Boy stands outside in the dark, with monstrous shapes around him, but he stares at full moon above him.Today is Pearl Harbor Day. We commemorate that frightening moment when the United States was plunged into dark terror. Adults fear metaphorical darkness, but kids often have to face head-on their fear of the actual dark. The Darkest Dark is a lovely memoir by astronaut Chris Hadfield of how he conquered his childhood fear of the dark, to allow himself to take up a profession where his work is spent in the deep, unrelieved dark of outer space.

The book shows Chris as a child play-acting being an astronaut but then falling apart when he actually has to sleep in a dark room. We see all the strategies his parents employ–letting him sleep with them, checking for monsters, giving him a night light–but nothing helps. They finally hold one privilege over his head: if he can’t stay in his own bed all night, they won’t watch the moon landing.

Chris manages to tamp down his fear because he so so so wants to watch astronauts walk on the moon. I love the part of the book that depicts watching TV that night. One of my earliest memories is of my parents waking me up to watch TV in the middle of the night, which seemed to me as miraculous as people stepping on the moon. I remember, like Chris, looking at the moon with wonder that night.

But for Chris, something even more profound had happened. “Chris had changed….For the first time, Chris could see the power and mystery and velvety black beauty of the dark.”

The back matter tells about Chris’ subsequent career in space and includes snapshots from his childhood as well as his adult life.

The art is gentle pencil drawings, realistic with just enough fantasy thrown in to depict the outlines of Chris’ terror.  Shadows have creepy glowing eyes and bizarre creatures seem to lurk in corners. But the art resolves itself with a lovely wordless spread where he and his family, after watching the moon landing on TV, stand outside in the dark and look at the moon.

This is a great book for kids afraid of the dark, but it’s also a nice reminder that holding to dreams in dark times can lead to “Dreams that actually can come true.”

The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion, illustrated by The Fan Brothers. Little Brown: 2016.

Children around a globe.



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

Boy reading a book with a tiny green creature, his booger, reading with him.

Boy reading a book with a tiny green creature, his booger, reading with him.

Hilarious nonfiction picture books can be hard to find.

Gentle, amusing, sweet. It’s a lot easier to find nonfiction picture books that fit those descriptions.

But rollicking, silly, laugh-out-loud nonfiction picture books are rare.

William Joyce has provided just such a rare duck with his “sorta” memoir about the first book he wrote. At the beginning of the book, we meet Billy, a misfit but enthusiastic schoolchild. He happily embraces his eccentricities until his failure to win a prize in a book-writing contest suggests to him that his unique talents are not of use in the world.

Until he discovers that the winners of the contest remain on the library shelf while his own zany, irreverent book is constantly checked out.

The book is full of Joyce’s distinctive art. The book Billy writes is bound inside the book. The pages of Billy’s book are not only a different size than all the other pages of the book but are also a different texture than the rest of the book.

So why are funny nonfiction picture books so rare? Maybe because it’s hard to laugh at significant moments from the past? Maybe because funny moments are less likely to be preserved in the historical record? Maybe because we nonfiction picture book writers are just not very funny?

I’m not sure why, but I’m glad–as will be many, many children–that William Joyce ventured to this side of the fiction/nonfiction divide.

Book trailer. 

Billy’s Booger: A Memoir (sorta), by William Joyce (Moonbot Books: 2015).

Boy points at his house. One sister sits on the roof reading. Another sister is swinging.This charming memoir, a follow-up to Jonathan Bean’s equally delightful Building Our House, takes us through a day of home-school with his family. The narrator, a cheery blond-headed boy (suspiciously like the photos of cheery blond-headed Jonathan Bean in the back of the book) shows us his world of school. He stands in front of his house and announces, “This is my home.” After the page turn, he’s still playing in front of his house when he continues, “And this is my school! What, confused? Okay, allow me to explain.”

With the refrain “This is…” ringing, we see his sisters and his classmates, his classrooms and his cafeteria. We watch a whole wonderful, chaotic day of home-schooling unfold before us. We go in the family van to the library and to art class until mom collapses, exhausted.

But that’s okay, because Dad arrives home just in time to teach shop and to do chores and to play sports and to teach astronomy and, finally, to read a bedtime story.

The book concludes, “Because this is my home, this is my school.”

The pictures are full of delightful detail. If you look closely on the copyright page, you’ll see Dad heading to school and the neighborhood friends getting onto the school bus, and the endpapers are some of my favorite of the year. the front endpapers show the house in early morning light; the final endpapers show it in moonlight.

The author’s note has a lovely tribute to Jonathan Bean’s parents and is crammed with family snapshots from his growing-up years.

I’ve already shared this with homeschooling friends. I think it will be an enduring favorite!

An interview about the book with Jonathan Bean.

This Is My Home, This Is My School, by Jonathan Bean. Farrar Straus Giroux: 2015.

Cover of book Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird In this lyrical autobiography, ballerina Misty Copeland speaks to a young, uncertain dancer, encouraging her to prepare, to practice, and mostly to believe in her ability to dance. The text has none of the dates or places of the birth-to-death biography but is instead a spiritual account of the internal process needed to succeed in ballet.

You won’t hear from this book that Copeland is one of the great modern ballerinas or that she was born in poverty or that she became, just a few months ago, the first female African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. The book’s language is lovely, but it will have even more meaning if you first dig into Copeland’s life a bit–perhaps at her website or by watching the new movie about her life. Copeland includes a letter to the reader at the back of the book, but it talks more about why she wrote the book than about where she came from. I would have loved a much longer, more detail-oriented back essay here. But luckily there are other resources to fill the gap.

Teachers might think about comparing this autobiography to Yuyi Morales’ biography of Frida Kahlo, Viva Frida.  Both use lyricism and imagery to describe artists.

Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated  by Christopher Myers. G. P. Putnam’s: 2014.

TromboneThis brassy, bold autobiography is a book about New Orleans, about music, and about Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty. The beginning spreads show how music was part of Andrews’ everyday life at home and on the streets of New Orleans. The next spreads show the author trying to make music–at first without even an instrument in hand, “We were making music, and that’s all that mattered”–we see him getting a chance as a tiny child to play with jazz great Bo Didley, and finally, we see him forming his own band. Andrews organizes his story around the repeated refrain of “Where y’at?”

The book is an exuberant tribute to the power of music to enthrall. It will set your toes tapping and send you out to listen to a Trombone Shorty CD.

Trombone Shorty, by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Abrams: 2015.















You don’t find an easy reader memoir every day. This one’s a rare gem. It tells the story of a Sierra Leone war orphan who becomes fascinated with ballerina and eventually becomes a professional ballerina. It’s co-written by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, the ballerina and her mother.

I was especially impressed by the way the narrative weaves together so many difficult themes. The narrator talks about her skin condition, vitiligo, and the teasing she endured because of it. She tells the story of her adoption, describing the uncertainty as well as the thrill that went with getting a new family and a new country. She takes us through her obsession with ballet. She shows us the loneliness of being black in a predominantly white workplace.

It’s a lot for a single easy reader to tackle, but this text does it with grace. There’s a lot for any new reader–or any human!–to connect with here.

Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer, by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Frank Morrison. Random House Step into Reading: 2014.