Query: Is 2017 a Stronger Than Usual Year for Children’s Nonfiction?
Once at NYPL I asked Marc Aronson to do a Children’s Literary Salon on the topic of the history of children’s nonfiction. It was eye-opening. It was extraordinary. It was not recorded for posterity so unless he does it again sometime (hint hint, Marc, hint hint) we have nothing to refer to aside from his saved slides. I don’t need any recording, however, to tell me that nonfiction for kids was abysmal in my youth and has been strong and wonderful in America in the 21st century. Every year I see a magnificent crop of books come out for children. But 2017 . . . something’s different. It’s not just that we’re seeing great books. That’s par for the course, but I don’t think I seen such sheer extraordinary numbers of them before. What I’m going to show you today are just the books that I’ve seen (which isn’t everything, as my To Be Read shelf attests) that I’ve found to go above and beyond the call of duty.
But before I do that, let’s talk about why this might be happening. When the CORE Curriculum was first introduced to schools the prediction was that we’d be seeing a higher caliber of nonfiction in greater quantities. Yet year after year everything seemed to be exactly the same. Could this be the latent result of CCS? Or could it be something else?
Whatever the case, I’ll break these down by categories. By doing this, we can see where publishing is putting its strongest efforts. Biographies still reign the day, and I’ve been unable to find any really super extraordinary math books this year (David Adler notwithstanding). Still, it’s nice to see a large number of science and nature books that aren’t just about animals. And some of those bios could probably be considered history books since they occasionally look at the times with a closer eye, rather than the people featured.
And remember – a nonfiction picture book won a Caldecott last year. And if I were a betting woman (and it is in my name) I’d say the Newbery this year might well fall to a nonfiction title. Which one? I’ll save that little prediction for a future post.
Apex Predators by Steve Jenkins
I know that in a given year you tend to have a lot of Steve Jenkins books to choose from. I also know that in a given year there’s usually one Jenkins book that stands apart from the pack. This year this is that book. I haven’t been this interested in a Jenkins title since Actual Size.
Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle by Deborah Lee Rose and Jane Veltkamp
I’ve mentioned this once before but this is the story of how a 3D-printed beak saved the life of a bald eagle that had half its beak shot off by someone with a gun. I want to officially review this when I get a chance, so I won’t say too much. Only that the backmatter is worth the price of the book alone.
How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild by Katherine Roy
If you remember Ms. Roy’s Neighborhood Sharks then you’ll understand why I’m so incredibly excited about her newest book. Like Sharks it examines its subject in entirely new ways. Want a chart showing you precisely how an elephant’s ears cool it down on a hot day? This is the book for you. And you. And you and you and you. And speaking of sharks . . .
If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams
Spoiler Alert: If sharks disappear then that is bad. Really bad. Really and truly and awfully bad. An enticing subject that is the perpetual love of kids everywhere gets a different kind of book entirely.
Moto and Me: My Year as a Wildcat’s Foster Mom by Suzi Eszterhas
Such a good idea for a book and such wonderful writing. This is on the younger end of the nonfiction chapter books scale. I can’t imagine how any kid could resist at least thumbing through the pages.
What Makes a Monster? Discovering the World’s Scariest Creatures by Jess Keating, ill. David DeGrand
Are you seriously gonna look in that adorable face and tell it you don’t want this book? The photos and the text are such a perfect pairing, but it’s the goblin shark that will haunt my dreams. Look it up some time. Then never sleep again.
Science and Nature
Germs: Fact and Fiction, Friends and Foes by Lesa Cline-Ransome, ill. James Ransome
Quite a departure for the Ransomes and a welcome one at that. Who knew they could be so funny? Lesa hints in her book that this was only written so that it could teach kids to regularly wash their hands. I can’t vouch for the kids but it certainly made ME want to wash a little more frequently.
Grand Canyon by Jason Chin
Jason Chin’s fans will know that this is a man that needs no introduction. Who knows how long he worked on this title before it was ready to go to press. The sheer level of detail in both the art and the text is staggering. A person would be lucky if their career could culminate in such a book as this. For Mr. Chin, though, it’s all in a day’s work.
Mission to Pluto: The First Visit to an Ice Dwarf and the Kuiper Belt by Mary Kay Carson, photos by Tom Uhlman
Confession: I actually picked this up thinking it was about Mars. I won’t tell you how long it took me to realize that there was a reason they kept mentioning Pluto in the text. Whoops. Of course once I got that straightened out the book became a LOT more interesting. I never knew how little I know about Pluto until I read this book.
Older Than Dirt: A Kinda-Sorta Biography of Earth by Don Brown & Dr. M. Perfit
Earlier this year Brown and Perfit’s publisher sent out a cute little sample of some of the chapters in this book. I enjoyed those chapters so much that I’ve been eagerly awaiting the rest of the book ever since. Verdict? It didn’t disappoint.
Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner, ill. Christopher Silas Neal
The next book in the Messner/Neal partnership. This time a pond is the focus of the book, though there’s plenty here to engage even the most city-lovin’ kid out there.
Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth by Molly Bank and Penny Chisholm
The sole problem with these books is that Ms. Bang is a victim of her own success. Because she creates these gorgeous picture books on nonfiction topics so frequently, she isn’t honored for them half as much as she should be. Heck, this book manages to explain wind currents in a straightforward and practical manner. No mean feat.
Around the World in a Bathtub by Wade Bradford, ill. Micha Archer
The book itself isn’t about going around the world in a single bathtub (which would, admittedly, be kind of fabulous) but rather a bunch of different places in the world where kids of all kinds of cultures are trying to avoid bath night.
Tell Me About Sex, Grandma by Anastasia Higginbotham
Aside from the really remarkable title I’m pleased to announce that this may be one of my favorite books of the year. I mean, aside from Robie Harris, try finding books that cover this very necessary topic for very small children. As she did with her death book, Higginbotham knows how to present child-appropriate text with succinct honesty.
I love this book so much! It looks like a standard text about kids’ lives. Then you get to the end and realize that you can see the real kids (not the illustrated ones) after all! Hurray! I also appreciated that Lamothe took the time to explain that just because these kids did these specific activities that doesn’t mean that ALL the kids in their countries do.
Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard
You may not believe me, but this picture book bio of a composer is one of the finest books on this list. And not just because of the art either. Leonard’s text is truly engaging, particularly when he loops his own story into the mix. Every librarian on my staff that has read this has fallen in love with it.
Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee, ill. Man One
I already reviewed this one so there’s not much more to say about it except for this: Ramen Endpapers!
Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal, ill. Laura Freeman
I don’t care about Coco Chanel. Fashion designers in general? You could fill your shelves with them and I wouldn’t give ’em a second glance. But Ann Cole Lowe? She’s different. In her you have a true success story, and one with quite a lot of bite to it. Fighting prejudice, she outfitted a future first lady on her wedding day. She redid dresses that were destroyed in a catastrophe. She was awesome.
Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, ill. John Parra
Not the first Frida Kahlo pictuer book biography and certainly not the last, but maybe one of the most successful. It doesn’t go into any depth into her life but it does tie in the animals she loved and struggles and art. Plus you get John Parra’s art as an extra bonus. That guy’s amazing.
I Am Gandhi by Brad Meltzer, ill. Christopher Eliopoulos
When I worked for NYPL this series was the bane of my existence. Where am I supposed to catalog it exactly? Well, while I understand it’s full of fake dialogue, I also feel like the fact that it’s so open about what is and isn’t true gives it an edge. And for the record, finding books for kids about the virtue of nonviolence is HARD!!! I tried to do it for a Quaker friend one and it nearly broke me. I mean, you can only recommend Martin Luther King Jr. titles so many times.
Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton Reveal’d by Mary Losure
I was taking a long car trip and I needed an audiobook to listen too. Hoopla doesn’t have a huge selection of titles for kids but they do have this book. I’ve liked a lot of Ms. Losure’s books in the past, so I dove in. It’s wonderful! Play the audiobook in the car and the narrator will seem to invoke Harry Potter through his voice alone. In fact, with his crazed love of chemicals and alchemy, this book FEELS like a nonfiction Harry Potter story. It really does!
The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill.by Elizabeth Zunon
I had no idea Ms. Horne was so heroic! Weatherford really dives into the moment in Lena’s life when she could make her own decisions, and also highlights her strength in the face of evil. Wow. just wow.
Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports by Phil Bildner, ill. Brett Helquist
Little wonder I should be so fond of this subtitle. I’m prone to hyperbole myself, but Bildner makes a very strong case for this being “the greatest rivalry” in sports. Not lady sports. Sports. Period. YEAH!
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines, Designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Jeanne Walker Harvey, ill. Dow Phumiruk
Maya Lin was a college student when she won the chance to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The resistance to hiring her is one of my favorite parts in this book. Such a great story about a young, strong woman.
Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin, ill. Evan Turk
So beautiful. So very beautiful. Evan Turk, you have outdone yourself.
Newton’s Rainbow: The Revolutionary Discoveries of a Young Scientist by Kathryn Lasky, ill. Kevin Hawkes
Not as in-depth as the Losure Newton story, but it covers a lot of the same ground with some true beauty. I also enjoyed how accurate it was. Cool book.
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Eric Velasquez
Weatherford ties in Mr. Schomburg’s story to that of the history of blacks in history. Did you know that Beethoven was black? Oh, you have to read this book, you really do.
The Shape of the World: A Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright by K.L. Going, ill. Lauren Stringer
I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering if this book covers the whole two families aspect of Mr. Wright’s life. You may also be wondering how such a nasty individual translates to the picture book format. Well, Going had the idea of making it more about his influences than his life. In that vein the book examines the mark of nature on the works he created. And THAT is worthy of a book for kids, you bet.
Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio, ill. Charlotte Riley-Webb
A tough topic but Golio is a pro. Again, anything that talks about “strange fruit” is going to have to tread a careful line for a younger readership. This book does.
Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! by Andrea J. Loney, ill. Keith Mallett
The original Photoshop artist. Aside from having a killer name (VanDerZee is great! And real!) this guy was a one man history-catcher. We wouldn’t know about the daily lives of a lot of Harlemites without him. I love Mallett’s art too. A perfect complement to the text. And not a bad complement to the aforementioned Schomburg book either.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, ill. Vanessa Brantley Newton
I reviewed this one too, and I adore it. The youngest marcher indeed. I still think she should have taken a book with her to jail and not a board game. Ah well.
Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, ill. Shawn Harris
I know, I know. You read the name “Dave Eggers” and you’re instantly worried. Well I’m worried to, but not about that. I think Eggers is about to put all the children’s authors out of a job. This book is one of the best of the year. It is a clear cut pro-immigrant book and is SO beautifully written that I’m tempted to read it aloud, record myself doing so, and leave it at that. I won’t. But it’s tempting.
Who Wants to Be a Princess: What Was It Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess? by Bridget Heos, ill. Migy
The fantasy vs. the reality of medieval princesses. Who will win? Honey, this contest was over before it even began.
Up Up Up Skyscraper by Anastasia Suen, ill. Ryan O’Rourke
I read every single construction-related picture book that comes out in a given year (hat tip to my three-year-old) and I tell you this: This book is extraordinary. I finally understand how they build skyscrapers. Or, rather, how they anchor them into the ground. Breathtaking.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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