Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Friday, December 30, 2011

Unraveling Freedom by Ann Bausum

Unraveling Freedom: the battle for democracy on the home front during World War I
Ann Bausum.
National Geographic. 2010
ISBN: 9781426307027
I obtained a copy of this book from my public library. 

I reviewed Unraveling Freedom even though it is a 2010 publication because it is under consideration for CYBILS middle grade/young adult nonfiction.

Before I read Unraveling Freedom, I did not know that based on the 1910 census, Germany claimed the greatest number of offspring in America. Prior to WWI, the presence of so many Germans meant that German food and beverages, the German language, German-American clubs and music groups, and bilingual schools all flourished. German was the language of scientists!

Then, the Luistania was attacked by Germans at 2:10 p.m. on May 7, 1915. Because of the attack, Americans would change their attitudes from supportive to mistrust.

The US did not enter World War 1 immediately after the sinking of the Lusitania. It took almost two years, April 2, 1917, before President Woodrow Wilson called the nation to arms. When Wilson spoke to congress on that day in April, he noted that it was the “German government that was the nation’s true enemy. “We have no quarrel with the German people.”” He went on to proclaim, “They are, most of them, as true and loyal Americans as if they had never known any other fealty or allegiance.”

Bausam states that, “The sinking of the Lusitania was the 9-11 of its time, and, like 9-11, it served as a backdrop as the United States moved toward war.”

An eerie resemblance to the feelings after 9-11 can be seen in the aftermath of Wilson’s address. The President cautioned his listeners and soon “tension over who could be trusted, whether criticism of the war effort symbolized disloyalty, what it meant to be an American, and whether one could retain connections to a motherland during wartime would dominate the American home front for the rest of the decade.” (1917-1919)

Like the Patriot Act, the Espionage Act of 1917 called for, among other things, “the creation of harsh procedures for identifying and detaining spies, penalties for interfering with the war effort, censorship of the news media, and restrictions on the distribution of printed material through the US mail.” Those who spoke out against the war were put in jail. German newspapers were unable to be sent through the US mail

I could not put this book down. It was so interesting and well crafted. The similarity of that time to post 9-11 made me feel unsettled. Our society urges us to learn from our mistakes, yet here is a perfect example of how citizens allowed our government to strip us of our rights.

The book includes black and white historic photos, cartoons, and posters. There is a guide to wartime presidents (those presidents who must balance the needs for national security against the rights of individual citizens), a timeline, notes and acknowledgments, bibliography, resource guide, citations, and index.

The topic covered in this book is important for students to read and understand so that we can try to avoid it happening ever again.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Just a Second: A Different Way to Look at Time by Steve Jenkins

Just a Second: A Different Way to Look at Time
by Steve Jenkins
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011
ISBN: 9780618708963
Grades K-4
5 stars

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

Did you know that a black mamba snake can travel 24 feet in just one second? Each second four babies are born in the world, and a flea lays 100 eggs in an hour. Readers will marvel at Steven Jenkins' newest nonfiction picture book which is full of fascinating facts related to time. The book is organized by units of time: one second, one minute, one hour, one day, one week, one month, and one year. Facts range from animal trivia to statistics on human consumption.

In a minute:
"Around the world, 59,000 barrels of oil are used (almost all of them in the United States)."

Using his signature torn and cut-paper collage, Jenkins illustrates each statistic; several facts and illustrations are arranged on colorful page. The vibrant colors and textured paper will appeal to young readers. A pictograph representing the history of the universe is located in the back along with a timeline showing the life span of plants and animals.

Curious readers, especially kids who love world record books, will spend hours poring over the facts and illustrations in Just a Second. It's a fascinating read that will appeal to kids of all ages and may serve as a springboard to learning about the topics in-depth. It would also make a great book for an adult to share with a child and could lead to some rich discussions.

Click here to see a book trailer for Just a Second.

Just a Second was also reviewed by:
A Year of Reading
Shelf Employed

Friday, December 23, 2011


Taken from the 65 titles we reviewed since April, here is our Best of 2011. Note: there are a few books we would have loved to include, but because we couldn't get our hands on a copy to review it, we are unable to include it on this list.

A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston
Amelia Lost: The Life & Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming
America is Under Attack: September 11, 2001 The Day the Towers Fell by Don Brown
Baby Mammoth Mummy: Frozen in Time! by Christopher Sloan
Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet
Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins

The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs by Sandra Markle
Coral Reefs by Jason Chin
Feynman by Jim Ottaviani
The Many Faces of George Washington by Carla Killough McClafferty
Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss
Swirl by Swirl by Joyce Sidman
Talk, Talk, Squawk! by Nicola Davies
Thunder Birds: Nature's Flying Predators by Jim Arnosky
The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps by Jeannette Winter

We would like to thank all our followers and those who have posted comments since we began this blog back in April. Stay tuned for 2012 when we will roll out a few changes.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
by Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011
ISBN: 9780375841989
Grades 5-8
6 Stars

The reviewer obtained a copy of the book from her school library.

As we near the end of 2011, it's time to reflect upon the year in books. Later this month we'll compile a list of our favorite nonfiction books of the year. There is one nonfiction book in particular that we haven't featured yet on the blog. So, better late than never...we review Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming.

If you poll middle grade readers about their favorite biography subjects you will undoubtedly hear Amelia Earhart's name mentioned again and again (along with Harry Houdini). We have a healthy collection (22 copies) of Amelia Earhart books in my library. These biographies span formats from graphic novel to picture book, and they circulate a lot. Why do kids enjoy reading about Amelia Earhart? I think they love the sense of adventure and the unsolved mystery. Over the years, some biographies have oversimplified the story of Earhart while others have perpetuated myths surrounding her life. Enter Candace Fleming.  Fleming spent a great deal of time researching Amelia Earhart, and she provides an in-depth look at the life of the famous aviator: the good, the bad, and the fibs. Yes, Amelia Earhart told fibs.

Upon reading the introduction, readers will discover that Amelia Lost is not the typical Earhart biography for kids. Fleming's impeccable research uncovers many truths that other Earhart bios have missed. Fleming pokes holes in the story Earhart told about seeing an airplane at the Iowa State Fair in 1908. The author investigated this claim, and it isn't true. While Earhart was an accomplished pilot, she was also clever at using the media to further her status and her celebrity.
"In short she left behind layer and layer of myth and legend."

The format of Amelia Lost is highly appealing to middle grade readers. Instead of a traditional, chronological biography, Fleming alternates between the story of Earhart's life and the story of her final flight. The first chapter begins with the ship, Itasca, attempting to communicate with Earhart's plane near Howland Island. Immediately, readers will wonder where Earhart could be.  Fleming builds suspense then ends each chapter with a cliffhanger before shifting back to Earhart's life story.
"Seconds turned to minutes.  Minutes became an hour. But the sky above Howland Island remained empty. And in the radio room, Leo Bellarts and the other crew members sat listening to the "mournful sound of that static." Where, they wondered, was Amelia Earhart?"

Fleming paints a portrait of a complex woman  who worked hard and lived a full life despite the ups and downs of her childhood. Readers will empathize with young Amelia when her family loses their home, wealth and status due to her father's drinking problem. While visiting California, Earhart convinced female pilot, Neta Snook, to give her flying lessons. Earhart was determined to learn to fly even if it cost $1.00 per minute. Sometimes her passion for flying impeded her judgement. When first learning to fly, Earhart decided to fly to Long Beach without checking to make sure the plane had enough fuel. Luckily, Snook was there to take the wheel and bring the plan back to the landing strip at Kinner Field.

Readers will root for Earhart as she attempts to fly across the Atlantic. I was surprised to learn that this was not technically a "solo flight." Veteran aviator, Bill Stultz, was on board the plane with Earhart. Upon landing in Wales, the publicity focused on the feat of the female pilot and largely ignored Bill's role.

Fleming goes on to describe Earhart's rise to fame, her fashion business, her marriage to George Putman, and her record-breaking flights. The story continues to shift between life story and final flight until the two stories intersect. Not only will readers gain insight into Earhart's life, but they will also learn about the history of aviation and its impact on society. Black and white photographs, maps and newspaper clippings are interspersed effectively throughout the book. An extensive bibliography and source notes are located in the back of the book.

When I picked up this book, I thought I already knew the story of Amelia Earhart. It turns out I only knew the legend. Fleming helped me see the real Amelia, a brave aviator and a brilliant self-promoter.
*Looking for an exciting read aloud for middle grades? This would make an excellent nonfiction book to read aloud.

Other Reviews of Amelia Lost:
Abby the Librarian
Reading Rants
Heavy Medal (School Library Journal)
Sonder Books

Friday, December 16, 2011

Fake Foods: Fried, Fast, and Processed by Paula Johanson

Fake Foods: Fried, Fast, and Processed
Paula Johanson
Rosen Central. 2011
ISBN: 9781448812691 (Grades 4 and up)
Series: Incredibly Disgusting Food
I checked this book out of my local public library.
Did you know that the "buttery" flavoring used in microwave popcorn is made of artificial ingredients "that cause factory workers to get rashes and lung disease, and even die? Or that the "average soda pop has up to 12 teaspoons of sugar?"

Author Paula Johanson is on a mission. She wants to be sure that children understand that eating fake foods, the stuff that is highly processed, have negative health and environmental consequences.

"Much of the food eaten in North America is fast food, or fried or processed to the point that it is no longer healthy, natural food. Nutritionist Marion Nestle calls it fake food and junk food, low in nutrition and high in salt, fat, sweeteners, and chemical preservatives and additives."

Johanson holds nothing back as she tells the disgusting story of fake food and how it affects our health and its ongoing impact on our environment. The five chapters: Making Fake Foods, How Fake Foods Affect Your Body, Health Changes: Now and Later, Eating Real Food, are packed with a lot of information.

Making Fake Foods, Johanson explains that animals raised for meat consumption live very miserable lives. "On factory farms, pigs are crowded into pens. Their tails are cut off so they don´t bite each other from boredom. Some pigs are kept in small cages all their lives." The same goes for chickens. "Chickens raised for meat grow so quickly that their legs often become crippled from trying to hold up their big meaty chests."  The food that those animals consume is also pretty disgusting. Their food grain "is mixed with chopped animal guts and dried blood from slaughterhouses."

In How Fake Foods Affect Your Body we learn that "Eating fake foods has negative effects on people´s bodies, making it difficult to build strong muscles or get better for a head cold because the fake foods often lack vitamins, minerals, and protein."  Johanson recommends reaching for an apple or orange instead of a yummy candy bar that, by the way, shares the same ingredient as shoe polish: carnauba wax.

Throughout, Johanson makes it clear that for every piece of fake or junk food we eat, there is always a healthy alternative. The hard part is training ourselves to think before we eat. She encourages readers to speak out and demand healthier food choices.

Color photos are included, however, the captions are located at the bottom of the page. Text boxes that highlight a particular point are also interspersed throughout the chapters.

The book ends with some suggestions for eating "Real Food."

"There are plenty of reasons for eating real food instead of fake food. Start with good tastes and interesting textures. Try new recipes and new small restaurants. Good health feels better than being bloated or tired. Those are good reasons to make salad for lunch."

The book includes a glossary, a listing of organizations for more information, a link to the Rosen Publishing web site for updated web resources, further reading and a bibliography, and index.

Other titles in the Incredibly Disgusting Food series published by Rosen:
Carbonated Beverages; Mystery Meat: hot dogs, sausages, and lunch meats; Salty and Sugary Snacks

Use in conjunction with Chew On This: everything you don’t want to know about fast food by Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: the secrets behind what you eat adapted by Richie Chevat to introduce middle grade or high school student about the pitfalls of junk food. This book should also be included in a display encouraging people to eat organic or locally grown products.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nonfiction & "The Nerdies"

There's a new children's literature award in town: The Nerdies. The award is part of The Nerdy Book Club, which is the brainchild of teachers Donalyn Miller & Colby Sharp. If you're on Twitter, you may be familiar with The Nerdy Book Club movement (#nerdybookclub). There is only one requirement to join: you must have a passion for books and reading.

Donalyn and Colby asked readers to submit their nominations for the first annual Nerdies Award. The award recognizes books in six categories: Picture Books, Graphic Novels, Poetry, Middle Grade Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, and Nonfiction. The nominations were tabulated, and the short list was unveiled this weekend. Readers have until December 17th to vote for their favorite books: Click here for The Nerdies ballot.

The nonfiction field is strong and includes a variety of formats including two graphic novels. I was pleased to see we had reviewed many of the nonfiction books on the ballot. Here are the nonfiction titles from the short list. We've linked our reviews below if you want to gather more information before voting.

Nonfiction Nominations for The Nerdies

Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming

Around the World by Matt Phelan

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Big Wig by Kathleen Krull

A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins

The Elephant Scientist by Caitlin O'Connell and Donna M. Jackson

Fenynman by Jim Ottaviani

Heart & Soul by Kadir Nelson

How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner

Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg

Swirl by Swirl by Joyce Sidman

Stay tuned because later this month we'll reveal the Nonfiction Detectives' favorite nonfiction books of  2011.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Migrant Mother: how a photogragh defined the Great Depression by Don Nardo

Migrant Mother: how a photograph defined the Great Depression
by Don Nardo
Compass Point Books, a Capstone Imprint. 2011
ISBN: 9780756543976
This book was sent to me by the publisher.
(Grades 8 and up)

Captured History, a new series from Capstone, asks the question: Can a photogragh change the world?

In Migrant Mother, Nardo examines the photo that defined The Great Depression. Taken by Dorothea Lange in March of 1936, Migrant Mother has been viewed as perfectly capturing the meaning and the desperation of the people most affected by The Great Depression...the poor. Nardo, a prolific author of well-researched history books for children, traces the events that led up to Lange taking the picture, the woman who was photographed, and the long-lasting impact that that picture had on American society. It is an interesting idea for a book.

The book begins with an explanation of how Lange made the decision to visit the camp after seeing a hand-lettered sign that read, “pea pickers’ camp.”  

“A driving rain was falling on California’s Highway 101 that March day in 1936.”  Lange had been gone from her family for a month taking pictures in the southern part of the state. Longing to go home, Lange recalled, “Sixty-five miles an hour for seven hours would get me home to my family that night, and my eyes were glued to the wet and gleaming highway that stretched out ahead.”

Then she saw hand-written letters on a sign by the side of the road that, 20 miles later, had her turning around. It was at this camp where she saw a woman and her four children sitting under a crude tent.  The session was informal and lasted about 10 minutes. Lang shot six pictures. She was in a hurry and didn’t even get the woman’s name. Within days of arriving back in San Francisco, Lange sent some of the pictures to the newspapers and by March 11, 1936, her photo, Migrant Mother made headlines. As a result of that picture, and public demand, the government sent 20,000 pounds of food to that the pea pickers’ camp located in Nipomo, California.

Lange died in 1965 and never did learn of the identity the woman whose face she made famous. That face belonged to Florence Thompson. Nardo gives us a brief, but thorough history of how Thompson ended up in the camp that day. We also get a brief over view on the causes of the Great Depression.

The book has four chapters: Snapping an Iconic Photo, A Nation Fallen on Hard Times, To Capture the Careworn, A Truth as Old as Humanity. Each chapter is lavishly illustrated with period black and white photos that are captioned. There is a Timeline, Glossary, Additional Resources, Source Notes, Selected Bibliography, and index.  Nardo covers a lot in just 64 pages.

Nardo ends the book with an interesting comment. “No matter how photos like Lange’s are used later, their original meaning is never lost.” I question if that is true. I fear the original meaning of photographs, and that of protest music that ends up advertising products or streams as Muzak in stores, will be lost if we do not have books like this one to educate a new generation to their social impact and importance.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith

Planting the Wild Garden
by Kathryn O. Galbraith
illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin
Peachtree Publishers, 2011
ISBN: 9781561455638

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

As a first round judge for the CYBILS, I've spent the past few months poring over stacks of picture books. There are many strong contenders in the nonfiction picture book category this year. Planting the Wild Garden is an example of a nominated title that eloquently opens up the world of science to young readers.

Follow the journey of seeds in nature in Planting the Wild Garden, a beautiful nonfiction picture book. Upon opening the book, readers will discover intricate seed illustrations adorning the end-papers.  The first page shows a farmer and her son planting seeds in a vegetable garden. I was pleased to see the farmer in the book is female which goes against the typical picture book depiction of farmers as older men with white beards. Galbraith uses the example of the farmer planting seeds to serve as a contrast to wild seeds, which are not planted by humans.

The story follows seeds in nature as they are scattered by the wind, strewn by birds, washed away by rain, and caught in the tail of a fox. Galbraith effectively uses onomatopoeia to bring the sounds of nature into the narrative.
"Stomp! Stomp! People help plant the meadow too. Seeds travel on muddy boots. Hitchhike on sweaters. Snag on socks and whoosh! Sail on a puff of breath."

Halperin's pencil and watercolor illustrations reflect the fragility of the seeds and nature with soft pastel colors.  Panels are used effectively on a number of pages to show change over time. The gorgeous illustrations and the simple text work well together making the science concepts accessible to young readers.

The seeds aren't labeled or identified, and there is no supplemental information about seeds in the back of the book. That's because the book isn't meant to be an intensive study of seeds. Its purpose is to introduce young children to how seeds travel and grow in the wild, and it would make an excellent read aloud.  Planting the Wild would also pair nicely with A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston.

Children and adults who are inspired to learn more about seeds should consult the extensive bibliography in the back of the book.

4 stars
(Preschool- Gr. 3)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Talk, Talk, Squawk! a human's guide to animal communication by Nicola Davies

Talk, Talk, Squawk! : a human’s guide to animal communication
Nicola Davies; Illustrated by Neal Layton
Candlewick Press. 2011
ISBN: 9780763650889
I checked this book out from my public library.
6 Stars
(Grades 4 and up)

“Human beings never stop communicating!
With words…
With faces…
With hands…
Not to mention with signs, signals, flashing lights, and sirens.
And we aren’t the only ones. Wherever you go on the planet, animals are doing it, too!”

Best known for “Surprising Sharks”, “What’s eating you?”, “Extreme Animals: the toughest creatures on Earth”, Davies again pairs with Layton to bring us an irresistible science book that combines fact with humor. These are the type of science books that children love to read.

Here, readers learn that there are a myriad of ways animals communicate for many different reasons. To find mates, to locate food, to define territory.

There are 22 entries (the title appears in bold at the top of the page) that cover a wide spectrum of animal communication.

“Stripes Spell Danger” explains why animals go to the trouble of being bright and stripy “if you already have a nasty bite, sting, or taste to keep predators at bay.”

I learned why bird songs vary depending on their habitats in “Sing It to Win It”. “Woodland birds tend to have lots of clear whistles in their songs, as these carry well in the still air of a forest.” 

Throughout the book Layton’s playful illustrations are everywhere.  His characters give humorous comments in text balloons which blend perfectly with the text.

There is so much information packed into this book’s 62 pages.

Davies closes with a thought-provoking idea: Can animals really talk and understand our language?
“Scientists listening out for alien communications from space have developed computer programs that can spot the tell-tale footprint of a language in any signal. One day this technique could be used on dolphin sounds, which might be close to our idea of language. Maybe then we’ll finally know what animals have to say about us.”

Maybe they are saying, “Go Away and Stop Messing Up the Planet!”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Coral Reefs by Jason Chin

Coral Reefs
by Jason Chin
Flash Point (an imprint of Roaring Brook Press) 2011
ISBN: 9781596435636

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

Jason Chin's book, Redwoods, was well received by readers and reviewers when it was published in 2009.  Combining elements of fantasy with facts about redwood forests was an imaginative way to share a nonfiction story. Chin's new book is created in the same style, and it's sure to delight readers. 

From first glance at the title page, you know it's going to be good. A girl reaches onto a shelf in a library and pulls out a book titled Coral Reefs. As the girl opens the nonfiction book and begins to read, coral mysteriously appears on the library tables. She is so engrossed in the book that she doesn't even notice the reef that is growing around her until water and marine creatures rush through the library window.  Soon the girl is swimming with tropical fish. Each page transports readers deeper and deeper into the coral reef.

As in Redwoods, the text is written in an expository form instead of a narrative. The story takes on a whimsical feel because of the illustrations while the text sticks to the facts. Although the picture book format will appeal to younger readers, the text is more accessible to upper elementary readers.

"Many of the relationships are between predator and prey. Corals eat plankton, tiny organisms that float through the water. The polyps use their tentacles to catch the plankton so they can eat it."

Chin's watercolor illustrations are amazing. Readers will want to linger on each page to appreciate the details: the fish painted on the library's ceiling, the crab sitting at the girl's feet, the sharks pictured from a distance through the library windows. The depth and richness of illustrations will make readers feel as if they are swimming in a coral reef.

In an author's note in the back, Chin explains that he traveled to Belize to do research for the book. As the book concludes, even the end papers feature illustrations of coral reef creatures. Coral Reefs is a beautiful book that will take readers on a real adventure.

5 stars
(Grades 1-4)

Here's a blog post written by Jason Chin that describes the process he used to create the illustrations:


Friday, November 25, 2011

Tornado! the story behind these twisting, turning, spinning, and spiraling storms by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin

Tornado! the story behind these twisting, turning, spinning, and spiraling storms
Judith Bloom Fradin & Dennis Brindell Fradin
National Geographic Kids, 2011

I've always been fascinated by tornadoes. I grew up in the Midwest where tornadoes were frequent. Though I never actually saw a tornado, I can assure you that we did have regular tornado drills in school and at home. So when I saw this book on the 2011 CYBILS middle school/young adult nonfiction list, I couldn't wait to read it. The Fradin's, husband and wife writing team, have put together a really exciting book about nature's most violent storms. 

The book's dynamic design will immediately hook readers. The Fradin's begin with a brief recounting of the worst tornado on U.S. soil. It was in Greensburg, Kansas on May 4, 2007 that a tornado with 200-mile-per-hour winds struck. 

"I felt our house lifting away -- I felt the suction, the pulling," recalls Janice Haney, a Greensburg resident. "I thought we were going to be lifted away. It only lasted two or three minutes for the tornado to go over. After it passed, our house was gone and we had no stairs left to climb up out of our basement." 

The thrust of the book is not only how destructive tornadoes are, but also the incredible impact the science of predicting tornadoes has had on saving lives. 

We read about how storm chasers risk their lives to test new technology that helps predict a tornado's path and intensity, and the author's explain the Fujita Scale that rates the strength and estimated wind speed.  (An EF5 tornado has wind speeds of more than 200 mph)

"A typical twister lasts for less than 15 minutes and travels along the ground for about six miles before fizzling out." 

Did you know that people who survive a tornado have sore ears? It is because of the twister's lower air pressure "the pressure inside the ears become greater than the pressure outside of the body. This sucks the eardrums outwards, which is painful." 

The book's design is really appealing. It looks like a collage of interesting facts, photos, and text. National Geographic reputation for stunning photos is evident here. Wow! I  I was particularly drawn to the photo that spans two pages, (page 18-19) It shows a twister racing across the Texas plains. It is huge next to the itty-bitty house you can see in the foreground.  

Libraries, both school and public, looking to add vibrant books about weather, which are fund in the 551area, will not want to miss out on this book.

5 Stars
(Grades 5 and up)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Balloons Over Broadway: The true story of the puppeteer of Macy's Parade
Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 2011
ISBN: 9780547199450
A copy of the book was sent to this reviewer by the publisher. (Thank you)

6 Stars (All ages)

Balloons Over Broadway is the latest creation from Caldecott Honor winner, (and we are proud to say a Maine resident) Melissa Sweet.  Using her signature collage illustrations colored with vibrant pastels, one feels immediately drawn to this episodic explanation of how Anthony "Tony" Frederick Sarg's contribution to the Macy's Day Parade made it a annual holiday event.

Who was Tony Sarg? (his name rhymes with aargh) He was a master puppeteer who, along with his staff, was responsible for creating the puppets that make the Macy’s Day Parade so thrilling. The book’s momentum is exciting. Keep in mind this book is not a biography of Tony Sarg. Rather, it is a brief history of how the Macy’s Day Parade came to be. I found it interesting that the initial reason for having the parade was for the people working at Macy’s.

“Many of the people working at Macy’s were immigrants, and as the holidays approached, they missed their own holiday traditions of music and dancing in the streets. Macy’s agreed to put on a parade for their employees, and they hired Tony to help.”

Sweet relays just how creative and persistent Sarg was in his pursuit to create the best, most entertaining puppets for the parade so that everybody could see them. 

"What if the controls were below and the puppet could rise up?" 

This book is really beautiful and deserves a place on every library shelf. Sweet explains that to create the art in this book she began by making toys and puppets, some of which you can see throughout the book. She wanted to convey a sense of having fun. Sarg's "legacy reminds me that 'play' may be the most important element in making art." 

Balloons Over Broadway has received starred reviews from a variety of professional journals that is well-deserved. Sweet is a versatile and extremely talented artist. The combination of text and illustrations is perfect. The book is full of energy and the smiling faces of the crowds and puppets with the bright colors begs frequent readings.

Children of all ages, and adults as well, will find much to enjoy.

NOTE: A cool fact found in the author's note states that Tony could not have accomplished all he did without his talented apprentices. "Bill Baird later created the puppets for "The Lonely Goatherd" marionette show featured in the movie The Sound of Music. (And one of Baird's apprentices was Jim Henson, who invented the Muppets.)" 

NOTE: Though this in no way diminishes the quality of the book, it is a shame some of the historical detail, such as the discrepancy of Sarg’s year of birth and what was his country of origin wasn't clarified within the text or in an author’s note. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wideness & Wonder: the life and art of Georgia O'Keefe by Susan Goldman Rubin

Wideness & Wonder: the life and art of Georgia O'Keefe
by Susan Goldman Rubin
Chronicle Books. 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8118-6983-6
This reviewer obtained a copy of the book from her local public library.

5 Stars (Grades 6 and up)

In a few short months the middle and high school students who frequent my public library will be on the hunt for a biography for a class project. Most of them will ask for books about movie or sports stars, but there is always a few who are interested in something different. I believe this biography of Georgia O’Keefe will be quite satisfactory. 

When I first saw Susan Goldman Rubin’s book on Georgia O’Keefe, I thought, “Do we really need another biography about Georgia O’Keefe?” Marketed as a book for Young Adults, I wasn’t sure they would care to know about one of Twentieth Century’s famous masters of art. I was so wrong. After reading Rubin’s book thru twice I say, "Yes! We do need this particular biography and Young Adults will find much to inspire them."

The Georgia O’Keefe I knew was through the camera lenses of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. She seemed intense, unsmiling, and remote. I had difficulty connecting that image with those large, colorful, and quite breathtaking paintings she produced. How could this woman who looked so severe and wore black clothing be able to see (and I’m talking about seeing with an artist’s eye) all the amazing flowers, bones, and landscapes she painted in such vivid colors? 
In very short chapters, many only 3 or 4 pages in length, Rubin gives an excellent overview of this amazing woman. Born on November 15, 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia was the second oldest of seven children. She possessed a sense of humor, was loyal to her siblings and friends, and from early on possessed a strong desire to draw what she saw. Though her household may have been hectic, happily her parents, along with many teachers, recognized Georgia’s talent and encouraged it.
Growing up at a time when women did not have a career, but married and devoted themselves to raising children, O’Keefe bucked tradition. She went to college, supported herself with a variety of jobs, lived on her own, and continued to pursue her deep desire to be an artist; to support herself with her art. 

Rubin has written many award winning books about artists (Andy Warhol: pop art painter) Here, she speaks frankly on the relationship between O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, 23 years her senior, and his influence on her career. 

The book's emphasis on O'Keefe's dedication to her art will be especially appealing to Young Adults. Also, the design that has black text on pages that alternate in colors and is loaded with photos of O’Keefe and reproductions of her paintings. It is refreshing to read how Georgia shunned the glamorous life in NYC and all the other trappings of stardom in order to paint. She lived and breathed painting. 

This is in no way a comprehensive biography. However, it will satisfy the dreaded biography assignment, yet offers so much more. It will whet their appetite and give them someone else to emulate besides Kristen Stewart or Rob Pattinson.

To see O'Keefe's paintings visit the O'Keefe Museum
Watch Georgia talk about her work and her love of New Mexico.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness

Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness
by Donn Fendler with Lynn Plourde
illustrated by Ben Bishop
Downeast Books, 2011
ISBN: 9780892729456
The reviewer purchased a copy of this book at an independent book store.

Here's the story: A twelve year-old boy from Rye, New York is stranded on Mount Katahadin, Maine's highest mountain, for nine days in 1939. He's alone and has no supplies, yet he miraculously lives to tell his story. It sounds like a work of fiction, yet it's all true.

                          Photo of Mount Katahdin taken by the reviewer in Baxter State Park

For decades school children across the state of Maine have learned about Donn Fendler's harrowing tale of survival as they read Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Joseph Egan & Don Fendler. It's the kind of story that grips readers right up until the end. Children's book author, Lynn Plourde, and Donn Fendler have collaborated to create Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness, a new nonfiction graphic novel based on Donn's experiences. The graphic novel format which is ideal for conveying the emotions and adventure of Donn's story.

Lost Trail begins before the hiking trip to Mount Katahdin as twelve year-old Donn, his father, brothers and cousins pack up the family car and head out to Baxter State Park for a weekend of camping, fishing and hiking. Being from New York, Donn is not as familiar with the Maine outdoors as his cousins.Yet, Donn is excited about the camping trip.

Bishop's black and white illustrations bring the story to life.  Bishop skillfully illustrates the land and animals of Baxter State Park. The drawings of wind, sleet and expression on Donn's face depict the severity of the storm on the mountain that scared Donn and made him decide to leave his cousin Henry to go in search of his father. That decision would prove to be Donn's biggest mistake.

Plourde spent a great deal of time talking with Donn about his memories from 1939, and she uses her gift of storytelling and Donn's own words to piece together an exciting tale. During the nine days, Donn injured his toe, was plagued by black flies, fought off hunger, and encountered a black bear. Readers gain a sense of the loneliness Donn faced in the wilderness through the text and illustrations. Newspaper clippings from The Bangor Daily News are interspersed effectively throughout the story to provide readers with a window into the rescue efforts and how Donn's family and the outside world reacted to the tragedy.

The story doesn't end with the rescue; it goes on to describe what happened to Donn after his ordeal (parades, a book, and a visit to the White House). The final panel of the books shows Donn as an adult sitting in a chair on his porch offering advice to readers:
"Trust in yourself, hold onto hope, and believe even if there's no sane reason to believe. And you'll be a better person because you did. I know I am."

Lost Trail will capture the attention of middle grade readers and it's sure to engage reluctant readers. It would make an excellent addition to juvenile graphic novel collections.

5 Stars
(Grades 3-6)

Lynn Plourde, Donn Fendler and Ben Bishop discuss The Lost Trail on WCSH 6.
From You Tube: Footage of Donn Fendler's rescue and reunion with his family.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Is the End of the World Near? by Ron Miller

Is the End of the World Near? from crackpot predictions to scientific scenarios
by Ron Miller
Twenty-First Century Books, 2011
ISBN: 9780761373964
Reviewer obtained a copy from the public library.

I will admit that I am a huge fan of anything about ancient civilizations, the theory that alien astronauts populated our planet, and “end of the world” literature. I’ve read The Book of the Hopi by Frank Waters, Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Daniken and the Earth Chronicles by Zecharia Sitchin, to name a few. I can’t really explain why I find it fascinating, yet I love to sit outside on summer nights looking up at the stars and wonder what came before us. Will our civilization end as abruptly as, say the Anasazi, those who inhabited Chaco Canyon or the people who lived in the underground city of Derinkuyu in Turkey?  After reading this book, I don’t see our future being as bleak as painted in dystopian novels.

Ron Miller, is an author who specializes in writing books about Science, especially Space and Astronomy. His knowledge is evident here as he gives us a scientific explanation to some non-scientific predictions. This book covers many of the more well known theories of how the world will end.  Using a down-to-earth tone, the author never rising into hysteria. Miller takes each theory and after briefly introducing it, he then gives a thorough explanation of why it isn’t likely to happen. 

The end-of-the-world scenarios covered include: December 21, 2012, horrific weather, the sun will die, diseases, a nuclear disaster, or an asteroid will collide with earth. 

Colorful illustrations and photographs make the writing come alive, with many illustrations done by the author.

When talking about nuclear war, Miller points out, “ most fact-based world-ending disasters are thousands, millions, and even billions of years in the future. They will not impact our lives or those of our children, or their children. But it is important for us to think about things happening on Earth right now – things that directly affect the quality of life on this planet and things that we can do something about'" such as stopping wars and being active by doing all we can to end global warming.

The well-documented book includes: table of contents, epilogue, timeline of events that were thought of as end-of-the-world scenarios, glossary, source notes, selected bibliography, further reading, films, and websites, and an index.

This book is excellent and a good addition to libraries. Teens will find it fascinating and reassuring at the same time. 

5 Stars
(Grades 8 and up)

Monday, November 7, 2011

If You Lived Here: Houses of the World by Giles Laroche

If You Lived Here: Houses of the World
by Giles Laroche
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011
ISBN: 9780547238920

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

November is Picture Book Month. In honor of the occasion we've reviewed beautiful picture book to share with young readers this month.

Many classes in my elementary school, from Kindergarten through fifth grade, study countries from around the world. Examining architecture is a fascinating way to explore similarities and differences between cultures, so I was eager to get my hands on If You Lived Here: Houses of the World.

The illustrations are definitely the main event in this nonfiction picture book. Laroche uses bas-relief cut-paper collage to illustrate homes from different parts of the world. Each two-page spread features a home and its surroundings. The inhabitants of the home are pictured outside taking part in chores or recreational activities. The layers of paper in different colors and textures add a depth to the illustrations that make them feel three-dimensional at times.

A paragraph describing what it would be like "If you lived here..." accompanies each illustration. Facts about the type of home, material, location, and time period are located in the same text box.

"If you lived here, you would step directly from your front door onto a boat to go to school."
(Venetian Palace in Venice, Italy)

The 15 dwellings described in the book include a stilt house from Chile, a chateau from France, and a Yurt from Mongolia. It would be helpful to readers if the location of each home was printed in bold print or used as a heading on each page. As I was savoring each intricately crafted collage, I wanted to know: What is the location of this home? I had to read through a page of small print to figure out the location. This won't be a problem for older readers (grades 3-5), but it may prove difficult for younger readers.

A map in the back of the book matches the homes to the region of the world. Children may want to compare book to a world atlas since countries or continents are not labelled on the map in the book.  Europe and North America are heavily represented in the book; South America and Africa are each represented one time (stilt house from Chile and decorated house from South Africa).

Children will enjoy the amazing illustrations in If You Lived Here, and teachers will want to read it aloud as part of social studies or art classes. This is a book that you can read again and again, and each time you'll notice something new. It could serve as a starting point for discussions about culture and how people live in different parts of the world.

4+ stars
(Grades K-5)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Digging for Troy: from Homer to Hisarlik by Jill Rubalcaba and Eric H. Cline

Digging for Troy: from Homer to Hisarlik
by Jill Rubalcaba and Eric H. Cline
Charlesbridge. 2011
ISBN: 9781580893268
Copy reviewed was obtained from the public library

It´s amusing how certain stories go in and out of favor. I want to blame technology eating up more and more of our free time, but I'm not sure that’s fair. I only know that every day I talk with parents who have never read the classic tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, or the Greek myths. Those classic tales. “I’ve seen the movie, I didn’t know it was also a book!”
Thankfully, with the publication of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, children are once again begging for any book about Greek gods and goddesses. My library's copy of D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths is hardly ever on the shelf! Students also gobble up George O´Connor´s titles: Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess and Zeus: King of the Gods
Once children are introduced to the adventures of these oft-times bothersome deities, I then steer them to books about the Trojan War. I hand them Rosemary Suttcliff´s Black Ships  Before Troy: the story of the Iliad, The Wanderings of Odysseus: the story of the Odyssey or Gareth Hinds graphic novel about The Odyssey. Both excellent introductions to the Homeric epic.
There have been people throughout history. regular folk and historians alike, who have wondered if the Greek gods and the Trojan War really existed. Digging for Troy (a CYBILS nominee) written by author Jill Rubalcaba and Eric H. Cline, PhD. who holds degrees in Classical Archaeology, Near Eastern Archaeology, and Ancient History, have written a readable introduction that offers mythology fans a brief overview about the Trojan War and the people who made it their life´s work to find it.
In the introduction the author´s write:
"All of the archaeologist, professional and amateur, understood that
the mound they were digging through was composed of many layers built
up over time by human occupation after human occupation. There was no
one Troy, but many versions spanning from 3000 BCE through the fall
of the Roman Empire. Each archaeologist refined our understanding of
the layers, which were labeled Troy I-IX, until those 9 phases were
subdivided into 47 occupations, each formed by rebuilding after
destruction, invasion, or abandonment."
Digging began in 1893 with the egotistical Heinrich Schliemann, whose obsession with finding the "real Troy" lead him to destroy many important artifacts. The ones who came after were meticulous with their digging. German archaeologist Manfred Korfmann is responsible for establishing Hisarlik, the area in Turkey where the digging has taken place, into a national park.
Did he find Troy? You’ll have to read this book to find out.
The book, packed with lots of information, is filled with illustrations and photos. This book has a timeline of Troy(I love it!), a bibliography, web sites, source notes, illustration and photo credits, and an index.
Children who wonder if the Greek gods were real, and whether the Trojan war really happened, will be able to make their own decision. The book is a perfect companion for any display or book talk related to the Greek myths.

5 Stars
(Grades 4 and up)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mystery Math: A First Book of Algebra by David A. Adler

Mystery Math: A First Book of Algebra
by David A. Adler
illustrated by Edward Miller
Holiday House, 2011
ISBN: 9780823422890
The reviewer received a review copy of the book from the Southern Maine Library District's examination collection.

Being a CYBILS judge has brought a number of books to my attention that I might have missed. One of those books nominated in the nonfiction picture book category if perfect for today.

Kids love Halloween! What’s not to love? There's candy corn, costumes, jack-o-lanterns, and scary stories. David Adler’s has a new nonfiction picture book just in time for Halloween. Set in a haunted house, Mystery Math: A First Book of Algebra follows Mandy and Bill as they encounter algebraic equations involving ravens, bats, black cats and skeletons. Igor, the caretaker of the haunted house, provides tips to help the children solve each problem. Adler uses the example of a seesaw to represent an equation showing readers that each side must be balanced. New concepts are described in an kid-friendly language that makes algebraic concepts such as “mystery number” and “variable” accessible to young readers.

Miller’s deep blue, dark green, and black illustrations are perfect for the story and the Halloween theme. The goofy expressions on the skeletons’ faces and large eyes on the birds and cats make the “spooky” story non-threatening to youngsters. Directions are provided in the back for how to make your own scale using a coat hanger.

Mystery Math will attract kids looking for a good Halloween story, and teachers will be want to share it as a read aloud in math classes.

Other Math Books by David Adler and Edward Miller
Money Madness
Fun with Roman Numerals
Time Zones
Working with Fractions

Friday, October 28, 2011

Stuff that Scares your Pants Off! by Glenn Murphy

Stuff That Scares Your Pants Off: the science scoop on more than 30 terrifying phenomena!
by Glenn Murphy
Roaring Brook Press. 2011
ISBN: 9781596436336
Reviewer obtained the book from the public library.

Everyone, especially children, loves reading about Fear. It is our human nature to want to be scared and pump up our adrenalin. Stuff that Scares your Pants Off is a new book that promises to look at fears, "Where they come from, and how to work with them, live with them, and get around them." Murphy's hypothesis is that we are born with some fears (inborn) and others are learned behavior.

The book is divided into topics that are grouped into six chapters."Wild and Scary Wildlife", "Natural Disasters", Doctors, Dentists, and Deadly Diseases", "In the Unlikely Event", "In the Bad Place", and "The Unknown". Within those chapters the book is further broken down into specific fears. Chapter 4 is "In the Unlikely Event". It discusses the fear of flying, train derailment, a boat sinking, car crashes, and being struck by a car. The author presents a scenario (The Fear) and then explains "The Reality", "The Chances", and "The Lowdown".

The author, Glenn Murphy, (Why Is Snot Green?) writes in a chatty tone that makes readers feel as if they are having an intense, though somewhat quick-paced conversation. This book uses a combination of black & white drawings and photos, often with a lime green tinge, that mirrors the text. An explanation of The Fear and the Fear Facts are off-set in boxes from the rest of the information. 

A very minor complaint is that Murphy makes generalization, is a bit contradictory, and has a keen sense of the obvious.

"Although some sharks are quite definitely dangerous animals, many are completely harmless to humans." That is true. "Even the so-called man-eaters, like great white sharks, are not the bloodthirsty killers than movie directors would have us believe." 

Murphy goes on to explain that "while it's true that these sharks do occasionally attack swimmers and divers, it's almost always by mistake. Most attacks happen to divers who try to feed or prod sharks (not very bright) or surfers who fall off their boards and onto sharks, surprising them (just plain unlucky). Unprovoked shark attacks also happen, but usually to swimmers and surfers who, to a shark, happen to look a lot like seals or turtles from below -- a painful but honest mistake." 

Did you know that being struck by a car is a terrifying experience? The reality is that road-traffic accidents really are a serious danger. "Road-traffic accidents are so common that many of us have been in them, seen them firsthand, or at the very least know somebody who has been in one. And they're never a pretty sight…Luckily traffic accident victims are bounced clear of the car and escape with minor injuries like broken wrists or ribs. The less lucky ones crack their heads when they fall, bounce into other objects, or slip under the wheels of the vehicle -- all of which can prove fatal." 

Murphy's matter-of-fact, tongue-in-cheek, wise-guy tone will appeal to readers, especially those who love facts.

Plus it touts a way cool cover. 

4 Stars
(Grades 5 up)

For more information about Glenn Murphy, visit his web site.