Deborah Hopkinson

In author-illustrator David Biedrzycki’s hilarious new picture book, secret agent Bubble07 is an alien who happens to look like a plush unicorn and has been tasked with a challenging mission: to infiltrate a human Earthling family and determine if the unicorn army should invade Earth. 

Bubble07 is beamed down into a video arcade, where a lucky dad snags it in the claw machine. In a series of interplanetary dispatches, the absurdly adorable unicorn agent files reports on daily life with its new family—an existence made somewhat more difficult by the family’s very huge, very hairy dog, whom Bubble07 suspects “might be onto me.” As time passes, Bubble07 relays many Earthling customs and delicacies that could improve life on the home planet, such as celebrating birthdays, telling bedtime stories and, above all, eating peanut butter cookies. 

Bubble07’s primary Earth contact is the family’s daughter, who hosts tea parties, brings the unicorn to school for show and tell, takes swimming lessons (Alert to home planet: Unicorns don’t float.) and gives the agent lots of loving snuggles. After 100 days, Bubble07 has gathered enough clandestine intelligence to make a final recommendation to its “fearless leader” as to the suitability of Earth for unicorns.

Thanks to the book’s large-format design, inventive text and a final twist in the endpapers, Invasion of the Unicorns succeeds on every level. Biedrzycki has crafted a read-aloud that will delight children, and its wry humor means that adults won’t mind repeat reads. Bubble07 is an endearing protagonist who surveys our world with curiosity and occasional alarm that Biedrzycki always plays for a lighthearted laugh. His pencil and watercolor illustrations are soft and warm as they portray a loving family and their diverse community.

This agent can only conclude this report by declaring Invasion of the Unicorns a treat for unicorn lovers in every galaxy.

In this hilarious picture book, a cuddly plush unicorn is actually an interplanetary spy, and the result is a treat for unicorn lovers in every galaxy.

Edward Dolnick, author of The Clockwork Universe, has a remarkable ability to explain and contextualize complex topics and create compelling, lucid nonfiction narratives. In his new book, The Writing of the Gods, he tackles the Rosetta Stone, a broken stone slab weighing three quarters of a ton that was discovered in a heap of Egyptian rubble in 1799.

Once news of this discovery got out, linguists and scholars were ecstatic. The stone contained three different kinds of inscriptions: Egyptian hieroglyphs (undecipherable at the time), a mysterious middle section (which turned out to be another form of Egyptian writing) and, at the bottom, 53 lines of Greek. “The first guesses were that it might take two weeks to decipher the Rosetta Stone,” Dolnick writes. It seemed plausible that the task would be simple: If all three sections were the same text in different forms, the Greek section should provide the key. The reality? It took 20 years to interpret. Along the way, Dolnick clearly lays out the high stakes of this battle to translate Egyptian writing for the first time.

Readers are immersed in the urgency of these scholars’ task and the weight of why it mattered.

In a conversational, accessible tone, Dolnick draws readers into the mystery. He introduces linguist rivals Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion and takes immense care to illustrate the daunting nature of their quest. The result is a book that’s much more than a simple biography or dull history. Readers are immersed in the urgency of these scholars’ task and the weight of why it mattered.

Reading The Writing of the Gods is like tagging along for a dazzling intellectual journey of discovery, akin to listening to a fascinating lecture. Dolnick brings this period of history to life in the same way the Rosetta Stone revived ancient Egypt.

With a conversational, accessible tone, Edward Dolnick draws readers into the dazzling intellectual mystery of the Rosetta Stone.

In this engrossing biography, author and history podcaster Mike Duncan, who explored the Roman Republic in The Storm Before the Storm, illuminates the eventful life of the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette is, of course, a popular hero of the American Revolution. Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution broadens our understanding of his engagement in other major political movements, as well, chronicling his role in the French Revolution and the toppling of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1830.

At first glance, nothing in Lafayette’s early history suggests his future commitment to liberal ideals. Lafayette (1757–1834) was born Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier in Chavaniac, France. A son of the nobility, he lost his father when he was only 2, making him the sole heir to the family’s fortune. His mother’s death when he was 12 left him in the care of guardians who made many decisions for him, including arranging his marriage to Adrienne d’Ayen at age 16. They were a devoted couple until her death in 1807.

Duncan traces the origin of Lafayette’s embrace of liberty and equality to the summer of 1775, when he first learned of George Washington and the colonists’ struggles. Politics had cut short his career in the French army, so Lafayette decided to follow this new noble cause. He managed to become a major general in the Continental Army, and by age 24, he’d earned a stellar reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.

In detailing Lafayette’s long career, Duncan takes a measured approach to his subject, making excellent use of primary sources, especially letters. The author effectively balances Lafayette the man with Lafayette the public figure and helps delineate the relationship between the United States and France. 

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of A Hero of Two Worlds is Duncan’s exploration of Lafayette’s long and enduring popularity with Americans. (Unlike the French, the Americans never stopped loving him.) In 1824, Lafayette was invited for a visit by President James Monroe as the nation prepared for its 50th anniversary. Lafayette received a hero’s welcome, his presence reminding “local and state leaders they were a single nation with a shared past and collective future.”

Lafayette was a unique and unifying figure in American history, celebrated and revered by all political parties. As the United States approaches its 250th anniversary, Duncan’s impressive biography provides an insightful look at the American Revolution that can be appreciated by history lovers and general readers alike.

Mike Duncan’s insightful, impressive biography of the Marquis de Lafayette can be appreciated by history lovers and general readers alike.

Bestselling author Steve Sheinkin is best known for his 2012 book, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, which was a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery Honor book and winner of the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal. Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown is another engrossing work of nonfiction that reads like a page-turning spy thriller as it takes up the issue of nuclear weapons and international politics in a wide-ranging, information-packed account of the Cold War, including the development of the hydrogen bomb and the tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States that nearly erupted into war during the Cuban missile crisis.

Sheinkin clearly knows this terrain like the back of his hand, and his narrative jumps nimbly from Soviet spy Rudolf Abel’s secretive life in New York City (which will remind adult readers of the popular FX show “The Americans”), to the rise of Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev after the death of Josef Stalin, to the scientists developing the hydrogen bomb, and finally to President John F. Kennedy as he faced a terrifying standoff in October 1962. The Cuban missile crisis, Sheinkin observes, “was a bit like a chess match between grandmasters.” As he depicts the conflict between two world powers, even readers familiar with the details of the crisis and its resolution will find themselves on the edge of their seats.

Although Fallout’s primary narrative ends there, Sheinkin follows up on the players in an epilogue, where he also includes a personal touch. He reflects on how, as a teen, he fully expected that he would experience nuclear war before he graduated from high school. 

In short chapters written in his signature energetic style, Sheinkin provides vivid details that keep interest high, such as 13 year-old paperboy Jimmy Bozart’s discovery of a nickel with a secret code hidden inside or the intricate tradecraft practiced by two Soviet agents as they jump out of subway cars at the last minute to lose a tail while en route to a secret meeting at the Bronx Zoo. (Who would have thought the Bronx Zoo was a rendezvous point for spies?) Even minor characters on this international chess board stand out. Sheinkin expertly balances action, historical context and the events of his narrative. Meticulously researched, Fallout includes copious source notes and an extensive bibliography. 

Fallout is a compelling read that provides a riveting picture of the events of the Cold War. It’s the work of a nonfiction master at his best.

Fallout is a compelling read that provides a riveting picture of the events of the Cold War. It’s the work of a nonfiction master at his best.

Poet, essayist and cultural commentator Lisa Wells takes on the complexities of our relationship to the climate crisis in Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, a thought-provoking and heady mix of memoir, journalism and philosophy. Wells isn’t writing as a scientist or futurist here but as a former teenage idealist—someone who, as she puts it, “drifted into adulthood” after dropping out of high school and spending months in a wilderness survival program to gain the knowledge and skills needed to “form egalitarian villages on the post-apocalyptic frontier.”

Wells grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s and threads her personal journey throughout the book. “When we were kids, my friends and I went looking for a unified and stable theory of how to live—propping up idols and knocking them off their pedestals,” she writes. Eventually Wells realizes, “There is no solution to the problems we face, but there are solutions.”

Exploring those solutions drives the narrative of Believers. Wells seeks out a variety of people whose radical responses to the climate crisis challenge and defy the norm. The characters she profiles are varied and fascinating, and their stories may resonate with older readers who remember their own idealism during the 1960s counterculture movement.

One particularly strong presence in the book is the late Finisia Medrano, whom Wells met while Medrano was leading a group of ecological activists in the dry desert landscape of eastern Oregon. Wells dubs her “an itinerant outlaw,” dedicated to rewilding the American desert with foragable food so people can survive the eventual collapse of society.

Wells also explores the growing severity of wildfires in the West. One section details the work of Indigenous Americans such as Ron Goode, the Tribal Chairman of the North Fork Mono in California, to revitalize the landscape by reintroducing traditional practices like controlled burns and to shift our cultural understanding of the West’s fire-adapted landscapes.

While Wells is adept at communicating her own coming-of-age story and life journey, Believers is most compelling when the author allows the fascinating people she meets to speak for themselves, providing a rich mosaic of perspectives on life in the 21st century. Believers is a reckoning with climate change and a testimony about how to live on our threatened planet that will engage thoughtful citizens everywhere.

Poet and cultural commentator Lisa Wells profiles a variety of people whose radical responses to the climate crisis defy the norm.

“It was pigeons that started it all, not dogs.” So begins Kate MacDougall’s charming coming-of-age memoir, London’s Number One Dog-Walking Agency. After knocking the heads off some ugly porcelain pigeons at her desk in the antiques department of an auction house, she decided to change careers—and, it must be said, her life. She’d recently had a conversation with a dog walker, so she chose that as her next job. Her mother was blunt: “This is a GHASTLY mistake.”

Still, MacDougall plunged in. Her first client was an impossibly energetic Jack Russell named Frank (a girl) who loved her special ball more than anything. It started fabulously but didn’t end well—a Rottweiler ate Frank’s ball—and with that first mishap, the young entrepreneur began to grasp that while dog walking sounded simple enough, there were challenges galore when it came to getting clients, keeping them happy and making enough money to live on.

As MacDougall figured out her new career, she realized that humans were often harder to handle, especially where their beloved “dog children” were concerned. One owner sent a stern email with the subject line “Mud.” It read, “Winston is NOT allowed in mud—as you know. I presume this was an awful accident?” Needless to say, the blissfully mud-rolling Winston had not been consulted about this rule.

Each chapter of this lively memoir features a dog (or two), some humans, adventures, laughter, tears and a running tally of how many dogs MacDougall has walked (beginning with one in 2006 and ending with 100 in 2014). There were some setbacks, including the 2008 recession. But there was love and growth, too, as she and her boyfriend married and acquired their own dog, Mabel.

If MacDougall is as skilled with dogs as she is with a pen, it’s no wonder her agency became number one. London’s Number One Dog-Walking Agency bounds along with the energy of a rambunctious pup and exudes the wisdom of a beloved canine with an old soul (you know the type). MacDougall’s writing sparkles with humor, joy and wit. And for dog lovers, of course, the best part is: It’s all about dogs.

If Kate MacDougall is as skilled with dogs as she is with a pen, it’s no wonder her dog-walking agency became number one.

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