This batch of nonfiction picture books has a little bit of almost everything–biographies, animals, dazzling illustrations, fascinating photos, laughs, drama, and insights into our amazing world. I hope these reviews are helpful to parents and educators searching for the best titles to add to shelves at home or school. Here we go.
The most disgusting, disturbing animal I’ve ever seen is a moray eel at Walt Disney World. It’s horrible. And now Jess Keating comes out with What Makes a Monster?: Discovering the World’s Scariest Creatures, and there is the fangtooth moray eel, which justifies every bad dream I’ve ever had about those nasty things.
If that weren’t bad enough, this book also features the vampire bat, the Humbolt squid, and worst of all, the goblin shark. Thanks, Jess. There go a few more nights of good sleep.
All of this is testament to another fabulous book in Keating’s “The World of Weird Animals” series. Yes, I’m creeped out by some of those pictures, but I also learned a lot from reading this book. Filled with facts just as weird as the pictures, the text also doesn’t shy away from positive aspects of these animals. For example, some of them are less endangered than they used to be, and some look for ways to help each other.
As with Keating’s Pink Is for Blobfish, the previous book in this series, the format is the definition of engaging. Bright colors, captivating photos, funny illustrations, and cleverly written text make this a book that young people will read repeatedly, and share with each other. If curiosity is the best impetus for motivating students to study science, What Makes A Monster? will provide plenty to ponder.
The weight of all termites on Earth is double the weight of all humans on Earth. A gnat beats its wings a thousand times per second. The bulldog bat is one of the loudest animals, but humans can’t hear its high-pitched sounds. Crocodiles kill three hundred times more humans each year than sharks. Only three Red River soft-shelled turtles are still in existence, two in zoos and one in a Vietnamese lake. Who knew?
Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Animal Infographics will fascinate animal lovers and others. Animals are automatically appealing to many young readers, but this book also includes strange facts about familiar and unfamiliar species that will intrigue many curious minds.
Author Steve Jenkins goes beyond the animal focus to present data in a variety of infographic formats: pie charts, flow charts, bar graphs, and many others, making Animals by the Numbers a helpful guide as students consider and decide how to best visually represent or report different types of information. These infographics are presented alongside Jenkins’s own artwork depicting many different animals.
Jenkins’s strong integration of content and format will make Animals by the Numbers one of the most appealing, useful books in any collection.
Follow along as Mrs. Best brings eggs from home to an incubator in her elementary school classroom. Hatching Chicks in Room 6 has an easy-to-follow narrative with built-in drama as Mrs. Best’s students watch and wait for the baby chicks to emerge from the eggs they carefully incubate. Caroline Arnold’s photos are great as they capture the students’ enthusiasm and what seems to be expressiveness from the baby chicks. (If a photographer can show expressiveness in a chicken of any age, something good is going on.) Although there is necessarily some challenging vocabulary here (incubator and albumen, for example), the words are explained well and are not overwhelming. Once readers know the words, they will likely incorporate them into their own language when discussing this book or its subjects.
Robins!: How They Grow Up is full of fascinating details about robins that will enhance what young readers have probably already noticed about them. As the primary text explains how young robins are born and develop, some comic robins lurking at the bottom of the pages comment on the narrative. This provides some nice variety, which is needed because the pictures become repetitive in places, mostly because the backgrounds are so plain, and the robins look mostly the same from page to page. Still, the artwork is expressive and appealing; it’s just repetitive. Although probably too long for a read-aloud, Robins! can be a good picture book to use in the spring as robins begin to appear. Markers of the robins’ various ages can serve as little chapter breaks for those hesitant to read the entire book at once.
Can an Aardvark Bark? explores the variety of sounds made by animals, and which dissimilar animals make similar sounds. Emerging readers will enjoy the onomatopoetic character of the animal sounds featured in the primary text (bark, whine, growl, etc.), while more details and complex vocabulary are found in the supporting text. The primary text would serve well as a read-aloud, and children can then explore the rest of the book more independently or in groups. The format is almost a tribute to Eric Carle with its stylized artwork made of multiple fabrics and text with repeating elements.
Also written by Melissa Stewart, Droughts is a useful science book in the “Let’s Read and Find Out” series. Sweet’s primary narrative text explains the science behind droughts in clear, straightforward language. The human touch comes through the warm Andre’ Ceolin illustrations showing children and adults dealing with various stages of drought, as well as taking steps to conserve water. The vocabulary and syntax in the sidebars and back matter is slightly more complex than the rest. This is fine because adults are more likely to be involved in the experiments and explanations described in those sections. Sweet and Ceolin’s book is more friendly than flashy as it makes accessible the science behind droughts.
I was originally not sure about this one. Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive presents sets of three cleverly-written, humorous explanations of various scientific phenomena. But, you guessed it, two of them are true and one is not. The fake one might be wildly made-up or it might have something factual embedded in it, but it’s not completely true.
All the explanations are fun, but I’m bothered by young readers spending so much time reading fake stuff alongside true stuff, even if they know some of it is made up. Separating fact from fiction these days is almost a survival strategy, and I don’t quite see how this book strengthens that skill. I imagine readers being entertained and enjoying the mysteries but not remembering enough of the details the next day to be clear on what was true and untrue.
Since I originally reviewed Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive, I’ve talked to two parents who are also educators who told me they see kids absorbed in this book, so I’m willing to consider that because truth is so slippery in our peculiar era I may not be seeing the book’s full potential.
“Moving mountains” is usually a hyperbolic metaphor for accomplishing seemingly impossible tasks. In the nonfiction picture book Manjhi Moves a Mountain, a dedicated laborer literally moves a mountain to connect two villages. Manjhi’s poor village “in the heart of India” is separated from a more prosperous village by a mountain. Manjhi throws a stone in frustration. Inspired by seeing dust crumble from the stone, Manjhi begins to chip away at the mountain with his hammer and chisel. At first, other villagers laugh at his folly, but eventually they begin to respect his dedication. Twenty-two years later, Manjhi has moved the mountain, and the two villages are united.
This beautifully designed book has a mythical feel, but Manjhi’s story takes place in the twentieth century. Nancy Churnin wisely refrains from belaboring Manjhi’s heroism as she simply tells what happens and heroism emerges from that description. Danny Popovici’s appealing illustrations reward readers who linger on each spread as details are embedded in the depth perspective of each picture. The book begins and closes with different endpapers that effectively convey the power of Manjhi’s accomplishment.
Although it actually happened, Manjhi’s accomplishment is something of a metaphor after all, as the back matter challenges readers to consider what mountains they can move to improve their communities, and provides links to resources for learning about what others are doing, and how readers can share their own experiences.
Nothing on Earth captures the imagination quite like taking to the sky in a hot air balloon. Lighter than Air is a picture book biography about Sophie Blanchard, the first woman pilot. Blanchard guided hot air balloons all over 18th Century France. Author Matthew Clark Smith provides a narrative that contextualizes the French attitudes of the period, especially regarding the role of women in that society, and how Sophie Blanchard first challenges those expectations, then becomes an exception to all those rules as she gains popularity and respect for her airborne exploits.
Some of the Matt Tavares illustrations are drawings that evoke the art prints of that time, but several of the pictures are more involved with backgrounds and sophisticated shadings. These pictures are more satisfying and made me wish the others were more like them.
The design of Lighter than Air is simple. The endpapers are plain, and the back matter is an author’s note, illustrator’s note, and a brief bibliography. The author’s note reveals the circumstances of Sophie Blanchard’s death. No spoilers here, but I hope young readers find their way to that detail and then ponder and discuss its ironies.
Laurie Wallmark’s Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code portrays legendary computer programmer Grace Hopper as fun and feisty. More than anything, Wallmark’s picture book biography is an appealing story that will engage many young readers, not just the technology fans. The computer science and engineering are accessible and presented as challenges which “Amazing Grace” gladly tackles. The narrative has a friendly voice, and I also like the inspirational Grace Hopper quotes adorning many of the page spreads. Katy Wu’s bright, happy illustrations perfectly match the tone of Wallmark’s words. Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code is a book that readers will remember, re-visit, and talk about with each other.
Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing is a worthy picture book tribute to the iconic folksinger. The lyrical text begins with “Listen,” an imperative repeated several times. The difference between “listen” and “hear” is a call to pay attention to what is going on beneath and behind the words and tunes of Pete Seeger’s songs.
Most pages of the text includes brief lists of two or three titles of songs associated with that page’s content. While most of the songs are not explained, some titles are well known, which creates a kind of imagined soundtrack for reading this book. The lesser-known titles may intrigue readers to investigate them.
Raúl Colón’s artwork can almost stand alone without text. His textured illustrations have a nostalgic glow that perfectly matches Leda Schubert’s portrayal of Pete Seeger’s idealism and optimism.
If you’re only going to add one Pete Seeger picture book to a collection, I recommend Listen. Seeger’s life is explained in an evocative voice, and the role of folk songs and folk singers in those tumultuous times is conveyed without being overtly didactic. Schubert and Colón hit all the right notes here.
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin portrays a misunderstood child who persists in learning to become a renowned scientist. As a child, Temple’s autism confuses and alienates many of those around her. When she leaves the city and spends more time in rural settings, she begins to understand her own mind and its powers that are so hidden from others. This important picture book lures in readers with friendly illustrations and gently rhyming text. Picture book biographies rarely make for good read-alouds, but The Girl Who Thought in Pictures is an exception. Educators and parents who use this book will help young readers understand autism and empathize with those who think differently.
Pedal Power has a nice balance of whimsy and message as it shows how bicycling advocate Maartje Rutten led Amsterdam to become the world’s foremost biking city. Although the words and pictures have light touches, author Allan Drummond delivers important content about the benefits of cycling and the power of activism.
Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers is mostly a history of The Statue of Liberty that begins with humor and ends with an important message about America and immigrants. Some of the background is familiar, which Eggers acknowledges, but there are also some surprises. In fact, there is one big surprise involving something important about the statue’s right foot. The narration builds a positive relationship by directly addressing a reader, sometimes teasingly, sometimes with compliments. This pays off at the end when Eggers delivers his innovative interpretation of the statue. The Shawn Harris cut-paper artwork is decidedly modern, which reinforces a new way of seeing our well-known neoclassical statue. Her Right Foot is fun, and it’s likely to be a favorite with young readers even as it reminds us about America’s important mission to welcome “the poor, the tired, and the struggling to breathe free.”
See what I mean? A little bit of almost everything. No book is just right for every reader, but I hope some of the titles here fit the interests of the young readers in your world.
One more quick note: Since my last blog post about nonfiction picture books, I’ve been chosen as a first round judge for the Cybils Awards. Nothing I say in these reviews should be assumed to reflect how I’m judging any of the nominated books, or how the Cybils judging is proceeding in general. Finalists are announced on January 1, 2018, and winners are announced on February 14, 2018!