Engaging nonfiction chapter books intended for middle grade children are few and far between. A new series from Grosset & Dunlap succeeds in making history interesting, with titles that read with the ease of a novel. What Was the Gold Rush? by Joan Holub, brings to life the excitement of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, and the migration of fortune seekers westward, beginning in 1849. She delves into the science of gold (How can you tell it’s the real thing?) as well as the reasons behind its worth. Readers learn about how the gold rush led to the buildup of major cities, and how Native Americans were affected by the influx of prospectors.
Kathleen Krull tackles such weighty topics as racism, slavery, and Jim Crow laws in What Was the March on Washington? This book explains civil rights in an easily accessible way, and introduces the concept of peaceful protests. Readers meet A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights activist who had the idea for a national march, and “organizing genius” Bayard Rustin, who brought the whole thing together in only two months. Jim O’Connor takes on the Civil War in What Was the Battle of Gettysburg?, a book that begins by explaining the unrest between the Northern and Southern states, details the strategies and battle maneuvers, and ends with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Readers will enjoy a plethora of interesting asides, including an explanation of why a Sharps carbine rifle is far superior to a musket, and the story of the Union general who donated the bones of his amputated leg to a museum following the war.
Each What Was? title is liberally illustrated with relevant drawings, diagrams, and even photos designed to complement the text. One timeline at the end of each book provides a snapshot of important events related to the topic, while a second shows what was happening in the world at large during the same time period. Parents and librarians have a reason to rejoice, as the books all weigh in at 105 pages each, satisfying those teachers who tell students that the nonfiction titles they choose for book reports must be at least one hundred pages long. Also available is What Was the Boston Tea Party?, with more titles to come.
Are You Normal? More Than 100 Questions That Will Test Your Weirdness satisfies one of the most basic and pressing needs of tweens and near-tweens: to minutely assess how they compare to others. Look at Greg Heffley, the “hero” of the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series – he introduces himself as the “52nd most popular kid” in school. Greg is pretty oblivious to the feelings of others, but he knows exactly where he stands in relation to his peers.
For this book, author Mark Schulman and his team polled hundreds of kids about their school and leisure activities, family situations, habits and preferences. Readers will learn that if they cut their spaghetti instead of twirling it, they are in the minority – only “15% of kids cut it, versus 82% who twirl (3% don’t eat spaghetti at all).” So whether you like pepperoni on your pizza or not, bite your fingernails or toenails (eww!), or prefer smooth peanut butter to chunky, there’s something in this book that everyone can say “yes” to. Sneaky math bonus – the book uses a variety of graphing techniques to meaningfully display relationships between numbers.
“Will my personality change as I get older?” “Is my voice unique?” “Does my brain stop working when I am asleep?” Older kids love learning about themselves too, and Richard Walker’s Who Am I? The Amazing Science of Existence discusses topics ranging from emotions to metaphysics, and delivers concrete answers to questions teens might not have even considered. The author presents facts about issues related to bioethics, such as stem cell research, but avoids controversial statements. Sharp photos and snappy design add to this book’s appeal, while puzzles and other interactive elements keep it challenging.
Take a peek inside the mysterious and mischievous world of twins in three books for children with appeal for multiples and singletons alike. The nineteenth century counting rhyme “Over in the Meadow” inspired Ken Geist’s Who’s Who which puts the spotlight on twin animals. These six pairs of twins include calves, bunnies, monkeys, and fish and are featured in their natural habitats. Illustrator Henry Cole vividly depicts these landscapes in acrylic and colored pencil and moves from farmyard to jungle to bat cave. The memorable rhymes highlight the twins’ activities through the day and match the warm, detailed illustrations.
The Twins’ Blanket, written and illustrated by Hyewon Yum, shares the story of identical twin sisters who at age five are growing up and a little apart. The girls’ favorite blanket is no longer big enough for sharing, so Mom creates new blankets for each girl with pieces from the old. Yum does a fabulous job of differentiating between these twins, by giving each girl her own side of the book. It isn’t until the girls reach out to comfort each other that they cross over the center of the book. Yum, a twin herself, uses prints, colored pencil, watercolor, and other media in her bright illustrations, and makes great use of white space to complement the quiet, narrative text.
In Take Two: a Celebration of Twins, J. Patrick Lewis, the current Children's Poet Laureate teams with Jane Yolen to present more than forty poems about life as a twin. Sophie Blackall’s watercolor, pencil, and collage illustrations complement the varied poems which are divided into sections representing stages and milestones, and a final section features famous twins. Lewis is a twin himself and Yolen is the grandmother of twins, so the two are quite familiar with the world of doubles. Readers will also enjoy the “Twin Fact” feature found throughout, such as the Russian woman who was mother to sixteen sets of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets!
Ask a kid where their dinner comes from and you might hear, “McDonald’s”. That trend is reversing, however, as more of today’s families are re-discovering the joy of cooking and paying attention to where their food comes from as well as how to prepare it. Cooking with kids is a hot activity right now and an easy way to introduce skills such as reading, math, science, even art.
Tyler Florence, celebrity chef on the Food Network and co-founder of Sprout organic baby food, encourages kids to explore cooking in Tyler Makes Pancakes! Little Tyler and his dog, Tofu, decide to start the day right with a plan to make breakfast for mom and dad. Armed with a list of ingredients they head to the local market. Simply colored stick figure illustrations by Craig Frazier are highlighted by lots of white space and short text which gives a pleasing clean-as-a-chef’s-kitchen flavor to each page. Tyler’s blueberry buttermilk pancake recipe is included so kids can learn to measure and combine ingredients and make a quick and easy meal. A list of interesting food facts will encourage them to learn even more.
The life of Julia Child, doyenne of classic French cooking in the U.S., has had renewed interest in recent years. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, by Susanna Reich, is a charming picture book homage which will delight both children and adults. While Julia perfected her cooking skills, she would prepare a variety of delicacies and offer tastes to little cat Minette, who more often than not, preferred a simpler palette of traditional mouse or bird. This gentle story blends facts from Julia’s life and her various books into a mélange of fact and fiction. Peppered throughout are quotes from Julia’s original letters and a sprinkling of French words and cooking terms. Amy Bates draws the reader in with engaging pencil and watercolor illustrations of multi-colored Minette and charming kitchen and street life scenes in muted tones.
The 2013 Sibert Medal, awarded by the American Library Association for the “most distinguished informational book for children,” was given to Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin. This narrative nonfiction book is a compelling historical thriller that follows the behind the scenes science and political intrigue involved in developing and building the world’s first atomic bomb.
Bomb has also been recognized with two other prestigious 2013 Youth Media awards from the ALA. It was named as the only nonfiction Newbery honor book. In addition, it was selected as the winner of the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, the first national award that honors the best nonfiction books for teens.
The Sibert Medal Committee also named three Honor Books. Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95, written by Phillip M. Hoose, follows one individual migratory shorebird, a rufa red knot, as scientists gather data in an attempt to understand how he has survived for nearly 20 years. Numerous photographs, maps, and informational sidebars help to draw the reader into this story of science, ecology and conservation as related to this four-once avian.
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, written by Robert Byrd, uses a picture book format to deliver both detailed, colorful illustrations of his subject’s colonial life along with a rich narrative. Although Electric Ben makes a good research source, children with an interest in history will be drawn to it as a book to simply enjoy. Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, written by Deborah Hopkinson, provides a fresh look at a topic that never seems to lose appeal. The author engages readers with detailed accounts of the tragedy told in the voices of actual survivors. Historic photographs and copies of primary source materials like a distress telegram sent by the ship’s wireless operator, and the front page of The New York Times from the day following the sinking enhance the narrative.
Ever wondered what your cat is thinking? Why do they do what they do? It’s All About Me-Ow, written and illustrated by Hudson Talbott, deciphers all those mysteries and more in a hilarious romp through the life of felines. Spot on and laugh-out-loud funny, Buddy, the family’s older, experienced orange tabby takes on the schooling of three new kittens with "A Young Cat’s Guide to the Good Life". From comical explanatory charts, lists of "fabulous feline features", to instructions for making the most appealing face for every situation, Buddy schools the wide-eyed kittens in the rigors of "cat-itude", as well as the proper training of humans. Endlessly amusing, the cat’s antics, interspersed with actual information and a bit of history, will keep readers in stitches. Slyly humorous, the cartoon illustrations in watercolor, colored pencil and ink, charm and disarm as does the worldly Buddy and earnestly ingenuous kittens. This is a purrfectly fun book for all ages.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting Hatchlings: A Guide for Crocodilian Parents (and Curious Kids) is another cleverly humorous picture book, notable as children’s nonfiction. Author Bridget Heos (whose favorite book as a child was Lyle, Lyle Crocodile) blends witty reptilian wisdom with real facts in an easy to read Q & A format and playful conversational tone. Turns out reptile parents have the same concerns as human parents – "where should I lay my eggs?"; "what happens after they hatch?" Hatchlings have questions too, like "when do I eat my first water buffalo?" The colorful anthropomorphic cartoon-style artwork, by Canadian illustrator Stephane Jorisch, adds to the whimsy. Included are a glossary and a list of books for further reading and websites. Readers will also want to check out two similarly amusing titles from the author: What to Expect When You’re Expecting Joeys: A Guide for Marsupial Parents and What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents.
Singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant wanted to share child-friendly works of the oral tradition with her young daughter, delighting in the gift of words and speech that was featured in poems and stories. The result was a twenty-six song, two-CD set of poems that Merchant set to music. Released in 2010, it also included biographical sketches and a photograph of each poet. Now, paired with well-regarded illustrator Barbara McClintock, many of the poems from that endeavor come to life in the picture book Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry.
Transforming a musical package to a picture book isn’t altogether unknown, but a book of poems is less common. Covering many famous poets, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, e.e. cummings, and Ogden Nash, the collection varies in tone and level. From Jack Prelutsky’s breezy and fun “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” to Laurence Alma-Tadema’s poignant “If No One Ever Marries Me”, the works focus on language and the way a few choice words coming together can create a memorable portrait. Take “Equestrienne”, by Rachel Field; McClintock’s exquisite illustrations of a rider and her milk-white horse perfectly capture the tone of the poem. Listen to Merchant’s interpretation on the accompanying CD, and the whole package comes together beautifully. The music styles range from Klezmer to jazz to string arrangements.
McClintock’s illustrations of “I Saw A Ship A-Sailing” epitomize her style, with a duck captain and mice sailors simultaneously working an old vessel but also juggling, playing with puppets, and riding a hobby horse. The whole package will bring a smile to both children and adults reading and listening along.
Blood is something we all know exists from infancy on, but few of us really examine that which carries oxygen to our various body parts and keeps us alive. Whether it is our inability to fully understand the intricacies of the substance flowing through our veins and arteries, or our collective squeamishness at the sight of it, blood remains largely a mystery to the masses. In The Book of Blood: from Legends to Leeches to Vampires and Veins, author HP Newquist examines this mystical fluid, our literal lifeblood.
Many hematological topics are covered and well-explained, such as the various blood cells, the makeup of plasma, and diseases involving blood, such as leukemia and hemophilia. Illustrated using digital imagery, photography and reproductions of blood-related ephemera, The Book of Blood could go for the jugular in terms of gore and unpleasantness, but instead uses appropriate restraint in portraying the substance. The various bloods of animals are discussed, too, whether it be the differences between warm- and cold-blooded beings, or those animals that have blood in colors other than red, such as blue blood of many mollusks.
Titles such as this, covering one commonly known subject, give readers the ability to focus on a topic and better understand the ways blood works and how it is an unspoken part of everyone’s life. The cultural meanings of blood are also touched upon, with references to mosquitoes, leeches, and bats, and of course, vampires. The book closes with a chapter that reminds us of the long way we still have to go in medicine. Blood donations remain critical because, despite so many other medical advances, we have not yet been able to create blood in a laboratory.
One Times Square: A Century of Change at the Crossroads of the World, written and impressively illustrated by Joe McKendry, is the history of one building and the surrounding neighborhood situated at one of the planet’s most well-known intersections. The “bow tie” confluence of Broadway and Seventh Avenue in New York City has attracted millions to gaze at its lights, and one night a year, the dropping of an illuminated ball that marks the end of one year and the beginning of another.
Given the varied phases that Times Square has gone through in just the past fifty or so years, it can be hard to imagine that in the 19th century the area was a rural pasture. Later in the 1800s it became a manufacturing center, particularly for carriage builders. Only in the end of that century did the first theatres move into the area. The name “Times Square” first came into being in 1904 when the New York Times constructed the building whose address would become One Times Square. Although the newspaper quickly outgrew the tall, thin, ornate structure, and moved to a nearby street off the square, the name for the area stuck.
McKendry does an amazing job with vivid watercolors that match the hustle and bustle of Times Square. Pages are filled with signs, lights, and advertisements that place the reader into the pages’ chronology. Line drawings and illustrations in sepia hues mark earlier eras. Even the cover imagery is chosen smartly, with a depiction of the intersection closely resembling the stage lights of Broadway theatres. Fascinating details about the history and engineering of the lights, marquées, and the “zipper” news bulletin that wraps around buildings is included. For those who are preparing for their first visit to the heart of Manhattan, or for those who have walked through the area on countless occasions, One Times Square is a visual and historical treat.
Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis honors seventeen civil rights heroes in the beautifully illustrated collection, When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders. While Lewis’ poems celebrate well-known leaders such as Coretta Scott King and Mohandas Gandhi, he also uses this as an opportunity to present lesser known heroes to today’s children. These include Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy activist. and Dennis James Banks, Co-founder of the American Indian Movement and Anishinabe political activist. The verses bring to life the spirit of these men and women who impacted the world at large and each is accompanied by a beautiful artwork from four of today’s most celebrated illustrators.
Activism is at the heart of Crow, by adult author Barbara Wright, her first novel for children. It’s the summer of 1898, and Moses Thomas of Wilmington, North Carolina is looking forward to a fabulous summer vacation. But things don’t go as planned when his best friend finds a new pal, his father and grandmother intensify their squabbling, and his mother works long days as a maid for a rich white family. He also grows increasingly aware of the escalating tension between the African American and white communities. Moses’ dad is an alderman in town and works for the African American newspaper. The African American middle class in Wilmington is growing, but not everyone is pleased with the power wielded by this population, and a White Declaration of Independence is issued. Leading African American figures, including Moses’ father, are told to leave town. The resulting riots bring devastation to the community and directly impact Moses’ family and future. Told from the realistic point of view of a courageous young boy, this story combines historic details of the disenfranchisement of the African American community in one town with a moving coming of age story.