Boy stands outside in the dark, with monstrous shapes around him, but he stares at full moon above him.Today is Pearl Harbor Day. We commemorate that frightening moment when the United States was plunged into dark terror. Adults fear metaphorical darkness, but kids often have to face head-on their fear of the actual dark. The Darkest Dark is a lovely memoir by astronaut Chris Hadfield of how he conquered his childhood fear of the dark, to allow himself to take up a profession where his work is spent in the deep, unrelieved dark of outer space.

The book shows Chris as a child play-acting being an astronaut but then falling apart when he actually has to sleep in a dark room. We see all the strategies his parents employ–letting him sleep with them, checking for monsters, giving him a night light–but nothing helps. They finally hold one privilege over his head: if he can’t stay in his own bed all night, they won’t watch the moon landing.

Chris manages to tamp down his fear because he so so so wants to watch astronauts walk on the moon. I love the part of the book that depicts watching TV that night. One of my earliest memories is of my parents waking me up to watch TV in the middle of the night, which seemed to me as miraculous as people stepping on the moon. I remember, like Chris, looking at the moon with wonder that night.

But for Chris, something even more profound had happened. “Chris had changed….For the first time, Chris could see the power and mystery and velvety black beauty of the dark.”

The back matter tells about Chris’ subsequent career in space and includes snapshots from his childhood as well as his adult life.

The art is gentle pencil drawings, realistic with just enough fantasy thrown in to depict the outlines of Chris’ terror.  Shadows have creepy glowing eyes and bizarre creatures seem to lurk in corners. But the art resolves itself with a lovely wordless spread where he and his family, after watching the moon landing on TV, stand outside in the dark and look at the moon.

This is a great book for kids afraid of the dark, but it’s also a nice reminder that holding to dreams in dark times can lead to “Dreams that actually can come true.”

The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion, illustrated by The Fan Brothers. Little Brown: 2016.

Children around a globe.



I participate 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.

Boy reading a book with a tiny green creature, his booger, reading with him.

Boy reading a book with a tiny green creature, his booger, reading with him.

Hilarious nonfiction picture books can be hard to find.

Gentle, amusing, sweet. It’s a lot easier to find nonfiction picture books that fit those descriptions.

But rollicking, silly, laugh-out-loud nonfiction picture books are rare.

William Joyce has provided just such a rare duck with his “sorta” memoir about the first book he wrote. At the beginning of the book, we meet Billy, a misfit but enthusiastic schoolchild. He happily embraces his eccentricities until his failure to win a prize in a book-writing contest suggests to him that his unique talents are not of use in the world.

Until he discovers that the winners of the contest remain on the library shelf while his own zany, irreverent book is constantly checked out.

The book is full of Joyce’s distinctive art. The book Billy writes is bound inside the book. The pages of Billy’s book are not only a different size than all the other pages of the book but are also a different texture than the rest of the book.

So why are funny nonfiction picture books so rare? Maybe because it’s hard to laugh at significant moments from the past? Maybe because funny moments are less likely to be preserved in the historical record? Maybe because we nonfiction picture book writers are just not very funny?

I’m not sure why, but I’m glad–as will be many, many children–that William Joyce ventured to this side of the fiction/nonfiction divide.

Book trailer. 

Billy’s Booger: A Memoir (sorta), by William Joyce (Moonbot Books: 2015).

Boy points at his house. One sister sits on the roof reading. Another sister is swinging.This charming memoir, a follow-up to Jonathan Bean’s equally delightful Building Our House, takes us through a day of home-school with his family. The narrator, a cheery blond-headed boy (suspiciously like the photos of cheery blond-headed Jonathan Bean in the back of the book) shows us his world of school. He stands in front of his house and announces, “This is my home.” After the page turn, he’s still playing in front of his house when he continues, “And this is my school! What, confused? Okay, allow me to explain.”

With the refrain “This is…” ringing, we see his sisters and his classmates, his classrooms and his cafeteria. We watch a whole wonderful, chaotic day of home-schooling unfold before us. We go in the family van to the library and to art class until mom collapses, exhausted.

But that’s okay, because Dad arrives home just in time to teach shop and to do chores and to play sports and to teach astronomy and, finally, to read a bedtime story.

The book concludes, “Because this is my home, this is my school.”

The pictures are full of delightful detail. If you look closely on the copyright page, you’ll see Dad heading to school and the neighborhood friends getting onto the school bus, and the endpapers are some of my favorite of the year. the front endpapers show the house in early morning light; the final endpapers show it in moonlight.

The author’s note has a lovely tribute to Jonathan Bean’s parents and is crammed with family snapshots from his growing-up years.

I’ve already shared this with homeschooling friends. I think it will be an enduring favorite!

An interview about the book with Jonathan Bean.

This Is My Home, This Is My School, by Jonathan Bean. Farrar Straus Giroux: 2015.