Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Monday, October 30, 2023

BIG IDEAS That Changed the World: We The People! by Don Brown

BIG IDEAS that Changed the World: We The People! 
Don Brown
Amulet Books. 2022

In one year, it will be time for another presidential election. As conversations heat up as to who has a right to vote, We The People! is a perfect resource for those students who have questions about the history of our democracy. Paired with Brown’s signature illustrations, this is a great resource for all ages. Adults, too. 

Narrated by Abagail Adams, the wife of one of our Founding Fathers, John Adams, readers are given a civic lesson is just how the United States set about creating our democracy where every American citizen has a right, and duty, to vote in all elections.

It was in 1754, when the colonies had grown to thirteen, “Colonial leader Ben Franklin believed binding the colonies together would make them stronger.”  Franklin was influenced by the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, and Tuscarora tribes of North America that allowed both men and women to play critical roles in governing. It was in 1787, after the colonists won the American Revolution did the Constitutional Convention met to come up with some kind of plan of government. 

The idea of the three-branch government was based on the Virginia Plan, which took its name from the Virginia sponsors. It took a lot of convincing to go from states governing themselves to a national government. 

Throughout this engaging nonfiction graphic novel, Abagail offers important insight. After the signing of the Declaration for Independence, Abagail comments, “But a Big Idea with a flaw: “Men” meant white landowners and left out everyone else.” She also comments on the injustice of slavery, what led up to the Jim Crow era, women’s right to vote, and ends with Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington (1963) and his belief, “that all men are created equal,” regardless of race, religion, and nationalities. 

“The Big Idea - a Perfect Union - is unfinished, a grand tower wanting completion, its timbers forever being thrown up, then torn down, just to be remade once more, the work of ever-hopeful buildings - we the people.” 

The book includes a select timeline of the making of the United States democracy, a brief bio on Abagail Adams, source notes, author’s note, and index.

The United States is the world’s oldest democracy. How will it age?

Click here to view the art of this book.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Tiny Jumper: How Tiny Broadwick Created the Parachute Rip Cord by Candy Dahl

Tiny Jumper: How Tiny Broadwick Created the Parachute Rip Cord

By Candy Dahl; Illustrated by Maithili Joshi

little bee books. 2023

Tiny Jumper tells the story of Georgia Ann Thompson. Nicknamed Tiny because of her small statute - she never reached five feet in height. This Tiny Jumper had courage, huge courage, and determination who followed her dreams of becoming the first woman to use a parachute.

Born on April 8, 1893, Georgia Ann Thompson was only three pounds at birth and nicknamed, Tiny. Growing up before child labor laws, Tiny found her self working in cotton mills to help her family financially. Every day, after working in a noisy, dusty factory, Tiny, “would climb to a treetop to get away from everything and imagine rising UP…far away from fields and mills.”

Tiny was determined and in 1907, after seeing a man float down to earth using a silk parachute, knew being an aeronaut was her life calling.

“When I saw that balloon go up, and I gawked at it as it ascended into the heavens, I knew I’d never be the same.”

In 1908, Tiny began touring with Charles Broadwick, he legally adopted her, “so it would be deemed proper for her to travel with him.”  She made her first jump from a hot-air balloon.  By age twenty, Tiny was the first woman to parachute from an airplane (1913), and, in 1914, created the rip cord after her parachute line became tangled in the plane’s tail while demonstrating for the United States Amy Air-Corps.

Though she broke arms, shoulders, ankles, and feet, Tiny never gave up until she was forced to retire at age twenty-nine because of her ankles. 

Included is an author’s note with some photos of Tiny Broadwick, and a selected bibliography. Placed in a darker colored text block throughout the book are quotes from Broadwick, though there are no source notes to show where the author got those quotes. 

This is a very exciting informational picture book about an extraordinary woman. The full page illustrations by Joshi complement the text.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam Thien Pham

Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam

Thien Pham

:01 First Second, an imprint of Roaring Book Press. 2023

Food is a focal point in this memoir told in graphic format about Thien Pham and his family’s journey from Vietnam to America. Each culinary memory brings Thien one step closer to fitting in.

The book begins with Thien as an adult, sitting at his desk ready to begin his story by asking himself what is his first memory. We turn the page and we see a boat full of people, refugees, fleeing Vietnam. Thien is five. He recalls being hungry and thirsty until a ship stops and sells them food. Mmmm! Watermelon. But, soon after, pirates attack the ship. Thien’s mother tells him to hold on tight to her. “Don’t let go.” After the brutal attack ends, Thien remembers eating a rice ball his mother had saved in her pocket. “I can still taste that rice ball…the saltiness of the fish…the sweetness of the rice.”

After a stay in a refugee camp, the family finds a sponsor who brings them to sunny San Jose, California where the family works hard in their pursuit of the American Dream.

Each chapter, eight in all, show Thien navigating American culture as he grows. In the last chapter, chapter 8: Rice and Fish, Thien is an adult. He teaches art in a college and is distressed by the news. “-Let’s send them back where they came from! Build the Wall! Build the Wall! Build the Wall! Build the Wall!  When he expresses his sorrow at the hateful rhetoric, his friends and colleagues say that the only way to change the hate is to become a US citizen and vote. The book closes with the naturalization ceremony where Thien and many others from around the world are graced with a special message from President Barak Obama.

“Remember, that in America, no dream is impossible. Like the millions of immigrants who have come before you, you have the opportunity to enrich this country through your contributions to civic society. You can help write the next great chapter in our American story. Together, we can keep the beacon that is America burning bright for all the world to see.” 

Afterwards, Thien registers to vote!

The last part of Family Style is drawn in black and white, has Thien answering questions fans asked about the making of the book. 

Middle and high school students will appreciate the underlying message of accepting people based on who they are inside, especially with today’s current events. “Just find good people. It doesn’t matter where they come from or where they are. Just find people who will go out of their way to make you happy and who you’d do the same for.”

Click here to watch Gene Luen Yang interview Thien Pham at a San Jose local bookshop. 

Friday, October 20, 2023

CheckMate!: The Wonderful World of Chess by John Foley

CheckMate!: The Wonderful World of Chess
John Foley
Published by Mortimer Children's. An Imprint of Wellbeck Publishing Group.

If you read this blog regularly, then maybe you read our review of The Queen of Chess, about Hungarian chess champion, Judit Polgár. If that book perked your interest in learning more about chess, or you have a chess club at your school or public library, then CheckMate! is a perfect addition to your library's collection.

This all-in-one guide is perfect for beginners or for those looking to improve their game. The author, John Foley, is Former London Junior Under-16 Chess Champion, Oxford University Chess Champion and Director of ChessPlus Ltd. He is a good teacher.

The book begins with a simple introduction to the world of Chess, its history, list of the male world champions, and how to set up your chessboard. The rest of the book is filled with diagrams that explains visually how to play. Foley begins with a few simple games to get you started. As players gain confidence, diagrams of more involved games which assist ones growth in understanding the strategy and problem solving techniques used in more complicated games.

Directions are easy to understand. All the diagrams are well-captioned. To keep the atmosphere light, throughout the book are helpful hints offered by cartoon-like chess pieces.

The last quarter of the book discusses tournament etiquette with Advance Tips are highlighted in yellow circles. Included are a listing of some of the world's best or best-known players (Judit Polgár is listed), playing chess online, playing against computers, and a glossary. In addition, are the moves from the game in 1994 between Alexei Shrove (Latvia) and Judit Polgár (Hungary).  

Even for someone like me who does not play chess, this handy how-to-play title is helpful in understanding the thought-process that goes into playing this historic and challenging game. 

Monday, October 16, 2023

Rooting for Plants

Rooting for Plants: The Unstoppable Charles S. Parker, Black Botanist and Collector
by Janice N. Harrington
illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
Calkins Creek, 2023
Grades 2-6

Rooting for Plants introduces young readers to Charles S. Parker, black botanist who spent his life studying plants and sharing his love of botany with others. Using a narrative writing style, Harrington describes Parker's early life growing up in Spokane, Washington and his harrowing experience serving in World War I in this picture book biography.

The book captures Parker's passion for identifying, collecting, and growing herbs and plants and his lifelong quest to learn and teach others about botany. Parker shared his knowledge of plants with black students as a professor at Howard University in the 1930s and 40s. 

Bold digital artwork depicts Parker in the field collecting specimens. Taylor captures the textures and colors of nature in illustrations of plants, herbs and fungi, at times using frames to show snapshots of the specimens.

Readers who are inspired to learn more about Parker or the field of botany should be sure to read the extensive back matter including a glossary of science terms, brief bios of other black botanists, a timeline, and bibliography of selected sources.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Chasing The Sun by Timothy Musso

Chasing the Sun
Timothy Musso

Creative Editions. 2023

“An Arctic tern can fly as many as 50,000 miles in its annual migration.”

In his first book, Musso does an excellent job bringing readers along as they follow the migratory path of a female Arctic Tern as she travels from Weddell Sea, Antarctica to the Arctic Coast, Alaska and back to Weddell Sea, Antarctica. 

Readers will be swept along with the simple language, no more than one or two lines per spread, yet each sentence conveys so much of what is reflected in Musso’s woodcuts that are based on his field drawings while exploring remote regions on foot with only his backpack and a sketchbook. The pictures are gorgeous and reflect perfectly the beauty of the natural world.  

She passes giants as they feed.” The pictures shows many Arctic Terns circling in the clear blue sky, diving for fish, while hungry whales are waiting for one of the terns to drop a fish in their mouths. 

In the corner of each spread, Musso places an image of the Earth and uses a broken while line to mark the path the Arctic Tern is taking. He marks the month, number of miles traveled, and where the Tern is on her journey. 

After traveling 25,000 miles brings the female and mate to their nesting site on the Arctic Coast, Alaska. Four weeks later, in August, Parents and one baby being their journey back to Weddell Sea, Antarctica. 

Included is more details about the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) and identifies animals the tern saw along the way. 

Pair this book with Polar : Wildlife At The Ends of the Earth by L. E. Carmichael.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Thank You, Moon Interview with Author Melissa Stewart

Thank You, Moon: Celebrating Nature's Nightlight
by Melissa Stewart
illustrated by Jessica Lanan
Alfred A. Knopf, 2023
Grades PreK-5

Thank You, Moon hits shelves today. This science nonfiction picture book from Melissa Stewart and Jessica Lanan highlights the relationship between the moon and the behavior of nocturnal animals. Stewart employs a parallel structure as the lyrical, narrative shows readers how animals respond to the moon. Expository paragraphs provide scientific details about the animals and their habitats. Gorgeous watercolor and pencil illustrations depict plants and animals in the moon's light.

We had the opportunity to interview Melissa Stewart about Thank, You Moon and writing nonfiction for children.

Author Interview with Melissa Stewart

The Nonfiction Detectives: How do you find topics to write about?

Melissa Stewart: I write about science because I’m fascinated by the natural world. I’m constantly encountering things that make me ask questions. And to satisfy my curiosity, I want to know more, more, more. Learning more gets me so excited that I’m dying to share my new knowledge with other people. That’s what fuels my writing.

For me, ideas are everywhere. They come from books and articles I read, conversations with other people, places I visit, and experiences I have. The hard part isn’t getting ideas. It’s remembering them when it’s time to start working on a new book.

That’s why I have an Idea Board in my office, hanging right above my desk. Anytime I have an idea, I write it on a scrap of paper and tack it up there. Some of those ideas lead nowhere, but others turn into books.

Young writers can keep a list of their own on the last page of their writer’s notebook. I call this an Idea Incubator.

The Nonfiction Detectives: What led you to write Thank You, Moon and the topic of how animals depend on the Moon?

Melissa Stewart: My editor, Katherine Harrison, gets all the credit. In February 2020, she tagged me on Twitter, alerting me to a conversation about how animals respond to the Moon’s cycle, and asked “Is this something you’d potentially be interested in writing? I just can’t get enough of the moon these days, and I feel like you could bring something special to it.” She also included a beautiful, eerie, mysterious image of the Moon partially obscured by clouds. It was an irresistible invitation. 

Not only was it a fascinating topic that had never been written about in a children’s book before, I immediately knew how I’d end the book. I could draw inspiration from a special moment I’d shared with my nieces, Caroline and Claire, about 15 years ago.

As I discuss in this video, when Caroline was in kindergarten and Claire was in second grade, I did an author visit at their school in Maine. They wanted to ride to school with me rather than take the bus, and on the way, I spotted the Moon.

“Oh, look, there’s the Moon,” I said, pointing out the passenger-side window.

Claire, who was on that side of the car, could easily see it. “Oh yeah. Cool,” she replied.

But Caroline couldn’t see it. She squirmed wildly in her car seat. “Where? Where?” she yelled. As her frustration grew, she exclaimed, “I’ve never seen the Moon in the day in my whole long life!” 

So I pulled the car over, and we all got out to admire that lovely, surprising daytime Moon. I’ll never forget Caroline’s joy and astonishment in that moment. She was discovering something new and exciting about how nature works. 

Even as an adult, spotting the Moon in the day is still a special treat. It feels a tiny bit magical because you aren’t expecting it. I wanted to capture that emotion at the end of the book, and it felt simpatico with the image Katherine had sent me. 


The Nonfiction Detectives: 
How did you decide on which animals to highlight in Thank You, Moon?

Melissa Stewart: There are ten animals (and one plant) included in the book, but I had many more examples to choose from. Whenever I write a list book about an animal behavior, I keep diversity in mind. I’ve included creatures from many different animal groups (reptiles, insects, birds, mammals, zooplankton, corals) and many different habitats and geographical regions. 

I also looked for ways to pair the animals by survival strategies to create a compare and contrast text structure. Some animals depend on the Moon to find food. Others rely on it to stay safe or reproduce or travel from place to place. 

Initially, I tried to write the book with a sequence text structure that followed the phases of the Moon, but that didn’t work because most of the Moon-related activity occurs either when the Moon is full or nearly full or when there’s just a sliver of a Moon. There weren’t enough examples in between to create a satisfying arc. 

For me, finding just the right text structure is the most challenging part of writing expository nonfiction. Sometimes it takes years. But luckily, it came pretty easily this time.

The Nonfiction Detectives: What was your writing process for Thank You, Moon? Did you write the main text first and then add the more detailed secondary text?

Melissa Stewart: When I write expository literature, I begin by looking for a hook--a unique lens that will spark the reader’s curiosity and encourage them to think about the topic in a new way. 

When a book has a strong hook, it’s often built right into the title, so brainstorming titles is one way to discover the great hook. It can really help to toss around ideas with a friend, so one Saturday, I asked my husband to help me think of possible titles while we cleaned the house. The ideas could be good or bad, silly or serious, anything at all. Any unique way of thinking about “our closest companion in space.” I liked the sound of that phrase, so I wrote it down to get us started.

A few hours later, the dust bunnies were gone, the bathroom sparkled, and we’d filled a notebook page with ideas. The next day, I typed them into a computer file along with all the adjectives I could think of to describe the Moon photo Katherine had sent me. My goal was to create a manuscript that evoked that image.

It didn’t take long for the title Thank You, Moon and the lens of gratitude to rise to the top. After all, life on Earth—including us—couldn’t exist without the Moon to regulate Earth’s seasons. 

I also thought it would be possible to use the phrase repetitively to craft the kind of lyrical voice I wanted for the book. 

Once I had a hook and I knew the text structure, I could start to write. I wrote the lyrical main text and more detailed secondary text in tandem, moving those large chunks around until I had an order that flowed well and represented the diversity of creatures, habitats, and geographical regions that would appeal to a broad, global audience.

The Nonfiction Detectives: Some writers say they write a certain number of words every day. What is your writing routine? 

Melissa Stewart: I don’t have daily word goals, but I do try to set aside the first few hours of my workday for writing rough drafts or complex revisions. I’m a morning person, so that’s when my brain is  at its best.

I do most of my writing in a spare bedroom in my house. My husband leaves for work at 5:45 a.m., so that’s when I start to write.

When I get stuck, I stop to take a shower. Something about the steam and running water frees my mind, and I usually solve the problem. After lunch, I switch my focus to researching, planning school visits, and taking care of business tasks. I stop working at 4:30 p.m., so I can start making dinner.

The Nonfiction Detectives: What is your research process? Do you use your local library to find information?

Melissa Stewart: I get information in four ways—reading books, articles, and scientific papers; using the internet (carefully), firsthand observations in nature, and interviewing experts. I do use the library and interlibrary loan to get books. I also am a heavy user of the library’s databases, which I can access online. 

The Nonfiction Detectives: How do you keep track of all the information you collect as you do research?

Melissa Stewart: There are some fancy computer programs that many people use, but I find it’s simpler to just dump everything into a computer file, which is easy to search. I organize everything by source, so I know where to look if I need to clarify my notes or go back for additional information. It helps that I have a very good memory. I can often picture where I found specific information without having to look it up.

The Nonfiction Detectives: What are some of your favorite recent nonfiction books by other authors?

Melissa Stewart: Oh wow, there are so many great nonfiction books coming out. 2023 is a banner year! 

Here’s a list of 20 titles I’m particularly excited about. You’ll probably notice a science slant because that’s my personal area of interest:

Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed by Dashka Slater

The Book of Turtles Sy Montgomery and Matt Patterson

Butt or Face? A Hilarious Animal Guessing Game Book for Kids by Kari Lavelle 

The Deep!: Wild Life at the Ocean’s Darkest Depths by Lindsey Leigh

The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of by Kirsten Larson, illustrated by Katherine Roy

The Girl Who Heard the Music: How One Pianist and 85,000 Bottles and Cans Brought New Hope to an Island by Marni Fogelson, Mahani Teave, illustrated by Marta Álvarez Miguéns

Glitter Everywhere! Where It Came From, Where It’s Found, & Where It’s Going by Chris Barton, illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat

Great Carrier Reef by Jessica Stremer, illustrated by Gordy Wright

The Green Piano: How Little Me Found Music by Roberta Flack and Tonya Bolden,
illustrated by Hayden Goodman

How Do You Spell Unfair? MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling Bee by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Impossible Escape: A True Story of Survival and Heroism in Nazi Europe by
Steve Sheinkin

Jumper: A Day in the Life of a Backyard Jumping Spider by Jessica Lanan

Making More: How Life Begins by Katherine Roy

The Monkey Trial: John Scopes and the Battle Over Teaching Evolution by Anita Sanchez

Mysterious Glowing Mammals: An Unexpected Discovery Sparks a Scientific Investigation by Maria Parrott-Ryan

Nature Is a Sculptor: Weathering and Erosion by Heather Ferranti Kinser

Rise to the Sky: How the World’s Tallest Trees Grow Up by Rebecca E. Hirsch, illustrated by Mia Posada

Sisters in Science: Marie Curie, Bronia Dluska, and the Atomic Power of Sisterhood by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Superpod: Saving the Endangered Orcas of the Pacific Northwest by Nora Nickum

To Boldly Go: How Nichelle Nichols and Star Trek Helped Advance Civil Rights by Angela Dalton, illustrated by Lauren Semmer

One book that I’m dying to read is The Mona Lisa Vanishes: A Legendary Painter, a Shocking Heist, and the Birth of a Global Celebrity by Nicolas Day. I’ve heard so many good things about it.

It’s worth mentioning that I first heard about many of these books right here on the Nonfiction Detectives blog. Thank you for creating such a valuable resource for teachers, librarians, parents, and nonfiction creators like me.