A boy sits under a tree conversing with a dragon. The dragon appears to be part of the tree.

A boy sits under a tree conversing with a dragon. The dragon appears to be part of the tree.John Ronald’s Dragons is a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, focusing on the parts of his life that inspired his fantasy writing. The book invites you to see Gandalf in a headmaster who smoked a pipe, dragon’s smoke in the smoke pouring out of smokestacks in an industrial city, and the frightening Mines of Moria in World War I trenches.

The author, Caroline McAlister, is an English professor who teaches Tolkien, so the book carries with it an air of authority. The back matter includes an Author’s Note with more biographical details than are in the main text, a Catalog of Tolkien’s Dragons, and Quotes from Tolkien’s Scholarly Writing on Dragons, as well as a Bibliography.

Endpapers of book show dragons wheeling through air.The art manages to marry the everyday with the fantastical in wonderful illustrations. The endpapers are probably my favorite so far this year. I especially loved the Illustrator’s Note in the back matter, which comments, page by page, on details in the art. The illustrator, Eliza Wheeler, points out that she has painted one of Tolkien’s favorite childhood books, The Red Fairy Book on one spread; that she has added a specific piano in one illustration as homage to Tolkien’s grandfather; comments on how she used “forced perspective” to get in all the landmarks that needed to be in the illustration; and so on and so forth. I wish every illustrator did this! It made the book so much richer for me.

I can imagine parents who love Tolkien sharing this book with their children. I can imagine children being totally captivated by the images of dragons that pop up throughout the book. I wonder what they will take away from the picture book to their first reading of The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Rings, but maybe it will act not as a spoiler but as an accelerator, encouraging kids to plow into the books.

John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. Roaring Brook Press: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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

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)


“Every September the great white sharks return to San Francisco. Their hunting grounds, the Farallon Islands, are just thirty miles from the city. While their 800,000 human neighbors dine on steak, salad, and sandwiches, the white sharks hunt for their favorite meal.”

This opening catapults us into the hunt. And what are those great white sharks hunting for? Katherine Roy builds up suspense with a series of brilliant page turns (in which I was wondering–is it people?) until we see that they are hunting seals.

After that engaging, page-turning opening, the book is organized to give us details, page by page, of the process of a shark actually consuming that yummy prey, the seal. We learn why the seal is an ideal food source for the shark, how the shark’s body helps him move as a hunter, how the shark’s jaws actually function during an attack, and much, much more.

There’s even a subplot to this book! Just when it feels like the book is coming to an end, Roy introduces the scientists who are trying to study the sharks, and we learn how they study them and what they’ve learned from those studies.

Roy’s watercolor illustrations are gorgeous (even if they are a bit gory). The book is absorbing and fascinating–a definite page turner!

Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands, by Katherine Roy. Roaring Brook Press: 2014.


Word counts in picture books are getting pushed down, down, down. Used to be, not so many years ago, picture books could be 1000 words long. Now some agents won’t even look unless they’re under 400 words. What does this do to nonfiction picture books? How do you recreate a world, provide historical context, and tell an engaging story in so few words?

Just when I start to despair, Yuyi Morales aims a karate chop at the nonfiction world. This book is 31 words long. (Or you could say it is twice as long if you read both the Spanish and the English; both are included on every page.) The second to last page has the  most words on it: 4.

How does she do it? She reconceives what a nonfiction picture book is supposed to do. You don’t come out of this book being able to recite any facts at all about Frida Kahlo. You can glean information from the illustrations. That’s where the heart of the book is–the illustrations play with themes and motifs in Kahlo’s life and art. There’s even an entire subplot, involving the rescue of a fawn, in the illustrations.

If you’re hungry for more traditional nonfiction fodder, Morales has included a 400 word essay in the back (again, in both English and Spanish) that talks about how she came to love Kahlo and briefly gives biographical data and looks at Kahlo’s legacy.

We need some longer nonfiction picture books, but this book proves that we can do with some super-short ones, too.

Viva Frida, by Yuyi Morales. Roaring Brook Press: 2014.

Sagan  I’m sometimes surprised by the topics that pop up in nonfiction picture books. Carl Sagan seems to me more like newspaper material than history book fodder, but to an audience of four to eight year olds, he’s just as much The Past as are George Washington and Julius Caesar. After all, he died years and years before they were born, clear back in 1996.

This playful biography uses surprising turns of language and the charming refrain, “Wowie!” to capture Sagan’s zest for explaining astrophysics to a lay audience. The book starts with  Sagan’s childhood fascinations and moves on to his college studies and then his professional career.

I loved the way the book used page turns to surprise and delight. In the first example, the child Sagan is testing the limits of his imagination:

His favorite character, John Carter could stand with his arms outstretched and wish himself to Mars…[page turn] But nothing happened.

Later, the page turn manages to encapsulate years and years of adult work:

He studied life and space and became…[page turn]…Dr. Carl Sagan.

The illustrations are cartoony and fun (and require you at one point to turn the book on its side and open a gatefold). The back matter tells about how the author got interested in the topic and gives a great “Notes” section where the sources for the book’s contents are given page by page. Wowie!

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson. Roaring Brook Press: 2014.

There aren’t too many Veteran’s Day picture books. You could read a book about a particular veteran, but this book is the rare one that honors veterans as a group.

Demarest tells the stories of Arlington Cemeteries. It includes the big stories–JFK’s eternal flame, the Tomb of the Unknowns, Robert E. Lee’s memorial–but I love that he writes about the tiny, everyday stories–mowing the lawn, planting flags before Memorial Day.

The paintings are beautiful, but the book is much too wordy for a read aloud. Probably the best way to share it with a child is to read it in advance, choose one or two stories to read, and then look at all the pictures and read the selected bits.

Arlington: The Story of Our Nation’s Cemetery by Chris Demarest. Roaring Brook Press: 2010.