Cover for Seven and a Half Tons of Steel shows the bow of a ship cutting through water.Picture book readers are young. Very, very young. Their entire lives they’ve had a black president. They’ve never known a world without smart phones. September 11, 2001 is ancient history to them–it happened long, long before they were born.

So when you’re writing a nonfiction picture book, how do you provide context without making most of the book about what happened before the story started?

Vicky Nolan faces this problem in Seven and a Half Tons of Steel, the story of how a steel beam from the World Trade Center was melted down and became the bow of a ship. Her story is about what happened after that terrible day, but she can’t assume that her readers will come to the story with all of the personal memories that older readers have. She has to tell what happened without letting what happened on September 11 becoming the story.

It’s a tough problem, but one elegantly solved by using every page of the book to its fullest advantage. The endpapers show a boy with a baseball mitt walking under a cloudless blue sky. In one corner, high above him, is a jet.

The next spread shows a New York street, crowded with taxis, and we see the blur of a jet–startlingly close to the skyline–in the rearview mirror of one of the taxis.

The next spread is finally the title page. There, we see one of the Twin Towers against the blue sky, and we see the nose of the jet make first contact with the building.

Later in the book, Nolan shows us the next step in the progression–the blue sky overwhelmed by clouds of dust and rubble–and she reminds us that “Almost three thousand people lost their lives.” But most of the scaffolding for this story happens before the first words of the story. Almost immediately, we are plunged into the aftermath of the disaster, which is where the heart of her story lies.

This book is interesting to compare to The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. It solves the problem in the opposite way–it is thoroughly grounded in what happened before September 11, 2001 and only mentions the disaster at the end.

Thomas Gonzalez–the artist who drew 14 Cows for America–has created beautiful pastel and watercolor illustrations for the book.

Seven and a Half Tons of Steel by Janet Nolan, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. Peachtree: 2016.

Children around a globe.




Every week I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

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. 

Anna and Solomon     I firmly believe that every family has a story that its children need to know, and I love nonfiction picture books that grow from those stories. This delightful book came about when the New Yorker artist, Harry Bliss, finally convinced his mother-in-law to put her family story on paper. It is a beautiful collaboration.

The story itself, as with so many family stories, is simple and not heavy-handed: Solomon moves from Russia (to escape pogroms) and works to bring his wife to the New World, too. But Anna feels an obligation to her extended family and over and over sends other family members in her place. We feel Solomon’s deep love and longing for his wife, and his wife’s strong sense of loving duty. The story ends in a beautiful celebration of family.

Snyder uses page turns brilliantly over and over to build up suspense: will it be Anna getting off the ship this time?

I also admire the adroitness with which the  historical context was handled:

Shortly after Anna and Solomon’s marriage, a calamity befell the Jews of Vitebsk. The ruler of the land, called the Czar, sent his soldiers on horses to the streets where the Jews lived. The soldiers entered their homes, broke their windows and furniture, stole their brass candlesticks, and destroyed their holy books. Solomon decided that he no longer wanted to live in a place where his people were persecuted and harm might come to Anna.

In four sentences, Snyder explains what a pogrom is, shows us how wrenching it is, and makes it clear why Anna later in the book will feel obligated to help rescue her extended family members. This is historical scaffolding at its best.

It’s a heart-warming story and may inspire you to call up your grandma so you can hear the story of your family, too.

Anna & Solomon, by Elaine Snyder, illustrated by Harry Bliss.  Farrar Straus Giroux: 2014.




“Crash!” This book plunges us into the action with its first word. We follow Toughie Brasuhn and Gerry Murray’s roller derby rivalry as we read about one day’s match. We also get a glimpse of the way sports came to television. Sue Macy’s narrative voice is fast and engaging; her present tense third person narration could almost be a sports announcer’s voice giving us a blow by blow account.

In a picture book, the writer doesn’t have many words to get the reader involved at the story and to build the historical scaffolding. Macy gets around the difficulty of explaining the rules of the game by using an illustration on the first spread that has a crowd clustered around reading a poster titled “Roller Derby Rules, 1948.” With that out of the way, she plunges us into the match, into the rivalry, and into the engaging story.

Macy’s back matter includes period photos, an interesting discussion of how she went about researching the topic. It also includes a cautionary note about what parts of the book are dramatizations rather than strict historical fact.

Check out this great 2 minute trailer, narrated by Sue Macy and loaded with amazing period photos.

Roller Derby Rivals, by Sue Macy, illustrated by Matt Collins. Holiday House: 2014