Deborah Hopkinson

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.
Interview by

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.

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.

These two picture books—one set in the city, the other set on a farm—remind us that wherever we may be during the Christmas holiday season, there’s always something special about coming together to care for others and share simple gifts. 

With all her heart, Deja wants to believe in Santa, despite the doubts that her classmates have instilled in her. After all, her family’s apartment doesn’t have a chimney, and really, just how could Santa actually live at the North Pole? Deja’s mom sets out to answer these and many other questions about how Santa navigates the big city to find their home. She even reveals how he finds Deja when her family spends Christmas with their relatives in Jamaica. 

In the process, readers see glimpses of Deja’s family and community, from Mr. Clark, who cares for their apartment building, to Mr. Ortiz at the bodega, to Deja’s aunties and uncles. They’re all happy to answer Deja’s questions about how Santa works and provide evidence that “magic always finds a way.” Although Deja hopes to pose her questions directly to the source by staying up late to catch Santa in the act, well, we all know that small eyes eventually close, even on Christmas Eve. But Santa leaves behind a very special message for Deja, ensuring that the young believer will enthusiastically begin counting down the days to the next Christmas.

Tiffany D. Jackson’s lively, heartwarming text is brought vividly to life by Reggie Brown’s bright, bold artwork that depicts Deja’s close-knit community within a bustling and colorful city setting. Many children share Deja’s questions about how Santa can find them (How will he get into the building? Where will the reindeer land?), making this book an excellent alternative to Santa stories about families who live in houses with chimneys and depict only white Santas and Santa’s helpers. Santa in the City is a wonderfully magical and inclusive holiday story. 

When her parents announce that they’ll be keeping Christmas simple this year, the young narrator of Phyllis Alsdurf and Lisa Hunt’s A Simple Christmas on the Farm is less than enthused. For one thing, her dad explains, they’ll be making all their own presents. But after the girl and her mom pick out a small, straggly Christmas tree, she gets into the spirit of focusing “less on getting and more on giving,” and makes a plan to host a gathering of friends and neighbors in their little red barn.

The girl and her mom bake cut-out cookies, and as the girl hands them out, she invites members of her diverse rural community to the celebration. Among the attendees are the girl’s grandparents, who live nearby, a nurse at the senior center that the girl and her mom visit every month and the town veterinarian and her family. The ensuing feast is a delicious spread that includes candied yams, roast beef, tamales and, of course, Christmas cookies, all set against the warm glow of the barn’s interior, decorated with pine garlands and string lights.

Hunt’s artwork tends toward simple shapes and bright colors, giving it a folksy feel. She often sets off outdoor scenes with white space, which emphasizes the snowy landscape. Alsdurf extends her story’s theme in a practical way by including instructions for three easy projects that families can make together at home, such as star-shaped ornaments the girl creates with her grandmother from scraps of fabric and old buttons.

Just as in Santa in the City, A Simple Christmas on the Farm ends as the narrator looks forward to another Christmas, highlighting one of the simplest joys of the season, no matter where or how it’s celebrated: the secure knowledge that it will always come again. 

Wherever we may be during the Christmas holiday season, there’s something special about coming together to care for others and share simple gifts. 

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.
Behind the Book by

"Do you know what building this is?” I ask a gym full of third graders as I direct their attention to my next slide.

“Empire State Building!” several voices call out. (Good start. Sometimes kindergarteners think it’s the Eiffel Tower.)

“Exactly! Any idea how old it is?”

“A hundred years,” someone yells. “Ten years,” another guesses.

A boy in front raises his hand excitedly. Maybe he’s a kid who’s really into history, I think. Maybe he’ll nail it on the first try.

I call on him. “How many years old do you think it is?”

“Five thousand!”

Right. Well, therein lies one reason I like to write books that tie into historical anniversaries. Anniversaries help give kids a touchstone—a way to make sense of all that amorphous past that happened before they were born.

It’s a start if, after I visit a school, children can remember a few things: there are cars in the illustrations of Sky Boys, the Empire State Building book set in 1931, but none in Apples to Oregon, a pioneer tale set in 1847; or that not every black-and-white photograph of a man with a beard is a president. More importantly, I hope students continue to find ways to connect with and understand the lives of those who have lived before us.

In addition to Sky Boys, written for the 75th anniversary of the Empire State Building, I’ve published a book on Matthew Henson, co-discoverer of the North Pole in 1909 and Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek, in honor of the Lincoln bicentennial in 2009.

And that brings me to my new book, The Humblebee Hunter, inspired by the life and experiments of Charles Darwin with his children at Down House.

All right. I know. All this talk of anniversaries and I’m a year late. Anyone who was paying attention to the Lincoln hoopla last year knows that Darwin and Lincoln were born on the same day—February 12, 1809.

Sometimes that’s just the way it goes.

Besides, Charles Darwin—as a transformative thinker and scientist, a lifelong naturalist and as a father and family man—is worth reading and writing about in any year.

I first began research on Darwin for a biography for young readers I published in 2005 entitled Who Was Charles Darwin? Among my valuable resources were biographer Janet Browne’s two volumes on Darwin, Voyaging and The Power of Place. (I recommend both, along with Darwin, Discovering the Tree of Life by Niles Eldridge, curator of the American Museum of Natural History.)

Actually, it was visiting the Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in June 2006 that inspired me to write a picture book about Darwin’s family life. (It’s not the same as seeing a Galapagos turtle in person, but you can still access the exhibit online.)

As I turned a corner of the exhibit and came upon the recreation of Darwin’s study at Down House, I stopped short, transported into the epicenter of Darwin’s creative life.

This is where he wrote and worked, I thought. Here was a desk crowded with papers, pens and a microscope. And there was his comfy old armchair near the hearth, where he wrote using a cloth-covered board set across the arms. There were shelves crowded with notes for the Origin of Species. And, of course, a bed by the fire for his dog, Polly.

One could almost imagine Darwin here. But it wouldn’t have been Down House without something else—the clatter of children’s feet and the noisy, happy racket of young voices.

Charles and Emma Darwin had 10 children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. And while Darwin never traveled far after returning from his legendary voyage, biographer Janet Browne describes Down House itself as a kind of Beagle, “a self-contained, self-regulating scientific ship.”

While Emma ran things efficiently, Darwin could work in his “cabin”—his study. The children and Darwin’s numerous, far-flung correspondents became a kind of crew, ready to help with a wide variety of natural history experiments from flowers to pigeons, from worms to bees.

Bees were a favorite Darwin subject, and Darwin’s articles on bees are still cited today. In Voyaging, Browne writes that watching her husband bending over a flower, “Emma got the feeling that Darwin would have liked to be a bee above all other species.”

I was fortunate when working on The Humblebee Hunter to have the guidance of talented editor Tamson Weston at Hyperion, who paired the manuscript with gorgeous illustrations by artist Jen Corace that capture the love and warmth of the Darwin family at Down House. The story begins this way:

One summer afternoon, Mother and Cook tried to teach me to bake a honey cake.
But raspberries glistened in the sun, and birds brushed the air with song.
More than anything, I wanted to be outside.
Then, out the window, I saw Father, home from walking on his Thinking Path.
He stopped in the kitchen garden and bent over the beans. He wanted to study the bees.
Mother smiled and brushed a speck of flower from my cheek.
“Henrietta, I think your father would become a bee, if he could. Just like them, he’s always busy.”

While we have descriptions of at least one bee experiment Darwin did with his children, I can’t be sure the experiment described in the fictional The Humblebee Hunter—counting the number of flowers a humblebee visits in a minute—is one that Darwin and his children did together.

But in a letter written to the British horticultural periodical, “The Gardener’s Chronicle” on August 16, 1841, Darwin describes the number of flowers he saw a humblebee (bumblebee) suck in one minute.

Like Darwin, I did research, involving my family on summer days, bending over flowers to watch bees at work. (My results were pretty close to Darwin’s but not always exact.)

So, any idea as to the number of blossoms a bumblebee visits in one minute?

You may have to wait for summer to experiment yourself.

In the meantime, here’s a hint: it’s not 5,000.

Deborah Hopkinson gardens and writes near Portland, Oregon, where she serves as vice president for advancement at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Visit her on the web at (And if you really want to know Darwin’s count, of course you should do research. The answer appears in Letter 607 in the Darwin Correspondence Project.)

"Do you know what building this is?” I ask a gym full of third graders as I direct their attention to my next slide. “Empire State Building!” several voices call out. (Good start. Sometimes kindergarteners think it’s the Eiffel Tower.) “Exactly! Any idea how old it is?” “A hundred years,” someone yells. “Ten years,” another […]

There’s nothing quite as exciting for young readers as mastering chapter books. Books for newly independent readers come in all shapes and sizes, and this season brings some wonderful new titles, as welcome as the first flowers of spring.

A messy dilemma
Spring, of course, is also the time for bunnies, and from Katherine Hannigan, best-selling author of Ida B, comes the endearing story of Emmaline and the Bunny featuring illustrations by Hannigan herself. Emmaline wants a bunny more than anything else. But she is the most untidy person in the very tidy town of Neatasapin, where the mayor has banned all animals. Emmaline feels lonely and isolated and a bit, well, different—she even digs holes in the dirt! As it happens, the bunny she hopes to befriend turns out to be as untidy, and as lonely, as Emmaline herself. Hannigan’s charming tale will appeal to messy children everywhere, and will also make a great read-aloud for their not-so-neat parents.

Saddle up, mate
For young horse lovers, a new series launches this year with Horse Crazy 1: The Silver Horse Switch written by Alison Lester, with illustrations by Roland Harvey. Set in Australia, where it was first published, this engaging title includes a glossary of Australian terms. (Double-dinking, for example, means two people riding on one horse.)  Bonnie and Sam (short for Samantha) are horse-crazy kids in the rural town of Currawong Creek. Sam’s father is a policeman. One day they make a fascinating discovery: her father’s horse seems different somehow. Could it be that a brumby (a wild horse) has decided to exchange places with the policeman’s grumpy mare? Can this new horse face the emergencies that come her way? A second title in the series, Horse Crazy 2: The Circus Horse, is also available, giving young readers another reason to ride along with Bonnie and Sam.

All by myself
How much should parents help with homework? That question is at the heart of the humorous story How Oliver Olson Changed the World by Claudia Mills, with pictures by Heather Maione. When Oliver’s teacher tells the class that one person with a big idea can change the world, Oliver wonders how he could ever come up with a big idea of his own—his parents help him too much! Ever since he started school late because of being sick, his parents have worried so much about him (and his grades) they won’t let him do anything without help, even build a space diorama. But when Oliver and Crystal team up together for the space diorama, everything is about to change. Kids—and some parents (you know who you are!)—will appreciate this warm and humorous story about one family’s struggle for balance.

Meeting in the middle
Speaking of parents, Kate Feiffer’s first chapter book, The Problem with the Puddles, illustrated by Tricia Tusa, boasts two unforgettable parents in Mr. and Mrs. Puddle, who cannot agree on anything—including a name for their daughter. Her mother calls her Emily; her father calls her Ferdinanda. Everyone else calls her Baby. Of course, that’s not the only thing the Puddles agree to disagree on. Like the new first family, the question of what kind of dog to get becomes a major family decision. In the case of the Puddles, since they can’t agree, the next best thing is simply to get two dogs, a big one and a little one—both named Sally. Young readers will savor this rollicking adventure that eventually brings a family together on a street that perhaps belongs in our nation’s capital: Compromise Road.

Deborah Hokinson’s new book, Home on the Range: John A. Lomax and His Cowboy Songs, is a Junior Library Guild selection.

There’s nothing quite as exciting for young readers as mastering chapter books. Books for newly independent readers come in all shapes and sizes, and this season brings some wonderful new titles, as welcome as the first flowers of spring. A messy dilemma Spring, of course, is also the time for bunnies, and from Katherine Hannigan, […]

Since the first Harry Potter book burst onto the literary scene more than a decade ago, there’s been an explosion of fantasy literature for young people. Many of today’s teens grew up with Harry Potter and, along the way, have become avid fans of the genre. These discriminating fantasy readers have a lot to choose from these days, and this season brings some wonderful new titles from around the world.

Unlocking a mystery
First published in England, Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron is a thought-provoking, original tale about a secret prison unlike any other: Not only is the gate sealed, but the prison itself is alive. The world inside the prison is dark, violent and terrifying, especially for Finn, who cannot remember how he came to be there. From time to time Finn has shadowy memories of a time before he was inside Incarceron, yet he can never quite piece his past together. All he knows is that he has to try to escape, even though legend has it that only one man has ever reached the outside world.

And in that outside world lives Claudia, the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron. While she lives Outside, Claudia is trapped in other ways: by an arranged marriage to a prince she despises, by her tense relationship with her harsh father and by her entire society, which has been virtually frozen in a past era. When Claudia and Finn both find a crystal key, they discover the ability to communicate. Claudia suspects that she has uncovered something else as well: the secret of Finn’s true identity. With Incarceron, Fisher creates a world of danger and suspense that will keep readers ensnared.

Faeries, vampires and lunatics
Holly Black, the talented and best-selling author of Tithe and Valiant, is releasing her first collection of short stories, The Poison Eaters and Other Stories. Some of the stories have been anthologized in other collections or echo the author’s other works. There is an amazing range here, in both the stories and the settings, which take readers from castles to cities to a boarding school. “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” is a chilling tale about vampires, while “In Vodka Veritas” tells the story of a boy at a boarding school coming to terms with his sexuality.

Black has a gift for creating the kind of edgy, original stories teens love. She describes this collection as “rather like a lunatic cocktail party: a poisonous girl, who spends most of her undeath arguing with her ghostly sisters, a costume designer still mourning a childhood lover stolen by faeries, a wolf who might also be a prince, and a teenager who needs to drink herself into oblivion to keep from craving human blood.”

A classic quest story
Australian author Melina Marchetta, winner of the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award for Jellicoe Road, now tackles fantasy in Finnikin of the Rock, which won the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel in Australia. Finnikin was just a boy when the kingdom of Lumatere was overthrown and its royal family murdered. Some citizens of Lumatere, including Finnikin, were sentenced to exile, while others have been confined in horrible conditions in refugee camps where fever reigns. Without a true heir to the throne, it seems impossible to break through the curse that binds all those who remain inside the walls of Lumatere and overturn the imposter king.

But then, 10 years after these terrible events, Finnikin and his mentor Sir Topher are summoned to escort a young novice named Evanjalin, who claims she can walk in her sleep through the dreams of the people of Lumatere. Has she seen the lost prince, who may yet live? Can the curse be broken and justice restored? Finnikin is not sure, and moreover, he finds Evanjalin’s often unpredictable behavior challenging—and sometimes just plain annoying. Yet together with Sir Topher, they set out on a quest through the Land of Skuldenore with the hope of restoring justice and healing the suffering of the people of Lumatere.

This is a wonderful, engrossing reading experience with strong characterizations and a rich, fully realized setting. Marchetta is a marvelous storyteller, and the many fans of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy will find this to be not only a book with echoes in our contemporary world, but an engrossing page-turner that begs to be read in one sitting—and then read again. Finnikin of the Rock has all the makings of a classic.

Deborah Hopkinson’s newest book for young readers is The Humblebee Hunter.

Since the first Harry Potter book burst onto the literary scene more than a decade ago, there’s been an explosion of fantasy literature for young people. Many of today’s teens grew up with Harry Potter and, along the way, have become avid fans of the genre. These discriminating fantasy readers have a lot to choose […]

Can teens today get enough of fantasy? Luckily for readers who grew up on series such as Harry Potter and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, this ever-expanding genre is continuing to attract new and distinctive voices, producing imaginative offerings for discerning teen readers. Here are three titles representing some of the best new work in fantasy.


Nnedi Okorafor, who teaches creative writing at Chicago State University, has written for both teens and adults, winning critical acclaim and honors such as the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. Okorafor, who was born in the U.S. to two Nigerian parents, sets her latest book, Akata Witch, in Nigeria. But like the author herself, Sunny, the heroine, is American by birth.

Sunny isn’t having an easy time of it in school. She is an albino, which means not only must she carry a black umbrella everywhere to protect her skin from the sun, but she is also teased and ridiculed by her peers. Her first friend is her classmate Orlu, who introduces her to a girl named Chichi. But these are not ordinary teen friendships: Before long Sunny finds that, like her companions, she is one of the Leopard People, someone imbued with magical powers. Soon the three friends, plus an American boy named Sasha, are being trained by Anatov, their teacher, in the mastery of their magical powers—which they will have to draw on to confront a serial killer of children who is terrorizing the community.

This is a wonderful coming-of-age story with an intriguing setting and an original magical world that will draw in readers. As Sunny comes to terms with her growing powers, she also discovers a connection to her late grandmother, and manages to find a way to navigate the two separate worlds of her existence. Teens beginning their own life journeys apart from parents and home will find much that resonates in Sunny’s story.


Cindy Pon’s new novel is the conclusion to her debut title, Silver Phoenix, named one of the Top Ten Fantasy Novels of 2009 by Booklist. In Silver Phoenix, readers were introduced to Ai Ling, a 17-year-old girl in the kingdom of Xia, who has magical abilities, including the capacity to throw her spirit outside of herself in order to listen to others or even touch their spirits. In the first book, Ai Ling met Chen Yong, a young man of mixed races who was searching for the truth of his birth. As Fury of the Phoenix begins, Ai Ling stows away on the same ship as Chen Yong, concerned for his safety as he undertakes a long and dangerous sea journey to continue his search for his birth father.

When Ai Ling is discovered on board the Gliding Dragon, she pretends to be Chen Yong’s sister who has stowed away to be near her brother. The ship’s captain, Peng, is a fair and wise leader, who suspects that the relationship between Ai Ling and Chen Yong is not what it appears. As the journey progresses, the story alternates between Ai Ling’s onboard adventures and the story of a young man named Zhong Ye, the highest-ranking adviser to the Emperor. Ai Ling and Zhong Ye are inextricably linked through a mysterious past: “She could almost see his pale gray eyes, felt as if it were yesterday that their spirits entangled when she killed him. No matter how often she tried to push Zhong Ye from her mind, he lingered, festering like some dark wound.”

Cindy Pon weaves an intricate tale of adventure and romance in Fury of the Phoenix, creating a magical yet believable world infused with the incense of its ancient Chinese setting.


Like Cindy Pon’s work, Malinda Lo’s novels also draw their inspiration from China culture, with shades of Irish folklore as well. Her first novel, Ash, has been described as “Cinderella . . . with a twist.” In Lo’s novel Ash is not swept away by a prince, but falls in love with Kaisa, the King’s huntress.

Huntress is set in the same world as Ash, but the story takes place many centuries earlier, during a time when nature is out of balance. The sky is continually overcast, and the sun has not shone in a long time; people are faced with starvation because of failing crops. Not only that, strange creatures are beginning to appear, some masquerading as human children.

When an invitation from the Fairy Queen arrives, two 17-year-old girls are tapped to make the journey to try to help restore balance in the human world. Taisin is the most celebrated student seer of her generation, but Kaede can’t figure out why she is being asked; while she has been studying at the Academy of Seers for years, it is clear she doesn’t have a magical bone in her body. Yet she has other skills, including the ability to throw a knife. And, as Kaede soon discovers, there is another reason for her selection: Taisin has had a vision of her. In fact, Taisin’s vision reveals her deep love for Kaede—a love that is forbidden because Taisin wants to be a seer, and seers must be celibate.

Filled with dangerous adventure, an evocative setting and a compelling romance between its two leads, Huntress is an appealing and exciting offering from this talented author.

Can teens today get enough of fantasy? Luckily for readers who grew up on series such as Harry Potter and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, this ever-expanding genre is continuing to attract new and distinctive voices, producing imaginative offerings for discerning teen readers. Here are three titles representing some of the best new work in […]

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