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.

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

Cover of Martina & Chrissie shows Navratilova and Evert playing tennis“History” means something different to an 8 year old than to a 58 year old. What is “memory” for me is definitely “history” to him. Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports fits into that gap nicely. It tells the story of the rivalry between tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

The most distinctive thing about this book is the strong narrative voice. It is meant to be read aloud and the narrator’s voice catches the ebbs and flows and emphases of spoken language. The book opens by acknowledging, in this strongly conversational tone, the gap between history for kids and memory for grown-ups: “You see those two names on the cover? Martina and Chrissie? You know who they are, right? No? NO?! Wow, okay.”

Throughout the book, that narrative voice shapes the way you read the book:  “Martina was out of shape. REALLY out of shape. And Chrissie won. Easily.”

It’s done so deftly and it’s so easy to read aloud, that it looks easy. But it is carefully wrought craft.

The back matter includes a timeline and a list of sources. The art is acrylic and oil. Since I remember the conversation about tennis stars’ fashion choices at the time, I love that the art faithfully reproduces their changing hairstyles through time. But since the text is silent on that point, I do wonder if kids might be confused about who is who in the pictures sometimes.

This is one book that you’ll definitely want to read aloud to somebody. And the narrative voice subtly makes sure you’ll do it in exactly the right way.

Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports by Phil Bildner, illustrated by Brett Helquist. Candlewick: 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.

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.

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

Cover of Slickety Quick shows a great white shark swimming in water.Sharks and poetry. What could be better?

In this refreshing book, Skila Brown couples playful, inventive poems with short sidebars about different types of sharks. The poems are in a range of styles. There’s a poem for two voices (about a shark and the remora that cleans it), rhyming poems, shape poems, and poems with a strong rhythmic beat.

The book spotlights thirteen different kinds of sharks. The poetry is the centerpiece. Each poem is in large type and thoughtfully set into the design of the page. The sidebars, each easily digestible at 25 or 30 words, are in small italicized font near the edge of the spread. They’re available if the poetry piques your curiosity, but each poem stands on its own. The digital art is inviting and refreshing.

This would be a great book to share with shark lovers and to lure a reluctant poetry reader. It would pair beautifully with another nonfiction title about sharks like Neighborhood Sharks. With each poem, Brown lures you in and makes you want more, like in this one about the nurse shark:

Two long whiskers–like a frown. Little mustache drips right down.

Vacuums creatures all around,

cleaning up the whole sea town.

Slickety Quick: Poems about Sharks by Skila Brown, illustrated by Bob Kolar. Candlewick: 2016

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

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.

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.

hamerThis book may be shelved with picture books, but it is written to children old enough to grapple with the ugly pain of America’s historic inequities and injustices. The language is rich and nuanced, written in first person, as if Fannie Lou Hamer were telling the story of her life. Quotes (which are very helpfully attributed in the back matter) are seamlessly incorporated into the storytelling (and indicated by italics), and Weatherford has captured the plain-speaking, colloquial tone of her voice in all of the text:

My family–all twenty-two of us–worked in the field.

Wasn’t no other work to do.

They didn’t have no such thing as factories; 

These factories are something new

The story follows Hamer through her difficult childhood as a sharecropper, through her courageous persistence in trying to vote in the deep South, and her subsequent experiences (including a traumatic beating) trying to bring civil rights to all in America. The language is lyrical and beautiful. The story is sobering.

This is Ekua Holmes’ picture book debut as an illustrator. Her drawings are evocative and rich. It’s a beautiful, haunting book.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes. Candlewick: 2015.


pedroI’m the fifth child in my family and was always delighted to have teachers mistakenly call me by a sibling’s name–I knew it could only mean good things for me. So the central relationship in this book, two brothers who sometimes envy each other but always admire and help each other, resonated with me.

This is the story of two great baseball players, Ramon and Pedro Martinez, and how they came to leave the Dominican Republic to play in the American big leagues and how their relationship grew and changed over time. Tavares tells the story with short, muscular sentences. He’s good at talking baseball but never loses focus on the central brother-to-brother relationship.

This book has a hefty word count–over 1700 words!–so it’s not for the quick bedtime read or the impatient toddler, but there’s plenty here for baseball fans and older kids who take the time to savor it.

Trailer for the book.

Growing Up Pedro, by Matt Tavares. Candlewick: 2015.



This is a family history book, based on Meg Medina’s experience with her own aunt. It’s a snapshot of an immigrant experience–extended family living together, working menial jobs, trying to navigate a new culture, sometimes using a child as the guide to that new culture. It’s also a triumphant, feel-good story about dreams, family love, and making a new place home.

Medina organizes the story around two refrains: “Tía Isa wants a car” in the first half of the book, and “Tía Isa bought a car” in the second half. The final spread concludes joyously:

“Tía Isa and I bought a car. To carry us all to the sea.”

The copyright page includes a photo of “the real Tía Isa.”

Tía Isa Wants a Car by Meg Medina, illustrated by Claudia Muñoz. Candlewick: 2011.