On cover of The Kid from Diamond Street a girl leans jauntily on baseball bat.I love stories about gutsy women. I love stories about gutsy kids. Here’s a book about both–a gutsy girl.

Edith Houghton loved baseball. But in the 1920s there were no Little League teams for girls. Didn’t matter. She kept playing, and when she was 10 years old (ten!) she joined a professional team. She was by far the youngest and tiniest member of the team, which required her to find ways to alter her uniform so it wouldn’t fall of of her. But it didn’t stop her playing ball.

In fact, she played so well, when she was 13 she was invited to be part of an exhibition team representing the US playing in Japan. This book tells the story of how Edith Houghton began playing ball and then the great adventure of her trip abroad with her teammates.

I was floored that I had never heard of this remarkable girl. I loved seeing Japan through her eyes. Vernick chooses wonderful quotes that keep the point of view strictly Edith’s. (I did wish that the quotes had been attributed in the back matter.)

Vernick and Salerno teamed up for another great baseball book about unlikely players, Brothers at Bat. This one is a great book for baseball fans, for gutsy women, and for passionate kids.

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2016.

Children around a globe. I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.A 1

Cover of The Secret Subway showing a man with his finger to his lips standing next to a subway car on rails.I wish I’d written this book. I love the topic–someone secretly built a subway under New York City in 1870?!? Who? How? Why didn’t I know about it before?

Shana Corey answers all those questions in her delicious retelling of Alfred Ely Beach’s innovative engineering feat and shrewd political wrangling (shrewd until the moment it all fell apart in the face of Boss Tweed’s power, that is) to build a pneumatic tube transportation system under the streets of New York City.

Writing a book for kids about the past is tricky. In order to tell the story, you somehow have to set the scene. An adult may immediately realize that a story set in 1870 happened before cars were invented, but you can’t assume kids will know that. And you can be pretty sure kids will not know that New York City was run by powerful political machines then, either.

Corey does a masterful job of building the historical scaffolding that her story needs to stand on. The book opens by setting the scene:

Welcome to New York City–the greatest city on earth. You say it looks crowded? Dirty? DISGUSTING? Well…you’re right.

She then describes New York City in the 1860s, giving kids all the background information they need to understand the magnitude of what Beach accomplished.

She structures the story around two dramatic moments, the first where Beach comes up with his idea and the second where he is forced to shut down the subway. At both of these moments, the reader has to turn the book to a vertical rather than a horizontal orientation. The drama of the book turn matches the drama of the moments in the story and act as bookends to the account of how the subway was built.

I was also impressed with how Corey dealt with quotes. In the back matter, she gives source attribution for the quotes she took out of primary source material. But she also adds that “several lines of dialogue have been invented to illustrate political debates of the time.” I went back to see if I could find the invented quotes. Each has to do with a suggested solution for New York City’s transportation problems. Here are the invented quotes:

Why not make a moving street, so we can get wherever we want by standing still?

What about building double-decker roads?

Or a railway on stilts?

A mail tube? Why not?

I’m generally leery of invented quotes, but these seem to me to  work well in the book. They explain the historical context, without extra verbiage, and do so without inventing new scenes or characters.

The art is quirky–“hand-built three-dimensional sets” that have been photographed–and memorable. This book is going on my wish list.

The wonderful book trailer is here.  The artist’s website is well worth a gander.

The Secret Subway by Shana Corey, illustrated by Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade: 2016.

Children around a globe.

I participate in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy. 

Cover of book showing many men, including athletes in full uniform, surrounding a tiny woman holding a pencil and a notepadMiss Mary Reporting is vintage Sue Macy–it’s the rollicking story of a woman breaking barriers in the world of sports. But this time, the woman isn’t an athlete but a reporter.

This picture book biography tells the story of Mary Garber, one of the first and arguably the most prominent early female sportswriter. We learn about many of the stories she covered–from football to Soap Box Derby racing–and about her experience reporting on Jackie Robinson as he broke the color barrier in major league baseball.

Mary Garber not only reported on a trailblazer but also became one in her own right. She insisted on covering black high school athletic events, not just ones from the white schools in her hometown of Winston-Salem. And of course being a female sports reporter brought its own set of challenges. Something as small as a press pass could prove a challenge for her:

Even after she was allowed in [the press box], Mary had to wear the football writers’ official press badge, which proclaimed, “Press Box: Women and Children Not Admitted.

As you would expect in a book about a reporter, the narrative voice is straightforward and sometimes reportorial. The back matter is lively and helpful. I especially loved seeing all of the quotes in the book–13 in all!–fully attributed.

C.F. Payne’s illustrations reminded me of editorial cartoons. They’re fun to look at and good cartoon likenesses of famous faces.

This video is long, but if you watch even a few minutes of it, you’ll be able to see the real Mary Garber and hear her voice.

Cover of book, showing Ruth Law flying in a biplane.What did it take to be a woman aviator in the early 1900s? Pluck. Intelligence. Courage.

Ruth Law had them all. This story of her record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City had me worrying for her, pulling for her, and ultimately applauding her success.

I especially loved the way quotes from Law are used throughout this book. There are thirteen quotes in all, and each of them is strategically placed for maximum impact. None of them are introduced with “she said” or any dialogue tag at all. They give the reader a sense of immediacy, as if I were really hearing Ruth Law tell her own story. For example, as she enters New York City, I read:

Gliding, Ruth circled around the State of Liberty toward Governor’s Island.

“She smiled at me when I went past. She did!…I think we both feel alike about things.”

As soon as I turned to the back matter, I knew this book had to have been published by Calkins Creek. They love back matter and lavish care and attention on it. We get two full pages of “More About Ruth Law,” giving more details about this trip as well as telling what happened to her after the trip. There’s a full page of bibliographic material and more than a full page of source attribution for the quotes–all in type just as big as that used in the rest of the book!

I especially loved the photos in the back matter. That, combined with Raul Colon’s pencil illustrations, made the book feel alive. You can get a glimpse of the photos and the illustrations together in this one minute long trailer. 

Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine by Heather Lang, pictures by Raul Colon. Calkins Creek: 2016

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, holding pistols, face each other, ready to duel.“Aaron and Alexander could have been friends. They were alike in many ways. But the ways in which they were different made them the worst of enemies.”

So begins Don Brown’s fascinating comparison of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, culminating in the events that led to their infamous duel. Brown’s language is solid and serious–as befits a topic like this–but his art has an unpolished, slapdash quality to it that keeps the book from miring. The first spreads are carefully constructed to always show us Aaron on the left side, compared to Alexander on the right side. Brown shows the many similarities between the two even while he points out the differences in personality between them.

The careful design of the book in the first spreads actually ended up confusing me at the climactic moment, when Burr decides he must issue a challenge to Hamilton, because for the first time, the illustration shows Hamilton on the left and Burr on the right. I had to go back to figure out which one was which.

The spreads with the duel are very carefully designed, with each character at the extreme edge of his page, facing the other over a wide expanse of empty page. We turn the page and see a close-up of each gun, pointing across the gutter of the page at the other gun, exploding “Bang!”

The book ends with Burr’s quiet regret: “I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.”

I would have liked to have the sources of the quotations (used very effectively in the text!) in the back matter, but even with that lack, I loved this book.

Don Brown’s website.

Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History, by Don Brown. (Roaring Brook Press: 2015)

hamerThis book may be shelved with picture books, but it is written to children old enough to grapple with the ugly pain of America’s historic inequities and injustices. The language is rich and nuanced, written in first person, as if Fannie Lou Hamer were telling the story of her life. Quotes (which are very helpfully attributed in the back matter) are seamlessly incorporated into the storytelling (and indicated by italics), and Weatherford has captured the plain-speaking, colloquial tone of her voice in all of the text:

My family–all twenty-two of us–worked in the field.

Wasn’t no other work to do.

They didn’t have no such thing as factories; 

These factories are something new

The story follows Hamer through her difficult childhood as a sharecropper, through her courageous persistence in trying to vote in the deep South, and her subsequent experiences (including a traumatic beating) trying to bring civil rights to all in America. The language is lyrical and beautiful. The story is sobering.

This is Ekua Holmes’ picture book debut as an illustrator. Her drawings are evocative and rich. It’s a beautiful, haunting book.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes. Candlewick: 2015.

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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.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s distinctive artwork illustrates this story of a family that brought a lawsuit to desegregate schools. The story is long–2321 words!–but Tonatiuh makes sure everything is told from young Sylvia’s point of view.

The dialogue in the book keeps things lively, and I was delighted that the author included a note about that dialogue in the back matter, He writes:

The dialogue in the trial scene comes directly from court transcripts. i shortened and edited it for clarity and pacing. The dialogue in the rest of the book is inspired by conversations i had with Sylvia Mendez in October 2012 and April 2013.

The narrative voice shifts between Spanish and English. It’s clear and plain-spoken, with few poetic devices, as if the right outcome of this case is so obvious that it doesn’t need rhetorical flourishes.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh. Abrams: 2014.

This brilliantly written book explores the differences and similarities between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and how they helped shape their cooperation in making a new nation. The book starts with a strong opening:

The true story of how one gentleman–short and stout–and another–tall and lean–formed a surprising alliance, committed treason, and helped launch a new nation.

Kerley uses that lively narrative voice through the book. She chooses strong, interesting words that make the text leap to life:

He lunged, parried, and skewered the policies of King George and his government.

Her quotations, deftly woven in, make the two men spring to life:

“You should do it,” Tom told him. “Oh! No,” John exclaimed. Any declaration he wrote would be severely criticized, for some delegates, he conceded, found him “obnoxious.”

I felt weepy by the end of the back matter, stunned with gratitude for the foolish and human but visionary men who built the United States.

Those Rebels, John and Tom, by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic: 2012.

How do you summarize a life like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s for a picture book biography? Barbara Kerley did it by choosing one theme–Emerson’s desire for a home–and follows it throughout his life. We see him longing for a home as a child, building a home and community with his wife, losing his home to a fire, and in old age finding his home restored by the community he had built. It’s a hopeful, lovely message.

And it is brilliantly executed. The quotations–how could there not be quotations in a book about Emerson?–are seamlessly incorporated into the text:

He wandered the narrow noisy streets of Boston dreaming of “a home, comfortable and pleasant.”

And they settled into, as he put it, “the lukewarm milky dog days of common village life.”

Kerley zeroes in on memorable details and renders them with an ear tuned to reading aloud:

Every morning, Mr. Emerson ate pie made from his own apples for breakfast.

The book is filled with delightful lists:

[He shared] the names of birds and varieties of pears: Bluebird, bobolink, robin, thrush. Flemish Beauty, Andrews, Bartlett, Dix.

Edwin Fotheringham’s whimsical illustrations amplify the excellent prose. A great read!

A Home for Mr. Emerson by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic: 2014