Cover of Crossing Niagara shows Niagara Falls with a tightrope stretched across it and a tightrope walker in the middle of the tightrope.This is the story of the multiple crossings which tightrope walker Blondin made of Niagara Falls in 1859 and 1860. Usually, picture books about historical events look at the events through the eyes of the main character. This story is told differently. Instead of looking at what happens through Blondin’s eyes, we watch what happens from a distance, as if we were just a few more of his many spectators.

The book does a great job of using art to tell parts of the story instead of crowding the pages with extra words. The text tells us, “With each performance, he tried to do something even more amazing, even more impossible, something that had never, ever been done before.” The pictures tell the rest of the story. Opening up a wide gatefold, we see the Great Blondin crossing Niagara Falls eight different amazing aways.

As always, Tavares’ art is luminous and great fun to examine in connection with the story.

Endings can be hard. I love the simple, decisive way this book ends.

He had done something amazing, something impossible, something that had never been done before. He had done it over and over again. And  now it was time for something new.

So he left Niagara Falls, and he never returned.

We can only hope that Tavares will return. Over and over again.

This would be a great book to pair with The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, another tightrope story, but one told from the point of view of the walker.

Check out the vine showing the gatefold spread in Crossing Niagara.

Crossing Niagara by Matt Tavares. Candlewick: 2016

Children around a globe.


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

Cover of The Secret Subway showing a man with his finger to his lips standing next to a subway car on rails.I wish I’d written this book. I love the topic–someone secretly built a subway under New York City in 1870?!? Who? How? Why didn’t I know about it before?

Shana Corey answers all those questions in her delicious retelling of Alfred Ely Beach’s innovative engineering feat and shrewd political wrangling (shrewd until the moment it all fell apart in the face of Boss Tweed’s power, that is) to build a pneumatic tube transportation system under the streets of New York City.

Writing a book for kids about the past is tricky. In order to tell the story, you somehow have to set the scene. An adult may immediately realize that a story set in 1870 happened before cars were invented, but you can’t assume kids will know that. And you can be pretty sure kids will not know that New York City was run by powerful political machines then, either.

Corey does a masterful job of building the historical scaffolding that her story needs to stand on. The book opens by setting the scene:

Welcome to New York City–the greatest city on earth. You say it looks crowded? Dirty? DISGUSTING? Well…you’re right.

She then describes New York City in the 1860s, giving kids all the background information they need to understand the magnitude of what Beach accomplished.

She structures the story around two dramatic moments, the first where Beach comes up with his idea and the second where he is forced to shut down the subway. At both of these moments, the reader has to turn the book to a vertical rather than a horizontal orientation. The drama of the book turn matches the drama of the moments in the story and act as bookends to the account of how the subway was built.

I was also impressed with how Corey dealt with quotes. In the back matter, she gives source attribution for the quotes she took out of primary source material. But she also adds that “several lines of dialogue have been invented to illustrate political debates of the time.” I went back to see if I could find the invented quotes. Each has to do with a suggested solution for New York City’s transportation problems. Here are the invented quotes:

Why not make a moving street, so we can get wherever we want by standing still?

What about building double-decker roads?

Or a railway on stilts?

A mail tube? Why not?

I’m generally leery of invented quotes, but these seem to me to  work well in the book. They explain the historical context, without extra verbiage, and do so without inventing new scenes or characters.

The art is quirky–“hand-built three-dimensional sets” that have been photographed–and memorable. This book is going on my wish list.

The wonderful book trailer is here.  The artist’s website is well worth a gander.

The Secret Subway by Shana Corey, illustrated by Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade: 2016.

Children around a globe.

I participate in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy. 

Cover of book showing Dorothea Lange. Dorothea's eyes are looking through viewfinder of an old-fashioned camera.Dorothea’s Eyes fills a gap. Here, at last, is a biography of the great photographer Dorothea Lange.

In her straightforward text, Rosenstock tells the story of Lange’s life. She traces how Lange’s childhood polio gave her keen empathy. We see Lange face struggles as the child of a single mother. We watch her insist that photography is her path, even without family support. Finally, we see her shift attention away from her successful and lucrative photography studio. She begins to photograph real people in challenging circumstances.

My favorite part of the book was the reproductions of some of her iconic and moving photographs on the final page of text.

If you want to delve into more of her photographs, check out the Library of Congress website. It has excellent resources for teachers, homeschoolers and individuals. You can find lesson plans and primary sources (including Lange photos) about the Great Depression here. Here you can see multiple shots from the session in which “Migrant Mother” was made.

There have lately been other interesting stories about photographs and photographers. If you want to delve deeper into this very modern art, try looking at these books.

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, by Roxane Orgill. Candlewick: 2016.

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, by Carole Boston Weatherford. Whitman: 2015.

Coming soon! Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, a Life in Nature, by Cindy Jenson-Elliott. Henry Holt: September 2016.

Dorothea’s Eyes by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Gerard DuBois. Calkins Creek: 2016..

Children surrounding a globe and the words "Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2016"


I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy

Cover of book showing many men, including athletes in full uniform, surrounding a tiny woman holding a pencil and a notepadMiss Mary Reporting is vintage Sue Macy–it’s the rollicking story of a woman breaking barriers in the world of sports. But this time, the woman isn’t an athlete but a reporter.

This picture book biography tells the story of Mary Garber, one of the first and arguably the most prominent early female sportswriter. We learn about many of the stories she covered–from football to Soap Box Derby racing–and about her experience reporting on Jackie Robinson as he broke the color barrier in major league baseball.

Mary Garber not only reported on a trailblazer but also became one in her own right. She insisted on covering black high school athletic events, not just ones from the white schools in her hometown of Winston-Salem. And of course being a female sports reporter brought its own set of challenges. Something as small as a press pass could prove a challenge for her:

Even after she was allowed in [the press box], Mary had to wear the football writers’ official press badge, which proclaimed, “Press Box: Women and Children Not Admitted.

As you would expect in a book about a reporter, the narrative voice is straightforward and sometimes reportorial. The back matter is lively and helpful. I especially loved seeing all of the quotes in the book–13 in all!–fully attributed.

C.F. Payne’s illustrations reminded me of editorial cartoons. They’re fun to look at and good cartoon likenesses of famous faces.

This video is long, but if you watch even a few minutes of it, you’ll be able to see the real Mary Garber and hear her voice.

Portrait of Annette Bay PimentelI’m getting antsy for the publication date of Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service.  But my book is on the way!

It tells the true story of Tie Sing, a Chinese American chef who lived in a time of intense anti-Chinese feeling but quietly and persistently carved out a remarkable career for himself. And despite all the obstacle American society threw at him, he loved America deeply. He became personally invested in the lobbying effort to create a National Park Service.

Plus the book has early morning sunrises, fortune cookies, and plummeting mules.

I know the book is really on its way now because the first review just appeared. Hoorah!

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

If the children’s publishing world has anything to say about it, it appears that our next president will be Hillary Clinton.

Portrait of Hillary ClintonAlready this year two different nonfiction picture books about Hillary Clinton have been published–Hillary by Jonah Winter and Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls are Born to Lead by Michelle Markel.

The art in the Markel book, illustrated by LeUyen Pham is much more cartoon-like. Despite the cartoony feel, it is deeply-researched. Pham and Markel have two spreads of notes, going page by page to explain who and what is illustrated on each spread.

Portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton as a girl.I love the vigor of voice in the Markel book. She picks wonderful small details that enliven and ground the text:

“…along came Hillary, wearing thick glasses and a sailor dress, acing tests, upstaging boys in class, and lining up sports events to raise money for the poor.”

And later, talking about challenges Clinton faced when her husband ran for president:

“They said her headbands were too casual and her attitude was too feisty.”

I was impressed with her ability to convey specific information about policies and platforms Clinton has espoused.

When I want to share a book about a presidential candidate with a child, I’m going to be picking up Some Girls are Born to Lead.

Photos from a 1969 Life magazine story on Hillary.

Hillary by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Raul Colon. Schwartz & Wade: 2016.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls are Born to Lead by Michelle Markel, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Balzer & Bray: 2016.

W is for Webster cover showing Noah Webster peeking out through the pages of a bookA dictionary scholar is a tough sell as a picture book subject. Where’s the action?  What’s the illustrator going to illustrate? Sitting around writing and reading? W is for Webster tells the story of sitting around writing and reading with whimsy and humor.

Fern picks out whimsical details to tell the story of Webster’s life–as a child “Noah spooked the cows by reciting Latin” and he gets sent to school on a “swaybacked mare.” She comments wryly on his propensity to use impressive words–“This is an example of Noah talking big.”

Boris Kulikov’s illustrations are equally whimsical. He illustrates Webster literally–with shovel in hand–digging up words. To depict his research, he shows Webster diving into an over-sized volume and pulling out handfuls of text.

I was surprised and delighted by how engaging it was to read about someone sitting around reading and writing in this picture book!

Another great recent picture book biography is Noah Webster and His Words. It would be a great activity to read both of these texts and invite students to compare and contrast them and to think about why the authors and illustrators made the choices they did. Jeri Chase Ferris has a nice collection of Noah Webster activities and information at her site. 

W is for Webster: Noah Webster and His American Dictionary by Tracey Fern, illustrated by Boris Kulikov. Margaret Ferguson Books: 2015

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.