With a byline like this one (I worship these two ladies, and I know I’m not alone), a series is bound to be good. This one, Bink & Gollie, has gotten rave reviews (which I only realized after picking this one up at the library and reading said rave reviews on the back cover). This seems to be a sort of hybrid chapter book/graphic novel series for girls. A mismatched pair of best friends, Bink (a short, spunky, always-up-for-anything gal) and Gollie (taller, more demure, but equally up for fun) tackle projects, seek adventure, and work through friendship roadblocks. It’s a little like Ivy and Bean: The GN version. The vivid illustrations by Tony Fucile are a huge part of the appeal, and girls who are resisting reading longer works may use these as a launching pad. Side thought: What’s up with all the weird character names in books these days? Bean, Bink, Gollie, Dink? No one I know has names like that!
Creepy Carrots! (Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown) and One Cool Friend (Tony Buzzeo and David Small) were both on the short list for the Caldecott Medal last year, so I had to check them out. Like so many awesome picture books these days, these two are big on offbeat humor. By coincidence, they also (spoiler alert!) conclude with totally unexpected, laugh-out-loud funny surprise endings. Creepy Carrots! is goofy and silly, with cartoonish illustrations and deadpan text that takes a little getting used to. Is Jasper really surrounded by killer vegetables, or is it all in his head? One Cool Friend employs a completely different, but equally effective, sort of humor. Like the boy in Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem, this protagonist suspends reality when he “adopts” a live penguin from the aquarium and sneaks him home. The lively, old-fashioned pen-and-ink illustrations and the faux-erudite tone complement each other delightfully.
Narrative nonfiction. It’s the trendy name for a newish kind of nonfiction writing that’s been slowly simmering for years. Today, it’s at a full boil, partly because of our schools’ adoption of the Common Core. So what is it? Narrative nonfiction is a kind of nonfiction in which writers use fiction techniques (like plot, narrative, drama, voice, creativity, and fully-drawn characters) to tell a true story or explore a topic.
What’s so great about these books? They’re fun, they’re engaging, you can’t put them down–which is hardly true for the vast majority of nonfiction out there. Kids love these books, because they teach history, science, and other subjects in a compelling way, without the dryness we’ve come to expect from nonfiction.
Narrative nonfiction is a big deal in the world of books for young adults, but there are lots of great books being published for younger readers, too. Here are five great choices:
This is a picture book, meant for adults to read aloud to pre-readers. And it’s a fantastic way to share a new idea—women gaining the right to vote—with very young children. Award-winning writer Tanya Lee Stone tells the story of the brave, unconventional woman who challenged the notion that only men can have a role in running our nation. The beautiful illustrations perfectly complement Stone’s spirited, fast-paced prose, which contains almost no dialogue (because only documented dialogue can be used in true nonfiction) but is good fun to read all the same. The story touches on serious subjects (including slavery), and this is bound to spark meaningful conversations between parents and children.
Candace Fleming, another award-winning writer with a long list of popular nonfiction books to her name, takes on America’s most famous circus man. Although Fleming doesn’t shy away from P.T. Barnum’s faults, ultimately he comes through as an integral, iconic part of American history. A self-made man, he dabbled in politics, gave millions to charity, and donated valuable items to the American Museum of Natural History. The sidebars explore other topics of interest, a great way of expanding the subject without getting off-topic in the main narrative. The many amazing photos bring the era to life, and at the end of the book, readers will be hungry to learn more about circuses and this period in history—which is just what a good nonfiction book should do.
Using new technology to track sneakers and other cargo lost at sea, scientists have made huge leaps in our understanding of ocean currents—and drawn important conclusions about the impact of our trash on the environment. One of the most appealing aspects of this book is the author’s sense of humor. By providing funny anecdotes and refusing to take the subject too seriously, Loree Griffin Burns warms up a potentially frosty topic. The discussion of sneakers is particularly effective. What student could not see the concrete correlation between sneakers lost off a Korean cargo ship and later found washed up on shore, and the study of “ocean motion”? Personal photos (such as the one of a scientist and his mom in front of their home, holding sneakers), add even more interest. The book ends by making a link with environmental issues. Readers will be motivated to change their ways after reading about the Garbage Patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the coral reefs harmed by lost fishing nets.
Did you know that when the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, in 1883, its towers were the tallest structure on earth? And that its massive cables were the first thing to be constructed of the new substance called “steel”? Those are some of the interesting tidbits in Lynn Curlee’s beautiful picture book-style volume. But besides the engineering details, Curlee reveals the human drama behind the bridge. We learn, for example, that the brutal underground digging in compressed air—in conditions described as “a scene from hell”–led to the death of the three workmen and made the Chief Engineer an invalid and recluse for life, leaving his wife to take over; that one week after the bridge’s opening, a panic broke out and 12 people were trampled to death; and that P.T. Barnum led a herd of elephants across the bridge a year later as a publicity stunt. Although this is really aimed at tweens and teens, younger children may enjoy looking at the lush illustrations as an adult reads aloud.
Using legal documents and letters, Rosalyn Schanzer attempts to suss out the truth about the terrifying witch hunt that resulted in hundreds of people jailed and over 20 people hung. This subject is a blockbuster that has fascinated Americans for centuries. Schanzer gives it a different treatment, writing in a clear and direct but slightly chatty tone, and enhancing the tale with her own eerie black-white-and-red woodcuts. Although she does not make assumptions, reminding us that some things will never be known because of the lack of written evidences, she does suggest theories and raise questions. Overall, the book does an excellent job of humanizing something that happened over 300 years ago, as well as encouraging young readers to think and wonder rather than just absorb.
Here, two books I just reviewed for the Mill Valley Public Library that turned out to be amazingly similar.
This Is the Rope, by Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrated by James Ransome.
Celebrated poet and writer Jacqueline Woodson’s latest picture book displays her trademark lyricism and eloquence as she spins a compelling, generation-spanning yarn. The subtitle is “A Story from the Great Migration,” and the story follows a young African American couple who move from the Deep South to Brooklyn in the 1970s, for a better life. The motif of a rope weaves the anecdotes together as we follow the young family through the years. The rope that they used to tie their belongings to the top of the car for the long drive becomes a laundry rope for their baby’s diapers, and then a string to pull a toy duck, and then a jump rope, and so on up through the present. When the book ends, that young couple, now elderly, sits on their Brooklyn stoop watching their granddaughter jump rope and sing, a new generation tied to the past and looking to the future. It’s a wonderful celebration of family, history, and love, and parents can use it to begin more serious discussions about race, tolerance, and immigration. Ages 4-8
This Is Our House, by Hyewon Yum. Coincidentally, this lovely book shares a great deal with This is the Rope. Both books begin each spread with the phrase “This is the…” Both tell the story of three generations living in the same home–in both cases, a charming Brooklyn (or Brooklyn lookalike) brownstone. Both start with a couple moving into their new home and end with an image of the extended family in front of the house, in the present day. Both are poignant and may cause you, the parent reading aloud, to surreptitiously wipe away a tear. This Is Our House, though, exudes a cozier vibe, with no serious subtext. Gentle watercolors depict a baby learning to walk, a favorite tree blooming, kids running down a stairway lined with family photos, and other sweet moments in the family’s history. Ages 4-8
This is nonfiction, but it’s also a picture book, meant for adults to read aloud to pre-readers. And it’s a fantastic way to share a new idea—women gaining the right to vote—with very young children. Award-winning writer Tanya Lee Stone tells the story of the brave, unconventional woman who challenged the notion that only men can have a role in running our nation. The beautiful illustrations perfectly complement Stone’s spirited, fast-paced prose, which contains almost no dialogue (because only documented dialogue can be used in true nonfiction) but is good fun to read all the same. The story touches on serious subjects (including slavery), and this is bound to spark meaningful conversations between parents and children. (Ages 5-8)
Max’s Castle. By Kate Banks. Illustrated by Boris Kulikov. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2011. I love it when I find a picture book so clever and creative that even big kids are hooked. This kept my third grader and his friend listening raptly and exclaiming excitedly as I turned each page. It’s a magical, fantastical story about a boy named Max who finds a single alphabet block. After his brothers scoff, the block turns into many, and Max begins to build words that morph into other words and beget a whole magical world. The whole thing is an exercise in wordplay and is pretty cool.
Good Night, Sleep Tight. By Mem Fox. Illustrated by Judy Horacek. Orchard, 2012. The first time I read this aloud to my daughter, I thought, “What is this? Boring.” The second time I read it to her, I thought, “Hmm, catchier than I remembered.” The third time, my daughter was chanting it along with me and I was smitten. I should have known: Everything Mem Fox does is golden. Now Cate sing-songs the refrain as we walk to school:
“‘We love it, we love it!’ said Bonnie and Ben.
‘How does it go? Will you sing it again?’
‘Some other time,’ said Skinny Doug.
‘But I’ll tell you another I heard from my mother.’”
It’s also got a Mother Goose rhyme every other spread, which seals the deal for me.
Frindle. By Andrew Clements. Atheneum, 1996. Smart, witty, funny, moving, surprising, real. This book is all those things. A boy, who’s a little too smart for his own good, finds himself in a battle of wits with his teacher when he decides to replace the word “pen” with a new, invented one: “frindle.” This is for kids on the upper end of the chapter book age range–fourth and fifth grade.
Ruby Lu, Brave and True. By Lenore Look. Atheneum, 2004. It’s pretty rare to find a chapter book with Asian-American characters, especially ones as complex and well-developed as these. The theme of being Asian in America and having born-in-China grandparents runs through this book (and its two follow-ups), but the funny content (sometimes reminiscent of the Ramona the Pest books) will appeal to kids of all stripes. Second grade and up.
Gooney Bird is so Absurd. By Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin, 2009. I still don’t really get why the main character of these books (who isn’t really the star, but around whom the action tends to revolve) is named Gooney Bird, but she is. These realistic books follow Gooney Bird and her classmates as they navigate second-grade along with their beloved teacher, Mrs. Pidgeon. (Yes, Lois Lowry is the author of The Giver, that middle grade dystopian classic. Here, the topic has nothing in common with that, but the writing is just as smart.)
My America: As Far as I Can See, Meg’s Prairie Diary (Book 1). By Kate McMullan. Scholastic, 2001. Fantastic, entertaining way to introduce kids to history. Here, we learn about the great 1849 cholera epidemic of Saint Louis and the settling of Kansas though the eyes of Meg and her family. I was so hooked I had to look up the cholera epidemic online afterwards. Second grade and up.
Emma’s Yucky Brother. By Jean Little. Illustrated by Jennifer Plecas. HarperCollins, 2001. This is the older easy reader of the batch. It’s a sweet story about a family who adopts a young boy and the struggle of both the boy and the older sister to adapt. With very simple language structure and an engaging story arc, this is a decent choice for preschool-first grade.