Cover of Grace Hopper Queen of Computer Code shows a woman fiddling with an early computerGrace Hopper Queen of Computer Code celebrates the life of one of the pioneers of computer programming. The book is structured like a pearl necklace–it’s made up of a series of discrete anecdotes, strung together in roughly chronological order. Each anecdote tells us a bit about Grace Hopper’s character, but each basically also stands on its own. We read about the way she destroyed alarm clocks as a child in order to figure out how they worked, about her invention of a dollhouse elevator, about her conquering learning Latin, etc. It’s a life, with all the boring bits taken out and just the sparkling stories left behind.

I loved reading about Hopper’s experiences as a child that pointed her toward a technical field, about her experiences in college, and about how she famously found the first computer “bug.”

Throughout the book, quotations from Hopper are incorporated into the illustrations. I loved hearing her voice–feisty, joking, passionate–emerge in those quotes. The back matter spills onto the end papers, as if there just weren’t enough pages to contain “Amazing Grace.”

Grace Hopper Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu. Sterling: 2017


Children with book around a globe

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

Cover of book shows a Great Auk on a rocky shore.There are plenty of dinosaur books that explore the natural history of extinct creatures. But The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk explores, in greater detail and with much greater authority than dinosaur books ever achieve, the natural history of a creature tht went extinct in 1844. It explores with heartbreaking specificity why it went extinct and also what the implications of that extinction have been.

I was fascinated to read about the life cycle of the Great Auk. It lived almost its entire life in the ocean–and was very well suited to that environment–but had to come on shore two months a year to mate and hatch chicks. This was a great disadvantage for a creature evolved to life in the sea. When it was trying to escape a predator  its only defense was “pathetically “running” towards the water about as fast as you can walk. There was little it could do to defend an egg or chick except angrily clack its beak.” So the Great Auk nested on the most remote islands it could find–as long as the islands didn’t require climbing or flying since the Great Auk could do neither.

This strategy worked remarkably well until humans became seafarers. The rush to extinction accelerated when humans began hunting the Great Auk for oil, feathers, and finally as trophies.

Since the Great Auk has become extinct other birds, including puffins, have taken over its habitat. Puffins require soil to dig their burrows, and the Great Auk’s habitat used to be solely rock. But so many Great Auk carcasses were abandoned on their rocky islands during the heyday of Great Auk hunting, that they decomposed into the soil, which now provides puffin burrows.

The back matter includes not only references and resources but also a list of names for the Great Auk in various languages and a list of species that have gone extinct since the Great Auk’s extinction.

Obviously, there are no photographs of the Great Auk, but the digital art relies on museum specimens to get the birds, the chicks, and their eggs right.

This book is a fascinating look at how evolution can both suit a creature to a particular niche and also end up trapping it in an intolerable situation. And it’s a sobering look at the impact human action can have on the world.

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk by Jan Thornhill. Groundwood Books: 2016.

Children with book around a globe

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

thisDeborah Freedman’s book This House, Once speaks to that human desire to know how stuff is made. In spirit, it’s a lot like the wonderful book Where Did My Clothes Come From? by Chris Butterworth. But that books revels in the intricate details of cloth- and clothes-making, while This House, Once is atmospheric and poetic.

The book begins with spreads alternating between stark drawings of architectural elements and wordless illustrations, showing the natural elements that went into making that piece of the house. “This door was once a colossal oak tree about three hugs around and as high as the blue,” a spread accompanied by a small drawing of a door, is followed by a spread showing a huge oak tree piercing clouds.

The book has a dream-like, fantastical quality. And houses really are fantastical when you think about it! We stand inside and look outside through plates of sand, melted by fire! But maybe the best word to describe the book is “cozy.” In the illustrations, a cozy gray cat follows us through our exploration of the parts of the house, wordlessly ending up curled asleep.

I wished the back matter had more information about, for example, the transformation of slate into shingles or mud into bricks, but it was very brief, too, and merely evocative. It ends, though, with telling questions: “Where do you live? What was your home, once?” It is perhaps not a book that only an architect could have written (though Freedman did used to be an architect!), but it is definitely a book by a poet.

This House, Once, by Deborah Freedman. Atheneum: 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!

mesmerizedThis elegantly-constructed story tells about Ben Franklin’s visit to France during the Revolutionary War and his encounter with the healer Franz Anton Mesmer. Along the way, we see the scientific method in action and see how every step applies to a real life experience, learn about blind studies and the placebo effect, and learn where the word “mesmerized” actually comes from. It was a historical story I didn’t know, and Mesmer was a historical character I’d never heard of. Rockliff paints him vividly and sympathetically but Ben Franklin is the hero.

And the kids reading the book may approach those science class discussions of the scientific method with entirely new eyes.

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. Candlewick: 2015.


A global warming primer for elementary school students, this book has a surprising narrator, who introduces herself right on the first page:

I am your sun, your golden star. Even from 93 million miles away, I warm your land, your seas, your air, and chase the darkness from your days. My energy gives light and life to your tiny Earth.”

The sun explains to us how using fossil fuels is really using the energy of the sun and then details the dangers in our so quickly using up so many years’ worth of stored up sunlight, arguing that we should be trying to use less energy and looking for new ways to get power for our everyday life.

The science here is challenging but clearly explained. The back matter is long (around 2000 words!) and detailed. The pictures are gorgeous–but who would ever expect less from Molly Bang?

Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth, by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, illustrated by Molly Bang. Blue Sky Press: 2014.

This book is built around an insight so obvious you’ve probably never thought about it. I hadn’t! Despite what we teach toddlers, bunnies don’t only hop and birds don’t only fly. All living creatures move in different ways at different times. Page builds that insight into her clever structure: we see each featured animal move in two different ways, and the second way it moves is the first way the next featured animal moves. Such a simple and elegant structure, and so effective!

A spread at the end gives a little more detail about each animal. Steve Jenkins’ illustrations and the book design are gorgeous.

Move! by Robin Page, illustrated by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin: 2006.