Cover of Martina & Chrissie shows Navratilova and Evert playing tennis“History” means something different to an 8 year old than to a 58 year old. What is “memory” for me is definitely “history” to him. Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports fits into that gap nicely. It tells the story of the rivalry between tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

The most distinctive thing about this book is the strong narrative voice. It is meant to be read aloud and the narrator’s voice catches the ebbs and flows and emphases of spoken language. The book opens by acknowledging, in this strongly conversational tone, the gap between history for kids and memory for grown-ups: “You see those two names on the cover? Martina and Chrissie? You know who they are, right? No? NO?! Wow, okay.”

Throughout the book, that narrative voice shapes the way you read the book:  “Martina was out of shape. REALLY out of shape. And Chrissie won. Easily.”

It’s done so deftly and it’s so easy to read aloud, that it looks easy. But it is carefully wrought craft.

The back matter includes a timeline and a list of sources. The art is acrylic and oil. Since I remember the conversation about tennis stars’ fashion choices at the time, I love that the art faithfully reproduces their changing hairstyles through time. But since the text is silent on that point, I do wonder if kids might be confused about who is who in the pictures sometimes.

This is one book that you’ll definitely want to read aloud to somebody. And the narrative voice subtly makes sure you’ll do it in exactly the right way.

Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports by Phil Bildner, illustrated by Brett Helquist. Candlewick: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Close-up of Mickey Mantle's face as he watches for a pitch.Last week I looked at a deeply serious book by Jonah Winter. Today I look at another of his books, Mickey Mantle, the Commerce Comet, which has a completely different tone. This is an enthusiastic biography of a famous baseball player. As Winter notes in the front matter, Mantle “had a rough childhood” and is “famous for having suffered from the disease of alcoholism,” but this book doesn’t address those dark elements of his life. Instead, it’s an upbeat celebration of his amazing athletic accomplishments.

The narrative voice in this book is engaging and folksy:

“And that kid was fast. As legend has it, he learned how to run like the wind while darting to the outhouse, armed with a bat, pursued by the fearsome family rooster. You can look it up!”

The narrative switches back and forth between past and present tense. We hear all about Mantle’s growing-up years in the past tense, but when the story switches to the moment Mantle is discovered, we plunge into the present tense. A New York Yankees talent scout sees Mantle playing ball:

He walks up to Mickey and asks him how old he is.

“Sixteen,” Mickey tells him.

Too young for the major leagues.

Still, he asks, “Would you ever be interested in playing ball for the Yankees?”

he story switches back to past tense after Mantle has been discovered:

Here’s what happened: Mickey’s boyood dream came true–at age nineteen, the Yanks brought him up to the majors…

We switch back to present tense at another life-changing moment for Mantle, during the description of a World Series game where he was seriously injured, an injury he never fully shook, and then back to past tense to end the book.

The tense changes are artfully done–it’s easy not to even notice them–but they work to create the narrative arc of his life.

C.F. Payne’s art is wonderful, and don’t forget to notice the endpapers. Any Yankees fan will love them.

Mickey Mantle, the Commerce Comet, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by C.F. Payne. Schwartz & Wade, 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

Molecules framing photos of athletesSuper Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up is just the book you want around during the Olympics. And it will appeal to sports-obsessed middle schoolers anytime. It tackles the fascinating world of nanotechnology, explaining what nanotechnology is, describing how it’s used in sports equipment, and delving into some of the ethical questions this new science raises.

The book is well-designed to keep a young reader’s interest. The text is lively, with an accessible, welcoming narrative voice. Tough concepts are explained with friendly examples and similes. And there are  beautiful photographs and illustrations on every page. Easy-to-do experiments scattered in sidebars throughout the book invite readers to explore the scientific content of the book.

The biggest obstacle this book will face is adult readers who assume nanotechnology is too complicated for middle schoolers. But middle schoolers who get hold of it will love the book and eat up the science. You may even discover it in some equipment bags on the sidelines of the soccer field.

Those middle grade fans will be charmed by this video about the author’s first day in 7th grade science class!

Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up, by Jennifer Swanson. Charlesbridge: 2016.

Children around a globe.

I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, hosted by Allyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy. Every Wednesday you’ll find link-ups to nonfiction picture book reviews. Visit and find some great new books!

Cover of The Blue Whale by Jenni DesmondBlue whales are fascinating creatures. Threats have recently thrown them into the news and Robert Burleigh just published a riveting book about the rescue of a blue whale.

This title by Jenni Desmond would pair beautifully with Burleigh’s suspenseful page-turner. This book couldn’t be more different in tone. Its voice is very quiet, almost dry and reportorial, in fact, but the book shimmers in the interplay between serious, factual words and playful, whimsical pictures. It’s a book that could only have been written by a writer-illustrator.

For example, one page of the book reports:

“Baby blue whales don’t eat krill; they drink their mother’s milk….It drinks nearly 50 gallons of its mother’s milk every day and can gain as much as nine pounds an hour.”

This information, fact-based page is accompanied with a funny drawing of fifty jugs of milk, one of them being toted off by a little boy.

The only time that the text flirts with whimsy is when it makes comparison. For example, describing the size of a blue whale, the book says, “A blue whale’s tongue weighs three tons, and its mouth is so big that 50 people can stand inside it.” The illustration is of 50 waving, smiling people, mugging for the camera, inside a blue whale’s mouth.

As a child, I know that my favorite page would have been the first one, where a child is reading a book. THIS  VERY BOOK. I always loved self-referential pictures. This book’s illustrations have lots of tiny gifts for the careful viewer, and you’ll come away from it knowing a lot about that magnificent creature, the blue whale.

The Blue Whale by Jenni Desmond. Enchanted Lion Books: 2015.

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.


This wonderful book could be a primer on ways to make a picture book glow.

On the first page I already start to fall in love with the breezy, funny narrative voice:

In the old days, most girls came to America with a dream, but all Tillie Anderson had was a needle. so she got herself a job in a tailor’s shop and waited for a dream to come and find her. One day it rolled right by her window.

The story of this early female bicycle racer unfolds with rollicking, unexpected word choice:

Tillie dreamed of the speedy, scorchy, racy kind of riding

and with page turns that brilliantly build suspense:

Tillie had found that riding in dresses and skirts meant spilling, not speeding, falling, not flying. So…[page turn] Tillie used her noodle and her needle to make something entirely different from what was sold in the ladies’ shop where she worked.

I cheered for Tillie all the way through to the funny surprise ending, amazed and happy that such a remarkable woman really lived.

Tillie the Terrible Swede: How One Woman, A Sewing Needle, and a Bicycle Changed History, by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Sarah McMenemy. Knopf: 2011.


I was hesitant to read this picture book as I expected it to be a cynical rewriting of the Newbery Medal novel, The One and Only Ivan. So I was surprised that the only reference to the novel appeared on the cover, and that was almost incidental (“by Newbery medalist Katherine Applegate). Even the illustrator for this book is different from the illustrator for the novel.

This is an honest, straightforward biography of a gorilla who was displayed most of his life in a shopping center but ended his life in the Atlanta Zoo. The book starts poetically, “In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla’s life begins,” but the narrative voice in the rest of the book is much more matter-of-fact.

This book would pair well with the Newbery novel, but it’s fine by itself, as a look at how our attitudes toward animals in captivity have changed in recent times.

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Clarion: 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.

This lovely, quiet book tells the story of Edward Hopper’s life from the time he was a child with a new pencil box until he finished his last painting. The narrative voice is soulful, telling emotionally-charged anecdotes with vivid words, as well as reflective, using questions to organize the story:

Edward wondered: will I ever be able to paint?

But how?

But who cares?

…was Edward satisfied at last?

The paintings reimagine iconic Hopper paintings in interesting ways. I was especially glad to have thumbnails of the source paintings in the back matter so I could look at how the illustrator transformed them to work as illustrations for the book. The back matter bulges with helpful essays and quotes and dates and information for further study. It’s a wonderful book to look at and just as satisfying to read.

Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor. Christy Ottaviano Books: 2014.


This inventive book cruises through the alphabet with specialized videogame terms. The narrative voice isn’t stuffy at all but complicit–a good buddy revealing secrets. My eleven year old son–who seldom looks at any ABC books these days–loved it.

Besides being great for gamers or would-be gamers, this book could be used in the classroom or home school to introduce the idea of jargon or specialized language. The pixel-based (pixilated?) illustrations have, I’m sure, many inside jokes that I missed, but even I thought they were fun.

Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet by Chris Barton, illustrated by Joey Spiotto. Pow! Books: 2014.