Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Saturday, February 13, 2016

FROM THE BACKLIST - Aaron and Alexander: the Most Famous Duel in American History by Don Brown

Aaron and Alexander: the Most Famous Duel in American History

Written and illustrated by Don Brown
Roaring Brook Press. 2015
ISBN: 9781596439986
Grades 5 - 12
I borrowed a copy of this book from my local public library.

Aaron and Alexander could have been friends. They were alike in many ways. But the ways in which they were different made them the worst of enemies.

Brown’s informational picture book, illustrated in his signature cartoon style, gives readers a brief look at what might have contributed to the animosity between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton that would lead to the famous duel. 

We learn that both men lost their families at a young age, were highly intelligent, brave, and fought in the Revolutionary War. 

After the war, Aaron and Alexander became successful lawyers in New York City. They sometimes worked together, including successfully defending a man against sensational murder chargers. They shared meals. They shared friends. “Good terms,” said Alexander of his and Aaron’s connection.

What led up to the duel was their clash over politics. The two men were in opposing political camps. Hamilton felt strongly that Burr would be a terrible leader and said so publicly. In his author’s note, Brown explains that Hamilton had a huge influence on American history. He was involved in the writing of the Constitution, authored 51 of the 89 essays in the Federalists Papers published in 1788, and became our first secretary of the treasury under George Washington. Hamilton’s contributions to American history were many, Burr was an inconsequential senator and vice president.

In Aaron and Alexander, the marriage of text, illustrations, and the author’s note makes this an excellent book to share with students. It is an engaging introduction to American history. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Glow by W.H. Beck

Glow: Animals with Their Own Night Lights 
by W.H. Beck
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
Grades K-5

Children will be instantly attracted to the close-up photographs of unusual creatures contrasted on black backgrounds in Glow, a nonfiction picture book featuring bioluminescent animals such as lanternfish, atolla jellyfish, vampire fish and the glowing sucker octopus. Beck explains on the first page that "bioluminescence is when living things make their own light" or glow. The book then provides readers with the different ways animals use bioluminescence to hide, attract others, hunt and call for help.

The hybrid nonfiction text blends narrative and expository styles. The narrative is printed in a large font and uses a controlled vocabulary making the text accessible to young readers. Expository captions use science terms and a more complex vocabulary to provide readers with additional information making this a book that will appeal to both young children (gr. K-2) and older readers (gr. 3-5).

Glow would work as a nonfiction read aloud in story times or science classes, and it is certain to inspire children to learn more about the animals described in the book.

Visit W.H. Beck's site to learn more about Glow.

The reviewer received a copy of the book from the publisher.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass  
by Dean Robbins
illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
Orchard Books/ Scholastic, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-545-39996-8
Grades K-5

I attended a Scholastic 2016 picture book preview earlier this month where I had the honor of hearing Selina Alko and Sean Qualls describe their collaboration on the illustrations for Two Friends. Below is a photograph of original artwork from the book.

Two Friends is an beautiful, informational picture book about Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. The story begins with Douglass and Anthony enjoying tea together in Anthony's parlor. The narrative then flashes back and describes Anthony's early life and how she "taught herself to give speeches" in support of women's rights. The story shifts to Douglass' early life as a slave when he "secretly learned to read and write." Douglass also gave speeches and used his gift for words to speak in support of African American rights. The story concludes in Anthony's parlor with the friends having tea as they share their plans, their speeches and their ideas for changing the world.

Alko and Qualls explain in an illustrators' note that they researched the time period, especially the clothing, when they created the acrylic paint, collage and colored pencil illustrations. Words permeate the illustrations, escaping in the steam from the tea, printed on Anthony's bloomers, and flowing through the air as Douglass speaks. The colors, textures and patterns will make readers want to linger on each page.

One of the many strengths of the book is that it works for very young readers as an introduction to two important figures from American history, and it's effective for older students learning about civil rights and the power of words.

Be sure to read the author's note from Dean Robbins in the back of the book.  A bibliography provides readers with more books on the topic. Two Friends would make an excellent read aloud for small or large groups and is a recommended purchase for school and public library collections.

Don't miss other books by the illustrators:
The Case for Loving by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls
Emmanuel's Dream written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls

The reviewer received a copy of the book from the publisher.

Monday, January 18, 2016

From the Backlist: An Eye for Color

An Eye for Color: the Story of Josef Albers
by Natasha Wing; Art by Julia Breckenreid
Henry Holt. 2009
ISBN: 9780805080728
Grades 2-12

The reviewer borrowed a copy of the book from her local public library.

A few weeks ago, back in December 2015, I came up with an idea for an art program for the teen summer reading program: an exercise in color from the book, Local Color by Mimi Robinson. Robinson based her idea on the works of Josef Albers, a German artist who spend years studying how the mood of a painting changed based on color combinations. I read the library’s copy of An Eye for Color to learn a little bit more about the life of Albers. So, I was totally blown away when, while in Boston (January 8-11, 2016) for ALA’s Midwinter meeting my friend Madeline and I snuck away from the excitement to visit the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). To my utter astonishment the exhibit at the ICA was on Black Mountain College (1938-1957) where Josef Albers taught from 1933-1949! On display were some of his work! I was so inspired and excited that I I couldn’t stop talking. (Poor Madeline).

I love it when that happens! 

An Eye for Color is a fantastic picture book biography about the life of Josef Albers. Born in Germany in 1888, Albers saw art in the simplest things. He would start out being a primary school teacher, an art teacher, and then in 1920 Albers attended the German art school, Bauhaus. The Bauhaus philosophy was that art, technology, and business should be brought together to apply good design to industrial objects, such as buildings and furniture.

In 1933, with the rise of Nazi Germany, Albers was asked to teach at the Black Mountain College located in Asheville, North Carolina. Albers would teach at the experimental college until 1949 when he was made head of the design department at Yale University. 

It was while teaching at Yale that Albers started his study of color. Wing’s simple text is partnered with Breckenreid’s illustrations that gives readers the visual elements to fully understand Albers’ work with color. 

Wing offers an author’s note that reveals Albers was her neighbor while growing up. Unaware of his fame, the young Wing eagerly shared her school art projects with the world famous artist. It would be as an adult that Wing realized the magnitude of the influence the kindly gentleman wearing a long overcoat and a beret had on the world of art. 

Back matter, besides the author's notes, include a glossary of basic color theory, bibliography, and a see for yourself activities that would be perfect to do with a classroom or by yourself. 

This book can be read as a simple story about an interesting man who loved color or if reading to an older audience, read the author’s note first. It will greatly enhance the readers understanding of Josef Albers and his work.

A thoroughly engaging and inspiring picture book biography.

Monday, January 11, 2016

NF Sightings at the ALA Midwinter Conference

Today I returned home from the ALA Midwinter Conference in Boston where thousands of librarians, authors and publishers took over Beantown. I'm tired yet energized after spending time with fellow librarians, attending committee meetings and publisher events, and viewing 2016 titles in the Exhibit Hall. I also had the pleasure of attending book previews hosted by Scholastic, Candlewick Press, Chronicle, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Holiday House and Boyds Mill Press. 2016 looks like a year for more amazing nonfiction, especially science books as well as books about presidents.

I ended the conference by waking up very early to attend the ALA Youth Media Awards this morning where nonfiction books received a lot of love. (Look for an awards blog post later this week.)


Thanks to Candlewick Press for the visit to their office in Somerville, MA.

Here are some of the new, nonfiction titles spotted at the ALA Midwinter conference. 

We Will Not Be Silent by Russell Freedman
Clarion Books

You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen 
by Carole Boston Weatherford and Jeffrey Boston Weatherford
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

The Slowest Book Ever by April Pulley Sayre and Kelly Murphy
Boyds Mill Press

Science Comics: Dinosaurs
by MK Reed and Joe Flood
First Second
Hillary by Jonah Winter and Raul Colon
Schwartz & Wade

Grover Cleveland, Again! by Ken Burns and Gerald Kelley
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea by Robert Burleigh and Raul Colon
Simon & Schuster

Bridge to the Wild by Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell
HMH Books for Young Readers

The Story of Seeds by Nancy F. Castaldo
HMH Books for Young Readers

Crossing Niagara by Matt Tavares

The Great White Shark Scientist by Sy Montgomery and Keith Ellenbogen
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Bubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America by Gail Jarrow
Calkins Creek

Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass 
written by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
Orchard Books- Scholastic

Around America to Win the Vote by Mara Rockliff and Hadley Hooper

The Secret Subway by Shana Corey and Red Nose Studio
Schwartz & Wade

Dorothea’s Eyes by Barb Rosenstock and Gerard DuBois
Calkins Creek

Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Seven and a Half Tons of Steel by Janet Nolan and Thomas Gonzalez
Peachtree Publishing

Will’s Words: How Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk
by Janet Sutcliffe and John Shelley

Masters of Disguise: Amazing Animal Tricks by Rebecca L. Johnson

Lincoln and Kennedy: A Pair to Compare by Gene Barretta
Henry Holt and Co.

To the Stars: The First American Woman to Walk in Space
by Carmella Van Vleet, Dr. Kathy Sullivan and Nicole Wong

Monday, December 28, 2015

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras 
by Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015
Grades 2-5

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras was recently featured in our list of Best Nonfiction Books of 2015. The picture book biography introduces readers to an influential Mexican artist who began his work as a printer.

Jose Guadalupe Posada worked as a printer and engraver in Mexico City in the late 1800s. He was known for illustrating political cartoons. Posada's calaveras became popular when he illustrated the poems for a local newspaper for Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead). Calaveras are images of skeletons associated with Day of the Dead celebrations. Most of Posada's drawings were humorous and meant to celebrate life, yet when revolution broke out the artist used his pen to criticize leaders of the Revolution.

Author and illustrator, Duncan Tonatiuh, eloquently incorporates Posada's artwork into the illustrations in the book. The combination of Tonatiuh's cartoon-style illustrations and Posada's black and white etchings are the perfect blend of the present and the past and capture the comical and political nature of the calaveras. On three pages, Tonatiuh breaks down Posada's printing and etching techniques into step-by-step instructions that clearly explain to young readers how Posada created his artwork. Posada's work influenced many great artists such as Diego Rivera; his work can be viewed in museums across North America.

Don't miss the rich back matter in the book including a detailed author's note, glossary, bibliography and list of museums where Posada's work can be seen. Funny Bones is an interesting story of an artist most students probably have never heard of before. The picture book can be used as an introduction to an artist study in art classes or in Spanish classes studying Day of the Dead. Posada's etchings may even inspire readers to create their own calaveras to celebrate life.

Be sure to check out Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh.

The reviewer borrowed a copy of the book from the local library.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

2015 turned out to be another banner year for nonfiction books for children. We looked back over our reviews from the year and selected 22 books that stood out as the best of the year. There are still many 2015 titles we plan to review in upcoming weeks.

We've organized the list into three categories: History, Science and Biography. Our hope is that librarians, teachers and parents will find this list helpful as they make purchases for children. We're looking forward to what 2016 will bring in the world of nonfiction.

Louise and Cathy


Arthur Levine Books: Scholastic, Inc.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Calkins Creek

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery and Baffled All of France
 by Mara Rockliff and Iacopo Bruno
Candlewick Press

Roaring Brook Press

Roaring Brook Press

Roaring Brook Press

National Geographic


Beach Lane Books

Ebola: Fears and Facts by Patricia Newman
Millbrook Press

Millbrook Press

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Abrams Books for Young Readers

Candlewick Press

Peachtree Publishers

Abrams Books for Young Readers

National Geographic Kids

by Carol Boston Weatherford and Ekua Holmes
Candlewick Press