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.

Cover of Noah Webster's Fighting Words shows Noah Webster holding an enormous quill penThere has been a lot of Noah Webster love in kid lit lately. In 2015 there were two Noah Webster picture book biographies, Noah Webster and His Words and W is for Webster.  And now comes a third, Noah Webster’s Fighting Words. I wouldn’t have thought there was room for yet another Webster biography, but I was thoroughly charmed by this one.

This book, like the others, has lively language and is filled with compelling quotations. But all of the content in this book is commented upon in parenthetical notes by Noah Webster. The author explains in the back matter, “While Noah’s ghost is fictitious, all of his comments here are based on what biographers know about this bold, passionate, and visionary patriot.” And since all of his comments are put in Post-it note-like asides, it’s easy to distinguish the nonfiction content from the fictional commentary.

Noah Webster’s commentary allows for funny moments, such as when the text says, “Noah argued A LOT” and the commentary next to it explains, “I was simply helping people to see the right point of view.” Webster also lines out less complimentary parts of the main text:

Behind his back, people called Noah “the Monarch” for his bossy attitude. The press said he was an “incurable lunatic” and a “spiteful viper.” Noah often lost his tmper when someone disagreed with him. He did not take criticism well.

Webster’s marginal note next to this passage is “Delete!”

I especially loved that Webster’s marginalia isn’t limited to the text of the book. We see his notes and comments on the cover of the book, on the title page, on the copyright page, on the endpapers, and on the jacket flap. I had a lot of fun searching out all the spots where he had something to say, and it occurred to me that this would also be a fun way to introduce different parts of a book to young readers, especially using techniques like Megan Dowd Lambert suggests in Reading Picture Books with Children.

The book devotes three and a half spreads to back matter, including a timeline, source quotations, and discussions of some of the types of sources used in research. My favorite part of the back matter was the Illustrator’s Note where Mircea Catusanu talks about some of the inherent difficulties of doing art for nonfiction books. I was also tickled that he did collages for this book, as I’ve been thinking a lot about collage art in nonfiction picture books since my upcoming picture book has collage art too–but with a very different tone than in this book!

I love knowing that three fun picture book biographies on the same subject can peacefully coexist on library shelves. Even better, maybe they can sometimes get out of the library to play together!

Noah Webster’s Fighting Words by Tracy Nelson Maurer, illustrated by Mircea Catusanu. Millbrook Press: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Illustration of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, backed by a jazz combo.This is one of those books I wish I’d written. It’s the powerful account of a song, “Strange Fruit,” how it came to be written, how it came to be sung, and the power it exerted on its audience.

I first heard “Strange Fruit” when my husband, a law professor, was preparing a lecture on the way popular culture exerts pressure on the rule of law. He included this video of Billie Holiday singing.


And then I found this wonderful book by Gary Golio, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song. In clear, unadorned prose, he tells the story of how Billie Holiday became a singer and how she decided to start singing an anti-lynching song composed by a Jewish poet. I was especially moved by the risks she took in her debut of the song and the description of how audiences received the song.

The art is a powerful part of this book. The acrylic paint and tissue paper collages blur representational images with bold abstraction.

Pretty obviously this is a book for older readers, but it speaks directly and passionately to them. It’s definitely one that will join our family’s library.

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, by Gary Golio, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Millbrook: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Photo of an animal, the olinguito, in a treetop.The Search for Olinguito: Discovering a New Species is aptly named. Sure, it’s about a big-eyed, cuddly mammal. And the book is full of photos that will make you fall in love with the olinguito. But the emphasis in the book is on the scientific work that went into that discovery.

The book tells the blow-by-blow account of the scientist who first started to suspect that the olinguito might be a separate species and not just a different kind of a mammal the world already knew. Then we watch him assemble a team to test his hypothesis and see how each member of his team plays a specific role. My favorite part of the book was when, after they’d satisfied themselves that they had found a new species, they tried to publish their results:

“They submitted it to a scholarly journal for publication to share the news. A number of experts checked the report, and it was rejected.”

The scientists get back to work and spend another seven years researching and strengthening their argument before their work is finally published.

As I do school visits, I’m always surprised by how fascinated kids are in how long it takes to publish a book. I think this book, with its emphasis on the scientific process, complete with occasional rejection, will fascinate kids, too.

I was fascinated to see that the Source Notes are all from telephone calls the author made to various scientists involved in studying the olinguito.  This book will feel to readers like their own conversation with these scientists.

The Search for Olinguito: Discovering a New Species by Sandra Markle. Millbrook Press: 2017.