Friday, November 13, 2015

Best New Nonfiction for the School Year!

So much talk about the value of nonfiction in the national Common Core curriculum, how it improves vocabulary and is so challenging and etc., etc., honestly, it may be so, but my goodness, nonfiction seems to have the same publicist as broccoli.  No need for kids and teachers to wrinkle their noses when there are so many choices that are such a pleasure to share and feed into childrens' organic motivations to read and learn...funny and fascinating poems, real life adventures and achievements, animals!  Here are a few of my favorite nonfiction picks of the year from which educators with meager budgets can get a lot of mileage, and book lovers of any persuasion can garner pleasure.

Brother Giovanni's Little Reward:  How the Pretzel Was Born by Anna Egan Smucker, illustrated by Amanda Hall (Eerdmans).  Stirring together ingredients from a sparse pantry of information dating from around 610 A.D., this author bakes up a really lovely legend of a monk who is disappointed to find that intrinsic motivation is not enough to get his students to learn their psalms.  Where teaching skills fall short, baking skills compensate.  Whatever your faith base, it's a delicious story that celebrates problem-solving and serves as a springboard into discussion about why we choose to learn...and choose to teach.  Soft pretzel recipe in the back is a bonus.  All right, borderline nonfiction, I know...but a teachable moment to talk about how facts can inspire narrative. What a twist!

One Plastic Bag:  Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Millbrook Press).  Isatou Ceesay rescued her Gambian village from huge and dangerous accumulations of plastic bags by ingeniously repurposing them into crocheted purses.  Also ingenious is the artist's integration of real plastic bags into the illustrations.  A story about making a difference told in a simple, straightforward manner, with a dose of "girl power." Generous back matter includes an author's note, pronunciation guide, timeline and a photo of the real Ceesay.

How to Swallow a Pig:  Step-by-Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom by Steven Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).  Care to learn how to spin a web like a spider?  How to defend yourself like an armadillo?  Disguise yourself like an octopus?  Want a dancing lesson from a grebe (or to learn what a grebe is)?  Fifteen animal how-to's offer exciting insight into some unusual behavior.  Robin Page always finds an unexpected lens through which to view the wild world and Steve Jenkins' paper cut illustrations are so miraculous and warrant an almost automatic addition to any nonfiction collection...but fawning over individual talents aside, this is a great model for expository writing and point of view.  Other great picks for animal lovers:  The Queen's Shadow:  A Story About How Animals See by Cybele Young (Kids Can Press); The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin (Henry Holt); I (Don't) Like Snakes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Luciano Lozano (Candlewick) and A Tower of Giraffes:  Animals in Groups by Anna Wright (Charlesbridge).

The Death of the Hat:  A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Candlewick) Every endeavor by the Janeczko-Raschka team dedicated to introducing children to poetry and all its forms deserves to be on every teacher's shelf, being the best thing to happen to the teaching of poetry to children since Kenneth Koch.  This latest takes the tack of demonstrating how poets through the ages have taken everyday things such as manhole covers, birthday cards, boxes, bags and blades of grass and used them as inspiration.  The arrangement of the anthology is chronological from the early Middle Ages until the present, just underscoring that wherever and whenever you are, the muse is waiting.

Poetry is such an important genre in children's literature and education because it can be used across the grade levels, and, when done right, is both of high literary quality while being accessible to children of all different ability levels.  To that end, you also won't want to miss The Popcorn Astronauts and Other Biteable Rhymes by Deborah Ruddell and illustrated by Joan Rankin (Margaret K. McElderry Books).  Ruddell is one of the most imaginative children's poets working today, and has created a most appetizing collection of foodie poems, among them  "The Picky Ogre,"  "21 Things to Do with an Apple," "Menu for a Gray Day,"  "Dracula's Late Night Bite," and "Gingerbread House Makeover."  Seriously, how can you resist a poem called "Stand and Cheer for MAC and CHEESE!"?  Some children's poets overcook their themes, but Ruddell's collection is fresh and inspired from soup to nuts.

Another great poetry surprise was the seasonal Santa Clauses:  Short Poems from the North Pole by Bob Raczka and illustrated by Chuck Groenink (Carolrhoda).  After reading and enjoying a collection of Japanese haiku given to him by Mrs. Claus, Santa tries his hand at writing his own.  Turns out, Santa is a man of many talents.  This collection of poems is oddly poignant and evocative, revealing small, real details of Santa's life that had this reader believing all over again.  Broad. homey spreads are well-matched to the text.  One of my favorites books of this year.

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad (Chronicle).  Picture book biographies are also one of the most important, inspirational and useful genres of children's literature, and, like poetry, can by readily used across all grade levels.  Worthy of weekly "biography breaks," you really can't have too many in your collection. This one in particular embodies a kind of perfection.  The spread of Pavlova traveling across the world and playing part after part will be pored over by many an aspiring performer, and the literal view through the window into Pavlova's childhood is a gift to the reader.  As graceful in both visual and written line as the dancer it portrays, it is unrelenting in its depiction of work, inspiration and generosity. Even the bitterness of the ballerina's ending is made sweeter by a life well-lived.  Morstad has illustrated many unusually beautiful books in the course of her career, but they all seem to have been building toward this sublime project.  Worthy of applause and the many awards it is bound to receive.  

When I said there are many wonderful biographies, I wasn't kidding.  Check out all these outstanding offerings:  Marvelous Cornelius:  Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra (Chronicle); Fur, Fins and Feathers:  Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo by Cassandre Maxwell (Eerdmans); The House that Jane Built:  A Story About Jane Addams by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Kathryn Brown (Henry Holt); Sewing Stories:  Harriet Powers' Journey from Slave to Artist by Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Knopf); 100 Pablo Picassos by Violet Lemay (Duo); Enormous Smallness:  A Story of e.e. cummings by Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (Enchanted Lion Press); Funny Bones:  Posada and his Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiah (Abrams);  The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can by Dr. Tererai Trent, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist (Viking).

Where Did My Clothes Come From? by Chris Butterworth, illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti (Candlewick).  The late, great Mr. Fred Rogers showed how important it is to make sure young children know how things are made, and this cheerful, clever book falls into that canon.  Do children appreciate how the jeans they wear started by growing on a bush, that the sweaters they wear may come from more than eight kinds of animals,or that their soccer uniforms might have started as a syrup?  They will once this story is shared!  The illustrations are naturally multicultural and inclusive, and help to impart that the clothes we wear are indeed a worldwide effort.  This book is an opportunity to look at something we see everyday in a new way, and with new gratitude.  A simple but thoughtful page of recycling suggestions makes for a nice finish, as do the fashionable endpapers. 

Also check out:  The Case for Loving:  The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selena Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selena Alko (Arthur Levine Books); Chinese Fairy Tale Feasts by Paul Yee and Judy Chan, illustrated by Shaoli Wang (Croodile);   Kid President's Guide to Being Awesome by Brad Montague and Robby Novac (HarperCollins); Book: My Autobiography by John Agard, illustrated by Neil Packer (Candlewick); An A from Miss Keller by Patricia Polacco (G.P. Putnam's Sons); Are You My Dinner?  by Tracey West, illustrated by Luke Flowers (Smithsonian); History of Women's Fashion by Natasha Slee, illustrated by Sanna Mander (Big Picture Books); My Leaf Book by Monica Wellington (Dial).

What's your favorite nonfiction this year, really and truly? What works in your classroom and home?  Please share in the comments below!

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