Category: Nonfiction


little melba and her big trombone

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Melba had always loved the sounds of music: blues, jazz and gospel.  Even when she slept notes and rhythms were in her dreams.  When she signed up for music class at school, Melba picked out a long horn that was almost as big as she was.  Melba practiced and practiced, teaching herself to play.  Soon she was on the radio at age 8, playing a solo.  When Melba was in sixth grade, she moved from Kansas City to Los Angeles where she became a star player in the high school band.  When she was 17, she was invited to go on tour with a jazz band.  She played with some of the greats, but she was one of the only women on tour and racism in the South was harrowing.  Melba decided to quit, but her fans would not let her.  All of the top jazz acts in the 1950s wanted her to play with them.  So Melba came back, went on more tours, and her music conquered the world.

This picture book biography of Melba Doretta Liston shows how music virtuosos are born.  Her connection with music from such a young age, her determination to learn to play her selected instrument, and her immense talent make for a story that is even better than fiction.  Melba faced many obstacles on the way to her career but overcame them all.  She survived the Great Depression, found her musical voice early and then professionally.  She also had the challenges of sexism and racism to overcome on her way to greatness.  This is all clearly shown on the page and really tells the story of a woman made of music and steel (or brass).

Morrison’s art beautifully captures the life of Liston on the page.  His paintings are done in rich colors, filled with angles of elbows, horns and music, they leap on the page.  They evoke the time period and the sense of music and jazz. 

Put on some Dizzy Gillespie with Melba Liston playing in the band and share this triumphant picture book with music and band classes.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Lee & Low Books and Edelweiss.

star stuff

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson

This is a picture book biography about Carl Sagan and how he got interested in the stars.  It all started when he went to the 1939 World’s Fair and was inspired.  He started researching stars and space and wondering about the universe around us.  He got his doctorate and worked with other scientists to create machines that would investigate planets and take pictures of them.  Then he went on television with his show Cosmos and told everyone about the universe and how we are all made from the same stuff as the stars.  This is an inspirational story of how a child who loved the stars turning into a man who taught a generation about them.

Sisson keeps this book at the exactly right level for young readers.  She does not dwell on Sagan’s time in college, but instead spends much more time on his childhood dreams and interests.  She focuses too on his work as a scientist and then speaks very broadly about his time on television.  I greatly appreciate that his work was not narrowed to just Cosmos, but instead it is celebrated as a part of what he accomplished in his life.  The book ends with an Author’s Note and a bibliography and source notes that readers looking for more detailed information will find useful.

In her illustrations, Sisson wisely incorporates elements of comic books with panels and speech bubbles.  These give the book a great modern feel and help propel the story forward.  Done in a friendly cartoon style, the illustrations make astronomy approachable and friendly for the reader.

Children will be inspired to see a young person’s dream become their vocation in life.  This picture book is a new way for Sagan to inspire people to learn about the stars.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

tiny creatures

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

There are tiny creatures all around us that do the most amazing things!  Microbes are too small to be seen by the human eye, but look through a microscope and you enter a world of them.  There are microbes like viruses that cause diseases or colds.  And there are others that are very good for our health and turn milk into yogurt and compost into dirt.  Microbes may be very small but their impact on our world and our lives is very big.  This book shows the huge impact they have and how much we need to appreciate them.

Davies has written very engagingly about microbes in this book.  When talking about something like microbes, the numbers can get too large to understand, but Davies nicely ties these huge numbers to others that make sense.  She shows how quickly a microbe can reproduce using the page of the book.  The entire book is cleverly done, exposing the facts about microbes in a friendly and approachable way.

The illustrations by Sutton show both the microbes and their effect on the world.  The pages with the tiny microbes are fascinating as one gets to see the different types up close.  The illustrations have a friendly charm about them that makes the subject matter even more fun to read.

A great book on microbes, this will encourage children to pick up a microscope and learn even more about these tiny little creatures.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

right word

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

The incredible and award-winning team of Bryant and Sweet return with a picture book biography of Peter Roget.  The book looks deeply into his childhood as a boy who grew up moving around a lot in Switzerland.  He found that books stayed good friends through the many moves he made.  Roget was also a boy who enjoyed making lists, lists about all sorts of things:  Latin words, elements, weather and words for things in the garden.  As a teenager, he spent time silent and alone outside, making lists of birds and insects.  Then one day, he realized that it would be great to have a book that listed all the different words to choose from, and his idea of a thesaurus was born.  But it would take many years of hard work to come to fruition.

Bryant’s text has just the right amount of information about Roget and his life.  She wisely chooses to focus on his interest in lists as a child and how that grew into the thesaurus as Roget himself grew up.  This natural progression of interest from youth to adult is something that children will enjoy seeing in both Roget and in their own lives.  Bryant’s Author’s Note at the end of the book speaks to all of the research that goes into writing a biography for young children and the inspiration she herself found in Roget.

As always, the illustrations by Sweet are a highlight of the book.  Here, as she explains in her Illustrator’s Note at the end of the book, she has incorporated the Latin words that Roget used in his notebooks.  The other words that she weaves into her art are found in the first edition of his thesaurus.  Her art incorporates different papers, watercolors, and objects.  There is one page where it feels like it pops off the page, a book that contains words, creatures, plants and ideas.  Simply amazing art.

A noteworthy addition to the already impressive shelves of Bryant and Sweet, this is one that belongs in every library and in the hands of all young wordsmiths.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

Layout 1

Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza by J.L. Powers, illustrated by George Mendoza and Hayley Morgan-Sanders

George loved to move, so he decided to be a basketball player.  Then one day the world outside looked red to him and he started to see other colorful squiggles in the air and suffer from constant headaches.  The doctor told him that he was going blind, but George didn’t lose all of his sight, instead he continued to see bright colors and flashing lights.  He had to stop playing basketball because he could no longer see the basket.  Eventually, George took up running, mostly because it made him so tired that he could forget being blind.  He could run very fast, so fast that he went to the Olympics, twice.  But George continued to see a world of colors that no one else could see.  It wasn’t until a friend was killed that he started to ask himself why he was there, and George started to talk about being blind to groups and also to paint the world that he sees.

A truly inspirational story, Mendoza is an example of someone being incredible resilient in the face of a life-changing disability.  The fact that he began to run after losing his sight is amazing and also inspiring.  But it is his visions and his art that shine on the page, a world painted in colors that only he can see.  The process of George becoming an artist is shown in all of its slow progression which also gives the sense that there is time to find your path, time to be the person you are meant to be.

Seeing his paintings on the page is immensely powerful.  They are bold and bright, done in thick lines.  They have a voice to them that shouts on the page and they tell the story of what George sees more clearly than any words can. 

Highly recommended, this picture book biography is a powerful tale of resilience and overcoming barriers.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from pdf received from J.L. Powers.

mr ferris and his wheel

Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, illustrated by Gilbert Ford

After the Eiffel Tower stunned World’s Fair visitors in 1889, it was up to Chicago to impress people at their 1893 World’s Fair.  So a nationwide contest was announced, but unfortunately many of the designs were just slightly-modified Eiffel Towers, so all of them were rejected.  George Ferris was an American engineer who had already designed big bridges, tunnels and roads across the nation.  He had an idea for a structure that would not just rival the stature of the Eiffel Tower, but would also move and be able to be ridden.  The judges of the contest reluctantly agreed to let him try, but would not offer him a penny of funding.  Ferris managed to find a few wealthy investors to help him and construction began on the huge project of creating a delicate wheel that would be strong enough to turn filled with people.  The tale of the building and invention of this now iconic ride is rich with suspense and the delight of accomplishment.

Davis has written a very successful picture book biography on George Ferris and his delight of an invention.  Occasionally in the text, there are sections in smaller font that offer more details and information.  It is all fascinating and those sections will be enjoyed as much as the main text.  Davis clearly explains differences between today and the late 1800s, such as the lack of Internet to carry ideas.  The story has plenty of dangers, lots of action and the ever-present danger of failure to carry it forward and make it enjoyable reading.

Ford’s illustrations are filled with rich, deep colors that capture different times of day.  They are a winning mix of straight, firm lines and hand-drawn characters and structures.  The play of the two on the page makes for illustrations that are eye-catching and that draw you into the story and the time period.

This is a particularly strong picture book biography that children will pick up thanks to the everlasting appeal of the Ferris Wheel.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from library copy.

alice waters and the trip to delicious

Alice Waters and the Trip to Delicious by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Hayelin Choi

A follow-up to Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, Martin continues to focus on food creators in this new book about Alice Waters.  It follows Waters from her studies in France where she learned about food.  When she returned home, she wanted to share her food finds with her friends but her home was too small to accommodate all of them.  So she created a new kind of restaurant that was like eating in someone’s home, Chez: Panisse.  The book follows Waters on her quest to find fresh, locally-grown foods and produce.  It finishes with her focus on children learning to grow their own foods in schoolyards across the country.  This is a picture book biography that will inspire young readers to grow, eat, and discover their own trip to delicious.

Martin’s text reads as verse on the page, the stanzas unrhymed but spare and filled with moments in Waters’ life that are worth lingering over.  Martin explains in simple terms what the goals of Waters are, but she also manages to inspire and let the ideas soar upwards on the page.  She invites young readers to dream their own dreams, offering them a book about how one person accomplished theirs. 

Choi’s art has a great feel to it with a mix of bright colors and a strong organic feel that is entirely appropriate to Waters.  Throughout the illustrations, readers will see how important people are to Waters’ accomplishments from her friends to her team at the restaurants to the children who plant their school gardens. 

A dynamic and delicious look at the life of Alice Waters, filled with all of the mouth-watering moments of her life.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from ARC received from Readers to Eaters.

who was here

Who Was Here? Discovering Wild Animal Tracks by Mia Posada

The riddle of animal tracks is deciphered here in a fun guessing game.  The tracks of each animal are displayed along with information about the tracks and the animal that left them.  Readers then turn the page to see whether they guessed right about what animal left those tracks.  The pages with the animal have scientific information about the animal, their size, weight and their tracks.  Tracks are left in mud, snow, sand and more.  These too are hints about the animals, making the book speak to habitat too.  This interactive book will have children embracing science and learning about animals without even realizing it.

Posada encourages children to learn more in the final pages of her book.  She gives hints to decode animal tracks, offering ideas of what to look for in unknown tracks to help identify them.  The book ends with links to websites and recommended books to read.  Posada uses the page turn to great effect in this book, allowing the reveal to be a big part of the delight of reading this book.  The guessing game element will be popular in story times but also for single readers. 

Done in watercolor and collage, the illustrations have dimension and texture.  The animals pop on the page and their tracks are clear and beautiful.  When Posada has two creatures from the same habitat, their tracks are well defined and clearly different from one another.  This adds to the fun of the read.

A nonfiction picture book that children will enjoy, this readable and accessible book will be a hit at any story time.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Millbrook Press.

pilot and the little prince 

The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupery by Peter Sis

Born in a time when airplanes were just arriving in the skies, French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery had dreams of flying himself.  At age 12, Antoine made his own flying machine that didn’t work.  He spent his days at the nearby airfield watching the pilots fly.  He even convinced one of them to take him up with him.  After serving in the military, Antoine took a job delivering the mail by plane.  Antoine was put in charge of an isolated airfield himself.  It was there that he started to write, but he also kept on flying, helping create new air routes in South America.  He returned to France eventually and got married.  He continued to both write and fly even after moving to New York, having famous adventures and also creating his beloved Little Prince.

Sis beautifully shows the life of a man with two strong passions: writing and aviation.  He very effectively ties the two together, showing how they support one another though they may seem so separate and apart.  This is a book less about the creative process of an artist and more about the adventures that he had that inspired his writing and the eventual creation of a character who is beloved around the world. 

As always, Sis’ illustrations are dazzling in their minute details.  He playfully puts faces on mountains that form the landscape below the plane.  He creates the Manhattan skyline in fine lines with the red of the sun peeking over the horizon.  And then there are the smaller touches on the page that one lingers over and that add further information as well.

A dynamic picture book biography of an unusual author, this book demonstrates that there are many paths to becoming a writer and that the best path is your very own.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

cosmobiography of sun ra

The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra by Chris Raschka

Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka has both written and illustrated this picture book biography of the jazz musician Sun Ra.  Sun Ra claimed that he came from Saturn.  He came to earth in 1914 in Alabama and he was named Herman and called Sonny.  From the very beginning, Sonny loved music.  He learned to be a musician as a young child and also studied about philosophy.  As a teen, Sun Ra was already a professional musician.  When World War II came, he refused to become a soldier and instead was labeled a conscientious objector.  After the war, Sun Ra returned to his music and formed The Arkestra.  They made wild jazz music, created their own costumes, and toured the world sharing their music.  Sun Ra left earth in 1993, having changed it for the better with his music.

Raschka has created a celebration of Sun Ra on these pages.   His text is playful and invites readers into the book.  It opens with the idea that Sun Ra was from Saturn and scoffs at that, but then plays along with it as a premise throughout the book.  Intelligently, children are invited in on the humor and can see what is really happening that way.

Raschka’s illustrations are bright and loose.  They suit the jazz of the music with their free flowing lines, deep colors and they way they capture landscapes as well.  These are illustrations that celebrate music on a deep level.

A beautiful picture book about a jazz legend, this picture book should be welcome in all library collections.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

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