Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Monday, August 21, 2017

Amazon Adventure by Sy Montgomery

Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest
(Scientists in the Field series)
Written by Sy Montgomery;                        Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen
Houghton & Mifflin, Harcourt. 2017
ISBN: 9780544352995
Grades 4 and up

This week, we return to the Amazon in this new entry in the Scientists in the Field series. We travel to the Amazon basin, the planet’s richest ecosystem, but instead of searching for the mythical city of Z, award-winning author, Sy Montgomery explains how a group of local fishers - men and women (piabeiros), and some tiny fish, just may be the answer to saving this delicate habitat.

Covering 2,670,000 square feet, the Amazon rainforest is essential to our planet. Because its trees provide a full fifth of the world’s oxygen, it’s considered “the lungs of the world.” Five hundred species make their home in the basin. From frogs to insects, where a butterfly’s wing can grow as big as your hand. Yet it all could vanish—and soon. Each year mining, clearcutting, burning, and cattle ranching destroy an area of Amazon forest twice the size of the city of Los Angeles.” That's 2.7 million acres destroyed ever year!

Montgomery travels with scientist Scott Dowd, senior aquarist with the New England Aquarium in Boston, to Brazil’s Rio Negro river, one of the two main arteries that join to form the Amazon River. It’s here that dozens of species of fish, — locals call them piaba (pee-AH-bah), meaning “small fry” or “pip-squeak”, are prized the world over in freshwater aquariums, especially the Cardinal Tetra. In 1991, Project Piaba was officially founded by Dr. Ning Labbish Chao, then a professor at University of Amazon. Their slogan, “Buy a Fish, save a tree” aims to connect hobbyists and professional aquarists around the world with the people who provide their fish. Together, they can help support the health of the jungle environment that the fish, the piabeiros (local fishers), and more than a thousand other species - including humans - depend on to survive.”  

On their adventure, Montgomery and photographer Keith Ellenbogen travel farther up stream to the village of Barcelos to join in the celebration of the Festival of Ornamental Fish. A famous celebration to honor the little fish that are the life blood of this town.

Similar in format, the titles in this series are a treasure trove for budding scientists. As always, Montgomery’s writing is engaging as she makes science accessible and exciting to readers. Chapters are separated by short, interesting side stories. 

I first heard about Project Piaba a few years ago when my local aquarium store offered to set up a fresh water aquarium at my local library. We have Serpae and Rummy-nose Tetras that came from Rio Negro river! Kids are fascinated by the tiny fish. It is the first, and last thing they visit in the Youth Services area.

Listen to an interview with Sy discussing her Amazon adventure and Project Piabab at WGBH radio.

Project Piaba is not just about some little fish; it’s a solution to global problems.

I borrowed a copy of this book from my local public library to write the review.


Note: While Cathy Potter is on Sabbatical, Louise is writing all the reviews. Cathy returns February 2018.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Quest for Z by Greg Pizzoli

The Quest for Z: the True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon
by Greg Pizzoli
Viking. 2017
ISBN: 9780670016532
Grades 3 and up (pretty exciting read for an adult, too)

Note: While Cathy Potter is on Sabbatical, Louise will be writing all the reviews. Cathy will return February, 2018. 

To me, books like The Quest for Z, which are introductions to interesting topics, can be a jumping off point for more research. A gateway drug, you might say, to learning more about the topic. So is the case with Pizzoli’s second nonfiction title (Tricky Vic) that recounts the adventures of British explorer Percy Fawcett, a surveyor for the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and his fascination with finding an ancient city believed to have thrived and then forgotten deep within the Amazon rain forest. 

“Less than one hundred years ago, maps of the world still included large “blank spots”: distant and dangerous lands that mapmakers and scientists had not yet explored. One of these blank spots was deep within the Amazon rain forest, in Brazil.” 

Percy Fawcett was born in Devon, England in 1867. Adventure ran in the Fawcett family. Percy’s father was a fellow for RGS and his older brother wrote adventure novels. After serving in the artillery in present-day Sri Lanka for over ten years, Fawcett, then married, returned to England, joined the RGS in London and spent over a year learning how to survive in the wild. Upon graduation, he was hired to survey the boundaries of Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru; his first expedition was in 1906. During his travels, Fawcett heard of the legend of an ancient city. “He called the mythical city “Z.” (Pronounced “zed” in British). Thus began his fascination, no obsession, with the seemingly impossible idea that large civilizations existed in the Amazon. His dream was to find it. Fawcett would travel to South America seven times (1906, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1921).  

His final trip, in 1925, was to find the lost city. Accompanying Fawcett was his eldest son, Jack, and Jack’s childhood friend Raleigh Rimell. To fund this trip Fawcett agreed to send out reports that newspapers published tracking their perilous jungle adventure. He became a star! Then, one month into their journey, after sending the last of the letters carried out by two guides, the three explores set off alone into the unexplored jungles of Brazil,  “They were never seen again.”

This informational picture book is an exciting true story of a man who seemed to thrive in the jungle. No matter how serious the danger, how many of his company fell ill and died, Fawcett always made it out alive. So his disappearance seemed impossible. The lively engaging text is combined with full-page illustrations that were made using silkscreen, photographic halftones, Zipatone, photocopy machines, newspapers, cut paper, and Photoshop. There are a few sidebars that offer more details on topics mentioned in the text. Backmatter includes an author’s note, list of Fawcett Hunters, glossary, and selected sources. 

Did Fawcett ever discover the lost city of Z? Was he ever found alive or his bones unearthed? You’ll have to read, The Quest for Z to find out.

Highly recommended. 

Go here to learn more about Greg Pizzoli.

And if older students are as fascinated about Percy Fawcett as I was, offer them this article from The New Yorker Magazine by David Grann or his book The Lost City of Z: a tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon. Be sure to have on hand Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, The Lost World: being an account of the recent amazing adventures of Professor George E. Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Professor Summerless, and Mr. E.D. Malone of the Daily gazette. Doyle based this book on the adventures of Percy Fawcett. 

A copy of this book was borrowed from my local public library to write this review.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook by Joe Ollmann

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook
Joe Ollmann
Drawn & Quarterly. 2017
ISBN: 9781770462670
Grades 9 and up
To write this review I borrowed this book from the local library.

Note: While Cathy is on Sabbatical, Louise is writing all the reviews until she returns February, 2018. 

I was on the fence about calling The Abominable Mr. Seabrook nonfiction. Why? Because the author used dialogue to move the story forward. Yet, this book is so well-written, engaging, and meticulously researched, the author having spent 10 years studying Seabrook, that in the end I say it is a biography told in graphic format.

Ollmann states in the introduction, “I knew at the beginning that I wanted to do a linear biography and to put as little of my own editorial bias into it as possible, whatever the results. Some times a life doesn’t follow a neat narrative arc or fulfill the requirements of a biographer’s thesis. 

I’ve tried to remain true to the facts, though any biography that adds dialogue - as this one does though I’ve tried to use direct quotes as much as possible - has to be called speculative nonfiction. But meticulously researched speculative nonfiction!”

Who was Mr. Seabrook? William Bueller Seabrook (1884-1945) was an early 20th-century journalist known for his travel writings. He was friends with Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Dreiser, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and others. 

Seabrook wrote ten books. Ollman claims, “Seabrook was a progenitor of gonzo journalism.” (think Hunter S. Thompson). His first book, Adventures in Arabia, published in 1927. is about Seabrook’s adventures living for two years in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. He offers readers an insiders view of Bedouin life during the 1920’s. In 1929, his second book, The Magic Island, is a study of the people of Haiti and the practice of Voodoo. It is believed that Seabrook was the first to popularize the word Zombie.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that from the first page this biography captured my attention. Seabrook’s life was so interesting. He was married three times, was insecure about his writing, often ran from commitments or from his life if felt too comfortable. He was also an alcoholic who, unable to remain sober and quell his demons, committed suicide September 20, 1945. He was sixty-one. Ollmann’s illustrations use a limited palette of black and gray. The standard nine-panel grid format allows him to pack a lot of details about Seabrook’s life in 300 pages. Ollmann portrays Seabrook a bit unkempt and scratchy, which once you get to know him, fits his personality to a T.

The creepy thing about Seabrook is that he had a passion for sadomasochism (S&M). There are glimpses of women hanging from the rafters or bound, naked, on the floor, but they are not the centerpiece of this story, more accidental, in the background, as if we’ve accidentally walked into a room without knocking. (Ollmann states in his notes that the first woman willing collaborating in his bondage fantasies worked for Tony Sarg, the designer of the balloons in th first Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade). 

I highly recommend The Abominable Mr. Seabrook to lovers of the graphic biography, for those who enjoy reading about the quirky, imperfect individual, and biographies about people who have all but been forgotten. 

Back matter includes author’s note, a bibliography, and Ollmann’s brief reviews of all ten of Seabrook’s books. To support his added dialogue or when using direct  quotes, Ollmann also includes his notes, giving page number and specific panel (page 15, panel 7)  of where he got his information.



I will note here that I am a huge fan of the publisher, Drawn & Quarterly. They publish really top-notch books in the graphic format


Monday, July 31, 2017

You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis

You & A Bike & A Road
by Eleanor Davis
Koyama Press. 2017
ISBN: 9781927668405
Grades 8 and up

To write this review, I borrowed the book from the public library.

Note: During Cathy’s Sabbatical, Louise is composing all the reviews. Cathy returns February, 2018.


In You & A Bike & A Road, cartoonist and illustrator Eleanor Davis takes us along on her 2016 road trip as she cycled from Tucson, Arizona where her parents live to her home in Athens, Georgia. Her black & white sketches, drawn while on the road are offered as journal entries, rather than conveyed in traditional comic panels offer an immediacy; a strong personal connection between the author and you the reader.

Why she decided to do the trip?
“My husband and I want a baby so I figure I either do it now or wait 20 years.”
“ My dad built me this bike and I hate boxing & shipping bikes so I decided to just ride it home!”
What she doesn’t say is this: “I was having trouble with wanting to not be alive.” 

Her keen observations of what she sees traveling alone, up to 50 miles per day, will be of interest to anyone who dreams of taking a long-distance cycling trip. Cycling so close to the Mexican border, Eleanor routinely sees border police in cars and helicopters. Mostly sleeping in her tent, she meets some interesting characters along the way who welcome her into their home.

This is a quick read, but one that I keep thinking about long after I finished. I admire Davis' artistic talent, her courage biking all alone, and her ability to admit her body is unable to continue. (Her knees give out).

Eleanor Davis is a cartoonist and illustrator. She has written Stinky and with her husband, Drew Weing, Flop to the Top, both Toon books. 

This is the perfect graphic memoir to give to budding artists. And those who like riding bicycles.

Go here to see some interior shots of this book.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Vincent and Theo: the Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

Vincent and Theo: the Van Gogh Brothers
by Deborah Heiligman
Godwin Books: Henry Holt. 2017
ISBN: 9780805093391
Grades 6 and up

To write this review I borrowed the book from my local public library.

Note: Louise is selecting and composing all the reviews while Cathy is on Sabbatical. She will return February, 2018. 

The world would not have Vincent without Theo.” 

Deborah Heiligman has penned another masterpiece (Charles & Emma).  In this absorbing biography she examines their relationship and how their strong bond as brothers and friends would last until death they did part; first Vincent and then Theo.

The book reads like a gallery talk that follows Vincent’s emergence as an artist within the framework of his relationship to his family and Theo. Seamlessly incorporated into the narrative are quotes from some of the 658 letters Vincent wrote to Theo that Heiligman used in her meticulous research.

Vincent’s pencil sketches grace each chapter, which Heiligman names Galleries. [(Gallery One: Beginnings (1852-1872)]. Fourteen in all, each Gallery traces Vincent’s growth artistically, while revealing the brothers tight bond. “They promise always to be close, to keep the bond between them strong and intimate…They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art.”  Five pages of color reproductions of Van Gogh's pairings are grouped in the middle, including a painting of Theo, believed to be the only painting Vincent did of his younger brother. 

Back matter includes a timeline, author’s note, bibliography of books & articles read for research, websites, endnotes, and index. 


Highly recommended for biography collections.  A must-read for anyone interested in the lives of these two deeply complex siblings.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing By Dean Robbins



Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing
By Dean Robbins; Illustrated by Lucy Knisley
Alfred A. Knopf. 2017
ISBN: 9780399551857
All ages.
I borrowed a copy of this book from my local public library to write this review.

Note: Louise is reading and composing all the reviews while Cathy is on sabbatical. Cathy returns February, 2018.

Dean Robbins, (Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass) has done a fantastic job in this engaging picture book biography about an inquisitive woman who grew up during the 30’s and 40’s to write code for the computer commands on the Apollo missions.  

Margaret Heafield Hamilton “loved to solve problems. She came up with ideas no one had ever thought of before.”  She also asked lots of questions.
Why didn’t girls play baseball?”
“Why didn’t more girls grow up to be doctors?
Or Scientists?
Or anything else they wanted?”

Her solution to answering those questions, and more, was to study.

After earning a degree in mathematics, Margaret found she loved writing code for computers. As a software engineer, she went to work for NASA in 1964, to help the scientist use computers to land astronauts on the moon. The book’s climax comes when the computer on the lunar module, The Eagle, goes into overload from performing too many tasks. Margaret had prepared for this problem. Margaret’s code made the computer ignore the extra tasks and focus on the landing.”

The Eagle has landed,” announced astronaut Neil Armstrong.”

A comic book artist, Knisley's illustrations, rendered in ink, paper, and colored in Adobe Photoshop, perfectly complement the text, offering an element of excitment. I love her full-page art.

Back matter includes a lengthy author’s note, bibliography, and additional reading. In the acknowledgement section of the book, Robbins thanks Margaret Hamilton for “generously sharing her life story.”

This is an excellent addition to science collections.

FYI: When I searched for more information about Margaret Hamilton in several encyclopedias (Britannica, Funk and Wagnall’s, and World book) she is not listed. The only source of information was Wikipedia.




Monday, July 10, 2017

Creekfinding: a True Story By Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Creekfinding: a True Story
By Jacqueline Briggs Martin; Illustrations by Claudia McGehee
University of Minnesota Press. 2017
ISBN: 9780816698028
All ages
I borrowed a copy of this book from my local public library to write this review

Note: Louise is composing all the reviews this year while Cathy is on Sabbatical. She returns February 2018.

A true story of how one man, Mike Osterholm, decided to uncover and restore a long ago buried creek. The lush, beautiful illustrations by Claudia McGehee really make this environmental story come alive.

One day, as Mike was working on his farm, a neighbor explained that years ago he had caught a brook trout in a creek that once had been on that very spot. “A brook trout in a corn field? No way!”  Not many believed Mike could bring the creek back to life and fill it with brook trout, but he didn’t give up. Using an old photograph, Mike marked the creeks path. With the help of friends with big trucks, they dug and dug and dug until the water, “seeped in from the sides, raced down the riffles and runs, burbled into holes, filled the creek.”

“But a creek isn’t just water. It is plants, rocks, bugs, fish and birds."

Finally after several years, with patience, perseverance, and a lot of hard work,  Mike had a healthy creek with plants and bugs and rocks and fish and birds.

He called it Brook Creek and it is part of Prairie Song Farm in Iowa.

Back matter includes an author and illustrator’s note, and more information about Mike Osterholm.

A important addition to any library collection.

Monday, July 3, 2017

NF Sightings from ALA Annual Conference at Chicago




Here are a few titles I picked up the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago. #alaac17

Note: Louise is still responsible for all the reviews during 2017 while Cathy is on Sabbatical. She returns February 2018.



Poppies of Iraq 
Written by Brigitte Findakly
Drawn by Lewis Trondheim
Poppies of Iraq is a graphic memoir about Findakly's relationship with              her homeland Iraq. 



The Man Who Loved Libraries: The Story of Andrew Carnegie
Story by Andrew Larson; Pictures by Katty Maurey



The Girl Who Drew Butterflies:                                                                   How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science
by Joyce Sidman



Dangerous Jane
by Suzanne Slade; Illustrated by Alice Ratterree



The 57 Bus
A True Story by Dashka Slater
Two sides of the same crime
Two ends of the same line