Celebrate Women’s History Month with inspiring picks for young readers
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Carter Higgins has worked in school libraries, visual effects and motion graphics—and all that experience shows in Some of These Are Snails. This ingenious concept picture book with bold and vibrant artwork that expands on the approach Higgins took in her 2021 book, Circle Under Berry, which asked readers to consider shapes, colors and prepositions such as over, between and above. In Some of These Are Snails, Higgins turns our attention to explorations of grouping, sorting and classification. At just over 200 words, the book may seem simple, but as Higgins reveals, it’s anything but.
You’ve mentioned that your favorite children’s author is Ruth Krauss, whose books include The Carrot Seed, A Hole Is to Dig and The Happy Day. In fact, you even wrote a picture book about her called A Story Is to Share. Can you talk about her influence on these books?
Krauss’ influence on my life both as a reader and a writer has always felt clear and connected. When I was working on Circle Under Berry, I pitched it as “Hervé Tullet meets Ruth Krauss.” Occasionally, I tend toward overwriting or can get too abstracted to make sense, so I’m always looking to Krauss’ unfussy, authentic language for reminders of writing I respond so deeply to. I hope Some of These Are Snails similarly captures logic and poetry in a playful way.
Can you talk about the beginnings of this book and how it began to take shape from there?
I see what you did there! The editorial process on Circle Under Berry exploded with concepts that could have fit in that world, just not in a singular book. Lots of juicy visual ideas were left on the cutting room floor, so I was able to pick up the scraps (so to speak) and create what might come next.
What qualities were important to you to give the text of the book?
The text needed to be sticky: the kind whose rhythms stay in your head for a while, sounds really great out loud but is also doing some unusual things. I’m always writing for sound design, like the echo-y assonance of snails and squares or the consonance at the end of circle and purple. With the book’s relatively limited vocabulary, I was cautious about too many true rhymes that might lead a reader to assume they are reading a rhyming book, only for it to . . . not. It can’t feel like a mistake. One of the greatest things about our language is how fantastic kid-facing words sound. Try these out loud: Octagon! Elephant! Oval! Wiggly! It’s good clay to smash around from the start.
Excluding the jacket and front matter, the book’s text only uses three types of punctuation marks: question marks, a set of hyphens and some apostrophes. How did you arrive at that choice?
Poetry gets to play fast and loose with grammatical conventions, and ultimately that’s what we have here. It’s essentially a song, a rhythm, a cadence—not bound by the same punctuation rules as prose. It’s interesting to note that there are question marks but no other sentence-ending punctuation. Maybe that’s a metaphor for this book asking questions of you but not offering precise solutions.
The apostrophes solved a rhythm problem, deploying a contraction to turn two syllables into one. And it’s just so delightful to think of the conversations that happen around a book-making table: “Should it be ‘tweet tweet tweet’ or ‘tweet-tweet-tweet’?” I don’t remember why we landed on the hyphens, but I love them.
Did you begin these illustrations with sketches or doodles, or by working directly with cut paper?
I did very simple sketches in Procreate, a drawing app for the iPad. At that stage, it was primarily the basic shapes: an orange circle for a tiger, a blue square for an owl. Knowing how each picture would change from spread to spread helped ensure the text is equally surprising and playful.
Did you experiment with different papers or painting tools (brushes, sponge brushes, fingers)? Are the colors we see single shades of paint or multiple shades mixed together?
I painted large sheets of newsprint with acrylics using a very popular process for preschoolers: scrape painting. You squirt the paint directly on the paper and use a scraper of some sort to pull the paint around. I usually chose no more than two colors to make any one piece of paper, but the only color mixing was what happened right on the paper as a result of the scraping. Most of the papers for this book were painted with plastic pizza ads a local restaurant mails out, the kind that snap out like your library card or grocery store rewards cards.
This is a question I think many children will be interested in: Did you use stencils or outlines to cut the shapes, or did you wing it?
Yes, I am a big fan of stencils! The bottom of my pencil cup made the snails’ bodies. A Post-it pad for the elephants. If I needed to make something from scratch, like an octagon or oval, I used postcards.
How did you assemble the finished illustrations digitally?
Once their design was figured out, I created the individual pieces of art: all the ladybugs at once, all the yellow squares, all the worms. After that, I scanned them and made the final compositions in Photoshop. Everything was handmade and physically exists, but the final pictures were assembled digitally.
The book has so many great color moments—pages or spreads where it’s clear that you’re interested in the contrasting or complementing interplay of colors as well as in shapes. Can you tell us about one of your favorites?
Thank you for noticing this! Being intentional with color feels similar to being intentional with the sound of the language. The first four spreads primarily feature green, orange, yellow and blue, so when purple and red are both introduced on the fifth spread, it feels like such a treat. You’ve got a sense of how the book is working, so we suddenly start to experience it differently.
What is one of your favorite shapes and why?
There’s something so mesmerizing about a circle. They are also very elusive and tricky to draw, so it’s satisfying to get that right every once in a while. (But I’ll still happily use my pencil-cup stencil!)
You worked as a school librarian for 10 years. What insights did you gain from that work that you were able to bring to this book?
One of the best things about being a librarian is constantly growing up with your students. You don’t pass them along to the next grade level in the same way classroom teachers need to. A kindergartener and that same reader in fourth grade? Wildly different, very much the same. For this book, I wanted to create a few different experiences depending on the reader’s age, whether you are a toddler or a big kid.
If you could become a fly on the wall during a library storytime in which someone was sharing this book with children, what would you hope to see the storytime provider doing? What would you hope to see the children doing?
You know, I hope it’s a little noisy. I hope kids are shouting out answers and discovering new ways to see something, and that the storytime provider is just happily in the thick of it.
Author photo of Carter Higgins courtesy of The Headshot Truck.
After solving two notorious cold cases, Stevie and her friends from Ellingham Academy are off to jolly old England to uncover the truth about a double murder that took place at a wealthy country estate in 1995. Meanwhile, they’re also dealing with college applications, academic pressures, romantic entanglements and more. In Nine Liars, bestselling author Maureen Johnson offers another satisfying standalone mystery and gives us a chance to spend more time with characters we’ve grown to love.
Nine Liars is your fifth novel about Stevie, but a reader could easily pick it up without having read the previous books. What are the challenges of achieving that effect from your side of the page?
When I set out to write Truly Devious, I was making a detective mystery with the intention of having my detective go off in other books to work on other cases. That’s how most detective novels work—you can pick up pretty much any one of them and read it without knowing the characters beforehand. Of course, you get a little extra if you do.
Doing the “previously on” part—compressing it—can be tricky. I really want the experience to stand alone.
All of your books about Stevie balance page-turning mysteries with real emotional stakes for Stevie and her friends. Did you begin Nine Liars by asking, “What crime do I want Stevie to solve this time?” or “What’s happening in Stevie’s life now?”
It’s the first one, though I’m always thinking about what happens in the second. Stevie’s life—that’s an organic process. The murder mystery is a machine I build piece by piece and assemble carefully. Stevie’s life grows around it, like a flowering vine, she said, writerly.
The case Stevie investigates in Nine Liars is a country house murder. What was appealing to you about this mystery subgenre? What classic aspects were you excited about including—or even putting your own spin on?
The country house murder is a classic puzzle from the golden age of mystery for a reason: You have a set cast of suspects and a contained staging area for the puzzle to play out. Country houses are small enough in the grand scope of things to give the problem limits, but big enough and weird enough to have lots of hidey-holes and passages and things like that.
There’s also an air of unreality to them. They feel like a backdrop, not a place people would really live. That’s part of the appeal of this kind of mystery novel; it’s not meant to feel like a real crime, like people are being hurt. It’s Clue. It’s a revolving cast of professors and butlers and strange relatives who want to know about the will.
In Nine Liars, I wanted to play with that a little. It’s a group of actors, it’s a game, it’s a murder in the woodshed. But then the story continues to the present. The clues are still scattered around. The events in the woodshed had a real impact. And to solve it, Stevie must go back to the stage where this all went down.
We’ve seen Stevie solve cases from the 1930s and the 1970s, but in Nine Liars, she investigates a crime from 1995. How did this more recent setting impact the research you did for this novel?
I was in London for the summer of 1995. I lived there with my friend Kate (who is now my agent is well—we’re close). I was a waitress during the day and a bartender at night; she worked in the office of a theater. We never had any money and mostly subsisted on Honey Nut Cheerios and whatever was left over from my work.
Kate worked in the theater where the show Riverdance was playing. It was the biggest show of the year. Everyone wanted to see it. We had no money to do anything and sometimes paid our rent in change, but we could go see Riverdance every night if we wanted to.
We lived in a flat that had three doors that were impossible to open, so we usually climbed over the trash cans in front of our room and went in through the window, so it was very secure. It was a hot, trashy summer. It was great.
One of the questions Stevie tells her head of school that she’ll study on her trip to the U.K. is why reading about murder can be a comforting activity. What are your thoughts on that question?
It’s a strange one, right? Much is made about the fact that what’s called the golden age of mystery was between and during World War I and II. Books written during that time have a constant background of war. Agatha Christie was doing a lot of writing when England was being bombed. She wrote the final stories for Poirot, a war refugee from Belgium, and Miss Marple in case she didn’t survive. She wanted to be the one to finish her characters. These books, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, respectively, were locked in a bank vault until her death in 1976.
In puzzle mysteries like Christie’s, the world can be made right. There are solutions and often consequences. They serve as a psychological steam valve. Think about the world right now. Nine Liars is coming out into a world of YA readers who have undergone major trauma and confusion. I think there’s a very good reason everyone’s going back to the classic puzzle mystery.
Can you talk about the role that Stevie’s friends Nate, Janelle and Vi continue to play in her life and in these books?
Many detectives famously have partners. Sherlock has Watson. Poirot has Hastings some of the time, and often a random friend or assistant he’s picked up along the way. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are a duo (both in crime solving and in love).
My entire high school and college world was my friends. Stevie has to solve the crime in the context of a real world, full of people, with all the joys and complications they bring.
What was the most challenging part of writing Nine Liars? What aspect of it are you most proud of?
I work quite hard on the puzzle and making sure I’ve checked everything. By the end, I feel like I am doing embroidery and using tweezers, placing each little detail—the necessary clues, the fakeouts. I love watching it work. It’s like I’ve built a monster out of spare body parts and then it gets off the slab!
What do you love about coming back to the character of Stevie after four books?
I’ve been writing Stevie for several years now. She’s good company. She never moves my stuff.
Author photo of Maureen Johnson courtesy of Angela Altus.
Bestselling author Alyssa Satin Capucilli offers an imaginative series of rhymed metaphors for love. Her text playfully twists colloquialisms (“you’re the wide in my world”) striking on heartfelt truths rather than cloying sentimentality. Illustrator Devon Holzwarth’s vibrant artwork matches the elegance and emotion of Capucilli’s prose and elevates All That Is You from very good to breathtaking.
A young girl’s grandfather recounts how “the world of a thousand thousand things” was created when a beam of light pierced the darkness and scattered sparks into “everyone and everything.” Author Rachel Naomi Remen adapted The Birthday of the World from a tale originally told to her by her grandfather, an orthodox rabbi. Remen writes in unadorned, moving prose about the power in finding the lights inside ourselves and others, while illustrator Rachell Sumpter’s artwork is suffused with warmth and wonder.
Marcy Campbell’s deceptively simple The More You Give follows three generations of a family as they share gifts and plant seeds both literal and figurative. Campbell anchors the story in wonderful specifics (“big hugs, and bigger laughter, and the very biggest Sunday-morning pancakes”) and skillfully repeated phrases, such as the “wild and wooly caps” of acorns that each generation plants in the field surrounding their house. Illustrator Francesca Sanna’s bold colors and stylized figures enable readers to track characters as they grow from child to adult, their faces clearly expressing the love they feel for one another.
With this story of two teens desperate to leave their small town, Tahir proves she’s just as skilled at contemporary fiction as she is at epic fantasy.
This epic tale of queer validation is an essential read for anyone searching for a blueprint of their soul.
Introspective and profoundly engaged, Caletti’s new novel embraces imperfection and inspires empathy.
Norton’s stellar novel might be the most punk rock book ever written about religion and forgiveness.
The most impressive accomplishment in McQuiston’s first YA book is complicated Shara Wheeler herself.
This exploration of queer identity ferociously resists the idea that coming out is a simple or straightforward process.
Woodfolk plumbs the depths of friendship and first love—and the grief that often comes with navigating both.
Against the backdrop of a cutthroat Scrabble tournament, Alkaf explores loss, celebrates teen determination and sets up a nail-biting mystery.
This heart-pounding fantasy graphic novel is filled with silly banter and fast-paced battles.
Hammonds takes on two challenges—exploring the ugly legacy of racism and telling a moving love story—and succeeds at both.
A Year to the Day is simultaneously gut-wrenching and heartening, as grief and love so often are.
In her beguiling debut, Stringfellow shows how fantasy tales can be more true than ordinary life.
This remarkable novel will be as meaningful to today’s young people as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was for earlier generations.
Never forgetting the complexities of her characters’ lives, Glaser infuses A Duet for Home with sweetness and optimism.
In spare, carefully chosen words, Faruqi builds an absorbing drama that rings with authenticity and emotion.
With exceptional style and empathy, Hummingbird addresses weighty themes in a jubilant yet realistic way.
This cleverly conceived graphic novel celebrates both individuality and community while transcending language barriers.
The Last Mapmaker brims with adventure, surprises and action that moves faster than a ship under full sail.
Liz Garton Scanlon’s compelling middle grade novel glows with empathy and understanding.
This historical novel in verse is a skillfully crafted look at the life of a child working in dangerous conditions.
Tumble movingly reminds readers that sometimes heroes (and villains) are not who they seem—both in life and in a wrestling ring.
In her debut as an author, Caldecott Medalist Goade imbues nature with an enchanting, otherworldly beauty.
This impressionistic story highlights the importance of having a place to relax, roam and be yourself.
Carlie Sorosiak and Devon Holzwarth’s flawless picture book rings with a tender truth: When you are with the ones you love, everywhere you go is home.
Two-time Caldecott Medalist Blackall offers a sophisticated, openhearted ode to what truly makes a house a home.
This wise, warm picture book explores the abundant and everyday courage of children with a light touch.
In this tale of dreams, dragons and determination, a tiny owl becomes an unexpected hero.
This riveting rocket of a tall tale makes readers feel like they have courtside seats to an epic basketball game.
Based on the life of the author’s grandparents, this exquisite piece of historical fiction is a love story for the ages.
Through lyrical poems and lavish artwork, Maya’s Song creates a moving biography of Maya Angelou.
Understated humor has never been so laugh-out-loud funny as in this perfectly paced, playful picture book.
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 Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things, Maya Prasad follows the four Singh sisters—big sister Nidhi, twins Avani and Rani, and Sirisha, the youngest—through a life-changing year as they find love, healing, adventure and more. Their story unfolds against the idyllic backdrop of the Songbird Inn, their family’s home and business on Orcas Island, nestled on the Pacific Northwest coast in Washington state.
Can you give us a quick introduction to your debut novel and the four Singh sisters?
Drizzle, Dreams, and Lovestruck Things is the story of the four Singh sisters over four seasons as they navigate new passions, breathtaking kisses and the bustle of their father’s cozy cliffside inn.
Fall begins with Nidhi, the eldest practical sister. She thinks she has her life planned out. Winter moves on to Avani, who can’t sit still. If she does, her grief for Pop, their dad’s late husband, will overwhelm her. In spring, we come to Sirisha, who has always felt more comfortable hiding behind the lens of her camera than actually speaking to people—especially pretty girls. Summer is when hopeless romantic Rani finds that her Bollywood fantasies might finally be coming true!
How did you decide which sister’s story would unfold in which season?
Each sister’s story has a thematic connection to the season: letting go like an autumn leaf, dealing with the bitter cold of loss, allowing new love to blossom like a springtime bud and celebrating dreams finally coming into fruition.
Like the Singhs, you are one of four siblings. Are any aspects of the Singh sisters’ relationships with one another drawn from your own family?
There isn’t a one-to-one correlation between the Singh sisters and my family, but I did draw from familiar sibling dynamics: Nidhi’s maternal practicality as the eldest; Sirisha’s feeling as if her sisters have everything figured out and wondering how she can speak among so many loud voices; the sibling mind melds as well as the clashes; and the chaos and laughter that come with a big family.
One of the things I really love about the novel is how your prose shifts during each sister’s section to reflect her perspective. How did you arrive at that approach?
It was both a pleasure and a challenge to be able to create four different voices. For each sister, I used a different device related to their personalities: Nidhi’s lists, Avani’s verse, Sirisha’s contrasts between what she wants to say and what she actually says, and the screenplay bits that represent Rani’s forays into Bollywood fantasies.
But creating unique voices involved more than that; I also differentiated each sister’s sentence structures and tics. Introspective Nidhi’s voice feels the most classic and traditional to me, with some lyrical descriptions to represent her dreamy side. Avani has a lot of parenthetical asides to represent how she often gets distracted. Short fragments in Sirisha’s section are like the snapshots she’s always taking; they also represent how she has trouble expressing herself verbally. Finally, Rani’s voice is imbued with a lot of humor and has a mix of colloquial language and hyperbolic grandeur.
In the end, voice is about creating a unique worldview. Since I was writing Indian American characters, I hoped to show that we are not a monolith, and that each sister is an individual with their own dreams and ambitions and relationship to their identity.
Which sister’s section was the most challenging to write and why? Whose was the most fun and why?
Avani’s verse sections were definitely a challenge! I hadn’t experimented with the medium much and I was a little nervous. But it was important for me to try, because I think that poetry can truly bring out the emotions of grief and loss in a way that feels visceral and resonant.
Nidhi’s midnight adventure was my favorite chapter to write. I loved playing with the language to evoke the feeling of escape and beauty in the darkness. I hope readers will find it swoony and breathtaking!
Each sister’s romance hits such individual emotional notes. How did you decide what kind of love story each sister would experience?
Just as the seasons are related thematically, I developed each love story to correspond with the sisters’ character arcs. They each find someone who understands and appreciates their unique qualities, as well as someone who not only sees past their flaws but maybe even sees those flaws as strengths. I think that’s what we’re all truly searching for: to be celebrated for being ourselves.
The sisters have really specific interests, from baking and mural art to photography to romance novels and Bollywood movies and more. Researching these different topics must have been so fun! What did you learn that surprised you? Were there any interests or hobbies that you didn’t have to research at all?
I did a fair amount of research for Sirisha’s photography because I didn’t know any of the lingo or techniques. It actually gave me good insights to improve my own Instagram photography! With the rest, it was more just small things: looking up recipes, rewatching Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, that sort of thing.
I really wanted the setting to be solid though, so once we’d signed the deal, I had a wonderful excuse to visit Orcas Island. The San Juan Islands are a favorite weekend getaway for me, but it had been a few years since I’d been to Orcas. It was delightful to drive around and imagine where the Songbird Inn might actually be located.
Surprising tidbit: Orcas Island isn’t named after killer whales! The origin comes from the Spanish name Horcasitas, in honor of the Spanish explorer Juan Vicente de Guemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo.
What were your inspirations for the utterly delightful Songbird Inn, where much of the novel takes place?
The Songbird Inn is definitely fictional but it was inspired by gorgeous vacation rentals I’ve stayed in while visiting the San Juans and the Canadian Gulf Islands. I knew I wanted the inn to be set on a cliffside with panoramic views, and that it should be south facing to allow the sisters to enjoy both sunsets and sunrises over the water. The details were inspired by Pacific Northwest architecture: Craftsman-style elegance with bay windows and coffered ceilings and cozy fireplaces, and large decks where it feels like you’re peering off the edge of the world.
What are some of your favorite fictional sisterhoods and why?
There should really be more sister stories, period! As the middle sister, I related a lot to Lara Jean in Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, particularly the portrayal of the period when eldest sis is off to college and suddenly you’re supposed to be setting a good example for your cheeky younger sis—who may or may not have a better social life than you.
There’s also Little Women of course, and the nonbiological sisters of Ann Brashares’ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. We too had a pair of jeans that looked amazing on all of us—even though my younger sister is much taller than me. Magic!
The wonderful thrum of family hums in the background of your novel, and by the end of the book, you’ve widened the lens of what a love story can mean to encompass the Singh family’s love for each other. Why was that important for you to do here?
Thank you! I think it’s vital for teens to know that while romantic love is wonderful, there are so many ways to find joy in this world. This novel is a celebration of the love the sisters have for each other, for their father, for their community, for the home they’ve built and—most importantly—for themselves.
What’s something about this book that you’re wholly, unabashedly proud of?
I’m incredibly proud to have created a work of joyful representation for Indian American teens! I think we need escapism, we need those cozy warm hug vibes, and we need to see ourselves as beautiful and worthy of love.
Author photo of Maya Prasad courtesy of Jamilah Newcomer.
A cat must save the moon from being eaten by intergalactic rats in this graphic novel from author Mac Barnett and Caldecott Honor illustrator Shawn Harris. Its madcap silliness and accessible artwork will appeal to the legions of loyal fans eager for more of the laugh-out-loud humor and deceptively simple cartoon-style art sure to be found in Jeff Kinney’s 17th Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, Diper Overlöde.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that most young readers can’t resist a good animal story. Readers hoping to receive Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate’s Odder this holiday season are sure to enjoy debut author C.C. Harrington’s touching tale of a girl and a snow leopard who find each other when they are both most in need.
This illustrated choose-your-own-adventure journey through fractured fairy tales from Laurel Snyder and Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat is deliciously meta, which is why it’s the perfect choice to pair with the boundary-pushing graphics and nested metanarratives that await young readers in Cat Kid Comic Club: Collaborations, the newest release from Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey.
September 12, 2022
As we enter the final stretch of 2022, it’s time to look back on all the amazing books that became bestsellers this year—as if our TBR stacks weren’t tall enough already!
High school senior Brynn Gallagher has recently moved from Chicago back to her Massachusetts hometown, a welcome if difficult change. After a scandal in Chicago got her kicked off the student newspaper, Brynn is now starting over at her old private school, Saint Ambrose.
In an attempt to repair her reputation and impress college admissions officers, Brynn lands a coveted internship at “Motive,” a buzzy true crime TV show. Her first assignment is digging into the four-year-old unsolved murder of William Larkin, a Saint Ambrose English teacher whose body was discovered in the woods by three students.
One of those students is Brynn’s former best friend, Tripp Talbot, who ended their friendship in humiliating fashion. As the anniversary of Mr. Larkin’s death approaches, Tripp is still haunted by the lies he told, and he’s drinking more than ever.
The danger mounts when secrets from Mr. Larkin’s past collide with Brynn’s investigation. Brynn and Tripp are surrounded by suspects, including their own family members, and it begins to look like everyone at Saint Ambrose has a motive for murder.
Nothing More to Tell is another suspenseful page turner from bestselling author Karen M. McManus. In her signature style, McManus (One of Us Is Lying) never gives readers a moment to relax, drawing out suspects and secrets in rapid succession. As the clues build momentum, so will readers’ desire to plow through the novel to see how it all ties together.
However, the most compelling element of McManus’ storytelling is neither the crime nor the victim but the trauma of the survivors left behind. As Tripp drinks to numb his pain, Brynn makes sacrifices to help him, stoking both romance and healing between them. The novel’s well-rounded cast of supporting characters includes Brynn’s feisty genius of a sister; her uncle, who has a troubled Saint Ambrose connection of his own; and Regina, who owns the bakery where Tripp works and is a supportive breath of fresh air.
Brimming with twists and turns, Nothing More to Tell is a fine addition to the genre that McManus helped popularize.
Chloe Green and Shara Wheeler have nothing in common except their goal of beating each other in a ruthless race to become valedictorian of Willowgrove Christian Academy, the best school in their small Alabama town. Chloe is a queer former Californian with two moms and a mean streak; Shara is the principal’s daughter and the de facto princess of Willowgrove. So when Shara corners Chloe in an elevator at school one day and kisses her, questions arise. Things get even stranger when Shara vanishes in the middle of prom, leaving the prom king without a queen and the school buzzing with rumors.
With weeks left until graduation, Chloe is determined to find Shara, but she’s not the only one looking. Star quarterback Smith Parker, Shara’s longtime boyfriend, and Shara’s next-door neighbor, bad-boy Rory Heron, have both been “kissed and ditched” like Chloe. With only the memory of vanilla-mint lip gloss and an increasingly convoluted string of clues to follow, the unlikely trio reluctantly band together to track down Shara—who may not want to be found.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler, the first YA book by adult romance sensation Casey McQuiston, brilliantly deconstructs many tropes common to teen novels published during the first decade of the 21st century, including popular yet troubled girls, outsider heroes and scavenger hunts, complicating them by incorporating queerness, religious trauma and a deep interiority. Likewise, Chloe, Shara, Smith and Rory push against the outlines of their archetypes. The result is a messier and more grounded take on contemporary YA fiction that will appeal to current and former teens alike.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler is self-aware but not self-conscious, and it never condescends to its readers. McQuiston’s prose is quick, witty and referential, striking a balance between the wry way that characters speak in rom-coms and the way that real teenagers actually talk. McQuiston maintains the tone (and frequent absurdity) of the novels they’re emulating as their characters explore issues that teens have always faced. They handle trauma and its impact with nuance and sensitivity, and even tertiary characters feel dimensional.
Shara herself is the most impressive accomplishment here. As if anticipating comparisons to the oft-derided manic pixie dream girls of John Green’s novels, McQuiston takes an affectionate jab at Paper Towns early on: “Of course Shara cast herself as the main character of her own personal John Green novel,” Chloe thinks. Like the seekers in that novel, Chloe, Smith and Rory initially learn more about themselves and each other than about Shara. But as she does with many other elements in this novel, McQuiston twists this trope, going one step further than Green and peeling back Shara’s layers, revealing her to be deeply complicated—smart, insecure, gregarious, selfish and more. She’s clearly no one’s manic pixie anything, and her desperation to be found speaks to her sublimated desire to find herself.
In a letter included with advance editions of the book, McQuiston writes that “I Kissed Shara Wheeler started off as a feeling.” The book’s most potent impressions are also feelings: the rush of nerves before the opening night of the spring musical; the strange magic of driving familiar streets at night; your crush’s name appearing on your phone screen. I Kissed Shara Wheeler assures readers that although hurt is real, love is complicated and friends can let you down, the world is wide and nothing is impossible.
Allison Saft’s second YA novel, A Far Wilder Magic, is an enchanting fantasy tale about two young people, Margaret and Wes, who are drawn together in pursuit of a mythical fox purported to hold alchemical power. Throughout the story, Saft creates magic that feels astonishingly real. Here, she offers a deeper look at A Far Wilder Magic and explores how she gave life to the imaginary world of New Albion.
The idea for A Far Wilder Magic came to me in a glimmer of what felt like magic. For much of 2019, writing felt impossible. I’d recently finished revisions on what would become my debut novel, moved halfway across the country and was desperately trying to figure out what my next idea would be. I wrote a quarter of a new book and immediately trunked it. I despaired that I would never fall in love with a book again.
In writing circles, inspiration is often figured as a lightning strike, or else something that seizes upon you at 2 a.m. and refuses to let go. Now that I’ve gone through this cycle a few times, I’ve come to understand it as something that dwells beneath unturned stones. You have to go looking for it. In that fallow period in the months before I began outlining A Far Wilder Magic, I began searching for it in books.
I found it in The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. It’s a delightfully odd book and easily one of my favorites. Few other books have managed to capture my imagination in the same way. I reread it every year, weeping inconsolably through the last 50 pages of my yellowing paperback edition.
And it isn’t just me. Every year, on the first day of November, thousands of people share the book’s first line on social media: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” TheScorpio Races possesses a powerful magic indeed, to compel its readership to treat the races like an event we can set our calendars by, and I was determined to understand the workings of the spell Stiefvater had woven.
During that 2019 read-through, what struck me most about the novel is that the most magical thing in it isn’t the mythical water horses or the race itself. It’s the atmosphere that informs every choice Stiefvater makes. It’s the way I feel when I close the book each time: like home is a place I have never been before. That was the most important lesson I carried with me as I set out to write A Far Wilder Magic: Magic isn’t a thing, it’s a feeling.
It was something of a revelation, since I most often find myself gravitating toward magic that works like science. In New Albion, where A Far Wilder Magic is set, magic is alchemy. In our (real) world, alchemists strove for purification and perfection. Among their goals were the transformation of base metals into gold and the distillation of an elixir for eternal life. Alchemy was a philosophical pursuit as much as it was a scientific one, and I wanted to capture both of these aspects when I put my own spin on it.
Just as real alchemists did, practitioners of magic in New Albion aim to make sense of the world, to demystify it. Industries have sprung up around alchemized goods, from cosmetics to fashion to military technology, and becoming a licensed alchemist affords social status and political clout. Yet as New Albion modernized, its inexplicable magic began to vanish. All but one of the mythical beasts have been killed, and the last one is hunted each year in a sporting event. When magic is a part of everyday life, when it is in itself mundane, an author needs to create a sense of wonder for the characters—and by extension, for readers—in other ways. That challenge, I think, was what drove me as I wrote.
I’d argue that the true source of magic lies in point of view. The details that a character notices allow me to conjure an entire world. My job as an author is to convince readers that there is magic in even the smallest things. To do this, I think about what associations my narrator attaches to a particular place. What memories does a particular smell awaken for them? What are their eyes drawn to when they step into a room? What gossip have they heard about another character?
Page by page, my setting and characters accrue meaning and texture and history. I can convince my readers that my protagonist is someone with a life, one that began before the reader and will continue after they close the book for the last time. Through the protagonist’s fears, desires and memories, the setting becomes a place the reader could visit, if only they knew the way. Books like that fill me with yearning that almost knocks me breathless, a nostalgia for something I’ve never had at all. That, to me, is far more fantastical than any alchemical reaction.
Sometimes I feel as though Margaret and Wes, the main characters of A Far Wilder Magic, are friends I could call. I carried them with me for months, imagining that they walked beside me and wondering how they would respond to the things around me. Envisioning the world through their points of view made me permeable to wonder in a way I’d never been before.
In a way, A Far Wilder Magic is an archive of the things I was enchanted by as I drafted it: the color of a wave when struck by sunlight; the humbling, silent enormity of the redwoods; the whisper of the wind through the grass; the view from a mountaintop; people, from their most insignificant, charming quirks to their immense capacity for kindness and cruelty. And maybe most of all, the things you notice about the person you love.
The title of A Far Wilder Magic refers to a specific line in the book: “Like this, she looks more wolf than girl, like some magic far wilder than alchemy runs through her.” Although Margaret and Wes initially dislike each other, in this moment, Wes sees something pass over Margaret’s face that renders her almost mythic to him. Throughout the book, he can’t stop noticing small things about her, all the little details that build to something unaccountable. Without even realizing it was happening, he’s fallen in love with her. The wildest magic in New Albion isn’t alchemy. It’s something more intangible.
Author photo of Allison Saft courtesy of Lisa DeNeffe.
Sabaa Tahir’s Ember in the Ashes quartet is one of the most influential YA fantasy series of the past decade. In All My Rage, Tahir proves she’s just as skilled at contemporary realistic fiction.
All My Rage alternates between the perspectives of former best friends Salahudin and Noor. As the novel opens, both teens feel stuck in their small town of Juniper, which is surrounded by the Mojave Desert. Earlier in their senior year, Noor told Sal about the romantic feelings she’d been harboring for him, but Sal rejected her, and they haven’t spoken since.
Sal’s parents, Misbah and Toufiq, run a roadside motel that has seen better days. Misbah has been skipping treatments for her kidney disease, and Toufiq is drunk more than he’s sober. Noor’s uncle adopted her when she was 6, but he resents that raising her has meant deferring his own dream of becoming an engineer and wants her to take over running his liquor store when she graduates.
Noor’s been secretly applying to colleges and ignoring the texts from Sal’s mom asking when she’s going to visit so they can watch their favorite soap opera together again. Yet when Misbah’s health takes a turn for the worse, it’s Noor who’s in her hospital room to hear her last word: “Forgive.” Noor reconciles with Sal and the two grow closer while continuing to keep secrets from each other. As the truth comes to light, Sal and Noor must each decide what can—and should—be forgiven.
All My Rage takes the often cliched all-American trope of two young people who long to leave their small town behind and fills it with moral complexity and emotional heft. The book’s six sections each open with a stanza from “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle about grief and “the art of losing,” which Noor struggles to write a paper about for English class. Sal and Noor experience numerous losses, and Tahir excels at conveying how trauma and tragedy ripple outward, shaping even the lives of those who seem untouched by darkness.
Tahir explores weighty questions, such as how we can forgive someone for hurting us when they should have been protecting us, but she includes frequent moments of wry levity and solace, especially the comfort Noor finds in music and the Muslim faith she shared with Sal’s mother. All My Rage will likely make you cry, but it will definitely make you smile, too.
“If we are lost, God is like water, finding the unknowable path when we cannot,” Misbah tells Noor. Tahir’s invitation to join Sal and Noor on their search for such a path feels like a gift every step of the way.
Olivia Prior has spent her entire life at the Merilance School for Independent Girls, a gray and loveless institution haunted by half-formed ghouls only she can see. Although the ghosts are unsettling, it’s actually the mysterious journal her mother left behind that keeps Olivia up at night. Filled with entries punctuated by ominous drawings in dark ink that suggest her mother descended into madness, the journal tells a strange story Olivia can’t untangle.
One day, a letter arrives at Merilance. It reveals that Olivia has living family members after all and summons her home to Gallant, her family’s estate. But Gallant has ghosts of its own, and within the sprawling house Olivia finds more questions than answers. A gate in the garden leads to a twisted world of dust and death, family portraits are missing from the halls, and one of Olivia’s cousins insists that she should leave Gallant while she still can. Yet no amount of secrets or nightmares can dissuade Olivia from claiming her place in the Prior family.
In her first YA novel since 2017, V. E. Schwab explores what it means to have a home and how a house can be a haven for one person and a prison for another. They juxtapose the pain of losing family with the pain of never knowing one, as characters struggle to preserve whatever scraps of love and comfort they manage to find.
Such fragile familial bonds stand in stark contrast to the macabre imagery of the world beyond the garden gate. When Olivia, who cannot speak and uses sign language, meets someone at Gallant who also signs, or finds traces of her mother’s life through objects in her bedroom, or shares a moment at the piano with her cousin Matthew, these moments carry real emotional weight. But as Olivia discovers more about her past and a connection to the darker side of Gallant, she must decide how far she’s willing to go to hold onto her newfound family.
In addition to its narrative text, Gallant incorporates reproductions of entries from Olivia’s mother’s journal, and dreamlike illustrations by Manuel Šumberac enhance the story’s moody atmosphere. The result is a cryptic tale of familial love and loss that’s perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Seanan McGuire.
In the city of Setar, the capital of the kingdom of Ardunia, Alizeh works her fingers to the bone all day cleaning the 116-rooms of Baz House, a noble estate. At night, she works on commissions as she tries to establish herself as a seamstress. She can only survive this exhausting schedule because of her supernatural strength and endurance. Alizeh is Jinn, and while Jinn and humans have coexisted for many years, Jinn are considered untrustworthy and are not allowed to openly use their magic.
Even among Jinn, Alizeh is extraordinary, with more reason than most to put up with the abuses of life among the servant class. She has been on the run since the death of her parents, and a noble house with a large staff and plentiful security is the perfect place to hide. Yet there are parts of Alizeh’s story that are unknown even to her.
Kamran, crown prince of Ardunia, is destined to succeed his grandfather as king. On a visit home from his military duties, Kamran notices a strange interaction between a street urchin and a servant girl, and fears the servant girl may be a spy from the rival kingdom of Tulan. His suspicions set in motion a series of events he cannot control as Alizeh becomes a wanted woman who is believed to be a significant threat to the king. Kamran’s conflicting principles—loyalty to his king and conviction that Alizeh is not a danger—draw him down a path to find out the truth for himself.
A retelling of “Cinderella” complete with an aspiring seamstress on a crash course toward a fateful royal ball, This Woven Kingdom masterfully incorporates influences from Persian and Muslim history, culture and mythology. Exceedingly powerful but not invulnerable, the novel’s Jinn are an intriguing addition to the YA canon of such figures. Setar is vibrantly evoked, and its wintry climate and snowy landscape set it apart from books with similar plots and themes.
The novel’s standout feature is its language. This Woven Kingdom is a fairy-tale retelling that actually sounds like a fairy tale: Its characters speak like they’re in one, using formal tones and sophisticated vocabularies. That is not to say the novel is devoid of levity. Indeed, the grandiosity of Alizeh and Kamran’s banter adds to the intoxicating sense of wonder and flirtation that marks their interactions.
Tightly paced, with a rollicking set of twists and revelations and a chaotic climax that leads straight to a whopping cliffhanger of an ending, This Woven Kingdom is an exceptional fantasy that blends its various influences to addictive effect.
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