Nonfiction picture books are little treasures. They are a way to expand the world around our children as we read stories to them about important people, important ideas, and important concepts about the world around us. Well written nonfiction is a way to teach without a classroom, and to inspire without preaching.
With the presidential election not quite behind us yet (at least in the news), “A Vote is a Powerful Thing” by Catherine Stier and illustrated by Courtney Dawson is timely. Of course, a book on voting is always timely, especially every four years when there is a presidential election. In this fictional account of a class election about a field trip, the main character actively campaigns for a class visit to a wilderness center. But while the story is fiction, the information at the end includes the headings “All about voting,” “Who Can Vote?” “How Do Citizens Vote?” and “Voting Rights in the United States.” It’s a great introduction to voting and the importance of each and every vote.
Two books by Doe Boyle, “Heartbeat” and “Blink!” are lovely examples of captivating and informative nonfiction picture books. Each book features prose written in a pleasant meter which rhymes occasionally along with clearly nonfiction informational text written in a different font and placed in a location that indicates this is the place to find hard facts. Adèle Leyris is the illustrator of “Blink!” and the watercolor techniques she uses to create the images are perfectly suited to the almost glass-like eye of the cheetah surrounded by soft, blurred fur. The backgrounds are mostly solid colors with silhouette shapes and facts. Daniel Long, the illustrator of “Heartbeat,” uses shapes that have definite hard edges, and his python is a marvel of pentagonal jewel shapes. Both books will ignite the imaginations of young readers, and both books would be fabulous additions to a classroom library. “Heartbeat” in particular is a wonderful tool for teaching onomatopoeia.
“Adelita: A Sea Turtle’s Journey” by Jenny Goebel and illustrated by Ana Miminoshvili is a touching account of a loggerhead sea turtle who was named Adelita and tracked across the Pacific Ocean. The story is a bit sad when we realize that a fisherman caught the young turtle in the Gulf of California and took her to researchers in Baja, California, where she lived in a cramped tank for a decade. Researchers wondered where the loggerhead turtles had nesting places because there were none on the Baja coastline. Finally, a researcher thought of a way to find out where Adelita’s real home was. He attached a satellite transmitter, a brand new technology, to Adelita’s shell. They were able to determine that she swam across the ocean to Japan. It’s heartbreaking to find out that her journey ends there. The transmitter stops sending information. We never find out what happened to Adelita, but we learn that because of her, people around the world learned about the plight of endangered turtles. Fishermen started releasing them from nets. They are still endangered, but after reading this book, we all will root for their survival. The illustrations are engaging, and Adelita’s huge black eyes will grab at your heart.
Oh, my. I dare you not to love the adorable “This Is a Seahorse” by Cassandra Federman. I want to reread it over and over just because it’s a combination of cute and informative. The story, as we find out on the endpapers, is that a class visited an aquarium, and now the homework is to write about an interesting animal. Cassandra Federman, the author, er – the student, writes her report on the seahorse on primary-school lined paper. She illustrates her writing, but we get to see the purple word bubbles that contain the “actual” seahorse’s responses to her ridiculous (at least to the seahorse) statements about the seahorse’s huge nose and big belly. When she compares seahorses to opossums, because both can grip things with their tails, the seahorse responds, “Those nasty creatures? You won’t catch me holding tails with one of them.” I learned that seahorses can camouflage themselves as octopuses do. While I find that information fascinating, our friend the seahorse is appalled that he is being compared to a hideous eight-armed sea monster. Kids (and adults) will enjoy the clever humor and the real seahorse facts.
“How to Grow an Apple Pie” by Beth Charles and illustrated by Katie Rewse is authored by someone who owns an apple orchard. So she knows what it takes to grow an apple tree, and she knows what it takes to bake an apple pie. Do we know if Sophie, the main character in the story about growing the apple tree, waiting for the trees to mature (six years) and then learning how to pick the apples without damaging them (you turn them upside down), and then following the yummy recipe to bake an apple pie, is really a child in the Charles family? While we don’t know whether that is a fact or not, that doesn’t detract from the facts that we do learn about the care and treatment of apple trees and how to bake a pie. Be prepared, though. If you read this book to children, they will surely want an apple tree of their own. Maybe six of them.
“The Tinaja Tonight” by Aimée M. Bissonette and illustrated by Syd Weiler is an interesting book if only for the fact that most of the people reading this book won’t have any idea what a tinaja is. According to the facts in the book, “A tinaja is a pool formed by a natural hollow in the rock where rainwater or melting snow collects.” The text is conversational, and the transitions from one page to another and from one species of animal to another encourage continued reading. “What’s that sound? What’s that snuffling? The quail takes off running. If only they knew not to worry. It’s just…” and the reader has to turn the page to find out what is scaring away the quail, then the javelina, then the jackrabbits. Situated below the larger font narrative are the facts in a different, slightly smaller font. The broad swaths of deep colors make this a visually appealing book as well, even though the colors are deep and dark because the animals are nocturnal and are all out at night.
Like the other books in this nonfiction series of picture books, “Dragonfly” by the same author, Aimée M. Bissonette and illustrated by Catherine Pearson consists of narrative text:
“It’s a dangerous time for us. We need to hatch.”
Along with facts shown in a smaller, different font, we learn that most of a dragonfly’s life is spent underwater, growing from eggs to nymphs, which grow and change their skin as they enlarge and molt. The last time it molts, it changes and has wings. That time – between nymph and dragonfly — is a dangerous time as they don’t fly well until their bodies harden. It might take a few days for them to fly well. But once they are mature, dragonflies are masters of the sky. Their four wings can move independently, and they can fly straight up or down, even backwards. They are not only fast; they are hungry, and their favorite food is mosquitoes. They eat hundreds of bugs every day. “They can eat their own weight in insects in 30 minutes.” If you see a dragonfly, rejoice, because their presence means clean water is nearby. The illustrations are bright and bold, and while they don’t represent the true colors of nature, the rainbow hues are a feast for the eyes.
While we know Beatrix Potter as the talented author and illustrator of children’s books, in “Beatrix Potter, Scientist,” by Lindsay H. Metcalf and illustrated by Junyi Wu, we learn that she was first and foremost a scientist. From childhood on, Potter immersed herself in studying animals and plants. In fact, she learned how to germinate the spores of fungi, and shared that information with the gentlemen-only Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. But when she wrote a paper with her discovery, it was refused. She never again attempted to publish it, but shortly thereafter, she began writing the much-beloved Tales of Peter Rabbit. As we learn in the informational text at the end, “she was later shown to be among the first British people to germinate spores from the group of fungi she worked with.” A century later, the Linnean Society, London’s group of natural history experts, apologized for how Potter was treated. There is also a timeline of her life at the end.
“My Name Is Helen Keller” by Myron Uhlberg and illustrated by Jenn Kocsmiersky is a fictional account of Helen Keller’s life. Because it’s a picture book, Uhlberg chooses certain events to exemplify how Helen lived and the difference Anne Sullivan made in Helen’s life. In the Author’s Note, he explains that this is a biographical fiction. “The scenes in this book are based on real events in Helen’s life, as detailed in many excellent biographies about Hellen Keller.” He also provides a timeline of her life and the manual sign alphabet that Helen and Anne used. Both this book and “Beatrix Potter, Scientist” are perfect first biographies for young readers.
Please note: These reviews are based on the uncorrected proofs provided by Albert Whitman & Co. for review purposes.