Today I’m reading four STEM picture books published in 2017. They vary widely, but I enjoyed all of them.

Cover has a photographic close-up of a toadThe Hidden Life of a Toad is a straightforward account of the life cycle of a toad, from egg to tadpole to toadlet to adult toad capable of reproduction. Every spread is headed by a date stamp: “Day 1″… “Day 41″… “Day 1099.” The photography in the book is clear and fascinating to examine (and I love that the title page is a portrait of Doug Wechsler, the author/photographer, in the process of taking a portrait of a toad!). I learned so much from this book. Did you know, for example, that there are special holes in the tadpole’s body for the arms to grow out of? Or that the toad’s body recycles its tadpole tail? The book has 3 1/2 spreads of back matter, including more photos. I especially loved the essay called “Getting the Photos” where Wechsler talks about how he managed to shoot the photos for the book. “Getting wet was part of the job.”

The Hidden Life of a Toad by Doug Wechsler. (Charlesbridge: 2017).


Cover shows boy looking at a plant through a magnifying glassI found a different perspective on biology in Karl, Get Out of the Garden! This is a picture book biography of Carolus Linnaeus, who devised the system of taxonomy that we still use today to classify living things. He was born in 1707, so it was a very different world, and I was very impressed with the way the author, Anita Sanchez, built scaffolds of knowledge to help her young reader imagine that different world. For example, she needed to help kids see why it mattered to have consistent names for things. To do that, she shows them a world where people don’t even degree on the name for “dandelion.”

Doctors, gardeners, farmers–everybody!–argued about the names of plants. Dandelions might be called blowball, swine’s snout, or yellow daisy

Her examples and explanations made it easy to understand why his brilliant theories of classification mattered. The hefty back matter describes the system he developed, discusses how it has changed over time, and includes a timeline.

Karl, Get Out of the Garden! by Anita Sanchez, illustrated by Catherine Stock. (Charlesbridge: 2017).


Lines, Bars, and Circles is another picture book biography set in the 1700s. It tells the story of William Playfair, who invented line graphs, bar charts, and pie charts. It had never before occurred to me that they had to be invented! But of course someone had to come up with the idea of visually representing information in graph and chart form. And it was William Playfair! The book includes sidebars to explain big concepts not dealt with in the main text (“Industrial Revolution,” “French Revolution”). The art is playful and cartoon-y. And, of course, it includes graphs and charts.

Lines, Bars, and Circles by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Marie-Eve Tremblay. (Kids Can Press: 2017).


Cover of book shows woman and children mixing up chocolate chip cookie doughI expected How the Cookie Crumbled to be a straightforward picture book biography of the inventor of the chocolate chip cookie. It did give a lot of biographical information, but the heart is an examination of three different theories of how the chocolate chip cookie was invented. Each theory has a fully-illustrated spread, showing how it might have happened, followed by a page headed, “So, which version do you believe?” Here, the author walks the kids through an assessment of the strength of each argument. It’s such a great way to invite and model for kids how to analyze arguments! And in such a yummy context!

How the Cookie Crumbled: The True (and Not-So-True) Stories of the Invention of the Chocolate Chip Cookie by Gilbert Ford. (Atheneum: 2017).




Picture of children surrounding a globe

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






thisDeborah Freedman’s book This House, Once speaks to that human desire to know how stuff is made. In spirit, it’s a lot like the wonderful book Where Did My Clothes Come From? by Chris Butterworth. But that books revels in the intricate details of cloth- and clothes-making, while This House, Once is atmospheric and poetic.

The book begins with spreads alternating between stark drawings of architectural elements and wordless illustrations, showing the natural elements that went into making that piece of the house. “This door was once a colossal oak tree about three hugs around and as high as the blue,” a spread accompanied by a small drawing of a door, is followed by a spread showing a huge oak tree piercing clouds.

The book has a dream-like, fantastical quality. And houses really are fantastical when you think about it! We stand inside and look outside through plates of sand, melted by fire! But maybe the best word to describe the book is “cozy.” In the illustrations, a cozy gray cat follows us through our exploration of the parts of the house, wordlessly ending up curled asleep.

I wished the back matter had more information about, for example, the transformation of slate into shingles or mud into bricks, but it was very brief, too, and merely evocative. It ends, though, with telling questions: “Where do you live? What was your home, once?” It is perhaps not a book that only an architect could have written (though Freedman did used to be an architect!), but it is definitely a book by a poet.

This House, Once, by Deborah Freedman. Atheneum: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Black man holds an old-time lantern.

One of my New Year resolutions: to find people whose stories haven’t been told.

Whose stories do we get to hear? Usually, it’s the stories of the people in power. There’s a good reason for that: their stories are memorialized in documentary evidence. Historians can examine papers and books and stitch together stories. The problem is, that leaves out the stories of most of humanity. So is it possible to tell the stories of the dispossessed, of those who lost the wars, those who were ignored in their lifetime?

Historians (like Jennifer Nez Denetdale) are beginning to use oral histories and folktales to illuminate the past. But there is a danger that their carefully-explained process may begin to transform universities and colleges but somehow skip the youngest readers. In Lift Your Light a Little Higher, Heather Henson tackles the problem head-on. In it, she tells the story of Stephen Bishop, the nineteenth century slave who was the first to extensively explore Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. She acknowledges in the back matter:

In reality, not much is known about Stephen as a person. And so in this book, I tried to imagine his life inside the cave from a few written descriptions, from a few facts.

From the beginning, the narrative is organized around the idea that understanding the past is like trying to find a path through a dark cave:

The past is like a cave sometimes. Dim and dusty, and full of twisting ways. Not an easy thing to journey down. ‘Specially when you’re searching out a path that’s hardly been lit, a trail that’s never been smooth or flat or plain to follow.

This book, about a man who has been dead for more than 150 years, is written in first person present tense:

The color of my skin is black. The name I’m called is Guide. My home is in Kentucky.

Henson uses the first person narration to set up a conversational back-and-forth that allows her to insert historical explanations where they’re needed:

What’s that? You take a stumble already? You got a question so soon? Why? Is that what you want to know? Why is it against the law to teach me my letters? Because I am a slave. Because I am the property of a white man.

The book never uses invented dialogue, but the first person narrator perhaps moves it out of the strict nonfiction category. Nonetheless, it succeeded admirably in telling children, in an accessible, properly scaffolded way, the moving story of a historical character, using the few written records and facts that have survived. Its lyrical voice verged on poetry.

Bryan Collier’s watercolor and collage illustrations capture the darkness of the cave and the excitement of exploration, as well as the dignity of a brave slave-explorer.

Check out this interview where Henson talks about why she chose to write in first person here.

Lift Your Light a Little Higher, The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heathern Henson, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Atheneum 2016.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


A Slinky "walking down" a staircase

(My review of a nonfiction middle grade title, Super Gear, was on Nerdy Book Club earlier this week. You can see it here.)

Chance. Serendipity. Accident. The Marvelous Thing that Came from a Spring: The Accidental Invention of theToy that Swept the Nation shows that the process of creating something new may start with an accident, but requires lots of diligent hard work after that start. Gilbert Ford tells the story of the invention of the toy phenomenon, the Slinky, starting with a naval engineer’s observation of how a torsion spring moved as it fell from a shelf.

But Richard James’ observation that day also required marketing, packaging, and promotion, to say nothing of production. The book shows how James and his wife, Betty, hustled to make a simple spring into a popular toy. The conclusion of the story summarizes:

It took the teamwork of a dreamer and a planner to turn an ordiinary spring…into a truly marvelous thing!

The writing in the book is clear and accessible, and the art is wonderful. Ford made digital illustrations, printed them out, and then used them with found objects to create dioramas, which were then photographed. I found myself lingering on page after page trying to figure out all the layers of the illustration process.

The back  matter tells about ways Slinky has been used in the real world and briefly mentions that Betty eventually took over production of the Slinky (and left me suspecting that there’s more to the story of the James family than is told in this book).

The themes of the book would fit beautifully with a school unit on invention. Books like Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson and the Super-Soaker, The Hole Story of the Doughnut, or Earmuffs for Everyone would be fun to read in company with The Marvelous Thing that Came From a Spring. The book would also pair nicely with Philip Stead’s Ideas are All Around.

The Marvelous Thing that Came from a Spring: The Accidental Invention of theToy that Swept the Nation by Gilbert Ford, photography by Greg Endires. Atheneum: 2016

Children around a globe.




I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at KidLit Frenzy.

Cover of Be the Change shows Gandhi holding a stubby pencil in his hand while grandson looks onIn Be the Change, one of Gandhi’s grandchildren reminisces about his experiences with his famous grandfather, learning to understand his teaching that wastefulness leads to violence. This is no walk-to-the-sea story but instead the memory of a grandpa being disappointed when his grandson throws away the nub of a pencil. He makes the boy search until he finds it and then continue to use it.

The grandson is at first annoyed with his grandfather and then ashamed of himself. But he remains confused about why a stubby pencil matters. Over the course of the book, and over a series of conversations with his grandfather, he sees how small actions have serious repercussions.

The book has a lot of language that will be unfamiliar to most young readers–“ashram,” “Satyagraha,” “Bapuji”–but their meanings are understandable in context. And the richness of language helps to situate the story in India. The layers of details in the story work well to establish the setting.

Both the book trailer and the back matter talk about how the co-author, Bethany Hegedus, came to be involved in the project. She was trying to find a way to make some good come out of the 9-11 attack. This book could prompt some important discussions with children about the power of everyday choices to make the world better.

I love books that come out of family history (like this and this and this). Sure, this one is about someone famous, but much of its charm and power comes from the intimacy of the family memory. This is a follow-up to another memoir, Grandfather Gandhi.

Here’s a book trailer for Be the Change.

Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk. Atheneum: 2016

Children around a globe.


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