Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Monday, December 17, 2012

Top Ten Biographies of 2012

Back in October we compiled a list of our favorite titles of 2012. Now that the year is coming to a close, we thought it would be the right time to share our favorite 2012 books by subject. Today we focus on biographies.

Top Ten Biographies of 2012 
(with links to our reviews)

We recognize that there are many more excellent titles that we didn't have a chance to review. Here are six more outstanding biographies from 2012.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: the Story Behind an American Friendship by Russell Freedman
Bon Appetit!: The Delicious Life of Julia Child by Jessie Hartland
The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne by Catherine Reef
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by Robert Byrd
Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington by Jabari Asim
Looking at Lincoln by Maira Kalman

Coming up next week... Our favorite math and science books of 2012.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Their Skeletons Speak and Faces from the Past

Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and the Paleoamerican World
By Sally M. Walker and Douglas W Owsley.
Carolrhoda. 2012
ISBN: 9780761374572
Grades 8 up
This reviewer obtained a copy of the book from the publisher.

The two books I review today unfold like an episode of CSI!

In July of 1996, two young men, ages 19 and 20 trying to find a good spot to watch the Tri-City Water Follies in Kennewick, Washington, accidently uncover a skull while wading in the Columbia River. Soon, the police, a homicide detective, and a paleontologist and archaeologist are on the scene to uncover the puzzling story of how those bones ended up in the Columbia River. Was it a recent homicide or bones from the past, and if so, how old were they? 

Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and the Paleoamerican World by Sally M. Walker and Douglas W. Owsley is a fascinating look into our ancient past. Using the Kennewick Man, readers follow the steps taken to discover the skeleton’s past, as well as the long court battle to decide ownership. Walker is not a newcomer to writing about our past. Several of her books, including Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H. L. Huntley (2006 Sibert Winner) are a mixture of science and history. 

The scientific process of dating old bones is the focus of Their Skeletons Speak, which reads like a good detective novel. We learn of the attention to detail, the pains-taking work and long hours needed to determine a skeleton’s age, sex, and place in history. For instance, certain skull features, like the cheekbones, can provide clues about a skeleton’s ancestry. In the Kennewick Man, James Chatters, a paleontologist and archaeologist, noted “the cranium’s shape did not resemble modern day European or Native American skulls he had seen.  Chatters uncovered past injuries, height, occupation, and what might have caused Kennewick Man’s death. Walker rounds out this book by including the findings of other well-known ancient skeletons -- Spirit Cave Man, Arch Lake Woman, Horn Shelter Man and Upward Sun River Mouth Child. Further enhancing the reading experience, are photos, maps, and sidebars with more detailed explanations discussed in the text. I have to admit this book was a page-turner.

Partner Their Skeletons Speak with another terrific new book, Faces from the Past: Forgotten People of North America by James M. Deem, author of the 2006 Sibert Honor Book, Bodies from the Ice. In Faces from the Past, Deem explains the history and science of facial reconstruction and believes that by putting a face to the long forgotten dead, we can at last hear their stories.

Faces From the Past: Forgotten People in North America
By James M. Deem
Houghton Mifflin. 2012
ISBN: 9780547370248
Grades 8 up
This reviewer obtained a copy of the book from the publisher.

In1940, husband and wife team, George and Sidney Wheeler, both archaeologists, are out in Nevada when they enter a cave. Wrapped up in three mats made mostly of tule, a type of reed that grew along an ancient, Lake Lahontan, which is now long gone, the couple find the skeletal remains of a man. After a brief viewing, the skeleton was wrapped up and placed in storage. Fifty-four years later, in 1994, the bones are tested using a newer techniques of radiocarbon dating. Known as Spirit Cave Man, scientists first estimated he died 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. Wrong! Spirit Cave Man died approximately 10,500 years ago, making his the oldest partially mummified human remains ever recovered in North America. 

The cool thing about reading these books at the same time is that they cover similar territory and include many of the same facial reconstruction artists and scientists. 

Where Walker asks the question: How did the ancient people come to North America? Deem, on the other hand, explains the history and science of facial reconstruction and how it is used to put a face to the long forgotten dead so we can know their stories. 

Both books are well documented and deserve a space on all library shelves. I’m curious if teens are reading Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel? If so, these two nonfiction titles, as well as Mysterious Bones: the story of the Kennewick Man by Katherine Kirkpatarick would greatly enhance their reading experience. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Zombie Makers by Rebecca L. Johnson

Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead

By Rebecca L. Johnson
Milbrook Press. 2013 (but it is already available)
ISBN: 9780761386339
Grades 4-8
I checked this book out of my local public library.


Just thinking about these brain-sucking creatures gives me the creeps. Yet, day after day, children of all ages ask me if there are any books on Zombies. (“Zobmies,” asks a savvy 3-year-old) According to Rebecca L. Johnson, zombies do exists, only more of the insect variety. Whew!

In Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead we learn about a few things that can take over the bodies and brains of innocent creatures, turning them into senseless slaves. Find out about the fly-enslaved fungus, suicide worm, and the Jewel Wasp that lays its eggs inside a cockroach. When hatched, the jewel wasp larvae feasts on the roach’s organs. Delicious!

 The book’s cover is eye-catching. All in red, we see a close-up photograph of a jewel wasp attacking a cockroach. 5 chapters, each four pages long, include color photographs of the subject and side bars with scientific facts. The writing is entertaining and informative, and Johnson includes a phonetic pronunciation for all the scientific names. Readers will learn how the fungus, insect, or virus attacks its victim and then takes total control. Hey, it’s nature!

Take, for example, the hairworms (Paragordius tricuspidatus). They take control of crickets, the hairworms true host. Tiny insects, those that begin life in the water, are infected by tiny young forms of the hairworm. The hairworm larvae didn’t hurt the insect they infected. They just curled up to form little balls, called cysts, inside them. The larvae waited as cysts until the insects died and were eaten by crickets.  Once inside the cricket the larvae nibble on their host and grow until nearly 3 feet (1 meter) long. To fit inside the cricket it must loop, coil, and knot itself. Once fully grown and needing the water to reproduce, the worms release a chemical inside the crickets brains that makes the cricket think it needs water. (Crickets can’t swim) The crickets hurl themselves in the water and drown, at which time the hairworm quickly wiggles out of their dead or dying host. It’s not a pretty sight.

In an afterword, Johnson explains why zombie makers go to so much trouble to invade and control their hosts. All living things reproduce to make more of their own kind. If they didn’t do it, they’d die out. An author’s note, glossary, source notes, selected bibliography, web sites, and an index rounds out this fascinating look at insects.

Hand this to a bunch of students during a classroom visit and you’ll find them sitting in the corner reading completely absorbed.

Other books about parasites include: What’s Eating You: parasites---the inside story by Nicola Davies and Gross Universe: your guide to all disgusting things under the sun by Jeff Szpirglas.
[Reviewed by Louise]

Monday, December 3, 2012


Ice! The Amazing History of the Ice Business
by Laurence Pringle
Calkins Creek, 2012
ISBN: 9781590788011
Grades 4-8

The reviewer received a copy of the books from the publishers.

What are the chances that two excellent children's books of 2012 would focus on ice? That's right: ice.  Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Obed and Barbara McClintock is a treasure to be shared with readers of all ages. It's a poetic look at growing up on a Maine farm in winter. Readers who live in cold climates will relate to how Obed eloquently describes ice. McClintock's pen and ink sketches are beautiful.

 Laurence Pringle takes a different look at ice in the nonfiction book, Ice! The Amazing History of the Ice Business. The book examines how the ice industry developed in our country as people attempted to keep food and perishables cold in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Workers used special tools pulled by horses to cut large sections of ice from frozen rivers. The ice was then packed in sawdust and transported to homes, restaurants, and onto ships. In 1869, unseasonably warm weather caused an "ice famine." Ice companies sent their crews north to the Kennebec River in Maine where ice was plentiful. (I actually knew a bit about this from when I taught Maine history to 6th grade students,)

The design and short length of this book make is accessible to the lower range of middle grade readers who haven't developed the stamina to read lengthier nonfiction texts. Visual elements include dozens of photographs, advertisements, pages from catalogs, and illustrations. I was intrigued by four pages in the middle of the book that show ice cards from around the country. Ice cards were placed in the windows of homes to indicate the amount of ice families wished to purchase from the ice delivery man.

Back matter includes source notes, a bibliography, and a list of web sites, museums, films and books on the topic of harvesting ice. Ice! is an interesting look at how ingenuity made it possible to keep food cold in the 19th century until more advanced technology came along. Hopefully, it will give readers a new appreciation of refrigeration. Twelve Kinds of Ice and Ice! would make an excellent fiction/nonfiction pairing.

Visit the Maine Memory Network's online exhibit, Ice: A Maine Commodity to view photographs of ice harvests.

Other Reviews:
Twelve Kinds of Ice reviewed by Betsy Bird on A Fuse #8 Production

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