When reading doesn’t come easy
YA author Kate McGovern’s first novel for younger readers is the story of a girl who has been keeping a big secret: She can’t read very well.
YA author Kate McGovern’s first novel for younger readers is the story of a girl who has been keeping a big secret: She can’t read very well.
The bestselling author of 'Moxie' takes on her most ambitious project yet
The author and teacher discusses her reinterpretation of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.
The author and teacher discusses her reinterpretation of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.
Let's be monsters
Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea) and illustrator Lisa Sterle discuss their first graphic novel collaboration, Squad, a story in which teenage girls are never quite what they seem.
Author Maggie Tokuda-Hall (The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea) and illustrator Lisa Sterle discuss their first graphic novel collaboration, Squad, a story in which teenage girls are never quite what they seem.
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Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk whisks readers away on an enthralling and heartwarming adventure helmed by two young orphans, set in England in the aftermath of World War I. 

Feisty, impetuous Lotti and steady, determined Ben meet by chance and become fast friends at the very moment each needs a friend the most. Lotti is desperate to avoid being shipped off to another dour boarding school by her aunt and uncle. Ben, still grieving the loss of his adoptive father and awaiting news of his brother, Sam, a soldier declared missing and presumed dead, is at risk of being sent back to an orphanage.

The two hatch a plan to take Ben’s narrowboat, the Sparrowhawk, to France, where Ben hopes to find Sam and Lotti hopes to reunite with her grandmother. With a handful of extra clothes, some canned soup and their adoring dogs, Elsie and Federico, Ben and Lotti embark on the perilous journey. The Sparrowhawk, a canal boat, is totally unsuited for navigating the swells of the Thames, let alone for crossing the English Channel. Powered by hope and sheer nerve, the pair navigate river locks and crushing storms, all while being stalked by Lotti’s mean-spirited uncle and a police officer who is determined to turn the children over to the proper authorities.

With a light and skilled hand, Farrant stays attuned to the emotional pulse of her winning characters. Ben and Lotti are endearing heroes: courageous, unyielding and committed to doing what’s right and good for each other. As the story’s stakes increase, so does Ben and Lotti’s determination. Farrant lets the novel’s many adult characters play second fiddle, allowing her young protagonists’ pluck and steadfastness to shine in the spotlight. Sometimes poignant, sometimes funny but consistently gripping, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk presses forward with all the purpose and beauty of a small, slim boat on fast-flowing waters. 

Poignant, funny and gripping, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk presses forward with all the purpose and beauty of a small, slim boat on fast-flowing waters.

In author-illustrator David Biedrzycki’s hilarious new picture book, secret agent Bubble07 is an alien who happens to look like a plush unicorn and has been tasked with a challenging mission: to infiltrate a human Earthling family and determine if the unicorn army should invade Earth. 

Bubble07 is beamed down into a video arcade, where a lucky dad snags it in the claw machine. In a series of interplanetary dispatches, the absurdly adorable unicorn agent files reports on daily life with its new family—an existence made somewhat more difficult by the family’s very huge, very hairy dog, whom Bubble07 suspects “might be onto me.” As time passes, Bubble07 relays many Earthling customs and delicacies that could improve life on the home planet, such as celebrating birthdays, telling bedtime stories and, above all, eating peanut butter cookies. 

Bubble07’s primary Earth contact is the family’s daughter, who hosts tea parties, brings the unicorn to school for show and tell, takes swimming lessons (Alert to home planet: Unicorns don’t float.) and gives the agent lots of loving snuggles. After 100 days, Bubble07 has gathered enough clandestine intelligence to make a final recommendation to its “fearless leader” as to the suitability of Earth for unicorns.

Thanks to the book’s large-format design, inventive text and a final twist in the endpapers, Invasion of the Unicorns succeeds on every level. Biedrzycki has crafted a read-aloud that will delight children, and its wry humor means that adults won’t mind repeat reads. Bubble07 is an endearing protagonist who surveys our world with curiosity and occasional alarm that Biedrzycki always plays for a lighthearted laugh. His pencil and watercolor illustrations are soft and warm as they portray a loving family and their diverse community.

This agent can only conclude this report by declaring Invasion of the Unicorns a treat for unicorn lovers in every galaxy.

In this hilarious picture book, a cuddly plush unicorn is actually an interplanetary spy, and the result is a treat for unicorn lovers in every galaxy.

In this cumulative picture book, debut author Anne Wynter and Caldecott Honor illustrator Oge Mora knock it out of . . . well, out of the red brick building. 

“WaaaAAH!” yells baby Izzie, popping up in her crib and waking her neighbor’s parrot in the apartment building where they both live. The baby’s squalling and the bird’s squawking then wake Benny, Cairo and Miles from their sleeping bags (chips, popcorn and books in this spread suggest a sleepover had been in progress). The “Pitter Patter STOMP” of the trio playing flashlight tag then wakes downstairs neighbor Natalia, who decides it’s a great time to launch her new toy rocket; it soars out of her bedroom window with a “PSSHEEW!” 

Wynter’s story is tightly constructed and carefully paced. Each spread builds upon the one before and recounts the growing list of sounds. By the time we reach the book’s midpoint, a car alarm, Natalia’s rocket, the children’s game, the parrot and baby Izzie have succeeded in awakening Everybody in the Red Brick Building

The adults quickly take charge, soothing screaming Izzie and the parrot, turning off car alarms and flashlights and securing flying rockets. The soft sounds that compose the book’s second half, which include a street sweeper, acorns falling from a tree and wind chimes, also build cumulatively, but this time to send the residents back to sleep. Baby Izzie, who’s been awake the longest, receives the full benefit of all the sounds, with the marvelous addition of the “pah-pum . . . pah-pum . . . pah-pum of her mother’s heart” as they nestle closely together in a cozy magenta armchair.  

Mora’s art is the ideal match for Wynter’s engaging text. Her illustrations incorporate the story’s sounds (such as the parrot’s “Rraak! WAKE UP!” and the car alarm’s “WEEYOOOWEEEEYOOOOO!!!!”), collaged in her distinctive style and sweeping across the book’s spreads. The book’s climax, in which all the sleep-disturbing sounds fly forth from the building, is expertly composed. Mora knows exactly how to use elements like simple shapes to keep a busy event from being too visually complex or overwhelming. As always, her textured, highly patterned artwork invites lingering looks and repeat reads.

This gentle sonic adventure is just right for sending children off to sleep. 

Debut author Anne Wynter and Caldecott Honor illustrator Oge Mora knock it out of the red brick building in this cumulative picture book.

Vanja Schmidt has never led a charmed life. From a young age, she was forced to work as a maid at Castle Falbirg, where she suffered everything from petty cruelty to unspeakable abuse at her employers’ hands. Even Vanja’s friendship with Princess Gisele left her with more scars than support. So when Vanja saw a chance to swipe a magical string of pearls that she could use to steal Gisele’s identity, she seized it.

After a year of posing as Gisele and continuing her covert crime spree, Vanja’s latest theft earns her a deadly curse from the goddess Eiswald. If Vanja can’t find a way to make up for her crimes in the next two weeks, the curse will turn her into the same precious gemstones she’s been stealing. To make matters worse, Eiswald sends her shapeshifting daughter to keep an eye on Vanja, there’s a frustratingly talented young detective hot on her trail—and the real Gisele is still out there, furious at Vanja’s betrayal.

This colorful cast is the best part of Little Thieves, and author Margaret Owen pursues every opportunity for her strong-willed characters to clash, banter and bond with one another. Whether they are scheming over breakfast sausages or teaching knife tricks to orphans, the characters’ vivid personalities always shine through.

Owen dedicates Little Thieves to “the gremlin girls,” and Vanja wears that descriptor as the honorific it’s intended to be. Vanja’s heists are clever, her insults are creative and her vulnerabilities are striking. She’s a complex protagonist, and Owen expertly demonstrates how her devious personality is simultaneously a flaw, a strength and the direct result of her past experiences. The compassion and sensitivity Owen displays toward Vanja will easily earn her a place in the hearts of all her fellow gremlins.

Amid the book’s plentiful action scenes and witty repartee, Vanja also offers biting commentary on power and privilege. Characters wield authority over one another—whether through divine magic, mortal law, the threat of violence or familial obligation—and these power imbalances shape every interaction and drive the novel’s many intertwining conflicts.

Little Thieves is an endlessly entertaining fantasy tale about characters on their worst behavior learning to be their best selves.

Little Thieves is an endlessly entertaining fantasy tale about characters on their worst behavior learning to be their best selves.

Pull up a chair and dig into a four-course feast of picture books! These books offer innovative depictions of what it means to express gratitude, to share a meal and to be both welcoming and welcomed.

Thankful

“Every year when the first snow falls, we make thankful chains to last us through December,” explains the narrator of Thankful. She is stretched out on her bedroom floor, surrounded by a halo of colorful construction paper, hard at work transforming it into a paper chain. As she lists the things for which she is thankful, readers glimpse scenes of her life with her parents, new sibling and pet dog, at her school and with her friends. 

Author Elaine Vickers’ text is wonderfully evocative. The girl’s list includes concrete and sensory observations, such as gratitude for “the spot under the covers where someone has just been sleeping” and “a cloth on my forehead when I feel sick.” In a humorous beach scene, the girl reflects that she is thankful “for wind and sand—but not at the same time.” 

Readers will be entranced by Samantha Cotterill’s outstanding and unique art. To create her illustrations, Cotterill creates miniature 3D interiors, populates them with cutout characters, then photographs each diorama. She includes charming details, including real lights in various rooms and shining car headlights, along with construction paper chains so realistic in appearance that you’ll feel you could almost touch them. Colorful and original, Thankful will spark young readers to create their own thankful chains—and may inspire them to try their hand at making diorama art, too.

Let Me Fix You a Plate

The excitement of family gatherings is at the heart of Let Me Fix You a Plate: A Tale of Two Kitchens, inspired by author-illustrator Elizabeth Lilly’s annual childhood trips to see her grandparents. The book follows a girl, her two sisters and their parents as they pile into a car and drive first to West Virginia to their Mamaw and Papaw, then continue to Florida to visit their Abuela and Abuelo, before they finally return to their own home.

Lilly’s energetic illustrations capture these comings and goings, as well as the abundant details the narrator observes in her grandparents’ homes. At Mamaw and Papaw’s house, she sees a shelf of decorative plates and coffee mugs with tractors on them, eats sausage and toast with blackberry jam and helps make banana pudding. Abuela and Abuelo’s house is filled with aunts, uncles and cousins and the sounds of Spanish and salsa music. The girl picks oranges from a tree in the yard and helps make arepas. 

Throughout, Lilly’s precise prose contributes to a strong sense of place. “Morning mountain fog wrinkles and rolls,” observes the girl on her first morning in West Virginia, while in Florida, “the hot sticky air hugs us close.” Lilly’s line drawings initially seem simple, almost sketchlike, but they expertly convey the actions and emotions of every character, whether it’s Mamaw bending down to offer her granddaughter a bite of breakfast or a roomful of aunts and uncles dancing while Abuelo plays guitar. Like a warm hug from a beloved family member, Let Me Fix You a Plate is a cozy squeeze that leaves you grinning and a little bit breathless. 

Saturday at the Food Pantry

“Everybody needs help sometimes” is the message at the heart of Saturday at the Food Pantry, which depicts a girl named Molly’s first trip to a food pantry with her mom. 

Molly and her mom have been eating chili for two weeks; when Molly’s mom opens the refrigerator, we see that it’s nearly empty. In bed that night, Molly’s stomach growls with hunger. Molly is excited to visit a food pantry for the first time, but she isn’t sure what to expect. As she and her mom wait in line, Molly is happy to see that Caitlin, a classmate, is also waiting with her grandmother. Molly greets her enthusiastically, but Caitlin ignores her. “I don’t want anyone to know Gran and I need help,” Caitlin explains later.

Molly’s cheerfulness saves the day, and the girls’ interactions contribute to a normalizing and destigmatizing representation of their experience. Molly asks her mom questions that reveal how the food pantry differs from a grocery store. Mom must check in before she begins shopping, for instance, and there are limits on how many items customers can have. “Take one bundle” reads a sign in the banana basket. 

Author Diane O’Neil captures her characters’ trepidations head-on. Mom smiles “just a little, not like when they played at the park” at the volunteer who signs her in, and Molly is confused and sad when her mom tells her to put a box of cookies back because “the people in charge … want us to take sensible stuff.” Gradually, however, the occasion transforms into a positive experience for all. 

Food insecurity can be a sensitive topic, and O’Neil—who went to a food pantry when she was a child—handles the issue in a reassuring, informative way. A helpful end note from the CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository explains that millions of people in the United States need help just like Molly and her mom, and provides readers resources to find it. 

Illustrator Brizida Magro is a wizard of texture, whether depicting Molly’s wavy hair or the wonderful array of patterns in coats, sweaters and pants. Her ability to capture facial expressions and convey complex emotions is also noteworthy; it adds to the book’s emotional depth and makes the eventual smiles all the more impactful. The pantry shoppers’ diversity of skin tone, age and ability underscores how food insecurity can affect anyone. Saturday at the Food Pantry brims with sincerity and a helpful and hopeful spirit.

A Hundred Thousand Welcomes

“In one place or another, at one time or another, in one way or another, every single one of us will find ourselves in search of acceptance, help, protection, welcome,” writes Mary Lee Donovan in her introduction to A Hundred Thousand Welcomes, illustrated by Lian Cho.

With poetic text that reads like an invocation, the book is a fascinating around-the-world tour that explores the concept of welcome. On each page, a household from a different culture entertains guests. Many pages include the corresponding word for “welcome” in that culture’s language, including words and phrases in Indonesian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese and Lakota Sioux. Back matter from Cho and Donovan explains the inspiration that sparked their collaboration and offers more information about the many languages spoken throughout the world and a detailed pronunciation guide to all of the words in the book.

Cho’s art is a multicultural feast of families and friends enjoying each other’s company. There’s a German chalet where kids play in the snow, a Bengali family greeting visitors who arrive in a small, colorful vehicle and more. The disparate scenes culminate in two shining spreads. In the first, people of all ages and nationalities share a meal at a table that’s so long, it can only fit on the page thanks to a breathtaking gatefold. In the next, an equally long line of kids sit atop a brick wall, chatting with each other and gazing up at a night sky full of stars as one child turns around and waves at the reader.

Although many picture books celebrate the fellowship of friendship and the love that flows during family gatherings, A Hundred Thousand Welcomes encourages readers to go one step further, to ready their own welcome mats and invite neighbors and strangers alike into their homes and hearts.

Four picture books offer innovative depictions of what it means to express gratitude, to share a meal and to be both welcoming and welcomed.

One hot summer day, Syd storms into work at the Proud Muffin—the best queer-owned bakery in Austin, Texas—full of breakup woe and ready to channel it into baking delicious treats, including a spur-of-the-moment special, Syd’s Unexpected Brownies. To Syd’s horror, everyone who eats the sorrow-laden sweets soon finds their love lives in disarray. So Syd and Harley, the bakery’s bicycle delivery worker, embark on a mission to serve everyone who ate the brownies an antidote, like a piece of Very Sorry Cake or a slice of Honest Pie. Getting the right treats into the right mouths turns out to be more complicated than Syd thought, and then Harley begins to look awfully cute in their (or sometimes his; pins on Harley’s messenger bag signal Harley’s pronouns that day) bike shorts and Western boots.

In The Heartbreak Bakery, author A.R. Capetta describes both baking and the excitement of first love in luscious, sensuous detail. The book’s sumptuous recipes combine real directions with Syd’s colorful commentary; the first ingredient in Breakup Brownies is “4 oz unsweetened chocolate, broken up (I mean, it’s right there, how did I not see this coming?).” Plus, Capetta folds in food metaphors throughout: An awkward situation feels like a crumbling sheet of pastry dough, and at one point Syd’s heart “wobbles like an underbaked custard.”

Syd, who is agender, is an expertly constructed protagonist and a notable step forward in representing the full spectrum of gender identities in YA fiction. Syd’s earnest musings about gender, bodies, performance and identity are likely to resonate deeply with teens who’ve shared those thoughts and experiences, while offering cisgender teens an approachable lens through which to begin to understand their peers. The Proud Muffin’s welcoming atmosphere provides Syd a home away from home. Among its customers, a range of identities and relationships are modeled and celebrated. Capetta offers a multitude of ways to use and share one’s pronouns, as well as techniques for avoiding pronouns altogether.

Like the contrasting flavors in a peach strawberry basil pie, Syd's journey of self-discovery melds perfectly with the quest to find and repair the brownies’ damage. Suspend your disbelief in everyday magic and enjoy this frothy, fulfilling confection with a lemon ginger scone and a tall, chilled glass of iced green tea

Like the contrasting flavors in a peach strawberry basil pie, this frothy confection melds a journey of self-discovery with a quest to repair broken hearts.

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