31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
The sheer necessity of actually reading each one of these books in a given year means that when compared to yesterday’s listing of Nonfiction Picture Books, today’s offering feels positively paltry. And yet, reading so many of these books turned out to be the most fun I had all year. How can you resist a book about how fashion trends have tried (and succeeded!) in killing people over the centuries? Or the book about young men who willingly ate poison for the greater good? Do you like joke books? Because I’ve included my favorites here. Or what about the true nature of ostriches? What are their secrets? And best of all, how is there only now a book that systematically breaks down the carbon footprint of our stuff in as kid-friendly a manner as possible?
In today’s list you will find all these answers and more. I’m so delighted to present it to you, I’m fit to burst. Enjoy some great books out this year:
2019 Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
Encyclopedia of Strangely Named Animals, Volume One by Fredrik Colting & Melissa Medina, ill. Vlad Stankovic
Look. I am a simple soul. I don’t ask for much. Just tell me that there is an Australian spider out there called “Sparklemuffin” and I’m fairly happy for days on end. What makes this book so notable is that each animal gets one page and each page is big (the book clocks in at 12.7 inches tall). But the text on each one of those pages is not long or drawn out or dull. It’s peppy and interesting and informative. And yes, there is no Backmatter, so no awards for it, but something about its gentle watercolors and goofy critters (current favorite: The Sarcastic Fringehead that presses its disgusting mouth against the mouth of another Sarcastic Fringehead when it gets territorial) just makes me inordinately happy. Looking forward to Volume 2.
Everything Awesome About Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Beats by Mike Lowery
The cover says, “WARNING! Giant Fleas Inside” and y’know, it’s true. In my personal life my kids are very well acquainted with the work of Mr. Lowery all thanks to his illustrations for Mac Barnett’s Mac B: Kid Spy series. Turns out, when you release Lowery to his own devices the man is unstoppable. This pairs very well with fellow pre-historic history book Life: The First Four Billion Years by Martin Jenkins (see below), if tonally different. Jenkins doesn’t lean quite as hard into the dino aspects of the story, and with the Grahame-Baker book, art has an edge in terms of weird looking extinct creatures. Lowery, however, makes up for realistic prowess with humor and facts delivered in a manner that kids will eat up with a spoon. Because he’s so appealing to look at, this book is going to have appeal for the little dino lovers as well as those on the more mature end of the spectrum.
Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918 by Don Brown
They will tell you that this book is YA, and that is not wholly untrue, but if I could slide the age bar down a smidgen I’d rank it squarely in the 10+ age range instead. It is a bit odd how little I actually knew about the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. You would have thought that at its centenary last year there would have been loads of people talking about it, and we know this is not the case. Of course, writing a nonfic GN of an illness is a difficult proposition. A lotta people lying down on these pages. Doesn’t sound like it would be particularly thrilling, but the man knows how to set up a narrative. All the more frightening when you realize that we never really quite figured out how it spread, why it targeted healthy, young people, and whether or not it might ever return. Gah!
Follow Your Stuff: Who Makes It, Where Does It Come From, How Does It Get to You? by Kevin Sylvester and Michael Hlinka
Who makes the things you buy and why should you even care? With meticulous attention, Sylvester and Hlinka follow the life cycle of the t-shirts, medicines, books, cell phones, and glasses you buy. Look at that cover. Look at that boring boring cover. Look at that only slightly more interesting title. This was not a book I wanted to read. This was a book that I wanted to note and then ignore. But then Kirkus kept mentioning it over and over in its coverage and I started to get testy. I figured I’d skim through it, confirm that it was boring, and move on. Trouble is, when I actually read and processed the words inside, I realized that this book isn’t just good and isn’t just remarkably written, it’s doggone necessary for the 21st century!! I kid you not. You read this and you realize pretty quickly that this is about being a responsible global citizen. Kids can never learn that kind of stuff too early. I challenge you to look beyond the cover and give this a look. It’s amazing. And it kind of reminds me of the last season of The Good Place (no spoilers).
Karl’s New Beak: 3-D Printing Builds a Bird a Better Life by Lela Nargi
I’m not going to tell you that this is the first book of its kind that I’ve seen, because it’s simply not true (that honor went to Beauty and the Beak by Deborah Lee Rose back in 2017). But I did find Nargi’s book to be a beautifully designed and thoroughly compelling story helped, in no small part, but just how frickin’ weird hornbills are. Abyssinian ground hornbills, to be precise. Karl lives in the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and, in time, his lower beak was worn away. I would have appreciated a word or two on whether or not this is normal in hornbills and if they tend to die of starvation in the wild a lot, but no matter. There are some rather painful shots of Karl as he tries to eat with his shortened beak, and artificial beaks just weren’t cutting it. Here’s where it gets cool. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History had an old Abyssinian ground hornbill skeleton in its archive from the 1930s. So they used it to make a 3-D beak, only it took quite a lot of trial and error. I always like it when a book shows how you have to use persistence to find the best solution, and this one delivers. Plus, it’s just lovely to look at.
Killer Style: How Fashion Has Injured, Maimed & Murdered Throughout History by Serah-Marie McMahon and Allison Matthews David
So we see this slew of gross ‘em out nonfiction titles every year and you know what they suffer from? A lack of imagination, that’s what. Where’s the style? Where’s the panache? Where’s the originality, I ask you? This little beauty suffers no such problems. What will humans do for the sake of fashion? Horrible horrible horrible things, that’s what. I knew some of these (arsenic in dresses, mad hatters, corsets, etc.) but some were completely new. Celluloid combs that catch on fire? Flammable flannelette? It even keeps things contemporary with a thoughtful pairing of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 with the Rana Plaza Collapse of Bangladesh in 2013. I will go to the mats for this book.
Life: The First Four Billion Years by Martin Jenkins, ill. Grahame Baker-Smith
Foof! Foof, I say! This is the book for the kid unafraid to think. Essentially, this is a clear cut explanation of how life truly began on earth, but it’s certainly grander than that. Everything from the Big Bang on out. I personally found the single-celled organism sections just fascinating, but that’s my own interest. One of the real lures, though, is Baker-Smith’s art. You know how you sell this book to kids? You tell them that the wildest aliens in the world have NOTHING on the creatures in this title. All these crazy extinct underwater critters, as well as some truly strange land denizens as well. I know we have books about the origins of life on earth already, but few make all the different eras as clear cut and understandable as this. Necessary for your collections.
Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island by Jennifer Thermes
In my experience, American exceptionalism can’t hold a candle to Manhattan exceptionalism (particularly when you live there). Now that I live away from 117th Street, I try to determine how useful such a book as this is to kids in other parts of the country. Yet the allure of Manhattan is incredible, even when you’re in flyover country. What makes this Thermes book stand out is that while there is a certain level of rah-rah Manhattan to it, this may be the first history of the island to give large portions over to Seneca Village, the slaves that lived in Manhattan, and the Lenape and their experiences there. I did find a small disconnect when you’d go from a section on the outrages of Seneca Village to a celebration of the glory of Central Park, and I was surprised not to see the Draft Riots covered, but generally speaking this is a pretty darn good history for kids. Interesting and there are even a couple Hamilton references snuck in there.
Mummies Exposed! (Creepy and True series) by Kerrie Logan Hollihan
Ooo. Love it. The balancing act between fun and serious is such a hard one to maintain when you’re dealing with the dead. I have seen many a fine mummy book before, but this one really goes above and beyond expectations. I’m such a nerd, that every time they mentioned a cool mummy and then actually showed it (which not every book bothers to do) I got a little thrill. And how cool is the mummy in the statue? We’ll all have our favorites.
Ostriches (The Superpower Field Guide) by Rachel Poliquin, ill. Nicholas John Frith
Okay. I’m not gonna lie to you. I was completely in the tank for Poliquin/Frith’s previous outing on Beavers. I mean, to this day I will accost random strangers at cocktail parties and start blabbering on about how beavers eat during the winter. Now I know this duo had created a book on Moles this year as well, and I sort of missed out on that, but when I saw that they’d covered ostriches I was hooked! For personal reasons of my own (that may become apparent in the future), I am very interested in ostriches. And this book makes an incredibly strong case for why these birds, whose eyes are literally bigger than their brains, are incredible. There is one moment that is just marvelous where the book teaches you about the ostrich’s “impossible ever-flow lung” and then tells you that if you ask your parents over dinner “did you know that ostriches don’t breathe out the same air they just breathed in?” your parents will not know. They won’t. And the book is right about that. Seriously, read this thing!!!
The Poison Eaters: Fighting Danger and Fraud in Our Food and Drugs by Gail Jarrow
Every year I fail to receive any of the new Calkins Creek titles (ahem, cough cough, ahem) and every dang year Gail Jarrow goes on to win some Sibert Medal. Now it does feel like a book on the founding of the FDA wouldn’t be the most interesting choice in the world, but hold ON to your horses, little missy. This book’s a hoot (and a truly lovely companion to the previously mentioned Killer Style: How Fashion Has Injured, Maimed & Murdered Throughout History by Serah-Marie McMahon and Allison Matthews David). In it, you have this amazing opening where Jarrow basically ticks off all the foods that could potentially destroy you if you chose to eat breakfast in a city in 1890. The chapter title is “Embalmed Bees and Other Delicacies”. Add in all the AMAZING horrible ads (“Cocaine Toothache Drops; Instantaneous Cure!”) and political cartoons and the life of government chemist Dr. Harvey Washington is just about the most fascinating story you’ll encounter all year. Weirdly thrilling and terrifying by turns.
Queer Heroes: Meet 52 LGBTQ Heroes From Past & Present by Arabelle Sicardi, ill. Sarah Tanat-Jones
So I’ll be the first to admit that I am bored to death of group biographies by this point. I mean, they’re useful, sure, but after a while they get so samey-samey. The format is ALWAYS familiar and how much verve and personality can you pack into those tiny descriptions about each person? But this book? This one feels different to me. Maybe it’s the subject matter (it’s crazy but I think this is the first LGBTQIA+ collective biography for kids out there) or maybe it’s the selection. I was admittedly surprised when I ran into the first two-page spread of Freddie Mercury and Sappho. Sappho! Then you turn the page and there’s Audre Lorde and Manvendra Singh Gohil who, as heir to the Maharaja of Rajpipla in Gujarat, is the world’s first openly gay prince. Right about then, I was sold. The write-ups are great, though they sometimes forget to mention why a person is included. Josephine Baker? It never explains. Still, this is definitely worth considering.
Rocket to the Moon! (Big Ideas That Changed the World) by Don Brown
Don Brown is finally writing some of his younger nonfiction comics for the kids now! Usually he does just YA these days, so I welcome the switch. My own children enjoy Brian Floca’s Moonshot so I was interested to see if they’d like this as well. And since it begins with an explosion, they were pretty much on board from the start. Beautifully rendered and explained. I know we saw a LOT of moon landing books out this year, but this is one of the best.
Saving the Tasmanian Devil: How Science Is Helping the World’s Largest Marsupial Carnivore Survive by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
When Devil Facial Tumor Disease started wiping out the Tasmanian Devil population in the 90s did humans stand by and watch? No sir! Follow these brave scientists as they search for a vaccine that might help both the devils and, someday, the humans too. I liked a lot of what I learned here. I already knew that the Tasmanian Devils were being wiped out by a weird facial cancer passed on by biting. What I didn’t know was how humans were helping and the ways in which what they were learning was going to be applied to human cancers. I take some issue with how Patent lays the book out (she kind of dives in, assuming you already know what a Tasmanian Devil even is) but by and large it’s pretty good. Would appreciate more reads.
This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy
Holy moly, that’s a good book! I admit a tiny bit of skepticism when I saw how long it was. Then, like a ten-year-old, I got a thrill when I realized it was in verse. But a verse nonfiction memoir? How was that going to work? Brilliantly, as it happens. Pairing Boyce and Levy together completely works. This is such a creative solution to the old “fake quotations” problem. It’s filled with quotes from named sources, like newspapers and interviews, to say nothing of the impressive backmatter. Then you actually get moments where the verse turns seamlessly into poetry, so there are sonnets, ballads, villanelles, pantoums, haikus, and more. Oh. And the story really grips you. Sucks you right in. Deserving of all its praise.
The World’s Best Dad Jokes for Kids, Volume 3 by Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar
The World’s Best Knock Knock Jokes for Kids, Volume 4 by Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar
Joke books are hard. Half the time they’re just recycled yuks with outdated references. Seriously, if I have to read one more joke book that talks about fax machines or floppy discs, I’m gonna hurl. That’s why Swerling & Lazar have my ever loving respect and admiration. First off, illustrating every single joke is no mean task. Second, THEIR joke books are the best in the biz. I’m not even kidding about that. If I had to fill a library with joke books, I’d only do Swerling & Lazar titles. These are just books in a series, but I felt it important to mention this.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Easy Books
December 18 – Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Older Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
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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