Thursday, July 05, 2007


One good throw-down deserves another! Here are rocking non-fiction recommendations, one for every finger on both hands. So often we think of kids who get lost in fictional stories as the real readers, but remember, non-fiction is real reading, too! By affirming our children's quest for information, history and how-to, we are supporting critical thinkers and bringing boys and reluctant readers into the fold.

A SECOND IS A HICCUP: A CHILD'S BOOK OF TIME by Hazel Hutchins, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (Scholastic)
"How long is an hour?/Sixty minutes singing by./ If you build a sandy tower/ Run right through a sprinkly shower/ Climb a tree and smell a flower/ Pretend you have a secret power/That should nicely fill an hour." How about a day? A month? A year? The abstract concept of time is given a poetic and tangible treatment in this lyrical book. Gentle, washy watercolors depict young children busy within a warm circle of family and friends. In perfect time with the preschool world view a la Ruth Krauss (A HOLE IS TO DIG), this title is both useful and sweet. (4 and up)

THE SNOW BABY: THE ARCTIC CHILDHOOD OF ROBERT E. PEARY'S DARING DAUGHTER by Katherine Kirkpatrick (Holiday House) Yes, this is a wintery pick, but consider it Christmas in July or your read-aloud answer to central air conditioning! I read this book on an airplane, and literally had people craning over the aisle to see the beautiful and unusual photographs of the great junior adventurer, Marie Ahnighito Peary, whose daddy Lt. Admiral Robert Peary was hell-bent on winning the race to the North Pole. An intimate and very complete look at a family on a mission, the book captures the adventure of racing down cliffs, dodging avalanches, relocating a meteorite, witnessing a walrus slaughter and being trapped amidst icebergs and midnight blizzards, as well as the dualities of Marie's frustratingly genteel life in the states and the free spirited one spent amidst her Inuit friends. Children who love non-fiction history or survival stories in the vein of Gary Paulsen will whoop with joy and disappear with the book as fast as a dog-sled will carry them, however, my one compunction is that there was nothing distinctively for children in the writing style; the straighforward essay-like text peppered with facts, long names and geography may leave some children with less prior knowledge in the dust (or the snow, as the case may be), only suggesting all the more that this is a book to be shared. The photos are plentiful, evocative and gorgeous and go far to take the reader away to the snowy landscape, with Marie at the helm (see page 31, she looks so marvelous with those buttons up and down her hood). The details of the lives are moving, from Peary's African-American companion Matthew Henson becoming an uncelebrated clerk after accompanying Peary on his celebrated adventure; the devoted wife Josephine Peary who suffered the loss of a child and followed her husband literally to the end of the earth, only to discover he was messing around with some chick named Allakasingwah; and the controversy against Peary's claim that he ever was first at all. At the core of this story with its very adult conflicts is the optimistic and confident child who finds friends all around the world, and will find a friend in readers today, a century later. Overall, this is a compelling, well-researched book that reads like a treasured photo album with a narrator to tell you the stories behind the people. Make the discovery! (8 and up)

DRUMBEAT IN OUR FEET by Patricia A. Keeler and Julio T. Leitao, illustrated by Patricia Keeler (Lee & Low) After seeing the Batoto Yetu performance of young dancers in New York City, the author was inspired to write this truly informative and exuberant tribute to the art form of African Dance. Double-page spreads seep from sepia-toned scenes from Africa into energetic full-color watercolors of a class in Harlem in preparation for a big show. We see the powerful dance that accompanies a boy's coming of age, the
Mukanda; the image-dances that imitate lumbering elephants and high-flying birds; we learn the meaning behind the face-paint of the Yoruba and Shona; we vicariously hear drums that speak, animal skin voices that carry for miles, and communicate with each other through call and response; we honor ancestors and spirits through dance, masks, libation and celebration. The author maintains an amazingly seamless flow between the factual information and the movement toward the big performance. Notes after the text include vibrant full-color photos, as well as a clear map, pronunciation guide, and a listing of the author's sources. This high-interest, high-octane book has a tremendous immediacy and children will definitely come away from it knowing things they didn't know before. It is a brilliant contribution to multicultural literature as well as literature about the arts, and will bring out the dancer/drummer/painter in every reader. If children enjoy this book, they will also enjoy jumping in to CAPOEIRA! GAME! DANCE! MARTIAL ART! by legendary children's author and photojournalist George Ancona (also published by Lee & Low), where readers can learn the basic steps and background of the expressive Brazilian movement that synthesizes many art forms. (both 6 and up)

PALEO SHARKS: SURVIVAL OF THE STRANGEST by Timothy J. Bradley (Chronicle) Dinosaurs. Sharks. Dinosaurs. Sharks. Ask a boy what they want to read about, and at one point another, they will say dinosaurs or sharks. So how about a book that combines dinosaurs and sharks...that's right, that's what I said! Hard-core dinosaur-shark fans can delve into this full deck of super-toothy prehistoric undersea delights, illustrated with handsome, moody, decidedly graphic-novel-esque artwork, informative sidelines and enough new five-syllable names to keep paleontologists busy for a while (don't worry, pronunciation follows each word). Buzz-saw mouths! Tongues with teeth on them! Whale-eating sharks! This ain't no fooling around. What Jaws would check out if he had a library card. (7 and up)

TELL ME A PICTURE by Quentin Blake (Millbrook) Summer means visits to museums, and we have the renowned illustrator of Roald Dahl's works and Children's Laureate as a dream guide though the marble halls. Blake is dedicated to making art accessible to all, and this book is particularly effective in that regard, as we follow some cartoonish characters on an alphabetic exploration of the National Gallery. The artist is introduced, we see the painting, and then are tuned into questions and reactions of our cartoon counterparts. It gives some heavy fine art a light touch by allowing the person looking to respond without intrusive commentary, and the really brilliant stroke in this book is that it includes children's book illustration alongside the work of Old Masters. We move from Goya and Edward Hopper to Roberto Innocenti and Lizabeth Zwerger. In this way, the value of art for children is deeply affirmed, and such juxtapositions also ask children to look for and value art everywhere. The message is: Look! Look! Look! This is the most sensitive and developmentally appropriate art book for children that I know, and though this is not the newest book (it's in paperback!) I am dreadfully concerned that it's not in everyone's collection. Own some great art today by adding it to yours. (5 and up)

DOGS AND CATS by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin) By far, the most requested topic at my school library is "pets," and this fact-filled compendium by a Caldecott-winning illustrator delivers. The book can be clevery flipped, dogs on one side and cats on the other, like getting two books in one, converging in the middle to answer about felines and canines: "friends or enemies?" The whole book takes an inquiry based approach, answering questions like "where did the first dog come from?" "How is a dog breed created?' "Why do cats scratch the furniture?" Did you know cats don't have a collarbone, and can't taste sweets? Can you name the first dog in space? This book is fat with fun facts in language that is never dumbed down, fetchingly illustrated in Jenkin's signature torn-paper style. Sure to be a pet reading pick. (6 and up)

DADBLAMED UNION ARMY COW by Susan Fletcher, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root (Candlewick) "That dadblamed cow! When I went off to the railway station to ride with my regiment, I told her, 'Git home now, you dadblamed cow.' But she snuck on board when nobody was looking. 'Whose dadblamed cow is this?' Captain asked. Dadblamed cow said, 'Moo.' That dadblamed cow! She followed me to the war. Marched step by step all the way South. Clop two three four, Clop two three four. Dadblamed, footsore cow!" The loyal bovine follows her swearing soldier all the way into battle, where her devotion and her udders go far to save lives. Based on a true story of a cow that marched with the Union Army during the Civil War (author's note included), this colloquial, spirited tale that the youngest history enthusiasts and military families can enjoy captures the voice and frustration of its narrator, and is accompanied by folksy, sketchy landscapes of the war and its weary combatants. A book with a lot of heart, and milk with which to wash it down. (5 and up)

THE GOLDEN RULE by Ilene Cooper, illustrated by Gabi Swiatowska (Abrams) A thoughtful conversation between a boy and his grandfather is inspired by the words, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." How does one start to practice such a rule? Can the little boy stretch his imagination and put himself in somebody else's shoes? By telling the truth, helping others in need and listening to others he finds the way to gild himself with what is truly golden. This book asks big questions such as what would happen if the whole world practiced what they preach, and ends with a high note of personal responsibility. The context of a boy speaking to a loved one keeps the story from being too preachy, and thoughtful artwork incorporates iconic imagery from all over the world. If you want to split library classification hairs, this does not officially qualify as a non-fiction book, but it's greatest strength is its aspects of philosophy and religion, and a look at the way The Golden Rule is worded from six different faiths. This is a powerful and necessary springboard into conversations with our own children, and would also be a welcome gift for any teacher or religious leader. (5 and up)

JANE ADDAMS: CHAMPION OF DEMOCRACY by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin (Clarion)

"Then Jane Addams came into the room! It was the first time that I looked into those kind, understanding eyes. There was a gleam of welcome in them that made me feel I was wanted. She told us that she was glad we had come. Her voice was warm and I knew she meant what she said. We were all poor. Some of us were underfed. Some of us had holes in our shoes. But we were not afraid of each other. What greater service can a human being give than to banish fear from the heart of a child?"

My high school history teacher Ms. Weissenberg once assigned what was for me a watershed book, ALTGELD'S AMERICA by Ginger Ray (now out of print), bringing the turn of the past century to life and infusing in me a lifelong interest in and inspiration through the contributions of Jane Addams and her Hull House. I was frustrated in later years by slim pickings of literature about her life. Imagine my delight in finding a children's book that does both Addams and that time period some justice! Lots of primary sources, lovely photographs and writing that doesn't balk at the tough stuff but words it in a way young people can understand brings history to life. This solid biography will also bring children to the point that they will appreciate this iconic figure from the past as a hero in the present, and is an especially poignant requisite reading choice as a woman contender enters the arena of presidential candidacy. Addams' far-reaching efforts such as co-founding the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, presiding over the Women's Peace Party and and her outspoken role as a suffragette are legendary, but my favorite of her achievements was the establishment of Hull House settlement, a place where all of Chicago's tired, poor, hungry, huddled masses could come to learn languages, take classes in child care, cooking, drawing, singing, piano, athletics, chemistry, math, gymnastics, and participate in storytelling sessions, youth clubs, and reading groups. She also delivered a baby or two. All of her affiliations and actions earned her both the monikers "Miss Kind Heart" and "Most Dangerous Woman in America," but one thing for sure, Jane Addams was a "doer." The Fradins always write about doers. You can be a doer this summer by reading aloud their biographies to your children, so they can have great mentors and grow up to be doers, too. (10 and up)

Also of interest:
Flag still unfurled from the glorious Fourth? Keep that sparkler of interest glowing with Patriotic Picks from PlanetEsme, a list of All-American children's books.

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Elizabeth said...

I love the Drumbeat in our Feet title! After seeing your recommendation here I went searching for it at my library. What a gem! It is beautifully put together and wonderfully informative!

Becky said...

Thanks for the nonfiction recommendations. I'm always looking for more nonfiction titles to blog about. By the way, I loved Dadblamed Union Cow!

AMY T said...

I also got a library copy of Drumbeat in Our Feet after reading you rec., and my 3 Sudanese daughters adored the entire book. Thanks!


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