I've been rolling out my favorite new picture books here and here, and now it's time to shift gears to non-fiction for elementary-age kids. I always get so excited about the quality of kid lit non-fiction, because these books are a wonderful way to get kids interested in new topics, as well as to encourage any obsessions they already might have. Keep your budding young scientist/artist/animal lover in mind as you read my recommendations below!
Tuesday Tucks Me In: The Loyal Bond Between a Soldier and His Service Dog by Luis Carlos Montalvan, Bret Witter, and Dan Dion
I'm a sucker for true-life animal stories, and there are tons out there for kids, but a lot are more saccharine than substance. Tuesday Tucks Me In, however, is a fine example of this genre, and a book that teaches kids about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the powerful healing nature of human-animal relationships. Such difficult concepts are introduced through simple writing and engaging photography and will help children appreciate both the sacrifices of war veterans and the fact that dogs can be more than cute companions. The story is told from Tuesday's point of view and is followed by an explanatory note for older kids. I'm always looking for books that help my kids expand their world view to include those that are "other-abled" and this book does that effectively and with tenderness.
Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox and Brian Floca
Brian Floca is one of my favorite children's book illustrators (he won the prestigious Caldecott Medal this year), so I'm always excited to take a look at anything he publishes. Bestselling author Lynne Cox is a record-breaking swimmer who has published two books for adults, and does an excellent job in her first effort at writing for children, striking just the right tone.
This is the true story of an elephant seal who stretches out across traffic in urban New Zealand, and despite multiple relocations to distant waters, keeps on returning. The way in which the townspeople, and one boy in particular, miss Elizabeth's antics when she's gone, react to her reappearances, and eventually come to accept the fact that the best solution might be to live and let live, makes for an engaging tale. Just try to read this non-fiction picture book without Elizabeth charming your socks off; I truly don't think it's possible. Elizabeth's tenacity and ultimate positive affect on the people around her make for a heartwarming true animal tale.
After reading this book, I'm still stunned (and a bit disappointed), that having majored in history as an undergrad, I had never heard of the Mendez family until I opened its cover. Just goes to show that learning never ends and children's books are a great place to expand an adult mind.
Separate is Never Equal tells the story of the Mendez's fight (an entire decade before Brown vs. Board of Education) to integrate a California school so that Mexican children could attain the same level of education as their white peers in the 1940s. Award-winning author/illustrator Tonatiuh not only tells this engaging story with stimulating prose; his artwork is just incredible. (Tonatiuh's illustrations are hand-drawn in a style reminiscent of an ancient Mexican tribe, then digitally collaged and colored.) Both of my girls enjoyed this book, and it would be perfect for a unit on school integration, immigration, or Hispanic history. And for kids writing reports, the in-depth author's note, glossary, bibliography, and index are invaluable. Clearly, Tonatiuh has taken the time to tell this important story accurately.
That being said, it's equally imperative that a historical children's picture book is just as interestingly executed as it is accurate. This one is. Readers won’t soon forget the jarring image of Mexican children standing behind a gate while lighter-skinned kids swim in a pool with a sign labeled "No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed" nearby. They'll also rejoice at the Mendez family's victory for true equality.
Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton
I am not a science reader. (Unless the book is about butterflies.) I dutifully checked this book out because I new Nicola Davies has an excellent reputation as an author of non-fiction books on animals. I will admit to my hesitation, as a word I find terminally b-o-r-i-n-g is in the title. (Had the term been "organic chemistry," even Davies' reputation could not have convinced me to pick up the book.) I'm always ready for an author to make a scientific topic come alive for this reluctant reader, and books written for kids are about on my level.
I have to say that Tiny Creatures stunned me. The prose is enticing, easy to understand, and interesting. And the artwork is nothing short of beautiful. Microbes beautiful? In the capable hands of Emily Sutton, yes. Sutton wrote, "Illustrating Tiny Creatures has opened my eyes to the incredible and unexpected beauty of a world so small that it can't be seen without a microscope." She expertly conveys withs wonder in watercolor. This is a fantastic example of a science picture book that you should not hesitate to share with a young person.
The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet
Possibly (most likely?) after reading that title above you are thinking, come on, Rebecca. A kid's book about Roget's Thesaurus? And I am telling you, just open the book and be blown away. First of all, the writer/illustrator duo of Bryant and Sweet have won some serious awards for their two previous collaborations. Second, Melissa Sweet is an über talented collage artist, one of about six illustrators on my list of all-time favorites. And what about Roget? Well it turns out he was a bit of a quirky kid, incredibly shy, and maybe a little lacking in self-confidence. But he kept at his project and met with great success. What child can't benefit from that backstory? I expect serious accolades and awards for this book, which is entertaining, inspiring, and just plain fun. Not to mention, researched to a "t," with excellent endnotes and a bibliography, so you can feel confident in sharing it, and older kids can use it for research. But mostly, you have to open up this book to understand how special it is. I'll start with a two-page spread here:
Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
I've mentioned before that Steve Jenkins is a master of children's science picture books, and uses torn paper collage to create animals that will pull kids into his books faster than they can turn the pages. His most recent outing is this one with his wife, Robin Page. Page and Jenkins use a wonderfully conversational tone in which they ask questions like: "Dear horned frog: Your mouth is ginormous. Why so big?" and then explain the adaptive reason for each animal's particular (and usually odd) characteristic. This book is so much fun, kids won't even realize their learning something. And once again, Jenkins' illustrations are amazingly good.
Barb Rosenstock has written a gaggle of truly excellent children's picture book biographies, including this one on Kandinsky, which I adoringly wrote about earlier. Now she takes on Ben Franklin in a wholly original light, building an entire story (for which she imagines the details) around Franklin's factual early "discovery" and experimentation with the Colonial American version of swim fins or flippers.
Rosenstock captures Franklin's inquisitive nature, and what he may have been like as a young man with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I love a book that will open kids up to an historical figure in a way that is 1000 times less boring than the manner in which I learned about the Founding Fathers way back when I trekked uphill in the snow both ways. (And that reminds me, this introduction to Thomas Jefferson is equally fun.)
Schindler enhances the amusing tone of the narrative with watercolor and ink drawings that are just a shade shy of cartoon. Young readers will feel Ben's frustrations and excitement through illustrations that make him seem a lot like modern-day kids, despite a three-century time lapse. If you're like me, as a parent you hope to encourage information-seeking behavior in your kids, but it's hard to paint it as the cool thing to do. Fortunately, the energy of Schindler's art makes Ben's inquisitive nature seem like something to celebrate.
Rosenstock fleshes out a semi-fictional narrative with extensive end notes, a very detailed two-page timeline of Franklin's life, and a bibliography. Choose Ben Franklin's Big Splash both to encourage kids to keep on discovering and dreaming, and to introduce them to one of the most fun characters to come out of our early history.
The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle
I'm all about science narratives that introduce kids to very current issues. My kids have learned a bit about the tragic and new White-Nose Syndrome affecting bats in the Eastern U. S. The issue was featured in one of the Time for Kids weekly magazines they use at school, as well as in a recent Zoobooks, which we get in the mail at home. The girls also recalled visiting caverns in North Carolina in summer 2013, during which we had to take protective measures to prevent the disease from spreading. And I'm pretty sure I read an article about the fungus in National Geographic. (If you haven't heard of this disease, which is decimating bat populations, a simple overview is available here.)
Sandra Markle wrties excellent science non-fiction for older elementary and middle school students. In this series, she's taken on the issue of disappearing honeybees and golden frogs. Markle introduces readers to a scientific problem, and walks them through the research done to try and pinpoint the cause. Then she solves the mystery in-depth and finishes up with possible future outcomes. Markle's work is not only necessary, but also well presented. Full-page photos draw the reader in, as do engaging headlines and a concise, engaging narrative. Markle completes the journey with a personal note about her motivation for writing about science, facts about little brown bats, a list of things kids can do to help bat populations, and links to global organizations that are working to combat the bat fungus. She also includes a two-page biography of print and online resources about bats, as well as a complex glossary of terms used in the book.
This is juvenile science writing at its best. I cannot encourage you enough to share Markle's work with your own budding nine to twelvish year old researcher. The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bat encourages kids to care about the world, understand how species interact globally, and act accordingly. On a deeper level, it also emboldens readers to, in Markle's words, "grow up to be part of the next generation of science detectives," so that the world might become a better place.
Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy
Every year at my school's book fair, the shark books just go like crazy. And in the library we can't keep them on the shelves, so we buy just about everything out there. But as you all may have noticed (cue Shark Week on a channel that used to be a lot more science-friendly before it hopped on the reality TV bandwagon), sharks are much maligned, and a lot of materials focus more on how scary they are than why we might want to admire and protect them.
Now the most awesome thing is when a new book about sharks is published that is also one that garners starred recommendations from four major children's book review journals. And, more importantly, said book helps kids understand and appreciate sharks, rather than revile them.
In Neighborhood Sharks, Roy cleverly uses the micro to educate about the macro. The story focuses on a population of great whites that come to California's Farallon Islands to feed on seals each fall. Roy sets the story up like this: "Every September the great white sharks return to San Francisco … While their 800,000 human neighbors dine on steak, salad, and sandwiches, the white sharks hunt for their favorite meal." The tone continues to build, drawing kids quickly in, as Roy teaches readers not to fear sharks, but to respect these misunderstood animals who reside at the top of the food chain due to their perfect hunting skills, which they've adapted over millions of years of evolution.
In 2012, Roy visited the Farallons with researchers who tag and study the sharks, and the intense, beautifully eye-catching watercolors that fill each page of Neighborhood Sharks reflect her up- close encounters. This is Roy's picture book debut. With her talent for research, non-fiction narrative, and illustration, I'm certainly hoping this won't be her last publication.
Coming up next ... New 2014 chapter books for kids ages eight to twelve!
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