Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Mighty Mars Rovers by Elizabeth Rusch

The Mighty Mars Rovers: the incredible adventures of Spirit and Opportunity
(Scientists in the Field)
By Elizabeth Rusch
Houghton Mifflin. 2012.
ISBN: 9780547478814
Grades 4 and up
I checked out a copy of this book from my local public library.

While everyone is caught up in Olympic fever, Curiosity, NASA’s Mars Rover, is quietly making its way to the red planet. The super-sized rover, Curiosity, is scheduled to land on Mars on August 6 at 1:31 a.m. EDT (0531 GMT). This is not the first time NASA has sent a robot to Mars with the purpose of assessing conditions for life. The Mighty Mars Rovers: the Incredible Adventures of Spirit and Opportunity by Elizabeth Rusch, another entry in the acclaimed Scientists in the Field series, tells the greatest robot adventure of all times through the eyes of Steven Squyres, lead scientist on the mission.

On June 10, 2003, NASA sent a go cart size robot named Spirit to Mars. Less than a month later, on July 7, 2003, its twin, Opportunity, also was blasted into space. Scientists thought these robots would only survive for three months in the hostile conditions found on Mars. Frigid winters, dust storms, and blazing hot summers, yet Spirit and Opportunity, exploring halfway across the planet from each other, amazed their creators. These little dynamos surpassed all expectations to last six years. Six Years! Together, the little machines explored 25 miles (44 km) of Mars’s surface and took more than a quarter of a million photos including 360-degree views of hills, plains, and craters.

As with all the books in this series, you can depend on exciting prose, wonderful color photographs, and understandable details about the topic. The books are well documented with sources, chapter notes, further reading, a glossary, and index.

The Mighty Mars Rover is an excellent book that will give children a backstory on the development of these amazing robots and their importance in discovering if life exists on other planets. The book is timely, especially since the landing of the newest Mars Rover, Curiosity is just a few days away. (You can track Curiosity's progress by visiting the official NASA web site)

In the classroom, pair Mighty Mars Rover with SkippyJon Jones Lost in Spice for hilarious reading adventure.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Massachusetts Colony

The Massachusetts Colony 
(A True Book)
by Kevin Cunningham
Children's Press an imprint of Scholastic, 2012
Library Binding
ISBN: 9780531253915

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

This summer I've been on the lookout for nonfiction books about colonial America and the American Revolution. My school district recently completed a curriculum review of our K-12 social studies units, and as a result our fifth grade classes will be learning about the birth of our country next year.

I was pleased to see Scholastic has published a series of True Books about the thirteen colonies.  I purchased The Massachusetts Colony to see if it would meet the needs of my fifth grade students, and I was not disappointed. As with other titles in the True Book series, the author poses true/false questions to readers at the beginning of the book to set the stage for reading.

The book is organized in chronological order beginning with a chapter on the Wampanoag followed by the settling of New Plimoth. Readers will learn about Puritan traditions and beliefs as well as the Salem Witch Trials. In chapters  3 & 4, Cunningham concisely lays out the events that led up to the American Revolution making the information accessible to young readers.

The most appealing aspect of the book is the design. The print is large, and information is chunked into paragraphs with headings. Portraits and paintings from the 1600s and 1700s illustrate major events such as the Boston Massacre and the Battle of Bunker Hill. Because of the time period, only one photograph is used (a photo of a Wampanoag longhouse). Captions provide readers with additional information, and the timeline focuses on five important events.

This is not a book that most children will check out for pleasure reading, but it is an excellent resource for providing an overview of colonial Massachusetts for elementary social studies classes and for students researching the American colonies.

Monday, July 23, 2012

I, Galileo

I, Galileo 
by Bonnie Christensen
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
ISBN: 9780375867538
Grades 3 and up

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

We're partnering with Kid Lit Frenzy to challenge people to read more nonfiction picture books this year. If you're taking part in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, here's a title you'll want to add to your to-be-read pile.

I was first introduced to Bonnie Christensen's work when her picture book biography, Django: World's Greatest Jazz Guitarist, won a Schneider Family Book Award in 2010. Christensen also wrote and illustrated the picture book biography, Fabulous! A Portrait of Andy Warhol. Christensen's latest nonfiction book examines the life and work of scientist and inventor, Galileo Galilei. 

In the preface, Christensen asks readers to imagine what it would be like to live in a world without telescopes, clocks and thermometers. Upon turning the page, readers will see a two-page spread of the Italian countryside painted in gouache resist with oil paints. Galileo sits on a bench playing the lute as he looks outward to the sky. The illustrations have an antiquated feeling that is fitting for a story set in the sixteenth century. 

The story is told in chronological order beginning with the scientist's childhood. The author highlights Galileo's work with physics and astronomy and ends with his trial and imprisonment. Christensen packs a lot of information in just thirty-four pages. The narrative is told in the first person which allows readers to see events unfold from Galileo's point of view. 

"I was not popular in Pisa, however. At the age of twenty-five, I scorned tradition. First by refusing to wear the cumbersome robes of a professor, then by disputing one of Artistotle's sacred laws of physics."

Readers will learn how a swinging lamp in a cathedral gave Galileo the idea for the pendulum as a timekeeper. The pages about Galileo's invention of the telescope include a diagram showing readers the difference between the eyepiece lens (concave) and and the primary lens (convex). Circles appear throughout the book acting as a lens on Galileo's life. The first circle in the book frames an illustration of Galileo observing the shadow of St. Andrew's chapel.  The final circle outlines an illustration of Galileo on trial for heresy for following Copernicus. 

Back matter is extensive and includes a timeline, lists of Galileo's experiments and inventions, a glossary, and bibliography.  I, Galileo will please science-minded readers while providing ample information for students working on school assignments.  It would make a strong addition to a juvenile biography section.

Friday, July 20, 2012

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

My Friend Dahmer (a graphic novel)
Written and illustrated by Derf Backderf
Abrams ComicArts. 2012
ISBN: 9781419702167
Grades 7 and up
I received a copy of this book from the publisher

“You’re putting a review of this book on your blog? I thought it was an adult book," a colleague said to me.

You bet I’m putting this on the blog. My Friend Dahmer is one finely crafted tome and a must-read for fans, regardless of age, of stories told in graphic format.

In a quiet voice, almost a whisper she said,“But, it’s about...Jeffrey Dahmer…you know…the serial killer! You don’t want kids, especially teens reading about…him! Do you?”

What I want is for all readers to be exposed to a great book. My Friend Dahmer is not a detailed glorification of the horrific murders done by a twisted individual. No way! It is a beautifully executed, sympathetic portrait written by a man who is trying to understand how Jeffrey Dahmer, a high school classmate, a person he shared “classrooms, study halls, and car rides," could turn out to become a serial killer, “a depraved fiend as notorious as Jack the Ripper.”

The author, American artist John Beckderf, (also known as Derf and Derf Backderf) is an award winning political cartoonist (Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, 2006) His comic strip, The City has appeared in a number of alternative newspapers since 1990. His other graphic novel is entitled, Punk Rock & Trailer Parks. His style reminded me a lot of comic artist, R. Crumb.

This book takes place during the 1970’s at Revere High School in Richfield, Ohio. It is presented in grayscale, which reflects its somber tone. We are quickly introduced to a teenager who is a loner, drawn to the bodies of dead animals. His home life is horrific with his parent’s constantly fighting and ignoring signs that their son has some oddball obsessions. Backderf shows Dahmer’s increasing weirdness through high school and how his classmates never suspect the killer he will later become. Reading this book is like watching a movie where you know the outcome, but you watch it just the same because it is so darn good. You are drawn into the suspense. (Rear Window. All the President’s Men. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)

In the introduction to My Friend Dahmer, Backderf explains that it was a twenty-year work in progress. He began collecting material in July 1991, a few weeks after “Dahmer’s ghastly crimes became public.” It started out as an eight-page short story, but then after Jeffery Dahmer was killed in prison (November 28,1994) writing became more of a cathartic exercise. “To
you Dahmer was a depraved fiend, but to me he was a kid I sat next to in study hall and hung out with in the band room. You just can’t imagine what it was like once the news of his crimes exploded, or what it’s still like for me whenever I think about our friendship.”

My Friend Dahmer was first published as a self-published 24-page comic book. It had limited acclaim and attention. In looking back, Backderf was unhappy with it. He saw a missed opportunity to produce a really great book. “This is a tragic tale, one that has lost none of its emotional power after two decades. It’s my belief that Dahmer didn’t have to wind up a monster, that all those people didn’t have to die horribly, if only the adults in his life hadn’t been so inexplicably, unforgivable, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent. Once Dahmer kills, however – I can’t stress this enough– my sympathy for him ends.”

In my opinion, My Friend Dahmer is an example of how the marriage of pictures and text can create a book deserving of all the major book awards: Caldecott, Newbery, Printz, Eisner, Pultizer…and Sibert. Yeah, it is that good.

I’ve given this book to several adults and older teens (Juniors and Seniors) and they all have said the book creeps them out, but it was one of the best books they’ve read in a long time.

Read more about the story behind My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Black Gold by Albert Marrin

Black Gold: the story of oil in our lives

Albert Marrin

Alfred A. Knopf. 2012

ISBN: 9780375866739

Grades 7 and up

This reviewer borrowed the book from the public library.

In Black Gold: the story of Oil in our lives, Albert Marrin writes a captivating history of how our dependency on the thick and slippery stinky stuff has influenced our civilization in ways that are less than honorable. "Oil influences every aspect of modern life. It has helped shape the history, society, politics, and economy of every nation on Earth."

Marrin begins with the science of how oil developed, from the tiny life forms called phytoplankton between 10 million and 260 million years ago, and covers its uses from ancient times through the present. He thoroughly explains oil’s discovery in the late 1880’s, its many uses to the countless wars started in hopes of controlling the oil fields in the Middle East.

This book is a page-turner. Never preachy, Marrin, the author of numerous nonfiction titles on a wide variety of topics, has written an engaging and informative book on a very controversial topic. It is lavishly illustrated with charts, drawings, and photos, all in black & white, that are well-captioned. A relevant quote heads each of the nine chapters. “[Middle Eastern oil is] one of the greatest material prizes in world history- probably the richest economic prize in the world." U.S. State Department memo, c. 1946. "Oil is the greatest problem of all time -- the greatest polluter and promoter of terror. We should get rid of it." Shimon Peres, President of Israel.”

Any book on the topic of oil must also be a wake-up call and Marrin makes it clear that our reluctance to decrease our dependency on fossil fuels will soon (very soon) have a cataclysmic affect on society, humanity, and the world. As oil reserves dwindle, and it already is happening, more and more wars will be waged to control the ever dwindling supply. "You may have men, munitions, and money, but if you do not have oil...all your other advantages would be of ...little value," says Walter Long, friend of Winston Churchill (no quotation mark) at the time of World War One.

The final chapter, Toward A New Energy Order, explores the pros and cons of the leading solutions to the oil problem. We all know it won't be easy to lessen our dependency on oil, and there is no easy solution. No matter which path the world explores, people will need to make sacrifices. "We have no choice. Time is running out."

The book is well-documented. It includes source notes, a glossary, image credits, and index. Black Gold should be in every library and included in displays on a variety of topics, including Earth Day, Arbor Day, and Global Warming.

"The world's oil addiction is hastening a day of reckoning. Humanity's way of life is on a collision course with geology -- with the stark fact that earth holds a finite supply of oil. The flood of crude from fields around the world will ultimately top out, then dwindle." Tom Appenzeller, Science Editor, National Geographic”

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I Lay My Stitches Down

I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery
by Cynthia Grady
illustrated by Michele Wood
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2012
ISBN: 9780802853868
Grades 5 and up 

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

Breaking news... I have found my favorite book of the year (so far).  I Lay My Stitches Down is the perfect marriage of poetry, history, and illustrations. I checked the book out of my local library a couple of weeks ago, and I keep revisiting it each day. Each time I read it, I notice something new in the illustrations and the text.

The author, Cynthia Grady, is a middle school librarian who got the idea for the book while she was working on a quilting project with her students. The poems convey the story of American slaves, and the titles come from actual quilt designs. Each free verse poem is made up of ten lines of ten syllables to represent quilt squares. Grady captures the voices of slaves in the lyrical poems that tell the stories of slaves learning to write in the dirt, toiling in kitchens, escaping at night, and working in the blacksmith shop.

"Pap transforms his next chunk of iron, he
chant a prayer, then work the bellows, WWHooooSHH, to
kindle the fire, the embers of his faith."

Below each poem is an expository paragraph providing readers with historical information.  On the right side of each page is a full-page, acrylic illustration corresponding to the poem on the left. Michele Wood masterfully incorporates quilt patterns into each illustration. In the illustrator's note, Wood explains that she used "African and American textiles to convey the complex, rich culture of American slaves."

In one illustration, a slave boy fishes in a canoe with American Indians on a river of blue and green geometric squares. Brown quilt squares with symbols from American history are pictured in the horizon. My favorite illustration accompanies the poem, "Basket," and can bee seen on the cover of the book. There are so many layers to this illustration.  A women in the center of the page sews a quilt made of red, white and blue geometric squares as quilted angel wings appear on each side of her. The bottom of the quilt becomes the roof lines for slave homes. In the foreground, a slave plows a field of brown squares. Each element is woven together so beautifully just like a basket.

You need to pick up a copy of this book and see for yourself how amazing it really is. I predict we will be hearing more from this title during the ALA Youth Media Awards in January.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Little Rock Girl 1957

Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration
by Shelley Tougas
Compass Point Books (an imprint of Capstone) 2012
ISBN: 9780756544409
Grades 5 and up

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

Teachers at my school have been using visual thinking strategies with students. It's a strategy that can be used with all ages, and the results are usually astounding. Here's how it works in a nutshell. Show students a photograph or painting, and pose the question: "What's going on in this picture?" As students respond, you may pose a follow-up question: "What do you see that makes you say that?" Teachers record students' responses and allow time for them to really dig deep and discuss what they see. You can read more about Visual Thinking Strategies here:

Capstone has published a series that will elicit rich discussions during visual thinking strategies discussions. The Captured History series chronicles how specific photographs have had a profound impact on American history. Last year, Louise reviewed Migrant Mother which examined how Dorothea Lange's photograph prompted a public outcry for the government to send aid during the Great Depression.

The most recent title in the series, Little Rock Girl 1957, focuses on the Civil Rights Movement and how a photograph of a high school student brought about changes in public opinion. The famous photograph (as seen on the cover) shows African American student, Elizabeth Eckford, followed by an angry mob of white people as she walks outside Little Rock Central High School on September 4, 1957.

Elizabeth and eight other African American students, known as the Little Rock Nine, were supposed to meet and walk into the school together. It would be the first time African American students attended Central High School. Elizabeth arrived at school early and alone. She faced an angry crowd of protestors, and her entry into the school was blocked by National Guard troops. As Elizabeth turned to leave, protestors followed her down the sidewalk as they venomously hurled insults and racial slurs. Will Counts, a local photographer, took photos as the events unfolded.

"But Counts had no idea that a single photograph would become a magnifying glass for race relations in the United States." (p. 31)

Shelley Tougas provides readers with background information including details about Brown vs. the Board of Education and Jim Crow laws. She also writes about the challenges the Little Rock Nine faced at school, and she provides updated information about the students and the photographer that drew attention to the racial hatred in our country. Tougas writes in a clear and organized manner that makes book accessible to young readers and photographs are effectively placed throughout the book. One photograph shows a female reporter shielding Eckford from the crowd as she waits for the bus. In another photograph three African American students eat lunch together in the cafeteria of Central High School while white students are seated around them at separate tables.

I have to admit, I got a bit emotional as I was reading the text and studying the photographs. The most emotional photograph for me was a color photo taken in 1997. It shows Elizabeth Eckford with her arm around Hazel Bryan Massery as they stand in front of Central High School. Massery is the white woman seen walking behind Eckford in the famous black and white photo. Viewers of the photo can see she is visibly angry, and she's yelling at Eckford. In later years, Massery shared her remorse for her role in the 1957 incident, and Counts (the photographer) brought the two women together to meet in person.

The back matter is impressive and includes a clearly organized timeline, a glossary, sources notes, and a bibliography. I'm planning to order the set of Captured History for my school library. There are so many possibilities for these titles. Students interested in history will scoop them up for independent reading, but they can also be used by teachers during history lessons. Other titles include Man on the Moon, Raising the Flag, and Breaker Boys.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Busy Builders by Roxie Munro

Busy Builders

Roxie Munro

Marshall Cavendish Children. 2012

ISBN: 978761461050

Grades Preschool to 3

This reviewer checked a copy of the book from the local public library.

“There are about 1,000,000,000 (1 billion!) insects for every human being”, says Roxie Munro in Busy Builders. That’s a lot of insects running, crawling, and flying around Earth. Yet, out of all those insects very few are actually builders. Using large, full-page illustrations rendered in India ink and colored ink, Munro gives us an inside look at the unique structures of seven insects and 1 spider.

The format is set up like a guessing game. “This is a Paper Hornet. Where does it live?” Young preschoolers who love to learn lots of facts about bugs will be waiting anxiously for the page to turn. Using clear language that is very accessible, we see and learn where they build and how the colony or individual insect or spider works together to survive. The seven insects listed are: Honeybee, Red Harvester Ant, Organ-Pipe Mud Dauber, Australian Weaver Ant, Leaf-Cutter Bee, Pine Processionary Caterpillar, African Termite, Paper Hornet, and the arachnid, a Garden Orb Spider.

Munro includes fun facts, a glossary of bug words, a bibliography of books and web sites to learn more about insects and spiders. A first-rate book Perfect for hot summer days. Pair this with Steve Jenkin's The Beetle Book.

Monday, July 2, 2012

unBEElievables by Douglas Florian


honeybee poems and paintings by Douglas Florian

Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. 2012

ISBN: 9781442426528

All ages

This reviewer obtained a copy of the book from the local public library.

My favorite part of summer is sitting and watching bees visit the blossoms in my yard. Last summer I discovered their favorite plant was the catmint growing smack dab in the middle of my vegetable garden. There were so many bees collecting nectar that the tall purple spikes were waving as if being tossed about by a gentle breeze. I LOVE bees and who best to celebrate their wonderfulness is beloved poet Douglas Florian.

Each of the 15 poems gives details about a particular characteristic of our honeymakers.

'Bee Anatomy'

"Lovely legs,

Lovely hue,

Lovely long

Anennae, too.

Lovely eyes,

Lovely wings,

But ouch!

How in the end

It stings!"

Throughout, we learn the names of the different bees that populate the hive and their jobs: Drones, Workers, and Queen. Most of the poems have a bouncy rhyme, but two have a definiate rap feel to them.

Take 'Summer Hummer' for example:

"I’m the hummer of summer,

So busy with buzz.

A never-humdrummer

All covered with fuzz."

Florian’s bright paintings, done in gouache paint, colored pencils, and collage on primed paper bags that ooze warmth and happiness, accompany every poem, as does a short paragraph expounding on the facts highlighted in each poem.

Florian ends this glorious tribute with 'Where are the Bees?' a sobering note on the disappearance of bees due to mites, viruses, pesticides, or fungi. Scientists have named it Colony Collapse Disorder.

"Bees give us sweet honey,

They pollinate flowers.

The beeswax in candles

Keeps burning for hours.

But some hives have vanished,

Some bees disappeared.

(From mites or pollution

Or illness, it’s feared.)

Let’s hope that before long

The bees come back strong,

And hives will be humming,

Bees buzzing along.”

Overall, this is a wonderful introduction to bees for all ages. The tone is playful, joyful, and just plain fun to share. A perfect companion to The Hive Detectives by Loree Griffin Burns, Magic School Bus Inside a beehive by Joanna Cole, The Bee Tree by Patricia Polacco, The Beeman by Laurie Krebs, The Honeybee Man by Lela Nargi, and two of my favorite fiction titles A Hive for the Honeybee by Soinbhe Lally and a love story for teens, Kissing the Bee by Kathe Kola.

Have I made you hungry for a spoonful of honey?