence is. After all, human intelligence is what enables us to read intriguing nonfiction books such as If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity by animal behavior and cognition researcher Justin Gregg, who works with the Dolphin Communication Project at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. But as Gregg makes clear in his engaging third book, we might not know as much as we think about intelligence. In fact, we might be entirely wrong in our assumptions. It might be time to seriously question “human exceptionalism” and what it means for our species and our planet. To do that, Gregg sets out to answer the question “What good is human intelligence?”

Justin Gregg, author of ‘If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal,’ extols the virtues of stupid animals.

The author begins with a chapter about humans as “why specialists.” Anyone who has been in the presence of a toddler will recognize the “Why?” stage of development. While we may automatically assume that this ability to ask—and discover answers to—every question under the sun is uniformly positive, Gregg asks us to look at this human characteristic through a different lens: “I propose we consider a provocative premise: does asking why give us a biological advantage?” Gregg then takes readers on a time-travel expedition, from 240,000 years ago until today, to demonstrate why certain qualities associated with human intelligence have not, evolutionarily speaking, benefited either our species or the Earth. When humanity's answers to “why questions” are wrong, Gregg explains, they lead to some truly terrible outcomes, including white supremacy and genocide.

Gregg takes readers on a wide-ranging, entertaining journey of discovery in If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, challenging them to reexamine their assumptions about animals and humans. Along the way, he explores aspects of human experience (such as language use, morality, awareness of death and our capacity to wonder about virtually everything in the universe) and reveals ways in which nonhuman animals experience consciousness themselves. All together, If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is a timely, thought-provoking and often sobering book that will make you look at humans, animals and the future of our planet with new eyes.

According to cognitive scientist Justin Gregg, we might be entirely wrong in our assumption that human intelligence is a good thing.

Readers may be most familiar with Ed Yong from his Pulitzer Prize-winning science writing for The Atlantic. His first book, the New York Times bestselling I Contain Multitudes, explored the world of microbes. In his new work of nonfiction, An Immense World, Yong tackles the realm of animal senses, taking readers on a fascinating journey backed up by impressive research.

Yong's scope is far-reaching, and the issues and scientific concepts involved are sometimes complex. But much like a skilled mountain guide, he takes the time to prepare readers for what lies ahead. In the introduction, Yong not only identifies basic terms (such as stimuli, sense organs and sensory systems) but also provides guideposts for the journey ahead, challenging readers to use their imaginations in order to overcome the blind spots humans inevitably have when trying to understand sensory systems immensely different from our own. As Yong writes, “Our intuitions will be our biggest liabilities, and our imaginations will be our greatest assets.”

Subsequent chapters do indeed engage the imagination. Yong's book is organized by different senses, some which are familiar—such as smell, taste and sound—and others much less familiar. In a chapter titled “The Rippling Ground: Surface Vibrations,” we learn about scientist Karen Warkentin's groundbreaking discovery that embryonic tadpoles can hatch early if they sense a snake attack. Other such fascinating anecdotes abound throughout this book, and it's safe to say readers will have a hard time not sharing newfound knowledge in daily conversation. For example, did you know that Philippine tarsiers emit sounds with frequencies above the ultrasonic boundary, or that 250 species of fish can produce their own electricity?

Yong brings to this project a supreme mastery of science writing for the general reader, so don't be intimidated by the nearly 50-page bibliography. An Immense World is an accessible, illuminating and endlessly exciting reading experience. Yes, nonfiction about science can be page-turning!

While this title is perfect for adult nature lovers, the accessibility of Yong's approach also makes this a wonderful gift for high school or college students interested in science. For at its heart, this treasure of a book is a sober reminder of what's at stake in the 21st century—and today's students will be tomorrow's researchers and citizen scientists. “A better understanding of the senses can show us how we're defiling the natural world,” Yong writes in his closing chapter. “It can also point to ways of saving it.”

An Immense World is an accessible, illuminating and exciting reading experience. Yes, nonfiction about the science of animal senses can be page-turning!

Young astronomer Mable loves to listen to Grana's stories, but her grandmother is ill and “too weak to tell stories now.” As Mable stays close to Grana's bedside, she looks up at the sky through a telescope, making maps of the constellations. “If we can touch the moon,” Grana asks her granddaughter, “then what is impossible?”

Later that night, Mable embarks on a quest to “make impossible things possible” by touching the moon. After a countdown, she rockets into the sky like a spaceship. As she soars among the constellations, she recognizes fantastical figures from her grandmother's tales of African mythology and African American history, including an archer, a pair of twins and a friendly dog. When Mable stops for a sip of water from the drinking gourd, she sees tracks that remind her of the Underground Railroad. Eventually, she begins to feel tired, and a group of celestial women cocoon her in a blanket of stars until she falls asleep. No miracle awaits when Mable awakens the next morning, but Grana feels well enough to sit up and ask Mable to tell her a story.

Author Breanna J. McDaniel's prose is warm and inviting. Grana's illness seems severe, but McDaniel constructs a comforting, hopeful narrative that emphasizes the strong, loving relationship between Mable and her grandmother. In the book's backmatter, McDaniel (Hands Up!) movingly describes Impossible Moon‘s personal origins. She also provides brief descriptions of the constellations Mable encounters and explains their roles in African American culture.

Illustrator Tonya Engel's oil and acrylic illustrations are richly hued and playful. Small flames trail behind Mable's feet as she shoots up into the sky, a rocket ship of a girl. Brilliant blues evoke the dreamlike atmosphere of Mable's nighttime adventure, while tiny splatters of white and yellow convey the vast number of distant stars.

Readers who enjoyed Antwan Eady and Gracey Zhang's Nigel and the Moon won't want to miss this fresh, imaginative lunar tale. It belongs on the nightstands of young dreamers everywhere.

Mable embarks on an imaginative journey to touch the moon in this lunar tale perfect for readers who loved Antwan Eady and Gracey Zhang’s Nigel and the Moon.

The life of a 19th-century poet, painter and gardener is vividly captured in Celia Planted a Garden: The Story of Celia Thaxter and Her Island Garden, a lovingly written and illustrated nonfiction picture book. It’s a fruitful collaboration by award-winning writers Phyllis Root and Gary D. Schmidt, with colorful, engaging illustrations by Melissa Sweet.

As a young child, Celia Thaxter (née Laighton) moved with her family from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to White Island, part of the Isle of Shoals archipelago off the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine, where her father became the island’s lighthouse keeper. In 1847, when Thaxter was 12, her father built a large hotel on nearby Appledore Island. Thaxter worked in the hotel and planted a garden on its grounds.

The hotel attracted summer visitors, including well-known artists and writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thaxter blossomed as her relationships with these creative figures opened up her world. Eventually, they encouraged Thaxter to write stories and poems about her life on the island and helped her find publication.

Thaxter moved to Watertown, Massachusetts, after she married, but she continued to spend summers on Appledore Island. During the winter months, she wrote and painted greeting cards and china pitchers, bowls and plates. Today, Thaxter is best known for her 1894 book, An Island Garden, illustrated by the American impressionist painter Childe Hassam, and for her garden on Appledore, which was re-created and restored in 1977.

Root and Schmidt’s accessible text focuses on Thaxter’s lifelong love of nature. Sweet incorporates hand-lettered quotations from Thaxter’s own writing, bringing her poetic voice into many of the book’s gorgeous spreads: “The very act of planting a seed has in it to me something beautiful.” Although Celia Planted a Garden contains substantial back matter, including a biographical note, a timeline of Thaxter’s life and an annotated bibliography, specific citations for Thaxter’s quotations aren’t include, which is a notable omission considering their prominence in the book.

Much like Barbara Cooney’s beloved Miss Rumphius, Celia Planted a Garden evokes the magic of summers in Maine and the joy of tending flowers. And like that classic picture book, Celia Planted a Garden is sure to inspire a new generation of young gardeners everywhere.

This picture book biography of 19th-century poet, painter and gardener Celia Thaxter evokes the magic of summers in Maine and the joy of tending flowers.

Puzzles are big news—and big business—these days. With their capacity to entertain, challenge and provide a distraction from the stresses of daily life, puzzles have found a wider audience than ever before.

In the introduction to his new book, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, From Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life, journalist, bestselling author and invenerate puzzler A.J. Jacobs (The Know-It-All) shares the euphoria he felt upon learning that his name was featured as a clue in a New York Times crossword puzzle. He’d made it to the big time! But, alas, it was a Saturday puzzle, one of the hardest of the week. So, not a household name just yet, just an obscure clue.

However, Jacobs may find his name appearing in clues more often as puzzle lovers old and new discover this timely and entertaining exploration of why we love (and, yes, often become addicted to) all sorts of puzzles—from the word puzzle books we gobbled up in childhood, to jigsaw puzzles on card tables during family summer vacations, to the world’s recent embrace of a simple daily word game. (You know the one.)

A.J. Jacobs shares how he solved the hardest puzzle yet: motivating himself to finish writing ‘The Puzzler.’

Jacobs covers a wide variety of puzzles, including anagrams, mazes, math and logic puzzles, Rubik’s Cubes, Sudoku, riddles, ciphers and, of course, crosswords—his first love. He admits to knowing the exact time the New York Times crossword puzzle appears online each day. He’s also honest about the emotions involved in puzzle-solving. Frankly, it’s not all enjoyment; there’s frustration, drama, despair and even humiliation. “And sometimes there’s terror,” Jacobs writes, speaking of the creeping fear that getting stuck portends mental decline.

The Puzzler isn’t simply Jacobs’ personal journey, however; it’s also an exploration of the history of puzzles and their role in society. Along the way, Jacobs meets and interviews some fascinating puzzle lovers, including Jeff Varasano, who created his own algorithms to solve a Rubik’s Cube as a teenager back in 1980, and a young woman named Sydney Weaver, a “speedcuber” whose cubing has helped her with pediatric arthritis. Readers also meet crossword maker Peter Gordon, who, when asked why he thinks we’re addicted to puzzles, replied, “Well, life is a puzzle.” Indeed, as the late Maki Kaji, often known as the father of Sudoku, believed, puzzles are a journey. Jacobs’ wonderful book reminds us that puzzles help us to be present in the moment and connect with others on the same journey.

A final note: The Puzzler would make a fabulous gift as a physical copy simply because it includes original puzzles by Greg Pliska for readers to solve. But don’t despair; the answers are in the back.

Puzzle lovers old and new will be thrilled to discover this entertaining exploration of why we love (and often become addicted to) all sorts of puzzles.

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