Norah Piehl

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Marlene dreads Sundays, when she and her mom, Paola, spend most of the day at the salon undergoing the excruciating (and excruciatingly boring) ritual of getting their hair straightened. Marlene, who is Dominican American, has an imagination as vivid and untameable as her naturally curly hair, so she survives each week’s torture session by imagining herself as the star of her favorite show, “Super Amigas,” with her stylist as a supervillain. 

But Marlene’s creativity is no match for the hurtful comments that her relatives make about her cousin Diana’s “good hair,” which is showcased in all its glossy glory at Diana’s quinceañera. And unlike on “Super Amigas,” there’s no way for Marlene to win this battle. After encouragement from her best friend, Camilla, and a little help from a YouTube tutorial, Marlene decides to wear her natural hair to school, but she gets ruthlessly bullied by her classmates and punished by her mom. How can Marlene be proud of who she is if everyone around her constantly makes her feel imperfect?

For her first graphic novel, Claribel A. Ortega, the bestselling author of Ghost Squad and the Witchlings series, is joined by debut artist Rose Bousamra. The result is a spirited story of a girl’s quest to embrace who she is. Bousamra’s artwork skillfully portrays lively city scenes and cozy interiors alike. They use a palette of roses, plums and soft teals to play perfectly off the warm brown and russet tones of Marlene’s skin and hair. Scenes pulled from Marlene’s imagination break through panel outlines, reinforcing her exuberance and growing frustrations.

Frizzy is an intimate mother-daughter drama that sensitively explores the concept of so-called “good hair,” a manifestation of racist beauty standards, as well as how such internalized anti-Blackness gets passed down through generations. Eager to value her unique identity, Marlene eventually learns how to advocate for herself, and her journey to proud self-acceptance is nothing short of joyful. In the end, readers are left to imagine what new weekly adventures Marlene and her mom might discover together, outside the stifling walls of the salon.

In this intimate mother-daughter drama, the journey to proud self-acceptance is utterly joyful.
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Patrick Radden Keefe is an expert in long-form journalism, and his particular specialty is the so-called “write around,” in which a journalist constructs a profile of an individual, even if that person can’t or doesn’t want to be interviewed. In Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks (15.5 hours), Keefe compiles 12 such essays, originally published in The New Yorker between 2007 and 2019, with updates appended. Among these are portraits of “Survivor” creator and producer Mark Burnett, food writer Anthony Bourdain and the drug lord Joaquin Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo. 

The author reads his own work with care and conviction, giving listeners a good sense of why he’s such an effective interviewer and storyteller. Furthermore, each chapter is about an hour long, which makes this audiobook a particularly good choice for fans of true crime podcasts.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘Rogues,’ plus two other true crime masterpieces.

Each chapter of Patrick Radden Keefe’s Rogues is about an hour long, which makes this audiobook a particularly good choice for fans of true crime podcasts.
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When award-winning health science journalist Linda Villarosa’s New York Times Magazine article on the racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality rates went viral, it was clear her reporting had struck a nerve. In Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation (10 hours), Villarosa expands her research to look more broadly at how systemic racism contributes to health inequities for Black Americans, regardless of income or education levels. She underscores the urgent need for all Americans to understand how this discrimination harms our entire health care system. 

Award-winning narrator Karen Chilton’s serious yet approachable tone strikes just the right balance for Villarosa’s writing, clearly outlining the facts and figures the author uses to build her case while also conveying warmth during the many personal anecdotes Villarosa incorporates throughout. This is essential listening for anyone hoping to understand the roots of health care injustice in America.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘Under the Skin.’

Under the Skin is essential listening for anyone hoping to understand the roots of health care injustice in America.
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Recent high school graduate Aria Tang West was looking forward to spending one last summer with her two best friends before starting as an astronomy major at MIT in the fall. But that was before some topless photos, taken by a boy without Aria’s consent, made their way to social media. The slut shaming that followed resulted in the ruin of Aria’s reputation—and the retraction of invitations to her friends’ summer houses.

Instead, Aria makes her way from Massachusetts to Northern California, where she’ll spend a quiet summer with her beloved grandmother, Joan. A well-regarded artist, Joan enlists Aria to assist her in cataloging her late husband’s research files, some of which she hopes to incorporate into a sculpture.

Aria definitely doesn’t have sex or romance on her summer agenda, especially after what happened back home, but she nonetheless finds herself drawn to Steph, an aspiring musician who works as Joan’s gardener. Aria’s attraction to Steph, who is genderqueer, calls into question everything Aria thought she knew about herself, but Aria’s sexuality is just one aspect of her journey of self-discovery during this life-changing summer.

In an author’s note, Malinda Lo reveals that she’s been working on this bittersweet novel of love and loss for a decade. A Scatter of Light functions as a companion to Lo’s award-winning 2021 novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, and though fans will delight at cameos by a few of that novel’s characters, it’s absolutely not necessary to have read the earlier book to understand and appreciate this one. 

However, A Scatter of Light is set in the summer of 2013 as the U.S. Supreme Court overturned California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state’s constitution that eliminated the right to same-sex marriage. It’s fascinating to compare this novel to the 1950s-set Last Night at the Telegraph Club, and to consider the vastly different experiences of falling in love as a young queer person at these two moments in history. Aria’s story is not just about discovering and embracing your sexuality. It’s also about what it means to be an artist, a friend, a daughter and a granddaughter, and about how identities of all kinds can converge and crystallize as part of the process of growing up.

During a life-changing summer, Aria questions everything she thought she knew about herself as she falls for Steph, a musician who works for Aria's grandmother.
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Seventeen-year-old Harper Proulx lives her life on Instagram. Her lattes and lunches, her enviable day trips, even (if she’s being honest) her artsy boyfriend—they’re all curated for maximum appeal to her growing list of followers, whose validation she craves.

When one of those followers leaves a comment about Harper’s resemblance to a person named Dario, Harper is momentarily taken aback but not entirely surprised. Since she was young, Harper has known that she was conceived through a sperm donation, and she soon connects with her doppelganger and confirms that they are, in fact, half siblings. But Harper is stunned when Dario tells her that they have at least 40 more half siblings out there in the world—and that their sperm donor appears to be a beach bum named Beau Zane.

Reeling from a breakup and on something of a whim, Harper decides to join Dario and two other half siblings on a summer trip to Hawaii to meet Beau. She’s nervous about the idea, but at least the photos of Hawaii will look stunning on her Instagram, right? But nothing could prepare Harper for what she discovers on her trip, including a new understanding of identity and family, and a renewed appreciation for the world itself.

Deb Caletti (A Heart in a Body in the World) is far from the first YA author to tackle the hazards of a life lived online and the potential toll on teen mental health and relationships. But Caletti’s sophisticated, intricate storytelling brings complexity and richness to The Epic Story of Every Living Thing as the award-winning author explores themes of anxiety, found family and the natural world. Even the novel’s love story plays out in remarkable fashion, with subtlety and insight.

Caletti takes readers on a voyage that unfolds gradually and mirrors Harper’s own journey of discovery as she learns to witness “the whole of it, the grand tapestry.” The Epic Story of Every Living Thing is both deeply introspective and profoundly engaged with the world, making for a novel that embraces imperfection and inspires empathy.

When Harper embarks on a journey to meet her sperm donor, nothing could prepare her for what she'll discover in this rich, sophisticated novel.
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It’s just weeks before graduation, and supersmart, beautiful Shara Wheeler—prom queen and daughter of the principal of Alabama’s conservative Willowgrove Christian Academy—has disappeared. But not before kissing her academic rival, Chloe Green, a move that both shocks and intrigues Chloe. Casey McQuiston’s young adult debut, I Kissed Shara Wheeler (9.5 hours), is both a mystery (of sorts) and an unconventional romance, as Chloe’s hunt for Shara shakes up Willowgrove’s senior class.

Readers who have fallen in love with McQuiston’s thoughtful, funny queer romances for adults (Red, White & Royal Blue and One Last Stop) will be charmed to see how the author  applies their storytelling skills to the teen milieu. Narrator Natalie Naudus admirably voices more than a half-dozen significant characters, imparting individuality and personality to teens embracing a variety of identities.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘I Kissed Shara Wheeler.’

Narrator Natalie Naudus voices more than a half-dozen significant characters in Casey McQuiston's young adult debut, imparting individuality and personality to teens embracing a variety of identities.
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Bonnie Garmus’ Lessons in Chemistry (12 hours) is a funny, fearlessly feminist historical novel about chemist Elizabeth Zott, a woman who is thoroughly unmoved by the repressive standards of her time.

It’s the early 1960s, and Elizabeth becomes an accidental television sensation as the host of her own cooking show, despite being an unapologetic unwed mother, atheist and (gasp!) scientist. The extraordinary journey of this unconventional and utterly inspiring protagonist is narrated in suitably no-nonsense fashion by Miranda Raison, whose crisp delivery mirrors Elizabeth’s prioritization of rationality over emotion.

Fans who fall for Garmus’ delightful novel will want to stick around for the lively interview with the author, conducted by writer and podcaster Pandora Sykes.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Lessons in Chemistry.

Voice actor Miranda Raison’s crisp delivery mirrors Elizabeth Zott’s prioritization of rationality over emotion in the delightful Lessons in Chemistry audiobook.
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Today is a momentous day for young Juan. After years of hearing about his father’s landscaping business, Juan will come along to help for the first time, armed not only with gardening supplies but also with a sketchbook and drawing tools.

During this perfectly ordinary but splendidly memorable day, Juan assists Papi and another worker, Javier, as they rake leaves, mow lawns and prune bushes. He accompanies them to a gardening supply store, where they select plants and flowers for a client. He also joins them at the dump, where the branches and other waste they have collected will be turned into mulch. Finally, the budding artist meets Papi’s new clients, listens to their vision for their overgrown yard and sketches out a design for their future garden. Inspired by his father, Juan is learning how to “make the world more beautiful.”

In a note at the end of John Parra’s heartfelt picture book Growing an Artist: The Story of a Landscaper and His Son, the author-illustrator reveals that Juan’s story is autobiographical. Working with his father as a young boy inspired Parra to consider a career in landscape architecture and design, though he ultimately took a different path and trained as a fine artist. A photograph of Parra and his father accompanies the note, and the book’s landscaping blueprint endpapers contain a designer’s mark for “Del Parra Landscape Constr.”

Parra incorporates Spanish words and phrases into the text and touches on the importance of Latin American migrant workers to the landscaping industry. It’s an underappreciated job that requires creativity and demanding physical labor. An early scene delicately depicts Juan’s growing recognition of such prejudice: Juan waves to a classmate who is neighbors with one of Papi’s clients, but the boy “looks away and pretends not to see me,” and Juan’s “heart sinks.”

Honoring the great pride that Parra’s father took in his landscaping work, Parra’s characteristically vibrant and finely detailed acrylic illustrations in Growing an Artist depict people and plants with equal affection and respect. The way that Papi points out natural beauties to his artistic young son is tender and moving, and a scene in which he gently lifts a branch to reveal a hidden bird’s nest is especially lovely.

Growing an Artist is a love letter to sons and their fathers, to work done with one’s hands and to making the world more beautiful, no matter what tools are used to do so.

This beautiful autobiographical picture book about a boy who spends the day with his father at his landscaping business is a love letter to those who “make the world more beautiful,” no matter what tools they use to do so.
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Twelve-year-old Sai is an assistant to master mapmaker Paiyoon. Sai loves her job and is good at it, but she has a secret mission: to save enough money to escape her home kingdom of Mangkon, where prospects for the future are inextricably bound up with family lineage. But on Sai’s 13th birthday, she will not receive a ceremonial lineal, the chain of golden links that symbolize her ancestry, because her family has no history—at least, not one to celebrate. Her father is a con man, and much of Sai’s skill for duplicating maps and charts stems from helping her father with forgeries.

As Sai’s birthday approaches, the queen issues a new directive: Now that Mangkon has finally achieved peace for the first time in 20 years, it’s time for the kingdom to rededicate itself to exploration. Master Paiyoon asks Sai to accompany him on a southbound ship, which will journey past the 50th parallel, also called the Dragon Line.

Sai soon discovers that everyone on board the ship has a secret, including Master Paiyoon, Captain Sangra and the charismatic Miss Rian, who earned her lineal through wartime heroism. As the voyage gets underway, Sai learns that even the queen’s mission is built on a secret. A rich prize awaits any crew who can locate the elusive Sunderlands, a remote and inaccessible continent where, according to legend, Mangkon’s long-departed dragons now dwell.

In 2021, author Christina Soontornvat received two Newbery Honors for in the same year, one for a novel, the other for a work of nonfiction—a first in the award’s centurylong history (E.L. Konigsburg previously received a Medal and an Honor in 1968, while Meindert de Jong received two Honors in 1954, but all four awards were for fiction). Soontornvat returns to high fantasy to create the Thai-inspired world of The Last Mapmaker, a standalone tale into which she seamlessly incorporates themes of colonialism and environmentalism.

Sai, whose first-person narration keeps the action moving faster than a ship under full sail, is a complicated and compassionately flawed character. It’s easy to sympathize with her dual struggles to identify whom she can trust and reconcile with her family’s past.

If The Last Mapmaker has a fault, it’s a too-quick resolution. Readers who grow invested in Soontornvat’s characters will wish they had just a little more time to spend with them. On the whole, however, the novel is a compelling quest narrative brimming with adventure, surprises and betrayal.

With action that moves faster than a ship under full sail, The Last Mapmaker is a Thai-inspired fantasy brimming with adventure, surprises and betrayal.
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Silvia Vasquez-Lavado is a truly impressive individual: She’s a philanthropist who’s worked in Silicon Valley’s tech industry, and she’s one of the few women to have climbed all Seven Summits, the Earth’s highest mountain peaks. But as her immersive, inspiring memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain: A Memoir of Courage (15.5 hours), makes clear, her accomplished resume only hints at her remarkable story. Scenes from her life—including her childhood in Peru, her sexual abuse by a trusted adult and her later estrangement from her mother following her coming out as a lesbian—are interspersed with scenes from a climb on Mount Everest, where she’s accompanied by fellow sexual violence survivors who, like the author, have found healing and empowerment through physical challenges.

Through her narration, Vasquez-Lavado, whose first language is Spanish, conveys a lifetime of warmth, humor and steely determination.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘In the Shadow of the Mountain.’

Silvia Vasquez-Lavado narrates her memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain, with warmth, humor and steely determination.
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Eleven-year-old June Yang feels like bad luck follows her family everywhere. First her dad, a bicycle delivery driver, was killed in a tragic street accident. Then her mom, consumed by grief and depression, withdrew from the world, lost her job and June became the de facto caregiver for her 6-year-old sister, Maybelle. And now June’s family has been evicted from their Chinatown apartment and relocated to Huey House, a shelter in the South Bronx for families experiencing homelessness.

At first, everything at Huey House seems strange and disorienting, including the hourslong bus ride to school and the practical jokes played by longtime shelter residents Tyrell and Jeremiah. The final straw is the news that June can’t play her beloved viola at the shelter. But June quickly starts to see how the shelter’s residents help one another and how kindness can manifest in surprising ways. And she discovers that Tyrell, whose brash exterior belies a sensitive heart, a fear of abandonment and a love for classical music, might share some of the same dreams that she does.

Author Karina Yan Glaser is beloved for her critically acclaimed middle grade series about the Vanderbeekers, a large and loving family in Harlem. As she does in those books, Glaser infuses this standalone novel with sweetness and optimism (softhearted Maybelle and her overwhelming love for dogs and other animals is especially appealing) while acknowledging the complexities of her characters’ lives.

In an author’s note that opens the book, Glaser describes how the seeds of A Duet for Home were planted when she worked at a family housing shelter similar to Huey House 20 years ago. She incorporates a real-life policy initiative—a drive to quickly rehouse families experiencing homelessness in inadequate, unsafe facilities without sufficient support systems—into the novel as well. Within the story, Glaser brilliantly illustrates the drawbacks of this policy from a child’s point of view and shows the power of political action through her characters’ responses.

June and Tyrell are memorable and inspiring protagonists, and Glaser surrounds them with a cast of well-developed secondary characters. In addition to Maybelle and Jeremiah, there are also supportive grown-ups such as Ms. Gonzalez (aka Ms. G), the bighearted social worker who knows every resident’s favorite food so she can surprise them with their favorite dishes, and Domenika, the lovably prickly viola teacher next door.

As its title suggests, A Duet for Home is also suffused with music. Glaser even helpfully provides a list of all the compositions referenced throughout at the end of the novel. A Duet for Home portrays how an appreciation for music and a desire to make the world more beautiful can give all young people—and perhaps especially the most vulnerable—a way to believe in themselves.

Karina Yan Glaser infuses A Duet for Home with sweetness and optimism while acknowledging the complexities of her characters’ lives.

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