I love reading picture book biographies of people I have never heard of. Especially if they are seemingly ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things. My kids and I recently enjoyed learning about the amazing Mary Walker, who not only lived to an incredibly old age, but learned to read when she was 116. Incredible. Author Rita L. Hubbard and illustrator Oge Mora have honored her story in The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read.
Here are three things I like about this book:
Hubbard presents Mary Walker’s persistence in an honest but hopeful way. Readers learn of Mary’s hardships but also feel her joy when she finally achieves her great goal of learning to read.
Mora’s youthful and vibrant illustrations seem to mirror the energetic soul of a person who lives to 121 years of age.
Stories of persistence are great for kids, and I love how this book can relate to kids in a very tangible way, since many young children are learning to read themselves.
This book is great for all ages, but I think it will land especially well with six to ten year olds.
I love the current trend of infusing lyrical storytelling into non-fiction picture books. In picture book biographies, it is also becoming more common to feature people that history has previously ignored.
What Miss Mitchell Saw, written by Hayley Barrett, illustrated by Diana Sudyka, demonstrates all that is lovely in this golden age of children’s non-fiction. The poetic text is as lovely on the ears as the gorgeous illustrations are on the eyes. The story in and of itself is wonderful, and I consider it a bonus that my children and I could learn about real-life astronomer Maria Mitchell while enjoying a compelling story about a woman who bucked the conventions of her time.
I recommend this beautiful picture book for all ages, though I would suggest the target age is 6-10 years old. What Miss Mitchell Saw would make a lovely accompaniment to a history study (particularly during Women’s History Month) or a unit on astronomy.
Confession: I read The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart in May of 2019. I loved this book so much that I couldn’t think of how I could adequately do it justice in a blog post. To the point that I went through a freeze in writing any blog posts at all.
I still feel this way. So rather than share a synopsis, I want you to know this book has all the feels and moved me in a way no other novel has. Readers will find hope, despair, adventure, intense friendship, humor, community, and even a goat on a bus. Most of all, they will find love. Love for those we have lost and love for those we have now.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If it were up to me, I would cover it with every award sticker for which it is eligible. This middle grade novel is probably best for ages ten and up, and I do mean “and up” – this one is for readers of all ages.
Padma Venkatraman’s The Bridge Home is both beautiful and heartbreaking. This book confronts the difficult realities of poor, homeless children in India, much as Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water did for showing readers the lives of young people who don’t have access to clean water.
Main character Viji persuades her disabled sister Rukku to run away with her, in order to escape their abusive father. With nowhere to go and no one to run to, they are homeless children in a big city and face dangers at every turn. After befriending a loving, stray dog, the girls look for shelter. They have the good fortune of bumping into Arul and Muthu, two young boys in circumstances similar to theirs, but who have more knowledge about the workings of the big city.
The four children and the dog quickly unite to become their own family. They work together, often scouring for recyclables in the city’s massive trash heaps. Loyal to one another, they pool their resources together and share all their earnings, food, and supplies. I appreciated how Venkatraman highlights the children’s pride in earning their keep – they don’t want charitable handouts from anyone.
The Bridge Home is ultimately an urban survival story for a middle grade audience. Venkatraman masterfully portrays the atrocities of the children’s lifestyle while also making it appropriate for younger readers. Though fictional, elements of the novel are based on true stories, and this book could be used to initiate discussion about how many children around the world live incredibly difficult lives. I think The Bridge Home is probably best for ages 10-14, due to the difficult life circumstances of the children, but mature eight- and nine-year-olds may handle it all right.
Although I have traveled to many areas in the contiguous United States and various countries in Europe, I have never been to New York City. After reading A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park by Ashley Benham Yazdani, I would love to visit the Big Apple and see this world-famous park.
Yazdani does a wonderful job of bringing to life the historical account of Central Park’s inception and construction. She includes interesting facts without bogging down the reader with too much technical terminology or trivial information. The illustrations are full of life, making the historical scenes appear fresh and present. From the broad, lush landscapes to the complete survey of the various bridges inside the park, the detailed illustrations are a feast for the eyes, welcoming multiple readings.
I recommend A Green Place to Be for readers who are looking for a beautifully illustrated slice-of-history story. It will probably be best for ages 6-10, though I do think artists of all ages will enjoy the beautiful illustrations.
Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster is my favorite book of 2018 (adult or children’s), and one of my favorite children’s novels of all time. The themes are timeless, the story is riveting, and the writing is beautiful. I believe this book will stand the test of time – a modern classic indeed.
Nan Sparrow is a chimney sweep in Victorian London. Although she is old by chimney sweep standards (not yet a teenager), she is one of the best in the business. She knows how to navigate the treacherous flues in London homes, and has managed to stay unscathed in a profession that regularly claims the lives of its young workers. Until the day she gets stuck.
When a fellow sweep uses the “Devil’s Nudge” tactic of lighting a fire in the chimney to, shall we say, encourage her to break free, Nan finds herself trapped in a chimney fire and figures death is imminent. She blacks out, and when she wakes, she is not injured … and not alone. A creature made of ash and soot, called a golem, has rescued Nan, and is, in fact, her monster.
As others have noted, Sweep has a Dickensian feel to it, highlighting the terrible and brutal conditions that children endured as chimney sweeps. I honestly had no idea that children were used in this way, and I suspect many contemporary readers share this ignorance. I commend Auxier for not shying away from the disturbing truth, but rather mining for the glimmer of hope in a hopeless existence.
Sweep received a lot of accolades, and it deserves every one. I would have gladly bestowed all the stars and awards it could possibly earn. I highly recommend this book for ages 10 and up, though 12 and up may be more appropriate for sensitive readers.
This book makes kids laugh. Hysterically. Or maybe that’s just mine. Over the last week, the best part of my day has been reading this book to my kids before bedtime. I think multiple readings have only increased the giggles, since my kids laugh in anticipation of what they know is coming next. For me, this makes The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak a worthy addition to our home library.
I love how this book promotes the importance of words in the most jubilant, undidactic way. It’s a great read aloud for children of all ages, for the littlest will giggle uncontrollably and even teens will be hard pressed not to smile. TIP: An exuberant performance is sure to bring the most laughs, which makes it most fun for the reader!
Locomotive by Brian Floca is one of my family’s favorite non-fiction picture books. Dense with information, but told in a narrative style, it’s perfect both for a school reading and a bedtime read-aloud. The text is long (for a picture book), but my train-loving son requested we read this book over and over to him when he was just three.
The artwork is amazing, so it’s no surprise that Floca won the Caldecott Medal for this book. Made with ink, watercolor, acrylic, and gouache, the illustrations capture an old-world feel, while still coming across as fresh and contemporary. Details abound. From the expansive western scenery, to the jaw-dropping Dale Creek Bridge, to the careful replications of the locomotive itself, one could easily spend time poring over these pages without reading any of the text. And don’t overlook the endpapers! They are full of facts and diagrams, adding more hard-core nonfiction material to the book.
Locomotive is perfect for train enthusiasts and would be an excellent addition to any U.S. History study. Mr. Floca provides extra materials on his website to supplement the book, including a coloring page of the locomotive (a favorite in our house!) and teacher’s guide. I heartily recommend this book for all ages, particularly 4-12 years old.
I’m a big fan of narrative nonfiction. For picture books, I particularly like historical nonfiction that highlights lesser known stories from the past. The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes tells the story of the assassination attempt on Lincoln before he was inaugurated as president in 1861. I think this story is particularly effective because it takes a well-known figure (Lincoln) and tells how a lesser known figure (Pinkerton) was important in shaping the course of history through behind-the-scenes action. Lincoln serves as the entry point for the story, drawing readers in and giving them context, but Pinkerton is the true agent of change in this book.
The book begins with a little back story on Pinkerton: how he came to the United States from Scotland with his wife, how he grew a successful barreling business, and how he eventually became involved in detective work. The story then moves quickly ahead to Pinkerton’s protection of Lincoln in the days before Lincoln’s presidential inauguration. Both text and illustrations do an excellent job of showing the tension between the northern and southern states so that readers feel Lincoln’s peril at every turn.
Holmes’ illustrations are detailed and precise, in red, orange, brown, and purple palettes. Multiple fonts are used throughout, from newspaper headlines to speech and thought bubbles, and this variation brings extra life into the illustrations. Holmes has an Artist’s Note at the end that describes how he created his work in digital scratchboard style, and this is a worthwhile read for those who are curious in artistic methods.
Even the formatting of this book is worth a mention. The pages are thick, and the book is in landscape orientation, which add to the richness of the illustrations. It’s longer than traditional picture books, coming in at 48 pages instead of the default 32, but even so, each page is utilized to the max. There are five pages of back-matter, including a timeline of Pinkerton’s life, Artist’s and Author’s Notes, bibliography, and index.
I recommend this book for ages eight and up, which differs from the publisher’s recommendation of ages 6-9. I do think that readers ages 6-7 could enjoy it as well, but due to the high word count and extra length, I think it more suitable for older elementary aged kids. The interesting story and amazing illustrations may very well tempt tweens and teens into reading it as well.
“Geography” and “amazing” may not be two words commonly used in the same sentence when talking about books for young people, so let’s change that. River: A Visual History from River to Sea by Peter Goes is indeed an amazing book of geography for young readers. And old readers. Everything about this book, from the oversize pages and format to the detailed illustrations surrounded by interesting facts, says, “Read me! … Read me again!”
As one would deduce from the title, Goes uses the rivers of the world to relate geographical, historical, cultural and even biological information. Rivers are grouped together by continent, and then each major river has its own two-page spread. Each spread has a solid color background with Goes intricate black-and-white illustrations on top. Readers are given a wealth of information that all pertains to the river. For instance, on the spread for the Thames, we learn the river once was also called Isis, the Thames tunnel was built between 1825 and 1843, the kingfisher likes to live near running water, and the Thames Barrier protects London from high tides. And that’s just a small sample of interesting tidbits.
Rivers has a way of making non-fiction readily accessible to a younger audience, but it is so engaging and sophisticated that it in no way seems juvenile. I suspect teens would pore over these pages. I highly recommend this book for all ages, though I suspect ages eight and up will enjoy it most. Goes also authored the book Timeline, which I’ve not yet had the pleasure to read, but can’t wait to get my hands on if it’s as good as Rivers.