Category Archives: nonfiction

Buzz Books (aka, My To-Read List)

Part of my job is reading reviews of books and following the blog buzz about which books are favorites to win awards (like the Newbery Medal, the Sibert Medal for kids’ nonfiction, or the National Book Award).  I don’t have the time to read everything I want to read, but with two weeks of holiday break approaching, I am putting together my To-Read List, based in large part on the buzz surrounding these titles.  Anything here is pretty much guaranteed to be well-written.  It might not appeal to a particular kid’s taste, but you needn’t worry about any of these books being awful!

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai recently won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  This one has been on my list for months, and I hope to read it soon and book talk it with kids.  It’s the story of a young Vietnamese girl’s journey to America, specifically Alabama, after the fall of Saigon, and her struggle to adjust to a very different world from the one she has known.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.   This is a novel about loss.  I am, I confess, a complete sucker for sad books.  Even the story behind the writing of this book is sad.  Siobhan Dowd (who wrote the wonderful and quirky London Eye Mystery) came up with the idea for this book, but died of cancer before she could write it.  Patrick Ness (author of the Chaos Walking trilogy, which I wrote about in my post about Hunger Games read-alikes) picked up the idea and wrote the story.  Many of the reviewers seem to be flummoxed in trying to describe this novel, because of its inventiveness and power, and that tells me I must read it.

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s children by his slave Sally Hemmings, from the perspectives of two of the children and another child close to the family.  I’m hearing that’s it’s uncomfortable, thought-provoking, engaging, and poignant.  A must-read, I suspect.

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy mixes fantasy and historical fiction, set in the early 1950s.  Janie’s family has been forced to move to London due to the “Red Scare” in America, and there she meets a boy named Benjamin, the son of a mysterious apothecary.  Everyone I’ve talked to who has read this has loved it (kids and adults!).

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick.  If you haven’t already seen Hugo (based on Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret), stop reading this and go immediately to a theater.  If you have, then you are probably already as excited to read another creation of Brian Selznick as I am.  ‘Nuff said.

Bigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder.  My own 5th grader read this last week.  She loved it, and I’m hoping she’ll write up a guest review of it for this blog, so I won’t say more.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.  This one is being described as “beautiful,” “unforgettable,” “magical.”  Reviewer Elizabeth Bird on Goodreads writes that it “walks up to the usual middle grade chapter book fantasy tropes and slaps ’em right smack dab in the face.”  For kids and adults tired of derivative fantasy, this sounds like a viable option.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming.  I have actually already read a good bit of this one, but a kid came looking for it, so I let it go before I was finished, and I am anxious to get it back and finish!  Very engaging and interesting, and it gives some interesting facts, particularly about Earhart’s self-promotion tactics.

Some other titles on my list:

Chime by Franny Billingsley.  Mary Kendall (co-worker) has read this and gives it a big thumbs up for 7th and 8th graders.

My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.  A companion book to the wonderful Wednesday Wars.  Kids are giving me a lot of good feedback on this one.  Another good choice for 7th and 8th graders.


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Filed under fantasy, fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, realistic fiction, sad, Uncategorized

Brain Candy: Fun Factoid Books

Is your copy of The Guinness Book of World Records falling apart from overuse?  Does the photograph of the Largest Forehead Inflation (wha?) fail to impress you because you’ve seen it so many times?  Have you read Ripley’s Believe It or Not so much, it has become all too easy to believe?  If so, here are some other middle-school friendly books that don’t need to be read cover-to-cover to be relished and enjoyed.

Pick Me Up by DK Publishing.  This one is new to our library, so I have only had a chance to peruse it lightly, but from what I can see, it is chock full of facts about just about everything, presented with loads of fun illustrations and engaging bits of text.  Entries include cross-referential links to other articles in the text, and part of the fun of reading this book is jumping from one place to another via these links.  (To write this blurb, I started reading through the book again, and I swear, I could spend all day with it and not get bored!  I did not know that there are 99 million sheep in Australia!  Or that the average American eats 230 sandwiches a year!  Or that Albert Einstein’s brain was 15% wider than the average human’s!)

Show Off: How to Do Absolutely Everything. One Step at a Time by Sarah Hines Stephens and Bethany Mann.  I would love to go back in time to when I was 10 and get this book for my birthday.  Instead, I’m going to have to buy it for my kid and get her to do the activities with me, which I suspect will be met with plenty of enthusiasm.  Show Off is full of step-by-step instructions for doing a wide variety of random things, such as:  mess with a computer (e.g., put opaque tape on the mouse censor); read palms; blow a nose bubble; fake a cheek piercing; make an exploding volcano; weave a friendship bracelet; make friends with a cat or dog; make fortune cookies; tailwhip a scooter; moonwalk; and tons of other fun stuff.

Do Not Open by John Farndon.  Full of mysteries, codes, illusions, interesting stories and anecdotes (some on the macabre side), all conveyed with a lively combination of text, charts, and a variety of colorful illustrations, this is just the sort of book to dive into on a rainy Saturday.  Like in Pick Me Up,  many entries include “links” to other, related parts of the text.  Students in my library have really enjoyed this one.

Other browsable titles to look for . . .

The Wicked History of the World by Terry Deary and Martin Brown and The Stunning Science of Everything: Science with the Squishy Bits Left In! by Nick Arnold and Tony De Saulles.  Our library copies of both of these titles are well worn.  Both are full of cartoon illustrations and all the gross facts and details behind the stories or facts.  Note:  These titles are not for the faint of heart; the descriptions of torture techniques in Wicked History truly made my stomach turn.  (Also note: I think the Wicked History one has been republished as Horrible History, but it appears to be the same book.)

For Girls Only: Everything Great about Being a Girl by Laura Dower and For Boys Only: The Biggest, Baddest Book Ever by Marc Aronson.  I will confess that I am not always keen on books that label themselves as for girls or for boys.  Why reinforce gender stereotypes like that?  But the truth is, many kids love these books (including my own, who recently spent an entire weekend immersed in For Girls Only), and these two are pretty good examples.  Both are full of trivia, advice, puzzles, facts, activities, etc., all conveyed with humor and wit.

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Filed under funny, nonfiction, puzzles, Uncategorized

Truly Gross!! (Disgusting Nonfiction)

Here are a few titles for the kid who wants to read a nonfiction book and prefers something disgusting or shocking over something delicate or moving.

Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story about Brain Science by John Fleischman.  In 1848, Phineas Gage was working on building a railroad when an explosion drove a tamping rod (like a large, iron spear) through Gage’s head, coming in under his cheekbone, going through his brain, and coming out the top of his skull.  What makes this story especially interesting is that Gage survived, and lived another eleven years.  This book alternates between Gage’s story and information about brain science and medicine at the time of the accident.  A great choice for kids interested in brain science, with a fascinating story that brings the science to life.

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg, illustrated by Kevin O’Malley.  The title explains it all:  disgusting deaths of famous folks like Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette, Marie Curie, Ludwig van Beethoven, and more.  All it took to get a load of sixth grade boys clambering for this one was reading out loud the description of Mozart’s deadly strep infection (there were pustules; there was the “stink of rotting human;” there was vomit and fever and sausage-sized fingers).  The writing here is humorous and snarky, and the descriptions truly gross.

Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know about Fast Food by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson.  The young readers’ version of Fast Food Nation, this book might stop you from eating fast food altogether (um, poop in the hamburger meat? no thanks!) or it might not (you don’t have to think about what might be in the meat!), but what it will definitely do is give you an interesting perspective on how the fast food industry works in America and its effect on our society.  This is one that kids tend to recommend to each other after reading it; it’s the kind of book you want to talk about and share.

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Drawing from Memory by Allen Say

Maybe you are familiar with Allen Say’s gorgeous picture books–my personal favorites are Grandfather’s Journey and Emma’s Rug, but really, I could fall into the artwork of any of them, and they also have this incredible emotional resonance.  Say is that kind of artist whose humanity reaches out of the artwork and text and grabs you.

Drawing from Memory is an illustrated memoir of how Say came to be the artist he is today, or at least the first 16 years of that journey.  Using an incredible array of sketches, comics, old photographs, and paintings to support his narrative, Say shares how he came to love drawing (his mother didn’t want him to drown in the sea near his island home in Japan, so she kept him inside as much as possible; drawing kept him busy); how his family rejected his dream of becoming an artist because artists weren’t considered “respectable”; how he lived alone starting at age 12 (!) after his parents’ divorce; and most importantly, how he came to be mentored by famous cartoonist Noro Shinpei (who he called Sensei).

Say’s determination to follow his heart and become an artist, in spite of his family’s resistance and other obstacles, will likely speak to middle school readers.  But even more than that, the variety of images in this book–not just different mediums (photography, drawings, watercolor, etc.), but different styles within them–will amaze and inspire budding artists.*  When I finished the book, I immediately wanted to go back and pour over the artwork again.  But first I had to dry my eyes because the story was moving enough to get me a tad weepy!

Ultimately, Drawing from Memory is a thank you note from a student to the teacher who quietly changed his life in immeasurable ways.  There is an amazing story in the Author’s Note about how, after several years of no contact with Sensei, Say returned to Tokyo.  He hoped to see Sensei, but had no address or way of contacting him.  He writes, “As I got on a train to Tokyo, I felt calm, as though walking in my sleep, and I’m usually very nervous about everything.  Somehow I felt certain I was going to find Sensei in a city of eight million people.  And arriving there, for no particular reason, I picked one of the many city trains and got on.  As I was pushed into the crowded car, I almost ran into Sensei.  There he was, standing in the aisle in his usual kimono, holding on to a hand strap and carrying a sleeping baby on one arm.”

If that doesn’t give you a chill, I don’t know what would!

*I wish the cover image were more representative.  I like it, but so much of the power of the book comes from the variety of the artwork, I wish that were captured better on the cover.

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Filed under art, graphic novel, memoir, nonfiction, Uncategorized