Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Excellent Non-fiction Picture Books (Or, if you must, you can call them Informational Books -- but really, all books are informational.)

When I was a little kid, most non-fiction books were dull biographies.  Kids today are lucky enough to have a whole passel of informational books that also have good stories in them.  Here are a few:

Murphy, Jim (2012) The Giant and How He Humbugged America.  New York:  Scholastic.

On Saturday, October 16, 1869, a farmer digging a well in Cardiff, New York, came upon an astounding discovery.  He found what appeared to be a giant petrified human being.  It was over 10 feet tall and very detailed, with ribs, toenails and muscles clearly visible.   The farmer, a man called Newell, called upon historians, experts, and reporters, and soon a crowd was gathered around the hole.  News spread like wildfire and soon Newell was charging admission to the huge crowds that came to see the giant.  As the Cardiff giant's fame grew, he seemed to capture the imagination of the entire nation.

Too bad the whole thing was a hoax. 

I still remember when I first read about the Cardiff giant, in a SRA article (SRA was an ancient reading program -- sort of the 1970s version of Accelerated Reader) and how fascinated I was by it.  Murphy (who apparently wrote and illustrated this book) does an amazing job with the story.  The amount of text and vocabulary mean this book is probably ideal for second or third grade an up -- but it is fascinating stuff.  The illustrations are mostly pictures and illustrations from newspapers-- but they really give a feel for the excitement of the time. 

Murphy chronicles the exciting rise of the giant and its equally fascinating downfall.  This is an especially good book for kids who are already pretty good readers.

Kvatum, Lia; Pokrovskaya, Liya (2012)  Saving Yasha:  The Incredible True Story of an Adopted Moon Bear.  Washington D.C.: National Geographic

So the other day my daughter asked me why so many kids her age (she is in 4th grade) want to be veterinarians when they grow up.  I wasn't sure of the answer to that question, but I think it probably has to do with the fact that a high proportion of animals seem eminently huggable.
     Saving Yasha is the story of a profoundly huggable Moon Bear cub in Russia who was orphaned, cared for by scientists, and released into the wild.  Every page has a huge photo of an amazingly cute bear doing amazingly cute things.  Along the way, the text tells kids all sorts of interesting information about Moon Bears -- but it is the pictures that will keep them turning the pages.  The book does give a pretty good explanation of what bear researchers do -- which is bound to interest the child looking for an answer to the question of what they want to do when they grow up.
     This would be a great read aloud, but it is also the sort of book that second graders on up could read on their own. 

Hague, Bradley (2012) Alien Deep:  Revealing the Mysterious Living World at the Bottom of the Ocean.  Washington D.C.: National Geographic.

I sometimes forget that after I learned things in school, scientists and discoverers kept6 adding to that body of knowledge.  Somehow, when I turned my back for a couple of decades, scientists found out that around volcanic vents in the super deep parts of the ocean are bizarre thriving ecosystems including giant clams, hairy-armed crabs, and ten foot long tube worms.  And they have discovered these world by using robot submarines. 

So not only is this an amazing alien world reached by strange space-ship looking vessels, but it is all new knowledge that most grown-ups do not know.  Some of the text is pretty small and tightly packed -- but it is the kind of book where a younger student (say second grade) could read the captions are the first time through and maybe dig a little deeper the second time.  It is sort of episodic -- with a lot of smaller sections rather than a single narrative through line. 

Oh, and the pictures are remarkably breathtaking. 

Cole, Henry (2012) Unspoken: A story from the underground railroad.  New York:  Scholastic.

Okay, this isn't exactly non-fiction -- but it sort of is.  This is the story of a little girl who notices a runaway slave in her family's corn field and she gives him a place to stay (actually, I am not sure it is a him -- we see only the eye of the escapee.  The story is told solely through pictures and, for little ones, is perhaps best read first with an adult who can help make connections from page to page.  Soon, though, the child readers will be able to make connections on their own. 

It is a powerful story, and well worth reading (even though there aren't any words).  Here is one more picture.  Enjoy it, then go get the book.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Graphic Novel for Girls

Torres, J.; Bone, J. (2010) Alison Dare: Little Miss Adventures.  Toronto:  Tundra Books.

In all honesty, when I was a little kid I wasn't very discriminating about what comics I read.  In my cousin's cottage there was this huge drawer in a desk in the living room that was filled with Donald Duck comics (mostly from the Carl Barks years), some superheroes (Superman, Batman, and an early Avengers), Hot Rod Magazine, Mad Magazine, and lots of Archie comics.  As I grew older, I started to get sick of the Archie ones first.  I think that was partly because the Donald Duck stuff involved these crazy trips through time and to bizarre islands and other countries.  The superhero ones were exciting (though frustrating because I never knew what happened before or after the individual issues I had access to).  But the Archie ones had the same characters, the same jokes, and essentially the same stories.  Nothing ever changed.   

Alison Dare seems to be made up of equal parts Donald Duck (exotic locations) superheroes (exciting stories) and Archie (nothing really ever changes.)   Alison is the daughter of two archaeologists.  In the first story, while on a dig in the middle east, Alison finds a lamp, with a genie, and soon she and her two friends are  she and her friends are deep in trouble.  The second story, set back in the states involves an evil mastermind getting the better of the Blue Scarab, and Alison having to save the day. 

This graphic novel fills a void.  There are not a lot of good GNs for 3rd through 5th grade girls.  This book is fun and exciting -- but don't look here for character development or themes of abiding interest.  It is just a fun little ride.


Monday, November 18, 2013

A Few More Picture Books (then a graphic novel next time -- I promise)

I am actually quite a fan of winter (I love shoveling snow, no joke) but I recognize that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for snow and cold.  So here are some picture books that will make you think of other seasons. 

Fogliano, Julie; Stead, Erin E. (2012) and then it's spring.  New York:  Roaring Brook Press.

This is a remarkably simple book about a little kid who plants some seeds when everything is brown.  He waters it and worries about it and mostly he waits in his little red wagon until finally one day everything is green.  The illustrations are simple but realistic (my favorite one is a cutaway that shows the ants and mice underground as they wait for spring too) and detailed enough that little kids can spend a long time looking at them.  No deep themes here, but the words are well chosen/  I also love that the little guy wears glasses. 

Woodson, Jacquline; Lewis, E.B.  (2012)  Each Kindness.  New York:  Nancy Paulsen Books.

Okay, the bright sunny pictures manage to keep this book from being too gloomy -- but actually the story is about a girl named Maya who joins an elementary classroom part way into the semester, after all the friendships have been chosen.  Despite her teacher's attempts to find a friend for Maya, the other kids shut her out.  Then one day Maya isn't there any more and Chloe wishes she had made the decision to be kind to her.  Although we might wish for a happy ending, we don't really get one with this book -- and actually I think that is okay.  It is good for little kids (and big kids too) to recognize that unkindness hurts, and we don't always get another chance.  Though you might not want to buy this for your child, it would be helpful for kindergarten through second (or maybe through adulthood, now that I think about it) to hear this in class and think about how they can make the world better.
     To be honest, though, it really doesn't matter what the subject is, E.B. Lewis's art makes me think of summer.

Buzzeo, Toni;  Small, David (2012) One Cool Friend.  New York: Dial Books

This is a silly book.  Elliot wants a penguin and his father, thinking he wants a plush penguin, agrees.  Then Elliot apparently kidnaps a penguin and his apparently oblivious father apparently doesn't notice.  His oblivious father also apparently doesn't notice when Elliot uses the air conditioner in his room to freeze a wading pool of water so he and the penguin can ice skate.  His oblivious father also apparently doesn't notice Elliot's penguin in the freezer when he goes for ice cream.  Turns out, though in the surprise ending, that Elliot's father is not as oblivious as you might think..The whole book is structured around one joke, -- but its silliness is something kids will enjoy.  The art is a little overly cartoony for my taste, but it is well done. 
     And I know this one is about ice and snow -- but you see it is warm outside, that is why Elliot needs to run the air conditioner.  Remember running the air conditioner?

Finally, there is nothing like thinking of the seashore when you are cold and miserable.  Although maybe you weren't thinking of this sort of sea adventure"

Kimmel, Eric A.; Glass, Andrew (2012)  Moby Dick:  Chasing the Great White Whale.

You  know the story already.  Ishmeal goes to sea on the Pequod with Queequeg, Starbuck, Stubb and, of course, Captain Ahab.  They do some whaling and eventually find the great white whale with Ahab hoping to get his revenge.  Instead the whale turns the tables.
     I actually love the novel and so it is a little hard for me to take the rhyming verses that summarize the story -- but the paintings are beautiful and actually, this book is a good summary of the story (though I think it mistakenly makes reference to a character called Flash -- I think they mean Flask -- the butterless man).  This might be a good way for a high school teacher to summarize the novel before teaching it (though I would argue that no one should read Moby Dick until they are at least 25 and have lived a little.  The book is much funnier then.)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Quirky Graphic Novel (maybe mostly for girls)

Hartman, Rachel  (2002) Amy Unbounded, Belondweg Blossoming.  Wynnewood, PA:  Pug House Press.

      This is Amy of Eddybrook.  Amy lives in a medieval village community with her family.  Her age is unclear but she seems to be entering adolescence.  It is a little hard to explain what this book is about.  There is political intrigue between the queen and the guilds and Amy's father and other members of the community.  There is a love story involving a dragon who takes the form of a monk and is forbidden from caring about humans.  Most of all, though, the story is about Amy as she goes through puppy love and idealized love and finally starts to become comfortable with the annoying boy next door (who turns out to be a much funnier and more caring person than she thought).
     So this is not a quest story that unites the kingdom against an evil foe.  This is not a princess story about a street urchin who rules the kingdom.  It is certainly not a Disney story about two beautiful people who finally get together in spite of adversity.  Look at the picture of Amy above.  Amy is normal looking.  She has a big nose.  She sometimes says awkward things.  She has no special talents.  Sometimes she blunders through life a bit, like we all do.  It is a normal story about normal people.  So this isn't a fillet mignon of a book.  It isn't a lobster thermidor.  This is more of a shepherd's pie kind of a story, or a casserole kind of a story.  Amy Unbounded is kind of like comfort food.
     This is also not destined to become a classic piece of literature and I very much doubt it will end up making anyone's top ten list of excellent stories.  The art is competent, but not breathtaking (black and white -- mostly line drawings).  But if you are looking for a graphic novel about a strong female character who doesn't look like a Disney princess, you might want to check out this graphic novel.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Non-fiction Picture Book about Dinosaurs! (Just sayin')

Fern, Tracey; Kulikov, Boris (2012)  Barnum's Bones: How Barnum Brown Discovered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World  New York:  Margaret Ferguson Books

This is the amazing story of the dinosaur hunter, Barnum Brown -- who first discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex bones.  The focus here is on Barnum who from a young age was interested in geology, and how he eventually travelled the world finding dinosaur bones.  The pictures are exciting (though I wish they showed more about the dinosaurs sometimes).  Still, this would be a great book for sparking children's interest in paleontology. 

Though older kids might enjoy reading it, it seems best suited for kindergarten through second grade.  

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Two amazing picture books (good for Art, English, and History)

Allen Say (2011) Drawing from Memory New York:  Scholastic.

You probably know someone who is still young and who loves drawing or who wants to be an art teacher someday.  Don't finish reading this review.  It will only waste time.  Instead, go order this book.  You may want to order a copy for yourself too -- even if you don't fancy becoming an artist some day, if you are interested in history, memoir, Japan, art, education, a well-told story, or beautiful books.

This is the story of children's illustrator Allen Say.  It is a beautiful combination of black and white photographs, drawings from memory, and drawings that Say made when he was just learning how to draw.  it describes his early development as an artist, his disagreements with his father over whether art was a respectable profession, the teachers that nurtured him, how he had to leave home to go to school, the glory of his first studio space, how he learned to combine karate and drawing, and best of all, how he managed to get himself apprenticed to the premier cartoonist in Japan.  I cannot decide whether I like the words best or the art.  I suspect the answer is both. 

I don't know what to tell you about age level for this book.  I think first graders and younger would have a hard time with it.  Beyond that, all bets are off.  I think it would be excellent for middle school, high school, college, and regular grown-ups.  Here is an example of what a page looks like:

This may be the best picture book I have read this year. It is so good that I kept it even when it was overdue (and I NEVER let books be overdue).

de la Pena, Matt; Nelson, Kadir  (2011)   A Nation's Hope:  The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis.  New York:  Dial Books.

So I'll confess up front, I am not much of a boxing fan, but when I turned to the first page of this book and saw Kadir Nelson's painting of a crowd outside of Yankee Stadium in 1939 in the setting sunlight, it took me by surprise, and it took my breath away (and I don't even like the Yankees).  De la Pena frames this book as not only the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, but also as Joe Louis's fight for respect in Jim Crow America.  And also maybe, as the way that Joe Louis gave America a hero when it really needed one.  He does a nice job.  The book is well written. but really, it doesn't matter.  What makes this book is Nelson's illustrations.  The light and dark in an image of a brightly lit boxing ring adrift in a sea of darkness; the image of Joe Louis as a dejected kid, dreaming of a better life; the image of a black family huddled around the radio:  all these draw you far deeper than you would ever think images could.  I am used to getting lost in the words of a book.   This experience, getting lost in the images, was somewhat new to me.

Look, you'll just have to see it yourself.