Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Friday, November 28, 2014

Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold by Joyce Sidman

Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold
Poems written by Newbery Honor Award Winner, Joyce Sidman;

Illustrations by Rick Allen
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014
ISBN: 9780547906508
All ages; birth to infinity.
To write this review, I borrowed a copy from my local public library.

I am writing this review on the morning after a nasty snowstorm that caused massive power outages here in the Northeast. It was difficult waking up to a very cold house, no hot water, and realizing that though I could turn on the gas stove we couldn’t control the thermostat…that part is electric!  But once the sun came up, I was comforted by the marvelous poems from Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold.

I’ve been a huge fan of Joyce Sidman for years. I often recite at the top of my lungs while cycling to work the "Backswimmer’s Refrain" from, Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems. I also had the privilege of serving on the 2011 John J. Newbery Committee that selected Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night as an honor book. I love that Sidman’s poetry is about nature.

Winter Bees &Other Poems of the Cold opens with winter arriving with the first snowfall when the Tundra Swan knows it is time to head south and ends with the fist-size bud of the skunk cabbage. 

Skunk cabbage peeks up though the snow/the first flower of the wood.

Sidman uses a variety of poetic forms. From a triolet (“Triolet for Skunk Cabbage”) to a pantoum (“Under Ice”) to the hip/hop rhythm for “Big Brown Moose.”

I’m a big brown moose/I’m a rascally moose, /I’m a moose with a tough, shaggy hide;/and I kick and I prance/in a long-legged dance/with my moose-mama close by my side.

If I had to select one poem as my favorite, I’d pick “Snake’s Lullaby.” In the sidebar there is an explanation that snakes hibernate (brumate) in large groups underground during the winter. Most return to the same "hibernaculum" year after year, using their tongues to smell their way along age-old paths. 

Rick Allen’s artwork perfectly captures the essence of each poem. His illustrations were created by cutting, inking, and printing from linoleum blocks (nearly two hundred of them) and then hand-colored them. The blocks were then digitally scanned, composed, and layered. Besides being absolutely beautiful, both in composition and the colors used, they are also playful.

A highly recommended purchase.

P.S. Can you find the fox, or its footprints, on every page? 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos 
by Stephanie Roth Sisson
Roaring Brook Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781596439603
Grades K-4

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

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos is an engaging picture book biography that will inspire young readers to ask "why" and "how" as they wonder about the universe. Stephanie Roth Sisson writes in a narrative style and uses comic-style illustrations and speech bubbles to describe the life and accomplishments of astronomer, Sagan.

As a child, Carl Sagan visited the 1939 World's Fair where he saw time capsules and mechanical men. His inquisitive nature and passion for learning led him to the library where he read books about stars, planets and the solar system. As young Carl Sagan reads about the solar system in the library, the layout of the picture book changes from horizontal to vertical with a fold-out page depicting the sun.

The book's title refers to Sagan's theory that "stars made the ingredients of life." Sisson explains Sagan's theories and work in a clear and concise manner that young readers will understand. Children with an interest in science will be interested in learning about the messages Sagan sent into space on the Voyager mission in an attempt to communicate with other life forms.

Two pages of back matter are chock full of source notes, an author's note, bibliography and other notes. In the author's note, Sisson explains that the hardest part of writing the book was figuring out how capture Carl Sagan's many accomplishments. Sisson decided to focus on "how a boy from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York became one of the world's most beloved and recognized scientists."  Pair Star Stuff with On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein and Look Up!: Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer.

Monday, November 17, 2014

SPIC-AND-SPAN! by Monica Kulling

Spic-And-Span!: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen
By Monica Kulling; Illustrated by David Parkins
Tundra Books. 2014
ISBN: 9781770493803
Grades 4-6
To evaluate this title for review, the publisher sent me a copy of the book.

Candian author, Kulling, adds a new title in Tundra’s Great Idea series. Spic-And-Span! looks at the life of efficiency expert, industrial engineer, and psychologist Lillian Moller Gilbreth. (Cheaper By the Dozen) This lively picture book biography offers readers a brief introduction to Gilbreth’s many inventions, yet lacks any bibliography or suggestions for further reading, which is unfortunate.*(correction: there is a list of thee books and one website under  "Sources of Inspiration" found on the back of the title page.)

Born in 1878 in Oakland, California, Lillian Moller came from a very wealthy family, but had no desire for a pampered life. 

Unlike most girls of her time, she decided to go to university. Lillian wanted a life of adventure and challenge. When she married Frank Gilbreth in 1904, that’s exactly what she got.

After marrying Frank, the two formed the business, Gilbreth Inc. The husband and wife team sought ways to cut out wasteful actions as a way to get more work done and be less tired. Frank and Lillian would have twelve children and ran their home efficiently using the “Gilbreth System.”

They lost one child, and after Frank’s death in 1924, the mother of eleven had to find work. Over her lifetime, Lillian is credited with many innovations that we still use today. She came up with the circular approach to kitchen design, invented the electric mixer, a garbage can with a lid that opens by stepping on a foot pedal, the butter and egg shelf in the refrigerator door, and was a pioneer in “ergonomics.” Gilbreth was the first woman to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and the first woman psychologist to have her face on a U.S. postage stamp.

Parkin’s illustrations, done in pen and ink with watercolor on paper greatly enhance the text.

Cathy and I interviewed Kulling in 2012 for her book in the Great Idea series, Going Up!

Go here to 49th Shelf, a blog that promotes Canadian writers, to read a more recent interview with Kulling as she talks about Spic-And-Span!.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Right Word

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus
by Jen Bryant
illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Eerdman's, 2014
Grades K-5
ISBN: 9780802853851

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

Jen Bryant and Melissa Stewart are the dream team of children's nonfiction picture books. A River of Words won a Caldecott Honor in 2009, and A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin won a Sibert Honor and a Schneider Family Book Award in 2014.

The pair has collaborated on another picture book biography, and it's a real gem! The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus follows the life of Peter Roget, a shy man who enjoyed making lists, collecting words, and observing the world around him. Roget spent years collecting and organizing words by topic and published his thesaurus in 1852. Bryant writes in an engaging narrative style that captures the essence of Roget's story. At times the text is arranged vertical panels to reflect Roget's lists.

Sweet's signature water color and mixed media collages are perfect for conveying Roget's story. Sweet masterfully places words throughout the illustrations to show how Roget was an observer of the world and a collector of words. Covers of old books and pages from texts are used creatively in the collages. Young readers will enjoy poring over the book's endpapers that contain Roget's thousand word "Plan of Classification."

Even though many young readers (K-2) won't be familiar with a thesaurus, they will enjoy reading about the man who created it and learning about how its helps writers improve their word choice. The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus is one of the best nonfiction books I have read this year and is a must-buy for any school or public library.

Melissa Sweet shares her process for creating the illustrations on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

Download a classroom discussion guide.

Other Reviews:

Donalyn Miller on The Nerdy Book Club blog
Monica Edinger at Educating Alice
Waking Brain Cells
Watch, Connect, Read

Monday, November 10, 2014


Edward Hopper Paints His World
By Robert Burleigh; Paintings by Wendell Minor
Christy Ottaviano Books: Henry Holt and Company. 2014
ISBN: 780805087529
Grades 2-12
To write this review, I checked this book out of my local public library.

Little Edward Hopper had many dreams. 
But one dream was biggest of all—he was going to be a painter when he grew up.

In Edward Hopper Paints His World, Burleigh & Minor offer a beautiful tribute to Edward Hopper, one of America's most important painters. The marriage between text and illustrations is dazzling.

Edward Hopper was born July 22, 1882 in Nyack, New York. Hopper never gave up on his dream to be an artist. He drew all the time and after studying in New York and Paris, Hopper worked as an illustrator for magazines. Though his magazine illustrations won him prizes, he longed to paint what he wanted, not what others told him to draw. Even after success, he continued to paint what he saw: lighthouses, old houses, cityscapes, lonely roads, and deserted buildings. 

Minor used gouache watercolor on Strathmore 500 Bristol paper to create the illustrations in this book. Minor explains that Edward Hopper's style has influenced his approach to the use of light, color, and composition. Of the paintings in this book Minor explains, I tried to create the feeling of Hopper’s art while maintaining my own style.

Back matter includes an author’s note, Hopper quotes on art, reproductions of four of Hopper paintings, important dates in the life of Edward Hopper, author’s references, artist’s sources, and websites.

In my opinion, introducing children to the lives and works of great artists is important, not only for their development and to stimulate creativity and problem solving, but because being exposed to art is as essential as…breathing. 

drawing by Louise Capizzo
Besides the obvious use of Edward Hopper Paints His World in an art class, pair it with other picture book biographies of artists. For intermediate, middle and high schoolers, first read Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce. One of my all-time favorites, Framed is the perfect book to emphasize how one can see life from a new angle after being introduced to great art.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Nonfiction News

Nonfiction author, Melissa Stewart, has written a series of blog posts about the style and structure of nonfiction books. The posts are informative and definitely worth reading if you are a teacher or children's librarian.

Behind the Books: Nonfiction That Reads Like a Story
Behind the Books: Thinking About Nonfiction Styles
What CCSS Says About Nonfiction Types
Behind the Books: Nonfiction Types
Behind the Books: Deep Thinking About Nonfiction

Nominations for the CYBILS closed last month, and there are some excellent nonfiction titles on the nominated lists this year. We're excited that Louise is a second round judge in the Young Adult Nonfiction category this year.

Here are the CYBILS nominations in the Young Adult Nonfiction category.

Here are the Elementary and Middle Grade Nonfiction CYBILS nominations.

Dorcas Hand wrote an interesting piece this week for the Consider the Source column in School Library Journal. Hand asks where is the stellar nonfiction that students should read to meet the Common Core Standards? It can be challenging to locate quality nonfiction for kids.  She encourages librarians to go out and read some rich nonfiction and demand publishers make more nonfiction available.

Last week the Heavy Medal Blog at School Library Journal looked at nonfiction contenders for the Newbery Medal. 

We're entering the "Best of the Year" season. Publishers Weekly recently revealed its choices for Best Books of 2014. Several nonfiction books for children made the list.

Monday, November 3, 2014


OwlKids Books promotes awareness of our world to encourage young readers to become more astute observers of how their choices can affect the natural world. OwlKids Books appeal to readers who enjoy bold graphics with quick facts using minimal text.

Why We Live Where We Live
Written by Kira Vermond; Illustrated by Julie McLaughlin
ISBN: 9781771470117
Grades 4-6
Vermond takes readers on a tour of the various ways humans moved from hunters and gatherers to the rise of cities after the Industrial Revolution to how we’ve transformed challenging environments to make them more habitable. Geography, topography, climate, landscape, food security, politics, economics, and more all play a role in how we choose the place we call home. Readers are given tips on planning a city and how the climate changes and rising oceans will affect us in the future. Is moving to another planet an option? 

Branching Out: How trees are part of our world
By Joan Marie Galat
ISBN: 9781771470490
Grades 4-6
Galat explains how trees are very important to life on Earth. (Photosynthesis) Not only would there be no air for humans to breathe, but look around your room and notice the items made from wood. Guitars, violins, wooden pencils, not to mention trees provide habitats for birds, howler monkeys and flying squirrels. And what about food? Trees give us apples, cherries, pears, and…chocolate? Eleven chapters features trees from the pau brasil to the Scotch pine, from the camphor laurel to the cork oak – to its integral role to humans to the animal world.

How to Save a Species
Written by Marilyn Baillie, Jonathan Baillie, and Ellen Butcher
ISBN: 9781771470636
Grades 4-6
It is sad to say, but there are many, many species whose numbers are so low they are in danger of becoming extinct. How to Save a Species discusses seventeen of the most threatened species and offers budding scientists a brief, one-page explanation as to where the animal, bird or insect lives, their habitat, and what is the cause of their near extinction. For example, the Red River Giant Softshell Turtles live in the Red River area of Vietnam and China, but due to hunting and pollution there are only four left in the whole world. In every example, the message is often the same: educate local people of the species importance and to stop the encroachment and destruction of their habitat.

It’s Catching: the infectious world of germs and microbes
By Jennifer Gardy, PhD; Illustrated by Josh Holinaty
ISBN: 9781771470018
Grades 4-6

Surrounding us are millions of tiny, microscopic creatures. Scientists call them microbes. All germs are microbes, but not all microbes are germs. Most microbes are friendly; only a very small number can cause diseases. Dr. Grady, who calls herself a disease detective, invites readers to step inside and learn about a range of germs and the diseases they cause. From the common cold to food poisoning to the Ebola virus, It’s Catching offers factual information, without generating fear.

To write these reviews, the publisher sent me paperback copies of each title.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla 
by Katherine Applegate
illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Clarion Books, 2014
Grades K-5

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

In an accessible, narrative style, Katherine Applegate shares the story of Ivan the Shopping Mall Gorilla with young readers in this nonfiction picture book. Many readers will be familiar with Ivan's heart wrenching story from the Newbery Medal winning book, The One and Only Ivan by Applegate.

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of a Shopping Mall Gorilla traces the story of how a young gorilla was caught by poachers and taken away from his parents and his home in central Africa. Illustrator G. Brian Karas captures the seriousness of the situation with dark, somber illustrations depicting Ivan and another young gorilla inside a crate as they are shipped to the U.S. Karas uses the vast, empty space on another double-page spread as he shows how alone Ivan was when his gorilla companion died.

Readers will be surprised and saddened as they read about how Ivan spent twenty-seven years of his life in a cage at the mall. The simple text and cartoon-like illustrations make this serious and poignant story accessible to very young readers, and it's sure to elicit a strong response from children who will see the injustices and cruelty Ivan endured.

After Ivan is moved to Zoo Atlanta, the story ends on a positive note. A photograph of Ivan holding a flower is placed on the last page opposite from this text:

"In leafy calm,
in gentle arms,
a gorilla's life began

Readers should take time to explore the back matter that includes a page "About Ivan" and a note from Jodi Carrigan, Ivan's keeper at Zoo Atlanta.

Also reviewed by...
100 Scope Notes
Kid Lit Frenzy
Librarian's Quest