Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, June 21, 2019

Dutton: Sunderworld, Vol. I: The Extraordinary Disappointments of Leopold Berry by Ransom Riggs

From My Shelf

Consider the Master

Why write about food? Why not power, security or love? Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher--known to most readers as M.F.K. Fisher--answers: "It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…"

Fisher's food writing helped establish what now is an abundant genre. Whet your appetite with Fisher's Consider the Oyster (North Point Press, $13), offering recipes and essays on the "dreadful but exciting" mollusk. You can't go wrong with her Oysters Rockefeller.

Then feast on How to Cook a Wolf (North Point Press, $16), first published in 1942 when rationing was becoming a daily part of the war effort for many Americans. Fisher's sparkling prose illuminates the delights of humble buttered toast, how to stomach--and enjoy--organ meat, the possibilities afforded by canned food and the American tendency to overcook vegetables. Her humor easily holds up: "Almost all vegetables are good, although there is some doubt still about parsnips." Try the Tomato Soup Cake. (Really.)

Fisher's seminal work The Gastronomical Me (North Point Press, $16) traces the enviable highlights of her culinary life, a perfect start for a taste of her blend of sumptuous detail with measured wisdom. Recalling a childhood sundown spent with her father and sister, she writes "the three of us are in some ways even more than twenty-five years older than we were then. And still the warm round peach pie and the cool yellow cream we ate together that August night live in our hearts' palates, succulent, secret, delicious." --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

The Writer's Life

Tim Mason: You Have to Bring the Stage to Them

photo: David Kelley

Tim Mason's plays have been produced in New York City and around the world. He has received the Kennedy Center Award, the Hollywood Drama-Logue Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Rockefeller Foundation grant. In addition to his dramatic plays, he wrote the book for Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, which ran for two seasons on Broadway and tours nationally every year. He is the author of the young adult novel The Last Synapsid (2009). The Darwin Affair (reviewed below), out now from Algonquin Books, is his first adult novel.

What about this history captured your imagination?

It began with Dickens, really: my love of Dickens, perhaps his best novel, Bleak House, and the character, the Detective Inspector named Bucket. I always thought, wouldn't it be fun to write something with Bucket as the lead character instead of just a member of the supporting cast? And when I found that Dickens quite likely based Inspector Bucket on a real London policeman, Charles Field, I felt at liberty to use that fellow, or my version of him, as my lead character. It began with Dickens, and with my father's love of the works of Charles Darwin.

How important, to you, is historical accuracy in fiction?

I worked very hard to be as accurate as possible, given that it's a work of fiction. I tried to insert my fiction in the interstices between one historical event and the next. I had some good luck: when I first began work on the notion of the novel back in 2009, I was having dinner with a friend, a British expatriate in New York. And she said, well, if you're doing anything Victorian, you should be in touch with my friend in London, Jane Hill. I e-mailed this perfect stranger and she, within days, was looking over my first 80 pages and correcting my Victorian. She was a great help throughout. At one point she turned over her house in north London to me while she was traveling abroad, and I used that as a base for research. I had an old friend in Oxford, an archeologist, and he and his wife were able to unlock a door for me at the University Museum, where the famous Wilberforce-Huxley debate on evolution took place. It is no longer open to the public, but I got to scope it out for myself and try to duplicate it in my book.

Also, in 2012, I think that was the year, the diaries of Queen Victoria, which had been transcribed and digitized, were briefly put online and open to the public. That was just a godsend; it was incredible. I had Queen Victoria's own day-to-day accounting of her time, and the trip with her husband, Albert, to his homeland of Coburg in Germany, including the very real, very serious carriage accident that Albert suffered where he was thrown from a carriage and injured. I saw that as a green light to my fiction. It really happened; my version of it didn't, but I squeezed my fiction onto historical fact.

Did you enjoy the research process?

I enjoyed it very much. Discovering sources like those I've mentioned, and a couple of others--I had a lot of good luck. At a certain point I feel you can't write until you shut the history book. Otherwise you'll go on forever researching and, you know, this is not a documentary; this is a work of fiction. I have to be willing to get some things wrong. I do my best to study up on the area I'm pursuing, and then I metaphorically shut the book and don't look at it while I'm writing. That's my process. Otherwise I find I'm paralyzed; I couldn't actually begin the fiction until I looked away from the history.

What do you love so much about Bucket?

For me the Charles Field that I made was attractive. Dickens's Bucket is also very attractive. He's probably one of the first-ever police detectives in fiction. Very adept, very sagacious. He's able to spot character on sight and come to snap judgments that prove to be accurate. I felt he also had quite a lot of moral ambiguity. He does a terrible trick to the poor character of Tom--Tom who's all alone, a miserable poverty-stricken street boy. So he's very warm and engaging, and you love him, and then he's also capable of underhanded dealing. I thought he was very human.

When I came to write my version of Inspector Field, I realized he's only superficially like Dickens's Bucket. He has certain patterns of speech that are like Bucket, and he's sort of a burly middle-aged man and he loves his wife, as Dickens's Bucket did; but he's a nicer guy. He has a terrible temper--that's his biggest failing. But I could embrace him wholeheartedly, even with his temper and his sense of his own limitations. I think that's very attractive to me. He's not the omniscient detective. He's not anything like Hercule Poirot. He's just groping in the dark and so frustrated because he feels he makes one mistake after another. That feels more like my life.

How was writing a novel for adults different from your past writing experience?

I began experimenting in prose fiction some years ago, around 2000, when a story occurred to me that simply couldn't be told on the stage. A play can span time, and travel in time theatrically, but this story wanted something different. That's how my middle school novel, The Last Synapsid, began, and that was just such a slog. I just had to write and write and overwrite. My first draft was over 450 pages long! It took me a long time. I eventually cut 100 pages before Random House bought it and published it, but it was a great education. I could do things in novel form that I can't do on the stage.

The literature of the stage is pure economy. Action is dialogue. Action isn't, he goes to the bar and makes a cocktail and returns to the dinner table. Action is what happens from one line of dialogue to the next between one character and another, constant shifting of the balance of power. That makes the dynamic of a play. Well, in a novel, you've got the reader, who isn't looking at the stage but looking into his or her own imagination, and you have to bring the stage to them. And it's a lot of work, a lot of wonderful work.

What are you working on next?

What I'm working on involves Inspector Field five years before the events of The Darwin Affair, and seven years after. Both a prequel and a sequel. But this one I don't want to take four years to write! --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Book Candy

Horror Holiday

Horror holiday: Quirk Books recommended "the perfect reads for your upcoming summer vacation."


Headline of the day (via Atlas Obscura): "The cypress that may have inspired Dr. Seuss's The Lorax has toppled down."


"Harry Potter fans are waiting 10 hours or more to ride Hagrid's roller coaster," Mental Floss reported.


Author Jessica Francis Kane picked her "top 10 houseguests in fiction" for the Guardian.


Leonardo da Vinci's "huge notebook collections, the Codex Forster, now digitized in high-resolution," Open Culture noted.

Great Reads

Rediscover: The Very Hungry Caterpillar

It's been 50 years since Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar inched into the pantheon of picture books. This colorful tale of a collage caterpillar has since sold nearly 50 million copies worldwide, almost a copy per minute since its publication. Carle was born in 1929 to German parents in the United States. At age six, Carle's mother moved the family back to Germany, where his father was drafted into the German army at the outbreak of World War II (in 1947 he returned from Soviet captivity weighing 85 pounds). Near the end of the war, at age 15, Carle was forced to dig trenches on the Siegfried Line. In 1952, he returned to New York to work as a graphic designer, though he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War and stationed in Germany.

Carle's big break was as illustrator to Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967) by Bill Martin, Jr. Like most of his later books, The Very Hungry Caterpillar was both written and illustrated by Carle. It follows a ravenous week in a caterpillar's life followed by a metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly. In 2002, Carle and his wife founded the the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art near Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. In 2019, scientists named a new species of caterpillar-mimicking spider after Carle (Uroballus carlei). The Very Hungry Caterpillar: 50th Anniversary Golden Edition (Philomel, $22.99, 9780525516194) includes a new afterword by Dolly Parton and an essay on the book's history with original sketches and historic photos. --Tobias Mutter

Book Review


Fleishman Is in Trouble

by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Rachel Fleishman has a history of not coming home on time: she's a wildly successful Manhattan talent scout who works ridiculous hours, some of them arguably necessary. But when she doesn't come back from a yoga retreat and won't return her husband's calls, he gets mad. Not only must Toby juggle his work obligations with taking care of their two kids, he has to convince them that their mother's extended absence is job-related.

Rachel and Toby, a doctor who keeps bankers' hours, have been separated for about a month, which was his idea. Until now, the separation has been working well for Toby, both sexually (he's a hit on dating apps, plus he and Rachel are still sleeping together) and in terms of pride (he felt that Rachel looked down on him for his relatively modest salary; she didn't understand that "he was never really meant to be a rich person in the first place"). Just when the reader is squarely on Team Toby comes this howlingly funny debut novel's third act, which works a certain miracle: it makes Rachel sympathetic.

As marriage-in-crisis novels go, Fleishman Is in Trouble belongs alongside work by Bellow, Roth and Updike, but Taffy Brodesser-Akner overlays her wickedly well-observed consideration of modern coupledom with something that those guys never claimed to have: a feminist sensibility. As Rachel notes about her wealthy friend, "Her money allowed her to have a feminist streak despite having never experienced the pitfalls of the male-dominated world the way it existed." --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Discover: This hilarious debut novel hinging on a dissolving Manhattan marriage belongs on a shelf with books by Bellow, Roth and Updike.

Random House, $27, hardcover, 384p., 9780525510871

The Stationery Shop

by Marjan Kamali

In Tehran in 1953, political unrest swirls in the streets, but Roya finds comfort in the poetry and novels at Mr. Fakhri's stationery shop. There, she meets Bahman: handsome, intelligent, an ardent supporter of Prime Minister Mossadegh. After months of encounters at the shop, they begin dating and plan to get married. But on the day they are to meet in a city square, violence erupts and Bahman never comes. Decades later, their paths cross again in Massachusetts, and both of them must unravel the truth of that long-ago missed meeting.

Marjan Kamali (Together Tea) weaves a powerful, heartbreaking story of star-crossed lovers and Iran's political upheavals in her second novel, The Stationery Shop. She begins her narrative in 2013, as Roya's husband drives her to meet Bahman at his assisted-living facility. She then takes readers back to Roya's teenage years, when her father is urging Roya and her sister, Zari, to go to university (and become "the next Madame Curie") and her mother worries for their safety. Kamali's depictions of the close-knit family are heightened by her mouth-watering descriptions of the Persian food Roya loves to cook with her mother. Bahman, by contrast, is the only child of a gentle, reserved father and a volatile mother prone to dark moods.

Kamali draws her characters with compassion and dignity: they are at once buffeted by outside events and doing their best to act with grace and wisdom. The Stationery Shop is at once a layered historical saga of a country struggling toward democracy and an intimate meditation on "a love from which we never recover." --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Marjan Kamali's second novel follows two young star-crossed lovers during the tumultuous 1950s in Iran.

Gallery Books, $27, hardcover, 320p., 9781982107482

The Porpoise

by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident in the Night-Time) returns with The Porpoise, a novel that welds together contemporary drama and classical tales. After the wealthy Philippe loses his beloved wife in a plane crash, he shuts himself and his new daughter, Angelica, off from the rest of the world. As Angelica grows up, her relationship with her father becomes sexually abusive. When ambitious young Darius comes into the house on business, he intuits what is really happening between Philippe and Angelica, attempts to rescue her and barely escapes with his own life. In the aftermath, Darius's trajectory becomes melded with that of the classical hero Pericles while Angelica discovers new ways to resist her father and further retreat from the world.

Adventurous in form and structure, The Porpoise rejects any expectations a reader might have for it. A far cry from Haddon's previous works, this novel invests in cool, fable-esque narration and cinematic set pieces. At first the reader is drawn into the too-real horrors of Angelica's world by the novel's captivating but brutal description of the accident that killed her mother. But soon the story delves into the realm of mystical, classical creations. Rather than mapping the tale of Pericles, his wife and their crew directly onto Darius's life, the legends at the heart of this story become an investigation into how humankind has always attempted to confront and encapsulate questions of loss in the face of personal yearnings and weaknesses. By luxuriating in the narrative propulsion of classical legends, Haddon helps readers explore the darkest corners of human desire without weighing them down. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Discover: A complex, mythical portrait of abuse, grief and obsession, The Porpoise is both compulsively readable in its storytelling and thought-provoking in its emotional heft.

Doubleday, $27.95, hardcover, 320p., 9780385544313

Summer of '69

by Elin Hilderbrand

Elin Hilderbrand (The Perfect Couple) dips into historical fiction, setting Summer of '69 in the era of the Vietnam War and Woodstock, a landmark moon landing and the scandal of Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick car accident.

With history playing out, the Foley-Levin family of the greater Boston Area had planned to spend another summer at "All's Well," the Nantucket home of Exalta Nichols, the family matriarch. This year, however, the family is splintered, everyone facing the uncertainty of personal challenges: Kate--Exalta's widowed, remarried daughter and mother of three adult children of her own--is worried sick about 19-year-old Tiger, who fights for his country and his life after he's drafted into the Vietnam War. Rebellious Kirby is a hardworking 21-year-old; the free spirit and civil rights activist grapples with a taboo love and bristles against the ramifications of the Kennedy scandal. Blair, a 24-year-old intellectual, feels neglected as she endures a difficult pregnancy with twins while her husband is wrapped up, manning Mission Control for NASA. Jessie--the only offspring of Kate and her second husband, David, a lawyer--is a sensitive, love-sick 12-year-old swept up in family drama, preteen angst and the judgments of her elitist grandmother.

Hilderbrand weaves the secret struggles, weaknesses and strengths of her well-developed cast into a rich tapestry. Hot-button issues--classism, racism, anti-Semitism, abortion, women's rights and the polarization of war--add resonant depth to Hilderbrand's trademark Cape Cod Islands setting and well-plotted multiple storylines. Once again, Hilderbrand shines, continuing to stretch her literary range with great success. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Discover: One uncertain summer on Nantucket Island changes the lives and loves of every member of an extended family.

Little, Brown, $28, hardcover, 432p., 9780316420013

Vintage 1954

by Antoine Laurain

French novelist Antoine Laurain (Smoking Kills; The President's Hat) blends a bit of sci-fi with his signature wit in his sixth novel, Vintage 1954. On a September night in Paris, Hubert Larnaudie invites three acquaintances over to share a rare bottle of 1954 Beaujolais. Antiques restorer Magalie, mixologist Julien (who's secretly in love with Magalie) and Bob, a just-arrived Airbnb guest from Milwaukee, make an unlikely cocktail party in Hubert's staid if comfortable living room. But things get even stranger when all four of them wake up the next morning in 1954--with no idea how to get back to the present day.

The novel opens with a prologue about the disappearance of one Pierre Chauveau, back in 1954, after drinking a bottle of then-new wine. Laurain introduces his four present-day main characters and relates the history of the apartment building where they all live. When they end up in 1954, disoriented, Julien lands a job mixing cocktails at Harry's Bar, while Magalie and Hubert each follow clues in search of their own pasts. Charmed though they are by the Paris of postcard and legend, the four must figure out how to get themselves back to 2017. The way home will involve a vineyard outside the city and connect all of them to each other, plus the mysterious Pierre Chauveau.

Slyly whimsical, with equal parts flying saucers, Parisian charm and dry French wit, Vintage 1954 is a light and entertaining time-travel treat. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Four Parisians find themselves stuck in 1954 after drinking a rare Beaujolais in Antoine Laurain's whimsical sixth novel.

Gallic Books, $14.95, paperback, 208p., 9781910477670

Mystery & Thriller

The Darwin Affair

by Tim Mason

Playwright Tim Mason's first adult novel, The Darwin Affair, is a rousing mystery set in Victorian England. In 1859, the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species poses a menace to the powers that be, and some of society's upper echelon want him squelched. Amid the conspiracy lurks a tall, shadowy man with deep-set eyes; death seems to follow wherever he goes. The dogged Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is on the case, although his findings are not necessarily welcomed by all. Field tracks his suspect from meat market to tavern to the royal court, from England to Germany, and even to the high-profile Wilberforce-Huxley debate on evolution at Oxford. Scenes of crashing action and adventure include a racing carriage on a collision course with a speeding train. With cameos by Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and a variation on Typhoid Mary rounding out the peripheral cast, this is a wild tale that engulfs the reader from start to finish.

Satisfyingly plot-driven, then, The Darwin Affair also offers very engaging characters: approachable Albert, Prince Consort; Queen Victoria, haughty but not humorless; a comic Marx; and a gracious, gentle Darwin.

But Mason's less famous hero definitely steals the show. Field has difficulties with authority that will be familiar to fans of contemporary fictional detectives like Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux. Mason's playwriting skills are evident in realistic dialogue and well-constructed, easily envisioned scenes. Readers of historical fiction, murder mysteries, action/adventure and thrillers will be equally entertained and perhaps edified: beneath the excitement lie thought-provoking questions about class and order, the interplay of science and religion and intellectual curiosity. The Darwin Affair has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Discover: Playwright Tim Mason's first adult novel, a rousing mystery set in Victorian England, has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.

Algonquin, $27.95, hardcover, 384p., 9781616206345


by Denise Mina

In Conviction, Denise Mina (Field of Blood, The Long Drop) has created a wonderful mystery that blends true-crime podcasts, Twitter celebrities and international conspiracies. Mina captures the podcast vibe with precision, even down to the annoyingly repetitive ads from sponsors, and the medium's aficionados are sure to love this twist on a standard thriller.

Anna McLean is an upper-class Edinburgh housewife who loves listening to true-crime podcasts. One day, as she is listening to a new one, she realizes that the murder victim is connected to her former life--the life she's been at great pains to hide from her husband, Hamish. Then Hamish abruptly announces he's leaving Anna for her best friend, Estelle, and sets out on vacation with their daughters and the new woman. Reeling, Anna fears she can't sue for custody due to her unsavory past, when Estelle's husband, Fin, shows up at the door.

Fin is a famous former rock star, and a nosy neighbor posts a picture of Fin and Anna on Twitter. Suddenly thousands of people have recognized Anna, and with her cover blown, she and Fin set off on a crazy road trip into Anna's former life--binge-listening to the podcast as they go.

As the story unfolds, the reader realizes why Anna has gone into hiding and why so many people want her dead. The twists that follow become even more engaging. Told in alternating chapters that include the murders covered in the podcast and what's happening with Anna and Fin's hectic journey, Conviction is an irresistible story. --Jessica Howard, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.

Discover: In this compelling thriller, a woman with a deadly past goes on the run with a former rock star, using social media to their advantage to catch a killer.

Mulholland Books, $27, hardcover, 384p., 9780316528504

The Last House Guest

by Megan Miranda

Summer 2017, Littleport, Maine: On the night of the last party of the season before rich vacationers leave the seaside town, Sadie Loman's body is found on a beach at the bottom of a cliff. Sadie's parents own most of the vacation rentals, which are managed by Avery Greer, self-professed best friend of the deceased. The police conclude Sadie committed suicide, but Avery's not buying it.

Summer 2018: The one-year anniversary of Sadie's death is approaching and a memorial is planned to take place on the beach where she died. With the renewed interest in the tragedy, Avery is more convinced than ever Sadie didn't kill herself and sets out to prove it. Possible suspects have returned for the ceremony, or are locals who never left. Digging into the past is dangerous, however, and before the summer is over, Littleport might see another death on its shores.

Told in timelines alternating between the summers of both years, Megan Miranda's The Last House Guest uses mystery as a device to explore female friendships, as well as the emotional layers in relationships between the haves and have-nots. Avery lives rent-free in a guesthouse on the Lomans' property and pals around with Sadie, but is well aware she's not in the same class--she literally wears Sadie's castoffs. That doesn't stop her local friends living in less lofty digs from resenting her. The revelations about Sadie's death are compelling, but perhaps more so is Avery's journey from being someone perceived as less-than to a woman who chooses her own station in life. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

Discover: In a picturesque coastal town in Maine, a woman sets out to prove her best friend didn't commit suicide a year earlier.

Simon & Schuster, $26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9781501165375

Performing Arts

William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock 'n' Roll

by Casey Rae

History may remember postmodernist writer and raconteur William S. Burroughs as many things: a genius, a visionary, the man next to Marilyn Monroe on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, a killer--but history will undoubtedly remember him. In William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock 'n' Roll, director of music licensing for SiriusXM, course developer for Berklee Online and longtime music critic Casey Rae explores the cultural tempest that was Burroughs, via his impact on popular music. 

Rae sketches him thusly: "Here was a homosexual drug addict, born in the Gilded Age, who killed his wife in a drunken game of William Tell and wrote infamous prose featuring orgasmic executions, shape-shifting aliens, and all manner of addicts, sadists, and creepy crawlies." Burroughs rocketed into the public eye with the publication, and almost immediate banning, of Naked Lunch in 1959. Soon, the man and his methods--in particular, his "cut-ups," wherein words were literally cut up and rearranged--became embedded in the institution of rock music and its various offshoots: heavy metal, punk, new wave.

Burroughs remained mostly behind the scenes as scads of musicians sought his advice or drugs or both. Scads more simply worshipped his ideas, imbuing their work with them. Notable fans included David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain and Patti Smith.

Rae offers thoughtful, generous analysis. As Burroughs's own cut-ups might, Rae renders a portrait of Burroughs's influence akin to a reflection in a disco ball: fragmented, refracted, multiple and beautiful. --Katie Weed, freelance writer and reviewer

Discover: An insightful investigation into the influence of writer-icon-rebel William S. Burroughs on rock 'n' roll.

University of Texas Press, $27.95, hardcover, 312p., 9781477316504


A Sand Book

by Ariana Reines

A Sand Book, the fourth book of poetry from lecturer and performance artist Ariana Reines, draws from ancient and occult sensibilities to examine thoughtfully the afflictions of postmodern life. The 12-part epic takes on climate change, mass shootings, family trauma and sexual harassment, all in Reines's singular, deadpan poetic vernacular. The book opens with a seven-page poem titled "A Partial History" that catalogues myriad ways life in a digital culture has reshaped human behavior. Styled like an ancient document recently rediscovered, this opener is a powerful example of what makes Reines's poems so compelling: they have a way of divorcing readers from expected language and culture, creating a distance that allows reexamination of intimate knowledge from a new perspective.

For Reines, alienation is both method and subject. Many of her poems are confessional, at times even painfully so, detailing awkward sexual encounters and describing the painful manner in which acne is distributed across her face. Reines has always incorporated elements of vulgarity and body horror into her poems, insisting, as Julia Kristeva once did, that abjection has a necessary place in feminist literature. Gross as many of the poems in A Sand Book might be, Reines often embeds astute cultural criticisms within her cruder language, as in the line: "Logic is the world robbing you of your boner." Although this book is not for the squeamish or faint-hearted, readers will find a distinct charm in the experimental form and associational style of A Sand Book. --Emma Levy, bookseller at Third Place Books Seward Park, Seattle, Wash.

Discover: Drawing equal inspiration from ancient mystics and from social media, A Sand Book is an evocative and heartfelt take on the epic poem.

Tin House, $24.95, hardcover, 323p., 9781947793323

Children's & Young Adult

Where Are You From?

by Yamile Saied Méndez, illus. by Jaime Kim

The question "Where are you from?" is all too familiar for many people of color who call the United States home. One little girl attempts to answer simply: "I'm from here, from today, same as everyone else." But the insistence lingers and the bewildered child can't satisfy her interrogators. She turns to her Abuelo "because he knows everything."

Abuelo takes her on an extraordinary journey to see the places, people, histories and experiences that make the girl who she is, identifying where she comes from and who her family and community are. "You're from the Pampas," Abuelo begins, "the open, free land." He points out "the brown river that cleanses and feeds the land"; he leads her high up in the mountains and down into the blue oceans; and tells her about "copper warriors," "island people" and "ancestors [who] built a home for all." Far and wide they wander, and yet, despite all his wondrous explanations, the little girl asks with grave persistence, "But, Abuelo... where am I really from?" With a finger pointed at his heart, he answers, "You're from here, from my love and the love of all those before us."

That intrusive "where are you from" scenario makes young children especially vulnerable to feeling unwelcome, question their sense of belonging and doubt their very identity. Yamile Saied Méndez (Blizzard Besties) counters with an enchanted, hand-in-hand odyssey through Abuelo and his granddaughter's richly diverse heritage. Artist Jamie Kim (Take Heart, My Child) uses watercolor and digital techniques to create vibrantly hued, double-page landscapes onto which she actively integrates Abuelo and granddaughter sharing the vastness of who they really are. From the Southern Cross to the North Star, "You are from all of us," Abuelo explains. And, finally, the little girl responds--and reclaims--"I am." --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: Questioned too often with the intrusive, "where are you really from?," a young girl turns to her wise, thoughtful grandfather for answers.

HarperCollins, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780062839930

The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon: The True Story of Alan Bean

by Dean Robbins, illus. by Sean Rubin

Of the many space books timed for the moon landing anniversary, The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon: The True Story of Alan Bean stands out for its luminescent illustrations and interdisciplinary appeal.

Journalist Dean Robbins (Margaret and the Moon) worked closely with Bean to bring the artist-astronaut's story to a wider audience, immersing readers of this picture book biography in the thoughts and perspective of the fourth person to walk on the moon. Robbins's action-infused text and color-tinged vocabulary sheds light on the adrenaline-filled experience. Sean Rubin's (Bolivar) always lovely and lush renderings, which manage to be cartoony with a classic flair, will likely captivate aspiring explorers and artists. The true star is the moon itself; with each page turn, the orb changes colors--sometimes white or shades of gray, other times a spectrum of violets and blues. "The Moon didn't look exactly real, but Alan didn't want it to. The painting showed how stunning outer space looked through his eyes." Just as Bean's pieces tried to capture the wonder of his experience among the stars by using moon "dust from his spacesuit" and footprints from his "astronaut boots," Rubin's digital art has a multidimensional texture and an expansive, otherworldly feel. The back matter reflects the research that Robbins put into this packed text, and the most fascinating tidbits include a side-by-side comparison of Bean's original photos from his expedition and the paintings they inspired. The scientific accuracy and sheer artistry of the subject's work is sure to mesmerize future astronauts and artists alike. --Shelley Diaz, supervising librarian, BookOps: New York Public Library & Brooklyn Public Library

Discover: A wonderful celebration of astronaut Alan Bean, who embodied the idea that art and science are related.

Orchard/Scholastic, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 5-9, 9781338259537

When Aidan Became a Brother

by Kyle Lukoff, illus. by Kaylani Juanita

"When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl." But his name, his room, his clothes just didn't fit. Aidan realized "he was really another kind of boy": Aidan is transgender. With the help of other families with transgender children, Aidan's family figured things out. Now his parents have announced they are having another child, making Aidan a soon-to-be big brother. As the baby's arrival approaches, he expresses his fears: "I don't want them to feel like I did when I was little, but what if I get everything wrong? What if I don't know how to be a good big brother?" Thoughtfully, his mother explains, "We didn't know you were going to be our son. We made some mistakes, but you helped us fix them." Most fundamentally, "you taught us how important it is to love someone for exactly who they are."

Like Aidan, when author Kyle Lukoff (A Storytelling of Ravens) was born, everyone thought he was a girl; he reveals in his author's note that parts of his own story are "very much like Aidan's." Kaylani Juanita clearly enjoys challenging gender expectations with her digital illustrations. As Aidan explores "different ways of being a boy," Juanita shows him posing in a superhero cape (with cutouts from his discarded dresses) and wearing pink shoes with bows. His wardrobe couldn't be more gender-defyingly fabulous, comprised of a mishmash of stripes, zig-zags, checks and animal prints. Together, Lukoff and Juanita create "a world that supports and believes in [Aidan]," modeling a community that embraces "all different kinds of kids." With insight and empathy, both author and artist encourage and enable young readers to help "create that world." --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: When Aidan, a transgender boy, learns he's going to be a big brother, he helps his parents prepare for the newest addition to their family in the most welcoming ways.

Lee & Low, $18.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 5-8, 9781620148372

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