Cover of The Skydiving Beavers shows a beaver on the ground watching boxes attached to parachutes float toward the groudThe Skydiving Beavers is a great title–especially when you know it’s also a nonfiction story. (The only thing that I, as an Idahoan, think might have made it better would have been to keep it in its original form–The Skydiving Beavers of Idaho.)

This is the story of airlifting beavers, but it’s also the story of how scientists think and work through problems.

The story is set in 1940s Idaho–the era is signaled with the wonderful illustrations with vintage clothes and automobiles–when McCall, Idaho  was growing and encroaching on beaver habitat. I loved the refrain that Wood uses to start the story:

“It all started when the folks of McCall, Idaho, realized they ahd a problem. A big problem. A big, beaver-type problem.”

A little later she changes the refrain to show another side of the story:

“Now the beavers had a problem too. A big problem. A big, people-type problem.”

When a local Department of Fish and Game official, Elmot Heter, decides they should move the beavers away from humans, she uses this version of the refrain:

“But Elmo had a problem. A big problem. A big, transportation-type problem.”

The refrain has elegantly set up the problem and then moved us into the heart of the book.

The story shows Elmo mulling over the problem, thinking about the difficulties of moving wild animals, and coming up with different ideas for solutions. We see him drawing plans on paper and building prototype equipment in his workshop and then testing it in the field. It’s really a great inside look on the real work of daily science, and one that would go well with a class on the scientific method.

The Author’s Note expains that Elmo’s solution would be considered unwise today and explains why it’s good for humans to make room in their world for beavers. I love that the book celebrates Elmo’s ingenuity but also shows the way added knowledge can change what we consider good practices.

It’s the rare picture book that’s set in Idaho. I feel lucky that we get such a fun one!

The Skydiving Beavers: A True Tale by Susan Wood, illustrated by Gysbert van Frankenhuyzen. Sleeping Bear Press: 2017.

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


The cover of The Hawk in the Castle shows a whawk wheeling in the air above a castle.Kings…princesses…castles. The Hawk of the Castle appeals to all of those fairy tale elements, but it’s full of nonfiction content. It uses a fictional narrator (“This is me. This is my father.”) to explain how falcons and hawks were used in medieval times for hunting.  The text is in verse reminiscent of “This is the House that Jack Built”:

This is our hawk: a sight to behold,

a master of  flight, graceful and bold.

My father trains this bird of prey

who lives with us at the castle.

In every stanza, the first two lines rhyme, and the last line ends with a preposition and then “…the castle.” (In fact, I could imagine using this book for a lesson on prepositions, finding the different preopositions at the end of every stanza.) Every spread also has a text box with nonfiction information about hunting birds and how they were trained and used. The real pleasure of the book, though, is in reading it aloud. Of course, that read aloud may well prompt passionate interest that can be met with the text boxes.

In the back matter, Danna Smith describes her own experience with falconry, describing learning from her own father.

The art, by Bagram Ibatoulline, is rich and luscious with detailed settings for every spread.

The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry by Danna Smith, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

A boy sits under a tree conversing with a dragon. The dragon appears to be part of the tree.

A boy sits under a tree conversing with a dragon. The dragon appears to be part of the tree.John Ronald’s Dragons is a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, focusing on the parts of his life that inspired his fantasy writing. The book invites you to see Gandalf in a headmaster who smoked a pipe, dragon’s smoke in the smoke pouring out of smokestacks in an industrial city, and the frightening Mines of Moria in World War I trenches.

The author, Caroline McAlister, is an English professor who teaches Tolkien, so the book carries with it an air of authority. The back matter includes an Author’s Note with more biographical details than are in the main text, a Catalog of Tolkien’s Dragons, and Quotes from Tolkien’s Scholarly Writing on Dragons, as well as a Bibliography.

Endpapers of book show dragons wheeling through air.The art manages to marry the everyday with the fantastical in wonderful illustrations. The endpapers are probably my favorite so far this year. I especially loved the Illustrator’s Note in the back matter, which comments, page by page, on details in the art. The illustrator, Eliza Wheeler, points out that she has painted one of Tolkien’s favorite childhood books, The Red Fairy Book on one spread; that she has added a specific piano in one illustration as homage to Tolkien’s grandfather; comments on how she used “forced perspective” to get in all the landmarks that needed to be in the illustration; and so on and so forth. I wish every illustrator did this! It made the book so much richer for me.

I can imagine parents who love Tolkien sharing this book with their children. I can imagine children being totally captivated by the images of dragons that pop up throughout the book. I wonder what they will take away from the picture book to their first reading of The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Rings, but maybe it will act not as a spoiler but as an accelerator, encouraging kids to plow into the books.

John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. Roaring Brook Press: 2017.

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

cover of book shows Trudy swimming from an underwater point of viewSue Macy writes big, bold picture book biographies of female athletes. Trudy’s Big Swim: How Gertrude Ederle Swam the English Channel and Took the World by Storm is a gorgeous book that begins with Trudy in the Channel and follows her swim, hour by hour, to a new world record.

I loved the details of her swim–how she swam to the strains of music blasted from a phonograph on the boat that was keeping pace with her; how she managed to eat fried chicken passed to her in a net and drank chicken broth from a baby bottle while she swam. I loved the lively quotes Macy includes, like, “England or drown is my motto.” Macy is great at describing an athletic event so that you as a reader feel like you are there, just as breathless with anticipation as the spectators who were really there.

But in this book I especially loved the art. Matt Collins also illustrated two other Macy books I love, Roller Derby Rivals and Basketball Belles, but in this book, his illustrations make the book. He paints from shifting perspectives. Sometimes we’re looking down at Trudy, as if we were on the board. Sometimes we see her at sea level, as if we were swimming next to her. Sometimes we see her from shore. On one of my favorite spreads we see her from under the water, and we also see the threat of luridly pink jellyfish lurking about her. The swim took fourteen hours, and Collins uses the shift to darkness to increase tension. In one memorable spread, he paints how it must have looked when English drivers trained their cars’ headlights on the water to form a beacon for Trudy, to show her which way to swim in the dark.

I didn’t notice the endpapers on my first read of the book, but was delighted when I went back and looked at them again. The front endpapers show Trudy walking into the water. On the last endpapers, we see a movie-maker in place, ready to film her emerging from the water.

One thing I love about Sue Macy’s books is her back matter. This book includes an Afterword that tells about Trudy’s deafness and about how she overcame a spinal injury later in her life. There’s an “Author’s Note” that discusses why Trudy’s birthdate is often misstated. There’s a short essay on “Sources and Resources” about why one newspaper had much better coverage than any other, as well as lists of Macy’s sources. And there are also source notes, attributing all the quotes in the book. I was fascinated to see that Macy also provided attribution for some of her other assertions (for example, that Trudy’s coach had failed twelve times in his attempt to swim across the Channel); usually source notes in picture books are limited to direct quotations.

A great read about a scrappy, determined swimmer.

Trudy’s Big Swim: How Gertrude Ederle Swam the English Channel and Took the World by Storm by Sue Macy, illustrated by Matt Collins. Holiday House: 2017.

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

Cover of Around America to Win the Vote shows two women and a kitten in a 1915 yellow carElection day is next week. In the relentless frenzy over this election, I try to remember how many women fought for my right to vote. Mara Rockliff’s book Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles is  a light-hearted, fun look at what women were willing to do to change hearts and minds.

In the book, we follow Nell Richardson and Alice Burke as they circle the country in an automobile–a notable novelty at the time–to campaign for Votes for Women. They have plans for how to respond to naysayers–“If anyone said women didn’t have the brains to vote, then Nell would dash a poem off right then and there to prove they did. If anyone said they should cook and sew and leave running the nation to the men, then Nell would whip an apron up while Alice gave a speech to prove they could do both.”

They encounter challenges on the road: a blizzard, sinkholes, swarming children, a recalcitrant horse. But they simply deal with the problems and continue on their way, talking everywhere about votes for women.

Hadley Hooper’s pencil and print illustrations capture period detail with a deft touch. And the back matter explains why yellow is so important in her palette–“The color yellow stood for Votes for Women everywhere in the United States.”

I loved the back matter in this book. I’ve been thinking a lot about back matter lately because as adults talk to me after reading my new book, they almost always mention how much they love the back matter. That doesn’t surprise me because I was thinking of adults when I wrote it. But I was surprised at a reading when a fourth grader peppered me with questions about the back matter, too. Later his mom told me that had been his favorite part of the book. I hadn’t realized it would have child readers, too!

Rockliff’s back matter is extensive–two full spreads–but her audience seems to be the engaged child reader, like that fourth grader at my reading (for example, the recommended books are all kids’ books). The narrative voice is very similar to that in the main text of the book. I love the telling details she includes in the back matter–that the christening of the car left a dent in the radiator, that the car company used Nell and Alice in their advertising, and that women held a “walkless parade” in St. Louis, where they stood silent on city sidewalks as conventioneers passed them on the way to a political convention.

If the current election is getting you down, let the history of suffrage give you some welcome distance. And inspire you to actually cast that ballot!

Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, A Kitten, and 10,000 Miles by Mara Rockliff, illustrated Hadley Hooper. Candlewick: 2016.

Children around a globe.




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

Nonfiction is nonfiction and fiction is fiction. But sometimes picture books use a fictional framework to present nonfiction content. Sometimes that’s called historical fiction, but sometimes it’s something else entirely. The thing without a name.

Cover of book shows Vincent Van Gogh striding past a childIn The Artist and Me, Shane Peacock imagines a child who is a neighbor to Vincent Van Gogh and, along with other townsfolk, teases and bullies the artist. Eventually, he is moved by the beauty of Van Gogh’s art and as an adult, comes to regret his actions. The story is fictional but inspired by the reality of the reaction to Van Gogh’s work.

It’s a pity that Peacock couldn’t dive into letters and diaries of Van Gogh’s tormentors to document how poorly they treated him. But it is a rare situation where someone records such acts of daily, offhand unkindness. And yet we know from Van Gogh’s letters about this poor treatment. This is one of those stories that perhaps can only be told through fiction.

Cover of book showing wolves morphing into dogs.Hudson Talbott’s book about the evolution of wolves into dogs, From Wolf to Woof!, also faces the problem of the lack of specifics. Scientists know that dogs are related to wolves and they can conjecture about how they came to be dogs, but it’s merely conjecture. Talbott takes this uncertainty and overlays it with an origin myth. He creates an outcast boy who develops a mutually beneficial relationship with an outcast wolf to lay out one plausible scenario of how wolves might have been domesticated.

In both of these books, the authors use back matter to talk about where their stories depart from nonfiction. I don’t think children will be ill-served or tricked by either book (especially if the adults in their lives share the back matter with them). I liked both of them.

The Artist and Me by Shane Peacock, illustrated by Sophie Casson. Owlkids: 2016

From Wolf to Woof! The Story of Dogs by Hudson Talbott. Nancy Paulsen Books: 2016

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

Cover of book showing prairie dogs peeking out of their burrowsElementary school children learn about living webs–that plants and animals interact with each other within an environment. There are some great books depicting ecosystem webs–High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs looks at the interactions of animals around Delaware Bay, No Monkeys, No Chocolate examines the interactions of animals and plants in the rain forest, Tree of Wonder explores all the life in a single tree. Prairie Dog Song follows in this tradition.

Prairie Dog Song looks at how plants and animals interacted to build the great American prairies and then what happened when those relationships were disrupted by farmers and ranchers. In a singsong cadence, we hear how “the grass turned to desert land.” The book ends hopefully, though, showing how keeping a “keystone species” like prairie dogs intact also keeps other parts of the ecosystem healthy. The text chants, “in one place lived prairie dogs,…and the grasses waved all around.”

The main part of the text can be sung as a cumulative song, based on an old tune titled “The Green Grass Grows All Around,” (music included in the back matter), but my favorite part of the book was the wonderful explanatory text on every spread. It gives rich detail about the science behind the page and also about scientists who have worked with prairie species.

The art on every page is collage. It reminds me a lot of Susan Roth’s previous work on Parrots over Puerto Rico. Her technique is especially successful when she’s depicting animals within a landscape, but even the collages with people in them have charm.

The great back matter for the book includes not just the music for the song but also “More Prairie Dog Facts,” a “Timeline of the Janos Grasslands,” a “Glossary and Pronunciation Guide,” a bibliography (with over 30 sources!), and my favorite–photographs of the animals, landscapes, and scientists depicted in the book.

Prairie Dog Song by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore. Lee and Low: 2016

Children around a globe.

Cover of book shows woman looking across ocean sceneI love to find nonfiction picture books about women in science! This lovely new picture book tells the story of Marie Tharp, a cartographer and ocean researcher. She didn’t live that long ago, but she still encountered lots of opposition to her working in science. She managed to carve out a tiny place for herself at the ocean-studies lab at Columbia University and with a colleague came up with the idea of mapping the ocean floor.

Because she was a woman, she wasn’t allowed to actually do the research required to make the map, but she gathered all the data and figured out how to put it into a usable form. In her work, she became convinced that the theory of tectonic plates was accurate and then used her maps to convince her colleagues. What a great role model of a gutsy, persistent scientist!

The book is written in first person, a choice that makes it easy for the reader to identify with Marie Tharp’s passions, patience, and success.

The back matter includes an interesting glossary (interesting! a glossary!) of terms related to Marie Tharp’s work: Pangaea, Ring of Fire, seafloor spreading. There’s also an interesting section titled “Things to Wonder About and Do” which invites young readers to do things like make soundings in a lake, to research deep ocean spots online, and to speculate about the center of the earth.

Raul Colon’s art is beautiful and lovely accompaniment to this biography. This video profiles another book he did using the same materials he used in this book.

Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Raul Coloon. Paula Wiseman Books (Simon & Schuster): 2016.

Cover of book, showing Ruth Law flying in a biplane.What did it take to be a woman aviator in the early 1900s? Pluck. Intelligence. Courage.

Ruth Law had them all. This story of her record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City had me worrying for her, pulling for her, and ultimately applauding her success.

I especially loved the way quotes from Law are used throughout this book. There are thirteen quotes in all, and each of them is strategically placed for maximum impact. None of them are introduced with “she said” or any dialogue tag at all. They give the reader a sense of immediacy, as if I were really hearing Ruth Law tell her own story. For example, as she enters New York City, I read:

Gliding, Ruth circled around the State of Liberty toward Governor’s Island.

“She smiled at me when I went past. She did!…I think we both feel alike about things.”

As soon as I turned to the back matter, I knew this book had to have been published by Calkins Creek. They love back matter and lavish care and attention on it. We get two full pages of “More About Ruth Law,” giving more details about this trip as well as telling what happened to her after the trip. There’s a full page of bibliographic material and more than a full page of source attribution for the quotes–all in type just as big as that used in the rest of the book!

I especially loved the photos in the back matter. That, combined with Raul Colon’s pencil illustrations, made the book feel alive. You can get a glimpse of the photos and the illustrations together in this one minute long trailer. 

Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine by Heather Lang, pictures by Raul Colon. Calkins Creek: 2016

Cover of Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton shows George Moses Horton rapturously holding a newspaper in which his first poem has been printedPoet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton is a lovely picture book biography about an African American who started writing poetry while he was enslaved. In the afterword, Tate says, “…the publishing industry could do a better job of balancing the topic of slavery with other African-American stories.”

This month furor has erupted again over what kinds of stories about enslaved people can be told in picture books. After A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington, what topics can nonfiction picture books cover? I think it’s clear that right now it isn’t possible to write about slavery tangentially. If a nonfiction book is going to tell the story of an enslaved person, it had better deal directly with the issue of slavery itself. I feel wistful for those stories that aren’t being told. But I also think it’s fair to argue that we haven’t told the story of enslavement well enough or often enough to our picture book audience. That terrible story needs to be told before other kinds of stories about enslaved people can be heard.

Poet is a great example of what can be done in a picture book. It deals with the horrors of enslavement without losing the wonder and beauty of what Horton managed within the confines of slavery. Tate tells the inspiring story of Horton learning to read and to write and then finding a way to make a living out of poetry. But he doesn’t whitewash the injustice or horror of slavery, either.

I don’t think, though, that Tate was suggesting that we ONLY tell stories about enslaved African Americans.  I totally agree with him that we need lots, lots more nonfiction picture books about African Americans. And about Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans and Indian Americans. We need to hear the stories we haven’t heard yet to remind us of what makes us who we are.

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate. Peachtree: 2015.