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!”