My three year old grandson loves “things that go.” Here are three books perfect for him and other fans of cars, trucks, trains, and buses.

Cover of book shows a 1950s era car with a boy standing next to it in a tropical cityAll the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle (Henry Holt: 2017) is set in Cuba and narrated by a boy who is going with his family to a party for his newborn cousin. But first, he and his father have to fix their 1950s era car. The book is full of wonderful onomatopoeia and is fun to read aloud. It has wonderful illustrations of Cuban cityscapes and country scenes (researched on location, as the illustrator’s note at the back explains) and of the many, many old cars that still drive on Cuban streets. I loved the focus on the inventiveness required by the boy and his father to keep the car running. It reminded me of a mechanic I knew in the Netherlands. He had also been a mechanic in Ivory Coast. When I asked him which he preferred, he said, “Here, you just order a part and put it in. But there it was more interesting because you had to figure out how to solve it without a new part.” Hooray for human resourcefulness! (And don’t skip the gorgeous endpapers–covered with drawings of many different models of vintage cars seen on Cuban streets.)

Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton by Sherri Duskey Rinker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2017) is a picture book biography of the beloved author and illustratorCover of book shows woman and 2 boys in front of cable car, snow plow, steam shovel, and locomotive of such classics as Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little House. The book shows Jinnee–as she was called–drawing vehicles for her transport-mad sons. I love how the story evoked the books that I knew so well as a child. I’m not sure how fun the book would be to read if you didn’t know at least a few Virginia Lee Burton titles–but who doesn’t? And what a great addition this title would be to an author study. John Rocco, the illustrator, does a great job of paying homage to Burton’s work while creating his own distinctive illustrations.

Cover of book shows a World War I warship painted in extravagant stripesDazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, illustrated by Victo Ngai (Millbrook: 2017) is one of my favorite books yet by Chris Barton. He explains in clear, bouncy prose the Navy’s attempt to confuse submariners by painting their ships in wild, exotic patterns. I love how the book opens. We see a spread with scores of gun-metal gray warships and one extravagantly striped and colored ship. The text reads, “One of the ships on this page is painted in sneaky, stripy camouflage. You probably can’t even see it. Oh. You can see it? Hmmmmm.” The same clarity and good humor continues throughout the book, adeptly aided by the beautiful art. I was fascinated to read about the role of women in this camouflage enterprise–and in the author’s note Barton talks about how a historic photograph helped him uncover that piece of the puzzle. A book that will entrance–dazzle!–young and old readers alike.

Children with book around a globe

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

African American woman stands proudly in front of fancy party gowns.In Fancy Party Gowns I loved learning about one of those fascinating people from the corner of history–someone who changed a little bit of the world but who isn’t widely known. This is a book about a fashion designer, Ann Cole Lewis, who created a career for herself out of designing and producing high end dresses. She made the gown that Olivia de Haviland wore to receive her Oscar in 1947 and the wedding dress that Jacqueline Bouvier wore in 1953 when she married John Kennedy. Ann managed her career while, at the same time, managing anti-African American sentiment that tripped her up time and again.

I loved the way Deborah Blumenthal used refrains in the text of the book. When Ann faces challenges, like the death of her mother or the disastrous destruction of her work, “Ann thought about what she could do not what she couldn’t change.” When she faces discrimination, it’s “because she was African American. And life wasn’t fair.”

My heart sang at Ann’s triumphs over adversity and mean-spiritedness. And the book made me want to sit down with some fabric and a needle, too.End papers show many fancy party gowns.

The art is wonderful. Not surprisingly, there are wonderful fabric colors, textures, and patterns on every page. It dwells lovingly on tiny details related to sewing, like the handful of buttons strewn across the bottom of one page. I especially love the endpapers, which show some of the dresses Ann designed.

This is a book to read with The Hundred Dresses! One is fiction but this nonfiction story will give context and power to the idea of designing dresses.

Fancy Party Gowns: the Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lewis, by Deborah Blumenthal, illustrated by Laura Freeman. little bee: 2017

Children with book around a globe

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

A woman in old-fashioned dress flying in a basket under a balloon.Balloons! Fancy hats! Napoleon! All this plus female empowerment. Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot is a biography of an eighteenth century woman balloonist. As Matthew Clark Smith warns in the back matter, “I was forced to use my imagination in describing Sophie’s childhood.” But he grounds it in real events of the same time–“Fashionable ladies wore balloon-shaped hats. Families dined on balloon-painted plates.” The book, especially in the early pages, probably crosses the boundary out of nonfiction, but it is a sacrifice that I think is required in order to tell a story that would otherwise be silenced.

Most of the illustrations show Sophie’s hair blowing in the wind. The book seems, appropriately, breezy, as if we were up in the air with Sophie.

I loved the brief mention of Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries’ balloon flight over the English Channel when “they  had to toss everything overboard to keep from crashing into the sea–even their trousers!” Makes me want to pull out A Voyage to the Clouds to read as a companion book. The tone of the two books couldn’t be more different, but some of the content is the same. I can imagine fascinating conversations and an interesting Venn diagram or two from a comparison of the two books with kids.

Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot by Matthew Clark Smith, illustrated by Matt Tavares. Candlewick: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Close-up of Mickey Mantle's face as he watches for a pitch.Last week I looked at a deeply serious book by Jonah Winter. Today I look at another of his books, Mickey Mantle, the Commerce Comet, which has a completely different tone. This is an enthusiastic biography of a famous baseball player. As Winter notes in the front matter, Mantle “had a rough childhood” and is “famous for having suffered from the disease of alcoholism,” but this book doesn’t address those dark elements of his life. Instead, it’s an upbeat celebration of his amazing athletic accomplishments.

The narrative voice in this book is engaging and folksy:

“And that kid was fast. As legend has it, he learned how to run like the wind while darting to the outhouse, armed with a bat, pursued by the fearsome family rooster. You can look it up!”

The narrative switches back and forth between past and present tense. We hear all about Mantle’s growing-up years in the past tense, but when the story switches to the moment Mantle is discovered, we plunge into the present tense. A New York Yankees talent scout sees Mantle playing ball:

He walks up to Mickey and asks him how old he is.

“Sixteen,” Mickey tells him.

Too young for the major leagues.

Still, he asks, “Would you ever be interested in playing ball for the Yankees?”

he story switches back to past tense after Mantle has been discovered:

Here’s what happened: Mickey’s boyood dream came true–at age nineteen, the Yanks brought him up to the majors…

We switch back to present tense at another life-changing moment for Mantle, during the description of a World Series game where he was seriously injured, an injury he never fully shook, and then back to past tense to end the book.

The tense changes are artfully done–it’s easy not to even notice them–but they work to create the narrative arc of his life.

C.F. Payne’s art is wonderful, and don’t forget to notice the endpapers. Any Yankees fan will love them.

Mickey Mantle, the Commerce Comet, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by C.F. Payne. Schwartz & Wade, 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Cover of book shows Dorothea Lange sitting on top of a jeep with her camera.Recently I talked with a writer friend about a new project, her first attempt at a picture book biography. She started telling me all sorts of fascinating details about her subject’s life, and then stopped and asked, “How do you decide what to keep in?”

Carole Boston Weatherford’s new picture book biography, Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression, answers my friend’s question. The book covers much of Lange’s life, from childhood to professional success, but everything in the book connects to the idea that Lange felt empathy for the poor and the powerless. The book centers on one theme in Lange’s life and gives example after example of her laser focus on seeing people and situations that were invisible to others.

In fact, the opening spread is about Lange’s ability to empathize:

“Because childhood polio left her with a limp and a rolling gait, Dorothea knew how those les fortunate felt without ever waling in their shoes. Kids called her “Limpy.””

We see Lange struggling with fear as she walksEm the dangerous streets of her childhood, see her struggling to regroup after being the victim of a robbery, and see her turning away from rich clients to snap photos of unemployed men in a bread line. I don’t know all the details Weatherford had to leave out of her book, but she consistently makes sure every detail she does include ties back to this theme of empathy in Lange’s life.

I loved the simple, clear writing in this book, and the illustrations had completely won me over by the end. Sarah Green, the illustrator, has the unenviable task of recreating some of Lange’s photos in illustration form, but Lange’s famous Migrant Mother photo is reproduced in the back matter.

This is a lovely, easy-to-read biography that shows how empathy can change the world.

Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Sarah Green. Whitman: 2017.

Children with book around a globe


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

Portraits of seven Hispanics.One of my favorite questions to ask teachers and librarians is what books they wished they had to put in kids’ hands. A school librarian who works near San Diego told me she desperately wants more books with Hispanic protagonists. She worries that her kids don’t see themselves often enough in the books she has to give them. I think she’s going to be happy to see a copy of Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics.

In this collection, the poet Margarita Engle has written short biographical poems about eighteen Hispanics, some still famous but most not, all with a connection the United States. It was a fascinating set of people–scientists, athletes, artists, teachers–and her poems are beautiful, cutting to the heart of why each person is memorable and remarkable. I was surprised that I’d never heard of some of these people–George Melendez Wright, who pioneered animal protection in the National Park System, Baruj Benacerraf who won a Nobel Prize, Juan de Miralles, who fought with George Washington.

Opposite every poem is a wonderful portrait by Rafael Lopez, who also illustrated Engle’s book Drum Dream Girl. His website has images showing his process in creating the portraits.

This is a fascinating collection that urges the reader to expand the definition of national hero.

Bravo! Poems about Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez. Henry Holt: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in KidLit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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.


Cover of I Dissent with illustrations of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a child and as a Supreme Court justiceLet’s turn away from the executive branch of government for a minute and think about the judiciary. I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark is a delightful picture book biography that is organized around a principle central to Justice Ginsburg’s work on the bench and, in fact, to all the workings of representative democracy: disagreeing doesn’t have to make one disagreeable.

In this book, divided roughly equally between Ginsburg’s childhood, her adulthood work as an advocate, and her legacy on the bench, Debbie Levy explores the idea of disagreement. We see how Ginsburg’s mother disagreed with prevailing cultural expectations for girl and how Ginsburg herself disagreed with anti-Semitic prejudice as well as elementary school expectations, such as expecting left-handed children to learn to write with their right hands. Ginsburg–and we as readers–see that sometimes disagreement leads others to change their minds (Ginsburg wrote with her left hand) but sometimes it doesn’ (Ginsburg still had to take home economics).

In the last section of the book, about Ginsburg’s legacy on the Court, Levy directly addresses her relationship with her most prominent foe.

Justice Ginsburg has disagreed most often with the legal views of Justice Antonin Scalia. But they didn’t just complain. They shared their conflicting ideas. Each pointed out weaknesses in the other’s arguments. Adn after the opinions were written…the two justices had fun with each other! They didn’t let disagreements about law get in the way of a long friendship.

One page has an illustration of Scalia and Ginsburg, in their judicial robes, leaning toward each other, fingers pointing, arguing. The facing page has illustrations of snapshots showing them parasailing together and riding an elephant together. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition. And a truth worth remembering: that you can disagree with someone else’s deepest-held political views and still appreciate and respect each other.

[And for true RBG fans, here’s one of the best Valentines my lawyer husband has ever given me.]Photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg captioned "You violated the fith amendment when you took my heart without due process"








I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. Simon and Schuster: 2016.

Children around a globe.



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

On cover of The Kid from Diamond Street a girl leans jauntily on baseball bat.I love stories about gutsy women. I love stories about gutsy kids. Here’s a book about both–a gutsy girl.

Edith Houghton loved baseball. But in the 1920s there were no Little League teams for girls. Didn’t matter. She kept playing, and when she was 10 years old (ten!) she joined a professional team. She was by far the youngest and tiniest member of the team, which required her to find ways to alter her uniform so it wouldn’t fall of of her. But it didn’t stop her playing ball.

In fact, she played so well, when she was 13 she was invited to be part of an exhibition team representing the US playing in Japan. This book tells the story of how Edith Houghton began playing ball and then the great adventure of her trip abroad with her teammates.

I was floored that I had never heard of this remarkable girl. I loved seeing Japan through her eyes. Vernick chooses wonderful quotes that keep the point of view strictly Edith’s. (I did wish that the quotes had been attributed in the back matter.)

Vernick and Salerno teamed up for another great baseball book about unlikely players, Brothers at Bat. This one is a great book for baseball fans, for gutsy women, and for passionate kids.

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2016.

Children around a globe. I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.A 1

Picture of girl, all in color, with adults in black and white. Caption reads, "Addie never wanted to be ordinary."In Anything but Ordinary Addie, lush illustrations and sparkling text tell the story of unconventional Adelaide Herrmann, who embarked on a career without her family’s knowledge, proposed to her husband, and transitioned from magician’s assistant to successful stage magician upon the death of her husband.

I loved the story of this gutsy woman. Rockliff keeps the text moving sprightly along without resorting to invented quotations.

When Addie told her family what she was doing, they were SHOCKED.

Our Addie? On the stage? In front of everyone? IN TIGHTS?

It’s a simple punctuation solution (NOT using quotation marks) to a common dilemma in picture book biographies.

The back matter adds additional layers to the text in the book. One back essay gives more delicious details about Adelaide’s remarkable life. The other essay, titled “Searching for Addie,” tells the story of how Adelaide’s autobiography was lost to history. The essay also talks about other sources used for this biography.

The “About the Author” information on the jacket flap is worth checking out, too. It tells what originally interested Rockliff in this subject and will appeal to just about every middle school girl I know.

The back matter also has a link to the solution to one of Addie’s mystifying tricks.

Anything but Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic by Mara Rockliff, illustrations by Iacopo Bruno. Candlewick: 2016

Children around a globe.

I participate in Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.