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The Perfect Christmas Tree
Michael Pellico
In this seasonal picture book, Pellico explores what chopping down the perfect Christmas tree looks like from the evergreen’s point of view. Unlike human children, the trees see Christmas as a time of terror, as they risk being hacked down and hauled away from their home and family. To avoid this fate, one wise pine implores its children to grow up ugly, with twisted branches and bald spots. But a tree named Little Stevie is determined to be tall and beautiful, even as his siblings heed their father’s advice. When a human family arrives that winter with saws and axes in hand, Stevie risks paying a stiff price for his vanity.

This book’s two-part message is fairly straightforward: It’s always best to listen to your parents, and relationships are more important than pride. The way this lesson is delivered will leave some particularly inquisitive youngsters with questions – many families view getting a Christmas tree as a joyous tradition, but the trees in this tale aim to avoid becoming a holiday centerpiece all costs, making the human family seem almost villainous by comparison. After he “learns his lesson,” Little Stevie also has a fortuitous encounter with a gnomish, magical mystery man who bursts up out of the ground, which some older kids will find more confusing than cute.

Malane Newman’s vibrant illustrations are sweet and charming, softening the tale’s somewhat menacing undertones. The trees have human-like faces and arms, allowing them to communicate with each other and express emotions that children will recognize, while still remaining verdantly tree-like. On the whole, younger kids will enjoy this book about accepting parental advice and learning the drawbacks of selfishness and arrogance – though parents should be prepared to assuage any concerns it may spark, particularly the downside of ephemeral displays of festivity and what it means to be “ugly” in the first place.

Takeaway: Told from a tree’s point of view, this curious seasonal picture book will help young kids learn the importance of accepting parental advice.

Great for fans of: Leslie Crawford’s Spring the Rescue Pig, Loren Long’s Little Tree.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: B
Illustrations: B+
Editing: B-
Marketing copy: B

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Daisy Moves to America
Elyssa Nicole Trust
Trust’s touching tale of transformation -- and perceptive acknowledgment of cultural differences -- begins with Daisy Mae, a vibrant youngster born in the United Kingdom, and her semi-daunting move to the U.S.A. for her mum’s work. Alvin Adhi’s lively polychromatic illustrations kick off the story with a showcase of London landmarks, including the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben, that are sure to spark conversation and learning opportunities for young readers. Though Daisy Mae starts out eager and curious to experience her new life in America, she quickly realizes that being the new kid is overwhelming – especially with her British accent and vocabulary.

Trust, a playwright and voiceover artist, eases younger readers through the world of bullying and stereotyping in this debut, bringing home the emotional impact of being teased while smoothly pointing out cultural nuances that many children may be unaware of (“So many words here are brand new./ The way the words are spelled is too”). The rhyming text takes pleasure in Daisy Mae’s decidedly British words—candy floss in place of cotton candy, telly instead of TV—and invites readers to the fun of new experiences while encouraging cultural awareness. In the end the phrases that trip up Daisy Mae with her new friends become a teaching opportunity, with Trust’s glossary of American versus English terms.

Adhi’s visual representations of multi-ethnic schoolkids strike the right mix of natural and buoyant to transport readers into Daisy Mae’s world and illuminate her perspective. Parents will feel the pull of lost innocence when Daisy Mae works to Americanize her speech and will applaud her father’s corresponding wisdom – “Be proud of who you are,/ and share your travels from afar./ And though you’re from a different place,/ we’re all alike in any case.” Trust and Adhi have crafted a meaningful portrayal of cultural diversity as a reason for confidence and celebration.

Takeaway: A moving and fun introduction to cultural nuances for readers of all ages.

Great for fans of: Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s Same, Same but Different, Yangsook Choi’s The Name Jar.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A+
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

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An Unusual Friend
Michael Pellico
Brother and sister Stephen and Sabrina find themselves on an island in the South Pacific with no friends and months before school starts as their parents, marine biologists, conduct research. After a storm hits the island, the siblings discover an injured baby shark in a tide pool. Thanks to their knowledge of sea animals, they’re able to help nurse the shark back to health, a favor that gets repaid later. Though its story is simple and somewhat unrealistic, An Unusual Friend encourages a love for ocean life, compassion for beings other than humans, and the performance of good deeds. Christina Berry’s gorgeous digital illustrations shine throughout, imbuing the tale and the characters with a sense of emotion and depth not found in the text, all while beautifully capturing the island scenery.

While full of heart, this short book offers little character development, and the hard-to-believe ending -- which involves the kids swimming into danger to face a full-sized great white shark and ultimately riding and guiding it to pull a crashed boat back to shore -- is a surprising swerve in an otherwise humble narrative. Sharks portrayed as sensitive, intelligent creatures is a welcome change of pace, but in its personification of them An Unusual Friend invites readers to hold unrealistic expectations about creatures that are indeed dangerous. The story centers the siblings’ experience entirely, offering no chance for the marine biologist parents to provide oversight or helpful information.

Despite its narrative flaws, An Unusual Friend nurtures in young readers agency, compassion, and a love for science. Coupled with Berry’s majestic portrayals of island life (those sunsets!), An Unusual Friend earns a spot on the shelves of sensitive and science-minded kids--or those who harbor a fantasy of making friends with an unlikely creature. It’s a welcome addition to the collection of any shark fan or budding marine biologist’s collection.

Takeaway: With simple text and gorgeous illustrations, An Unusual Friend is an inspiring (if unrealistic) portrayal of respect for ocean life and the caring of other creatures.

Great for fans of: Alan Rabinowitz’s A Boy and A Jaguar, Philipe Cousteau and Deborah Hopkinson’s Follow the Moon Home, Jess Keating’s Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: B

Click here for more about An Unusual Friend
If You Could Ask Your Dog One Question . . .
kim messina
In Messina’s endearing debut picture book, a young girl ponders what singular question she might pose to her pet dog if the two could understand each other. As she imagines the possibilities, the unnamed girl’s thoughts cycle through both the happy and sad times she has had while caring for her dog. The events inform the questions she considers, such as thinking of a snowy day and asking, “Do her feet sting in the snow?” Nataliia Pavliuk’s inviting watercolor-style drawings of the girl and her pup accompany these ruminations. She continues to ask questions about the dog’s daily doings -- her constant scratching, fear of thunder, and penchant for stealing fuzzy socks. Ultimately, after running through questions big and small, the girl lands on the most important one.

Readers will adore the devotion the girl has for her dog — and vice versa. The compassion is clearly demonstrated through both the language and the illustrations. With a light rhyme scheme and textured words like “munch,” “howl,” and “trample,” the text is ideal for read-aloud sessions with younger children. Dog owners will relate to the questions, including “Does she understand my words?” and “What causes all those zoomies?” Although the story will mostly resonate with people who have a pet dog, any reader who enjoys the company of animals will find the questions amusing.

The images are just as engaging as the words, perfectly complementing the story and the girl’s thoughts with pastel colors, clean lines, and a soft focus. Appealingly simple, the drawings also convey a sense of movement and fluidity that lends well to the pacing of the story, particularly for reading aloud. Young readers and families will enjoy following the girl’s hypothetical questions (“How does it feel to dive in leaves?”) and will likely feel an even stronger connection to their pets after the journey.

Takeaway: This picture book’s illustrated thoughts of a girl deciding the best question to ask her pet dog will appeal to young animal lovers.

Great for fans of: Peggy Rathmann’s Officer Buckle and Gloria, Stacy McAnulty’s Excellent Ed, Frann Preston-Gannon’s Hot Dog Cold Dog.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A-

The Tree of Knowledge
Daniel G. Miller
In this quirky and engaging debut thriller, a delightfully oddball team of academics relies as much on brains as brawn in challenging a powerful "Society" with mysterious aims. Princeton mathematics professor Albert Puddles finds his blissfully ordered life thrown into confusion after he helps the police make sense of a clue at a murder scene: a "game tree" used in logic theory. Puddles and his graduate assistant, Ying Koh, consult Puddles's brilliant mentor Angus Turner, who reveals he created a logic system—the Tree of Knowledge—that allows its user to manipulate anyone. Now, a mysterious woman named "Eva" has stolen it and Puddles et al. must stop her from delivering it into the "wrong hands."

Miller has created a wonderfully loopy world where there's almost no line between the physical and the mental--Turner’s study in logic has helped make him a formidable fighter. Indeed, the novel teems with historical, scientific, and literary surprises: Miller slips in fun facts about ciphers from ancient Rome to the Civil War and also connects the Tree of Knowledge system with the biblical tree of knowledge. Amusingly, the members of Turner's support group all have names taken from Paradise Lost. These good-natured twists come again and again, so readers are likely to forgive the occasionally fantastic plot and the rather abrupt ending, which might get further resolved in promised sequels.

For a thriller, the protagonists are an unusual bunch: Puddles and Ying gamely try to function outside of academia with limited success, and Albert is mystified when his colleagues are astonished by his eating habits—nothing but protein bars. But Puddles is more than a collection of humorous tics, as we see when the hyper-logical professor breaks down under the onslaught of true emotion he's spent his life trying to avoid. With offbeat characters, brain teasers, and imaginative action, readers will be eager to see what trouble Puddles and Ying get into next.

Takeaway: Vividly eccentric characters who rely on intellect as much as weapons make this a thriller fans are likely to remember.

Great for fans of: Dan Brown, Umberto Eco

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: B+
Illustrations: A-
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A-

Click here for more about The Tree of Knowledge
Magnolia in Ilium
D. L. Jenkinson
In Jenkinson’s magic school adventure, twelve-year-old Magnolia Bannister lives in the quirky, well-thought-out world of Faraway on her parents’ magical steamboat, the Theodora, with her mother, Dorothea, her father, Beauregard, and her parrot, Joe. Magnolia’s is an idyllic life, so when her parents suddenly insist that she go to Gryndells, a magic school in the fantastical city of Ilium, Magnolia is less than thrilled. Eccentric Magnolia tries to settle into her surroundings, with its strange roommates, attentive boys, and odd professors--but when one of her roommates, Moira, goes missing, Magnolia believes she was chosen to find her and sets off to do just that, putting her place at Gryndells in jeopardy.

Ultimately, this romp is a bit of a mixed bag. Though the constant shifts from Magnolia’s point of view allow for some of the funniest moments, they rob readers of the chance to see how Magnolia interprets key relationships and moments. Magnolia’s school term is fun, with wondrous creatures and an inventive magic system, but it’s not until halfway through the story, already somewhat long for a middle grade title, that Magnolia’s mission truly begins. When the game’s at last afoot, characters offer Magnolia and her crew answers quite easily, sometimes out of the blue, making it so they don’t so much solve as stumble their way through their quest.

But, if anyone can stumble through a quest, it’s Magnolia--she’s empathetic, confident, and impulsive, the perfect protagonist for this wholly original world. And it’s a well-built world at that, one that feels lived in by virtue of its history, lore, and geography. As an added bonus, the vocabulary is just advanced enough to teach young readers some new words, and the old-fashioned imagery lends charm. Living up to his promise, Jenkinson’s first entry in this series is different, entertaining, and amusing, despite its occasional lack of focus.

Takeaway: Fans of middle grade magic school mysteries will find a lot to enjoy in Magnolia’s quest, especially if they don’t mind taking their time.

Great for fans of: Natasha Lowe’s The Power of Poppy Pendle, Robert Beatty’s Serafina and the Black Cloak.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: B
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: C+
Marketing copy: B

Click here for more about Magnolia in Ilium
Witches and Reapers
Steven Smith
An assassin must escape with his new-born daughter when he discovers that her mother plans to sacrifice the girl in Smith’s fast-paced erotic fantasy debut. Tobin is a reaper, a favored follower of Bytos, God of Assassins. Working undercover to secure Bytos a foothold in Snowbank Kingdom takes Tobin into the bed of Queen Marilynn but when he discovers that she’s a servant of the dark goddess, Seren, and intends to sacrifice their daughter, Tobin kidnaps the new-born. After hastily hiring Rene, a brothel wet nurse, to care for baby Dakota, Tobin flees for Crescent City with the wicked Queen’s soldiers on his heels.

Smith sets an electric pace as Tobin, Rene, and Dakota race to keep ahead of their pursuers. The world-building is immersive and littered with intriguing hints that connect this fantasy world to ours as the party secures passage across the ocean and heads for Tobin's hometown as part of a merchant caravan. However, those promising elements of the world-building remain mostly ambiguous in this first volume, suggesting that a link to our world may only play a major role in subsequent installments of the Merging Realms series. Readers who prefer clearly explained worlds and magic systems may be frustrated with Smith's immersive, mystery-tinged style.

Smith offers a variety of steamy scenes, which include loving partnerships, trips to a brothel, and dark rituals ending in human sacrifice. The sole non-consensual scene is neither gratuitous nor overly graphic. The heat level leans toward the milder end of the spectrum throughout, and Smith cleverly incorporates characterization and plot advancement into the most intimate scenes. Tobin’s portrayal as being a gifted lover can be heavy-handed at times, which is not entirely mitigated by his more tender traits. Some inconsistencies with character names cause confusion. Fans of dark fantasy and those who enjoy erotic fantasy will find much to enjoy in Smith's debut.

Takeaway: Erotic and Dark fantasy fans will enjoy Smith’s tale of an assassin on the run from a dark queen.

Great for fans of: S.J Sanders' Corruption of the Rose, Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic, Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: B
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: C
Marketing copy: C+

Click here for more about Witches and Reapers
Kill Signal
Zoran Basich
This gritty San Francisco police procedural follows an engaging group of troubled SFPD detectives who are caught up in a longstanding criminal conspiracy and trying to cope with the psychological scars it has left on them. The tense mystery follows several interrelated investigations as Inspector Marko Bell, still trying to come to terms with the murder of his wife in a mysterious massacre, believes he may have discovered a new lead. He looks into the suspicious death of an ex-cop who had gone on to serve as the mayor's personal driver—and who may have been planning to betray his boss.

Numerous dark plotlines twist through the novel, and although not all of them get cleanly resolved, the haunting, nihilistic air gets under the skin. Basich’s characters find themselves always fighting against their fates, usually without success: A selfish politician thwarts the attempt of an employee to obtain a taxi medallion from a friend with terminal cancer. Another character is stuck with memories of his parents murdered during the Balkan conflicts. One scene featuring the abuse of a sex worker reveals a character's moral rot, but is not for the squeamish. Basich also at times applies a lighter touch, as when he describes a detective's sweetly tentative romance with a medical examiner.

Vivid characterizations are the novel’s greatest strength, as these detectives leap off the page. As one makes awkward, heartfelt attempt to repair his marriage, Basich describes him as "terrified that he would run headlong into the reality that he was the only one who thought it could still be repaired." Bell's troubled relationship with his partner comes across in aching detail, as the two men's wounded psyches bring them close to destroying each other. Intricately intertwined subplots populated with all-too-human lawmen as troubled as the criminals they are chasing will ensure readers will keep turning the pages until the surprising end.

Takeaway: Hauntingly memorable detectives navigating through a linked series of crimes make this a must-read for fans of noir-flavored procedurals.

Great for fans of: Ed McBain, Joseph Wambaugh.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B-
Marketing copy: B+

Click here for more about Kill Signal
My First Geography Book: The World Tour of Stuffed Toys around their Apartment
Igor Okunev
Okunev's vibrant chapter book encourages young readers to embrace the study of geography by introducing the science through the observant eyes of a youngster and his talkative stuffed toys. A commotion breaks loose as eager toys discuss the young narrator's favorite book, a world atlas. The menagerie is uninformed but curious: The rhino announces it would like to visit Africa, the penguin feels he would be comfortable in Antarctica, and the kangaroo insists they all make a trip to Australia, as it's less cold and less hot than the other choices. Having read more books than others, the owl announces that everybody should take care to learn geography, the science that, as he puts it, "studies our planet and everything on it." The toys study their “big home” (the Earth) and their “little home,” right down to their immediate surroundings -- the rules of geography can even help explain the organization of their apartment.

Katya Kolmakov and Olga Baron's evocative and charming illustrations suffuse Okunev's tale with splendor and warmth, and their vivid brushstrokes adeptly support the focus and intention of the story. Brimming with facts, information, and profound perspectives, Okunev's tale juggles several goals for his readers. At once, the book is an adequate introduction to geography and also a condensed ode to environmentalism, cartography, and imagination.

The unidentified narrator’s age remains ambiguous, but his tone and the maturity is inconsistent. Often, he is decidedly incisive and perceptive, but at other occasions, naïve and artless. The pacing suffers hiccups when the tale's premise is set twice within ten pages of each other, while sometimes laborious detailing of the characters and settings diminish the story's focus. Thought-provoking calls-to-actions at the end of all four chapters will engage readers and invite questions. Ultimately, this chapter book unfolds as an engrossing and informative read that mostly achieves its bold ambitions -- and in retaining the readers' attention.

Takeaway: Illuminating and often delightful, this picture book invites young readers to appreciate the world through the lens of Geography.

Great for fans of: Salvatore Rubbino’s A Walk in London, Kate Siber’s National Parks of the USA, Katie Wilson’s Landmarks.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: B+
Illustrations: B+
Editing: B-
Marketing copy: B+

Click here for more about My First Geography Book
The Gods of Ahman-Tahk: The Prologue
Maria Mathis
This inter-planetary, multidimensional sci-fi epic opens in contemporary Oakland, where Danny, a member of the mysterious Shadow Clan, is being questioned by Paranormal Task Force Detective Ernie Benasco over the bombing of a witch coven. Danny’s brother, Tuyouk, is the chief suspect; Ernie wants answers, but rather than offer them up Danny recounts events from Tuyouk’s past--events that transpired on another planet, Ahman-tahk, centuries ago. There, Tuyouk was a mighty warrior fighting against an invasion of witches whose leader, Belall, decimated Tuyouk’s village and sickened the women of his planet, effectively condemning Tuyouk’s people to extinction. But it’s not until Tuyouk is captured by Belall that he realizes how monstrous and complicated she truly is, as he calls into question his role in the war and whether his hatred for witches has endured over such time and distance.

The far-flung premise and atypical elements—witches, aliens, and scientific experimentation—blend together surprisingly well, culminating into distinctive and well-constructed lore. The narrative momentum suffers, though, as the novel turns from the exciting timeline of Ahman-tahk back to Danny’s and Ernie’s interview, interjections that ground the story and offer novelty and character but also often are static. It takes a long time before the events of the distant past connect to the novel’s present. Fortunately, the crisp prose and energetic plotting otherwise keep things moving.

Mathis’s writing is witty and funny, and the chapters often end in cliff-hangers that pull readers in for more. An added plus is the focus on early black and brown societies, a welcome change for a genre dominated by white ones. This solid opener will likely lead to grander follow-ups, judging by the included excerpt of the second in the series, which takes off with the electric introduction of a new character. Though it has some way to go, this planet-hopping series has targeted its destination.

Takeaway: Fans of daringly eclectic genre fiction who like not choosing between fantasy, sci-fi, and detective novels will relish this series opener.

Great for fans of: Heather Graham’s Dreaming Death, Ivan Kal’s Broken Stars.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: B-
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A

Click here for more about The Gods of Ahman-Tahk
Frank the Painter: A Novella
Joshua Kaplan
Kaplan’s satiric picaresque imagines a Cleveland painter’s absurd, semi-Quixotic quest for self-actualization, a spiritual and physical journey that will transport him from his native Cleveland all over the world and back again. When he’s not replicating the Sistine Chapel on the ceilings of his clients’ garages, talented house painter Frank stalks an employee, Carla, at the local stationary store. After one of his customers, Marissa, wins a million dollars, she takes Frank on a worldwide journey “to cultivate his talent” that ends with their marriage and adoption of a daughter from China. Frank embarks on a variety of bizarre schemes, such as founding a cult and assisting a start-up circus, all while trying to discuss spirituality and religion with a wide range of people.

In the midst of Kaplan’s narrative, a terrorist incident leaves Frank with another child, Jayden, who is reported to have psychic powers and becomes the central inspirational figure for Frank’s “cult of disbelief,” whose followers get called “Non Believers.” Kaplan adds peculiar twists when Carla kidnaps Jayden in revenge for Frank’s stalking and when Frank takes on the underground forces threatening Cleveland, all while dealing with his own mounting mental health crisis.

Kaplan’s lampooning of self-actualization narratives often hits its target, as when Frank joins a group of vigilante do-gooders who, with no training or qualifications, attempt to treat drug addicts. Yet Kaplan’s narrative is so overstuffed with that it loses focus, making it difficult to ascertain his perspective, which is critical in satirical writing. Readers will likely struggle to understand whether some offensive ideas (Jayden being named a “hermaphrodite”; Frank’s certainty that a Chinese man wants to eat his dog) are being parodied or presented in earnest. Frank is best when it slows down and explores a character’s interiority. Readers who relish playful satire will find Frank's adventures thought-provoking.

Takeaway: Lovers of the absurd will find plenty to cheer about in this overwhelming satiric novel.

Great for fans of: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: B
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: B

Click here for more about Frank the Painter
The Power of Vision: Principles and Practices to Help You Become Extraordinary
Oluwaseun Oyeniran
In this impassioned, provocative treatise, Oyeniran (Live Love Learn Grow), the founder of OyES Education, challenges readers to develop and actualize a personal vision as an opportunity to “become extraordinary” and build the future they desire. He argues that the true visionaries among us—the few who fully tap their innate potential for “uncommon greatness”—ultimately manifest personal visions for the betterment of humanity itself, rather than solely focusing on personal success. He urges readers to develop and dedicate themselves to grand personal visions, leaving behind lives of minor significance or impact for something greater.

The Power of Vision aims for greatness, studying the lives of Walt Disney, Masaru Ibuka, Helen Keller, Henry Ford, Nelson Mandela, and other historical figures (and perennial examples for self-help authors). Oyeniran delineates the route taken by each famous idealist, chronicling their hard work and perseverance, often in the face of denigration, failures, and danger (“Ibuka built Sony during a crisis, despite many failed attempts and almost being bankrupt experimenting with different ideas”). The true visionary, he notes, bears the responsibility to “challenge existing norms” and attempt to create a more noble world, a call-to-action that demands great focus and character. That may sound daunting, but Oyeniran insists that intense focus on “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” can make every reader a habitual change agent.

There’s power in Oyeniran’s insistence that the truly visionary approach is to better the world rather than just one’s own circumstances. The work’s first half becomes repetitive, with some chapters closely echoing each other in sentence structure and word choice, and some sections lionize the idea of a vision rather than offer clear guidance to help readers develop their own. Oyeniran’s focus tightens as he considers questions of leadership, character, and whether visionaries tend to be tyrannical. This enthusiastic guide poses challenging questions for readers eager to explore the possibility of visionary thinking.

Takeaway: This eager treatise challenges readers to develop ambitious personal visions not just for personal gain but for the advancement of humanity.

Great for fans of: Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz’s Lead from the Future, Joyce Schwarz’s The Vision Board.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: C
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: B

Click here for more about The Power of Vision
Helen's Orphans
Ron Fritsch
Two orphans of the Trojan War seek to discover the true nature of the relationship between Helen of Troy and Paris in this engaging historical novel. Timon and Lukas, growing up in the same orphanage that Helen and her sister Clytemnestra once did, are befriended by Helen, who has recently been queened after her return to Sparta. Helen spends considerable time visiting with both orphans, answering their inquiries about Paris and the Trojan War, and freely discloses her memories of the destructive events. Fritsch’s uses flashbacks from Helen’s perspective, intermingled with present-day narration by Timon and Lukas, to reveal an alternate ending to the Trojan War.

Despite appearances from the likes of Achilles, Nestor, and Menelaus, Timon and Lukas emerge as the ensemble’s most compelling characters. They share touching moments, such as when they sing together and discover a mutual love of music, and their eagerness to question Helen (“Did you find Paris attractive?”) is relatable. Fritsch (The Lord Chamberlain’s Daughter) crafts a detailed and immersive fiction that is charming in its minute detail, though some readers will be disappointed by a lack of dynamism in prose. A tendency toward the pedantic diminishes the drama, as even battles at times read more like a history essay than an engrossing tale: “The few archers the Greeks had room for inside Troy could only fire their arrows upward at Trojan archers.”

Timon and Lukas are fresh air in this history lesson. Those familiar with the Odyssey and the myth of the Trojan War will find few surprises in Fritsch’s characterization of Helen, Paris, and Clytemnestra, but Helen’s point-of-view passages give the legend charm and agency--and even make her relatable. With an appeal to audiences versed in Greek myth, Fritsch’s new spin on a timeless tale will draw in readers with his sympathetic characterization and occasional original inventions.

Takeaway: A novel approach to an established classic, with an alternate ending that will please fans of Greek mythology.

Great for fans of: Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles , David Gemmell’s Lord of the Silver Bow.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: B
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B

Click here for more about Helen's Orphans
Fall: A Leaf Story
Thomas Ashley
Ashley's debut picture book warmly observes the timeless notions of love, compassion, and sacrifice through Bud, a floret who is not yet a leaf. Bud blossoms on a solitary branch, far away from other branches, and comes to dote on Holly, an early bloomer on another bough. Ashley and illustrator Laura Ashley depict growth and change to young readers by depicting Bud and his other friends blooming into lush, green leaves as the weather turns. Readers are also meet Bud's friends: the grumpy Mr. Bark (and the army of ants who bite him), and Elmer, a leaf just like Bud who does not mind the nibbling of Chewey, the caterpillar. As the days get colder, Holly transitions to a "beautiful golden color” and eventually gets swept away by the wind and lands on the ground. Bud endeavors to drift down next to her. Will Bud make the fall and reach Holly?

Populating the tale with amusing characters, Ashley imbues Bud's world with the poignancy of inevitable change. He depicts a leaf's lifecycle without sermonizing to or infantilizing his readers. Striking, distinctive words like "squinty" and "grumpy" pepper the narrative, an opportunity for playful cadences from anyone reading the book aloud. However, Bud's relative isolation, which seems essential to the premise, goes undramatized, making the story’s stakes unclear. Some verbosity creeps into the prose near the ending, reducing the story’s sense of immediacy, and Bud overshadows the charming secondary cast.

Lauren Ashley’s winsome and captivating illustrations amplify the innocence and quirkiness of Bud's surroundings and enliven the story. Not only delightful, they seamlessly blend text with paintings in the page designs, greatly serving the pacing. Still, the tale eventually blossoms into a sweet triumph of love and friendship in the face of challenge and change, linking the cycles of nature to the sacrifices we make for our loved ones.

Takeaway: This charming picture book will delight and invite lively questions from young readers with its take on love, sacrifice, and the lives of leaves.

Great for fans of: Edward Monkton’s A Lovely Love Story, Oliver Jeffers’ Lost and Found, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Snail and the Whale.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A-

Click here for more about Fall
Stop Drifting: Become the Switch Master of Your Own Thought and Pivot to Positive
Angelle Chase
Ibarra’s debut blends familiar lessons from the business self-help genre with the narrative of a man looking to change not only his business but also his life. Tom Stanley—slightly overweight, generally unhappy, and no longer enjoying work at the Chevrolet dealership that he owns—has fallen into the practice of sleeping in every morning and then panicking about being late. Tom’s days are characterized by “dissatisfaction with himself and everyone around him,” and he feels he has “become adrift at sea,” with each problem at work a crashing wave that takes “away a part of his boat.” All of this changes for Tom during a late breakfast with fellow car dealership owner Daniel Santos at Tom’s favorite diner.

During their conversation, as Daniel questions Tom’s routines and draws a diagram of the process of positive thinking, Tom realizes that the source of his stagnancy is his frame of mind. In the following months, Tom changes his life, his diet, and his business by focusing on Daniel’s lessons. “When you’re in a Positive-State-of-Mind you’re a believer and positive attracts positive,” Daniel says. “The same goes for negative.” Daniel’s crystal-clear message of enthusiasm shapes the narrative.

Despite some repetitive passages, Stop Drifting benefits from strong pacing and Ibarra’s appealing use of dialogue as a tool for imparting lessons. The book demands some suspension of belief during moments when Tom talks to himself, and a critique of college education for failing to teach the “power of theming and the science of success principles” detracts from the theme. Still, the work otherwise is persuasive in presenting the power of the mind to affect everyday reality and examining how we can train our brains to achieve. Grounded in self-help appeal for those seeking tips on how to change their approach to life, Ibarra’s compact novel zeroes in on positive thinking and transforming momentary changes into lifelong habits.

Takeaway: This inventive debut shares its motivational teachings in a fast-paced narrative about a businessman rediscovering his direction.

Great for fans of: Stephen Covey and Napoleon Hill.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-

Click here for more about Stop Drifting
PushBack
Richard Rose
Rose’s eloquent collection, subtitled “Selected Poems of Resistance,” touches on a wide sweep of topics with a singular sense of rhythm and musicality that enriches even some of the book’s most inaccessible pieces. Though it’s presented as a collection of the poet’s thoughts over two years, PushBack also contains “a lifetime's poems, hums,/and somewhat spiritual songs.” Rose is also a composer whose eighth opera, Monte & Pinky, was performed at the Black History Museum of Virginia in 2018. That facility for music plays a major role here as the break lines dictate rhythm at and alliteration grants certain poems an unequivocal sense of melody: “The Tour” goes into factories “where whirr and whip and wince” combine to create; “Planning an Iranian War” happens “all pumped with purpose and pomp”; and “Threats” contemplates dreams and “deadlines, and demands, and deals.”

Through it all, at the center of everything, stands the “poet searching for a word.” Those words come, and they’re at times obscure, like coacervate and annular. When they’re clear, though, the message shines through, undiminished by the limitations imposed by the various rhyme schemes. The forceful “And Less Enthusiasm, Please:” declares “Howl if you wish./Even yelp. Publish./Scream at the mike. Brandish words. Strike/down with a slash/comma; tense. Smash/common sense; dullness/everywhere. Guess/what you meant. I won't.”

Rose’s poems about racism and war, thoughts and dreams, are accompanied by a series of amateurish drawings that add a personal touch and put faces to the individuals mentioned in the verse. At once difficult and personal as well as rhythmic and engaging, this collection walks a fine line between meanings only the poet will fully grasp and thoughts that communicate with clarity and power. This challenging collection will appeal to fans of poetry that touches on pressing issues and rewards careful reading.

Takeaway: These poems of resistance will appeal to anyone who enjoys challenging poetry with great rhythm and urgent beauty.

Great for fans of: Ted Hughes, Jay Parini.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: B
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A-

Click here for more about PushBack

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