Deborah Hopkinson

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.

Two of America’s most distinguished figures in children’s literature combine their formidable talents to create a moving biography of the great Maya Angelou. In Maya’s Song, Newbery Honor author Renée Watson (Piecing Me Together) chronicles the pivotal milestones and emotional touchstones of Angelou’s extraordinary life in a series of lyrical free verse poems, lavishly illustrated with four-time Caldecott Honor recipient Bryan Collier’s vibrant watercolor and collage artwork. The result, like Angelou herself, is an American treasure.

In addition to plays, essays and poetry, Angelou penned seven autobiographical works, and it would be a challenge for any biographer to encompass all the details of her complex, eventful life. Watson handles this challenge easily in a 48-page picture book format.

Watson’s beautiful, heartfelt poems provide young readers with both historical and emotional context, while a concluding timeline provides factual highlights. In 1993, Angelou became the first woman and first Black person to present an original poem at a presidential inauguration. She achieved another first in 2022, when her likeness became the first portrait of a Black woman to be featured on the U.S. quarter.

Watson’s exquisite poems are enhanced by Collier’s evocative art. In his illustrator’s note, Collier (All Because You Matter) invites readers to examine the way he uses color, especially blue, to illuminate Angelou’s tumultuous childhood, which included a devastating sexual assault by her mother’s boyfriend. The trauma she experienced and the man’s subsequent murder left Angelou mute for five years. It’s impossible to tell Angelou’s life story without this event. Watson does so with sensitivity, telling readers that “When Maya was seven years old, / her mother’s boyfriend / hurt her body, hurt her soul,” placing the focus on Angelou’s recovery through literature, poetry and the love of her family, especially her grandmother and brother.

Angelou was many things: a poet, a dancer, a singer, a world traveler, an award-winning author and a civil rights activist who counted figures such as James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. as friends. Most of all, she was an inspiration. In her author’s note, Watson describes being moved to tears the first time she heard Angelou speak. “I have held Maya Angelou’s words close to me my whole life,” she writes. “Her words guide me, heal me, inspire me.” Young readers who meet Angelou through Maya’s Song will surely look at her face on the U.S. quarter with a better understanding of the remarkable woman who earned such a tribute.

Through lyrical poems and lavish watercolor and collage artwork, Renée Watson and Bryan Collier create a moving biography of the remarkable Maya Angelou.

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.

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.

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!

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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