February Staff Picks: Y.A., Cookbooks, Manga, & Poetry!

Viengsamai Fetters

I work as a bookseller, and it’s lately become a small joy to spend time in the kids’ section of the store. I get to reminisce about the books I read as a kid, but I also get a chance to see what’s new and exciting for the kids of 2021. I’m especially happy to be getting back into middle-grade fiction, where some of my favorite books of all time reside and where a lot of strides are being made in terms of representation. I’m particularly excited by a new release, Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston. It’s a whirlwind of a story, a delightful mix of Artemis Fowl, Percy Jackson, and Men in Black that got me in trouble at work for reading at the cash register. The clever, lovable protagonist is Amari, a young Black girl reckoning with both magic and microaggressions as she charges headfirst after a clue as to her missing brother’s whereabouts. I’m so excited for the next books in the series, and I hope that theaters will be safe to visit by the time the movie comes out!

Chase Bailey

This month for me has been all. about. baking! I’m steadily working my way through Dessert Person by Claire Saffitz (we love Claire!). It’s a great collection of nostalgic/familiar recipes with fun takes and recipes for things I’ve never heard of! So far I’ve made and promptly devoured the chocolate cake, coffee-coffee cake, cream puffs, and I humbly took a fail trying for kouign-amann. If you’re into baking, this is a fun book to get into! If you’re a beginner, Claire also includes foundational recipes that are great to have in your back pocket, like pie crust, rough-puff, pastry cream, etc. Overall, would recommend!

Suzie Bartholomew

I have recently come to understand that I am a person that absolutely hates to do anything in silence. So, while I do chores around the house, run errands, or even work on my own writing, I have something playing in the background. Recently I’ve been banishing the silence with the podcast My Favorite Murder. I have five years’ worth of episodes to catch up on and I am loving every second of it. The true-crime podcast is hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, where the two women get together and share their favorite tales of murder. If you like true crime, it’s highly addictive, as it feels like you’re listening to two friends chat with you on a shared interest, rather than having someone giving a highly dramatized retelling of a murder. Which, if I’m being honest, I also love, but that’s not what Karen and Georgia are about.

They have a massive following of “Murderinos” (their fan base), who interact with them through social media and send in their own hometown murders which are shared on the podcast. I sadly do not have one, otherwise I would have emailed them by now. The number one thing I love about this podcast, beyond the catchphrases (stay sexy and don’t get murdered), the true crime stories, and how oddly relaxing this podcast is, is the frank and straightforward attitude these women have towards life and the many, MANY social standards women go through on a daily basis. From reminding listeners to “forget politeness” (though they use a stronger F word than forget) to sharing their own life experiences, I feel like I’m sharing a space with these two while I’m cleaning dishes. If you love true crime and for some reason waited forever to start this podcast as I did, you will love the listen.

Carolyn Janecek

J.K. Rowling has ruptured your last nerve and you’re searching for a spiritual successor to Harry Potter, hoping to relive that magical nostalgia and regain the faint––but persistent––hope that you’ll still get an acceptance letter to wizard school along with your next stimulus check. Behold Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier. This delightful manga follows a young girl, Coco, as she goes from an “Unknowing” human to a witch apprentice tangled up in the dark history of witch society. The series oscillates between charming friendships and adolescent struggles of the four main witch apprentices all within the looming threat of the “Brim Hats,” terrorists who are bent on reviving Forbidden Magic: spells enacted upon the human body to horrifying effects.

The larger plot of the series is thrilling, but what I most appreciate about Witch Hat Atelier is Kamome Shirahama’s focus on pedagogy and the ways learning is primarily about accessibility and wonder. Disability is a motif that reappears throughout the manga––showing what mobility aids and accommodations can look like in a magical world, but also the oversights and gatekeeping that come from witches’ elitism. Manga is a visual medium, of course, and the art is stunning. Expressive characters, a visual magic system, and beautiful illustrations of magic that leave the reader as wonderstruck as Coco, who is diving into the world of witches for the first time.

Aoife Lynch

I love a good anthology. It’s so exciting to come across a writer you’ve never heard of whose poems unexpectedly get their hooks in you, or to read a poem you already love in a new context. Recently, I’ve been dipping in and out of Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney). It is brilliantly weird. I love that within poetry there’s no genre distinction between fiction and non-fiction, and the poems in Emergency Kit occupy a strange blurry space between reality and the surreal: “however far and freely they travel, they always come back to the world we wake up to.”

Its title almost seems to suggest that the book itself is an emergency kit to help its readers live through strange times, but really it’s as unsettling as it is hopeful. For me though, with the craziness of what we’re all living through at the minute, that’s what I need: poems that don’t shy away from pain and uncertainty, that can be serious and funny and upsetting and beautiful all at the same time.

I rediscovered Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poem “Swineherd” in this anthology, and I’ve been reading it near-daily since: “I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines / And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks, / Where it gets dark early in summer / And the apple-blossom is allowed to wither on the bough.”