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.

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. 

If the children’s publishing world has anything to say about it, it appears that our next president will be Hillary Clinton.

Portrait of Hillary ClintonAlready this year two different nonfiction picture books about Hillary Clinton have been published–Hillary by Jonah Winter and Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls are Born to Lead by Michelle Markel.

The art in the Markel book, illustrated by LeUyen Pham is much more cartoon-like. Despite the cartoony feel, it is deeply-researched. Pham and Markel have two spreads of notes, going page by page to explain who and what is illustrated on each spread.

Portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton as a girl.I love the vigor of voice in the Markel book. She picks wonderful small details that enliven and ground the text:

“…along came Hillary, wearing thick glasses and a sailor dress, acing tests, upstaging boys in class, and lining up sports events to raise money for the poor.”

And later, talking about challenges Clinton faced when her husband ran for president:

“They said her headbands were too casual and her attitude was too feisty.”

I was impressed with her ability to convey specific information about policies and platforms Clinton has espoused.

When I want to share a book about a presidential candidate with a child, I’m going to be picking up Some Girls are Born to Lead.

Photos from a 1969 Life magazine story on Hillary.

Hillary by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Raul Colon. Schwartz & Wade: 2016.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls are Born to Lead by Michelle Markel, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Balzer & Bray: 2016.


A Fine Dessert has such a simple but absolutely perfect structure! It begins with four spreads showing a girl in 1710 working with an adult to acquire the ingredients, make, and eat a blackberry fool. Those four spreads are repeated four times, each set in a different century.

The repetition invites–demands!–comparing and contrasting the experiences of all the children.  Where did the blackberries and cream come from? How did they whip the cream? How did they cool it? What did they eat for dinner before dessert? Who sat at the table? What did they wear?

To top things off, there’s a recipe for blackberry fool in the back, and the end papers are painted–gorgeously!–with blackberry juice.

This is a book my kids and I spent a long time bent over. Beautiful!

(And just for fun, the illustrator, Sophie Blackall, admits here to a mistake she didn’t know she was making in the illustrations. Did you catch it? I didn’t, and I lived in California for years.)

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Schwartz & Wade: 2015.

Deep in the Sahara

We lived in Khartoum, Sudan with our children. We’d lived several places in Europe before that, and I thought i was an experienced expatriate. Sudan, however, stunned me. It was so very, very different from any other place I had ever lived! I watched in surprise as my children fitted themselves comfortably into the rhythms of this strange and lovely place.

Deep in the Sahara is set in a non-specified African country, but to me it screamed, “Sudan!” After the first time I read the book, I immediately turned back to the beginning and read it again. It captures for me the beauty, mystery, and awe of that haunting place.

The story is simple. A young girl wishes she could wear a head scarf like the older women around her. They listen patiently to her–she wants a head scarf so she can be beautiful, mysterious, older. Slowly, in the course of the book, she comes to a new realization of why she wants to wear a head scarf: as an expression of her deepest faith.

Technically, this book isn’t nonfiction, but it deals so sensitively with the question of religion and why women wear headscarves that I think it deserves to be read with nonfiction books about the region and about religion. The “Author’s Note” at the end is excellent at putting the book into cultural context. I wish I’d had this to read over and over to my children when we were in Sudan, but I’m glad it’s here now to pull out as we talk about other people’s faith practices.

Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunane, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi. Schwartz & Wade: 2013.