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.

Cover of book showing prairie dogs peeking out of their burrowsElementary school children learn about living webs–that plants and animals interact with each other within an environment. There are some great books depicting ecosystem webs–High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs looks at the interactions of animals around Delaware Bay, No Monkeys, No Chocolate examines the interactions of animals and plants in the rain forest, Tree of Wonder explores all the life in a single tree. Prairie Dog Song follows in this tradition.

Prairie Dog Song looks at how plants and animals interacted to build the great American prairies and then what happened when those relationships were disrupted by farmers and ranchers. In a singsong cadence, we hear how “the grass turned to desert land.” The book ends hopefully, though, showing how keeping a “keystone species” like prairie dogs intact also keeps other parts of the ecosystem healthy. The text chants, “in one place lived prairie dogs,…and the grasses waved all around.”

The main part of the text can be sung as a cumulative song, based on an old tune titled “The Green Grass Grows All Around,” (music included in the back matter), but my favorite part of the book was the wonderful explanatory text on every spread. It gives rich detail about the science behind the page and also about scientists who have worked with prairie species.

The art on every page is collage. It reminds me a lot of Susan Roth’s previous work on Parrots over Puerto Rico. Her technique is especially successful when she’s depicting animals within a landscape, but even the collages with people in them have charm.

The great back matter for the book includes not just the music for the song but also “More Prairie Dog Facts,” a “Timeline of the Janos Grasslands,” a “Glossary and Pronunciation Guide,” a bibliography (with over 30 sources!), and my favorite–photographs of the animals, landscapes, and scientists depicted in the book.

Prairie Dog Song by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore. Lee and Low: 2016

Children around a globe.

muirBiographers face an alluring temptation: to tell an entire life. In this book, Julie Danneberg resists the allure and instead tells the story of one intense night in her John Muir’s life. And in the process, we learn all about who the man was.

John Muir settled in Yosemite early, early. He lived in a cabin and then in a sawmill in Yosemite Valley. He would live anywhere as long as it kept him close to the spectacular scenery he loved. One night he hiked to Yosemite Falls and managed to slip behind the waterfall when wind briefly blew it away from the cliff face. That transcendent  moment, seeing the world through the spray of the waterfall, was immediately followed by near-death when the wind dropped and the water returned to its usual path, pounding down on John Muir. Danneberg describes the scene brilliantly: we feel hushed with awe and then stricken with terror and then, finally, amazed with Muir at the grandeur of nature.

The main text is written in present tense and the words are vivid and muscular. The book is designed to have layered text: nearly every spread has, in addition to the main text, a block of text in smaller font, written in past tense, and with an explanatory tone, that adds lots of interesting details about Muir. I’m very glad they’re not included in the main text–interesting as they are, they would have muddied it and slowed down the pace of the story. I read the book through once, ignoring all of the smaller font passages. Then I flipped back to the front and read it through again, this time reading all the smaller font. It’s a method I highly recommend.

Danneberg excels at finding tiny moments that illuminate a life. Her book Monet Paints a Day gives us a vivid portrait of Claude Monet, through the lens of a single day of painting. Here she does the same for John Muir.

John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall, by Julie Danneberg, illustrated by Jamie Hogan. Charlesbridge: 2015.

rothThis inspiring book works at lots of different levels for lots of different readers. First, it’s a simple cumulative story for preschoolers, like “This is the house that Jack Built”:

“This is the tree, a mangrove tree.

These are the trees, mangrove trees, that were planted by the sea.”

And so on, we hear the story of mangrove trees being planted to reclaim marginal land.

This first, simple level, works as a read-aloud. But the authors also include on every page a sidebar that tells in more detail about the initiative to reclaim land in Eritrea to fight against famine. Parents and older kids would gobble up these details.

And finally, the back matter (8 pages of text and photos!) tells the story of the American scientist, Gordon Sato, who dreamt up the idea of relieving hunger by planting these trees and about how his experiences in an internment camp during World War II led to this idea. I felt inspired and uplifted by his vision and his tenacity.

The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families, by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore. Lee & Low: 2011.



crabsThis book (by my critique partner, Lisa Kahn Schnell) came in the mail today and our whole family sat down together to read it aloud. It’s packed with fascinating information about horseshoe crabs and the web of life they’re part of. The book is structured around a series of elegantly simple two word sentences, one on each spread of the book:

“They’re coming…It’s happening…They’re feasting…”

Those sentences tell the story concisely; they’d be great to read by themselves to wiggly toddlers. But my fifth and sixth grader lapped up the more in-depth information also included on each spread. Unready for the book to end, we read the back matter aloud together, too (did you know that almost every medical device doctors use on you is dependent on horseshoe crabs?).

Now we just have to plan a trip to Delaware Bay during horsehoe spawning season.

High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs, by Lisa Kahn Schnell, illustrated by Alan Marks. Charlesbridge: 2015

“Who taught you to do things? Your parents and others who care about you were your first teachers. Who teaches animals?”

Each spread of this book explores a different animal which has to learn a survival behavior after it is born. It’s a layered text–you can read just the large font text and have it make sense, but the small font text adds information and depth. And each spread ends with questions inviting the listener to apply the text to herself:

Are you a good singer? Who sings to you?

The paper in this book is luscious to touch–thick, slightly textured. Beautiful. Are Blue Apple Books always so satisfying to hold?

Animal Teachers by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Katy Hudson. Blue Apple: 2014.


“Birds and feathers go together, like trees and leaves, like stars and the sky.”

Melissa Stewart’s lyrical voice makes this information-packed book a great read aloud. The layered text structure is elegantly simple. Each spread compares a function of feathers to something in a child’s frame of reference–“Feathers can shade out sun like an umbrella”–and then smaller print (the second layer of text) explains that sweeping generalization in greater detail.

The first layer of text is very short–only about 175 words–but it provides a perfect framework for understanding all the information packed more densely in the second layer of text.

In the back matter, Stewart talks about the scholarly articles about feathers that first piqued her interest and about her struggle to find the right structure for this information.

Feathers: Not Just for Flying, by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen. Charlesbridge: 2014.

Sometimes brilliant book design elevates a good story into something extraordinary. In the main text of this biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Peter Sís uses language infused with the same tone as Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece, The Little Prince: 

Long ago in France, at the turn of the last century, a little boy was born to be an adventurer.

The book would have been good with just this simply-told story.

But Sís makes the book into an unforgettable tour de force with his illustrations. Are they simply a new style of illustration for picture books? Are the illustrations actually the back matter? Or is this an example of layered text? I’m not sure how to define it. On many of the spreads, Sís packs his inventive illustrations with textual content. This page has a design that’s fun to look at:


But if you lean in close, you see tiny snippets of fascinating story. Crashes Saint-Exupéry endured! Stunts he performed! People’s memories of him!


Page after page I found myself bending in close to make sure I read every bit of text looping around every single delightful picture. Kids who love narrative nonfiction will like this book, but it speaks just as beautifullly to the information fanatic who devours Ripley’s Believe It or Not. There’s no back matter in the book, but other than a bibliography, it doesn’t really need one. The illustrations do the job.

In this 7 minute video, Peter Sís talks about the book.

The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antonie de Saint-Exupéry, by Peter Sís. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2014.