Rhino in the House: The True Story of Saving Samia by Daniel Kirk tells the true account of conservationist Anna Merz and her efforts to provide sanctuary to Africa’s rhinos. Anna created an animal sanctuary to protect the wildlife from poachers. She rescued an abandoned rhino calf, which she named Samia and raised as a pet in her home.
Naturally, as the rhino grew bigger, it became more difficult for Anna to keep Samia at home. Children will entertained as they learn about some of the problems Samia caused, such as barging in while Anna was taking a bath! Anna reintroduced Samia to the wild, though the two continued to meet and share their special bond.
There are four pages at the end of the book that include photographs of Anna, Samia, and other African wildlife. An author’s note goes into further detail on Anna’s preservation efforts, and a bibliography guides students in further research. I recommend this book for ages 4 and up.
The Westing Game, for which author Ellen Raskin earned the Newbery Medal, has entertained young sleuths for nearly 40 years. Wealthy business tycoon Sam Westing has named the 16 tenants of Sunset Towers as heirs in his will. Furthermore, he placed the individuals into teams of two, gave them clues and $10,000, and charged them with figuring out the details of his death. The first team to solve the mystery will inherit his estate.
The Westing Game is full of puzzles, word games, and fun plot twists to keep readers on their toes. Once the solution is revealed, its cleverness almost begs the reader to start the book over again in order to re-read the book now having a full understanding of the events.
Fans of The Westing Game might also enjoy Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. Emily and her family move to San Francisco. Emily is excited for the change because that brings her closer to Mr. Griswold, creator of the Book Scavenger game that she loves to play. Players hide books and post clues of the books’ whereabouts on the internet. Players earn points by being the first to find books, so the race is always on!
Emily and her new friend, James, find a mysterious book that is directly tied to Mr. Griswold, who has recently been attacked. Emily and James learn that their hunt may not only help them win the game, but may also solve the mystery of Griswold’s attack.
Book Scavenger contains ciphers, word puzzles, historical references, and other clues. Emily and James create some of the clues themselves, so the reader also gets a behind-the-scenes look at the logical process that goes into these puzzlers.
I recommend both The Westing Game and Book Scavenger for ages 10-14. Book Scavenger is a bit heavier on the coding and ciphers, which might make it better suited towards older children in that age bracket, but readers who don’t fully grasp the puzzles will still enjoy the fast-paced plot.
I may be biased towards liking this book, because I am a female mathematician. There had been a time when I had considered becoming an aerospace engineer. I wanted to work for NASA. After I discovered that engineering wasn’t quite the right path for me, I instead earned my Ph.D. in applied and interdisciplinary mathematics (what a mouthful!), specializing in mathematical biology. Still, I can’t deny that I still find the idea of space exploration rather captivating.
When I found out there was a Young Readers’ edition of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, I knew I wanted to check it out. This book highlights the lives and achievements of a handful of African American women who made substantial contributions to aviation and our nation’s space program. The fact that they were female mathematicians at a time when few women earned college degrees made this story worth telling. Add to that the extra obstacle of being treated as less-than-equals to their caucasian peers, and one can’t help but feel admiration and respect for these intelligent women and all that they accomplished.
Hidden Figures will appeal most to children ages 10-12, and maybe even ages 8-10 for very strong readers. Of course, older readers may also appreciate learning about this fascinating slice of history – I know I did. This book will encourage all readers to rise above adversity and work hard to realize one’s dreams.
Duncan Tonatiuh’s books are well received, winning various awards. A Mexican-American author and artist, his illustrations have a unique style that celebrates his heritage. The content of his books draws from Mexican-American history and culture, from biographies to legends.
In Separate is Never Equal, Tonatiuh presents the story of the Mendez family, focusing on daughter Sylvia. After moving to Westminster, California, the Mendez children attended public school, only to be told that they needed to go to the Mexican school instead. The Mendez family was infuriated, and rightfully so. Sylvia’s father, Gonzalo, was from Mexico, but had become a U. S. citizen. Her mother, Felícitas, was from the U. S. territory, Puerto Rico. The children were U. S. citizens and spoke perfect English.
The Mendez family filed a lawsuit against the Westminster schools. The court ruled in favor of the Mendez family, which led to the desegregation of schools in California, seven years before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case desegregated schools in the entire country.
I found this story riveting. I was somewhat embarrassed that I knew absolutely nothing about the Mendez case before reading this book. The case paved the way for similar lawsuits and led to awareness for racial equality, so why do we not teach our students about it?
I highly recommend this picture book for ages 6-10, though I think even younger children may be captivated by the illustrations, and older students will be interested in reading a little known piece of history. Separate is Never Equal would be a wonderful addition for any study on U. S. History or in discussion of current events and the fight for racial equality. The biographical matter, family photographs, bibliography, and glossary at the back of the book make it easy for students to dig a little deeper to learn more about the Mendez family.
If you are looking for a fun read aloud book for the whole family, try Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe. Winner of the 2017 Global Read Aloud award in the early reader category, this book will be a favorite for dog lovers as the story is told from the perspective of a dog!
Fenway is a feisty Jack Russell terrier who loves his owner, Hattie. When Fenway and Hattie (and big humans Food Lady and Fetch Man) leave their city apartment for a home in the suburbs, Fenway has a myriad of new challenges to overcome. Evil squirrels, a dog-less dog park, and the Wicked Floor. But none of these problems is as big as the possibility that Hattie may be drifting away. Fenway will have to think of a big plan to win back the affections of his favorite short human.
Fenway and Hattie can be read aloud to kids of all ages, but it will probably be most enjoyed by those ages 5-10. For independent reading, I recommend it for ages 7 (strong readers) to 10.
If you are seeking a good laugh, then look no further. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett and Chris Van Dusen is a humorous interpretation of the speculative story that President Taft did indeed get stuck in his bath. Barnett’s prose is witty and comically irreverent. Van Dusen’s illustrations add another layer of hilarity to create picture book perfection.
Candlewick Press recommends this book for ages 4-8, but I believe all audiences will find great enjoyment in it. Young children will laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and the illustrations that play out Taft’s indelicate dilemma. Older children and adults will appreciate the incorporated wordplay as government officials are brought in to help Taft out of the bath.
There is some uncertainty as to whether Taft was ever stuck in his bath, but there are two pages in the back that recount some of the theories. In addition, there is a funny historical account of Taft’s factual interactions with bathtubs. As such, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath would be an entertaining supplement when studying this president in American history.
I’ve already mentioned several books illustrated by Caldecott Winner Melissa Sweet, but I didn’t want to leave this one out. In what was clearly a labor of love, Sweet wrote and illustrated Some Writer!, which is long enough to be a middle grade novel, but also has the feel of one of Sweet’s picture books.
Many will recognize E. B. White as the iconic writer of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan, but I doubt many know much about his life. Even though Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorite books, I admit I did not know what E. B. stood for. (Elwyn Brooks, for those interested.)
Sweet covers White’s life from beginning to end, enriching the narrative by incorporating writing from White’s letters, essays, and books. We read of White’s summers in Maine as a boy, and readers of Trumpet of the Swan will see how much nature inspired White, even at an early age. We learn about the connection to Professor William Strunk, Jr. that would later lead to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. We are introduced to White’s adventurous days in which he roamed from one end of the country, supporting himself by odd jobs and various writing gigs. We gain a deeper connection to White’s personal life in learning more about his wife, son, and stepchildren. White’s granddaughter, Martha, even provided an afterword and granted Sweet access to some of White’s personal items and letters.
There are chapters that discuss the background and making of each of White’s books. Young readers may be surprised to learn about White’s ongoing employment with the elite literary magazine, The New Yorker. Through captions and editorial comments, we witness White’s sense of humor and his love for playing with words.
Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White is a great nonfiction read for those who love his work, and it is inspiring to future writers. The book is appropriate for ages eight and up, though I suspect older readers will catch more of the details that make the book so interesting.
I had the pleasure of listening to Jen Bryant in a recent webinar. She has a passion for children’s nonfiction and finds interesting, but less known, subjects to feature in her narrative stories. After the webinar was over, I reserved all of the nonfiction picture books that my library had available.
The collaborations between Ms. Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet are especially wonderful. I will cover several of their books in future posts, but I thought I would first feature A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. I appreciate art, but I was unfamiliar with Horace Pippin before reading this book. I speculate that I am not alone in this.
Horace Pippin’s story is a wonderful example of perseverance. As a young boy, he loved to draw and paint, and showed promising artistic talent. After injuring his arm in World War I, however, Horace was no longer able to create the art he so loved. He eventually taught himself to use his left hand to support his injured right arm. As Bryant writes, “Pippin’s masterful use of color, form, and composition … is considered his greatest artistic strength.” His work was discovered by notable artists and critics during his lifetime, and today his paintings are displayed in museums across the country.
A Splash of Red would be a wonderful book to supplement studies in art, art history, and U.S. history. Although picture books are usually considered for younger children, older ones will enjoy this book as well, and it would serve as a fine starting point to introduce them to Horace Pippin.
Author Ashley Bryan used the Fairchilds Appraisement of the Estate document dated for July 5, 1828 as inspiration for his poetry collection Freedom Over Me. In this document, eleven slaves are listed for sale along with cows, hogs, and cotton. Bryan brings these eleven individuals to life with poetry. Each person has a pair of poems written from his or her perspective. The first poem describes his or her life on the plantation. The second relates personal dreams and hopes for freedom.
Bryan’s artwork is stunning. A portrait in neutral colors, along with the slave’s price and name, appears on the left with the coinciding poem describing everyday life appearing on the right. When we turn the page, we are captivated by a rich, colorful picture of the individual’s dream life, with the appropriate poem appearing on the left.
The use of poetry is profound in this book. It is a powerful way to connect us with the slaves’ humanity. Freedom Over Me would be a wonderful text to use in supplement to US History studies or in any discussion of slavery.
Two beloved stories with animal protagonists. Two critically acclaimed novels. And two books highlighting the value of loyal friendship and the power of expression.
One of the most read and certainly recognizable books in children’s literature, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White tells the story of Wilbur, a runt pig who was spared an untimely death by eight-year-old Fern. He lives in the barn at Fern’s uncle’s barn, surrounded by other farm animals, yet lonely. Then he meets Charlotte, a plain but extraordinary spider. Charlotte does more than befriend Wilbur – she devises a plan to once again save Wilbur’s life. She writes words in her web, which the humans interpret as a miracle. This turns Wilbur into a celebrity, and he becomes the pride of Zuckerman’s farm. Charlotte’s Web is poignant and full of heart, affirming all the beauty found in life’s simple pleasures.
In a similar way, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is about a small group of animals who have banded together. Living in less-than-ideal conditions in a run-down and cramped mall facility, Ivan the gorilla, Stella the elephant, and Bob the stray dog make the best of their awful situation through their relationships with one another. However, when baby elephant Ruby is added to the mix, Ivan takes it upon himself to save her from her new dismal future. Ivan paints pictures and his artwork gains much attention. As more people become aware of Ivan, the public is outraged by the inadequate living conditions for the animals, and they demand change. The One and Only Ivan demonstrates that we can all make a difference for the good of another, even when we are limited by our situation.
Although the reading level of Charlotte’s Web is a bit higher than that of The One and Only Ivan, the content of Ivan may disturb sensitive readers more than Charlotte. Both books could be read by independent readers ages 8-12, but I would suggest that ages 10-12 may be more appropriate for Ivan. Charlotte’s Web may be enjoyed be younger children as a read-aloud, but I would refrain from introducing Ivan to readers younger than eight.