From the Shelf
Earth Day Turns 50
Many of us will be spending Earth Day at home for the first time in years. April 22, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of the event, the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, U.S. senator from Wisconsin, who was moved to start a "national teach-in on the environment" after he witnessed the devastation of a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Thanks to Earth Almanac: Nature's Calendar for Year-Round Discovery by Ken Keffer, illustrated by Jeremy Collins (Skipstone Press, $24.95), readers young and old can celebrate the great outdoors all year long. Keffer, a naturalist and educator, begins with the winter solstice, December 21, noting, "the darkest days of winter are now officially in the past." He then explains why it's the shortest day (in the Northern Hemisphere) and organizes the book around the seasons. Jeremy Collins's pen-and-ink illustrations with watercolor wash simulate a field guide, as he sketches a pair of horned owls in the act of squatting in another bird's nest, a spotted skunk just after it's unleashed its spray (Keffer explains it takes 10 days for a skunk to "restock the spray supplies" and suggests a shampoo for pets that's more effective than tomato baths), even a dinosaur track!
Readers may read the day's entry, dip in and out, or power straight through, searching for family activities, such as putting out a feeder or fruit to attract butterflies and using a white sheet to enhance moth-watching. Keffer covers a wide range of the sciences, from botany to astronomy, dots the pages with humor ("Were there ever any flamingos... in Flamingo, Florida?"--and goes on to give the sobering answer), as well as surprises: Did you know that beluga whales molt (as do orcas and bowhead whales)? A handy index highlights entries that tie in with "Citizen Science Opportunities," as well as specific animals, flora and fauna. --Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor, Shelf Awareness
In this Issue...
This biography convincingly argues that forgotten novelist Louis Bromfield is worthy of reappraisal--not for his writing but for his heroic conservation efforts.
by Irene Latham , Karim Shamsi-Basha
A humble hero makes an extraordinary difference in war-torn Syria when he attempts to take care of all the city's orphaned cats.
A popular scientist offers perspective on whether sunscreen prevents skin cancer and explores dietary dilemmas with wit and brevity.
Review by Subjects:
Laughter in Dark Times: Some Unexpectedly Funny Books
"Laughter in dark times." Geoff Dyer suggested "funny books you may not have read" for the Guardian.
Lit Hub explored "brief history of books that do not exist."
"Escape into these fantastical, imaginary maps," Atlas Obscura advised.
Russia Beyond highlighted the "top 10 Western authors much beloved by Russians."
"Where the Magic Happens." Variety invited readers "inside writers' homes."
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina will provide live tours online, according to Egypt Independent.
Rediscover: The Little Engine That CouldThe mantra "I think I can" has inspired young readers and adults for generations. Elements of The Little Engine That Could appeared in children's tales as early as the turn of the 20th century. It wasn't until 1930, however, that Arnold Munk, co-owner of publisher Platt & Munk, released something close to the modern version under the pen name Watty Piper. Many new editions have appeared since. In 1954, Lois Lenski's original illustrations were replaced by art from George and Doris Hauman, which Ruth Sanderson's work supplanted in a 1976 update. The story itself has also been altered. Later editions filled the titular Little Engine's train with toys for children on the other side of the mountain, gave identities to the unhelpful other locomotives and added a clown ringleader.
On April 7, The Little Engine That Could canon expanded again with a 90th-anniversary edition featuring new art from Caldecott-winning author/illustrator Dan Santat and an introduction by Dolly Parton. Parton read The Little Engine That Could in the first episode of her "Goodnight with Dolly" read-aloud series. The anniversary edition is available from Grosset & Dunlap ($18.99, 9780593094396). --Tobias Mutter
The Writer's Life
Valerie Trouet: The Tales Trees Tell
|photo: Kris Henning|
Readers may be new to the term dendrochronology, but thanks to Valerie Trouet, they'll never forget it. Her first book, Tree Story, comes out today (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, $27; reviewed below), timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. An associate professor at the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, Belgian-born Trouet explains not only the science behind tree rings, but also what trees can tell us, in her words, about "the complex interactions between forests, humans, and climate."
How did you come to consider a profession as a scientist?
My dad was a professor of pharmacology, the development of medicine. Growing up, I got a glimpse of what being an academic and scientist would be like. He would bring part of his research home and talk about it. You know when you're a kid and you ask your parents for scratch paper to draw on? His would be full of chemical formulas.
I'm the youngest of three girls. In our house, it wasn't like "science is for boys." It never occurred to me that science wasn't a career for women. We were encouraged to do well academically; I did well in languages as well as science. My mother tongue is Dutch, my second language is French. English is my third language. Having lived in the U.S. for nine years, my English is better than my French.
As you describe your fieldwork, you are often the only woman on these excursions. What is that like for you?
At the time, it never occurred to me it was odd. It's just how things were. I've also done field work when women were present. There were fewer women--that's how it is when women are in the minority, in every aspect you're practically the only woman. Until I wrote this book, it never occurred to me that that was an odd thing.
The title of your book takes on a double meaning: just as each tree tells a story, your involvement with them has also become your story.
I originally wanted the title to be one word, like History: Treestory. They were worried it would be confusing, even how to pronounce it. In the end we went with two words. Even on the cover it could be read as one word.
In terms of telling stories, I write about it a little in the preface. My intention with this book is to tell people what we're able to do with science, and how exciting it is to be a scientist in this day and age, and to make discoveries. Scientists are not people we can't trust. Now it's really relevant. I want to bring the sense of discovery and excitement to a broader audience. Tree rings lend themselves to that because there are so many people who remember counting tree rings in childhood.
One of my favorite stories is the earthquake in the Cascades [circa 1700] and how [we proved that] it led to the orphan tsunami in Japan. It's amazing--it's a way to get people excited about things. I give public talks, and when I give anecdotes--what it was like in the coffee shop, seeing a hurricane--concrete anecdotes of what the life of a scientist is like and how it relates to our regular life, that helps grab people's attention and keep people's attention. That's also when the idea of storytelling came to me.
You describe a great deal of interdisciplinary cooperation. A favorite example is your work with Andy Baker, whose small stalagmite from Uamh an Tartair ("Roaring Cave") in northwestern Scotland helped you solidify your theory about the weather pattern "seesaw" between Scotland and Morocco--the NAO (North Atlantic Oscillation).
I think that's one of the most exciting aspects of being a scientist in general, and specifically being a dendrochronologist, because we're at the nexus of climatology, archeology and environmental history. I'm really excited about working with historical environmentalists--what contributed to the fall of Rome, and Genghis Khan. An environmental historian reviewed [a draft of] my book and gave me some additional reading material; even with this book-writing there's collaboration.
One element that's particularly fascinating about your work is the correlation you draw between trees' revelations about drought and the rise and fall of empires, such as the fall of Rome and Genghis Khan. Can you say more about that?
That's one example where collaborating with environmental historians has helped me write this book in the best way that I could. The relationship between climate change, and human society, whether they rise or fall--it's not linear. Climate isn't the only thing that contributes to success. But how society is structured and how resilient they are is an important factor in how they can deal with a changing environment.
Compared to historical societies, we're dealing with climate change on a global scale at this point; we can't just move somewhere else. On the other hand, we know climate change is coming; we know wildfires-wise. Historical societies didn't know what was happening. There was nothing they could do even if they knew about it. We're in a good position to handle climate change; it's frustrating that we're not.
What do you think about the satellite images that show that weeks of "sheltering in place" have greatly reduced pollution over our nation's largest cities?
That's not a surprise to me, not really. The cause of pollution is being turned down because people are forced to be at home. Reduction in pollution is an interesting side effect of what's going on. It's interesting scientifically, as an experiment of what could happen, and in that sense, I hope there are people out there measuring what's happening to our air and water.
What are you working on now?
In the second to last chapter, I talked about fire history in California. We're hoping to develop a fire history network in China. There's a lot of demand for that, but it doesn't exist yet.
Bookwise, I really enjoyed writing this book, it's my first, and it was serendipitous. I started a sabbatical in 2017, and I was looking to do something different, other than writing papers. My now editor at Johns Hopkins University sent me an e-mail, and asked how I'd like to write a book about trees and my research. Otherwise I don't think I would have written it. Now that I HAVE written it, I'm considering writing about deforestation. I think it's a no brainer that we shouldn't deforest. But people talk about planting trees, and that's a complex issue: Where do we plant? What species? What do we do if the trees die? The carbon can go back in the atmosphere.
Trees also take up space, they need water; we need land, we need water. So in a way, trees compete with other needs. They will grow. I've learned that writing a book is a great way to learn more about a topic that you're interested in.
--Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor, Shelf Awareness
Mystery & Thriller
The Familiar Dark
by Amy Engel
The Familiar Dark, Amy Engel's fast-paced, twisty thriller, follows up her bestselling The Roanoke Girls, and trails Eve, a single mother, on her path of blind revenge to find the murderer of her 12-year-old daughter, Junie. Eve has gotten her life together since becoming Junie's mother as a teenager, and she's distanced herself from her own abusive, poverty-stricken mother. But now that Junie is gone, Eve is left with nothing but the void of her own anger and her determination to punish the killer. As Eve tracks down drug dealers, pedophiles and crooked cops, she begins to wonder just how close to home the murderer might actually be.
The Familiar Dark is impeccably plotted. Despite introducing a hefty cast of shady, violent characters, the narrative's masterful misdirection and ability to build trust and mistrust around specific characters at key moments keeps readers guessing until the novel's final act. The story's true strength, however, is in the cohesion and emotive power of its themes of motherly love, vengeful defiance and female rage. Eve is a new breed of hard-boiled detective, still sporting the hard exterior and haunted past, but this time toughened by love and haunted by what it means to be a strong woman in a powerless situation. The novel digs deep into the gritty, cold undersoil of Eve's hometown, never shying away from the biting realism of sexism and poverty. But it is the shocking moments of tenderness and love these characters show one another that packs the biggest emotional punch and reminds readers where true power resides. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor
Discover: The thoughtful exploration of legacies of violence and the force of a mother's love shape this riveting thriller.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
by Max Barry
Providence, Max Barry's follow-up to the immensely entertaining Lexicon, is yet another example of his ability to deliver big ideas in the form of breathlessly efficient sci-fi thrillers. The title comes from the name of the enormous spaceship, Providence Five, that carries the novel's four protagonists into a far-off war against aliens, colloquially called "salamanders." The spaceship largely runs itself, thanks to an advanced artificial intelligence, leaving the crew members to stew in routine and boredom. At first, the story belongs to a long tradition of books and films about isolated spacefarers slowly going insane, but Providence adds a number of twists and turns.
The artificial intelligence pilots Providence Five deep into enemy territory, and its powerful weapons kill hundreds of thousands of salamanders before they can put up a fight. Barry's futuristic warfare is conducted at a dispassionate remove that echoes the modern use of drones and missile strikes. Meanwhile, the crew engages in a propaganda offensive: posting messages on social media to maintain public support for a hugely expensive war with uncertain goals.
Readers will not have trouble picking apart the political commentary baked into the plot, but Providence pushes past easy contemporary parallels to concern itself with existential questions of free will and purpose. For all the novel's heady ideas, though, Barry maintains a nonstop pace and an economical, riveting prose style. The subject matter can be heavy, but Providence is ultimately a lot of fun, easily read in a sitting or two. As always, Barry excels at hitting the sweet spot between brainy and entertaining. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine
Discover: This smart and fun take on military science fiction meditates on the increasingly dispassionate nature of warfare.
Biography & Memoir
The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution
by Stephen Heyman
In the skillfully written, assiduously reported The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, Stephen Heyman attempts to rescue a forgotten artist from obscurity not for his artistic contributions but for something else entirely.
Born in Mansfield, Ohio, Louis Bromfield (1896-1956) published his first novel, The Green Bay Tree, to acclaim in 1924. (His third novel, Early Autumn, would win the Pulitzer Prize.) While making the expat scene in Paris, Bromfield became a rival of Hemingway--at least in Hemingway's eyes. When Bromfield and his wife, Mary, rented a house in the medieval French city of Senlis, his love of gardening overtook his love of writing, although he continued to publish bestselling books. In 1938, with Hitler on the march, Bromfield moved his family, which now included three children, to Ohio--he was determined to raise his kids on a farm, as he had been. Malabar Farm would not be the residence of a dilettante; writes Heyman, Bromfield's "celebrity, his creativity, his money--all of it would eventually go into the compost pile."
Bromfield's high-profile conservation efforts included speaking about the dangers of pesticides at a congressional hearing in 1951, although he had been railing against DDT use since it became widely available in 1945. The Planter of Modern Life, enhanced with several dozen photos, makes a sturdy case that Bromfield was a pivot in the environmental movement's transition from "the Dust Bowl and The Grapes of Wrath to Earth Day and Silent Spring." --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
Discover: This biography convincingly argues that forgotten novelist Louis Bromfield is worthy of reappraisal--not for his writing but for his heroic conservation efforts.
Essays & Criticism
Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose
by Kay Ryan
"It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there." Whether or not you agree with that ominous pronouncement from William Carlos Williams, you will come away from former U.S. Poet Laureate and MacArthur Fellow Kay Ryan's refreshing Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose--her first collection of nonfiction--with a deeper appreciation of poetry's worth.
The 32 pieces in this volume balance criticism (more appropriately, appreciation--save for a mild poke at Walt Whitman) of some of Ryan's favorite poets and other literary essays with a few helpings of memoir. Most of her subjects, including Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost, will be well-known to even casual students of poetry. But Ryan devotes two affectionate, if candid, essays to the British poet Stevie Smith, someone who "does everything possible to cartoonify herself and her work," yet whose poems "can't in the long run be separated from the True, the Beautiful, the Timeless, the deeply moving."
Ever the iconoclast, Ryan derides the common advice to poets (or writers in general for that matter) to keep a notebook. To her, they are "the devil's bible. They are the books of understanding later." But despite her admonition about the "importance to the poet of avoiding or ignoring Kodak moments," Ryan writes with great feeling about the day she became a poet, "a mystery before which one must simply bow down." In her case, it occurred in the Colorado Rockies, on a cross-country bicycle trip she took in 1976, at age 30. The rest, as one might say, is history. Or poetry. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer
Discover: An eminent American poet turns to prose to illuminate her craft and her life.
Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us
by George Zaidan
In Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us, George Zaidan delivers an enthusiastic introduction to nutritional epidemiology, or "the study of what foods are going to send you to an early grave." It's a user guide for readers who want to determine for themselves what foods are healthy, which chemicals are safe to apply on skin and how to interpret health-related scientific studies.
Zaidan is a scientist with a passion for chemistry and a robust media presence as the co-host of CNBC's popular show Make Me a Millionaire Inventor. He has made a name for himself translating science into everyday English in a way that both entertains and enlightens his television and web audiences. In Ingredients, he explains the complex chemical actions by which plants process sugar, starch, protein and fiber and how toxic plants are transformed into edible food. Readers will learn fascinating facts about how the human body responds to ingredients both natural and manmade. The humble Cheeto receives a good deal of attention as representative of the ultra-processed food category that makes up 58% of the typical American diet.
For long-term health decisions, it's important to know if convenience foods are bad for you. Or as the author phrases it, how much is life shortened with each bag of Cheetos, if at all? Using simple illustrations and his trademark humor to demystify scientific analysis that doesn't always prove cause and effect, Zaidan empowers readers to make their own dietary decisions and encourages a healthy skepticism toward attention-grabbing health and wellness news headlines. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer
Discover: A popular scientist offers perspective on whether sunscreen prevents skin cancer and explores dietary dilemmas with wit and brevity.
Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space
by Kevin Hand
In Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space, Kevin Hand, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, outlines the latest evidence regarding undersea extraterrestrials and speculates what else science may uncover. If alien life exists inside our solar system, it will likely be found in oceans of liquid water encased in shells of solid ice. Evidence shows that several moons around Jupiter and Saturn--particularly Europa, Titan, Enceladus and Callisto--harbor interior oceans in which life may have evolved despite a total lack of photosynthesis. Robust ecosystems surrounding heat vents in the sunless depths of Earth's oceans suggest that these far-flung satellites, so seemingly inhospitable to humans, could contain microbes or even complex organisms.
Hand demonstrates how we know these oceans exist in the first place via mass spectrometry, gravitational and magnetic readings. He then examines the chemistry at work on these worlds and how life might adapt to those conditions, acknowledging that the sample size of one--life on Earth--makes speculating about alien biology difficult, and that life may ultimately take surprising forms. One major unknown is the origin of life, whether the process of ubiquitous organic compounds developing into replicating cells is common or rare. It is possible, he admits, that Europa's salty seas may be barren, but Hand's comprehensive arguments leave one suspecting otherwise. Alien Oceans successfully straddles a fine line between accessibility and scientific thoroughness. Hand's book is as fascinating as it is optimistic. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer
Discover: Intriguing science surveys the possibility of life emerging in ice-encased oceans on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings
by Valerie Trouet
Tree Story begins with the mystery of whether Messiah, a legendary violin attributed to Stradivari, was indeed created by the master or was a skilled craftsman's knockoff. The answer was found in the age of the tree that yielded the instrument.
Valerie Trouet, associate professor at the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, adopts an engaging style sure to capture the attention of any nature lover, then pulls readers deeper into the world of dendrochronology. With humor, she describes science gone astray (her equipment was stolen when she was in Tanzania to collect tree rings) and how science mixes poorly with money and politics (the science of dendrochronology was born at the University of Arizona due to a rift between a wealthy Mars-obsessed patron and the scientist A.E. Douglass, who tried to set him straight).
Trouet barely mentions that she's often the only woman on her fieldwork trips. Like Hope Jahren's Lab Girl, Tree Story exudes a passion for science and the planet. Trouet argues persuasively that trees can teach people about the correlation between drought and the fall of empires (from Rome to Genghis Khan), about global warming and, eerily in light of Covid-19, about pandemics.
If Tree Story occasionally delves more deeply into scientific specifics than readers may want to go, Trouet soon returns to the present, often with a clever turn of phrase. She will leave all readers thinking about what humans can do to appreciate the planet more and treat it better. --Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: A persuasive, entertaining explanation of how the codes contained in tree rings reveal the wide-ranging effects of climate change.
Nature & Environment
Trees in Trouble: Wildfires, Infestations and Climate Change Hit the West
by Daniel Mathews
Trees in Trouble "is a book for everyone who cares what happens to these trees, groves, and landscapes." Natural historian and lifelong backpacker Daniel Mathews concentrates on the history and decline of 12 pine species emblematic of the North American West. He provides a disconcerting look at how the landscape is transforming under the pressures of climate change, pests, pathogens and ill-conceived fire suppression strategies. Trees are seeking relief from grave circumstances causing their demise: "Groves where we sought refuge will themselves be refugees."
"Threats to forests today are bewilderingly numerous," he writes. While Mathews concedes we cannot restore the status quo of even the year 2000, it is possible to take on the enormous challenge of influencing our forests for the better. He explains with scientific authority how warmer temperatures and reduced precipitation trigger migration of species, a natural occurrence made problematic by marginal habitats that no longer support trees.
Even more fascinating is our relationship to fire and how a poor understanding of wildfire dynamics has increased the occurrence of firestorms and deadly fire vortices (California's 2018 Carr fire produced winds of 143 miles per hour, equivalent of an EF-3 tornado). Human actions have increased fire fuels while lessening trees' ability to adapt and recover, also negatively affecting water and air. Not all gloom and doom, in "Future Forests" Mathews speaks eloquently of what can be expected and how people can influence change. Trees in trouble means trouble for us all, as they make every breath possible. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: A Pacific Northwest natural historian explores the fate of our forests, currently staggering under the weight of extreme fires, climate change and pest epidemics.
Nature Obscura: A City's Hidden Natural World
by Kelly Brenner
When considering places to discover the wonders of nature, cities are often dismissed as little more than havens for rats and pigeons. But as naturalist Kelly Brenner shows readers in Nature Obscura, urban areas are surprisingly fertile grounds for the citizen scientist to explore.
Using her hometown of Seattle as a guide, Brenner surveys the city's flora and fauna through the four seasons. Anna's hummingbird, a fairly recent arrival (1965) to the Pacific Northwest, must eat double its body weight every day in order to survive, while the moon snail takes two weeks to consume a clam. The resilient muskrat has acclimated to a changing landscape by creating new dens and adapting to different food sources, while the ubiquitous crow finds the city less threatening than the countryside. But it's the smallest creatures among us that excite Brenner the most. The microscopic tardigrade, found in Brenner's rooftop moss, has survived mass extinctions; also known as a water bear, it's cute to boot. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Fuligo septica, more commonly known as the dog vomit slime mold--but not all slime molds are alike; one species of Craterium looks like "a champagne flute filled with fireworks."
Brenner brings an infectious curiosity to urban nature--whether unpacking how the tiny stickleback fish has, in a rare case of reverse evolution, transformed to lose and regrow its plates of armor in response to pollution, or considering whether lichens really ever die, as they increase reproduction the older and larger they get. With Nature Obscura, readers need not venture far to discover a natural world teeming with life. --Frank Brasile, librarian
Discover: Nature Obscura will inspire inquisitive urban naturalists to explore wildlife in the city.
Why We Swim
by Bonnie Tsui
Journalist Bonnie Tsui (American Chinatown) submerges her story of how and why she's come to be intrigued with all facets of human aquatic experience in a larger investigation into the historical evolution of swimming.
Tsui's parents met at a swimming pool in Hong Kong. Tsui learned to swim at the age of five and, growing up, spent many hours in the surf at Jones Beach, a heavily frequented summer destination on Long Island. Tsui credits the recreational practice of swimming for keeping her afloat through her parents' divorce, college, knee surgery and miscarriage. Now, she's an adult and mother of two young children, swimmers themselves. Tsui continues to swim in pursuit of peace, pleasure and exercise, while also on a quest to understand the many reasons why humans, who are not natural-born swimmers and must be taught, have always been drawn to water.
From this foundation, Tsui dives deeper into eclectic stories about collective and individual swimming experiences, including Olympic athlete Michael Phelps, who mentally calms his symptoms of ADHD through conditioning rituals and competitive swimming trials. The most fascinating case studies in the book, however, center on incredible plights. Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, an Icelandic fisherman, was forced to swim for his survival for six hours in dangerously frigid ocean waters when his vessel went down in the 1980s.
In presenting each story, Tsui shares what the water and swimming means to each individual, while also tying in inspiring insights. Tsui is a poetic writer whose flowing, immersive prose and colorful storytelling will hold significant appeal for readers--especially swimmers--of all curiosities. --Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines
Discover: A journalist shares her passion for swimming as sport, survival and mental sustenance, setting it in the larger context of aquatic history.
Children's & Young Adult
The Cat Man of Aleppo
by Irene Latham , Karim Shamsi-Basha , illust. by Yuko Shimizu
Poet Irene Latham (Can I Touch Your Hair?) joins forces with Syrian American photojournalist Karim Shamsi-Basha to tell the heartening true story of an ambulance driver who is making war-torn Syria a better place. Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel's selfless work and immeasurable kindness have inspired people around the world, including the book's authors, whose collaboration with illustrator Yuko Shimizu befittingly spotlights Alaa's heroism for readers of all ages.
The Cat Man of Aleppo is the moving tale of a paramedic and ambulance driver who opts not to abandon his homeland when the country's civil war destroys his beloved Aleppo. When people are forced to flee the war's violence, most can't take their pets along. The helpless animals are left to fend for themselves on the streets. Alaa embraces the multitude of abandoned cats throughout the city; he starts out feeding the felines and showering them with love, and ultimately creates a sanctuary to keep them all safe. "Bombs may still fall, and his loved ones may never come back to Aleppo. But there is something he can do: he can look after the cats."
Latham and Shamsi-Basha simply and charmingly relate Alaa's deeds, enabling young readers to connect closely with their subject. Alaa's admirable actions offer the audience an excellent example of how simple acts of kindness can create large ripples of change. Shimizu's accompanying digital and black ink on watercolor paper illustrations carry readers directly into Alaa's world. Despite the challenging subject of war, in both words and illustrations, a sense of hope permeates the whole book. Alaa's story is one of faith in humanity, the power of compassion and the benefits of altruism. --Jen Forbus, freelancer
Discover: A humble hero makes an extraordinary difference in war-torn Syria when he attempts to take care of all the city's orphaned cats.
by Lauren Myracle
This Boy by Lauren Myracle (The Infinite Moment of Us; Shine) convincingly charts a young man's four years of high school as he bonds with his best friend, navigates coupledom and struggles to recover when loss tips him into drug addiction.
Paul and Roby typify high school best bros: they destroy each other in video games, try (and fail) to impress girls and dream of rooming together in college. Though they fall "out of sync" over Paul's girlfriend, the boys quickly return to status quo. Roby, never "afraid of looking ridiculous," cracks Paul up but can also deliver a "proper roasting": he tuts over Paul's purple drank habit but blatantly discourages Xanax and cocaine. Then, when Paul loses someone, he turns against Roby's advice and toward benzodiazepines and alcohol. Living in "teeth-gritting pain" and tortuously "elasticized moments," Paul feels dead inside as he searches for a way out.
Lauren Myracle's characters are perfectly pitched. Paul overshares, describing nose picks, farts, wiping Cheetos dust on his couch, masturbation and sex, lending credibility to his first-person narrative. He reflects on how his perception of girls is influenced by societal norms and biological drives, wondering whether some "girls like it when guys look at them," thinking it's "unfair to blame all males for the behavior of some males" and admitting, "I think about sex when I don't want to think about sex." In a tactful tonal shift, Myracle juxtaposes teenage shenanigans with a terrible death and a sobering reminder of a mounting drug crisis. Dripping with authenticity, This Boy is a frank depiction of the way recovering from grief and substance abuse can expand a person's world and force them to reevaluate themselves. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer
Discover: This startingly realistic coming-of-age YA novel portrays a high school boy experiencing friendship, first love, an unthinkable tragedy and drug addiction.