Frankie’s life is fairly normal . . . until they save a golden retriever from bullies and are transported to a giant magical doghouse by a group of superhero dogs.
Frankie’s life is fairly normal . . . until they save a golden retriever from bullies and are transported to a giant magical doghouse by a group of superhero dogs.

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Noah doesn’t know what to do since his best friend, Lewis, died in a car crash—not that anybody else knew Lewis by that name. Like Lewis, Noah is transgender, but it was a secret they kept just between them, and with Lewis gone, Noah can’t talk about his feelings with anybody . . . except, maybe, Mothman. 

Lewis believed in the cryptid, a humanoid figure with enormous wings first spotted in West Virginia in 1966, but Noah didn’t. Now Noah has come up with the perfect way to honor Lewis’ memory: He’s going to prove that Mothman is real for the sixth-grade science fair. He sets up an old camera to record potential appearances, researches Mothman sightings near his Pennsylvania town and writes letters to Mothman to try and get to know him better. But as Noah starts to think he understands a little of what it means to be a monster, he finds his efforts increasingly mocked by his classmates—except for three new friends who want to help. If Noah is brave enough to trust them with the truest parts of himself, maybe Mothman will show his face—or maybe Noah will find the strength to go looking for Mothman himself.

Robin Gow’s novel in verse is destined to join the growing ranks of queer children’s literature classics. Told through Noah’s thoughts and notes to Mothman, Dear Mothman is an affirming ode to queerness and a haunting, beautiful story about what it means to be different.

Noah’s fascination with Mothman begins as a desperate attempt to remain connected to the only person who truly understood him, but it comes to represent what it means to be a creature hiding in the world. Through his project, Noah finds the strength to move beyond a passive existence and do what Mothman cannot: show himself to the world. “What can I do / to show them what Mothman is like? / What I am really like?” Noah wonders. “Then, do I really want to show my class everything? // To show them everything / not just about Mothman / but what being a monster means— / how it’s like being a queer person? / That I’m a queer person. // The beauty of the unknown darkness / and wild magic / of a creature / so few people get to see.”

Queer and neurodivergent childhood experiences deepen this stunning exploration of identity. Noah’s new friends role-play as wolves on the playground despite being “too old” for such activities. Noah worries about his friends judging his emotionally overloaded outbursts and frets that they won’t want to hang out with him anymore. The whole group struggles to explain to their parents how differently they feel from the other children in their class—and how differently they feel from their parents.

Dear Mothman offers a beautiful and moving glimpse into the world of a child who deserves understanding and appreciation, but far more importantly, it’s a breath of fresh air for any queer reader. Noah’s journey honors all parts of the queer experience, regardless of how public that experience may be. This is a book that will make readers feel seen and, ultimately, leave their hearts full.

As it honors all parts of the queer experience, this book will make readers feel seen and leave their hearts full.
Interview by

Novelist and poet Robin Gow explores grief, queer identity and one of North America’s most beloved cryptids in Dear Mothman. Noah’s best friend, Lewis, always believed that Mothman, a creature first spotted in West Virginia in 1966, is real. After Lewis dies in a car crash, Noah decides to honor his friend by proving Mothman exists for a sixth-grade science fair project. As Noah seeks the truth about this local legend, he also finds the courage to show his truest self to the world.

Introduce us to Noah and what he’s working through as the novel opens.
Noah lost his best friend, Lewis, a few months earlier. Lewis and Noah shared so much—they were the only trans kids in school, and in many ways Lewis’ boldness made a pathway for Noah to express himself and his identity too. Noah has only recently started to come out to people as trans, so he’s also trying to understand how to share that without Lewis to lean on. Then there’s the question of Mothman. Noah has always been the skeptic of their duo, but without Lewis, he’s finding himself even more curious about Mothman.

Noah’s feelings of loss and grief come through so clearly. As you were writing, what felt like the most important aspects of his emotions to capture and convey to the reader?
I wanted to capture the ways grief is knotted and complicated. One moment we can feel intense despair and sadness. In the next we can find ways to twist those feelings into guilt or even frustration and anger. I thought it was important to show all the different ways Noah’s mind tries to wrap itself around Lewis’ absence and what it means for him and the world around him.

Noah relates to Mothman deeply, and the novel contains many beautiful reflections on the relationships between queerness and monstrousness. Why was it important to you to explore these ideas—and to do so for a middle grade readership?
When I was a middle schooler I didn’t know myself as a queer person. I didn’t have that language, but I always gravitated toward monsters because I could see how they were often misunderstood or mischaracterized by the stories they found themselves in. I wanted to speak to youth who, like me, gravitate towards the strange and the monstrous because we see ourselves in them. Then, also, I hoped to help us question what a monster is. Often monsters are echoes of what a society fears most, and those fears can be unfounded. They are often a version of “fear of the other.”

“Often monsters are echoes of what a society fears most, and those fears can be unfounded.”

How did you first encounter Mothman?
My college friends just generally liked all things supernatural and strange. I was our college Gay-Straight Alliance president and I literally gave a PowerPoint presentation on why cryptids were queer culture. It started with a joke that Nessy was definitely a lesbian.

I was drawn to Mothman specifically because I felt like he was misunderstood. He never does anything mean to people in the stories—he’s just lurking.

Dear Mothman is both epistolary and written in verse. Why did you decide to use these two forms? Why did blending them feel like the best way to tell Noah’s story?
Both forms allow the reader to access Noah’s most personal and often scattered thoughts as he tries to connect with someone (or something, depending on how you think about Mothman). And both poetry and the epistolary form allow space for messy emotions and confessions.

The first draft of the book was actually only written in letters. As I revised, I found moments that worked better as just Noah talking and moments that felt best directed to Mothman. I think having both makes the moments when Noah is reaching out to Mothman even more powerful. Overall, I think verse can really embody the whirling feelings of characters’ coming-of-age moments.

One of the most fun elements of Dear Mothman are Noah’s sketches. They look like something a kid his age would actually draw. How did these visuals come to be part of the book?
One of my favorite things about Mothman and other cryptids is that artists have so many different renditions of them. From the beginning I knew that Noah and Lewis would see those variations online and probably want to add to them. The first page I wrote was the school report Lewis and Noah made about Mothman, and I imagined that drawing it was really exciting for them because it would be a moment to let their imaginations explore what they thought Mothman was like.

Then, as we revised the book, we found more places where Noah might doodle. I drew some idea sketches in places and descriptions in others, and we worked with an illustrator who brought the ideas to life. Rebecca Harry did the drawings, and I think she perfectly captured how Noah would imagine Mothman as a gentle and fun monster. I also think the drawings channel the whimsy and fantasy of the cover art by Tracy J. Lee!

How do you think art can help us channel our feelings and understand ourselves?
As a young person I actually mostly “wrote” in drawings. I made comics and graphic stories before I was writing anything. I am autistic, and I really struggled with writing and reading, especially in elementary school through middle school. Drawing was a space where I could push those struggles with words aside and capture imaginary creatures and worlds. I often draw myself as different genders and species. Drawing felt like the best kind of escape.

Noah meets new friends through LARPing—live-action roleplaying. Tell us about the role that these new friends and LARPing play in Noah’s life and why they’re such an essential part of his story.
In my original drafts of the story, Noah’s friends were just playing pretend. My editor pointed out that kids at this age start to age out of just playing pretend and start to do things like Dungeons & Dragons and LARPing—still playing pretend but in different structures. To Noah, the fact that these kids still use their imaginations to play signals to him that they might be possible friends and allies, because he also loves to dream and imagine.

And things like LARPing and Dungeons & Dragons can be a huge part of queer culture. I mean yes, nonqueer people play them too, but for queer people these games are spaces where we can be ourselves and explore genders and sexualities without the confines and limits of the real world. In my own life, role playing and playing pretend were the first place I got to be my real gender. Even if I didn’t come out until college, I was playing games as a boy in elementary school.

Early in the novel, when Noah is telling Mothman about a conversation he had with his mom, he writes, “Why doesn’t anyone listen to me? . . . No one listens to kids or monsters.” That line is going to resonate so powerfully with so many young readers, so I want to ask: How do you think the world would be different if it weren’t true?
I think we would be a more imaginative place. I think so many of the world’s problems persist because we’re forcibly cut off from our imaginations by crushing systems of capitalism and white supremacy. Then we inflict that violence on our youth. Sometimes we do this to try to help them survive and sometimes we do this almost as a punishment. Because we had to go through it.

I reflect on my experiences as a young autistic person in an ableist world. I was often made fun of, harassed and punished by adults and educators for my imagination, for being strange and for questioning what we were told. I learned to hide myself to avoid as much of that harassment as I could. I’ve spent most of my adult life working to reclaim what these systems have tried to beat out of me. This is the truth for so many youths, and at even higher rates for youth of color. I think about where our dreams and imaginations could take us if we gave all youth the space to be creative instead of just trying to survive.

The world needs drastic change, and I think more than any group of people, youth can see that and have the curiosity and questions to bring forth that change.

“I think so many of the world’s problems persist because we’re forcibly cut off from our imaginations.”

Three big-picture questions: What was the most challenging part of writing this book? What was the most rewarding? And what about the book are you most proud of?
The most challenging part was probably carrying the plot through poems. I am a poet-of-center and thus my books often begin almost as character studies with a plot in the background, so it’s something I have to work to bring forward.

The most rewarding, I think, is how I’ve given space to Noah’s gender feelings. It’s sometimes hard to feel like we have space as trans people to have complicated and unsure feelings around gender, but I feel good about how that came through in this book.

I’m proud of how I’ve navigated Mothman as a character and a presence. I struggled with how to end the story and not tie a neat bow but still give the reader a satisfying conclusion. I am someone who genuinely believes in monsters, ghosts and all things unexplained, and I feel proud of how I (I hope) have sustained that mystery and fantasy.

If you were to go searching for any cryptid (besides Mothman, of course), who would you want to look for? Would you want to find them?
I would look for the Squonk or the Jersey Devil. The Squonk is a somewhat lesser-known cryptid of Pennsylvania. He cries all the time and is a kind of wrinkly piglike creature. I have two pet pugs and I feel like he’s not that far from a pug dog . . . so I’d be very happy to find the Squonk.

The Jersey Devil I’m interested in because I think the Pine Barrens are probably the most mythical-feeling place I’ve ever been. It feels like ancient creatures lurk there. I’m still not sure if I’m ready to meet the Jersey Devil though. They seem a bit more frightening, but if given the choice I think I would still want to meet them.

Read our review of Dear Mothman by Robin Gow.

In Dear Mothman, a sixth grader’s search for a mythical creature leads to friendship, healing and hope.
Review by

Meeting new people in new places is definitely not Gael’s thing. But his best friend, Nicole, a sophomore in college, is the leader of Plus, a gathering of LGBTQIA+ teens, and she thinks the group would be good for Gael, a transgender boy who attends a conservative high school in Tennessee. Nicole introduces him to Declan, a boy in his AP Literature class whom Gael hadn’t previously gotten to know. 

As Gael explores a world of friendship and socializing that he hadn’t realized he’d been missing, he also contends with unexpected feelings of attraction. Are trans boys like him “allowed” to also be gay? Can he be desired for who he really is? Can he really share his heart, when his depressed mother and absent father have led him to believe that love will always hurt? And, in the larger world, will fundraising and actively courting sponsors be enough to keep the endangered Plus from permanent closure?

If I Can Give You That feels like a worthy homage to one of the first young adult books to feature a gay relationship, John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. Gael, like Donovan’s Davy, is just beginning to be aware of his own thoughts and feelings. Declan and Nicole, like Davy’s friend Altschuler, serve as wise companions. Gender dysphoria, generalized anxiety, depression and complex family dynamics are portrayed thoughtfully and compassionately, and Gael’s desire to live in the moment will strike a chord with teen readers who are frustrated by the need to think ahead about college and careers. 

Author Michael Gray Bulla, who was the 2017 Nashville Youth Poet Laureate, grounds his debut YA novel in contemporary concerns. The current politics of being transgender in Tennessee, health care hoops to jump through and classroom debates about bathroom bills (Gael isn’t allowed to use the men’s restroom at his school) connect the fictional story to our difficult reality. Declan, who wants to be an English professor, tells Gael that “the best literature does what it’s writing about.” If I Can Give You That fulfills this description, modeling multiple possible ways to be an queer teen, an activist, a family caretaker and a friend.

This thoughtful debut novel models multiple possible ways to be a queer teen, an activist, a family caretaker and a friend.
Review by

Following her award-winning debut novel, Root Magic, Eden Royce returns with another magical, atmospheric South Carolina-set story that explores Gullah culture. While her first book focused on a twin brother and sister learning rootwork from their uncle in the 1960s, Conjure Island centers on 11-year-old Del Baker, a strong-minded girl who feels lost when her caretaker grandmother is hospitalized. Del and Gramma are frequently on the move—this time, from Massachusetts to Delaware—and all the changes have taken their toll. Even before Gramma became ill, Del felt “disconnected from everything around her, like she was drifting in an ocean without any land in sight.”

Del knows next to nothing about her mom, who died in childbirth, and her father is deployed abroad in the Air Force. So when Gramma is hospitalized, Del is sent to spend a month on an island off the coast of South Carolina with her great-grandmother, Nana Rose, whom Del has never heard of before. Nana Rose is the head of the Vesey Conservatory for the Wonder Arts, “the only school left in South Carolina teaching the traditional ways of Southern conjure.” As Nana Rose explains, “Our people have been practicing it in this part of the world for over four hundred years.”

Gobsmacked by her family’s magical connections, Del suddenly finds herself immersed in a Harry Potter-esque world where each student is assigned a magical broom, teachers called “sorcells” give conjuring lessons, spirits roam the halls and a talking alligator helps with transportation. Luckily, Del finds a kindred spirit in her roommate, Eva, and the two explore the challenges of new situations and what it means to be a friend. 

The parallels to Harry Potter are never overdone, as Royce does an excellent job of painting a a unique picture of her own lively South Carolina coastal world. There is plenty of action (quicksand, a near-drowning and more) as Del explores the island, trying to wipe away cobwebs from family secrets that Gramma and Nana Rose refuse to discuss. Why did Gramma leave her island home, never to return? Why did she refuse to continue conjuring, which she was quite skilled at as a girl? Everyone, it seems, has secrets; even Del keeps “her questions about her mom buried deep down in her own sort of box.” 

The magic and mystery make this book particularly alluring, and Royce builds her world with finesse, showing how conjuring “connects people, builds community, and strengthens bonds.” She emphasizes the importance of understanding history and our family roots, as well as building meaningful friendships and communities. “The South really is a portal,” she writes. 

Conjure Island takes readers on an exciting getaway and offers a sense of reassurance to anyone feeling lost, left out, lonely or simply in search of some magical fun.

Conjure Island takes readers on an exciting getaway and offers a sense of reassurance to anyone feeling lost, left out, lonely or simply in search of some magical fun.
May 23, 2023

Readers’ Choice: Best Books of 2023 (so far)

The best books of 2023 (so far) as determined by readers include the latest from Abraham Verghese, Kate Morton, Jenny Odell and Ann Napolitano, as well as a remarkable debut from Margot Douaihy.
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The Stolen Heir

This highly anticipated spinoff to Holly Black’s bestselling Folk of the Air trilogy offers a tale deliciously wrought with mistrust and longing.

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Abraham Verghese, probably the best doctor-writer since Anton Chekhov, upends all of our expectations again and again in his long awaited follow-up to Cutting for Stone.

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Death Comes to Marlow

This engaging cozy mystery is an homage to Agatha Christie with a trio of warmhearted friendships at its core.

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Scorched Grace

Scorched Grace is an entertaining and devastating mystery that introduces Sister Holiday, a queer nun with a clever, curious mind and a fatalistic yet somehow still hopeful heart.

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Deanna Raybourn’s masterful balance between romance and mystery makes A Sinister Revenge a standout entry in an already excellent series.

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The prose in Rachel Heng’s second novel is alive. Each character is rich with complexity and depth, each snapshot brimming with imagery.

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One of the delights for readers of a mystery is picking up little crumbs of evidence along the way. As Homecoming gallops toward its close, you may think you know what’s coming, and the foreknowledge is both ghastly and thrilling.

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This bighearted domestic novel from the author of Dear Edward reaches comforting highs and despairing lows as it sharply examines the many ways that families pull each other together and apart.

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Historical mystery readers searching for a complex main character will admire the uncompromising storytelling of Jacqueline Winspear’s The White Lady.

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The best books of 2023 (so far) as determined by readers include the latest from Abraham Verghese, Kate Morton, Jenny Odell and Ann Napolitano, as well as a remarkable debut from Margot Douaihy.

Kendall Kulper’s A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife opens in 1934 Chicago, in an America damaged and wearied by the Great Depression. Only trips to the movies keep 18-year-old Henny going, because “I wasn’t Henrietta Newhouse who scrubbed the washrooms and clutched at every saved penny. . . . I was just a pair of eyes and a pair of ears, taking it all in.” 

Fans of the author’s Murder for the Modern Girl (2022) will recognize the Newhouse name; that book’s protagonist, Ruby, is Henny’s older sister. Ruby prowled Chicago solving mysteries, but Henny is set on California. “I wanted to be a literal star, something huge and bright and fierce and burning,” Henny says, “that turned everyone who came close to it warm and glowing.” 

Declan Collins is far less passionate about being a stuntman, but as his best friend and manager, Pep, reasons, it’s a good gig for a man who cannot be injured. It’s getting harder for Declan to hide his invincibility, so Pep arranges a screen test with Henny. To her delight, she’s signed by Silver Wing Studios as the next big starlet while, to his chagrin, Declan is enlisted as her faux boyfriend. 

Their chemistry sparks steamy sidelong glances and hot-tempered spats, making for an entertaining will-they-won’t-they energy. Eventually, the two share secrets: Declan is helping a PI search for a missing actor named Irma, and Henny has been seeing ghosts. The first was her friend Midge, who supposedly quit Hollywood and moved home; she’s soon joined by a heartbreakingly large group of young women who also disappeared after being signed by Silver Wing. Can the duo find out what happened without getting harmed themselves?

A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife is an engrossing supernatural murder mystery, a fierce ode to feminism and a potent reminder of the dark underside of glamour and fame. Indeed, Kulper writes in her acknowledgments, “So much of this book was inspired by the real activists, whistleblowers, truth-tellers, and courageous survivors who spoke up about the injustices of the Hollywood system. . . . Your bravery, hope for change, and dedication to equality, fairness, and justice push us all to work harder and do better.”

A Starlet’s Secret to a Sensational Afterlife is an engrossing supernatural murder mystery and a fierce ode to feminism.
Interview by

The only thing more exciting than the fact that author Angeline Boulley has followed up her bestselling, award-winning debut, Firekeeper’s Daughter, with a companion novel is that actor Isabella Star LaBlanc narrates the audiobook. LaBlanc, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota tribal nation, takes a break from filming season four of “True Detective” (in Iceland!) to share her thoughts on the communal power of audiobooks like Warrior Girl Unearthed (11.5 hours), and the joys and challenges of bringing the story of Perry Firekeeper-Birch to life.

You also narrated Angeline Boulley’s first book, Firekeeper’s Daughter. How did you feel about Warrior Girl Unearthed as you began to read it for the first time?
I’m a Firekeeper’s Daughter superfan first, and a Firekeeper’s Daughter audiobook narrator second. And as soon as I started reading Warrior Girl Unearthed, I knew Angeline had done it again. It felt like returning home. I fell in love with Perry immediately. From the first chapter, I was excited to go on this journey with her. 

What is your relationship with author Angeline Boulley like, especially in the time since you’ve recorded Firekeeper’s Daughter?
Angeline is the best! After my first day of recording Warrior Girl Unearthed, I texted her a little selfie and let her know how thrilled I was to be back in the saddle. When it comes down to it, I really am just trying to do right by her. Angeline is such a special person and writer. Her energy is infectious. We had so much fun doing press for Firekeeper’s Daughter. I count myself lucky to be in her orbit and to benefit from her support. I really owe her so much. 

Tell me a bit about transforming Warrior Girl Unearthed into an audiobook. How did you prepare, and what did you most enjoy about the preparation?
I was so honored when I was asked back to narrate Warrior Girl Unearthed, but I knew logistically it was going to be a challenge. I’m currently shooting a TV series in Iceland, which has my schedule packed and unpredictable. I really wanted to make it work, so after lots of back and forth with my manager and Steve Wagner from Macmillan, we were able to figure out a remote recording setup and scheduled sessions on the days I’m not on set. So I guess the first big preparation was scheduling, which is not very exciting, but it did feel like a miracle that it worked out.

After we got the logistics ironed out, I really dove in—which for me means spending a lot of time with pronunciation and starting to identify voices. I find a lot of joy in the preparation leading up to recording. It’s always a little daunting, but there’s something so exhilarating about hearing the story in my head for the first time and figuring out how to actually make it sound like that. 

What did you feel most strongly that it was important to get “right” as you narrated Boulley’s words in Warrior Girl Unearthed?
Definitely the language. The Anishinaabemowin is important not only to the storytelling but also to the characters and to the people these characters represent. I want my Ojibwe relatives to hear themselves in this. So I feel a huge responsibility to do the best I can to represent the language in a good way. Angeline and Macmillan, along with Michele Wellman-Teeple from Michigan State University, set me up with some amazing pronunciation resources. 

I think the language is just as much a character as Perry, and I want to honor it that way. Before we began recording, I put out some tobacco to thank the language for letting me spend this time with it. That felt like the right place to begin.

“Before we began recording, I put out some tobacco to thank the language for letting me spend this time with it. That felt like the right place to begin.”

What do you believe is the most rewarding thing that your performance brings to the listening experience of Warrior Girl Unearthed?
Firekeeper’s Daughter was my first ever audiobook. I had never narrated anything before that, and going in I knew pretty much nothing about the whole process. I have a lot more books and experience under my belt for this one, and it feels so rewarding to get to return to this world where it all began for me, and to now be able to offer up everything I’ve learned. I feel more in control of my work this time around, and my hope is that listeners will be able to hear that.

To listeners, it can sometimes feel like magic to hear a narrator move between dialogue and a lead character’s inner thoughts. What is your process when moving from Perry’s inner world to external interactions?
Perry is a teenager, and I think being a teenager is a lot about reconciling your inner and outer worlds. Something I notice with Perry is that her external interactions often exude confidence in a way her internal monologue doesn’t. I think there’s something really vulnerable in the way she talks to herself, and something really powerful in the way she interacts with the world. I really try to let both those parts of her peek through and to be heard in conversation with each other. 

As you read Warrior Girl Unearthed, what did you take away from the experience? Did you discover anything, either about the world Boulley depicts or about yourself?
I found myself left with big feelings about how the ways in which we take care of ourselves help us take care of our people. I love how the characters Angeline writes have very unique passions and strengths they honor and offer to the world. Some might argue that I’m already grown, but I want to be Perry and Daunis when I grow up. 

“So much of the culture I come from is centered on gathering together and sharing stories. Audiobooks feel like a new medium to do that.”

Boulley’s books reflect an exciting shift in children’s and teen literature toward diversifying which stories are published and who gets to write them. What would books like Firekeeper’s Daughter and Warrior Girl Unearthed have meant to you when you were growing up?
I think it’s hard to overstate how much of an impact these books would have had on me as a young reader. It really is a gift to see not only yourself but also your community represented with so much heart. As a young Indigenous person it’s easy to feel lonely, like so much of the world doesn’t understand what matters to you. I know I would have devoured these books, and I would have held them with me as companions while I navigated a lot of the things these characters experience. How lovely it would’ve been to have these reminders that girls like me get to be exceptional, and be loved, and save the world. 

With Warrior Girl Unearthed in mind, what do audiobooks offer that a book can’t?
I think there’s something communal about audiobooks. Whereas reading can feel beautifully individual, there’s something special about the idea that with an audiobook, each listener is hearing the same voices come alive. It’s almost an equalizer between listeners; it creates an inherently shared experience. 

I loved hearing that people listened to Firekeeper’s Daughter with their families. So much of the culture I come from is centered on gathering together and sharing stories. Audiobooks feel like a new medium to do that. We can listen to stories together, whether we’re in the same room or miles apart.  

In addition to your work as an audiobook narrator, you’ve also acted on stage and in movies and TV. What are some of the unique challenges and pleasures of audiobooks as compared to those other types of performing? How do you feel your work in other media informs your narration work?
I think all of my work informs each other. I feel like if I removed even one piece of the puzzle, one tool from the toolbox, I wouldn’t be the same artist. I’ve played all sorts of characters with different dialects, different ages, different dispositions. I feel like I draw on them to flesh out these books. So many of the voices I use to narrate come from characters I’ve played.

And now I feel my narration feeding back to my acting. I think one of the most challenging parts when I started narrating was learning how to act without being seen. So many character choices in visual mediums can be solely in your body. Narrating has allowed me to explore my voice, and in doing so has offered a tool to do more with less. I’m able to find a lot more stillness in my work on screen now.  

What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
That I get to redo as much as I want! When people hear I do audiobooks, the first question is usually, “How can you read without messing up?” The answer is, I mess up a lot, and then a lovely engineer punches me back in and I do it again, and sometimes again after that. So the job actually has very little to do with reading a lot of words perfectly in one go. 

Who in your life has had the biggest impact on your work as a narrator?
I don’t think I can pick just one. I think most of the people in my life turn up in my narration in some way. You’ll probably hear them in this book. 

What do you believe is your greatest strength as a narrator?
My cultural vocabulary. What I might not know about technical voice acting, I do know about Native people. I can hear our voices, our rhythms, our laughter. I know about our ways of connecting to one another across tribes and regions. I find so much joy in narrating specifically for Native authors, because it feels like I was born for it. I grew up with these stories.

Voice actor Isabella Star LaBlanc returns for an encore after her powerful performance of Angeline Boulley’s bestselling, award-winning debut novel, Firekeeper’s Daughter. As LaBlanc reveals in our interview for Audiobook Month, performing Warrior Girl Unearthed required a deep understanding of the Anishinaabemowin, or Ojibwe language.
Review by

Of all the creatures in Milkweed Meadow, the most gifted storyteller is Butternut. She’s one of nine rabbit siblings and by far the most anxious of the bunch. With “brambles” of disaster scenarios running wild through her mind, Butternut knows she has to use her intelligence—what her protective grandmother calls her “milkweed”—to survive in a world where she could be attacked by dangerous predators.

Butternut, however, can’t stop thinking about the creatures in the world around her and how their lives affect one another. When she tries to help some squirrels in need, a rascally blue jay steals one of her warren’s treasures, and Butternut’s defensive brambles momentarily disappear in a fit of fury. Although she considers herself a coward, Butternut climbs a fence and steals the treasure back, and along the way makes friends with a robin fledgling. 

As other creatures in the meadow begin to listen to her stories, Butternut finds herself questioning some of her grandmother’s advice and begins to build interspecies bonds despite the prejudices of her family—and the families of her new friends. And when disaster strikes, she must put aside what she’s been told in order to do what she knows is right.

With charming black-and-white illustrations from Caldecott Medalist Doug Salati (Hot Dog), Elaine Dimopoulos’ middle grade novel reckons with the realistic challenges of an untamed animal’s life while preserving the magic of wilderness. Butternut narrates the cozy woodland story with cheeky asides to the reader about how stories work: how she’s going to hold some information to build tension, and how she hopes you’ll love her cast of characters. Ultimately, readers will be left with the impression that, if they can be brave and put aside their stigmas, they too can have an adventure worthy of an audience the size of a meadow.

Young readers who squirm when bad things happen to animals will need to avoid this one: The novel starts with a blue jay stealing and eating a robin’s egg, and later, a car strikes a young mother coyote and leaves her pups orphaned. Children who understand the risky truths of living wild, however, The Remarkable Rescue at Milkweed Meadow will be left with a deep desire to become wildlife rehabilitators—and maybe convince their parents to start on that journey too. 

Readers will be left with the impression that, if they can be brave, they too can have an adventure worthy of an audience the size of a meadow.
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This Is the First Book I Will Read to You

Start off on the proverbial right foot with This Is the First Book I Will Read to You, in which a father celebrates the joys of reading with his newborn child. “I’ll be nervous,” he admits, “to share this moment that only you and I will be a part of.” As the father speaks, he gets the child ready for bed, walking through a house filled with loving family photographs. “You might not want to listen at first,” he continues. “But then we’ll find our way together.” Author Francesco Sedita’s sedate, pitch-perfect prose conveys the father’s jitters, but it’s dad’s quiet determination that rules the day.

Magenta Fox’s sweet digital illustrations are bathed in soft pinks and blues. As parent and child walk into the nursery and begin to read, Fox depicts the imaginative transformation that follows as wallpaper with a forest motif becomes an actual forest. Suddenly, father and baby are right there in a wooded clearing as an inquisitive squirrel looks on. It’s the perfect visual representation of the transportive power of books. As they keep reading, the pair ascend a hill, reach the sea and gaze up at the moon. “We have stories to discover and magical places to visit, you and I,” the father shares. “But tonight, this is the first book I’ll read to you.”

Sedita and Fox offer a gentle tribute to the strength of the parental bond and to all of the adventures, hopes and dreams that lie ahead.

★ The World and Everything in It

Kevin Henkes is widely known for his charming mouse characters, led by spunky Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, as well as numerous children’s novels, including the Newbery Honor books Olive’s Ocean and The Year of Billy Miller. However, Henkes’ less rambunctious picture books, such as Old Bear, Waiting and The World and Everything in It are treasures that shouldn’t be missed. They sparkle like little gems as they impart a deep sense of understanding and appreciation of our world.

Henkes begins with a simple idea. “There are big things and little things in the world,” he writes. On the page opposite this text, we see an illustration of a large tree trunk with a small green sprout beside it. In subsequent pages, he explores this idea systematically through spot illustrations of “little animals,” “tiny flowers” and “pebbles.” There’s even an empty space captioned “things so small you can’t see them.” Henkes next turns to big things, such as the sun, moon and sea.

After that, he helps young readers begin to grasp where they fit in among all these big and small things. For instance, he notes that “the sea is big, but you can hold some of it in your hands.” And just like that, this talented literary magician seamlessly moves from straightforward statements of fact to a series of sentences that capture sublime wonders. “Most of the things are in-between,” he explains. “Like you. And me. And just about anything you can think of.”

Henkes’ illustrations are tightly focused, economical and free of distractions—just right for the very young. He closes by repeating “Everything is in the world,” and the phrase feels like a benediction that reminds readers of the endless delights, both big and small, awaiting them.

★ The Moon Remembers

Stories about the moon are a staple for the very young, from perennial favorites like Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon and Eric Carle’s Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me to new classics such as Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr’s Owl Moon and Floyd Cooper’s Max and the Tag-Along Moon. E.B. Goodale’s exceptional The Moon Remembers deserves a place among them.

The book’s endpapers show the black-and-white phases of a friendly-faced moon, adding a nice touch of reality to this anthropomorphic fantasy. As a round, almost full, smiling moon gazes lovingly down on a nude roly-poly brown-skinned baby, we read that “when a baby is born, the moon is there. The moon remembers.” In fact, the moon remembers all babies, including your parents, and not just human babies: It shines its light down on baby crickets, rabbits, owls, flowers and trees. In a spread sure to find great favor, we learn that “even every DINOSAUR was a baby once!”

Goodale’s spare text offers comfort and reassurance as it describes how the moon “remembers where you came from . . . even when you’ve forgotten.” Her artwork is fittingly suffused with the soft glow of moonlight, which appears especially luminous in spreads that depict a dark green forest filled with ferns and undergrowth. Against this moody, arboreal backdrop, pops of pink, purple, white and yellow wildflowers feel perfectly placed. And of course the moon is omnipresent, whether it’s gleaming in the sky or reflected in a stream.

The Moon Remembers pays quiet but powerful homage to families and the promise of new life. After all, the moon remembers “every life . . . every sweet moment. And the moon will remember you, perfect you, as you go and wherever you grow.”

Awake, Asleep

Awake, Asleep chronicles a day in the lives of three young children in clever rhymes, following three families in the same neighborhood from dawn until bedtime. We meet a single-parent family, a multigenerational family with same-sex parents and a family who will soon welcome a new baby as we enjoy the beauty of an ordinary day that’s filled with rhythms—including ups and downs—that all families share.

Author Kyle Lukoff won a 2022 Newbery Honor (along with a number of other awards) for his middle grade novel Too Bright to See. Here he employs far fewer words but with just as much impact, creating strings of short noun phrases to describe the ongoing action of the day. In an early spread, for instance, we read, “A yawn, a peep, a stretch, awake!” as we watch a cat, a child and their parent wake up and get out of bed. Later, Lukoff neatly summarizes a child’s evening meltdown over putting away a train set with “a take, a pry, a scream, a cry.” The book’s genius is that because the scenes and situations are so readily identifiable, readers need no additional explanation.

Nadia Alam’s illustrations present a series of curated moments depicting, for example, a father and child putting on their pink sneakers together in the morning, and later, another child helping an older relative who uses a cane stand up from a park bench. Alam showcases myriad emotions along with the love that pours over these children no matter their mood. Young readers will identify with all of these inquisitive, happy, grumpy and, finally, sleepy faces. The book concludes with a bedtime story (“A hold, a keep, a voice, a book.”), which makes Awake, Asleep feel like a loving review of the day gone by as well as a comforting way to prepare for all the many days to come.

It’s never too early to begin raising the next generation of readers. Whether you’re off to a baby shower or building a library for your own little bundle of joy, these four picture books are perfect choices.
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As the son and sidekick of a celebrity archaeologist, Tennessee Russo has been facing down ancient death traps since before he was old enough for his learner’s permit. Spending time on both sides of the camera for his father’s reality show, Ten is used to being in the spotlight, especially after coming out as gay on international television. However, after Ten and his father get into an argument over the ethics of selling cultural artifacts to the highest bidder, his dad cuts him from the show and stops speaking to him.

Two years later, Ten’s dad shows up unannounced to offer his son a chance to find the rings of the Sacred Band of Thebes. The Sacred Band was an ancient Greek army said to have comprised 150 queer couples. As with much of queer history, the warriors’ legendary love is dismissed by historians as platonic, and Ten believes that finding their missing wedding rings will prove that queer love is older and stronger than the world wants to admit. But can he trust the man who abandoned him two years ago? With the rumored magical powers of the rings drawing dangerous attention, Ten will have to figure out who is really on his side if he wants to survive another season of his father’s show.

L.C. Rosen’s Lion’s Legacy is an entertaining queer adventure reminiscent of classic movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Mummy. Hidden chambers, puzzles with deadly stakes and a fun, casual romance hit all the essential blockbuster buttons. However, Rosen’s take on the genre actively interrogates the ethics of treasure hunting, posing questions about the ownership of history and the responsible way to handle historical artifacts. Much like Ten’s strained relationship with his father, there’s a lot of nuance to work through to find the right path forward. Ten’s inner conflicts and the temple-raiding thrills are well balanced by Rosen, who sacrifices neither emotional complexity nor pacing.

Lion’s Legacy is a celebration of the strength of queer community, whether felt by two queer people passing on the street, or resounding through the uncountable queer lives that have intersected throughout history. Ten knows queer history can be fun, weird, tragic and beautiful, but above all he knows it’s a history worth protecting.

Firelit hidden chambers, puzzles with deadly stakes and a fun, casual romance hit all the essential blockbuster buttons in Lion’s Legacy.

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