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.

deereUntil recently I’ve always lived in big cities or their suburbs. A few years ago, though, our family moved to the country. We don’t live on a farm, but I quickly learned that farm machinery, farm tools, and farm concerns (is the rain going to let up long enough for the wheat harvest?) loom large when you’re living surrounded by farms. I started noticing that very few picture books these days speak to country kids. So I was delighted to see John Deere, That’s Who! 

This picture book biography tells the story of the inventor and blacksmith who invented and produced a better plow and whose name is on many farm vehicles today. Country kids will, I suspect, love learning about the man whose name they see on machinery about them. But the book speaks to city kids as well, with its themes of overcoming adversity and trying different strategies to solve problems.

The title of the book is also a refrain in this easy-to-read text. Maurer keeps the word count low so it’s a quick read.

The art by Tim Zeltner has a two dimensional feel to it, as if it were painted on wood by a self-taught frontier artist. And it actually was painted on plywood! You can see the telltale cracks in the paint in the art.

This is a great read aloud for lazy summer days, with the smell of new-cut hay drifting by.

John Deere, That’s Who! by Tracy Nelson Maurer, illustrated by Tim Zeltner. Henry Holt: 2017

Children with book around a globe

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

Bugs. What’s not to love?

Plenty for most of us. Icky, creepy, crawly critters send most of us running. But even ugly pest animals deserve their own books, don’t they?

Cover of book showing acartoon of a housefly talking to a class full of childrenI, Fly: The Buzz about Flies and How Awesome They Are has a housefly narrator who argues the case that ugly bugs are every bit as interesting as the beautiful ones. Along the way he shares lots of amazing housefly facts. (Did you know that houseflies go through metamorphosis?) And in the funny surprise ending, he finally decides to embrace his position as pariah of the insect world.

This is a great example of the book that tiptoes along the border on fiction/nonfiction. The talking housefly is clearly fictional, but the bug facts it shares are squarely on the nonfiction side of things. The fictional narrative framework opens up space for humor and lightness that makes the nonfiction all the more attractive.

Cover of book showing a spider spinning silk around a heart shapeI’m Trying to Love Spiders walks the divide a little differently. The unseen narrator struggles with her aversion to spiders. She shares lots of fascinating facts about spiders but occasionally is startled into smashing her subjects (with a funny handprint in the illustrations instructing us to “Squish here”). This verges into postmodern meta-fiction (like Press Here) but uses it to convey solidly nonfiction content.

I’m not sure if I love bugs, but I loved both of these witty, cleverly-structured books about bugs.

I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are, by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Jennifer Plecas. Henry Holt: 2015.

I’m Trying to Love Spiders, by Bethany Barton. Viking: 2015.

Storytime video of I’m Trying to Love Spiders. 

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 with portrait of Jane Addams in front of Hull HouseGrowing up, I visited my grandparents on the farm every summer, and every day after our huge noon dinner (not lunch), when Gram finally rested, I would sit by myself in the  quiet, dim living room and read Childcraft. My favorite volume was the one about real people. I read about Jenny Lind and Robert Fulton and…Jane Addams. So I was thrilled to see a picture book biography of my childhood hero but worried that it wouldn’t be nearly so inspirational as that long-ago Childcraft article.

I needn’t have worried. Jane Addams’ life was inspirational, and Tanya Stone’s retelling captures Addams’ determination to make a difference in real lives. We see Addams’ privileged childhood but also see events that haunted her, glimpses she got of another, grimmer world than the one she lived in. We follow her as a young adult as she takes concrete steps to find a way to change that uglier world into a more hopeful, beautiful one. We see her win others to her cause and see examples of how Addams’ work started to change lives.

Stone uses picture book craft to keep us turning pages. The very first page ends with a question.

In 1889, a wealthy young woman named Jane Addams moved into a lovely, elegant house in Chicago, Illinois. But instead of moving into a lovely, elegant neighborhood, she picked a house that was smack in the middle of one of the filthiest, poorest parts of town. Why would a wealthy young woman do this when she could have lived anywhere?

How can you help but turn the page to learn the answer?

I’m excited to have a book to share with children whom I think will love Jane Addams just as much as I did back in Gram’s farmhouse.

Official trailer for the book. Link to Hull House Museum.

The House that Jane Built: A Story about Jane Addams by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Kathryn Brown. (Henry Holt: 2015).

Cover of book showing the Beatles performing togetherThis visually lovely biography looks at each Beatle individually. The first–and longest–chapter shows John Lennon’s troubled growing-up years. In other chapters we see Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr before they joined the band. Susanna Reich focuses on the boys’ inner lives–what drew them to music and why they were looking for a group to make music with.

Reich has woven wonderful quotations throughout the book. For example, Lennon’s aunt, whom he lived with, told him, “The guitar’s all right for a hobby, John, but you’ll never make a living at it.” And Richard Starkey, before he became Ringo Starr, told his family, “Drums are my life.”

Biographers always face the difficult question of how to frame the story they’re telling. This is a particularly difficult problem for a group like the Beatles with such a dramatic and famous trajectory. Reich chooses to end this biography with the formation of the Beatles, as we know it, and their triumphant year of touring in the United Kingdom. It’s a great craft choice, since the stories she has told are all about why and how these musicians looked for each other. Ending here, with a successful musical band, gives a satisfying close to the narrative arc.

In her author’s note, Reich tells about how she got interested in the subject and talks about the difficulty she faced in compressing so much material into a picture book format.

Adam Gustavson’s illustrations add a wonderful layer to the story. He’s a great portraitist. The Macmillan website is highlighting 8 of his paintings from the book. Younger readers will love the pictures, but the text is definitely written to older kids.

Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the BEATLES by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson. (Henry Holt: 2015)








This is a straight-up biography of the German Shepherd who became the first canine movie star, back in the days of silent moview. Along the way it suggests a bit about the biography of the couple who adopted him and trained him to act in the movies, but the focus remains on Strongheart. The voice is authoritative and documentary, and the book is lots of fun for animal-lovers.

The illustrations are lots of fun, and let us bask in the Roaring Twenties.

Strongheart: The World’s First Movie Star Dog, by Emily Arnold McCully. Henry Holt: 2014

thoreauMany nonfiction picture books are written in the third person–he did this or she said that. A few are written in the first person–I did this. But it is the rare case to find one written in the second person.

By using second person narration, Robert Burleigh makes the reader a character in the book. Wendell Minor includes a child representing the reader in every illustration:

“If you spent a day with Henry David Thoreau,, you would knock on the door of Henry’s tiny house on the shore of Walden Pond. Hello, Henry!”

We spend the day doing simple things that a child might really do–drinking water or walking in the woods, or watching animals–and listening to Thoreau’s comments about the world. Putting the reading in the books is an ingenious strategy; it makes a philosopher’s musings accessible to a child reader.

My only frustration with the book was that I couldn’t tell if the things Thoreau says in the text are actual quotes or not. I tried to research them and quickly grew frustrated trying to figure out whether they were exact quotes (probably not, but I’m not sure) or paraphrases (possibly) or simple inventions based on Thoreau’s philosophies. I heartily wished for source notes in the back matter.

The back matter, though, does include more details about Thoreau’s life (along with more unreferenced quotes).

If You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor. Henry Holt: 2012.


I don’t think I’ve sung a picture book since Iza Trapani’s Itsy Bitsy Spider, but I found myself singing page after page of this wonderful picture book. Murphy traces America’s civil rights debates since colonial times by showing how the lyrics to “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” have been changed over and over to address new challenges to equality and justice.

This book is a great example of a thesis-driven argument. It’s great analytical writing, and it’s a wonderful, engaging, inspiring story. Plus you can sing your way through the book!

Murphy’s back matter is excellent. In her source notes she writes a paragraph about each spread in the book, giving her sources and interesting tidbits that didn’t make their way into the main text of the book.

My Country, ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolf Murphy, illustrations by Bryan Collier. Holt: 2014.