I’m still scrambling to catch up with 2017 books (though maybe that will give my library time to get a few 2018 titles in…). Here are three 2017 nonfiction picture books I’m just now reading. All three titles have beautiful art depicting nighttime scenes:

Cover of book shows boy dressed as an ancient Egyptian on a reed boat, as a grown-up paddles.

Nile Crossing is a surprising first-day-of-school book. The main character, Khepri, is nervous about leaving Mom and Dad behind, and worried about the new activities he’ll have to get used to. But he’s a child in ancient Egypt instead of the next town over, and he has to leave home before dawn in order to cross the Nile to get to school. The beautiful art is inspired by ancient Egyptian art. The back matter actually continues the story–we get to see Khepri make his first friend!–and watch him write his first letter. I’ve never before seen a sequel embedded in back matter, and I can only imagine how delighted Egypt-crazy kids will be to discover that the story continues. The back matter also has a fascinating essay about why it’s likely that lower-class boys and some girls attended school in ancient Egypt. In the Author’s Note, the author talks about how she got interested in the topic, and in her analogous note the illustrator talks about the process of illustrating a story from long ago.

Nile Crossing by Katy Beebe, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport. (Eerdmans: 2017).



Cover of book shows a boy--Vincent Van Gogh--asleep under a starry sky



Vincent Can’t Sleep is a lyrical picture book biography of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s structured around the refrain, “Vincent can’t sleep…” We follow Vincent throughout his life, seeing his wakefulness and attentiveness as a child, as a young person, and as an adult, lead to careful observation of the world around him. The scenes are biographical, placing Vincent where he actually lived at different stages of his life–“while the sturdy Dutch village of Zundert slumbers, he lies rocking in his wooden cradle” and he is “away at boarding schools in bigger towns. Zevenbergen. Tilburg”–but they also evoke his most famous paintings. We see him looking at the stars (Starry Night) and painting in the country (The Potato Eaters). The art is reminiscent of VanGogh’s art, and the back matter gives more detail about his life, including the fact that “from boyhood on, he was plagued with long bouts of insomnia.” I love how the book conveys the energy and emotion of Van Gogh’s paintings.

Vincent Can’t Sleep by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Grandpre. (Alfred A. Knopf: 2017).






On the cover of the book a young Harriet Tubman looks at the night sky.


Most narrative nonfiction picture books have a straightforward, beginning-to-end structure. Before She Was Harriet inverts that pattern. It tells the life of Harriet Tubman starting with old age. Then, with each page turn, we move backward in time and see her at younger and younger ages: “Before she was an old woman she was a suffragist…Before she was a suffragist she was General Tubman…Before she was General Tubman she was a Union spy.” The structural device of moving from old age to youth means that the climax of the book is the moment when we arrive back at her childhood and see her, still unformed, ready to move forward bravely into life. She’s a child, not yet knowing the great good that she will accomplish in her life. It’s inspiring, and puts its child readers there with Harriet, imagining what good they will accomplish in their lives. The paintings in the book are luminous. I especially loved the ones set at night and in dark spaces. In those, Harriet almost seems like a source of light herself. [And this just won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor!]

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome. (Holiday House: 2017).








Picture of children surrounding a globe

Alyson Beecher hosts the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at kidlitfrenzy.com. Visit there for more great nonfiction picture books!

The cover of Keith Haring The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing shows Haring next to his iconic crawling man imageKeith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing is a picture book biography of the contemporary artist by an author with unmatched access to information about his childhood. It’s written by Haring’s younger sister. The book takes full advantage of that family knowledge, focusing on his childhood. The first third of the book is about him before he finished high school and how drawing fit into his childhood life. We see him drawing with his family, annoying teachers with his constant doodling, creating drawing games with his friends, and giving family members gifts of art.

The rest of the book shows how, as an adult, he brought his art to the world. But those adult enterprises are nicely tied back to his childhood self with the apt refrain, “…he just kept drawing.”

I love the way books by family members can highlight quiet but important moments. And in this book, Haring has gathered many images from Haring’s childhood. They’re incorporated into the illustrations of the book and also show up, annotated, in the back matter. the back matter also has a bunch of wonderful family photos showing Haring as a Black and white line drawings in style of Keith Haringyoung person. It’s a substantial back matter–three full spreads–with images, a biographical essay, and–my favorite part–Kay Haring’s own reflections on the legacy of her brother.

Here’s another book with amazing endpapers–ones that you can get lost looking into and that will remind you why Haring is such a beloved artist.

Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, by Kay Haring, illustrated by Robert Neubecker. Dial Books for Young Children: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

In the last few years, the American Library Association Youth Media Awards have increasingly recognized nonfiction. By my count, between 1942 and 1983 no Caldecott medals went to nonfiction books. That’s 0 awards in 41 years. In 2014, 2016, and now 2017, the Caldecott medal went to nonfiction picture books. This week Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe won both the Caldecott and a Coretta Scott King Honor.

Other nonfiction books won big at the ALA Awards, too. Freedom in Congo Square, one of my favorite books from last year, won both a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor. The graphic novel memoir by John Lewis, March, won the Coretta Scott King Award and the Printz Award (besides snatching both of the nonfiction awards–the Sibert and the YALSA Nonfiction).

Happily I have already reviewed Freedom in Congo Square way back in March but I didn’t do so well getting the other award winners reviewed.I have a review of Giant Squid, the only picture book to win a Sibert Honor, scheduled for later this month.

Portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat as a childI have had Radiant Child on my stack of to-be-reviewed books for about a month now. When I first read the book, it didn’t grab me. But I kept thinking about the art and found myself digging out the book to show people how he used found wood, pieced together, as his canvas. I love the subtle collage elements and the shifts in perspective.

The story itself is about a troubled but brilliant grafitti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work was cut short by his tragic end (which is discussed only in the back matter). One of my favorite parts of the book was the note in the back matter by the author/artist explaining why Basquiat’s work speaks to him.

This is a beautiful book with celebratory images of a Puerto Rican/Haitian boy. It’s fitting that a book about art would win the award for the best art in a children’s book.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe. (Little Brown: 2016).

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.



cover for Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes Bird Artist shows boy watches two birds fly.In Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes Bird Artist, Margarita Engle skillfully uses poetry to tell the remarkable life story of Louis Fuertes. He began painting birds when the state-of-the-art was to shoot the bird and then arrange it in a lifelike pose. Fuertes, however, couldn’t bear to kill the animals he admired. So he invented new techniques and began painting birds from life.

Engle tells his story in first person, an unusual craft choice in a nonfiction biography. The first person works really well, though, in showing emotional engagement without letting the language become overwrought. We hear Fuertes exclaim, “I love…” and “I care…” but the rest of the language is direct and clear.

Engle includes an interesting historical note–who knew that Arm and Hammer Baking Soda used to include trading cards?!–but I wish sources were attributed.

This book is a great look at a Hispanic American hero. It would work well in a science class, looking at environmental or habitat issues. It would also be great in an art class, followed up, of course, with drawing from life!

Engle offers a fun activity kit related to the book here. 

The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Aliona Bereghici. Two Lions: 2015.

Girl in a ballet pose.Years ago my sister gave me a picture book by someone she had  met at a social function. It had one of the best titles ever, Baxter, the Pig who Wanted to be Kosher. The book is hilarious. So I was excited when I saw another book by the same author, Laurel Snyder.

I love this book just as much as Baxter–no, probably more–but it couldn’t be more different in tone. This haunting, lyrical biography of ballerina Anna Pavlova is a dream to read aloud. It opens with her first time to see a ballet: “Her feet wake up! Her skin prickles. there is a song, suddenly, inside her.” We follow her as she tries to enter a ballet school, is rejected, and finally succeeds, becoming a world-famous ballerina.

I was fascinated at how much of the story Snyder conveys elliptically, without actually telling us what’s going on. We figure it out from the rhythm of the words, from the punctuation, and from the art. So when Anna Pavlova is rejected from ballet school (a fact you can confirm if you dip into Snyder’s excellent back matter), we read only: “At last Mama nods, and out of her house Anna goes, into the world of people. Tall people.” The illustration shows Anna entering a building where we see ballet students, in silhouette, practicing. On the next page, we see Anna leaving the building, head bowed, while the students continue to practice. The words say, “And oh? Oh.” The economy of language staggers. But the story is never lost.

I love the lyricism and rhythm of the language in the book. While Anna is waiting to get into ballet school, we see her dancing as she hangs up laundry, and the writing explains, “Anna stretches, bides her time. Shirt, shirt, laundry. Shirt, shirt laundry.

The book lingers over Anna Pavlova’s death–three full spreads are devoted to her deathbed–but the effect is not macabre. Instead, it’s gentle and celebratory. Much like a velvet curtain swishing closed.

The art, by Julie Morstad, is simple but sophisticated, based on a palette of black and white and red or pink. The endpapers are some of my favorite from the entire year.

This is a book to read, curled up next to a child you love, while the snow falls outside your window.

A video clip of Anna Pavlova dancing.

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad. (Chronicle: 2015)

I’m happy to join Alyson Beecher of KidLit Frenzy in her 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge!




Cover of book shows portrat of Jose Guadalupe Posada with four of his funy illustrations of skeletons--one is playing the guitar, one wears a fancy hat, one rides a bicycle, and one is dressed as a banditFor Thanksgiving there are picture books about Sarah Josepha Hale, and for Veteran’s Day, there’s a picture book about Arlington Cemetery. But how do you satisfy your yen for nonfiction on Halloween?

Duncan Tonatiuh swoops to the rescue with his new biography. He takes us to nineteenth century Mexico and introduces us to Lupe Posada, an enterprising and creative printer who embraces the folk tradition of printing and selling humorous broadsides about death for Day of the Dead celebrations. But Posada’s fertile imagination and skilled etchings slowly create a new iconography for Day of the Dead. Tonatiuh intersperses his own distinctive, flat drawings with copies of Posada’s equally distinctive drawings. He invites us to consider the messages Posada may have hidden under the humor.

I grow weak in the knees when a picture book biography convinces me that someone I’d never heard of before is totally worthy of an entire book. I find myself scrambling in the back matter to learn everything I can. Here, in Tonatiuh’s back matter, I found a rare photo of Posada and learned some intriguing things about his collaborator. I also learned, to my surprise, that Posada had a strong direct influence on the great muralists Orozco and Rivera. The back matter is packed with information about Day of the Dead celebrations, too, but you don’t need independent knowledge of them to enjoy the book. In fact, the book will teach you a lot about them while you think you’re learning about Posada!

This nonfiction book would pair beautifully with Yuyi Morales’ fictional picture book Just a Minute, with its canny grandmother tricking Death.

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, by Duncan Tonatiuh. (Abrams: 2015).


drawIllustrating a picture book about an artist can be tricky. What do you draw to depict what he or she drew?

This unusual book neatly sidesteps the problem. The text recounts the events of Benny Andrews’ life in a straightforward way, but each spread is illustrated by a reproduction of one of his paintings. This is especially remarkable since the book was written several years after his death. The paintings are haunting, quirky, moving, flamboyant–the one thing they are not is forgettable!

Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews, by Kathleen Benson, illustrated with paintings by Benny Andrews. Clarion: 2015.

mary garden This book is a lyrical tribut to the artist behind the quirky garden art at a Wisconsin beach home. The back matter tackles the community controversy the art created, but the main text of the book is a gentle celebration of the quiet, persistent vision of someone who didn’t see the world like everyone else did. The story is told simply boiled down to the bare essentials of how Mary Nohl came to create the fantastical creatures that surround her home. It’s a story that joyfully affirms the beauty that can happen when people quietly follow their own path.


A great trailer for the book.

In Mary’s Garden, by Tina and Carson Kugler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2015.







This lovely book gives us a child’s-eye glimpse of the process that folk artist Joseph Cornell followed in creating his assembled boxes. Winter builds the story around a special exhibition especially for children that Cornell set up at the end of his life. In addition to examining the magical boxes, hung at a child’s eye level, the children got to eat brownies and drink soda pop. (The back matter has wonderful photos of that exhibition and of Cornell talking to kids at it).

The narrator is appropriately childlike–no “Joseph” or “Cornell” here but a respectful “Mr. Cornell”–and while a few biographical details emerge in the telling (for example, Cornell cared for his disabled brother), the book is mostly a celebration of how an artist creates. In many ways, it’s much closer in spirit to Viva Frida and The Iridescence of Birds than it is to a traditional artist biography. It’s even written in the subjunctive tense, like The Iridescence of Birds:

If you had lived on Utopia Parkway not so long ago…

The story is haunting and dreamlike, and the language is always clear and economical. Probably much like Cornell’s boxes!

Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes by Jeanette Winter. Beach Lane: 2014.






This astonishing book is in the same tradition as Viva Frida: a biography less concerned with biographical fact than with conveying the heart of the painter’s art. The book is three sentences long. The first sentence–in the subjunctive!–starts, “If you were a boy named Henri Matisse who lived in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were gray…” and continues for fifteen spreads, showing how Matisse’s mother suffuses his life with color. The art is beautiful and, of course, respectfully evocative of Matisse. I wanted to look and look and look.

This book is a persuasive meditation on the power of Matisse’s art but also a lovely tribute to motherhood. I hope it’s the great Mother’s Day title of the year!

The Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper. Neal Porter Press  (Roaring Brook): 2014.