Pluto’s Secret, an Icy World’s Tale of Discovery by Margaret A. Weitekamp with David DeVorkin lets the cat out of the bag. Dancing around with its moon and other small worlds on the outer edges of the solar system, it watches as the people on Earth try to figure it out. Discovered in 1930 after years of searching, astronomers thought they had found the ninth planet around the sun. Pluto plays in its orbit, laughing at the astronomers. As more powerful telescopes are developed, scientists realize that Pluto is not only different than the other planets; it’s also not alone in its orbit. In 2006, this discovery led astronomers to vote on a definition of a planet, something which had never been done before. Pluto’s secret is revealed. It is not a planet, but the "first example of something new" --and it’s not the only one. Scientists have discovered an entire band of icy worlds around the sun (called the Kuiper Belt), as well as around other stars. As technology evolves, so does our ability to learn more about the Universe.
This children’s book, put out in association with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, does an extraordinary job of piquing the reader’s interest in the solar system. Children will enjoy learning that an 11-year-old girl suggested the name for Pluto. Coupled with Diane Kidd’s charming illustrations, the story will entertain readers of all ages. Facts and photographs follow the story and gives those interested more resources. In 2006 NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft to conduct a flyby study of Pluto and its moon, Charon. It’s halfway there, and should reach Pluto in 2015. Follow its progress here!
Heading out on a lifetime of adventures is considered in two new books for young readers. Flight 1-2-3, written and illustrated by Maria van Lieshout, is an ultra-clear counting book featuring the people and activities found at an airport. Intentionally using a typeface that is used in airport signage worldwide, the sleek, digitally-created images allow for first-time flyers to experience this new setting calmly and without fear. Perfect as an introduction to this often unfamiliar place, it covers elevators, security agents, and the gates, along with other concepts that a young child will encounter in the terminal and concourses.
Barbara Kerley’s The World is Waiting for You, full of incredible National Geographic photos, is truly a young explorer’s dream. This photo essay encourages the young and young-at-heart to follow whatever path they might choose. While many books focus on inner journeys, this is one that strongly pushes for literal treks. The text presses the reader to tackle apathy and laziness, and push forward to “climb”, “soar”, or even “poke around for a while”. Kerley, author of other National Geographic titles such as One World, One Day and A Cool Drink of Water, is a former Peace Corps volunteer whose belief in sharing the world with kids shines through. Photo credits and inspirational quotes complete the book, which will likely inspire young readers to see the featured places themselves.
Where is your liver? What does the larynx do? Are molars made from moles? If we have 12 billion brain cells, how come we still step in puddles so often? Human anatomy and physiology is fast and funny and goofy and gross in What Body Part is That? Nonfiction with lots of humor is not only fun to read, but may cause our brain to absorb facts better. Research has shown “bizarre elaboration” to have a significant positive effect on retention, especially of vocabulary. Let’s let author Andy Griffiths demonstrate bizarre elaboration: “Your esophagus is the tube that food travels through in order to get to your stomach. Other easier-to-pronounce names for the esophagus are food funnel, nutrient hose, provisions pipe, chow spout, hamburger highway, taco tunnel, and sausage chute.”
Each two-page spread features a couple of paragraphs of text on a body part, a fun fact sidebar, and a full-page illustration. Special features include “How to Walk in 15 Easy Steps,” “Amazing Things People Can Do with Their Bodies,” and “Body Part and Body Part-Related Superheroes” (including Mucusgirl, Spleenboy, and Bladderwoman – don’t ask!) This book, by the author of such laugh classics as The Cat on the Mat is Flat and The Big Fat Cow that Goes Kapow, claims to be “99.9% fact free,” but even that statement is not entirely accurate – readers will remember lots about the body once they’ve read this profusely illustrated, super-silly fun-fest.
Engaging nonfiction chapter books intended for middle grade children are few and far between. A new series from Grosset & Dunlap succeeds in making history interesting, with titles that read with the ease of a novel. What Was the Gold Rush? by Joan Holub, brings to life the excitement of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, and the migration of fortune seekers westward, beginning in 1849. She delves into the science of gold (How can you tell it’s the real thing?) as well as the reasons behind its worth. Readers learn about how the gold rush led to the buildup of major cities, and how Native Americans were affected by the influx of prospectors.
Kathleen Krull tackles such weighty topics as racism, slavery, and Jim Crow laws in What Was the March on Washington? This book explains civil rights in an easily accessible way, and introduces the concept of peaceful protests. Readers meet A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights activist who had the idea for a national march, and “organizing genius” Bayard Rustin, who brought the whole thing together in only two months. Jim O’Connor takes on the Civil War in What Was the Battle of Gettysburg?, a book that begins by explaining the unrest between the Northern and Southern states, details the strategies and battle maneuvers, and ends with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Readers will enjoy a plethora of interesting asides, including an explanation of why a Sharps carbine rifle is far superior to a musket, and the story of the Union general who donated the bones of his amputated leg to a museum following the war.
Each What Was? title is liberally illustrated with relevant drawings, diagrams, and even photos designed to complement the text. One timeline at the end of each book provides a snapshot of important events related to the topic, while a second shows what was happening in the world at large during the same time period. Parents and librarians have a reason to rejoice, as the books all weigh in at 105 pages each, satisfying those teachers who tell students that the nonfiction titles they choose for book reports must be at least one hundred pages long. Also available is What Was the Boston Tea Party?, with more titles to come.
Are You Normal? More Than 100 Questions That Will Test Your Weirdness satisfies one of the most basic and pressing needs of tweens and near-tweens: to minutely assess how they compare to others. Look at Greg Heffley, the “hero” of the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series – he introduces himself as the “52nd most popular kid” in school. Greg is pretty oblivious to the feelings of others, but he knows exactly where he stands in relation to his peers.
For this book, author Mark Schulman and his team polled hundreds of kids about their school and leisure activities, family situations, habits and preferences. Readers will learn that if they cut their spaghetti instead of twirling it, they are in the minority – only “15% of kids cut it, versus 82% who twirl (3% don’t eat spaghetti at all).” So whether you like pepperoni on your pizza or not, bite your fingernails or toenails (eww!), or prefer smooth peanut butter to chunky, there’s something in this book that everyone can say “yes” to. Sneaky math bonus – the book uses a variety of graphing techniques to meaningfully display relationships between numbers.
“Will my personality change as I get older?” “Is my voice unique?” “Does my brain stop working when I am asleep?” Older kids love learning about themselves too, and Richard Walker’s Who Am I? The Amazing Science of Existence discusses topics ranging from emotions to metaphysics, and delivers concrete answers to questions teens might not have even considered. The author presents facts about issues related to bioethics, such as stem cell research, but avoids controversial statements. Sharp photos and snappy design add to this book’s appeal, while puzzles and other interactive elements keep it challenging.
Take a peek inside the mysterious and mischievous world of twins in three books for children with appeal for multiples and singletons alike. The nineteenth century counting rhyme “Over in the Meadow” inspired Ken Geist’s Who’s Who which puts the spotlight on twin animals. These six pairs of twins include calves, bunnies, monkeys, and fish and are featured in their natural habitats. Illustrator Henry Cole vividly depicts these landscapes in acrylic and colored pencil and moves from farmyard to jungle to bat cave. The memorable rhymes highlight the twins’ activities through the day and match the warm, detailed illustrations.
The Twins’ Blanket, written and illustrated by Hyewon Yum, shares the story of identical twin sisters who at age five are growing up and a little apart. The girls’ favorite blanket is no longer big enough for sharing, so Mom creates new blankets for each girl with pieces from the old. Yum does a fabulous job of differentiating between these twins, by giving each girl her own side of the book. It isn’t until the girls reach out to comfort each other that they cross over the center of the book. Yum, a twin herself, uses prints, colored pencil, watercolor, and other media in her bright illustrations, and makes great use of white space to complement the quiet, narrative text.
In Take Two: a Celebration of Twins, J. Patrick Lewis, the current Children's Poet Laureate teams with Jane Yolen to present more than forty poems about life as a twin. Sophie Blackall’s watercolor, pencil, and collage illustrations complement the varied poems which are divided into sections representing stages and milestones, and a final section features famous twins. Lewis is a twin himself and Yolen is the grandmother of twins, so the two are quite familiar with the world of doubles. Readers will also enjoy the “Twin Fact” feature found throughout, such as the Russian woman who was mother to sixteen sets of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets!
Ask a kid where their dinner comes from and you might hear, “McDonald’s”. That trend is reversing, however, as more of today’s families are re-discovering the joy of cooking and paying attention to where their food comes from as well as how to prepare it. Cooking with kids is a hot activity right now and an easy way to introduce skills such as reading, math, science, even art.
Tyler Florence, celebrity chef on the Food Network and co-founder of Sprout organic baby food, encourages kids to explore cooking in Tyler Makes Pancakes! Little Tyler and his dog, Tofu, decide to start the day right with a plan to make breakfast for mom and dad. Armed with a list of ingredients they head to the local market. Simply colored stick figure illustrations by Craig Frazier are highlighted by lots of white space and short text which gives a pleasing clean-as-a-chef’s-kitchen flavor to each page. Tyler’s blueberry buttermilk pancake recipe is included so kids can learn to measure and combine ingredients and make a quick and easy meal. A list of interesting food facts will encourage them to learn even more.
The life of Julia Child, doyenne of classic French cooking in the U.S., has had renewed interest in recent years. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, by Susanna Reich, is a charming picture book homage which will delight both children and adults. While Julia perfected her cooking skills, she would prepare a variety of delicacies and offer tastes to little cat Minette, who more often than not, preferred a simpler palette of traditional mouse or bird. This gentle story blends facts from Julia’s life and her various books into a mélange of fact and fiction. Peppered throughout are quotes from Julia’s original letters and a sprinkling of French words and cooking terms. Amy Bates draws the reader in with engaging pencil and watercolor illustrations of multi-colored Minette and charming kitchen and street life scenes in muted tones.
The 2013 Sibert Medal, awarded by the American Library Association for the “most distinguished informational book for children,” was given to Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin. This narrative nonfiction book is a compelling historical thriller that follows the behind the scenes science and political intrigue involved in developing and building the world’s first atomic bomb.
Bomb has also been recognized with two other prestigious 2013 Youth Media awards from the ALA. It was named as the only nonfiction Newbery honor book. In addition, it was selected as the winner of the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, the first national award that honors the best nonfiction books for teens.
The Sibert Medal Committee also named three Honor Books. Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95, written by Phillip M. Hoose, follows one individual migratory shorebird, a rufa red knot, as scientists gather data in an attempt to understand how he has survived for nearly 20 years. Numerous photographs, maps, and informational sidebars help to draw the reader into this story of science, ecology and conservation as related to this four-once avian.
Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, written by Robert Byrd, uses a picture book format to deliver both detailed, colorful illustrations of his subject’s colonial life along with a rich narrative. Although Electric Ben makes a good research source, children with an interest in history will be drawn to it as a book to simply enjoy. Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, written by Deborah Hopkinson, provides a fresh look at a topic that never seems to lose appeal. The author engages readers with detailed accounts of the tragedy told in the voices of actual survivors. Historic photographs and copies of primary source materials like a distress telegram sent by the ship’s wireless operator, and the front page of The New York Times from the day following the sinking enhance the narrative.
Ever wondered what your cat is thinking? Why do they do what they do? It’s All About Me-Ow, written and illustrated by Hudson Talbott, deciphers all those mysteries and more in a hilarious romp through the life of felines. Spot on and laugh-out-loud funny, Buddy, the family’s older, experienced orange tabby takes on the schooling of three new kittens with "A Young Cat’s Guide to the Good Life". From comical explanatory charts, lists of "fabulous feline features", to instructions for making the most appealing face for every situation, Buddy schools the wide-eyed kittens in the rigors of "cat-itude", as well as the proper training of humans. Endlessly amusing, the cat’s antics, interspersed with actual information and a bit of history, will keep readers in stitches. Slyly humorous, the cartoon illustrations in watercolor, colored pencil and ink, charm and disarm as does the worldly Buddy and earnestly ingenuous kittens. This is a purrfectly fun book for all ages.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting Hatchlings: A Guide for Crocodilian Parents (and Curious Kids) is another cleverly humorous picture book, notable as children’s nonfiction. Author Bridget Heos (whose favorite book as a child was Lyle, Lyle Crocodile) blends witty reptilian wisdom with real facts in an easy to read Q & A format and playful conversational tone. Turns out reptile parents have the same concerns as human parents – "where should I lay my eggs?"; "what happens after they hatch?" Hatchlings have questions too, like "when do I eat my first water buffalo?" The colorful anthropomorphic cartoon-style artwork, by Canadian illustrator Stephane Jorisch, adds to the whimsy. Included are a glossary and a list of books for further reading and websites. Readers will also want to check out two similarly amusing titles from the author: What to Expect When You’re Expecting Joeys: A Guide for Marsupial Parents and What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents.
Singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant wanted to share child-friendly works of the oral tradition with her young daughter, delighting in the gift of words and speech that was featured in poems and stories. The result was a twenty-six song, two-CD set of poems that Merchant set to music. Released in 2010, it also included biographical sketches and a photograph of each poet. Now, paired with well-regarded illustrator Barbara McClintock, many of the poems from that endeavor come to life in the picture book Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry.
Transforming a musical package to a picture book isn’t altogether unknown, but a book of poems is less common. Covering many famous poets, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, e.e. cummings, and Ogden Nash, the collection varies in tone and level. From Jack Prelutsky’s breezy and fun “Bleezer’s Ice Cream” to Laurence Alma-Tadema’s poignant “If No One Ever Marries Me”, the works focus on language and the way a few choice words coming together can create a memorable portrait. Take “Equestrienne”, by Rachel Field; McClintock’s exquisite illustrations of a rider and her milk-white horse perfectly capture the tone of the poem. Listen to Merchant’s interpretation on the accompanying CD, and the whole package comes together beautifully. The music styles range from Klezmer to jazz to string arrangements.
McClintock’s illustrations of “I Saw A Ship A-Sailing” epitomize her style, with a duck captain and mice sailors simultaneously working an old vessel but also juggling, playing with puppets, and riding a hobby horse. The whole package will bring a smile to both children and adults reading and listening along.