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.

The cover of Keith Haring The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing shows Haring next to his iconic crawling man imageKeith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing is a picture book biography of the contemporary artist by an author with unmatched access to information about his childhood. It’s written by Haring’s younger sister. The book takes full advantage of that family knowledge, focusing on his childhood. The first third of the book is about him before he finished high school and how drawing fit into his childhood life. We see him drawing with his family, annoying teachers with his constant doodling, creating drawing games with his friends, and giving family members gifts of art.

The rest of the book shows how, as an adult, he brought his art to the world. But those adult enterprises are nicely tied back to his childhood self with the apt refrain, “…he just kept drawing.”

I love the way books by family members can highlight quiet but important moments. And in this book, Haring has gathered many images from Haring’s childhood. They’re incorporated into the illustrations of the book and also show up, annotated, in the back matter. the back matter also has a bunch of wonderful family photos showing Haring as a Black and white line drawings in style of Keith Haringyoung person. It’s a substantial back matter–three full spreads–with images, a biographical essay, and–my favorite part–Kay Haring’s own reflections on the legacy of her brother.

Here’s another book with amazing endpapers–ones that you can get lost looking into and that will remind you why Haring is such a beloved artist.

Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, by Kay Haring, illustrated by Robert Neubecker. Dial Books for Young Children: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Cover of Be the Change shows Gandhi holding a stubby pencil in his hand while grandson looks onIn Be the Change, one of Gandhi’s grandchildren reminisces about his experiences with his famous grandfather, learning to understand his teaching that wastefulness leads to violence. This is no walk-to-the-sea story but instead the memory of a grandpa being disappointed when his grandson throws away the nub of a pencil. He makes the boy search until he finds it and then continue to use it.

The grandson is at first annoyed with his grandfather and then ashamed of himself. But he remains confused about why a stubby pencil matters. Over the course of the book, and over a series of conversations with his grandfather, he sees how small actions have serious repercussions.

The book has a lot of language that will be unfamiliar to most young readers–“ashram,” “Satyagraha,” “Bapuji”–but their meanings are understandable in context. And the richness of language helps to situate the story in India. The layers of details in the story work well to establish the setting.

Both the book trailer and the back matter talk about how the co-author, Bethany Hegedus, came to be involved in the project. She was trying to find a way to make some good come out of the 9-11 attack. This book could prompt some important discussions with children about the power of everyday choices to make the world better.

I love books that come out of family history (like this and this and this). Sure, this one is about someone famous, but much of its charm and power comes from the intimacy of the family memory. This is a follow-up to another memoir, Grandfather Gandhi.

Here’s a book trailer for Be the Change.

Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Evan Turk. Atheneum: 2016

Children around a globe.


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

woodsHere in Idaho, our air has been choked with smoke from the out-of-control wildfires around us. So this strange and beautiful book is timely.

It is a family story, retold. When the author’s grandfather was a child, he was caught in a forest fire. He and all the other people from the lodging house in the woods fled to the lake, standing in the water to protect themselves from the flames. They were joined there by the animals of the forest–moose and deer, foxes and wolves, rabbits, bobcats, and raccoons.

Bond spends the first part of the book delineating the hierarchy of the lodging house and showing how the boy keenly felt the distinction between inside and outside. Her sentences are full of lists and phrases, multiple clauses, creating a sense of careful order, all of which is overturned by the hours standing together in the lake.

I appreciate the atmosphere that Bond’s language and art so carefully construct. Her story seems real and mythic at the same time. It’s one I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event, by Rebecca Bond. Margaret Ferguson Books: 2015.



newworldThis fascinating book, about emigration from Germany, immigration to the US, and genealogical research, was originally published in Germany. Charlesbridge Publishing has brought the English translation out this year. The design of the book feels different than other American books–it’s a narrative story but it’s laid out on the page more like a Dorling Kindersley book, where tiny packets of text explain small, detailed illustrations. I can’t imagine how it would work as a read-aloud but it’s certainly an engrossing read for an independent reader.

In this story, we see the Peters family pushed by economic conditions in 1869 to leave Germany. We follow their preparations and their complicated transportation path all the way to Nebraska. We watch them set up a new household and make friends. In a wordless spread, we see their farmhouse and prosperous farm once they have been in America a few years.

The next spread shows the same farmhouse (but with modern updates, like a swimming pool) and many more outbuildings and motorized farm equipment. Now we follow the descendants of the original Peters family as they research their ancestors and make a trip back to Germany to try to find their ancestral home.

This is a fascinating story of immigration and of family connectedness.

In the New World: A Family in Two Centuries, by Christa Holtei, illustrated by Gerda Raidt, translated by Susi Woofter. Charlesbridge: 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.

Anna and Solomon     I firmly believe that every family has a story that its children need to know, and I love nonfiction picture books that grow from those stories. This delightful book came about when the New Yorker artist, Harry Bliss, finally convinced his mother-in-law to put her family story on paper. It is a beautiful collaboration.

The story itself, as with so many family stories, is simple and not heavy-handed: Solomon moves from Russia (to escape pogroms) and works to bring his wife to the New World, too. But Anna feels an obligation to her extended family and over and over sends other family members in her place. We feel Solomon’s deep love and longing for his wife, and his wife’s strong sense of loving duty. The story ends in a beautiful celebration of family.

Snyder uses page turns brilliantly over and over to build up suspense: will it be Anna getting off the ship this time?

I also admire the adroitness with which the  historical context was handled:

Shortly after Anna and Solomon’s marriage, a calamity befell the Jews of Vitebsk. The ruler of the land, called the Czar, sent his soldiers on horses to the streets where the Jews lived. The soldiers entered their homes, broke their windows and furniture, stole their brass candlesticks, and destroyed their holy books. Solomon decided that he no longer wanted to live in a place where his people were persecuted and harm might come to Anna.

In four sentences, Snyder explains what a pogrom is, shows us how wrenching it is, and makes it clear why Anna later in the book will feel obligated to help rescue her extended family members. This is historical scaffolding at its best.

It’s a heart-warming story and may inspire you to call up your grandma so you can hear the story of your family, too.

Anna & Solomon, by Elaine Snyder, illustrated by Harry Bliss.  Farrar Straus Giroux: 2014.



Historical fiction can be used to present troubling topics in a controlled way appropriate for young children. In this historical fiction, Yamasaki skillfully tackles a difficult subject–World War II Japanese-American internment camps. Her story shows the triumph of brotherly kindness and courage, without glossing over the institutional cruelty of the camps. Her narrative voice is spare. She uses few adjectives and descriptions to tell her story, but it is deeply moving. The story comes out of Yamasaki’s own family history. I only hope more writers find such beautiful family stories to share!

Fish for Jimmy by Katie Yamasaki. Holiday House: 2013