In her first memoir, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town, Kelly McMasters chronicled her happy childhood in a small blue-collar seaside community—and her horrified realization that nearby nuclear reactor leaks were causing cancer in numerous residents.

McMasters again explores the notion of something dark and poisonous lurking beneath a bright, beautiful surface in The Leaving Season: A Memoir in Essays. This time, she’s writing as a woman emerging from a long relationship, feeling both sorrowful and sanguine. “Marriage, after all,” she writes, “is just one long exercise in controlled burning.”

With poetry and profundity, the author reflects on her path from 20-something optimistic wife and mother-to-be to 30-something reluctant yet relieved divorcee and single mom. Her ex-husband is referred to as R., a painter she began dating just prior to 9/11. On that day, they stared out his studio window in New York City, and McMasters “had the strange sense that, like Lot’s wife, I might disintegrate into salt if I turned away from this body left standing next to me as the others collapsed impossibly in front of my eyes.”

The experience “grafted us to one another,” McMasters writes, and afterward the couple embarked on a tale as old as time: Artsy city-dwellers purchase land in a rural area, anticipating a slower pace, stronger connection and lots of room to grow. McMasters and R. did experience many of those things; her descriptions of their new surroundings are compelling and beautiful, her efforts to befriend taciturn farmers humorous, her determination impressive. (Whiskey helped.) But while sunlight dappled the grass and their young children created joyful chaos, R. grew distant and McMasters “felt like a broken compass needle, spinning and searching for purchase.”

The author’s candor and hard-won perspective will offer solidarity and support to those who are longing to feel seen, and perhaps contemplating shaking up their own lives. In reading The Leaving Season, an old saying came to mind: Wherever you go, there you are. But what if you aren’t sure who you are? McMasters’ masterful, moving memoir of her journey from the city to the country to the suburbs makes an excellent case for taking the time to figure that out, no matter how frightening it seems.

With poetry and profundity, Kelly McMasters reflects on her path from optimistic wife and mother-to-be to reluctant yet relieved divorcee and single mom.

Like the garden at its center, poet Camille T. Dungy’s Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden blossoms in vivid hues, radiating love and illuminating the tangled roots of nature and ecology.

Six years after she arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado, Dungy set out to reclaim a portion of her yard and convert it into a “drought-tolerant, pollinator-supporting flower field.” However, once several dump trucks unloaded mounds of dirt on her driveway, only for it to be scattered by wind, she had second thoughts. Eventually, though, she turned what was once a cookie-cutter lawn into a richly diverse space filled with plants that prevent soil erosion and allow bees and birds thrive.

At the same time that she was planting her garden, Dungy also dug into the history of the wilderness movement. She discovered that ecology had its own homogeneity problem, especially its exclusion of Black women gardeners and Black women environmental writers from anthologies of environmental literature. “Maintaining the fantasy of the American Wilderness requires a great deal of work,” she writes. “It requires the enforced silence of women, of Black people, Chinese people, Japanese people, other East and South Asian communities, poorer white people, Indigenous people, Latinx people . . . the list goes on and on.” To help fill that gap, she introduces readers to gardeners such as Anne Spencer, a Black poet who created a spacious sanctuary of a garden in the late 19th century in Lynchburg, Virginia.

In Soil, Dungy plants poems next to memoir next to critical analysis next to environmental history next to African American history, cultivating the radical ecological thought she wants to see more of in the world. This vibrant memoir challenges readers to look beyond the racial and scientific uniformness of most environmental literature and discover the rich wildness and hope that lies all around them.

In her radical and vibrant memoir, Camille Dungy plants poems next to critical analysis next to environmental history next to African American history.
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Carter Higgins delivers another superb concept book in Some of These Are Snails, a natural companion to her elegant 2021 creation, Circle Under Berry. Higgins invites readers to linger over these pages as they classify, sort and organize simple shapes in bright colors. 

The book opens with a double-page spread dominated by two circles: one green, one yellow, with simple embellishments that transform the green into a turtle, the yellow into a snail. “Turtle is a circle,” we read, then, “circle is a snail.” The next spread features six green and orange circles on the verso, while the recto repeats the images of the turtle and the snail, then introduces a yellow square. “Circle circle square” rests below these three shapes. In the spread that follows, the yellow square becomes an elephant; next to it, a square, now blue, is an owl. 

As we continue to turn the pages, Higgins’ text encourages readers to sort by color and shape, and to ascertain how these classifications overlap. We see nine variously colored circles arranged in a three-by-three square; a square whale; triangle birds and mice; a series of circles grouped by both size and color; and more. Occasionally, Higgins addresses readers directly: “can you sort by color? can you sort by size?” then, striking a playful note, “can you sort by shape or find the animal with eyes?” Perhaps the most sophisticated puzzle of all features six animal shapes and asks, “what is one? what is some? where is all and where is none?”

Though the text includes sparse punctuation and no capitalization, it’s satisfyingly rhythmic and filled with pleasing rhymes, both true and slant. It absolutely begs to be shared aloud. Meanwhile, Higgins renders the shapes and the creatures built from those shapes with vibrant collage illustrations. The figures rest on copious white space and evoke the palette and textures of the work of Eric Carle. It all makes for an utterly delightful, visually rich package that will have readers engaging in the types of classification work that form the basis of math skills and enhance memory and problem-solving abilities, too. Best of all, they’ll learn to see the world and its patterns in eye-opening ways. Some of These Are Snails is a must-have for every young reader’s bookshelf.

Discover how Carter Higgins’ created the ingenious art in ‘Some of These Are Snails.’

This must-have picture book for every young child is an utterly delightful, visually rich creation that invites readers to classify, sort and organize shapes.
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For centuries, farmers have been consulting celestial cycles, such as the zodiac and the phases of the moon, to time their planting, with a number of calendars and almanacs printed every year to help them do just that. There’s scant scientific research on this type of zodiac-based cultivation, but as associate professor of agriculture and natural resources Sarah L. Hall muses in Sown in the Stars, “It does seem (even to a scientist like me) that when a practice continues over a long period of time, there might just be something to it.”

Hall interviewed a large number of Kentuckians who follow the folk tradition of planting by the signs (I love how she refers to them as “garden artists”), and their stories shape the heart of this beautifully designed book. Hall gives readers an overview of astrology and astronomy, which inform this method of farming, and she even shares the results of her own season of planting by the signs. Whether you wish to give it a go yourself or are simply curious about traditional practices, this book is a valuable cultural document, full of experience and wisdom typically passed from one generation to the next by women.

Sown in the Stars is a valuable cultural document, full of experience and wisdom from farmers who consult celestial cycles and the zodiac signs to time their planting.
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Squire is the brainy sidekick to the brawny Sir Kelton, a knight whose reputation precedes him but never quite seems to prove itself. Regardless, while Sir Kelton is heralded as a hero, Squire stands quietly by, more interested in books and knowledge than sword fighting and rescuing. When the two come across a desolate village that appears cursed by the presence of a dragon, Sir Kelton vows to slay the beast and rides off to save the town. Squire, preferring to stay behind, notices something amiss. Interest piqued by the townspeople’s strange stories, he begins to investigate, and soon, little pieces begin to fall into place.

Prolific cartoonist Scott Chantler’s middle grade graphic novel Squire & Knight is a short, sweet story about the power of curiosity and the idea that strength and confidence aren’t everything. Chantler illustrates in a simple yet bold style, using only neutral shades and orange tones. The lone ruddy hue pops against otherwise monochrome backgrounds, guiding the reader’s attention through the subtly comedic storyline.

Chantler employs classic fantasy tropes—the sidelined sidekick to the daring knight, a treasure-hoarding dragon—while also subverting expectations. Squire, whose accomplishments and intelligence are frequently ignored by his noble employer, is the true brains behind their entire operation, while the dragon, despite appearances, just wants to collect his treasures in peace. The voices of the characters are dynamic and easy to hear in the reader’s mind. (For this reader, the dragon sounds exactly like Billy Crystal.)

Squire & Knight may not be revolutionary in form or subject, but it’s certainly an enjoyable read that champions the shy, the brainy and the inquisitive. This is the first volume of a planned duology, so we can look forward to at least one more adventure of Squire and his knight. 

Squire & Knight may not be revolutionary in form or subject, but it’s certainly an enjoyable read that champions the shy, the brainy and the inquisitive.
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Matt James demonstrated his skill for writing about hard subjects in a reassuring way in The Funeral (2018), his first picture book as both author and illustrator. He does so again in Tadpoles, which follows a boy who ponders his own changing habitat as he explores a pond formed by rainfall with his father. 

There’s no dearth of children’s books about the topics James explores here—divorce, changing seasons, the life cycles of frogs—but he nimbly imparts a fresh take on all three in an enticingly rich and thoughtful creation. Tadpoles is not quite a science book and not quite a divorce book, in the best possible ways. 

James accomplishes this through the strong voice of his narrator. He establishes the boy’s conversation tone from the very first line: “A kid in my class says she saw a two-headed frog.” The boy reveals that his father disagrees: “My dad says . . . that Sita probably just saw two frogs.” The boy is experiencing all manner of changes, including the arrival of spring rains that create a huge puddle in a field near his school. The boy notes that the field contains “neat old junk that people just left lying around,” such as glass bottles, a rusty bicycle and an upright piano. There’s even an old farm silo, which prompts the boy to confess, “Once, when my dad first moved to his new place, I stood in the silo and yelled every single swear word that I know. I guess I was worried that he wouldn’t love me anymore, but my dad says that some things never change.”

James’ moody art is filled with dark clouds and a wide variety of raindrops, which readers will almost feel splattering against the pages. Flashes of pink, green and the bright yellow of the boy’s raincoat guide the eye as the boy and his father study the pond’s tadpoles and discuss their evolution in detail (endnotes offer additional information). Movement on every page—swimming tadpoles, swirling clouds, curlicues on the back of a metal chair and more—adds interest. The backdrop of ongoing transformation in both the natural and manmade worlds dovetails neatly with the boy’s reflections about his father and their relationship. James’ illustrations show that the neighborhood is changing too, with high-rise buildings and a construction crane near smaller homes and green spaces. As the book ends, the skies are clear and blue as the boy and his father head home. One of the book’s many strengths is James’ comfort with leaving things unsaid and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

Tadpoles is a reassuring reminder that change can bring positive new developments, and that parental love remains constant, even amid great upheaval. 

Tadpoles offers a reassuring reminder that parental love remains constant, even amid great upheaval.

When Rachel Klein was born 12 years ago, Krasnia’s oceanside capital of Brava was a lively, lovely place dotted with palm trees and populated by citizens who reveled in living there. Sadly, in British screenwriter and playwright David Farr’s The Book of Stolen Dreams, lightheartedness is long gone from present-day Brava. 

A tyrannical man named Charles Malstain and his army invaded the city shortly after Rachel was born. The emperor of Krasnia was executed in the town square, and Brava was systematically destroyed. Under Malstain’s rule, public spaces are only for adults, posters declaring that “a seen child is a bad child” are plastered everywhere, and children are only permitted to leave home to go to school, where they must study government-issued materials and muddle through dreary days. 

But Rachel’s parents, Judith and Felix, create a warm, supportive home for Rachel and her older brother, Robert, where laughter is allowed and creativity is encouraged. On Rachel’s birthday, Felix offers the kids a treat in the form of a visit to the library where he works. What begins as an illicit jaunt soon becomes something the kids never could’ve expected: an urgent, terrifying mission to protect The Book of Stolen Dreams, an ancient magical tome long treasured by good people yet zealously coveted by Malstain, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book and use it for evil. 

From an opulent hotel to a mysterious old bookshop, from tenement housing to a massive silver airship, the siblings’ exhilarating and dangerous journey swoops from thrilling to terrifying to heartwarming and back again. Suspenseful action scenes and gasp-worthy surprises abound as Rachel and Robert strive to evade capture while attempting to find the Book’s vitally important but missing last page, which unlocks life-altering magic, before Malstain can. 

Farr’s beautifully crafted, thought-provoking story isn’t an easy-breezy read, but Farr is intimately acquainted with its stakes: The Book of Stolen Dreams was inspired by his own German Jewish family’s escape from Nazi Germany between 1935 and 1938. The novel grapples with tough, weighty questions: Is happiness possible under government oppression? When is a risk worthwhile? What do we owe our fellow citizens? 

Farr’s characters experience fear and grief right alongside delight and wonder. As his omniscient narrator observes with the mix of hard-won acceptance, hope and love for humanity that echoes throughout The Book of Stolen Dreams, “Such is life, my friend. There is no joy without accompanying sorrow. There is no despair so dark that a sliver of light cannot abate it.” 

Two siblings must protect a magical book from the tyrannical ruler of their country in this novel inspired by the author’s family’s experiences during WWII.

For most, the term doula is associated with the process of childbirth and bringing new life into the world. However, beginning in the early 2000s, the death doula began to gain attention within American popular knowledge. These individuals perform a similar function to their birthing counterparts but instead focus on ushering people through the dying process and providing end-of-life support. Mikki Brammer’s gentle and uplifting debut novel, The Collected Regrets of Clover, takes readers into the fascinating world of one particularly memorable death doula and serves as a potent reminder that the secret to a beautiful death is to live a beautiful life.

Clover Brooks has always had an affinity for death, having lost both her parents at the age of 6 and later deciding to pursue a graduate degree in thanatology, the scientific study of death and dying. When her beloved grandfather dies, Clover decides to pay tribute to him by working as a death doula to provide companionship to others during their final days. 

Part of Clover’s job involves recording her clients’ final words, which she catalogs in one of three private notebooks: Regrets, Advice or Confessions. Most people’s dying revelations tend to fall into the Regrets category, and if Clover were honest with herself, she has more than enough regrets to fill an entire notebook on her own. Perhaps her biggest is that she has spent so much time honoring the lives of others that she has forgotten how to live her own life to the fullest.

All this changes when she forms an unexpected connection with her latest client, an indomitable woman named Claudia. Clover finds herself on a cross-country trip with Claudia’s grandson, searching for Claudia’s secret lost love. Along the way, Clover questions whether she has the courage to truly start living on her own terms and begin whittling down her stack of regrets while she still has the chance.

Like all the best fiction that centers on death, The Collected Regrets of Clover inspires its readers to ask, in the spirit of Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Although not subtle in its messaging, Brammer’s novel is a comforting exploration of grief, love and human connection that is sure to appeal to fans of books that feel like a warm hug, like The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes.

Mikki Brammer’s gentle and uplifting debut novel takes readers into the fascinating world of a death doula and serves as a potent reminder that the secret to a beautiful death is to live a beautiful life.
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Intrigued by both the memorable “Indian boy” of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the historical records of the first-known person from India to arrive in Colonial America, Brinda Charry draws on her academic expertise to craft her profound debut, The East Indian. Far from a light read, this novel is one of heartache and persistence, centering on a boy named Tony who is kidnapped and brought to Virginia as an indentured servant.

When a fortune teller tells Tony that he will “cross all the seas in the world and go to the place where the sun sets,” he has no idea how dramatically this prediction will come to reflect his life. Born on India’s Coromandel Coast, Tony is transported to London and eventually reaches Jamestown, Virginia. The novel is structured like an adventure tale, but Tony’s journey has been forced upon him and is marked by death and rape, described with disturbing vividness. Charry moves between conflicting outlooks: the hope and enjoyment of a boy discovering the world, and the darkly educational reality that surrounds him. In one sense, The East Indian is a quintessential story of finding oneself; in another, it’s a deeply emotional depiction of colonization and the brutality of daily life for people of color in early to mid-1600s Jamestown. The plot is engaging but slow moving, as Charry seems most keen on producing a historically accurate account of the customs and behavioral norms of this period. 

Tony’s wide-ranging experiences are at the heart of the novel, but supporting characters also contain nuance and depth. His relationships with friends and foes change and deepen in realistic (and sometimes stomach-churning) ways. Characters are frequently pulled apart, modeling the painful separations of family and friends that were so common for enslaved people and indentured servants, but they continually find pathways back to one another. And while encounters can sometimes feel contrived, the novel delivers genuinely sharp pangs as people move in and out of Tony’s life.

Few fictional narratives explore this era of American history and indentured servitude in the Colonies; Charry addresses this notable absence head-on, and her writing has a sophisticated elegance that aligns perfectly with the gravity of the novel’s contents. The result is a necessary and ultimately triumphant addition to the chronicles of American colonialism.

Few fictional narratives explore indentured servitude in Colonial America; Brinda Charry addresses this notable absence head-on, and her writing has a sophisticated elegance that aligns perfectly with the gravity of the novel’s contents.
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“You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote. In journalist Shannon McKenna Schmidt’s detail-rich and revealing account, The First Lady of World War II: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Daring Journey to the Frontlines and Back, it is abundantly clear that the four-term first lady lived her words. Beginning as a Red Cross volunteer during World War I, and later as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife and widow, she was a powerful voice for pacifism and economic and racial equality. She was derided during her lifetime for her forays into men’s worlds of work and war, but that didn’t stop her from embarking on a perilous journey to visit American troops in the South Pacific during World War II.

The first lady’s 1943 tour started in secret, as an attempt to evade misogynistic criticisms from press and politicians. When the news broke that she was amid the fierce, ongoing war with Japan, she was pilloried. Disdain and skepticism awaited her when she met the military men in command. Admiral “Bull” Halsey said he didn’t have time to entertain a “do-gooder.” General Douglas MacArthur refused to allow her to visit his post in Papua New Guinea. Yet, flying in freezing military planes, often under cover of darkness to avoid detection, Roosevelt visited Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and 17 islands, including Bora Bora, Christmas Island and Guadalcanal, over the course of five weeks. She went from bed to bed in hospitals, offering to bring messages home to the families of wounded soldiers and letting the troops know she was there because their president wanted to know how they were doing.

What was first viewed as a political stunt soon earned Roosevelt the admiration of Halsey and others, many of whom couldn’t keep up with her. She ate with the enlisted men, slept in huts, took cold showers and wrote it all down in her syndicated news column, “My Day.” In New Zealand and Australia, she visited factories and farms where women did the work that men were no longer available for. She wore a Red Cross uniform she paid for herself, just as she funded her entire trip. While some people back in America groused that Roosevelt should “stay at home, where a wife belongs,” the troops she met with gushed, “She’s just like your mother, isn’t she?”

After witnessing firsthand the horrific combat conditions for servicemen in the South Pacific theater, Roosevelt became a force for improving their lives as veterans. The GI Bill of Rights would help prevent the shameful treatment and broken promises that World War I veterans had endured. Roosevelt’s role as a delegate in the nascent United Nations also had its roots in this journey, which continued to haunt her throughout her life. As Schmidt powerfully conveys, it was a trip that changed many lives, especially Roosevelt’s.

Shannon McKenna Schmidt’s detail-rich and revealing The First Lady of World War II follows Eleanor Roosevelt on her perilous journey to visit American troops in the South Pacific.
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Acclaimed children’s author Liz Hyder’s first novel for adults has a richness of prose that immediately hooks readers and allows deep immersion within its strange world. Set in England in 1840, The Gifts is a remarkable, unpredictable tale of ambition, faith and survival, a blend of historical fiction and fantasy from a deft storyteller.

Unexpected magical occurrences cause the lives of four women to intertwine: distressed wife and artist Annie, renegade naturalist Etta, drifting seeker Natalya and aspiring writer Mary. As the story opens, a woman’s corpse is pulled from the Thames River, and from its back sprout what appear to be wings. This immediately attracts the eye of Annie’s husband, Edward, an ambitious surgeon frustrated by the brighter spotlight shone on his flashier colleagues. In this “fallen angel,” Edward sees his entire future in the form of a gift from God, and now he wants to get his hands on a living specimen. But at what cost does success come for Edward, and how does his relentless pursuit of notoriety and fortune change the lives of each of the four women?

Hyder’s novel unfolds through a series of short chapters that function like a sequence of character studies, each of which displays such a tight grasp on detail and emotional range that it could function as a short story. We learn so much through a single visit to Annie’s ornate house or Etta’s ramshackle country cabin. We glean tremendous depth from Mary’s sense of duty and how it conflicts with her own ambitions. Each of the women is so finely drawn that we’re immediately invested not just in their lives but also in the ways they see the world, and how their perspectives shift as the events of the novel start to fall into place. Once the magical elements kick in and wings begin to unfurl, Hyder’s gift for narrative propulsion blends with this character depth to create a sumptuous reading experience.

The Gifts is a remarkable, unpredictable tale of ambition, faith and survival, a blend of historical fiction and fantasy from a deft storyteller.

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