I’m still scrambling to catch up with 2017 books (though maybe that will give my library time to get a few 2018 titles in…). Here are three 2017 nonfiction picture books I’m just now reading. All three titles have beautiful art depicting nighttime scenes:

Cover of book shows boy dressed as an ancient Egyptian on a reed boat, as a grown-up paddles.

Nile Crossing is a surprising first-day-of-school book. The main character, Khepri, is nervous about leaving Mom and Dad behind, and worried about the new activities he’ll have to get used to. But he’s a child in ancient Egypt instead of the next town over, and he has to leave home before dawn in order to cross the Nile to get to school. The beautiful art is inspired by ancient Egyptian art. The back matter actually continues the story–we get to see Khepri make his first friend!–and watch him write his first letter. I’ve never before seen a sequel embedded in back matter, and I can only imagine how delighted Egypt-crazy kids will be to discover that the story continues. The back matter also has a fascinating essay about why it’s likely that lower-class boys and some girls attended school in ancient Egypt. In the Author’s Note, the author talks about how she got interested in the topic, and in her analogous note the illustrator talks about the process of illustrating a story from long ago.

Nile Crossing by Katy Beebe, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport. (Eerdmans: 2017).



Cover of book shows a boy--Vincent Van Gogh--asleep under a starry sky



Vincent Can’t Sleep is a lyrical picture book biography of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s structured around the refrain, “Vincent can’t sleep…” We follow Vincent throughout his life, seeing his wakefulness and attentiveness as a child, as a young person, and as an adult, lead to careful observation of the world around him. The scenes are biographical, placing Vincent where he actually lived at different stages of his life–“while the sturdy Dutch village of Zundert slumbers, he lies rocking in his wooden cradle” and he is “away at boarding schools in bigger towns. Zevenbergen. Tilburg”–but they also evoke his most famous paintings. We see him looking at the stars (Starry Night) and painting in the country (The Potato Eaters). The art is reminiscent of VanGogh’s art, and the back matter gives more detail about his life, including the fact that “from boyhood on, he was plagued with long bouts of insomnia.” I love how the book conveys the energy and emotion of Van Gogh’s paintings.

Vincent Can’t Sleep by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary Grandpre. (Alfred A. Knopf: 2017).






On the cover of the book a young Harriet Tubman looks at the night sky.


Most narrative nonfiction picture books have a straightforward, beginning-to-end structure. Before She Was Harriet inverts that pattern. It tells the life of Harriet Tubman starting with old age. Then, with each page turn, we move backward in time and see her at younger and younger ages: “Before she was an old woman she was a suffragist…Before she was a suffragist she was General Tubman…Before she was General Tubman she was a Union spy.” The structural device of moving from old age to youth means that the climax of the book is the moment when we arrive back at her childhood and see her, still unformed, ready to move forward bravely into life. She’s a child, not yet knowing the great good that she will accomplish in her life. It’s inspiring, and puts its child readers there with Harriet, imagining what good they will accomplish in their lives. The paintings in the book are luminous. I especially loved the ones set at night and in dark spaces. In those, Harriet almost seems like a source of light herself. [And this just won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor!]

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome. (Holiday House: 2017).








Picture of children surrounding a globe

Alyson Beecher hosts the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at kidlitfrenzy.com. Visit there for more great nonfiction picture books!

Cover of book shows face of aye-aye

I love Jess Keating’s series “The World of Weird Animals.” I’m not the only one. Recently I checked out Pink is for Blobfish to use in a presentation; many of the pages were stuck together from all the sticky fingers that had loved that book to death. The books are brilliantly designed with compelling photos, deftly-written facts, and insightful thematic links. She’s already announced the third book in the series but I just got the second one from my library. What Makes a Monster examines creatures with a reputation–sometimes deserved, sometimes not, for monstrosity. Along the way I learned lots of cool facts about animals and had a serious think about what I personally consider monstrous. My favorite thing about Keating’s books is that when I’m reading one, I feel absolutely impelled to share it with the people around me. I have to grab my kid or my spouse to show them just this photo, or tell them just this cool fact. The next book is about cuteness. I think I better order it much, much earlier from my library.

My Awesome Summer by P. Mantis is a funny, fact-filled book about praying mantises. The end papers are covered with typical nonfiction sidebars about the science ofCover of book shows praying mantis on a leaf. praying mantises (about how they camouflage, where they originated, how they catch prey, etc.). But the main text of the book masquerades as a journal. It starts “May 17. I was born today! It’s a beautiful, sunny spring day!” We follow along as P. Mantis enthuses over delicious aphids and also eats his siblings, catches prey, evades predatoIrs, and grows bigger and bigger. I learned a lot about praying mantises and enjoyed looking at the world from an insect point of view. It was interesting to read the book next to What Makes a Monster since some of the praying mantis’ habits could be considered monstrous (that whole eating your siblings thing). A really fun book that conveys great nonfiction content.

What Makes a Monster? by Jess Keating, illustrations by Dave DeGrand. Alfred A. Knopf: 2017.

My Awesome Summer by P. Mantis by Paul Meisel. Holiday House: 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 Trudy swimming from an underwater point of viewSue Macy writes big, bold picture book biographies of female athletes. Trudy’s Big Swim: How Gertrude Ederle Swam the English Channel and Took the World by Storm is a gorgeous book that begins with Trudy in the Channel and follows her swim, hour by hour, to a new world record.

I loved the details of her swim–how she swam to the strains of music blasted from a phonograph on the boat that was keeping pace with her; how she managed to eat fried chicken passed to her in a net and drank chicken broth from a baby bottle while she swam. I loved the lively quotes Macy includes, like, “England or drown is my motto.” Macy is great at describing an athletic event so that you as a reader feel like you are there, just as breathless with anticipation as the spectators who were really there.

But in this book I especially loved the art. Matt Collins also illustrated two other Macy books I love, Roller Derby Rivals and Basketball Belles, but in this book, his illustrations make the book. He paints from shifting perspectives. Sometimes we’re looking down at Trudy, as if we were on the board. Sometimes we see her at sea level, as if we were swimming next to her. Sometimes we see her from shore. On one of my favorite spreads we see her from under the water, and we also see the threat of luridly pink jellyfish lurking about her. The swim took fourteen hours, and Collins uses the shift to darkness to increase tension. In one memorable spread, he paints how it must have looked when English drivers trained their cars’ headlights on the water to form a beacon for Trudy, to show her which way to swim in the dark.

I didn’t notice the endpapers on my first read of the book, but was delighted when I went back and looked at them again. The front endpapers show Trudy walking into the water. On the last endpapers, we see a movie-maker in place, ready to film her emerging from the water.

One thing I love about Sue Macy’s books is her back matter. This book includes an Afterword that tells about Trudy’s deafness and about how she overcame a spinal injury later in her life. There’s an “Author’s Note” that discusses why Trudy’s birthdate is often misstated. There’s a short essay on “Sources and Resources” about why one newspaper had much better coverage than any other, as well as lists of Macy’s sources. And there are also source notes, attributing all the quotes in the book. I was fascinated to see that Macy also provided attribution for some of her other assertions (for example, that Trudy’s coach had failed twelve times in his attempt to swim across the Channel); usually source notes in picture books are limited to direct quotations.

A great read about a scrappy, determined swimmer.

Trudy’s Big Swim: How Gertrude Ederle Swam the English Channel and Took the World by Storm by Sue Macy, illustrated by Matt Collins. Holiday House: 2017.

Children with book around a globe


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

This book, about a landmark moment in jazz history, is written with a jazz-inspired narrative voice, playing with literary convention–there’s no end punctuation in the entire book–and dabbling with different poetic devices, like rhyme, alliteration, and onomatopoeia, without ever committing to one. The story’s told with staccato phrases in shotgun bursts. Ransome uses rich and vivid words. She describes sound “rippling and rumbling” and describes the experience of watching a performance:

Fast fingering

Drums thumping

Trumpets trumping

The back matter is longer than the text itself, which I always love when a book has intrigued me like this one did. I’m anxious to get more of the story and can usually find it in the back matter. Here, Ransome tells us “More about Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson,” provides a time line, and gives a “Who’s Who in Jazz.”

Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black and White Jazz Band in History, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome. Holiday House: 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


best noses

Sorry, we don't have that EAN, yet In this inventive nonfiction picture book, each page is written in the voice of an animal who is arguing about why its nose (or ear or eye) is the “best.” These are great examples of persuasive writing, and along the way we learn a lot about how animals specialize to fit their individual environmental niches.

This form begs to be replicated: choose another animal or another body part, and make your best argument. It would be a great mentor text when teaching persuasive writing, or even a fun springboard for dinnertime debate.

This book is a translation from the Swedish.

The World’s Best Noses, Ears, and Eyes by Helen Rundgren, translated by Helle Martens, illustrated by Ingela P. Arrhenius. Holiday House: 2013.


 Despite the title, this book doesn’t have anything to do with school or classes (check out Snow School if you’re looking for an animals-school comparison). Instead, it’s a clever rhyming picture book outlining the different characteristics of vertebrate classes: amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles.

Lord uses rhyming couplets, each with 7 or 8 syllables. She establishes a strong rhythm that carries throughout the book. In fact, when I closed this book and opened the next one on my stack, it took me several pages to stop trying to wrest those (prose) lines into her very chant-able rhythm.

There’s lots of great information packed into her rhymes. Did you know, for example, that mammals, “People, rabbits, even deers,/all of them have stick-out ears”?

A handy chart in the back matter lays out for you the characteristics she’s covered, an exception to the common characteristics, and some of the species in each class.

Animal School: What Class Are You? by Michelle Lord, illustrated by Michael Garland. Holiday House: 2014



“Crash!” This book plunges us into the action with its first word. We follow Toughie Brasuhn and Gerry Murray’s roller derby rivalry as we read about one day’s match. We also get a glimpse of the way sports came to television. Sue Macy’s narrative voice is fast and engaging; her present tense third person narration could almost be a sports announcer’s voice giving us a blow by blow account.

In a picture book, the writer doesn’t have many words to get the reader involved at the story and to build the historical scaffolding. Macy gets around the difficulty of explaining the rules of the game by using an illustration on the first spread that has a crowd clustered around reading a poster titled “Roller Derby Rules, 1948.” With that out of the way, she plunges us into the match, into the rivalry, and into the engaging story.

Macy’s back matter includes period photos, an interesting discussion of how she went about researching the topic. It also includes a cautionary note about what parts of the book are dramatizations rather than strict historical fact.

Check out this great 2 minute trailer, narrated by Sue Macy and loaded with amazing period photos.

Roller Derby Rivals, by Sue Macy, illustrated by Matt Collins. Holiday House: 2014