For my final set of nonfiction picture books of 2017, here are eighteen recent titles that feature history, biographies, animals, math, and natural science. I’m constantly amazed at the inventive ways picture book authors and illustrators approach and shape their material to engage and enlighten readers. I hope you find something here that will appeal to the young readers in your life.
This is a terrific subject for a nonfiction picture book! The drama of war, the art of deception, and giant ships painted in dazzling colors and patterns all combine in Chris Barton’s Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion. During World War I, British ships were torpedoed by German submarines at a rate so alarming that the British food supply was threatened. Nothing seemed to thwart the attacks until Norman Wilkinson, a British naval officer, came up with the idea of painting the ships in bold patterns that would confuse the enemy’s tracking systems just long enough to avoid being torpedoed.
Barton’s narrative text has many touches of humor, which might seem out of place for such a deadly subject, but the point of Dazzle Ships is that sometimes the best way to solve a problem is “by trying the unlikely, the improbable, the seemingly bonkers.” Illustrator Victo Ngai’s picture book debut gives readers large, detailed images that are themselves dazzling. No one will hurry through this book. Each spread features Barton’s engaging narrative voice and Ngai’s complex but friendly visuals.
Dazzle Ships gets the history right, but more importantly for young readers, it makes history interesting and relevant to contemporary contexts. I can easily imagine a Dazzle Ships fan becoming the person in the room who says, “Other ideas aren’t working very well. What if we try a dazzle approach instead?”
I won’t give away anything here, but the sea monster that spooked the Nantucket citizenry in 1937 turned out to be something other than a denizen of the deep. Darcy Pattison’s picture book The Nantucket Sea Monster: A Fake News Story is a tale for our times as it reminds readers that reported facts need to be verified and that the media is sometimes used for purposes other than truth-telling.
Pocket Full of Colors is a picture book biography of Disney artist Mary Blair. The through line of Mary’s story is her fascination with color. As a child, Mary “collected” colors; throughout her life, she traveled the world in search of more colors. When first hired by Walt Disney, Mary’s fanciful color schemes were rejected by the “Nine Old Men,” Disney’s primary animators. But Pocket Full of Colors is a persistence story, and Mary ends up in charge of her own animation. Mary Blair is the reason the pumpkin carriage in Cinderella is teal instead of orange. Mary Blair is the reason the Peter Pan mermaids are lime green. And Mary Blair is the reason “It’s A Small World” has such a unique look and feel. The text by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville is light and lyrical, and Brigette Barrager’s bright artwork expertly draws on Mary Blair’s fascination with arranging colors. Pocket Full of Colors will delight young readers as they recognize Mary Blair’s art from Disney films they love while learning the story behind those visual effects.
Muddy is a powerful picture book biography of McKinley Morganfield, better known as blues legend Muddy Waters. As a child in Mississippi, little McKinley “was never good at doing what he was told.” That included keeping clean, so his Grandma Della just took to calling him Muddy. Muddy’s insistence on doing things his own way made it hard for him to stay employed in the Jim Crow South, so he came to Chicago to play music, his way. Author Michael Mahin emphasizes how Muddy was always true to how he felt his music should sound, even when others tried to exert control over it, and young rebel readers will find validation in Muddy’s story. Evan Turk’s artwork is just wild. The loud abstract page spreads capture the thrilling, stinging electricity of Muddy Waters’ voice and guitar. I’m not sure if Muddy has wide kid appeal, but it’s likely to be just the right book for some kids.
Andrea J. Loney’s Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee is a picture book biography of one of the most important figures from the Harlem Renaissance. As a photographer, James VandDerZee created portraits that captured and celebrated the lives of Harlem residents in ways that eventually showed the rest of the world the lives of middle-class black citizens. In an age when photography studios are in our pockets, the story of James VanDerZee and the art of photography is important to remember, not only because of his role in elevating the art of portraiture but because of how his dignified work challenged negative stereotypes of black Americans.
I clearly remember the Dick and Jane books from my earliest grades of elementary school. Dr. Seuss came along in later grades in the form of read-alouds. I loved when our teacher read to us The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and Yertle the Turtle. My parents read Dr. Seuss book to me too: Horton Hatches the Egg and Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose. As I learned from Judy Sierra’s nonfiction picture book Imagine That!: How Dr. Seuss Wrote The Cat in the Hat, the Dr. Seuss easy reader books came along just a little later, and apparently my teachers weren’t quite ready to replace Dick and Jane with Thing One and Thing Two.
Imagine that. Imagine That! helped me understand something about my early reading life that I’d never realized. I’m excited to think about this wonderful book doing the same for readers fifty years younger than me as they ponder when, how, and why Dr. Seuss books came into their lives.
The Cat in the Hat grew out of a realization that those Dick and Jane books are boring, and kids were more likely to read if their first easy readers were fun and exciting. Ted Geisel, the author known as Dr. Seuss, accepted a challenge from writer John Hersey to write a funny book using only words from the approved basal reader list. Imagine That! explains Geisel’s offbeat creative processes and how The Cat in the Hat became such a phenomenon.
Young Dr. Seuss fans will enjoy learning more about this subject matter that is likely already in their knowledge banks. Will this be their first exposure to literary analysis as they think about how Dr. Seuss worked within various constraints to create his delightful effects? Will it inspire them to write funny stories of their own? Imagine that.
In Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, Monica Brown tells the life story of artist Frida Kahlo through the lens of the animals in her life, how she shared traits with them, and how they inspired and inhabited her imagination. Kahlo’s life and art lend themselves to interpretation in many ways, and I admire how this picture book biography chooses a specific window that is accessible to young readers. The John Parra illustrations not only convey the biography of Frida Kahlo; they also emphasize the animal motif that runs through her life and work. Readers will likely want to see some of Frida Kahlo’s artwork after reading this book. The back matter helpfully includes a list of paintings that connect to this narrative, and kids will enjoy recognizing the animals from Monica Brown’s book in those Kahlo paintings.
The Girl Who Ran is a persistence story. In 1966 Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. As a little girl, Bobbi liked to run. Her friends did too, until they lost interest. Bobbi kept running. As an adult, she wanted to run in the Boston Marathon, but her application was denied because of her gender. So, Bobbi covered up her long hair, jumped out of the bushes, and ran the marathon anyway. We all need stories like this.
The images of Bobbi and other people in this picture book biography effectively show the emotions involved in each page spread, but when Bobbi is running, she is trailed by fiery streaks of red, orange, and yellow. Similarly, the primary narrative text is straightforward, but there are moments in the story when words burst across the top of the page. When Bobbi’s running is in flow, rhyming couplets appear in italics. I like how these various touches move Bobbi’s true story into something a little bigger than mere reality.
Duncan Tonatiuh’s Danza!: Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México is a picture book biography about the founder of the most enduring Mexican dance company, El Ballet Folklórico de México. Danza! is the story of how a young girl in Mexico City was inspired by folk dancers to become a dancer herself. Amalia Hernández trained in classical ballet but found herself choreographing modern dance pieces resembling the dances she remembered seeing as a young girl.
Although Amalia took her dances to villages all through Mexico, she knew her artistic visions could not be complete unless they were performed in a theater. The company she formed became internationally famous for their dazzling fusion of ballet and modern dance with folkloric elements.
Much like El Ballet Folklórico de México itself, Danza! uses illustrations blending traditional Mexican styles with modern depictions. Danza!’s readers will learn about turning artistic dreams into reality, and the persistence necessary to achieve artistry on a large scale. This book will especially appeal to young dancers, and students with Mexican heritage will undoubtedly experience a surge of pride.
Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton is a picture book biography celebrating the work of “Jinnee” Burton, the creator of such classic children’s books as Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Maybelle the Cable Car, and The Little House, the Caldecott Award Winner in 1943. Young Jinnee’s imagination takes many forms, but the drawings she makes to delight her children become stories and eventually books beloved by generations.
Although Sherri Duskey Rinker’s narrative conveys a factual timeline, it is not exactly a straightforward biography. Big Machines is more of a salute to imagination, creativity, storytelling, and adults who inspire children. John Rocco’s warm realistic pictures, an homage to an earlier time in children’s book publishing, provide a bit of nostalgia for adult readers but will also allow young readers to experience how books looked and felt once upon a time.
From the endpapers to the back matter, this loving tribute to an author who cared enough about children to create stories for them is sure to delight both children and adults.
The title Dangerous Jane is alluring, but it’s also ironic because the life mission of Jane Addams was to protect and serve whoever needed protection and support. Dangerous Jane tells the life story of Jane Addams with a focus on how she was inspired to serve others as a child, and moves on to how she established a settlement house in Chicago and an international women’s movement, both dedicated to helping those who need it without regard for nationality or any other consideration. After World War I, Jane Addams was considered a traitor and labeled “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” by some who thought she should be more selective about who she provided with assistance. She eventually became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Author Suzanne Slade’s text cover these milestones in the life of Jane Addams in finely crafted sentences. Slade’s economy with words provide her sentences with punch but never cross over into melodrama. I especially admire how the final phrase or image on each page is particularly thought-provoking. Because of Slade’s attention to the sound of her sentences, Dangerous Jane is one of the rare picture books that will work as a read-aloud.
The illustrations by Alice Ratterree enhance Suzanne Slade’s narrative with historically accurate and interesting backdrops. The faces are expressive and realistic, and all of this is rendered in colors that are not quite sepia but still create a nostalgic effect.
Young readers exposed to Dangerous Jane will learn about empathy, compassion, service, World War I, the role of women in the early Twentieth Century, and much more. In this time when some in our society want to build walls, I’m glad that “Dangerous” Jane Addams can still inspire the better parts of human nature.
Hidden Wildlife: How Animals Hide in Plain Sight is the latest In Jim Arnosky’s series of picture books about wild animals. The window here is Arnosky’s own experiences with these animals and how his artist’s eye interacted with the animal’s coloration and camouflage. Two striking aspects of Hidden Wildllife set it apart from similar books. The first is Arnosky’s stories about how he encountered each animal in its natural habitat and what he noticed about how it blended in with its surroundings. (Exposition is fine, but stories make the learning stickier.) Secondly, the colorful paintings are large and dramatic, and young readers will love the foldouts.
How to Survive as a Firefly explains the brief, dynamic life of a firefly, and how its metamorphosis differs from other life cycles. The energetic narrative voice effectively conveys what author Kristen Foote wants readers to understand about the firefly—it lives fast, changes quickly, and doesn’t have time to relax. (This contrasts with how I experience fireflies as they seem to quietly twinkle off and on during lazy summer evenings!) The illustrations are comical, but the appearance of the narrator becomes a little repetitive. The animated tone of the narrative text carries through to the back matter, which may lead young readers to engage with those pages rather than skipping them.
Animals Illustrated: Walrus by Herve Paniaq is full of interesting facts about walruses, and the Ben Shannon illustrations depict aspects of a walrus’s life not commonly considered. The text is easy to read, but I’m a little troubled by several variations of “it is said” or used in a book that is likely to be used as a credible source. For example, Paniaq writes, “Walruses that live in very deep water are said to enjoy eating seals.” Well, do they enjoy eating seals or not? That “said” formation leaves doubt.
The book’s short chapters offer intriguing information and pictures, but the last spread covers two topics, how walruses can be dangerous to humans, and how Inuit store walrus meat and used tusks as harpoons. If the book is read in one sitting, which is likely, the end just seems to trail off with no final thoughts or big idea to remember about the subject.
If your library doesn’t have a walrus book, this one will be serviceable.
Beauty and the Beak begins as a bald eagle chick is born. The chick is followed to adulthood when she is wounded by a human predator. The weakened, disfigured bald eagle is discovered scavenging in a dump by a police officer and taken to a raptor sanctuary. Named Beauty, the eagle is not only nursed back to health, but with the help of 3-D dental technology she is successfully fitted with a prosthetic beak that restores much of her ability to function normally.
This book’s photographs are excellent. The first part shows how a bald eagle develops into maturity and fends for itself in the wild. The second part shows Beauty in rehabilitation and undergoing the procedure for attaching the prosthetic beak. The science is explained in accessible language and clearly demonstrates that humans are capable of helpful impulses that can ingenuity can harness with technology to improve our world and its varied inhabitants.
Beauty and the Beak’s extensive notes and back matter comprise roughly 40% of the book. While the primary narrative accompanying the photographs is geared toward younger-grade readers, the language in the ancillary material is noticeably more complex and devoid of photos.
Patricia Newman’s colorful Zoo Scientists to the Rescue is a picture book for middle-grade readers focused on the problem-solving work of scientists affiliated with zoos around the world. The first and last chapters are overviews of the kinds of dilemmas faced by animals and dealt with by zoo scientists. The three middle chapters feature specific species in specific zoos: orangutans at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, black-footed ferrets at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and black rhinoceroses at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Annie Crawley’s high-quality photographs of animals will captivate young scientists, but the photographs of people doing their work or posing with charts are less interesting.
David Adler’s Money Math: Addition and Subtraction is a wonderfully interactive picture book for elementary-age readers. Hosted by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and other figures from United States currency, Money Math engagingly connects the real-world skill of counting money to more abstract mathematical concepts, such as fractions and decimal points.
The cartoon-like illustrations by Edward Miller invite readers to imagine the coin illustrations as real coins. Students who enjoy this book will easily transition from the book to manipulatives or actual coins. Although the book is focused mostly on adding coins and bills in various ways, it also touches on the subtraction-related skills of making change. The tone and message of Money Math is that counting money is fun, and so is the math behind it. Money Math is a great addition for any school, classroom, or home library.
A little girl reading in bed, on the verge of falling asleep, says hello to the moon and wishes she “could do exactly nothing, just like you.” The moon replies, explaining all the ways it is more active than it seems. The narrative can be read by focusing on the moon’s lyrical replies (“Hover near your mother … Tease the Earth: peek-a-boo!”), but each of the moon’s answers is supported by a more detailed explanation of the science behind it, as well as beliefs about the moon from various cultures. The moon is friendly throughout, both in the text and in the illustrations as it reveals how being the moon is a lot like being a busy youngster.
Many of these reviews appeared on Goodreads or elsewhere in slightly different form.
As always, thanks for reading. Which of these jump out at you as the most appealing?