Category: Nonfiction


fly worm

The Fly by Elise Gravel

The Worm by Elise Gravel

The first and second books in the new Disgusting Critters series of nonfiction picture books, these books take a humorous look at the biology of a specific creature.  The first book deals with flies, specifically the common house fly.  Inside are all sorts of interesting facts like the fly being covered in hair and information on eggs and maggots.  More disgusting aspects are played up, which should appeal to young children, like the diet of flies and how germ filled they are and why.  The second book is about worms and focuses on their unique anatomy, such as having no eyes and no limbs.  There is also a focus on habitat, diet and reproduction.  Throughout both books, humorous asides are offered, making this one of the most playful informational book series around.

Gravel combines both humor and facts in her book.  She keeps the two clearly defined, with the animals themselves making comments that add the funniness to the books.  The facts are presented in large fonts and the design of the book makes the facts clear and well defined.  These books are designed for maximum child appeal and will work well in curriculums or just picked up by a browser in the library.

The art in the books, as you can see by the covers, is cartoonish and cute.  The entire effect is a merry romp alongside these intriguing animals.  I know some people believe that books about science for children should be purely factual, but Gravel’s titles show how well humor and touch of anthropomorphism can work with informational titles.

Information served with plenty of laughs, these science titles will be appreciated by children and teachers.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copies.

thomas jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman

The author of Looking at Lincoln takes on Thomas Jefferson in her newest picture book biography.  The focus in this biography is on the wide range of Jefferson’s interests and how he truly was a Renaissance man.  Monticello, the house Jefferson designed and built, serves as a fine background to his interests since the home itself was ever changing and also housed many of his interests as well.  The book looks at fascinating small details like the design of Jefferson’s bed, the extensive vegetable gardens, and his hours spent practicing music.  After fully exploring Jefferson personally, the book turns to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson becoming the third President of the United States.  Then the book also explores the fact that Jefferson had slaves and fathered children with one of them, Sally Henning.  This is a complex and thorough look at a man who was brilliant in so many ways but troubled as well.

Kalman writes biographies with her own opinions right on the page.  So when she addresses the slave issue, she speaks of “our hearts are broken” and then speaks to how tragic it is that Jefferson’s children who could pass as white had to hide who they really were.  This adds a personality to the book, making it far richer than simple facts would.  It will assure young readers that it is good for them to have opinions about history and to express them too.

As always, it is Kalman’s art that sets this book apart.  Her illustrations range from more serious portraits of the historical figures to eye-popping bright colors in the vegetable gardens where paths are pink next to the bright green of the grass.  It is all entirely rich and joyful.

Another dynamic and unique biography from Kalman, this book belongs in every public library serving children.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy received from Nancy Paulsen Books.

scraps

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert

This nonfiction picture book allows readers a glimpse into Ehlert’s creative process as well as her personal history.  The book begins with a very young Ehlert and how she was raised by parents who enjoyed making things with their hands.  She even had her own art space in the house.  After art school, she worked on her own art in the evenings and in an art studio by day.  She wasn’t creating books right away, but when she started she found inspiration right in her own life.  At this point, the book focuses on Ehlert’s previous work and the process she uses to create her beloved books.  This is a colorful and delightful visit to an artist’s studio.

Ehlert approaches this biographical book just as she does her fictional picture books.  The pages are scattered with scraps, cut out objects, designs from her previous work, and photographs from her past.  The result is a book that shines with her own personal style and energy.  This could be no one else’s studio and no one else’s art.  Ehlert invites young readers not only to explore her own history and approach to art, but also to seek out their own and create things themselves. 

Bright, beautifully messy, and wonderfully creative, this book will be inspiring to young artists and authors.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane.

weeds find a way

Weeds Find a Way by Cindy Jenson-Elliott, illustrated by Carolyn Fisher

Weeds are the most tenacious of plants, growing where nothing else can survive.  This informational picture book looks at how these weeds are able to live in such harsh conditions.  It also explores the various ways that weeds reproduce from fluffy seeds carried on the wind to being pokey and sticky and carried along on clothes and fur.  Weeds can survive scorching heat and icy cold.  They fight back by having stems that break before their roots are pulled out, sour sap or thorns.  But in the end, this book is about survival and the beauty and wonder of weeds.  It’s a celebration of these unwanted plants.

The author has written this book in prose, but uses poetic devices like analogies and similes to show how weeds thrive.   Her language choices are very nice such as her depiction of milkweed: “…shot out of tight, dry pods like confetti from a popped balloon.”  Throughout the book there are descriptions like this and they bring the entire book a certain shine.

Fisher’s art is standout in this book.  Her illustrations are a dynamic mix of painting styles.  There are layers throughout her work, some smooth and detailed, others large and textured for the backgrounds, and almost lacy weedy touches.  They are strikingly lovely especially if you look at them closely, rather like the weeds they depict.

A choice addition to gardening story times, this will make a good summer or spring pick to share.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.

home for mr emerson

A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

Ralph Waldo Emerson grew up in Boston where he moved often with his family.  He dreamed of living out in the country near fields and woods.  After college Emerson moved to the small town of Concord, Massachusetts where he bought a farmhouse.  He brought along a bride and an extensive personal library.  He quickly found that he wanted friends to fill up his house and set off throughout Concord to meet his neighbors.  Emerson now had all that he wanted, a family, woods, fields, an orchard and many books and friends.  He began to travel extensively and lecture which brought even more people to his home, people from around the world.  Then one day, Emerson’s beloved home caught on fire and it was his way of life that saves him in the end.

The creative team that did The Extraordinary Mark Twain and What to Do about Alice? return with another dynamic picture book biography.  Kerley manages to both introduce Emerson to elementary-aged children and also to delve deeply into his personal life and the way that his writings reflected that lifestyle as well.  More details about Emerson and his life are available at the end of the book along with inspiration for young people to build their own worlds around what they love. 

Fotheringham’s illustrations are fresh and whimsical.  He has created a world of vivid colors against which the black and white figure of Emerson pops out.  Nature is celebrated in the images, reflecting Emerson’s connection to it and the Concord community spirit is shown as well.

Another exceptional picture book biography from an amazing team, this is a great pick for young readers who don’t know Emerson but will appreciate his sentiments.   Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.

grandfather gandhi

Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk

When Arun went to stay at his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi’s village, he worried that he would not be able to live up to his famous name.  Arun walked all the way from the station to the village and made his grandfather proud, but he continued to fret that he would not do the right thing the next time.  The village was very different from where he lived before.  Arun had to share his grandfather’s attention with 350 followers who lived there as well.  Arun struggled with his studies and the other kids teased him as well.  He found the meditation and prayers difficult too.  His grandfather urged him to give it time, that peace would come.  However, Arun just found it more and more frustrating.  When Arun finally lost his temper with another boy, he had to tell his grandfather about it, worried that he would be told that he would never live up to his name.  How will Mahatma Gandhi react to this angry young man?

Gandhi relates his own memories of his grandfather, offering his honest young reactions to this amazing yet also formidable man.  The book resulted from Arun recounting childhood stories aloud.  Hegedus emailed him afterwards and asked to work on a book with him, though she felt very unworthy of such a project.  The book is beautifully written and speaks to everyone who has felt that electric anger surge through them too.  Hegedus sets the stage very nicely for the lesson, allowing time for Arun’s anger to build even as she shows the lifestyle of the village and Mahatma Gandhi himself.  It is a book that is crafted for the most impact, building to that moment of truth.

Turk’s illustrations add much to the book.  Using mixed media, he offers oranges, purples, deep pinks and more that show the heat not only of the climate but of Arun’s anger.  Throughout, he also uses fabrics for the clothing, creating three-dimensional depth to the paintings.  When Arun’s emotions flare, the illustrations show that with tangles of black thread that all bring readers back to the image of Gandhi spinning neat white thread.  The contrast is subtle and profound.

Personal and noteworthy, this is a picture book about Gandhi that is entirely unique and special.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

dare the wind

Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud by Tracey Fern, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

Ever since she was a little girl, Eleanor Prentiss dreamed of being at sea.  Her father had a trading schooner and though others thought he was a fool, he taught his young daughter how to steer it.  Most importantly though, he also taught her what few sailors and only some captains knew, how to navigate.  Ellen quickly learned how to navigate and started using her new skills on her father’s schooner every chance she got.  As she grew older, Ellen married a captain and served as his navigator.  Then the two of them acquired a clipper, The Flying Cloud.  It was a fast boat, one that could make them bonus money if they could make the trip from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn in the fastest time ever.  It would be down to the innate speed of the Flying Cloud and to the navigating skills of Eleanor.  Sea journeys are never simple, especially ones done at high speed through stormy waters.  Take an incredible ride with the amazing Eleanor Prentiss, who proved that women can be right at home at sea.

Fern writes with a dynamism that matches this heroine.  She has an exuberant quality to her writing and a tone that invites you along on a wild adventure.  At the same time, she makes sure that young readers understand how unusual Eleanor Prentiss was at the time with the way she was raised and the knowledge she built and life she led.  The book reads like fiction particularly on the journey itself where a series of misfortunes plague their maiden voyage.  Even without the race against time, the journey would be harrowing, add in that pressure and you have a nail-biting read.

McCully’s art ranges in this book.  She captures Ellen both on land and at sea, her body strong against the roll of the waves.  She also paints water with a love for its greens and blues and the depth of color.  The storms are violently dark, the harbors a shining blue, this is water in all of its glory.

I grew up in a house named after the ship Flying Cloud and am so pleased to read a picture book about the ship’s history and learn more about the woman who navigated her.  This is one dynamic and well-told biographical picture book.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar Straus Giroux.

feathers

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen

Feathers do so many things for birds and this book looks at all of the ways that feathers help birds in the wild.  Sixteen different birds are featured in the book, each one with a specific focus on what they use their feathers for.  There is the wood duck who lines her nest with feathers to keep her eggs cushioned.  The red-tailed hawk uses their feather to protect them from the sun as they fly for hours.  Other birds use their feathers in unique ways like the rosy-faced lovebird who tucks nesting materials into her rump feathers to take back to where she is building her nest.  Towards the end of the book, the author looks at all of the different sorts of feathers that birds have.

Stewart tells readers in her Author Note that this was a book she had worked on for some time as an idea.  Her use of metaphors to show what feathers do is an inspired choice, making the book all the more accessible for children.  She provides details with specific birds, explaining how they use their feathers and also providing little pieces of information on how the birds live and their habitats.

The watercolor illustrations are done to look like a naturalists field journal with scraps of paper, loose feathers, notes, cup rings, and scraps of fabric.  All of the images of the birds have their locations as well, adding to the field journal feel.  The result is  richly visual book that may inspire readers to start their own bird journals.

This is a book that will instruct and amaze, just the right sort of science book for young readers.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Charlesbridge.

noisy paint box

The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPre

Enter the amazing world of abstract art with this picture book biography of Kandinsky.  Vasya Kandinsky was raised to be a very proper young Russian boy.  Then his Auntie gave him a box of paints and he started to hear colors as sounds.  No one else could hear the sounds, but to Vasya they were a symphony that he could paint.  Vasya grew up and stopped painting.  He still heard the colors around him, but he was going to be a lawyer.  When he attended the opera one evening, Vasya saw the colors emerge from the music and was never quite the same again.  He became a painter and tried to meet everyone’s expectations, but to be happy he had to paint in his own way, an abstract one. 

Rosenstock’s biography is very successful, focusing on Kandinsky as a child and younger man.  She doesn’t speak down to children at all here, instead bringing them up to her level and demonstrating what abstract art is, showing the struggle of an artist trapped in the wrong life, and finally beautifully displaying what a life well-lived looks like.  She celebrates the transformation from lawyer to artist, from conventional to unique.  This book joyfully exposes how we are all different from one another and how those differences can be incredible if allowed to sing.

GrandPre’s art is glorious.  She shows what Kandinsky must have seen when hearing the opera and what he heard when the colors spoke to him.  The music of the paint box and the noises that emerged for him are shown in flourishes of sound, bringing Kandinsky’s synthethesia vividly to the page.  Her art is filled with motion when Kandinsky’s art is being expressed and then dims down to the staid and quiet when he is trying to conform.

Beautiful and choice, this picture book biography is one of the best.  Get this for elementary art classes, museum visits, and young artists.  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.

handle with care

Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey by Loree Griffin Burns, illustrated by Ellen Harasimowicz

When I started this book, I expected a beautiful book about the life cycle of butterflies, but then discovered this was so much more!  In Costa Rica there is a farm that raises butterflies.  The book begins by showing what a container received in the mail that is full of butterfly pupae looks like.  The life cycle of butterflies is explained as is the pupa stage in particular.  Then we head to Costa Rica and the farm itself and here is where the book turns into an amazing tour of sustainable butterfly farming.  Readers get to see inside the greenhouses where the butterflies live and lay their eggs.  The roles of the farmers are shown in detail as is the beauty of the natural world around the farm.  Food for the butterflies, their transformation from egg to caterpillar to pupa, and the harvesting process are all detailed out for the reader.  This book takes a familiar yet captivating transformation and turns it into a trip to Costa Rica and back again.

Burns text is very engaging.  She describes the processes in detail but also throws in words that show how she too is excited by what is happening.  Cabinets are described as “crawling with caterpillars” and the pupae are “sturdy and tightly sealed…ingenious packages ready to travel.”  Her own delight at what is being described is evident and makes for very pleasurable reading.

The photography by Harasimowicz is simply beautiful.  All of her work is not only clear and crisp but also demonstrates the various steps in the process.  She uses different perspectives and different levels of distance to create a dynamic feel throughout the book. 

A wonderful and lovely surprise of a butterfly nonfiction book, this one is a superb pick for butterfly fans and library collections.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Millbrook Press.

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