It seems like I get a lot of interest in non-fiction picture books for kids, so I'm happy that 2015 is proving to be a great year for this genre! Science, sports, and history are all important subject areas, but it sure is nice to be able to get kids interested in non-fiction a fun way, which these books provide. If you share these with your kids, I promise they'll never know they learned anything ... they'll be too busy having a great time!
Sweep Up the Sun by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder
I'm a bit of a backyard bird fanatic, but I promise that even if avian creatures usually remind you of Alfred Hitchcock, your kids are going to love this beautiful picture book. Rick Lieder has managed to photograph everyday birds in flight, while award-winning author Helen Frost wows us with her simple, gorgeous poetry. The book is supplemented with endnotes that identify and give more scientific information about each bird. You and your kids will look at these creatures with renewed wonder and appreciation.
Award-winning picture book artist Greg Pizzoli morphed a fascination with tricksters and con artists into this fantastic book about the mysterious Robert Miller, a man who was crafty enough to trick people into buying pieces of the Eiffel Tower. If you're looking for a children's book that spends lots of time moralizing about a life of crime, this one isn't it. At the same time, Pizzoli is careful not to celebrate Miller's illegal activities. Rather, he ties Vic's activities to historical topics like Prohibition, the construction of the Eiffel Tower, Alcatraz, and counterfeiting. A glossary or terms and extensive bibliography are also presented. Most importantly, Pizzoli's dynamic illustrations make the book. He uses "pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silkscreen, Zipatone, and Photoshop" to create them. The artwork in Tricky Vic has a noir feel that reminds me of a cross between Get Smart and my favorite Humphrey Bogart/Sam Spade movies. Both of my girls, ages 10 and 12 pronounced this book fascinating. It's perfect for kids who like history-mysteries, mysterious characters, or books about strange places. That's just about every third through sixth grader I've met!
Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff and Iacopo Bruno
Oh, I am so excited about this fabulous new book which melds history, science, and pure entertainment very effectively! Mesmerized has received starred reviews across the board from the children's book review journals, and it certainly deserves lots of accolades. It's the true story of Dr. Mesmer, an 18th-century Frenchman who took Paris by storm with his ability to heal people with the wave of his "magic" wand. Enter Ben Franklin, a regular Parisian visitor, who sets out to find exactly what's behind Mesmer's success. Kids will learn about the scientific method, the placebo affect, and hypnotism (we get the word "mesmerized" from Mesmer's name), as well as a little-known aspect of the always-fascinating Ben Franklin's life. Besides all that, the pencil and digital artwork adds an air of comedic excitement, and the irreverent tone of the storytelling provides even more laughs! ("Dr. Mesmer was as different from Ben Franklin as a fancy layered torte was from a homemade apple pie.") I love when a great book is so much fun that kids associate learning with a good time. Don't pass this one by!
Hippos Are Huge! by Jonathan London and Matthew Trueman
The animal section of any children's library is always one of the most popular areas, and Jonathan London (of Froggy Gets Dressed fame) has just penned an excellent addition. This book cleverly combines short sentences with offset type in small informational paragraphs so that it can be used as a simple read-aloud, or for more in-depth research. It's a fascinating look at hippo behavior, including how they use dung to fight with each other. (My son LOVED that part of the book, needless to say.) The large-scale illustrations are awesome, too. I expect to see Hippos Are Huge on awards lists for 2015.
Families by Shelley Rottner and Sheila M. Kelly
This lovely photographic picture book is a perfect introduction to the many types of families that preschoolers and kindergarteners encounter. Kids meet families that look alike, families that don't, families with one mom and dad, and families raised by two same-sex parents or by extended relatives. They also learn about families that live close to each other, and those that are separated by distance. Readers see families playing together, working together, and loving each other. The book ends with a great conversation starter: "There are many different kinds of families. What about yours?" A warm non-fiction picture book that will help kids learn that not all families are the same, as well as feel like their own families are perfect, just as they are.
Queen of the Diamond: The Lizzie Murphy Story by Emily Arnold McCully
Growing Up Pedro by Marr Tavares
I'm reviewing these two books together because they're both about America's favorite spring and summer pastime, baseball. Queen of the Diamond introduces kids to Lizzie Murphy, a young girl born at the turn of the 20th century. Despite her natural talent as a pitcher and catcher, she was laughed off the baseball field as a kid for being a girl. Determined to play, she showed the boys what she could do, and won their acceptance. As a young woman, she made it onto a semipro team as a publicity stunt. When the manager withheld her pay, Lizzie played "hard ball" and banked on the manager's need for her talent. She got her money and 17 more years playing pro ball.
Matt Tavares is known for his outstanding baseball biographies, and this time he takes on the story of Pedro Martinez, who pitched the Red Sox to the World Series championship, in Growing Up Pedro. Like Lizzie, Pedro encountered many obstacles on his way to success, including growing up in poverty in the Dominican Republic and being considered too short to play pro ball. Martinez' loving relationship with his big brother and commitment to his hometown are also highlighted. Tavares' large-scale paintings beautifully complement this inspiring story.
These two titles will of course appeal to sports enthusiasts, but my nearly-10 year old, who doesn't give two hoots about baseball praised them both, and I think most kids will enjoy them. I think this is because both of these non-fiction picture books feature people overcoming great barriers to achieve impossible dreams. Every kid can enjoy learning about the relationship between perseverance and success.
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