Deborah Hopkinson

It’s no accident that Mark Twain scholar Mark Dawidziak begins A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe with Poe’s mysterious death in 1849 at the age of 40. As Dawidziak reminds us throughout his ambitious, well-researched book, the circumstances of Poe’s death remain a topic of debate and conjecture, as much a part of the Poe mystique as his short, stormy life. “It is,” Dawidziak notes, “one of the great literary stage exits of all time,” and its notoriety has done much to keep Poe’s reputation alive, making him one of the most famous American authors of all time, with a pop culture following as well as a solid place in middle school and high school literary curricula.

Dawidziak adopts a clever—and appropriate—organizational approach, alternating chapters set in the last months of Poe’s life with chapters exploring his early family life, career and influences. Readers who know little of Poe’s origins may be surprised to learn that this quintessential American author spent part of his formative years abroad. Poe’s mother was a talented actor who died at the age of 24, leaving three children behind. Poe became the foster child of John and Fanny Allan (thus his middle name), who, during the War of 1812, moved to England, where Poe spent five years soaking up impressions of old houses and graveyards that fed his literary imagination.

Throughout the book, Dawidziak draws readers into the mystery of Poe’s death, which occurred shortly after he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, delirious and disheveled. Dawidziak, of course, has a favorite theory about the likely cause, gleaned from the various opinions of medical experts, Poe scholars, historians, horror specialists and others—but it would spoil the mystery to reveal it here. Nonetheless, his argument demonstrates one of the pleasures of Dawidziak’s excellent book: his ability to weave quotations from Poe together with first-person observations from Poe’s 19th-century contemporaries and commentary by modern experts. In this way, Dawidziak’s biography reaches beyond the myth of Poe to reveal the actual man and writer, all while painting a vivid picture of the era in which he lived. A Mystery of Mysteries makes possible a deeper appreciation of a complicated, often troubled author whose success after death surpassed anything he knew in life.

Mark Dawidziak’s biography of Edgar Allan Poe reaches beyond the myth of his troubled life and mysterious death to reveal the actual man and writer.

Two-time Caldecott Honor recipient Marla Frazee brings her considerable talents to a timeless celebration of birth and life in In Every Life, a wonder of a picture book. 

In an introductory note, Frazee shares the long history of her book’s inception. In 1998, she witnessed a call-and-response-style blessing for a new baby. She’s made a number of attempts to illustrate the blessing, but it took her more than 20 years to find the right way to finish the project. The book, dedicated to her first grandchild, is certainly worth the wait.

The book’s format is deceptively simple, with spreads alternating between text and gorgeous, wordless, full-bleed paintings created with a soft palette of pencil and gouache that’s resplendent with golds, blues, pinks and violets. Frazee’s prose lends a lyrical, comforting rhythm to the textual spreads, which contain a single phrase rendered in large type and interrupted by the gutter: “In every birth, / blessed is the wonder”; “In every smile, / blessed is the light.” Beneath each phrase are full-color spot-art depictions of families, with a single shade dominating each spread. In the “birth” spread, for instance, we see a diverse array of parents, grandparents and siblings welcoming newborns, all highlighted in pink tones.

As its title suggests, In Every Life plumbs deeper expressions of the mysteries of human experiences, including sadness, illness, pain and love. Frazee’s art has a classic, almost retro feel, and there is so much here for young readers to observe and discover. She doesn’t shy away from scenes that will be best shared with children by adults in a quiet, one-on-one setting, rather than in a group or storytime setting. Vignettes that accompany a line about sadness and comfort include a crestfallen child next to a soccer ball, a family mourning their pet and a young patient in a hospital bed. Yet there is light humor here, too: In a spread about hope, Frazee portrays two people with a kite checking the sky for a breeze, a child on the potty and a family preparing a turkey for roasting. 

Frazee’s love both for her art and for life itself shines from each page of In Every Life. This gentle, luminous book is a treasure. 

Two-time Caldecott Honor recipient Marla Frazee’s love for both her art and life itself shine from each page of this gentle, luminous treasure of a book.

Gardening isn’t just for the countryside! This exuberant picture book celebrates the joys of community gardening and sharing food with neighbors and friends in the city.

Red gingham patterned endpapers set the table for City Beet, a reimagining of a Russian folktale commonly known as “The Gigantic Turnip.” The story begins when young Victoria and her neighbor Mrs. Kosta spy a flyer advertising a community potluck. Victoria wants to bring a raw beet and garlic salad to the party—yum! Of course, this duo doesn’t just run out to the store to buy some beets. Instead, they embark on an adventure to grow their own.  

And, oh, what a beet they grow! In fact, Victoria and Mrs. Kosta’s beautiful beet grows so big that when they set out to harvest it on potluck day, it won’t budge from the ground. Fortunately, living in a city means that the two are surrounded by lots of helpers. The delightfully diverse cast, which includes a taxi driver, a street sweeper, a pair of police officers and a recycling-truck driver, all jump into the action. Victoria is declared “too small” to pull along with the growing group of neighbors, so she gets busy grating garlic for the salad as the group of folks trying to pull up the beet grows—but the beet remains firmly planted. Only when Victoria comes up with a novel solution does the beet finally spring free, just in time for everyone to come together and enjoy a summer feast. The recipe for Victoria and Mrs. Kosta’s raw beet and garlic salad rounds out this delectable tale.

Author Tziporah Cohen’s simple text is complemented perfectly by illustrator Udayana Lugo’s bright color palette and lively art. Cohen incorporates vehicular onomatopoeia every time a new helper pulls up to the scene, and the facial expressions Lugo creates for each character imbue Cohen’s story with emotion. It’s especially funny to see each new helper grin optimistically as they join the group, then grimace as they realize that they’ve met their tuberous match.

The City Beet is a wonderful reminder that big problems are more fun to tackle—and more likely to get solved—when everyone pitches in. Cohen and Lugo close by teasing another culinary adventure in Victoria and Mrs. Kosta’s future. As the friends contemplate a save-the-date poster for a community Thanksgiving celebration, Victoria asks, “Butternut squash pie?”

This lively reimagining of a Russian folktale is a reminder that big problems are more fun to tackle—and more likely to get solved—when everyone pitches in.

In 1999, author Kate Zernike, then a reporter for The Boston Globe, broke an enormous story: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had admitted to a long-standing pattern of discrimination against women on its faculty. Zernike, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, tells the full inspiring story in The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science.

Zernike begins by focusing on molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins’ life and career path. In the spring of 1963, Hopkins, a Radcliffe junior, became so enthralled by a Harvard lecture on DNA by Nobel Prize winner James Watson that she sought work in his molecular biology lab. But like other women then and now, Hopkins faced difficult choices as she weighed the demands of science against marriage and potential motherhood. Zernike situates the tensions that led to the end of Hopkins’ first marriage within the broader context of the women’s movement of the 1960s. Eventually Hopkins earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1971, and by 1973, she had accepted a position at MIT’s Center for Cancer Research.

While the biographical sections are intriguing, Zernike’s narrative picks up speed in the later portions of the book, which delve into the ways male colleagues appropriated Hopkins’ work and used it for financial gain. By the 1990s, Hopkins realized that “a woman’s work would never be valued as highly as a man’s. It had taken her twenty years to see it—she’d understood it about other women before she’d realized it was true for her, too.”

Hopkins’ revelation led her to reach out to female colleagues, resulting in a letter by 16 women at MIT compiling evidence of discrimination, including unequal access to research resources and pay. The women spent the next four years doing fact-finding as a committee, and by March of 1999, they had compiled a report. Although it was only scheduled to appear in a faculty newsletter, news of the report reached Zernike’s ears—and when Zernike’s article appeared on the front page of the Globe, the story took off. Hopkins arrived on campus the next day to camera crews, and she received emails from women across the world. Overnight, MIT became a “pacesetter for promoting gender equality,” and other universities soon undertook similar efforts to examine their biases.

Zernike closes her narrative with updates on Hopkins’ continued successful career, short bios of the 16 women who signed the original letter and an examination of the progress for women in academia—and the work still to be done. These women’s efforts—and the subsequent impact this revelation had for women across academia—make for a gripping, page-turning read.

Kate Zernike’s impeccably researched book about MIT’s discrimination against its female faculty members is both enlightening and inspiring.

In His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine, award-winning author and historian S.C. Gwynne (Rebel Yell) delves into the little-known story behind the 1930 crash of a hydrogen-filled British airship called R101.

R101 was the brainchild of Lord Christopher Birdwood Thomson, who held the rather inflated title of Secretary of State for Air. A baron and peer of the House of Lords, Thomson had been put in charge of the development of British dirigibles. On October 4, 1930, he prepared to make a 5,000-mile journey from England to Karachi, India, in R101, which Gwynne describes as “a giant silver fish floating weightless in the slate-gray seas of the sky.”

At the time, R101 was one of the largest human-made objects on Earth, larger by volume than the Titanic. It’s an apt comparison, because like the ocean liner, the R101 was touted as the pinnacle of technological achievement, luxury and safety. Its press office boasted that the 777-foot-long hydrogen-filled R101 was “the safest aircraft of any kind ever built.” 

Using hydrogen airships to fly long distances and connect England with its far-flung colonies was in part a reaction to the state of airplane travel at the time. Just three years previously, in 1927, a flight from England to India took 12 days and required 20 stops. An ocean liner could make the trip in two weeks. Thomson’s goals for the R101? Four days. 

Gwynne intersperses the story of R101’s short, tragic flight with the history of zeppelin airships more generally, including the use of airships as aerial bombers during World War I and the impact of the August 1921 crash of a British airship called R38. Gwynne’s well-documented account also includes photos of airships, as well as of Thomson. The most fascinating part, of course, is following Lord Thomson as he prepared for this doomed voyage, for which he brought champagne, lots of ministry paperwork and even fancy carpets! R101 took off into a developing severe weather system, flying over London against a stiff wind while people rushed out onto the streets to see this incredible sight. 

R101 has more eerie similarities with the Titanic: It burst into flames shortly after 2 a.m., and newspapers around the world carried news of the disaster. There were only six survivors (all crew members) out of 54 people on board, but the crash of R101 did not entirely end the era of experimentation with hydrogen airships. That would come later, in the aftermath of a crash far better known today: the Hindenburg.

Gwynne is a consummate storyteller, and his account of R101 is riveting and not to be missed.

S.C. Gwynne is a consummate storyteller, and his account of the 1930 crash of a spectacularly large hydrogen-filled British airship is not to be missed.


Vashti Harrison, creator of Little Leaders, the bestselling illustrated nonfiction series, makes her fiction debut with Big, a simple yet immensely significant picture book. Harrison marshals her considerable talents for a story that celebrates a young Black girl’s aspirations and highlights how words have the ability to empower or to cause suffering.

The book opens as an adorable baby reaches up to touch a mobile of multicolored stars that hangs over her crib. “Once there was a girl / with a big laugh and a big heart / and very big dreams,” reads the spare text on the opposite page. As the baby becomes a toddler and then a girl, Harrison considers the shifting connotations of the word big in her life. At first, when she’s very young, the girl receives praise from adults who call her “a big girl,” and the word rewards her growth and accomplishments. But the word soon takes on hurtful dimensions that culminate in a playground scene inspired by Harrison’s own childhood. When the girl is unable to get out of a swing, her classmates rain down taunts and an adult scolds, “Don’t you think you’re too big for that? You’re in big trouble!” 

Harrison uses powerful visuals to explore the effect of others’ opinions on the girl. Though the girl is illustrated in vibrant shades of brown and pink, everyone else in the book is drawn in shadowy monochromes. Their words hurtle forcefully across the page, and Harrison conveys their negative impact as the girl gradually grows disproportionately large in relation to the people around her. In one scene, she stands twice as tall as her dance instructor, who uses a paint roller to cover the girl’s pink tutu with a shade called “husky blue.” Eventually, the girl becomes so large that she pushes against the very edges of the pages themselves before curling up in a ball, turning her back to the reader and beginning to cry. In the pool of tears that forms around her, the girl discovers words of affirmation (“creative,” “graceful,” “kind”), as well as the words that caused her so much pain. What follows is a beautiful journey of healing, transformation and self-love.

In Big, Harrison invites readers to reflect on how we treat others based on their body size and to consider the implicit biases we hold about which kinds of bodies are “acceptable.” Her sophisticated use of color, design and space make for an outstanding reading experience. In a moving and personal author’s note, Harrison writes of her hopes that the book will especially resonate with “those of us who are Black girls in big bodies.” 

Straightforward enough for even very young children to understand and appreciate, but with a vital message for adults too, Big is one of the year’s most exceptional picture books.

In one of the year’s most exceptional picture books, bestselling author-illustrator Vashti Harrison considers the shifting connotations of the word big in a young girl’s life.

Geniuses seem to inhabit a world apart from mere mortals like us. But they don’t, as the irreverent and entertaining Edison’s Ghosts makes clear. Debut author and science writer Katie Spalding has mined history, biography and psychology to turn the cult of genius on its head, shining a sassy light on the idiosyncrasies of some of history’s greatest minds. People traditionally held up as geniuses, she demonstrates, still fit under the heading of “everyone is an idiot.” Although, “Maybe it’s just the apparent contrast between what we expect from these figures and what we get.”

Take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, whom Spalding compares to a modern child star with an extremely pushy stage dad. After a childhood under his father’s thumb, Mozart turned out to be “kind of a handful.” Spalding unearths unusual bits of trivia about the musical prodigy, including the fact that Mozart apparently never outgrew a juvenile sense of bathroom humor, and that he believed babies should be fed on water. (Only two of his six children survived to adulthood.)

As for the title essay, “Thomas Edison’s Lesser-Known Invention: Dial-a-Ghost,” it turns out the prolific inventor had a formidable PR presence. “Basically, you can think of Edison as a sort of proto-Elon Musk,” Spalding writes. But unlike the Tesla, the rubber never met the road on Edison’s “Spirit Phone” for communicating with the dead. That didn’t keep Edison from claiming that the device would operate solely by scientific methods, however. And while he was ridiculed during his life for this idea, and biographers later claimed he couldn’t have been serious, Spalding unearthed a French version of a book of Edison’s writings that includes actual sketches for his design. 

Edison’s Ghosts can certainly be read from front to back, but you may find yourself so intrigued by some of the chapter titles that you decide to skip around. For what burgeoning philosopher can resist plunging right into “Confucius Was an Ugly Nerd With Low Self-Esteem”? Likewise, biology enthusiasts will hardly be able to resist turning first to “Charles Darwin: Glutton; Worm Dad; Murderer?”

Spalding includes chapters (and hilarious footnotes) about many other historical figures, including Leonardo da Vinci, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sigmund Freud. While the essays are tongue-in-cheek, they’re also well researched, informative and absolutely fun. Edison’s Ghosts will delight any science or history lover with a sense of humor.

Edison’s Ghosts will delight any science or history lover as it illuminates all the stupid things that famously smart people have done throughout history.

Caroline Moorehead, author of the New York Times bestselling Resistance Quartet, brings her prodigious research and storytelling talents to Mussolini’s Daughter, her study of Edda Mussolini, the eldest and favorite child of Benito Mussolini and one of the most powerful women in 1930s Europe. In her foreword, Moorehead notes the challenges facing any biographer of the Mussolini family, including the difficulty of separating swirling myths from facts. Yet through her skillful mining of archival materials, personal papers and memoirs, Moorhead has created for readers—even ones previously unfamiliar with the rise of fascism in Italy—a nuanced portrait of a complex woman.

One of the pleasures of a deeply researched biography is being transported into the past through rich details that bring historical figures to life. Moorehead is masterful at this. For instance, we learn early on that in 1910, Edda’s mother, Rachele, already pregnant, defied her family and left home to live with Mussolini. The young couple walked five kilometers in a downpour, taking with them only “four sheets, four plates and six knives, spoons and forks.”

Moorehead writes that “Mussolini and Fascism made Edda what she was.” With this in mind, the author devotes considerable space to tracing Mussolini’s rising political career, which paralleled Edda’s youth. By the time Edda was 11, her father was the editor of a successful newspaper “and the leader of a quickly growing political movement.” In 1922, he became prime minister of Italy and set about consolidating power to become dictator.

In 1930, in an impressive ceremony Moorehead describes as “the wedding of the century,” glamorous, mercurial 19-year-old Edda married Count Galeazzo Ciano, son of one of the founders of the Fascist Party. Although she was part of a “golden couple,” Edda also had a fierce independent streak.

Moorehead spends ample time covering World War II and the ways in which the military conflict, Italy’s alliance with Germany and complex internal power struggles determined the fates of the two men closest to Edda. Despite her efforts to save him, her husband was executed for treason in January of 1944—an outcome Mussolini did little to prevent. Mussolini himself was killed in April 1945. Edda, meanwhile, escaped to Switzerland with her three children. Though for a time she professed to hate Mussolini, Edda once told an interviewer that her father “was the only man I ever really loved.”

Moorehead’s clear, compelling prose and sure-handed grasp of historical events combine to make Mussolini’s Daughter read like a page-turning thriller, one that will have special appeal for readers fascinated by European history, World War II and the conditions that gave rise to fascism.

Caroline Moorehead’s clear, compelling prose and sure-handed grasp of historical events combine to make Mussolini’s Daughter read like a page-turning thriller.

This deceptively simple picture book explores the emotions we feel when friendships end. Deborah Underwood’s story focuses on Walter, a rodent-ish fellow with white fur, round ears and a long pink tail. Walter’s best friend is Xavier, a yellow duck-like creature whose feet and flat beak are green.

The two friends do everything together. They hike, paint pictures, float in a rowboat and just enjoy sitting quietly. Their friendship changes, however, when a hedgehog named Penelope appears, and she and Xavier begin spending more time with each other. 

Gradually, Walter’s world is transformed. He experiences anger, loneliness and sadness as Xavier gravitates more and more toward Penelope. Especially evocative is a scene in which Penelope and Xavier have invited Walter to a ball game. It rains, and the new friends share an umbrella while Walter sits apart from them, miserable and wet. 

Underwood’s spare text provides ample space for illustrator Sergio Ruzzier’s surreal, otherworldly landscapes and bright pastel color palette. Ruzzier depicts the impact of Walter’s loss in approachable, moving images. For instance, we learn that Walter is quiet, “but it was a sad quiet. Not best friend quiet.” The accompanying spread shows Walter sitting alone on a dock; a dangling rope nearby suggests that the rowboat has been launched without him. He has lost not only his friend but also the pleasures they enjoyed together.

Just as Walter loses his friendship with Xavier slowly, his recovery is also slow, But he misses the activities he used to do with Xavier, so one bright day, when rays of sunshine beam through the closed curtains at his house, he just can’t resist the urge to go on a hike. Instead of taking the old trail, he strikes out on a new one—and discovers the promise of a new friendship along the way.

The book’s gentle pace, engaging artwork and lyrical yet straightforward text make this a comforting, reassuring read for young readers experiencing transitions at school or with friends. Walter Had a Best Friend is a gem.

When Walter’s best friend finds a new best friend, Walter’s world is transformed in this comforting, reassuring picture book.

Author Marina Budhos has previously explored the experiences of immigrants, particularly Muslim teens after 9/11, in two acclaimed YA novels, Ask Me No Questions and Watched. We Are All We Have is set in 2019, after the U.S. Department of Justice implemented a zero-tolerance policy toward illegal immigration. The novel follows 17-year-old Rania, whose late father was a political journalist in Pakistan. Rania lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her mother and younger brother, Kamal, who was born in the U.S. As the novel opens, Rania is looking forward to spending the summer with friends before attending Hunter College on a scholarship she received for “literary promise.”

But Rania’s world is shattered in a single night when her mother is arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sent to a detention facility in Pennsylvania. Rania and Kamal’s legal situation becomes even more complicated when the neighbor who agreed to serve as their guardian changes her mind, afraid of being deported herself. Before Rania can track down an estranged uncle who may be able to help, a neighbor reports her and Kamal for living without a guardian and they are taken to an understaffed shelter in Manhattan.

At the shelter, Rania meets Carlos, a young artist from Mexico. Carlos hatches a plan that will allow him, Rania and Kamal to escape the shelter and attend Rania’s graduation—and then keep on running. During her summer on the road, Rania uncovers secrets about her mother and the circumstances of her own birth. On Cape Cod, Carlos and Rania take on temporary jobs until they realize the only way to redeem their futures is to face the present.

We Are All We Have is compelling and vivid, filled with drama, family secrets and romance. Budhos conducted extensive research for the novel, which included visiting courtrooms and meeting with experts on immigration law. Her conversations revealed that “though we consider ourselves an immigrant nation, our bedrock ideal rests on a capricious and ever-changing set of laws and policies.” Budhos’ fully realized characters and urgent prose bring these laws into sharp focus for teen readers.

In this compelling, vivid novel, Rania’s world is shattered in a single night when her mother is arrested and detained by U.S. immigration officials.

New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Horowitz (Our Dogs, Ourselves) has done it again. She’s created a heartwarming and personal story about dogs that seamlessly incorporates captivating science about our beloved canine companions. In The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves, Horowitz, a specialist in canine cognition and head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard University, follows the first year of a puppy’s life—her own family’s new puppy, as it happens.

In part one, Horowitz describes the birth and early development of their puppy, Quiddity (Quid). Many owners never experience the early weeks—or even years, with many rescues—of their dogs’ lives, and this section makes fascinating reading as Horowitz meets not just her puppy but the puppy’s mom: Maize, a young dog surrendered to a shelter in Georgia when her owners realized she was pregnant. Maize was transported to New York, where she was fostered by an experienced woman named Amy who took on responsibility for the new mom and her pups—11 in all, it turns out.

In part two, Horowitz and her family choose Quid as their own, and she traces the puppy’s weekly development and integration into their family, where every experience is new: new people, new big dogs, new cat, new house. Training at the outset consists of taking Quid out to pee every two hours and rewarding her for positive behaviors—though the puppy often moves through 12 behaviors in 10 seconds. Fortunately, there are also naps.

Horowitz writes with a gentle humor that any pet owner will appreciate. “After bringing a puppy home, that potential dog vanishes and is replaced by an actual biting, running, peeing, whining dog in our home every hour of every day,” she writes. “She bites the cat in the face and bothers the dogs, who have taken, rightfully, to just turning away in disdain.”

The book is more than an entertaining personal narrative, however. Along the way, Horowitz draws on her extensive knowledge to offer insights into canine behavior. She goes beyond training-focused instructional manuals to show that often what humans label as “misbehavior” is actually normal puppy behavior. We expect dogs to live in our world. But, as Horowitz chronicles one year in Quid’s life, she gently urges us to become more aware of the incredibly rich and complex world dogs inhabit. The better we understand our pooches, the more likely we are to succeed at providing a wonderful home for everyone.

It’s a given that for dog lovers, The Year of the Puppy is a must-read. But even cat lovers will find much to enjoy in this endearing scientific memoir.

Alexandra Horowitz has created another heartwarming and personal story that seamlessly incorporates captivating science about our canine companions.

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