Here are my thoughts on a few nonfiction picture books from the first half of 2016. These reviews first appeared on Goodreads in slightly different form. I hope this post is helpful to those choosing books for young readers.
With a title that works from every angle, Pink is for Blobfish is an excellent nonfiction picture book, especially for animal-loving young readers. While pink is usually considered a pretty color, some denizens of the wild with pink coloration defy that stereotype.
Jess Keating’s book is bright, humorous, and engaging. Readers will learn weird facts about each animal, along with details about its habitat, diet, and enemies. My favorite weird facts: naked mole rats do not get cancer, and the only habitat of the pink land iguana is a remote volcano in the Galapagos.
Pink is for Blobfish is a book that students will read, re-read, huddle over, and discuss.
Although a little too gushy for my taste, Some Girls Are Born to Lead makes the important point that Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent a lifetime challenging expectations and assumptions about the roles of girls and women in American society and beyond. This will also provide young readers with an overview of the main events of her life, beginning in Park Ridge, Illinois, two train stops down the line from where I live.
I cannot separate my thoughts on A Birthday Cake for George Washington from the controversies surrounding it and A Fine Dessert, published in 2015. I’ll admit that when I read A Fine Dessert, my uh-oh radar did not go off. Yes, I noticed that a couple of pages dealt with slavery, and the slaves seemed happy enough in the brief episode involving them. Call it ignorance or whatever you want, but I gave the author and illustrator benefit of the doubt that even in the misery of slavery, individuals could be at least somewhat happy for a little while. Then the firestorm broke, and I asked some people smarter than me what I had missed in my reading. They patiently explained it to me, and I came away wiser.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington is way different. This is an entire book filled with page after page of text and pictures of slaves who seem to regard their lot as nothing more than just another occupation. They seem focused, satisfied, and yes, happy about serving George and Martha Washington. This is not a brief episode in a larger work. The slaves’ blithe existence is the created world of A Birthday Cake for George Washington.
Although I can’t begin to fathom the editorial approach that thought this was OK, I don’t think the author and illustrator were overtly trying to be racist. My guess is they were aiming for upbeat and ended up being stone tone deaf. The result is a book that is not acceptable for young readers. Impressionable young readers are likely to come away from A Birthday Cake for George Washington thinking that slavery doesn’t seem all that bad. We can’t have that.
I don’t think this book is intentionally offensive. It’s just careless and insensitive. And the story is actually kind of boring.
Because air travel can be a little overwhelming for those unaccustomed to the frenzied routines of airports, Lisa Brown’s The Airport Book is a welcome resource for the youngest travelers. Its engaging pictures will help impose some understanding on and bring order to the seeming chaos of today’s airports. Those children who read this book before traveling will have a light-hearted framework for understanding what they see and experience during an airport visit, from checking baggage, to waiting in security, boarding through the jetway, and actually flying. Although the book follows one family through the airport, there is a little bit of a Where’s-Waldo feel as various individuals pop up in different scenes. An older lady keeps asking her husband questions like “Do you have the tickets?” A man in a yellow hat and suit “curiously” appears on several pages. And there is a joke likely to be lost on youngsters as a limo driver waiting for his clients holds a sign saying “Earhart.” I was glad to see Lisa Brown include a passenger in a turban boarding the plane without other passengers freaking out. Anyone traveling with children will do themselves a favor by enjoying The Airport Book several times before departure.
Audrey Vernick and Steven Salerno bring us another excellent nonfiction baseball picture book.
Edith Houghton, the kid from Diamond Street in Philadelphia, liked to say, “I guess I was born with a baseball in my hand.” By the time she was ten years old, Edith was the starting shortstop for the 1922 Philadelphia Bobbies, a professional women’s baseball team. As a member of the Bobbies, she barnstormed across America and toured Japan.
I’m extremely glad that Audrey Vernick continues to unearth these historic baseball treasures. Not only does she preserve little known niches of baseball history, but Vernick finds the angles most likely to captivate young readers. Steven Salerno’s artwork evokes the 1920s with caricatures just this side of being cartoons and scenes colored in tones similar to postcards of that era.
Can you tell I like everything about this book?
Here is yet another excellent nonfiction picture book about one of baseball’s lesser-known figures. William Hoy was a deaf major-league player from the turn of the last century who was known for his strong, accurate outfield throws and his prowess in stealing bases.
With bright colors and easy-to-discern facial expressions, The William Hoy Story effectively conveys a range of emotions, as well as important messages about perseverance and physical differences.
Thanks for reading!