Category Archives: Nonfiction

Newbery Project – Bomb

Bomb tells the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, the sabotage efforts to keep Germany from creating their own, and the spies on all sides trying to discover information. A Newbery Honor book in 2013, it  also won the Sibert, and was National Book Award Finalist and several other accolades to make it the most decorated book of the year.

I certainly am not going to go against the grain, because I can only agree that the writing here was stellar. The author keeps an almost journalistic viewpoint, as though the action were happening right now, allowing him to build real tension as the story progresses, despite the fact that everyone already knows the basics of how the book will end. (Even the most naive child reader will surely be aware that the US has nuclear weapons.)

I learned a lot from the book. Not only was the science behind nuclear warfare explained extremely well for such a short treatment, but a lot of the history was unknown to me. All of the stuff with the Norwegians I hadn’t heard before, as well as most of the spying stuff.

The author has also been getting a lot of praise for his restrained treatment of the morals in the story. His authorial presence is very light-handed, presenting the story and the people involved as they were, with their motivations and actions told in their own words, then letting the reader come to his or her own conclusions about the moral and ethical implications of those motivations and actions. Only in the epilogue does the author take a small break and start talking about the permanent and international implications of atomic weaponry that effect us even now. An excellent book.

Recommended to fans of nonfiction, fans of history, and people who like spy stories, even if they think they “don’t like nonfiction.”

Newbery Project – Volcano

Possibly the only full-on science book in the Newbery canon so far (I haven’t read Man and Microbes yet, so I’m not sure if that’s mostly history or mostly science – but that’s the only other science nonfiction candidate) this is a fascinating look at the Mount St. Helens eruption and its aftermath. Clear and concise, it explains how and why volcanoes erupt, and then goes beyond that to detail what happened after the eruptions, with the return of life to the mountainside. I hadn’t been expecting that aspect of the book, despite the subtitle about healing. It wasn’t just about how the mountain healed, it also went in depth into chains of life, and how many different plants and animals were tightly woven together in mutual dependence.

I’m only giving the book three stars because when push comes to shove, I didn’t love this book. It’s hard to really LOVE a straight science nonfiction title. That doesn’t make it a bad book, it just means that unlike many of the other Newbery books, where I was immediately thinking of who I’d recommend it to, this one I’m not sure I’m dying to share it right away. To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what makes this particular nonfiction book more distinguished than other similar titles. I do agree that the organizational flow was very well done, the pacing was stellar, and the presentation of the information perfectly tuned to the target audience’s experience and understanding. But I have seen other nonfiction titles that I thought did a similarly excellent job with their subjects that did not get honored. Perhaps this year’s committee was simply more open-minded?

Newbery Project – Dark Emperor

I was shocked at how much I enjoyed reading this book, a Newbery Honor winner from 2011. Poetry can be very hit or miss with me, and poetry written specifically with children in mind…well, let’s just say that there are far more misses. But I found Joyce Sidman’s verse to be lovely and lyrical. The stanzas scanned well, with rhythms that flowed easily and perfectly. I also very much appreciated that each poem was of a different verse type. I’m sure if I knew more about poetry I would be able to name each type, but as it is I’m just pleased with myself that I recognized that certain elements (like repeating the word primrose over and over) were elements of specific poetry types. I enjoyed this book more than Joyful Noise, which I liked, but largely for its novel use of two voices. This was another nature-themed poetry selection, but this one, in my admittedly limited opinion, was far more, uh, poetic. The choice of words, the carefully selected formats, they all worked together to create a true work of poetry.

Nonfiction – Bug Butts

There is a trend, not new surely, but recently built to unavoidable proportions, of attempting to attract readers – particularly boys – to nonfiction titles but exploiting the strangest, most disgusting, and scatalogical topics possible. Of course, this strategy has been demonstrably successful, so who are we to argue? Besides, I often find myself intrigued by the weird information these authors manage to dig up. Did you know, for example, that larval tortoise beetles have little forks on the ends of their butts where feces collects, creating a shield from birds and other predators? The author of the book Bug Butts shares this, and many other fascinating facts, with readers.

The term “butt” is used repeatedly throughout the book, and while “anus” or “abdomen” or “alimentary canal” could probably have substituted in several cases, the butt theme manages to serve the duel purpose of attracting giggling readers and unifying several activities involving different parts of the insect hind end.

While the information is wrapped in a purposefully sensational package, the facts remain the same, and children will walk away knowing quite a bit about insects. Sometimes the gross factor outweighs the information factor, but never overwhelmingly. Despite outward appearances, it actually is an educational title.

Early Reader – Ruby Bridges Goes to School

In 1960 Ruby Bridges was just starting school. But she was not just any student: she was the first African-American elementary student to attend an all-white school. Not everyone was happy about this turn of events, and Ruby learned alone in a classroom that contained only herself and her teacher. She walked past crowds of protesters every morning on her way to school. Fifty years later, she has written an early reader talking to young children about this period of her life, as well as her work with children today.

This is a Scholastic Reader Level 2 book, intended for the developing reader, roughly grades 1-2. Most sentences are simple, but there are some longer and more complex sentences as well. The illustrations are all photographs from the period.

The story of Ruby Bridges is a powerful one, and has been already documented in picture books and biographies. The material has been written here in a manner that clearly has its young audience in mind. In the section where Ms. Bridges talks about the protesters, she says simply “They yelled at me to go away.” No mention is made of the daily death threats. I can’t decide whether this is a good choice in view of the fact that the average child reading the book is probably going to be about six years old, or whether the omission of these hateful actions somehow diminishes the impact of Ruby’s courage at at time when she herself was only six years old.

This is a great book to start a discussion with a first or second grader about racism and the ways in which racism can affect everyone, both young and old

Nonfiction – When It’s Six O’Clock in San Francisco

When It’s Six O’Clock in San Francisco: A trip through time zones. Yep, the title pretty much says it all. But, as is so often case, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts.

In San Francisco an African American boy named Jared is waking up at six o’clock. At the same time, on the other side of the continent, it’s 9 am and a girl in Montreal is worried about being late for school. We travel from Chile to England, from South Africa to Pakistan, from China to Australia and back the United States as time zones from all over the world are investigated.

The end papers include a map showing all of the world’s time zones and highlighting the cities featured in the more story-oriented section of the book. In addition, there is a brief explanation of time zones. A quick note that the seasons in the north and south hemispheres are opposite to one another explains why some scenes are set in the summer while others feature snow.

Although this is probably a book best used with more in depth explanations, or used with young children as a first introduction, rather than as a stand-alone comprehensive look at time zones, it very adequately fulfills this role, and will doubtless be the first look at this subject many children experience.

Nonfiction – Pukey Book of Vomit

Really, all I have to do is say this book is about vomit and half the people reading this will stop right there and run to the library because they’re already sold, and the other half will stop and move quickly on to another website.

Despite its disgusting premise, the book is actually fairly informative. Kids are endlessly fascinated by bodily functions, and this book will help to explain the processes and reasons behind vomiting. Why do we get nauseous? Why does the sight and smell of someone else throwing up make us want to throw up too? All of these questions and more are answered.

The format of the book is solid, though not exceptional. The many pictures of slightly ill-looking children will be appealing, but the captions generally have little or nothing to do with the nearby body of text. Vocabulary words are defined in a side box on the same page and then again later in a glossary, a decision I think is fabulous. Many kids are too impatient to run to the glossary whenever a new word comes up, but at the same time other kids might not remember in the next chapter what a word meant and want to look it up. This way you have the best of both worlds.

Nonfiction – Shades of People

One of the more surprising chapters in the new book NurtureShock is the evidence that children inherently notice the races of the people around them and, when left to their own devices, make the conclusion that people who look most like themselves are best. It is therefore vital to a racially tolerant society that discussions about race begin at a very young age. Almost as if in answer to this new focus on young children and skin tone comes the newly published book Shades of People.

Featuring full-color photos of small children of every conceivable skin color, the book makes explicit that skin is “just our covering” and that “you can’t tell what someone is like from the color of their skin”. The book then talks about how even in the same family different members can have different shades of skin, and that in the park, at school, and at the playground you can see lots of people with lots of different skin tones. The pictures dominate each page. Some pictures are of a single child, others of children playing together, both in multi-racial and single-race groups. All of the pictures are engaging and will appeal to small children who are often fascinated by other pictures of babies and children. The text is simple enough to use with toddlers, while it will make a perfect jumping off point for discussion with older children.

Nonfiction – Just the Right Size

You’re watching a horror movie when suddenly giant spiders leap onto the screen. They’re larger than a car and about to eat our heroes! So why aren’t we plagued with such monstrosities in the real world? Just the Right Size: Why Big Animals are Big and Little Animals are Little is here to tell us why.

Using clear, direct language that breaks complex ideas into simpler concepts that kids can readily understand and comprehend, the book does an excellent job of conveying the information. Each page, and each concept, is accompanied by cartoons illustrating the text. Some of the cartoons are equal parts humorous and informational, others lean in one direction or the other.

The topic is fascinating, and will appeal to children (and most likely their parents) who are interested in science. There is an index and glossary, though no bibliography. Although this is a short book, and there are areas that could have used a bit more explanation, for the most part it packs a whallop of an informational punch.

Nonfiction – Creature ABC

Technically, this is a picture book, not a nonfiction book. But it’s teaching the alphabet, and it has gorgeous pictures of animals, complete with interesting facts, so I’m going to let it slide and just call it nonfiction.

Children love animals. This is a largely undisputed fact. Children also need to (eventually) learn the alphabet. So why not combine the two? Andrew Zuckerman has taken his phenomenal photographs from his coffee-table sized book Creature and paired them with letters to create a visually stunning abecedarian. A pair of upper and lower case letters appears in stark black against a white background. On the opposite page is a closeup of an animal, also against a white background. Turn the page and there is another image of the animal, this time with a label. Most of the time there is a direct animal/letter correlation, other times the letter stands for a group (such as insect or nocturnal.)

The photographs used are stunning (have I mentioned that already?) Older children who have already long since mastered their letters will likely be intrigued simply by the pictures. Placing the animals against a white background, rather than within their usual habitat means that one can focus entirely on the animal instead of being distracted by the environment. A tour de force.