Julie Hale

For the bibliophile on your shopping list, we've rounded up the year's best books about books.

The Madman's Library

The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities From History by Edward Brooke-Hitching is a must-have for any bibliomaniac. Over the course of this splendidly illustrated volume, Brooke-Hitching reviews the history of the book, investigating a variety of forms and a wide range of media but always emphasizing the extraordinary. 

Along with a number of wonderful one-offs (a book composed of Kraft American cheese slices), there are giant books (the 6-foot-tall Klencke Atlas) and tiny books (a biography of Thomas Jefferson that literally fits inside a nutshell), books that are sinister (a volume with a cabinet of poisons concealed inside) and books that are sublime (the medieval Stowe Missal with its ornate reliquary case). Astonishing from start to finish, The Madman's Library stands as a testament to the abiding power and adaptability of the book.

Unearthing the Secret Garden

Marta McDowell looks at the life of a treasured author in Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett. Born in 1849, British novelist Burnett published more than 50 novels, including The Secret Garden. McDowell delivers an intriguing account of Burnett's botanical and literary pursuits and the ways in which they were intertwined. She highlights Burnett's enduring love of plants, tours the gardens the author maintained in Europe and America and even dedicates an entire chapter to the plants that appear in The Secret Garden.

McDowell, who teaches horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, has also written about how plants influenced the work of Emily Dickinson, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beatrix Potter. Filled with marvelous illustrations and historical photographs, her new book is a stirring exploration of the natural world and its impact on a literary favorite.

The Annotated Arabian Nights

The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales From 1001 Nights, edited by scholar and author Paulo Lemos Horta, provides new perspectives on a beloved classic. Rooted in the ancient literary traditions of Persia and India, the collection of folktales known as The Arabian Nights features familiar figures such as Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin and Shahrazad, the female narrator who spins the stories.

This new volume offers a fresh translation of the stories by Yasmine Seale, along with stunning illustrations and informative notes and analysis. The tales, Horta says, deliver "the most pleasurable sensation a reader can encounter—that feeling of being nestled in the lap of a story, fully removed from the surrounding world and concerned only with a need to know what happens next." This lavish edition of an essential title is perfect for devotees of the tales and an ideal introduction for first-time readers.

We Are the Baby-Sitters Club

We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays and Artwork From Grown-Up Readersis a delightful tribute to author Ann M. Martin and the much-loved Baby-Sitters Club series she introduced in 1986. Propelled by memorable characters, primarily tween club members Kristy, Stacey, Claudia and Mary Anne, who run a babysitting service, the series tackles delicate family matters like adoption and divorce, as well as broader topics such as race, class and gender.

In We Are the Baby-Sitters Club, Kelly Blewett, Kristen Arnett, Myriam Gurba and other notable contributors take stock of the popular books and their lasting appeal. With essays focusing on friendship, culture, identity and—yes—the babysitting business, this anthology showcases the multifaceted impact of the series. Nifty illustrations and comic strips lend extra charm to the proceedings. Edited by authors Marisa Crawford and Megan Milks, the volume is a first-rate celebration of the BSC.

Bibliophile

It's almost impossible to peruse Jane Mount's colorful sketches of book jackets and book stacks without being possessed by the impulse to dive into a new novel or compile a reading list. For her new book, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines, Mount teamed up with author Jamise Harper to create a thoughtful guide to the work of marginalized writers that can help readers bring diversity to their personal libraries.

With picks for lovers of historical fiction, short stories, poetry, mystery and more, Bibliophile: Diverse Spinesbrims with inspired reading recommendations. The book also spotlights literary icons (Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison) and treasured illustrators (Bryan Collier, Luisa Uribe, Kadir Nelson). Standout bookstores from across the country and people who are making a difference in the publishing industry are also recognized. With Mount's fabulous illustrations adding dazzle to every chapter, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines will gladden the heart of any book lover.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

The universe of words is steadily expanding thanks to author John Koenig. In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Koenig catalogs newly minted terms for hard-to-articulate emotional states: conditions of the heart or mind that seem to defy definition. Ledsome, for instance, is his term for feeling lonely in a crowd, while povism means the frustration of being stuck inside your own head.

Drawing upon verbal scraps from the past and oddments from different languages, Koenig created all of the words in this dictionary. He started this etymological project in 2009 as a website and has since given TED talks and launched a YouTube channel based on his work. "It's a calming thing, to learn there's a word for something you've felt all your life but didn't know was shared by anyone else," he writes in Obscure Sorrows. Koenig's remarkable volume is the perfect purchase for the logophile in your life.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Stumped on what to buy for the reader who’s read everything? We’ve got six picks for the book obsessed.

Each of these picture books explores the most complex emotion of all: love. They're the perfect gift for a young child or a new or expecting parent, exquisite keepsakes for families to cherish and pass on as the years go by.

★ What Is Love?

Author Mac Barnett spins a remarkable story from a simple question in What Is Love?. When a boy asks his grandmother what love is, she suggests that he venture into the world to find an answer for himself, so the lad leaves home on an unusual quest. Along the way, he encounters a wide range of characters, each of whom offers a different perspective on the meaning of the emotion. 

For the carpenter, love is a house that "wobbles and creaks." The structure may be unsteady, the carpenter says, "But in the end, the thing stands." For the actor, love is applause from an adoring audience. "At that moment," the actor tells the boy, "you know: You exist. You are seen." Yet these and other responses fail to satisfy the boy. Not until he returns home, having reached adulthood, is he able to identify for himself the meaning of love.

Barnett's story is profound and accessible, a tale infused with a sense of adventure and a timeless quality. Carson Ellis' illustrations add color and energy to the proceedings. Thanks to her fanciful, detailed depictions, each character the boy encounters has a distinct personality. This journey will inspire readers to consider the book's central question and come up with answers of their own.

Bigger Than a Bumblebee

In Joseph Kuefler's delightful Bigger Than a Bumblebee, a mother introduces her child to the wonders of the world, but none of them compare to the miracle of the love they share. In beautifully poetic text, the mother explains to her "darling" that they are both smaller and larger than their animal friends—smaller than the brown bear and the giraffe, but bigger than the mouse and the porcupine. In the end, though, what matters most is love, an emotion that cannot be measured: "Love is me and you," she says. "Our love is small, but it is big, too."

Kuefler's splendid illustrations portray an array of natural phenomena, from faraway stars in the night sky, to a stream teeming with toads and fireflies, to a patch of desert populated by birds and a solitary long-eared jack rabbit. Young readers will be captivated by the dynamic spreads and the creatures, great and small, that Kuefler includes. A moving celebration of the majesty of nature and the bond between parent and child, Bigger Than a Bumblebee powerfully delivers a heartfelt message: Love is limitless and unquantifiable, a force that knows no boundaries. 

★ My Love for You Is Always

In the warm, wonderful My Love for You Is Always, a young boy quizzes his mother about the nature of love. "Does it have a taste or a smell?" he wonders as he helps her in the kitchen. As she puts together a traditional Chinese feast for their family, his mother takes inspiration from the dishes they're cooking to answer his questions. Author Gillian Sze's text is full of sensory imagery. Love, the boy's mother tells him, "tastes sweeter than the red dates I put in your soup. My love is that savored first bite of spun sugar." When the boy asks, "Does it make a sound?" his mother replies, "Sometimes it's crisp like winter radish. Other times it's quiet like simmering broth."

Michelle Lee's colored pencil and gouache illustrations are sweet and soft. Through images of swirling fish, delicate cranes and a fabulous crimson dragon, she brings a touch of magic to Sze's tale. The ritual of the family meal—sharing food that's been prepared with care and intention—adds a unique layer to the story and underscores the sense of abundance and comfort that love can provide. My Love for You Is Always closes on a cozy note and an image of mother, son and other relatives gathered together for dinner. From start to finish, it's a charming and delicious tale.

l'll Meet You in Your Dreams 

Jessica Young and Rafael López pay tribute to the connections between parents and children in their lovely, lyrical book, l'll Meet You in Your Dreams. It's narrated by a parent who offers an inspiring message about the power of familial love to encourage youngsters to make discoveries about the world, pursue their passions and achieve independence.

Young's rhyming text contains refreshing imagery and makes allusions to the natural world—a mouse and a mole snuggling in an underground den, and a hawk and an eagle soaring over the earth—to highlight the many facets of love, showing how it can nurture, protect and inspire. Her brief, uplifting stanzas add to the story's appeal. "As you grow, I'll be with you, / for every step, your whole life through," the narrator says. "And where the future gleams . . . / I'll meet you in your dreams." 

López's out-of-this-world illustrations reflect the buoyant spirit of Young's text. They follow two different parents and their children in whimsical scenes that capture the marvels of wildlife and  the passage of time. A joyful examination of parental love and its ability to provide a solid foundation for children—a starting point from which anything is possible—I'll Meet You in Your Dreams is a precious title that's sure to become a family favorite.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

These beautiful picture books, perfect for gifting, offer moving depictions of love in all its forms.

Some poets have the power to illuminate and articulate the most secluded parts of a reader's heart and mind. In these new books, three renowned poets offer compassion and fresh perspectives on the human experience.

Such Color

Such Color: New and Selected Poems provides a welcome overview of the career of former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. The cumulative effects of history and identity are central to much of the work in this magisterial book. In poems such as "A Hunger So Honed," Smith probes human motivation and the nature of desire: "perhaps we live best / In the spaces between loves, / That unconscious roving, / The heart its own rough animal." 

Smith also explores Blackness as a communal experience, one that connects her with past generations and those to come. In "Photo of Sugarcane Plantation Workers, Jamaica, 1891," she sees herself in the figures captured on camera: "I would be standing there, too. / Standing, then made to leap up / into the air. Made to curl / and heave and cringe. . . ." These are poems of possibility, as Smith considers the past while looking for a way forward.

Goldenrod

Communication in all its varying modes is a recurring theme, from social media posts and handwritten notes to the unexpected autocorrections of text messages. "In the Grand Scheme of Things" explores the limits of language: "We say the naked eye / as if the eye could be clothed. . . . We say that's not how / the world works as if the world works." Throughout this wise, lucid collection, Smith captures the wonder and bewilderment that come with being human. She's excellent company for readers in need of connection.

In Maggie Smith's wonderfully companionable collection of poems, Goldenrod, she takes on timeless topics such as nature, history, family and memory. In "Ohio Cento," she writes, "What we know of ourselves / gets compressed, layered. Remembering / is an anniversary; every minute a commemoration / of being." 

Poet Warrior

In her beautifully executed memoir Poet Warrior, Joy Harjo recalls her upbringing as a member of the Muscogee tribe in Oklahoma and reflects upon her development as a writer. Harjo, who is serving her third term as U.S. Poet Laureate, grew up with an abusive stepfather and a creative, hardworking mother. She learned early on that literature could provide solace and escape, and she takes stock of her poetic influences in the book, counting Audre Lorde and N. Scott Momaday as key figures in her development.

Harjo mixes poetry and prose, history and memory, Native lore and family stories to create a collagelike account of her experiences. "As I near the last doorway of my present life, I am trying to understand the restless path on which I have traveled," she writes. Fans of nonfiction and poetry alike will savor this sublime memoir.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Three renowned poets offer compassion and fresh perspectives on the human experience.

In How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment―The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life, mystery and thriller author Sophie Hannah looks at the positive aspects of grudge-holding and how they can lead to personal growth. Drawing on her own experience and the input of psychotherapists, Hannah urges readers to stop trying to suppress negative feelings and offers advice on how to use grudges to strengthen relationships. She discusses forgiveness and the importance of letting go in a dryly funny, refreshingly down-to-earth tone in this guaranteed conversation-starter.

Shannon Lee passes on the philosophies of her famous father, action movie legend and cultural icon Bruce Lee, in Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee. Grounded in martial arts, a practice that Lee faithfully followed from an early age, the teachings shared in this inspiring book are geared toward self-realization and inner growth. The author emphasizes her father's "be water" mantra and explains how it can help us be more flexible, adaptable and at ease in our daily lives. Highly relevant subjects such as living with change and defining yourself and your identity will get book clubs talking.

In You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters, New York Times contributor Kate Murphy delivers tips on how we can improve our listening skills, stop getting sidetracked and focus on the present. In a brisk and lively narrative, she talks with professional listeners (including a CIA agent) and checks in with psychologists and sociologists for insights into the process of listening. A rewarding selection for reading groups, Murphy's book offers numerous discussion topics, including technology's impact upon communication and the human need for connection.

Readers who are seeking a sense of purpose will find a helpful guide in Casper ter Kuile's The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities Into Soulful Practices. Ter Kuile feels that even as traditional notions of community change, we can still find meaning, connection and (yes!) joy in our daily routines with pastimes like yoga, journaling and reading. Through these simple pursuits, ter Kuile believes we can cultivate contentment. His hopeful book will guide readers on their individual journeys, and his thoughts on the meanings of community and personal fulfillment will trigger lively dialogue within reading groups.

These truly inspiring self-help books will energize and refresh your reading group.

From ants to whales, these inviting nonfiction books offer eye-opening perspectives on animals.


In Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Rebecca Giggs considers the background and mythology of the mighty whale. Tracking the creature across centuries through a spellbinding survey of history, science and art, Giggs evaluates the whale's enduring importance and shows how its relationship to the environment has altered over time. With stops in Australia and Japan, Giggs' fluid account will captivate readers, and questions related to species' extinction and environmental degradation will spark inspired dialogue among book clubbers.

Beloved naturalist Edward O. Wilson became intrigued by ants as a boy in Mobile, Alabama. That interest developed into a lifelong preoccupation, and in Tales From the Ant World, he shares personal anecdotes and scientific insights related to the insect. From the fire ant to the uncommon New Caledonian bull ant, Wilson looks at 25 different species. His book is packed with fascinating ant-inspired trivia and research stories, and Wilson's always absorbing voice makes potentially dry subjects such as biodiversity, the world's ecosystems and scientific methodology endlessly fascinating.

Patrik Svensson's The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination With the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World sheds new light on an elusive animal. Although research studies related to the eel are plentiful, scientists still know very little about the fish. For example, eels have never been observed giving birth or mating, and they inexplicably swim back to the ocean near the end of their life, even though they spend the majority of their time in fresh water. Svensson chronicles the eel's remarkable existence through a synthesis of history, science and memoir. Readers will find plenty to talk about in his compelling narrative, such as evolution and the limits of scientific research.

Jennifer Ackerman investigates avian traits in The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think. Providing a fresh take on our fine-feathered friends, Ackerman analyzes recent scientific research into bird habits related to communication, reproduction and feeding practices. She takes a multifaceted approach to her subject, creating a narrative that will cause many readers to revise their perceptions of birds as simple creatures. Book clubs can dig into rich topics such as animal cognition and species development.

From ants to whales, these inviting nonfiction books offer eye-opening perspectives on animals.

These four provocative nonfiction books offer fresh perspectives on our nation.

A first-rate collection of essays gathered from Southern Living and Garden & Gun magazines, Where I Come From: Stories From the Deep South by beloved memoirist Rick Bragg provides unique insights into the author’s corner of America. In these brief but powerful pieces, Bragg’s curiosity ranges far and wide as he reflects upon personal interests (pickup trucks, Southern cuisine, country music) and more universal matters (race and religion). Offering a kaleidoscopic look at the contemporary South, this colorful compilation is sure to inspire rousing discussions. 

David Gessner takes readers on an unforgettable tour of the nation’s monuments and parks in Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. Gessner gives an overview of the life and conservation work of Theodore Roosevelt and also shows how that work remains significant today as he visits Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and other sites. Subjects such as environmentalism and the future of public lands will get book clubs talking, and Gessner’s humor and incisive observations make him a wonderful traveling companion.

In Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, Margot Mifflin delivers a fascinating historical survey of the Miss America pageant. Using the contest as a gauge of the advancement of women in America, Mifflin traces its evolution from a tourist attraction in Atlantic City in 1921 to a scholarship contest 100 years later. Her brisk, spirited narrative will entertain readers even as it presents fruitful material for discussion, with topics as wide-ranging as the #MeToo movement and the role of pageants in society.

Ojibwe author David Treuer gives a fresh account of Native American history in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Blending history and reportage with personal narrative, Treuer sets out to show that, contrary to the story told in books such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Indigenous culture was not destroyed in the late 19th century. Rather, it is still alive and vibrant today. Authoritative yet accessible, his book is rich in talking points, including contemporary depictions of Native Americans in popular culture and the impact of the American Indian Movement.

These four provocative nonfiction books offer fresh perspectives on our nation.

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