Deborah Hopkinson

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.

Magda Hellinger was a 25-year-old Jewish kindergarten teacher when she was deported to Auschwitz from Slovakia in March of 1942. She was one of the few who survived more than three years in a concentration camp, eventually relocating to Australia, where she lived to be almost 90. During her lifetime, Hellinger shared her experiences in interviews with organizations such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, all while secretly writing a memoir of her experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Nazis Knew My Name is grounded in that memoir, self-published in 2003, but enhanced by Hellinger’s daughter, Maya Lee, who has added further research and details from her mother’s oral testimonies. The result is a compelling and seamless portrait of a young woman who managed to survive and save others through cunning bravery and compassionate leadership.

At the core of Hellinger’s approach was this: “I constantly encouraged women to work together—a very simple form of resistance. A lonely, isolated woman was always more vulnerable than one who had others looking out for her.” Her determination and use of resistance tactics emerge time and again in this chronological account of her imprisonment, which lasted until the end of World War II.

When Hellinger was given the role of block leader at Auschwitz, she realized it was crucial that the prisoners under her charge avoid any behavior that would attract attention from Nazi officials. She therefore focused on trying to keep the women under her care as healthy as possible, making sure newcomers understood the rules of the camp and warning them of the most volatile guards. And while it was dangerous to challenge SS officers directly, at key moments Hellinger did exactly that, often risking her own life to win some small concession, such as replacing worn clothing for the prisoners.

The strain of Hellinger’s various roles must have taken an enormous psychological toll. At one point, she had 30,000 women under her care, yet she didn’t falter and always returned to the touchstone of cooperation. She mobilized others to improve sanitary conditions, ensure that food was distributed fairly and hide the most vulnerable prisoners to prevent them from being selected for the gas chamber. “If we could do these things, we might save a few lives, or make life a little more bearable,” Hellinger writes. “But we had to work together.”

The Nazis Knew My Name offers dreadful insights into the workings of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but at its heart, it remains an extraordinary portrait of one young woman who fought for others in the midst of unimaginable horror.

Holocaust survivor Magda Hellinger offers a compelling memoir of fighting for others in the midst of unimaginable horror.

In his debut picture book, Nigel and the Moon, author Antwan Eady introduces a young boy named Nigel Strong. Every night, Nigel travels to the moon to share his hopes and aspirations. Nigel wants to go to space as an astronaut or leap like a ballet dancer, but most of all, he’d love to become a superhero.

During career week at school, Nigel is beset by doubts. As he pages through books about occupations at the library, he doesn’t find any dancers with brown skin who look like him. While his classmates eagerly announce what they want to be when they grow up, Nigel holds back. It’s one thing to share his secret dream of being a superhero with the moon, but quite another to say it out loud in his classroom. And when his classmates discuss their parents’ occupations, Nigel asks to be excused, worried that everyone will laugh because his parents don’t have “fancy jobs.”

But when Nigel’s mom, a postal carrier, and his dad, a truck driver, visit his class on the final day of career week, their enthusiasm for their work lights up the room. Nigel, too, beams with pride after his dad declares, “Raising Nigel’s been the best job we’ve ever had.” His parents’ support gives Nigel the courage he needs to share his dreams with his peers.

Illustrator Gracey Zhang’s ink, gouache and watercolor illustrations vividly capture the lush green trees and brightly colored houses over which Nigel soars each night on his way to the moon. Zhang’s images expertly convey Nigel’s emotions. The deep blue of the night sky and the large, luminous moon complement his nightly musings. In one spread, while his classmates share what their parents do for a living, Nigel sits at his desk on the opposite page, isolated and alone, surrounded by white space.

Eady’s spare text tells a simple but powerful story about believing in yourself and being proud of your family. A final, wordless image shows Nigel peering out his bedroom window at the moon once more, inviting readers to wonder what he might be dreaming of—and to consider their own hopes and dreams, too.

Nigel and the Moon tells a simple but imaginative story about believing in your dreams and finding the courage to share them with others.

As the subtitle of his debut work of nonfiction suggests, Dr. Greg Brennecka is a scientist with a sense of humor and a flair for making complex topics both understandable and entertaining. In Impact: How Rocks From Space Led to Life, Culture, and Donkey Kong, he makes the case that what connects the solar system, humanity, life on Earth and, last but not least, Donkey Kong, is meteorites.

Brennecka is a meteoriticist and a cosmochemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory whose research interests include the early solar system. Perhaps all cosmochemists learn early on to be good communicators, but Brennecka at least has taken great pains to organize and write Impact with general readers in mind. He begins at the beginning, with explanations of what meteorites are and why scientists study them, and then he proceeds to trace the history of meteorite hits on Earth, including the impact (excuse the pun) of a meteorite called Theia that triggered the formation of the moon.

Greg Brennecka share a little scientific advice for all those who feel inspired to study the stars after reading ‘Impact.’

Brennecka also covers the history of the scientific understanding of meteorites, arguing that modern meteoritics crosses many disciplines, including astronomy, geology and chemistry, and that studying these rock samples are invaluable to scientific inquiry. But it’s not just science at stake. Solar events, such as the appearance of comets, also have cultural and historical significance. For example, William the Conqueror and Genghis Khan took the appearance of Halley’s comet as a cosmic sign in support of their military endeavors.

While the scope of Impact is impressive and far-reaching, Brennecka’s clear, succinct narrative style makes for fascinating reading throughout. His lighthearted approach extends to the illustrations, which include diagrams, cartoons and photos. For instance, in a discussion of the role that solar events have played in shaping human history, one photo of a solar eclipse is captioned: “Solar eclipse. Time to freak out.”

While Brennecka is writing for an adult audience, Impact will also appeal to teenagers who love space and science. As the author makes clear in his closing section, the study of meteorites takes a village, requiring researchers—and perhaps future researchers—from many fields. There is still much to be discovered about these rocks that fall out of the sky, and Impact will make even space novices feel eager for those discoveries to be made.

Greg Brennecka is a meteoriticist with a sense of humor and a flair for making complex topics both understandable and entertaining.

Greg Brennecka is a cosmochemist with a sense of humor and a flair for making complex topics both understandable and entertaining. We asked him to share a little scientific advice for all those who feel inspired to study the stars after reading Impact.


No doubt you get this a lot, but what exactly is a cosmochemist?
Ha, well, most people don’t even ask—probably because they just figure it’s something completely made up. I guess I would properly define cosmochemistry as the study of extraterrestrial materials with the goal of understanding the origin and evolution of our solar system and our cosmic neighborhood. But basically, it’s just looking at stuff not from Earth to learn cool things.

The subtitle of your book is quite memorable: How Rocks From Space Led to Life, Culture, and Donkey Kong. What was your history with Donkey Kong before writing Impact?
To be honest, I am more of a Ms. Pac-Man fan, but I also enjoyed the original Donkey Kong arcade game quite a bit growing up. I also usually choose a Donkey Kong character when racing in Mario Kart because I love throwing bananas all around the course. Please don’t hate me for that.

Your book brims with wit and humor. Have you ever considered stand-up cosmochemist comedy?
If there is a job more made up than “cosmochemist,” it is “stand-up cosmochemist comedian”!

Read our starred review of ‘Impact’ by Greg Brennecka

Many of the concepts in Impact are highly technical and complex, yet you’ve found a way to make them accessible to readers. What’s your secret?
My secret is that I am not that great at discussing things in a technical way! I think it helps that a lot of the questions we ask in geology and meteoritics are straightforward questions, such as “When did this happen?” or “What happened that could make it look like this?” There may be some technical aspects to how we get at the answers, but the questions and goals themselves are usually very relatable to readers of all backgrounds, and I think that makes my job as a writer a lot easier.

Asteroids have been in the news of late, with NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. What excites you most about it?
One thing to keep in mind with DART: It’s conceivable that we will need to adjust the path of an asteroid to keep it from hitting Earth someday, so making sure we know how to do that is a pretty sound preparation. And I know that “sound preparation” isn’t usually associated with excitement, but I am always very excited by humanity striving to do cool and difficult things, advancing our capabilities.

What’s the most common question about asteroids that you get?
For asteroids specifically, probably whether Earth is going to be hit by one—which probably isn’t a surprise given the popular Hollywood movies on the subject. When it comes to meteorites—the small chunks of asteroids that land on Earth—I sometimes get asked about being hit by one, but also often about what they are worth if you find one. I guess that tells us pretty clearly what motivates people: fear and money.

“Basically, it’s just looking at stuff not from Earth to learn cool things.”

If you could be magically transported to another planet so you could get a better look, which would you choose?
Oooh, that is tough. I would probably be most interested in a planet’s potential ability to harbor life, so it would be hard to argue with Mars. Do moons count? Because if so, probably one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, like Europa or Enceladus. There are some potentially habitable exoplanets that are being discovered almost daily now, as well, so some of those would be incredible to check out up close.

If you could go back in time on Earth, what would you want to see most?
Wow. I would probably want to figure out how life got its start on Earth, so I would travel to sometime around 4 billion years ago. If I had a second choice, perhaps Cretaceous age or so when the dinosaurs were cruising around. I wouldn’t last long, but it would be an exciting few minutes!

What has been your most breathtaking experience looking through a telescope?
For me, it probably didn’t even take place while using a telescope. Just lying down and looking at the stars in places without light pollution, I get a real feeling for how vast, diverse and dynamic the cosmos are. It blows me away every time I get the chance.

“I am always very excited by humanity striving to do cool and difficult things.”

Your book combines a love of history with a love of science. Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?
This is an easy one: Bill Bryson. His A Short History of Nearly Everything was an incredibly influential book for me and really got me into learning about the history of science and culture. I reread it in 2017, and the lack of information about meteorites is what inspired me to write Impact. I also really enjoy stuff by Mark Kurlansky (Salt) and Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind).

Your book ends with a discussion of some of the most fascinating unanswered questions in space science. What research are you working on now?
My colleagues and I are working on a few different topics mentioned in the book. One is searching for the source of water on Earth. Currently we are doing this using lunar rocks, of all things, but I think we are onto something, so keep an eye on the scientific literature. Secondly, we are working on what I like to call “cosmolocation,” which is studying meteorites to find out where they originally formed in the solar system. Basically, this involves re-creating the solar system’s structure from when it first started—before all the planets formed and moved everything around to where it is now.

There’s a long tradition of amateur astronomers. What advice do you have for someone who wants to start studying the night sky?
This might be a weird answer, but I would let them know that they don’t need to buy that big backyard telescope as a first step. There is so much open-access data available from NASA and other agencies that people can just poke through and make discoveries on their own using data about the surface of Mars or deep space images from space telescopes like Hubble. There is a lot yet to be discovered in those data troves, should one feel like getting involved.

A bona fide meteor master shares the secret behind his accessible, fascinating and funny debut, Impact.

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