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Young sleuths searching for great mystery novels know exactly what they’re looking for: engaging characters, a suspenseful story, a satisfying resolution and a touch of heart. They'll find all that and more in these two middle grade books.

Duet

If the animal menagerie of Deborah and James Howe's classic Bunnicula series had included a goldfinch, the result might have been something like Duet. Like Bunnicula and its sequels, Duet features an animal narrator. Mirabelle is a young goldfinch who helps her favorite people find answers to perplexing questions.

Mr. Starek has retired from teaching piano lessons, but he makes an exception for Michael, a sixth grader whose musical talent is matched only by his stubbornness. Mirabelle has kept Mr. Starek company from the trees outside his windows since the recent death of his sister, Halina, and now the little yellow bird delights in singing along while Michael practices a series of pieces composed by Frédéric Chopin, including the technically challenging and exquisitely beautiful Ballade in F Minor. 

As Mirabelle searches for a way to join Michael at an upcoming competition, Michael and Mr. Starek are joined by Emily, a former protege of Mr. Starek's. Emily used to teach Michael piano, but now she's studying music history at the conservatory. Together, the trio search Halina's house for a rare, hidden piano known as a Pleyel, one of two types of pianos on which Chopin composed. However, Halina was a hoarder, which Broach depicts with empathy and understanding, and the house contains more secrets than anyone suspects.

Masterpiece Adventures author Elise Broach fills Duet with evocative details of Mirabelle's avian life, including adventures with her brothers, the welcoming of new siblings to her family's nest and a harrowing description of a thunderstorm. Broach also incorporates a number of intriguing and memorable stories about Chopin and his artistic friends. Her writing is peppered with fun vocabulary (appurtenances, daguerreotype), and Duet includes an author's note that explains how the conclusion of the novel's mystery connects to fascinating real-life events.

At one point, Emily acknowledges her limitations as a pianist, providing a refreshing and mature balance to the other musicians' focus on perfect performances as their primary goal. Music, Duet suggests, can be enjoyed by everyone—including goldfinches. Find a recording of Chopin's ballades and let Broach sweep you away on wings of word and song.

Chester Keene Cracks the Code

Chester Keene appreciates his routine more than your average sixth grader. Every day after school, until his mom gets off work, he plays laser tag and knocks down pins at his mother's best friend's bowling alley. His routine does not include finding an envelope with his name on it that contains two riddles bearing the numbers one and four. And it especially does not include being joined at his solo lunch table by the outgoing Skye, who's holding riddles number two and three. 

Chester thinks the clues must have been left by his absent father, whom Chester has long been convinced is a spy. What if the riddles are Chester's dad's way of communicating that he's in trouble and needs Chester's help? As Chester and Skye decode the puzzles, which seem intentionally designed to require them to work together, they form a friendship. When they overhear a group of bowlers plotting a heist, they begin to wonder whether stopping the crime could be the key to rescuing Chester's dad. But could Chester's reliance on careful observation be leading him astray?

Readers who pay close attention to detail will be rewarded not just with the solutions to the riddles, which involve puns, number games and creative thinking, but also the answers to the novel's larger mysteries, such as why Chester and Skye have been brought together in the first place. The revelation of the riddles' true purpose takes Chester Keene Cracks the Code in a direction that's as fitting as it is initially unexpected. Maybe what Chester longs for most is actually closer to him than he realizes.

Diversity is a part of Chester's world in quiet ways: Both Chester and Skye are biracial, and Skye encourages Chester to “break free of traditional gender roles” and embrace his inner warrior princess. Chester's town's various small businesses, including the bowling alley, evoke a small-town, working-class setting. His solitary habits and reliance on down-to-the-minute schedules also suggest a neurodivergence that acclaimed author Kekla Magoon leaves unspecified.  

Chester Keene Cracks the Code is a heartwarming puzzle mystery whose narrator has multiple codes to crack: the code of the riddle messages, the code of friendship, the code of handling a bully and the code of family. 

Join young detectives on quests for answers that may be hiding in plain sight.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood

Louis lives with his determined, free-spirited grandmother. When neither she nor City Hall can tell him how many dogs live in their neighborhood, Louis takes Grandma's advice to heart: “Sometimes if you want something done you've just got to do it yourself.” 

Louis decides to go door to door to take a census. Along the way, he learns a lot about his neighbors and their pets. Two corgis named Wilbur and Orville enjoy bird-watching, while a small white terrier named E.B. “dreams of writing stories.” Such clever references elevate the story, even if younger readers might not immediately grasp their meanings. An older man tells Louis that he has learned many lessons from his dogs, Aesop and Fable, while a house in which musicians practice saxophone and flute is also home to a pair of hounds named Thelonious and Monk. All of these touches are artful and light, just there for the taking.

Meanwhile, Grandma is occupied with a project of her own, as she's unsatisfied that the city has fenced off an abandoned lot. Her efforts and Louis' dovetail pleasingly, and there's a lovely surprise for Louis in the end.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood is an easy book to fall in love with. Philip C. Stead's writing is exquisite, and illustrator Matthew Cordell's artwork portrays a delightful menagerie of humans and their four-legged friends. Stead (author of the Caldecott Medal-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee) makes every word count, while fellow Caldecott Medalist Cordell (Wolf in the Snow) brings the bustling sidewalks of Louis' neighborhood to life. His signature loose, expressive lines have fabulous energy and personality reminiscent of the work of Quentin Blake and Jules Feiffer.

Every Dog in the Neighborhood is a memorable story about energetic grandparenting, the importance of being a good neighbor and the fruits of civic engagement.    

The Pet Potato

Move over, Sophie's Squash: Albert's potato has arrived. In Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf's beloved 2013 picture book, a young girl befriends a squash she finds at the farmers market. Josh Lacey and Momoko Abe's The Pet Potato pays similar tribute to the power of imagination through the story of Albert, a playful boy with circular red glasses and a mop of curly hair who longs for a pet but whose parents have squashed all of his suggestions.

Despite his parents' firm stance, Albert pleads unrelentingly until, one day, his father hands him a small wrapped package, which turns out to contain a potato. “You wanted a pet,” Dad tells Albert. “It's a pet potato.” Albert sets the potato aside, then notices that it looks sad. The next day, he gives the potato a ride on his train set, and soon the pair are inseparable.  

British author Lacey is no stranger to unusual pet tales; he's also the author of the Dragonsitter chapter book series. Here, he employs excellent comic timing as he describes Albert and the potato's adventures at home, on the playground and even at the library, where, “for some reason, the potato particularly liked books about pirates.”

Abe's illustrations capture it all, from Albert and the potato palling around on the playground to Albert drifting off to sleep at night, the potato resting on the pillow next to him. A limited color palette of greens, reds, yellows and browns allows Albert's and the potato's facial expressions to shine. Using minimal linework and an arsenal of adorable potato-size hats, Abe creatively animates the potato, who becomes an intrepid safari explorer, a railway engineer and more.

Of course, like all pets, potatoes don't live forever, and Lacey crafts a satisfying ending that leaves everyone happy, including Albert. A final spread portrays a diverse array of neighbors discovering how much fun a pet potato can be.

With great style and gentle humor, The Pet Potato demonstrates how a vivid imagination can transform an ordinary spud into an extraordinary buddy.

The Surprise

When Kit receives a guinea pig as a surprise birthday gift, her household's other animals are perplexed by the creature. Bob the pug, Dora the cat and Paul the bird pronounce, “If you're not a cat or a dog or a bird, you're an oddball.” Co-authored by award-winning novelist Zadie Smith (White Teeth) and her husband, Nick Laird, The Surprise is a spirited celebration of the unexpected. In the world of this story, anything can happen—and it does. 

The Surprise (as the newly arrived guinea pig is called for most of the book) is dressed for judo, which she loves, but her new companions abandon her to watch TV, leaving her feeling sad and lonely. As she experiments with ways to fit in, the Surprise winds up in big trouble. Fortunately, she is rescued by a fellow oddball, an older woman named Emily Brookstein who lives in a flat below Kit's. “Life's too short not to be an oddball,” Emily advises.

Illustrator Magenta Fox's artwork is well suited to this tale of anthropomorphized animals. The guinea pig is an immediately adorable and sympathetic protagonist. Ginger-haired, exuberant Emily Brookstein and loving new pet owner Kit make perfect foils to the disapproving trio of Bob, Dora and Paul. Fox excels at facial expressions, whether it's a smug yet puzzled look on a bespectacled pug's face or the Surprise's downcast eyes as the other animals talk about her as though she can't hear them. There's plenty of action, too, including an airborne guinea pig and a dynamic series of panels that depicts an exciting elevator journey. 

When Kit returns home from school, she finally christens her new pet Maud. It's clear that Maud will fit right in with the animals and humans of her new family, but she has also gained an appreciation for what makes her stand out, too. 

There’s nothing quite so wonderful—or as challenging—as bringing a new pet into the family. These three picture books showcase the happiness that these companions add to our lives.

Smart, tenacious teen sleuths star in three remarkable mystery novels. These detectives have curious minds, a knack for sussing out secrets and a thirst for justice. 

★ Hollow Fires

In Samira Ahmed's powerful Hollow Fires, 17-year-old aspiring journalist Safiya Mirza describes herself as “a giddy teen rom-com cliché, but with more panic and terror churning in the mix.” 

True, the high school senior does enjoy fun times with friends and a budding romance with a handsome classmate at Chicago's private DuSable Preparatory High School, where she's a scholarship student. But Safiya is also deeply troubled by the disappearance of 14-year-old Jawad Ali, a freshman at a nearby public school. When Jawad brought a cosplay jetpack to class, his English teacher mistook it for a bomb and he was arrested, suspended and dubbed “Bomb Boy” by right-wing media. Jawad was quickly cleared of all charges, but he and his family became the targets of harassment, unfounded accusations of terrorism and death threats.

Jawad's disappearance attracts scant press coverage or police interest, so Safiya angrily decides to investigate on her own. She's urged on by a soft but insistent voice that she realizes is Jawad, imploring her to find him so his parents can find closure amid their fear and grief. 

When Safiya discovers Jawad's body, some questions are answered, but even more are raised about who could've done such a horrible thing. Classism and racism abound at school and in Safiya's neighborhood; could the culprit be someone she's encountered? After all, as Jawad muses, “The most terrifying monsters are the ones you know.” 

Ahmed unfurls this story through chapters that alternate between Safiya's and Jawad's perspectives, while also layering in news articles, blog posts, phone transcripts, tweets and other social media posts. The result is a compelling portrait of how hate spreads, radicalization takes root and danger grows.

In an author's note, Ahmed shares that she wrote Hollow Fires to call on readers to “step forward, to face the truth of all we are.” Her devastating and inspiring book is at once a gripping thriller and a passionate call for change that's urgent and timely—and sadly, also timeless.

Murder for the Modern Girl

As 1927 turns to 1928 in Chicago, Ruby Newhouse toasts the new year in a “party frock that was practically required by law to set heads turning.” The sassy 18-year-old daughter of the Cook County state's attorney is gorgeous, and she knows it. She also knows what everyone around her is thinking, because she can read minds “like a supernatural radio antenna.” 

Ruby keeps that power secret, while using it to reduce the number of terrible men who prey on vulnerable women in her beloved city. Poison is her preferred method (the lethal stuff fits nicely in tiny needles or hollowed-out hairpins), and so far, she's gotten away with it. 

But in Kendall Kulper's sparklingly clever Murder for the Modern Girl, Ruby's anonymity and freedom are threatened when a young morgue employee named Guy Rosewood begins investigating a strange series of poisonings in an effort to impress Dr. Gregory C. Keene. The doctor's research on cellular metamorphosis has been met with derision, but Guy is a shape-shifter who desperately wants to control his abilities, and he believes Dr. Keene could help him learn how. 

When Guy meets Ruby, he wants to impress her as well—not realizing she's the vigilante he seeks. And when Ruby discovers Guy's secret, she agrees to keep it quiet while charming him into assisting her as she tries to track down the people responsible for an attempt on her father's life.

Ruby leverages sexism (underestimation!) and sexiness (distraction!) to her advantage as she pursues her quarry; Guy assists when he's not pursuing his own mysterious goals. Both characters are intelligent, caring and driven by a shared belief that, as Ruby says, “you've gotta protect the weak and punish the wicked.” Murder for the Modern Girl is a smart, suspenseful and action-packed period piece that thoughtfully explores whether all crimes are truly criminal.. 

Gideon Green in Black and White

As the title of Katie Henry's winning and inventive Gideon Green in Black and White indicates, the 16-year-old Gideon Green spends a lot of time immersed in absolutes. For example, since honesty is the best policy, Gideon doesn't understand why everyone keeps getting mad any time he merely states the truth, however inconvenient.

Gideon's penchant for clarity is bolstered by his favorite noir films, which he watches every day after school. Despite his frustrated dad's pleas that he consider a new hobby, Gideon finds comfort in the movies' familiar beats. He also emulates his noir detective idols by wearing a trenchcoat and fedora, never mind that he lives in sunny California. 

Although Gideon is impressively astute, he didn't understand why his best friend, Lily Krupitsky-Sharma, ghosted him in middle school. But Lily approaches him as the book opens. She wants a promotion to editor-in-chief of the school newspaper next year and thinks a splashy investigative feature will do the trick. Will Gideon help her secretly investigate a recent uptick in their town's nonviolent crime rates? 

Lily gets Gideon a copy editing gig as a cover, and he revels in being welcomed to the tightknit staff, led by lovely editor-in-chief Tess. For the first time, Gideon feels like he's part of something, but too soon, there's another first: discovering a dead body in the course of the investigation. 

Gideon's interactions with his town's police officers are a hoot, thanks to the cops' exasperation at his confident matter-of-factness. His blooming romance with Tess is delightful, too, as is his growing awareness that there might be more to life than being precisely correct. It's enjoyable to watch Gideon discover meaning in the grays. Gideon often contemplates how scenes might unfold differently if his life were a noir film, complete with excerpts from the movie scripts in his imagination, upping the fun factor in this highly entertaining, empathetic mystery.

Can you solve these cases before their teenage detectives? There’s only one way to find out.

A cozy small town. A quaint Main Street lined with quirky family-owned shops. Community events—farmers markets, pumpkin carving contests, Christmas tree lightings—attended by everyone. A plucky, adorable heroine finds love with the gorgeous guy who drove her crazy, right up until their nonstop sparring turned into love.

We all know the formulas. Like receiving a gift-wrapped bicycle, the joy doesn’t come from wondering, “Whatever could this be?” but rather from the instant recognition that you’ve gotten exactly what you want. Sweetness? Check. Warm fuzzies? Check. Happily ever after? Checkmate.

As Seen on TV

In Meredith Schorr’s debut, As Seen on TV, Adina Gellar has let made-for-TV movies convince her that everything wrong with her big-city life could be cured by a small-town romance. Of course she hasn’t found love in superficial, fast-paced New York City. What she needs is a down-home everyman who will offer her steadiness and commitment—something she craves both personally and professionally.

In a last-ditch effort to kick-start her freelance journalism career, Adina pitches a story about Pleasant Hollow, a nearby small town about to be forever changed by the addition of a huge housing tower. She anticipates being welcomed to Pleasant Hollow by a grandmotherly bed-and-breakfast owner, befriended by a spunky waitress and charmed by a small-town Romeo, all of whom will confirm that the interlopers are ruining the character of their adorable town. Instead, the B&B owner is curt, the waitress is impatient, the town is bleak and no one cares about the development or Adina . . . except for the tower’s project manager, Finn Adams. Despite being absolutely gorgeous, city boy Finn’s lack of interest in a picture-perfect HEA is a red flag for Adina.

Nevertheless, Adina remains plucky to the max and continues trying to fit everyone else into the parts she wants them to play. The relentlessness of her search for quaintness and charm is admirable, if at times exhausting, while her struggle to find a simple, straightforward romance in a way-too-complicated world is relatable. Schorr provides an interesting foil for Adina in Finn, who encourages and frustrates her in equal measure as he helps her realize that love doesn’t have to be neat and tidy to be right and real.

★ Nora Goes Off Script

Nora Hamilton, of Annabel Monaghan’s Nora Goes Off Script, lives on the other side of a romance fixation—not as the addict but as the dealer, churning out scripts of sweet, interchangeable stories for the Romance Channel. But when her spoiled wastrel of a husband leaves her and their two kids, and she realizes she’s secretly, guiltily glad to see him go, she ends up pouring her own story into a new screenplay.

That screenplay gets turned into a serious Hollywood movie, starring Hollywood’s most gorgeous star, Leo Vance, who comes to Nora’s house to film on location and then . . . doesn’t leave. Leo has looks, talent, fame, fortune and a smolder that could melt glass. But after a recent personal loss, he’s floundering to figure out who he is, and Nora’s historic home in a low-key small town seems like the right place to find his footing. Will love ensue? Romance readers know it will, but their mutual feelings manage to catch both Nora and Leo totally off guard.

The plot—big-city hotshot finding his real self with help from a small-town sweetheart—may be a classic formula, but not a single thing in Nora Goes Off Script comes across as predictable. The characters seem to genuinely discover their story as it unfolds, always digging for something authentic and rejecting stereotypes (at least, the ones that Monaghan doesn’t gently lampoon before employing). Nora and Leo’s struggles are honest and poignant, Nora’s children are genuine and nuanced characters who are never treacly or smarter than the adults, and the romance takes its time while taking its main couple seriously. Warm, witty and wise, Nora Goes Off Script tells the truth about all of love’s ups and downs: family love, friendship love, romantic love that comes to a wrenching end—and love that triumphs so beautifully, you’ll still be smiling over it long after you’ve put the book down.

Are you a sucker for a made-for-TV movie? Then you'll love As Seen on TV and Nora Goes Off Script.

★ Edible Plants

In Edible Plants, Jimmy W. Fike takes native North American plant specimens—such as dandelion, rocket, sassafras, spicebush and pawpaw—out of their natural surroundings and meticulously digitally photographs them against black backdrops. In each image, the stark contrast makes visible the magical potency and potential of these common living things, many of which are often dismissed as weeds. Fike colorizes the edible portions of each plant, while the inedible parts are kept a delicate, even eerie gray. These striking photographs seek to inform, similar to the horticultural photography and illustrations of eras past, perhaps making foragers of us all. But what’s more, they are painstakingly beautiful. This book would make an impressive gift for the naturalist in your life.

Cats & Books

How can we not give a shoutout to Cats & Books, a slim-and-trim, adorable celebration of felines sprawled amid TBR piles and perched on bookshelves? This is a hashtag-to-print project: The photos are crowdsourced from Instagram users worldwide who tagged their photos #CatsandBooks. Now compiled in print, short captions give glimpses of these kitties’ personalities. For example, George from Germany “is a gentle soul and the best office buddy one could ask for.” (Sweet George is shown with a paw flung possessively over a copy of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.) Any person who loves cats and also loves books obviously needs to own this small treasure.

Things You Can Do

Last night at dinner, my daughter complained about the absence of meat in her tacos, which led to a discussion of sustainable eating. She didn’t grasp the connection between a carnivorous diet and climate change, so I brought to the table Things You Can Do and read from Chapter 3, “A Climate-Friendly Diet.” I daresay I got through to her, and I imagine New York Times journalist Eduardo Garcia’s compact, well-sourced guide to fighting climate change and reducing waste will continue to help us play our small but mighty part. Grounded in science, this approachable book offers a 360-degree view of the causes and effects of a warming planet, from reliance on coal to the excesses of modern life, including the overuse of air conditioning, increased meat consumption, car culture and much more. I for one am glad to have this resource, rounded out by beautiful watercolor and gouache illustrations by Sara Boccaccini Meadows, at my fingertips for family meals and beyond.

The natural world and all of its delicate delights take center stage in this month’s roundup of the best and most beautiful lifestyles books.

★ Wild Witchcraft

A while back I let my social network know I was interested in learning more about magic, herbalism, astrology and the like. It felt naive to group these things together, but I’ve since discovered there’s more than a little overlap. In Wild Witchcraft, North Carolina-based forager-witch Rebecca Beyer provides a well-researched history of European witchcraft and American folk healing practices, followed by a solid introduction to growing and foraging healing herbs. Readers learn how to use herbs in rituals and remedies and in harmony with the Wheel of the Year, a series of seasonal observances including the fall and spring equinoxes. Beyer covers much ground efficiently and makes a strong case for why these practices are especially necessary now. Amid rapid and cataclysmic climate change, “inspiring people to see value in plants and ecosystems can help to preserve them,” she writes, and “combat the total divorce of humans from their fellow animal, vegetable, and mineral kin.”

Booze & Vinyl 2

During the COVID-19 pandemic, vinyl record sales outnumbered those of CDs for the first time since the 1980s. This vinyl renaissance presents a timely backdrop for Booze & Vinyl 2, which builds on the genius of sister-and-brother duo André and Tenaya Darlington’s 2018 volume of album and craft cocktail pairings, Booze & Vinyl. How about a glow-in-the-dark vodka tonic paired with Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine or a moonshine-based sipper with Van Morrison’s Moondance? Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstong get a “Silver Fizz” to match Ella’s “silvery voice,” and citrus meets prosecco and brandy for two drinks inspired by Beyoncé’s Lemonade. There are even a few themed appetizers, such as “Deeez Nuuuts” for munching while spinning Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. The design freak in me loves how the book’s aesthetic shifts with each album, each turn of the page setting a vibe. Dim the lights, drop the needle and sip to the sounds. 

My America

In My America: Recipes From a Young Black Chef, a follow-up to his 2019 memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef, James Beard Award winner Kwame Onwuachi filters the cuisine of the African diaspora through the lens of his family, his travels and peripatetic childhood, and the journeys of his ancestors. As Onwuachi notes, a close look at the cuisines of the American South, the Caribbean and Nigeria reveals many common threads and flavor echoes—from the jambalaya of Louisiana to the jollof of Nigeria. Black food tells a story—from groundnut stew and callaloo to crawfish pie and baby back ribs—and the recipes collected here tell it powerfully.

Reconnect to food, music and nature with this month’s best new lifestyles titles.

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