The new school year is just around the corner, and there are lots of wonderful nonfiction picture books perfect for a wide range of students from preschool through middle school. Picture books are a great tool for teachers (and parents) to use to start a discussion about anything from history to kindness to math. Yes, even math.
“I’m Trying to Love Math” by Bethany Barton is the perfect picture book for kids from first grade through fifth. It’s begins with the narrator explaining that “If you ask me, math is not very lovable.” But when the narrator goes on to explain that “4 in 10 Americans hate math” and “…That’s like 40%,” a cute purple alien points out, “Didn’t you just use math to explain how much you don’t like it?” The book goes on to show and explain how math is used for music and cooking and even in nature. Really, math is all around us. And what better way to get kids thinking a bit differently about math than reading them this clever, creative book about that very subject! (Viking Books for Young Readers)
Many kids like reading biographies about famous people, and there are some wonderful picture books that feature famous people — some from history and some currently famous.
Two board books for younger readers are from the “Ordinary People Change the World” series by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos. This series includes picture books for older readers as well, like “I Am Abraham Lincoln,” and “I Am Rosa Parks,” and many more. “I am Unstoppable: A Little Book about Amelia Earhart” and “I am Kind: A Little Book about Abraham Lincoln” are fabulous choices for preschool children and even kindergarten students. In all his books, Meltzer chooses a character trait that the famous person exemplifies and uses that trait to showcase his or her life. Abraham Lincoln explains to young readers that he was always kind. He protected a turtle from those who would harm it, and he loved animals. In fact, one of his first essays was about how we need to protect animals. He encourages readers to use their voice to be kind, and he shares his more important words from the Gettysburg Address: “All men are created equal. Similarly, Meltzer showcases the life of Amelia Earhart through her determination and constant dream of doing what others said couldn’t be done. She was “unstoppable.” (Dial Books)
“Sisters: Venus & Serena Williams” is a biography by Jeanette Winter about the famous tennis playing sisters. The book is a great choice for younger readers, offering simple text and stylized illustrations with muted, almost pastel colors. Winter tells the story of the girls who began tennis at a young age because of their parents’ encouragement. In fact, it seems they owe much of their success to their parents, who played with them, helped them practice, and even moved to Florida so they could accept an invitation from a tennis academy. Now, of course, it’s their own determination and drive that keeps them successful in spite of any obstacles. There is a short bibliography at the end for more books that interested children might like to read. (Beach Lane Books)
“Serena: The Littlest Sister” by Karlin Gray is another book about the famous tennis sisters, and while the title would indicate that it’s about Serena, it’s really about all five of the Williams sisters. Tunde, Isha, and Lyn are the older sisters and Venus and Serena the youngest. From an early age, Serena had a drive to win at everything. According to the author, “And when they all played card games, Serena declared herself the winner…even if she didn’t actually win.” So winning was in Serena’s blood, and she and Venus and their sisters would play tennis instead of playing house, pretending they were playing at the US Open or Wimbledon or the French Open. The story shows Serena and Venus as incredibly close sisters. When Serena first turned pro at fourteen, Venus was winning tournaments, but Serena wasn’t. So they began playing doubles together, and “playing with her sister, Serena felt stronger. Their motto was ‘If you can’t do it for you, do it for me.'” In the end, both sisters broke records and made history. They won Olympic medals, and both won Grand Slam singles titles. Ultimately, they both credit their family and each other for their great success. There is a bibliography at the end with books, periodicals, films, and websites for more information about the sisters. (Page Street Kids)
A book that is technically a fiction picture book because it’s about a fictional character is really more of a nonfiction book because the character and the action serve to share information about space. “Rocket Says Look Up!” by Nathan Bryon and illustrated by Dapo Adeola tells the story of a young African American girl named Rocket who is determined to be an astronaut like her hero, Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space. Almost every page includes information about space, like when Rocket tells her brother (who is glued to his cell phone), “Did you know…meteor showers happen when Earth moves through the trail of dust left by a comet?” But if she shares information about the upcoming meteor shower, will anyone want to see it? The ending is perfect, and readers will all be rooting for Rocket to succeed in her dream — to have a meteor shower named after her. Bryon shows that girls have astronaut aspirations, too, and Adeola draws Rocket with huge round glasses, a gap-tooth smile, and a tiger-stripe outfit that matches her cat. Young kids will love Rocket, and slightly older kids will be interested in the science. Perfect for classroom and library bookshelves. (Random House Children’s Books)
Every day, most students across the country say the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag, so it’s very appropriate to start the year reading “Our Flag Was Still There: The True Story of Mary Pickersgill and the Star-Spangled Banner” by Jessie Hartland. She tells the story of the flag that inspired the poem that became our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It all started in 1813, thirty years after America won its independence from Great Britain, when we found ourselves again at war with them. Major George Armistead “wanted to send a big message to the British: This land belongs to America!” He wanted a flag so big that the British would be able to see it from a distance. Mary Pickersgill, a widow who made flags, worked with other women, but she promised to get the job done right, and quickly. Savvy readers will get the sly reference in her response to the major about her abilities. The story includes how the huge flag was made, the battle over which the huge flag flew (and the bystanders under umbrellas, watching the spectacle as people did then), and that the flag was still there the next morning, which caused Francis Scott Key to pen the famous poem. Hartland also details what happened to the flag after the battle, which is almost as fascinating as the making of the flag. It’s a wonderful picture book to start off the school year! (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books)
Teachers know the importance of singing, and no picture book celebrates the power of song more effectively than “Sing a Song: How ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ Inspired Generations” by Kelly Starling Lyons. It’s almost the 120th anniversary of this song, written by James Weldon Johnson, the principal of a segregated, all-black Florida school, and his brother John Rosamond Johnson, for students to sing at a tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In this book, a student at that school learned the song and was a part of the choir of 500 students who sang it. She kept on singing it and taught it to her students when she became a teacher, and as she moved from Jacksonville, Florida to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her husband. She sang it to her baby and he learned it and sang it at church. Generations learned the song even as they experienced discrimination and fought for equal rights. And the song has been passed down through generations and taught to millions of students, and it was sung on September 24, 2016, when the National Museum of African American History and Culture officially opened. The Author’s Note offers a personal connection to the song and explains its importance in history. The book is beautifully written and beautifully illustrated by Keith Mallett. While the illustrations are digitally colored, they look as if they were painted on canvas with a textured design, and the colors are beautifully bright with a wonderful use of dark and light. (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Two picture books to fascinate science lovers would certainly be wonderful additions to the classroom or school library. Each book showcases a different event, but both are about space.
“The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney” by Alice B. McGinty and illustrated by Elizabeth Haidle is the surprising story of a young girl who named the newly discovered planet. Venetia was graced with an academic family. Her grandfather was the head librarian at the Oxford library in Great Britain, and her great-uncle was a science master who named the two moons that circled Mars. She had been studying the planets at school, and when the news came of a planet discovered far, far from the sun, it made her think of Pluto, lord of the underworld, where it must be cold and dark. McGinty shares how the decision was made to name the planet according to Venetia’s suggestion and provides other information about Venetia’s life. There is a Selected Bibliography for those interested in reading more about Pluto and its naming. (Schwartz & Wade Books)
“Papa Put a Man on the Moon” by Kristy Dempsey and illustrated by Sarah Green is another fictional picture book that is centered around a nonfiction event, the author using a fictional character to present historical information. Unlike the middle grade autobiography “Reaching for the Moon,” which is about one of the many mathematicians who helped in the moon landing, this book celebrates those whose contributions were more prosaic. The fictional main character is the daughter of a mill worker. He was one of many who worked on making the material that would be used in the space suits that the astronauts wore for the moon landing in 1969. Marthanne, the main character, tells the story of waiting for the actual mission and watching it on television. This would be a wonderful book for a class read aloud before studying space or when learning about history and the moon landing. (Dial Books for Young Readers)
Please note: These reviews are based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes.