Thursday, October 9, 2014

Short Reviews - From Oct. 3rd Nonfiction of 2014 Review Session

We had a great group of educators and other interested folks turn out for our Materials Review on October 3rd. Jane pulled together a list of top children's (preK - 9) nonfiction for 2014, and also invited Scholastic Book representative Nikki Mutch to join the panel and let us know what's coming up from their authors.

You can find a full list of the books that were on display here. We didn't comment on every one of them, but here is a round up of what we said. The recommended grades are from the publishers, not us (and you'll see where we disagree with them):

We began with the Story of Buildings (4-7) by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephan Biesty and Neighborhood Sharks (2-6) by Katherine Roy. We'd posted an earlier review of Neighborhood Sharks, with its excellent content and the many opportunities it offers for finding out more beyond the book's pages. Highly recommended. The Story of Buildings, by contrast, landed low on our list - and led Helen to a soap box - because it cites no sources. How can this be in a time when we are all (or all should be) tremendously careful about verifying where information comes from? The book itself provides a survey of building techniques through time (it starts with caves), with detailed, foldout drawings by Biesty, and could be a great launching point for getting into more details with authors like David Macaulay. Without a reference section, though, it is hard to recommend for a library or classroom.

On a less research intensive note: Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine (K-3) by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, and President Taft is Stuck in the Bath (PK-3) by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen are two whimsical looks at bathing dilemmas of the leaders of nations. They're both based on actual events (Queen Victoria did have a bathing machine to bring her to the sea unseen, Taft did get stuck in pieces of furniture and the White House usher during his presidency claimed that this included the bath tub) but taken to silly levels.

Another example of historic fiction (even though it's technically a nonfiction review) was A Home for Mr. Emerson (3-7) by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. This book draws on actual events to tell the story of neighbors coming together to rebuild Ralph Waldo Emerson's home, and de facto town library, after it burns. A good story for the strength of community. We might bump the grade recommendation down to K-4, though.

Two books that are very poignant and you will cry: Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (2-6) by John Hendrix and Hidden (3-6) by Loic Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano. Both show the impact of war. Hendrix' book is particularly notable for the emotion conveyed in the illustrations and his introductory essay on the devastation of war. Dauvillier's graphic novel tells the story of a grandmother's experience during the Holocaust as she relates it to her granddaughter. One note of caution on Hidden: the cover looks like the book will be appropriate for young readers (it's very cartoonish), and the publisher recommends it for grades 3 and up, but it is definitely for older (middle grade) readers. The recommendation is to use it in the classroom with context and discretion, not to shelve it where young readers would casually pick it up.

On similar subject matter, Hidden Like Anne Frank: 14 Trues Stories of Survival (7-12) by Marcel Prins, Peter Henk Steenhuis, and Laura Watkinson tells the story of other children hidden from the Nazis.

Another book for older readers: Red Madness (4-8) by Gail Jarrow. It is about Pellagra, a disease that took many lives in the south in the start of the 20th century and was a medical mystery for years. The good points of this book: lots of case studies and images from the time, the story of pellagra is a great way to introduce the scientific method, it's a discussion point for social and economic disparities, and interestingly it's a disease that involves the food supply (it's caused by a vitamin deficiency). The less-good points: it's really confusing, there is an overload of case studies without enough framework to hold them together, and without that strong framework the descriptions of the disease and its symptoms take on a sort of "gross out" effect that the author didn't intend. Could be a great book to use if classroom lessons helped fill the weak points in the book's line of argument.

For an example of gross stuff used to very good effect: When Lunch Fights Back (2-5) by Rebecca L. Johnson, with amazing pictures of unusual animal defenses against being eaten (many of which involve slime). Plus, for readers who want more than pictures, there's a website with videos.

Staying in the science realm, Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes (K-3) by Nicola Davies with illustrations by Emily Sutton is a very simple, very clear book for young readers that introduces the world of microbes. It goes over basic ideas like microbes turn food to compost, milk to yogurt, rocks to soil, with equally simple (but lovely) pictures. Jane wishes there were another version for older readers.

Orangutan Houdini (K-3) by Laurel Neme, illustrated by Kathy Kelleher, tells the story of an orangutan who continues to outwit his zookeeper and escape from his enclosure, based on an actual orangutan. The text often says that orangutan feels something or thinks something, which could slip by unnoticed as a story element, until you read the author's note. The note explains how animal behaviorists study orangutans and draw conclusions about what they're thinking and feeling, and the significance of the escapes in that animal behavior context. Taking both the narrative and the note as a starting point, this book could be used for older grades as well. Laurel is speaking at the store in January about making global connections, based on her work in animal conservation.

Moving on to an art theme. . .

Viva Frida (K-3) by Yuyi Morales with photographs by Tim O'Meara was one of Jane's favorites. Don't read this book for an overview of Frida Kahlo's life; Morales is using Frida as a starting point for a book that's focused on where art comes from and the idea that we each have all the materials we need to inspire artwork.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (2-6) by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson provides a comprehensive biography of dancer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker. It's a picture book, but a long one, with chapters, and could be used for middle grades. Jane loved the artwork, she can see how it's a style that you either love or you don't (and she loved it).

The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra (1-4) by Chris Raschka is brilliantly illustrated in a style that captures the spirit of music. The story starts from the idea of Sun Ra coming from Saturn and observing the earthlings, and what does he see? We suspect that grown ups may get more of a kick out of it than kids (it's a picture book that uses words like "Boulevardier" and "Rosicrucianism"), but no art class should be without this book.

One common theme of the biographies of artists that we reviewed is somebody following their passion, and another example along this theme is The Pilot and the Little Prince by Peter Sis about the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. An obvious pairing would be, of course, The Little Prince.

Brown Girl Dreaming (4-7) by Jacqueline Woodson and How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson (6-9) have many similarities. In both books the authors tell the story of their childhood through poetry, both grew up to be poets and their early connection to poetry and creating poetry are part of the book, both are African American women and the social tensions of the time periods they describe are important in both books (Nelson covers the 1950s, Woodson the 1960's & 1970's). Nelson described her book as filling in gaps of her childhood memory more than relating memories, and speaks to coming back to old events with an adult understanding while still finding a way to tell them through a  child's emotions and perspectives. That's an interesting artistic puzzle - but Helen wonders whether it's one that works for an average 6th grader, especially if they don't have a lot of background with poetry. Jane and Helen both thought that Woodson's was a better match for the identified grade levels.

Last November the Author-Educator series at Bear Pond focused on food and agriculture in the classroom, including a talk by Gail Gibbons (read all about it here). So, we looked at a group of three new food-related picture books, Before We Eat by Pat Brisson with illustrations by Mary Azarian, Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Julia, Child (which turns out to be fiction) by Kyo Maclear and illustrations by Julie Morstad. Before We Eat caught Helen's imagination with vibrant illustrations that very simply tell the parts of the food chain (but without using boring words like "parts of the food chain") and could be a great starting point for any number of lessons or activities. The other two books didn't grab her as much, although they were fine. They seemed to be trying a little too hard to spark imagination instead of letting it happen organically, for example the repeated insistence that Alice Waters is "on a trip to delicious" seemed a little hokey. And yes, we'll admit to a Mary Azarian bias for the illustrations.

The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus (K-3) by Jen Bryant with illustrations by Melissa Sweet tells the story of Roget (and his thesaurus) through the perspective of how Roget wanted everyone to be empowered through words and language. About the illustrations, Jane says "surely this will win an award somewhere."

Three final books for older readers (6th through high school):

Family Romanov by Candace Fleming tells the story of the Russia's last royal family, while also weaving in first person accounts of life for peasants and workers beyond the palace gates. We have a longer review of this book posted here.

Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin tells the story of a segregated military during WWII, the egregiously unsafe working conditions that led to a massive explosion killing 300 men on one base, and the group of men charged with mutiny after refusing to return to work. The author wrote textbooks before switching to narrative nonfiction, and now he is atoning for every dull word he ever wrote in the first part of his career through incredibly engaging accounts, including dialogue based on oral interviews and courtroom transcripts. This book is on the National Book Award long list.

Eyes Wide Open: Going Beyond the Environmental Headlines by Paul Fleischman introduces crucially important environmental issues with a focus on how to think critically about them, which includes questioning media and sources (and, by the way, is a nice counterbalance to the opening concerns about The Story of Buildings).

Series with New Titles Being Published:

A round up of popular series with either new installments out now or slated for the spring - except for the Jon Scieszka series, these all come from the Scholastic list:

  • Guys Read Jon Scieszka's popular series now includes Guys Read Nonfiction
  • Discover More A history and science based series by the same person who developed the DK Eyewitness books. Each topic comes with books geared for three different reading levels.
  • Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth (PK-3) by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm. There was much talk about just how brilliant Molly Bang is, and how talented she is at drawing kids into learning about different science topics.
  • I Survived Series. Originally this series covered fictionalized accounts of survival and disasters, now Scholastic is publishing five nonfiction stories.
  • 10 True Tales (6-9) True stories of secret agents, pirates, crime scene investigators and other subjects where fictional tales have already captured children's imaginations.   
  • Magic School Bus (1-3) The popular series is returning to PBS and the books have been updated with new illustrations and new content. 

Phew. There were other books on the list that we didn't have time to talk about, and we've added them at this additional reviews post.

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