Shelf Awareness for Readers for Friday, June 14, 2019

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

From My Shelf

Art in Books: I Know What I Like

Artists do what they do because they're compelled. It's therapy that makes the patient feel much worse before it makes them feel better. --André Alexis, Days by Moonlight (Coach House Books)

This isn't just about books where art is in the foreground; it's also about books where art is in the midground or the background.


Sometimes art in books is a subtle thread in the weave, as in Days by Moonlight. The botanist narrator, whose drawings of plants real and fantastic complement the novel's text, accompanies a professor on his strange, beautiful, dark and often wondrous Canadian road trip to unravel the story of a mysterious poet.


Julie Orringer's The Flight Portfolio (Knopf), a fictionalized account of Varian Fry's monumental efforts to smuggle some of Europe's endangered artists, writers and intellectuals out of Vichy France, is compelling right from the start, when Fry visits Marc Chagall's house to plead with the reluctant artist to escape. "An artist must bear witness, Monsieur Fry," Chagall argues. "He cannot turn away, even if he wants to."

Art is absolutely central to some of the other books I've been reading, like the reissue of Francoise Gilot's intimate and acute memoir Life with Picasso (NYRB Classics).


In Mathias Énard's brilliant novel Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, translated by Charlotte Mandell (New Directions), Michelangelo is invited by the Sultan of Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn ("Michelangelo is not an engineer. He is a sculptor. They sent for him so that a form could be born from matter, be drawn, be revealed.").


Perhaps no book I've read recently displays the intricate weave of art and life quite like Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead (Catapult). "It reminded me that all of art rests in the gap between that which is aesthetically pleasing and that which truly captivates you. And that the tiniest thing can make a difference," Gainza writes. I like that. --Robert Gray, contributing editor

Book Candy

Roots of Some State Names

"Spelling out the pronunciation of 10 U.S. state names," according to Merriam-Webster.


"How would Nancy Drew's mysteries differ in present day?" asked the Quirk Books blog.


Steamy Hallows, a Harry Potter-inspired coffee shop, "is brewing in NYC," WNBC reported.


The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Mass., has received a $22 million gift as part of a larger bequest to Amherst College.


A village library "isn't what you'd usually expect to find in a shed," BBC Cumbria tweeted.

Great Reads

Rediscover: Walt Whitman

This past May 31st was the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman, considered a cornerstone of American literary canon and the father of free verse. Whitman's contemporaries held divided opinions. Many thought his work was quintessentially American, that he was a national poet in a new and literal sense. Others considered his best known work, Leaves of Grass, to be obscene, with its frank depictions of human sensuality. Though Whitman's sexuality is still debated, he is thought to have been homosexual or bisexual. His poems often reference the interconnectedness of people and nature among other facets of his humanist philosophy.

Whitman spent his early years in the printing business, first as an apprentice typesetter, later as a journalist and briefly as a newspaper publisher. His first book was a temperance novel, Franklin Evans (1842), which he later disavowed as written for money and while drinking. Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself. It received strong praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson and was republished, with new additions and edits from Whitman, many times throughout his life. During the Civil War, Whitman volunteered as a nurse in army hospitals while working several government clerical jobs. He was left largely housebound after a stroke at age 54. A complete collection of Whitman's prose and poetry is available from Library of America ($40, 9780940450028). --Tobias Mutter

Father's Day: Books to Read Aloud

Reading aloud is one of the best ways a parent can spend time with their child. Beyond the obvious benefits of reading with children, story time allows for a very special kind of closeness--that comforting circle formed by a caretaker's arms when a story is being shared. Below are some fantastic titles featuring fathers and grandfathers, perfect for Father's Day read-alouds.

First published in hardcover in 2018, Zack Bush and Gregorio De Lauretis's Made for Me (Familius, $16.99) is here reformatted into a friendly, durable board book. Bush's rhyming text about a father's love is gentle and oh-so-sweet, while De Lauretis's illustrations feature a behemoth of a man tenderly, softly, oh-so-carefully interacting with his newborn baby. Illustrations of giant-dad clutching his alarm clock, excited for a new day with baby, or "hiding" behind a tiny mountain of stuffed animals are sure to melt any father's heart.

Nighttime Symphony is the multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning producer and artist Timbaland's picture book debut, illustrated by Coretta Scott King Award-winner Christopher Myers and KAA Illustration (Atheneum, $17.99). Timbaland's rhyming text is musical both in content and feel, the words beating out a rhythm as a father speaks comfortingly to his child, assuring him he is perfectly safe from the storm outside: "the clouds pour down a steady beat/ to soothe your slumber beneath the sheet." The digital illustrations feature saturated colors--bright reds and yellows especially--that brighten up every rainy page, making the storm anything but dreary.

Employing his poetry skills in a narrative picture book, Joseph Coelho tells in Grandpa's Stories: A Book of Remembering (illus. by Allison Colpoys; Abrams, $16.99) the moving story of a young girl's loss of her Indian grandfather and the memories that help her heal. Coelho's lyrical text walks the reader through a year of seasons, each of which was previously marked by its own special, loving grandfather and granddaughter activity. The little girl recalls the joyful times spent together, helping her cope with the loss. "If all the world were memories," her first-person narration states, "the past would be rooms I could visit,/ and in each room would be my grandpa." The overall beauty of this collaboration comes as close to the majesty of a child's adoration for a grandparent as feels possible. Heartwarming, heartbreaking and inspiring, Grandpa's Stories is a must for every child's library.

I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta, Luis Amavisca and illustrated by Gusti (NubeOcho, $15.95), features Ben, a little boy who "loves painting his nails." Because he "loves his colorful nails" so much, Ben is perfectly happy to paint them anytime. That is, until two boys at school taunt him: " 'Painting your nails is for girls.' 'You're a girl! You're a girl!' " Ben feels sad even though, when he finally tells his parents about the jeers, his dad defends his choices. "I'm also a boy," he says, then asks Ben to hand him the orange polish. In exuberant illustrations, Gusti uses a strong, playful brown line and warm swathes of color to depict Ben's loving, contemporary family, his multiracial classroom and the streets of his city. I Love My Colorful Nails highlights how loving family members, friends and educators can effect change.

When the Korean peninsula was divided into North and South in 1953, the consequences were especially tragic for separated families. In the six-plus decades since the ceasefire, reunion has proven virtually impossible. On either side of the Military Demarcation Line, both North and South Korea built fences. Ironically, this Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has flourished as an untouched haven for flora and fauna. When Spring Comes to the DMZ by Uk-Bae Lee, translated by Chungyon Won and Aileen Won (Plough Publishing, $17.95) depicts people, too, arriving at the DMZ, albeit under highly different circumstances. "Grandfather climbs up/ to the DMZ observatory/ and looks at the northern sky." As seasons change, without fail, "Grandfather climbs up to the DMZ lookout again," to gaze longingly at the "northern land." As another year passes and spring returns, Grandfather's only wish is to bypass the lookout, "fling the tightly locked gates wide open" and share the same freedom as the nearby animals. With gentle words and glorious art, Lee inspires the newest generation of readers to lead the way, and make miracles happen.

Matthew A. Cherry's collaboration with illustrator Vashti Harrison (Little Leaders), Hair Love (Kokila/Penguin, $17.99), is an ode to the incredible versatility of African American hair and the charming resilience of a dad dedicated to his daughter. Zuri is an African American girl who introduces readers to her fabulous hair, which "kinks, coils, and curls every which way." This morning, Zuri wants "a perfect hairstyle" for a big event happening later in the day. "Can I help?" Daddy asks. "It'll be a piece of cake." This overly optimistic statement kicks off a journey through various hairstyles that, one after another, unfortunately, do not work out. When Zuri vetoes a final attempt by her dad to pick out her hair ("Daddy, really?"), he leaves and comes back with... a hat. Zuri, tearfully explaining that she needs the right hair to match this special day, has a eureka moment--with the help of a hair blogger, essential natural hair tools and a determined Daddy sweating bullets, Zuri emerges with the perfect style to impress on this special day. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

Book Review


Donna Has Left the Building

by Susan Jane Gilman

Donna Koczynski's life fell apart after she got sober--exactly five years and eight months after. In Donna Has Left the Building, Susan Jane Gilman (The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street) relates Donna's often hilarious, sometimes terrifying and eventually redemptive flight from her suburban Detroit life as wife, mom and nominee for the Platinum Spatula award for kitchenware salesperson of the year.

Returning early from the cookware convention, Donna surprises her dentist husband--catching him in costume, with a dominatrix, in their kitchen. The confrontation with Joey results in an agreement about acting out his fantasies. However, this, too, ends badly (in a scene also involving a spatula) and Donna hits  the road, driving her Subaru through the night and awakening to a view of New York City. The mantra of her journey--"I want. I need. Fill me."--alternates with self-loathing: "Who was I anymore?" When a reunion with her college roommate includes a throwback to their tarot card days, Donna becomes convinced she is meant to go find her former bandmate and high school lover, leading her to Nashville and a madcap, passionate rendezvous.

Donna's escapade is fueled not only by her husband's indiscretion but her teenagers' narcissistic disrespect. Yet when an SOS arrives that Ashley, studying in Europe, is sick and in a refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece, she flies to her daughter's side. In a novel with quirky characters, hilarious misadventures and kinky sex, the unexpected denouement of Donna Has Left the Building is a gritty, realistic depiction of a true crisis, and a tender story of family love. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

Discover: A disillusioned woman flees her pedestrian Michigan life in a quest for self-fulfillment, but her misadventures lead her around the world and immersion in a global crisis.

Grand Central, $28, hardcover, 416p., 9781538762417

The Islanders

by Meg Mitchell Moore

Summer on Block Island, R.I.: Joy Sousa's whoopie pie shop is facing competition from a fancy French food truck and its macarons. Lu Trusdale is spending the summer with her young sons while her husband pulls long shifts at his mainland hospital job--but she's got a covert project simmering on the side. And disgraced novelist Anthony Puckett is hiding out after a literary scandal rocked his career and his marriage. Their lives, and their secrets, will intertwine in surprising ways.

Meg Mitchell Moore (The Captain's Daughter, The Admissions) delivers a big-hearted, breezy novel that still asks important questions with her fifth book, The Islanders. Moore explores Joy's fierce pride in the life she's built for herself and her teenage daughter, Maggie, and her sharp fears that it could all unravel. There is Lu's boredom and resentment about her stay-at-home-mom life, and the complex give-and-take that happens in most marriages. Anthony's mistakes, and their fallout, are important in themselves, but they also provide a window into his complicated relationship with his bestselling novelist father. As the summer ticks by, all three of them must decide whether exposing their secrets is worth the risk. Moore's setting, from the crashing waves to Joy's mouth-watering whoopie pies, is delectably summery, and her secondary characters (especially Maggie) are also well drawn. The Islanders is a perfect addition to any beach bag, and a thought-provoking meditation on love and forgiveness. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Discover: Three strangers' lives and secrets intertwine on Block Island in Meg Mitchell Moore's breezy, big-hearted fifth novel.

Morrow, $26.99, hardcover, 432p., 9780062840066

Mystery & Thriller

Man of the Year

by Caroline Louise Walker

Crowned "Sag Harbor Citizen of the Year," Dr. Robert Hart is at a fancy soiree with his wife and son, Elizabeth and Jonah. The one thing sticking in his craw is the presence of Jonah's visiting college friend, Nick. Although Nick has been good for Jonah, Robert's gut is telling him something about the kid isn't quite right, and he bristles when Elizabeth wants Nick included in the family photograph on Robert's big day.

Robert's antennae tingle further when Elizabeth suggests her stepson's friend stay in their guest house for the summer. As Nick accepts fresh towels from gorgeous Elizabeth, Robert's mind is assaulted by the possibilities. He knows what Elizabeth is capable of--the two met and carried on an affair while married to others. Is this the thanks Robert gets for rescuing her from a dreary existence?

Caroline Louise Walker takes readers deep inside the mind of an increasingly obsessed man, mining the depths of power, insecurity, image and assumption. Robert slowly swirls from semi-reasonable to outright paranoid as his suspicions about Elizabeth, Nick and his own son drive him to distraction and dangerous exploits. Tragedy leaves the survivors swirling with doubt, secrets and mistrust.

Man of the Year is an impressive slow burn that builds suspense and cracks the whip at the end, widening the lens from a Robert-centric narration to include the "truth" from other points of view. A debut redolent with menace and ego, Walker has expertly taken on the complex family dynamic. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review

Discover: A doctor with an image to protect loses his perspective to dangerous ends when he feels his family is threatened by an outsider.

Gallery Books, $26, hardcover, 304p., 9781982100452

Joe Country

by Mick Herron

Though Joe Country is Mick Herron's sixth novel in his Slough House series, set in Britain's intelligence community, it stands on its own. Newcomers need not be familiar with the previous books, but this installment is so taut and witty, fans will be eager to go back and read from the beginning.

The story opens with an owl screeching out of a burning barn with wings aflame, kamikazeing into the nearby woods. The two people who torched the barn wonder if the trees will catch on fire. They're not arsonists. Nor do they hate birds or barns. They were just disposing of two dead bodies.

The narrative goes back in time to introduce two vastly different factions of London's MI-5. The first is Slough House, where failed agents--referred to even by its inhabitants as Slow Horses--are exiled, and the other is Regent's Park, where the important work of protecting England happens. Slough House's Jackson Lamb and Regent Park's Diana Taverner clash in a series of events leading up to those dead bodies in the barn.

Meanwhile, at Slough House, Lech Wocinski is still trying to figure out why he was sent there after he ran a Russian name through a database. Other Slow Horses have agendas, too: Louisa Guy searches for a colleague's missing son; River Cartwright violently confronts a legendary CIA agent at a funeral. How Mick Herron brings all these story lines together is what makes Joe Country an enticing read. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer

Discover: In this clever spy thriller, an overabundance of ego and a lack of cooperation between British intelligence services result in two dead bodies.

Soho Crime, $26.95, hardcover, 360p., 9781641290555

Sleepless Summer

by Bram Dehouck, trans. by Jonathan Reeder

In Bram Dehouck's Sleepless Summer, the arrival of a wind farm near the tiny Belgian town of Blaashoek precipitates a series of disturbing events. The novel--translated by Jonathan Reeder--might loosely be considered a crime novel or thriller, but it also has firm roots in horror. There is something Edgar Allan Poe-like in the inexplicable way the wind turbines tax some of Blaashoek's inhabitants, especially Herman Bracke, a butcher who blames his insomnia on an irritating hum coming from the turbines. As his insomnia continues, his fatigue worsens, eventually setting of a chain of events that progress from gross and odd to horrific.

Bracke is only one character out of more than a dozen efficiently sketched by the author in fewer than 200 pages. Dehouck pays particular attention to each one's fears, resentments and insecurities, which provide the fissile material for the town's collapse into chaos. He is merciless in uncovering the status anxiety and prejudices endemic in Blaashoek. Still, Sleepless Summer resists interpretation as an indictment of small-minded, provincial thinking. In fact, Dehouck seems to mock high-minded interpretations at the start of the novel: "Immediately following the tragic events, sociologists and psychologists scrambled to pinpoint the cause of this human cataclysm. Loneliness, cried one. Alienation, bellowed the next. Small-town insularity, opined the third. It was only a matter of time before a fourth would come up with inbreeding." The depths Sleepless Summers reaches are all the more disturbing if they cannot be explained away. It is determined to leave you with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Discover: Sleepless Summer draws elements from crime fiction and horror to describe a small town's descent into chaos after the installation nearby of a wind farm.

World Editions, $15.99, paperback, 180p., 9781642860160


Fix Her Up

by Tessa Bailey

Georgie is a clown. Literally. Her family runs a profitable home renovation business, but she traded the family legacy for balloon animals and bubble machines. She's always harbored a crush on her brother's best friend, Travis, who left Long Island for a lucrative career in professional baseball. Now, after a career-ending injury, he's back in his hometown flipping houses for Georgie's family. Travis's Lothario reputation follows him everywhere, which is a problem for the family-friendly network that wants to make him the new commentator for the Bombers baseball team. It's an opportunity he can't pass up. Georgie's desire to be taken seriously (and to be with Travis) leads her to strike a deal with him in Tessa Bailey's Fix Her Up: they'll pretend to date to convince the community that they've turned a new leaf.

Georgie has never dated anyone, seemingly saving herself for her dream boyfriend, Travis. Though he can take his alpha-ness to the extreme sometimes, Travis's genuine desire and concern for Georgie live up to her expectations. Georgie's strong drive to change her life while building friendships with the women around her is something readers can identify with. Travis may have a very comfortable career in baseball, but dealing with the loss of his livelihood as well as returning to some toxic childhood memories shows that even this cocksure star can have darker moments. Watching Georgie and Travis gradually fall in love is a treat, but seeing them stick up for each other and work to reach their goals is even more heartwarming. --Amy Dittmeier, adult services librarian, Brookfield Public Library, Ill.

Discover: Fix Her Up is a romance full of laughs and peppered with serious moments dealing with family and friendship.

Avon, $14.99, paperback, 400p., 9780062872838

Biography & Memoir

All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters

by Joe Namath

With folksy charm and a dash of mischievous glee, Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath recounts his rise from a childhood in Pennsylvania, where he had to pick up bottles and scrap metal for pocket change, to his fame as a sports superstar. Though All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters spans several decades, its narrative touchstone is 1969's legendary Super Bowl III championship, in which Namath led the New York Jets to victory against the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. (Namath had brashly "guaranteed" a Jets win prior to the game, and he delivered.)

Namath remains an icon as much for his outré extracurricular antics and roguish pursuit of the spotlight as for his exceptional performance on the field. In addition to his professional victories and foibles, Namath's journey through this pivotal era in American football shines a light on the sport's shaky initial courtship with the emerging celebrity culture of the 1970s--a transformation Namath himself was instrumental in spearheading. Nicknamed "Broadway Joe" for his bombastic attitude in press interviews and eye-catching gestures both on and off the field (and his flashy fur coats), Namath was a magnet for media attention, and he appeared in a host of commercials and television shows, and even starred in a film opposite Ann Margret.

Those seeking tales of wild scandal may be disappointed by Namath's recounting of his early career, despite his flamboyant reputation. However, what the book lacks in dishy details, it makes up for with warmth, sincerity and a genuine love for the culture of American sports. Gracious to a fault, Namath never fails to offer credit where credit is due, and his most treasured victories are always the shared ones. --Devon Ashby, sales and marketing assistant at Shelf Awareness

Discover: Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath offers a play-by-play of 1969's legendary Super Bowl III, interspersed with personal recollections and anecdotes.

Little, Brown, $30, hardcover, 240p., 9780316421102

The Kennedy Heirs: John, Caroline, and the New Generation--A Legacy of Triumph and Tragedy

by J. Randy Taraborrelli

Titan biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli's fourth book on the Kennedy dynasty focuses on the lesser-known but still fascinating third generation--the 29 sons and daughters of John, Robert, Edward, Eunice, Pat Kennedy and Jean Kennedy. There have been dozens of Kennedy clan biographies but few have focused on this wing. Taraborrelli (Jackie, Janet & Lee) has become a leading Kennedy historian, conducting more than 400 interviews concerning the family lineage over the last two decades.

The Kennedys have always been a magnet for scandal and tragedy, and the newer generation followed that playbook: sex, drug and alcohol addictions, reckless behavior, marital problems, suicide, hospitalizations, criminal arrests and deaths. The book begins with the 1999 plane crash that killed 38-year-old JFK Jr. and his 33-year-old wife. It then backtracks to the 1994 death of his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and the battle with his sister, Caroline, over her funeral. There is also plenty of drama from the children of Ted and Joan Kennedy, raised in an alcoholic home. Thankfully, the family also has a sense of humor. At one point, Ethel moans, "I can't handle any more bad news about Kathleen right now. My diet pills are starting to wear off."

The Kennedy Heirs weighs in at 600 pages, but with bite-size chapters, it's a speedy read. Authoritative comments and anecdotes from the family and friends make this an intimate, trustworthy and riveting book. It is an important and worthy follow-up to Taraborrelli's previous Kennedy biographies. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant

Discover: Taraborrelli's fourth book on the Kennedy dynasty--focusing on its third generation--is an authoritative, irresistible page-turner.

St. Martin's Press, $29.99, hardcover, 624p., 9781250174062

Social Science

The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China

by Frank Langfitt

As veteran journalist Frank Langfitt begins his second stint as NPR's China correspondent, he looks for people who will speak openly--not an easy feat in a country known for its tight control of expression. Thus, his free taxi business is born, offering rides in exchange for unfiltered conversation. Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China is "a revealing snapshot of China... a striking veneer with cracks just beneath the surface."

Shanghai, with a population of more than 24 million, is an enigmatic mix of 21st-century innovation and ancient traditions. China maintains tight control on its citizens, and some of the most fascinating people Langfitt meets are those who fight for less authoritarian control. Johanna, a human rights lawyer, regularly battles in court even though she loses. Chen hosts a house-church because open practice of religion is forbidden. Fifi, a psychology teacher, encourages her students to question authority. But in a country where "self-censorship and silence [are] patriotic acts," their fellow citizens are often the ones who most fear and decry rebellion.

Langfitt reveals the complex history of modern China through fascinating stories that range from humorous to sorrowful. Importantly, these profiles of individual Chinese men and women successfully humanize an enormous population that other countries tend to see as one homogenous body. His real affection for them shines through on every page, and leads to his hope that "one day the Chinese people will have a government more worthy of them." --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y.

Discover: NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt uncovers the complexities of modern China as he drives a free taxi around Shanghai.

PublicAffairs, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9781610398145

Nature & Environment

Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants

by Jacob Shell

Popular culture has long depicted elephants as having great memories. But in his fascinating study, Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants, geography professor Jacob Shell reveals more: the animals' brilliant problem-solving skills and compassion for other living beings. Shell traveled through the remote forests of India and Burma to meet mahouts, human riders of elephants, who train and then ride the giant animals along dirt trails half-submerged in overflowing river water and hidden from satellite view by some of the thickest tree canopies in the world.

The elephants perform a variety of labor. Some are load-bearing, carrying heavy packs filled with resources between villages. Others assist with logging. In one particularly startling passage, Shell describes watching an elephant refuse orders to march forward because it understood that the humans were in danger of falling over a poorly balanced log. Instead, the elephant found a tree branch and used it as a "safety lock" to hold the log securely. The human onlookers were "astounded" and "wondered why they hadn't thought of it themselves." The book brims with moments like these, throwing into question, Shell says, whether it has been "the elephants all along, rather than the humans, who innovated" ways of traversing--and surviving in--the forests.

Shell also touches on how cooperation between humans and elephants benefits the elephants as well; because of this relationship they've gained access to more land and to other elephants with which to breed. This stunning book will amaze even the most well-read animal lovers. --Amy Brady, freelance writer and editor

Discover: This fascinating book provides a firsthand look at how humans and elephants work together in remote South Asian forests.

W.W. Norton, $26.95, hardcover, 288p., 9780393247763

Children's & Young Adult

Camp Tiger

by Susan Choi, illus. by John Rocco

In her picture book debut, adult author Susan Choi (Trust Exercise) teams up with Caldecott Honor recipient John Rocco (Blackout; Noah Builds an Ark) to create a moving story about a young boy finding his independent spirit.

Choi's main character, a dark-haired little boy in a bucket hat and too-big hiking boots, hopes his family's summer camping trip will last forever. He feels apprehensive about starting first grade, and his mother pushes him to be more independent. Arriving at the campsite, the family finds a petite, well-mannered tiger who requests his own tent and becomes the boy's boon companion. The tiger shows the family a breathtaking overlook during a hike and dives in the lake while they fish from a rowboat, bubbles streaming from its fur. With the beast at his side, the boy gains the courage to stand on his own.

Choi's tender story lies at the intersection of Life of Pi and Calvin and Hobbes. Young children will take the talking tiger at face value, while older readers may see the animal as the boy's avatar. Rocco's watercolor, pencil and digital illustrations shine against white backgrounds, and the tiger roars to life in show-stopping spreads, its haunting eyes staring directly at the reader through flecks of campfire embers. An aerial view of the boy and the tiger floating in a rowboat on a lake reflecting a blue and violet Milky Way sky is especially awe-inspiring. Like the hero, children ages four to eight will likely take courage from the tiger long after the adventure ends. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager at Main Branch, Dayton Metro Library

Discover: Susan Choi makes her picture book debut with this empowering coming-of-age tale illustrated by John Rocco, in which a tiger helps a little boy find his courage.

Putnam, $17.99, hardcover, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780399173295

Zenobia July

by Lisa Bunker

Just about everything is new for Zenobia: she's moved to a new state (from Arizona to Maine) and is starting at a new middle school. She recently lost her widowed father, and is getting used to her new guardians, Aunt Lucy and her wife, Aunt Phil. She's also got a new name... because Zenobia July is finally living as her very authentic self.

Designated male at birth, Zen has always known, "I really am just a girl... I'm me!" Her strictly religious father didn't understand her, but the Aunties unconditionally embrace her. At school, despite being the new kid, Zen is welcomed at "Arli's table of orphan misfits." And she displays her techno-wizardry by first assisting a computer-challenged teacher and later by tracking down the egregious hacker of the school's website. But when a new friend is outed as trans, the ripples through the small community could have devastating effects for Zen.

Author Lisa Bunker (Feliz Yz) is herself transgender--she's one of two openly transgender women who were elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in November 2018. While her #OwnVoices sophomore title is filled with humor, hope and plenty of joy, Bunker is also age-appropriately revealing about challenges confronting Zen--she's "so Goddamnittohell tired" of facing bathrooms, bullying, physical changes, conservative intolerance and a grandmother who considers her existence to be "contrary to God's law." But Zen also has two unfalteringly supportive aunties, a genderqueer best friend and even a drag queen-fabulous fairy godmother. Zen's realization that among such "welcoming hearts" she can "just be" proves to be an empowering lesson for all.  --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Discover: For middle-schooler Zenobia July, a fresh start in a new home and new school with new friends means she'll finally be able to live as her authentic self.

Viking, $17.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 10-up, 9780451479402

Girl of the Southern Sea

by Michelle Kadarusman

When Nia was 9, her mother died giving birth to her brother, Rudi. Ever since, all the money her father makes from their fried banana cart goes to his alcoholic beverage of choice, arak. Now 14, Nia survives a deadly minibus crash in her home city of Jakarta, Indonesia, and rumors begin to swirl about her "good-luck magic." Good luck brings in business, and Nia is desperate to raise money for high school fees. A suspiciously eager local merchant offers to help her promote this idea, and, even though she knows it's only superstition, she is easily swayed. As Nia's father recovers from his own accident--an altercation with the police because he refused to pay bribe money--Nia begins charging double the usual price for the fried bananas, socking away the proceeds to pay household expenses and, she hopes, school fees. The plan quickly begins to fall apart, though, and Nia discovers that, as a wise old woman named Ibu Jaga says, "Lies and superstitions cause pain."

With all the stress, Nia finds that the only way to "quiet [her] thoughts is to write." She soothes Rudi with her own made-up versions of the traditional Javanese folktale about the queen of the Southern Sea. In Nia's stories, the banished queen finds ways to overcome her hardships, rather than succumbing to the evil curse cast on her by a witch. But is Nia capable of rewriting her own story?

In Girl of the Southern Sea, Michelle Kadarusman (The Theory of Hummingbirds) delves gracefully into weighty subjects like poverty, slum living, and forced marriages, as well as limited access to education, healthcare and opportunities for the future, especially for girls. Upbeat, optimistic Nia is a very relatable protagonist, even for those who can't fathom her day-to-day existence. --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Discover: Aspiring writer Nia longs to attend high school in her Jakarta neighborhood but her plan to earn the necessary fees by taking advantage of local superstitions goes dangerously awry.

Pajama Press, $17.95, hardcover, 224p., ages 9-12, 9781772780819

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