Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Monday, November 12, 2018


Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army 
by Art Coulson
illustrated by Nick Hardcastle
Capstone, 2018
Grades 2-6

Unstoppable is an inspiring picture book biography about one of the best athletes of the 20th century. Young readers will be amazed by the talent of football and track & field legend, Jim Thorpe. Before describing Thorpe's athletic accomplishments, the author provides readers with background information about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and how Native children were taken from their families and forced to learn trades and give up their language and traditions. Coulson effectively writes about a serious topic in a manner that is appropriate for elementary readers.

While he was a student at Carlisle, Thorpe was introduced to the coach Pop Warner. With coaching from Warner, Thorpe went on to win a gold medal at the Olympics in Pentathlon, and he led the Carlisle football team to victory over West Point. Realistic-style watercolor illustrations with pen and ink lines work well with the story. Back matter includes additional information about Thorpe, Warner and the Carlisle School including some harsh truths. Warner was fired from Carlisle due to abusive treatment of his players, and hundreds of children at Carlisle died from malnourishment and mistreatment. Coulson effectively captures the excitement and significance of the football game between Carlisle and Army while also describing the government's cruel and inhumane treatment of Native children

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey

Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein
by Linda Bailey; Illustrated by Julia Sarda
tundra books. 2018
Grades 4 up

Mary Shelley was only eighteen when she wrote Frankenstein. First published anonymously in 1818, Shelley’s name would appear on the second edition published in 1823.

Bailey focuses this picture book biography on “the story-behind-the-story;” on Mary Shelley and how this horror & science fiction novel came to be written.

"How does a story begin? Sometimes it begins with a dream."

Complementing the engaging text are Sarda’s gothic-type illustrations rendered digitally and in watercolor. Using dark tones, her art creates a sense of brooding and mystery. 

A perfect book to use to highlight a remarkable woman whose perseverance created a classic piece of literature.

Back matter includes a lengthy, very interesting author’s note, and source notes.

May I also recommend those interested in Mary Shelley, read, “The Strange and Twisted Life of “Frankenstein”” by Jill Lepore in the February 12 & 19 issue of The New Yorker Magazine. (available at your local public library, either in print, or possibly, digitally)

P.S. There is no invented dialogue in this book! Yeah!

To pen this review, I borrowed a copy of the book from my local public library. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Nonfiction News- November 2018

Educator and blogger, Michele Knott of Mrs. Knott's Book Nook, has released her lists for the Mock Orbis Pictus Award. 
List #1
List #2

Nonfiction author, Melissa Stewart, is gearing up for the Sibert Smackdown. On her blog, Celebrate Science, Melissa features a post by Melody Allen. Allen provides kid-friendly language for evaluating books for the Sibert Medal.

Nominations for the Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards or CYBILS have closed, and judges are now reading and discussing nominated titles in search of kid-friendly books. Check out the nominations for Junior/Senior High Nonfiction and the nominations for Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction.

The AAAS/Subaru S&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books released the list of finalists for the 2019 Children's Science Picture Book Award.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Something Rotten

Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill
by Heather L. Montgomery
illustrated by Kevin O'Malley
Bloomsbury, 2018
Grades 5 and up

I love to come across nonfiction books on unique topics. Something Rotten tackles a topic I can honestly say I have never read about in children's literature: roadkill. This is not just some fluff book about animals that have been hit by cars and left for dead. The book is a scientific look at the anatomy and physiology of animal carcasses and how scientists conduct research using the specimens collected from roads.

Montgomery writes in the first person narrative and describes in detail her visit to museums and science labs where roadkill is collected and studied. She interviews scientists about their research. Readers will learn about invasive species, parasites, DNA, taxidermy and more! Montgomery uses scientific terms mixed with her unique voice and sense of humor to make this a page-turner.

Something Rotten deserves space on your nonfiction shelves alongside  Bugged by Sarah Albee and The Scientists in the Field series.

Monday, October 22, 2018

When Angels Sing: the Story of Rock Legend Carlos Santana by Michael Mahin

When Angels Sing: the Story of Rock Legend Carlos Santana
by Michael Mahin; art by Joe Ramirez
Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2018
Grades 4 up

A beautiful picture book biography on the life of musician, Carlos Santana.

His father wanted to name him Geronimo, after the brave Apache freedom fighter. But his mama had the last word.  His name would be Carlos.

It seems from the very beginning, Santana loved music. His father and grandfather were traveling musicians. Carlos loved the sound of his father’s violin. When he was home, “people would crowd the square to hear him play. It was a sound that filled the world with magic and love and feeling and healing. It was a sound that made angels real.” 

Carlos “wanted to make the angels real too.”

Readers travel alongside Carlos as he tries different instruments, clarinet, trumpet, and violin. It is not until he is given la guitarro (a guitar) that he finds his true instrument. It would take many years until Santana discovered his unique sound. The Santana Blues Band from San Francisco, “took the soul of blues, and the brains of jazz, and the energy of rock and roll.“ To this mix, Santana added Afro-Cuban drums. It was playing at Woodstock in 1969, that propelled Santana to international fame.

Illustrations, rendered in acrylic and enamel markers on canvas, are bright and colorful. They have a folk art style and perfectly complement the text. 

Back matter includes an author’s note that goes into more detail on Santana’s experience at Woodstock, a bibliography, and suggested listening. The book lacks dates nor explains exactly where Santana was born. 

This will be a perfect book to introduce Santana to readers. Like he did in his biography of Muddy Waters, Mahin has composed a heartfelt tribute to rock legend, Carlos Santana. 

I am listening to Santana’s 1969 album, Santana as I write this review. I clearly remember the first time I heard this album. It was like nothing I had heard before. A unique sound that makes you want to dance.

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Unwanted by Don Brown

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees 
by Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
Grades 6-12

In 2016, Don Brown won a Sibert Honor for Drowned City, the nonfiction graphic novel about Hurricane Katrina. Brown's latest nonfiction graphic novel brings attention to the Syrian refugee crisis of present day. What makes this nonfiction book unique is that the Syrian Civil War is still happening as the book hits shelves.

The Unwanted begins in 2011 and illustrates the brutal regime in Syria. Individual rise up and speak against Assad. Groups gather in the streets. "Down with the regime" is painted on walls. The text is the perfect balance of captions containing background information and speech bubbles with dialogue. Muted colors help set the somber tone. Brown does not shy away from the horrific treatment of people in Syria.  Some of the most powerful and darkest pages illustrate the perilous journey by boat as Syrians try to reach Greece. The book ends on a hopeful note with the idea that the future is for the children. Back matter is lengthy and includes a bibliography as well as source notes for the dialogue.

The Unwanted should be purchased for libraries and classrooms to inform teens (and adults) about the conflict in Syria and the ongoing refugee crisis. Books are a powerful way to spread empathy and compassion, and The Unwanted will help put a human face on a terrible conflict affecting thousands of innocent families. Pair with the fiction title, A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi.

Monday, October 15, 2018

A few brief reviews on some new titles…Part 2

What Do They Do With All That Poo?
Written by Jane Kurtz; Illustrated by Allison Black
Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2018
Grades K and up

While visiting a zoo, have you ever wondered what happens to all the animal poo? If so, this visually exciting informational picture book is a must read. 

The book's design is inviting. Each page features a different zoo animal that looks quite happy. Kurtz offers a simple narrative that runs along the top of the page where we learn a fun fact on that animal’s poo. 

A hippo sprays a shower with its flipping, flapping tail.”  

Then, the bottom of the page offers a bit more detailed information.

“Hippos use dung showering to mark their territories and warn off predators. They shoot their dung out while flapping their tails to spray it around.”

Hyenas crunch up lots of bones. That’s why their poop is white.”

“The calcium in bones is what makes dried hyena poop white - and why hyena poop can easily turn into a fossil.”

Complementing the text are Black’s colorful illustrations in vibrant colors of very happy animals.

So…what do they do with all that poo at the zoo?  

You’ll have to grab a copy of this fun, fact-filled book to find out!

This book does not offer any back matter.

Avalanche Dog Heroes: Piper and Friends Learn to Search the Snow
by Elizabeth Rusch
little bigfoot, an imprint of sasquatch books. 2018
Grades 3-5

Readers follow Piper, a border collie, as he go through avalanche rescue training on Crystal Mountain Resort in Washington state. Rusch, one of our favorite nonfiction writers, couples the exciting narrative with the color photos that support what is being discussed in the text. Readers will feel like they are right there with Piper on the mountain.

A great book for dog lovers.

Back matter offers books for more information about dogs at work, resources found on the Internet, including where to find Crystal Mountain rescue team on social media. Also, for teachers, some activities, and ways to get more out of the book. 

Lunch Counter Sit-Ins: How Photographs Helped Foster Peaceful Civil Rights Protests
by Danielle Smith-Llera
Compass Point Books, a capstone imprint. 2018
Grades 6 and up

Another title in the Captured History series that asks the question: Can a photograph change history?

On January 31, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, four young men made plans that would help change history. Their plan? To go to the local store, Woolworth’s, and sit at the lunch counter. “The four men knew black customers were welcome to shop. They also knew that black customers were not allowed at the 66-seat lunch counter. Lunch counter service was reserved for white customers.” These four young men would be called The Greensboro Four, and started the sit-in movement that would quickly spread throughout the South. This peaceful act of rebellion eventually led to the integration of public spaces. 

As with other titles in this series, the book does an excellent job of weaving in the historical background that led up to the civil rights movement. 

Students who love history are drawn to these books because they recognize the historic photo on the cover and are eager to read the book. 

Note: Newer titles in the Captured History series has Capstone’s new augmented reality experience -  4D.  With the free Capstone 4D app, students can scan any page that will take them to a video to enhance their learning. Though I can appreciate the usefulness of AR in crafting or cook books, it has the possibility to distract from the book's narrative. In the Captured History series the addition of AR seems unnecessary and more likely to draw students away from sustained reading. Especially, at a time when educators and parents are frustrated with the rise of digital distraction in students of all ages.

The above titles were sent to me by the publishers to write these reviews.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Water Land by Christy Hale

Water Land: Land and Water Forms Around the World 
by Christy Hale
Roaring Brook Press, 2018
Grades K-8

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

Illustrator and author, Christy Hale, has created a masterpiece in her latest nonfiction picture book, Water Land. The concept book introduces readers of all ages to important geography terms such as bay, gulf, peninsula, and archipelago. The genius of the book is in the die-cuts that illustrate a water form on one page and then a land form on the next page.

The illustrations, created from "printed textures and digital layering" depict ships in a strait, sunbathers at the bay, and birds flying over the gulf. A fold-out near the back of the book introduces readers to continents and ocean while also including terms from earlier pages. The bright yellow continents stand out when contrasted against the blue ocean. Hale also created a two-page spread that illustrates the ten major land forms and water forms for comparing and contrasting.

Don't be fooled into thinking this picture book is only for the K-2 crowd. It should be shared with older readers as well, especially in social studies classes.  I wouldn't be surprised if Water Land receives an honor from the Sibert committee in January. The Sibert Medal covers ages 0-14, so Water Land would be well within the terms and criteria.

Visit the publisher's site to view pages from the book. A teacher's guide is also available.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Monarchs Are Missing: a Butterfly Mystery by Rebecca E. Hirsch

The Monarchs Are Missing: a Butterfly Mystery
Rebecca E. Hirsch
Millbrook Press. 2018

Science writer, Rebecca E. Hirsch brings readers along as she goes in search of answers to why the Monarch butterfly is making a rapid decline. In 1997, the highest year on record, population in the winter colonies covered 45 acres (18 ha).  Not able to count each individual butterfly, scientists estimated there were one billion monarchs. In 2014, the winter colonies measured just 1.7 acres (0.7 ha), leaving only 35 million monarchs. Why?

Hirsch does an excellent job making the narrative, which is packed with scientific information, easy to understand. 

“Losing monarchs could be bad for our world because monarchs play an important part in the food web. Despite the milkweed toxins in their bodies, they are food for songbirds, spiders, and insects. Monarchs visit many flowers and act as pollinators. Among pollinating insects, monarchs are very well studied and may be telling us something big is going wrong with our environment. If monarchs are in trouble, that could be a sign that other insect pollinators - not to mention other migrating animals — could be in trouble too.”

Scientists don’t agree on just one reason why these iconic butterflies are on the decline, but, thankfully, Scientist Elise Zipkin, who studies monarch migration, continues to search for answers. 

Color photographs with clear captions are throughout the book that reflects what is being discussed in the text. 

There is lots of back matter here: an author’s note, glossary, suggestions for further reading, organizations to contact to become a citizen scientist, resources to inspire readers to plant a butterfly garden, source notes, bibliography, and index. 

A perfect companion to Loree Giffin Burn’s Citizen Scientists.

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

Thursday, October 4, 2018

So Tall Within

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth's Long Walk to Freedom
by Gary D. Schmidt
illustrated by Daniel Minter
Roaring Brook Press, 2018
Grade K-12

The reviewer received an advanced copy of the book from the publisher.

So Tall Within
is a gorgeous picture book about the life of Sojourner Truth. The book combines the talents of writer, Gary D. Schmidt, and artist, Daniel Minter. The story follows the life of Isabella who is sold into slavery at age nine. After years of slavery, Isabella flees with her baby, Sophia, and lives with the Van Wagener family. The narrative text is interspersed with powerful poems.

Chains tore
apart like
the wind
frays a 

Minter explains in the Artist's Note that he created vertical paintings to accompany the poems; the paintings reflect "the times of legal slavery" and also "parallel the feeling of struggle in today's streets."

Throughout the book, the marriage of text and illustration is amazing. Muted, watercolor illustrations depict Isabella and her family in harsh conditions. One stunning page show silhouette in a tree as Isabella wonders if her descendants will also be slaves.

The title of the book comes from a quote by Isabella as she tells her story to a Grand Jury in her effort to free her son, Peter, from slavery. Minter incorporates words from the Constitution into the background of illustration as Isabella stands tall in front of the jury.

Fifteen years after escaping from slavery, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth and spent years walking across the country sharing her story and speaking about slavery, women's rights, prisons and capital punishment. The final two-page spread shows Sojourner Truth in a bright blue dress looking up at the moon in a blue sky. Back matter includes an Artist's Note, a Biographical Notes and a detailed Bibliography.

So Tall Within is highly recommended readers of all ages. It's one of the best nonfiction books I have read this year. I would not be surprised to see if bring home multiple awards including a Caldecott, a Sibert and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot To Kill Hitler by John Hendrix

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot To Kill Hitler.
Written and Illustrated by John Hendrix
Abrams. 2018

Faith, without action, is not faith at all. 
Love, without sacrifice, is no love at all.”

On April 9, 1945, just two weeks before allied forces liberated the camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, is killed by hanging at Flossenburg Concentration Camp. Why? Bonhoeffer  had joined the resistance against Adolf Hitler. He worked as a spy and participated in multiple assassination attempts against Der Fuhrer. 

This is a powerful story of resistance. Hendrix shares the true story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and how he grew emotionally to see that the ultimate sacrifice was to risk his life in order to stand up for what he believed; to save the German people from the tyrannical maniac, Adolf Hitler. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of eight brothers and sisters, was born February 6, 1906 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). Having grown up during World War I, (he lost an older brother in that war), at age fourteen, in 1920, Bonhoeffer declared he was a theologian.

In 1930, he travels to America. While there, Bonhoeffer sees first-hand the injustices aimed at African Americans. The unfounded hatred, racism, and segregation that was dividing the country. When he attends a sermon given by Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Bonhoeffer's faith would be challenged. “This pastor encouraged - no, demanded - that the congregation’s faith in God be put in opposition to the world’s evils. The people of God must be the first through the breach when fighting racism and injustice.”

By 1933, as Hitler worked to bring every part of German life under his control, even the German churches.  “He convinced leaders of churches that he should be the head of state and the German church.  He created Reich Church, the official church of the Nazi Party. The great Cathedrals of Germany were adorned with the swastika, a broken cross.”  

Bonhoeffer’s theology would be transformed from thought into action, the creation of something he called, ‘Civil Courage.” 

The book’s design is done by including the handwritten text on full pages of art. The illustrations were created with hand drawn pencil and custom digital brushes. Colored digitally, the book is printed in black, Patone 3262U, and Pantone Red 032U spots color.

In this illustrated biography of a very brave individual, Hendrix includes a clear understanding of events that led to Hitler’s assent to power, how the German people were seduced by the promise of economic stability. With the growing atrocities, they were too frightened to stand up and stop the madness.

Back matter includes an author’s note, an explanation on research and authenticity, a selected bibliography, and source notes for quotes woven into the narrative. 

Click here to watch John Hendrix talk about The Faithful Spy

The publisher sent me a copy of this book that was used to write this review.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Stretch to the Sun

Stretch to the Sun: From a Tiny Sprout to the Tallest Tree on Earth 
by Carrie A. Pearson
illustrated by Susan Swan
Charlesbridge, 2018
Grades K-4

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

Upon opening this gorgeous science picture book, readers are transported into the Redwood Forest. The narrative writing style reads like poetry as the author describes the sights and sounds of the forest.

Pop! A tiny tree,
no bigger than a pinky finger,
sprouts from the stump of the fallen tree.
The sprout needs light, it stretches toward the sun.

Lush illustrations depict the trees and animals found in the Redwood Forest. Swan uses hand painted papers, found objects and Adobe Photoshop to create detailed, textured illustrations that reflect the richness of the forest canopy.

Stretch to the Sun is both a tribute to redwoods and a call to action to protect the trees and their habitat. Don't miss the back matter containing more detailed information about conservation efforts.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Bonnie and Clyde: the Making of a Legend by Karen Blumenthal

Bonnie and Clyde: the Making of a Legend
Karen Blumenthal
Viking. 2018

Outlaws have fascinated me since high school. Whether it was Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Dillinger, Pretty Boyd Floyd, or Bonne & Clyde, learning how they could rob and evade capture made for a rousing read. So I was thrilled when Blumenthal’s latest came across my desk. A top-notch writer of nonfiction, I knew this book was going to be great. And, it was.

“Stories change. Sometimes they change in the retelling. Sometimes they change because the world around us changes. And sometimes they change because other storytellers use them for their own purposes. So it has been with Bonnie and Clyde.”

Using primary and secondary sources, books, newspaper articles, and police interviews, Blumenthal sifts through facts, rumors, and legends to make this narrative nonfiction an exciting read.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow were born in 1910, and came of age during the Great Depression. There was very little money, food, or job opportunities. Clyde and Bonnie met in January, 1930. He is arrested a month later and is sent to prison for burglary and car thieft. Once Clyde is paroled in February, 1932, he and Bonnie meet up and their life of crime begins. Not much was known about the duo until April 1, 1933, when police raid a garage apartment where Bonnie, Clyde and others are staying. Bonnie & Clyde and the others got away, (leaving a constable dead and another lawman dying), but the treasures left behind included a roll of undeveloped film. The images from the camera showed the pair as well-dressed, handsome, and living the high life.  Once the picture went public, ““their whole image was one of glamour,” recalled Jim Wright, a longtime Texas congressman who was a kid living in the region at the time.””  The pair came across as good looking, rich and happy. Even if you didn’t approve of what they were doing, you couldn’t help but envied them just a little bit.  

The book is loaded with black & white photos, many from the film found that April day in 1933, and historical documents. Side bars give more information, particularly more details on the individuals who were killed by the Barrow gang. Each chapter heading states the town/state, date and alternates stanzas from two poems Bonnie wrote, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Story of Suicide Sal.

Back matter includes an author’s note, important dates, source notes, a very detailed bibliography, a note about what happened to other people connected to Bonnie & Clyde, including their family, and an index. Also included in full is the ballad, The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, penned by Bonnie that ran in the Dallas newspaper, the Daily Times Herald the day after their violent death, May, 1934.  

Romanticized or vilified, criticized or admired, Bonne and Clyde remain legendary - no longer for who they were, but for who we want them to be.”

This well-researched tale of love, crime, and murder will captivate readers of nonfiction. 

Click here to visit the FBI's page on Bonnie & Clyde. 

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

Friday, September 21, 2018

A few short reviews on some new titles…

Astronaut/Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact
By Jennifer Swanson
National Geographic Kids. 2018

Swanson takes readers on an amazing adventure to show the similarities between outer space and our oceans. The book explains the training one needs for both environments. In addition to the engaging narrative, there are sidebars with tips on the different expertise needed for each location and some fun, hands-on science experiments that augment the text.  Color photos are plentiful, enhancing the text. Back matter includes a glossary and index.

“Astronauts and Aquanauts share the same passion – to set off on a quest to learn more and to better ourselves.” Fabien Cousteau 

Plantopedia: a Celebration of Nature’s Greatest Show-Offs
By Adrienne Barman
Wide Eyed Editions, an imprint of The Quarto Group. 2018

This visual encyclopedia celebrates the plants that grow here on Earth. The author states, “Without plants, people wouldn’t exist - they provide us with food, and the materials we need to make things like plastic, clothes, and houses. They even clean the air, giving us the oxygen we need to breathe. Sadly, many plants are under threat from farming, road building, pollution, and climate change.”

The book is divided into fifty short chapters with headings like: The air fresheners; The big eaters; The prickly; The healers; and The imposters, to name a few. Being a visual learner, this book hits a high note with me. The illustrations, created digitally, are colorful with a comical tone. Each plant is well-captioned and includes a brief explanation on the characteristic that puts it in that category. In the chapter on ‘The Giants’, we learn that the “Kapok tree can grow to 200 feet tall – the height of a 20 story building, and, that the Oregon Maple leaves can be as big as 12 inches – the length of a ruler.”

Back matter includes an appendix of leaf shapes, glossary, and index.

The Girl with a Mind for Math: the story of Raye Montague
Written by Julia Finley Mosca; Illustrated by Daniel Rieley
Innovation Press. 2018

Told in verse, this picture book biography tells the story of Raye Montague (1935-), an African American engineer who designed the first ship by computer. Another hidden figure, Montague was a brilliant mathematician who, for many years, did not receive credit for her many accomplishments.

“Life should’ve been swell,/yet that wasn’t the case./Her boss treated her poorly/because of her race./ MANY people, like him,/tried to make her feel small./Raye just held her head high,/and she OUTWORKED them all.

Back matter includes an author’s note with more information on the life and accomplishments of Raye Montague, bibliography of articles, books, videos/film, and websites. In the acknowledgment, Mosca shares that she interviewed Montague and many of the photos came from Montague’s personal collection.  

To write this post, the books were borrowed from my local public library.