Cover of book shows female astronaut floating in space near space shuttleMost picture book biographies, unsurprisingly, have a linear structure. Someone did something and then did something else and then did something else. To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space uses a refreshingly different structure. One spread shows Dr. Kathy Sullivan’s interests and activities as a child or teenager, and then the next spread shows an analogous task in her adult work as an astronaut. This structure invites readers to make thematic connections between disparate parts of her life. I think it would be a fun book to use to make predictions. After reading about a childhood activity, challenge kids to think of how that might have prepared her for her work as an astronaut?

The structure is reflected in the typeface choice. Each spread that shows modern-day life for Dr. Sullivan is printed in italic, emphasizing the shifting timeframe.

The book has lots of dialogue and quotes that are unattributed in the back matter, but since Sullivan is a co-author, I trust them.

There are 2 full spreads of back matter, including a note from Dr. Sullivan and a biographical essay about her. My favorite part, though, was the list of short biographies of 13 other women astronauts. I hadn’t heard of most of them. but even the short glimpse of their lives was fascinating and inspiring.

This is a great companion book to another astronaut book from last year that examined how childhood experiences shaped adult passions–The Darkest Dark.

To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space by Carmella VanVleet and Dr. Kathy Sullivan, illustrated by Nicole Wong. Charlesbridge: 2016.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Cover of The Music in George's Head shows George Gershwin seated at a pianoThe Music in George’s HeadGeorge Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue is an elegantly-structured story. The book has three main parts. First, we learn about the many types of music Gershwin listened to as a boy. For example, “He just couldn’t stop thinking about Melody in F, a classical tune he’d heard at the penny arcade.” He played ragtime on the piano, listened to classical pianists, “roller-skated to New York’s Harlem neighborhood to hear the smooth syncopated jazz rhythms in clubs,” listened to noise on the city streets, and sampled a wide variety of styles in his job playing piano to sell sheet music at a music store.

The second part of the book focuses on how Gershwin, as an adult, composed Rhapsody in Blue. We see him work hard–and unsuccessfully–to put the music on his head on paper. We see him keep trying to solve the problem as he goes on a train trip. And finally we see him write out what he had imagined. Rhapsody in Blue.

The final part of the book gives us a glimpse of the first public performance of Rhapsody in Blue. We see the audience start to get bored by the too-long numbers before Gershwin’s piece. But then “a clarinet fluttered softly, like butterfly wings” and Rhapsody in Blue begins. “People were surprised to hear new melodies mixed with classical, ragtime, jazz, and the blues.”

I loved the design of this book. The type flows in organic lines and different sizes emphasize important words. The artist’s palette is blue and black, with brown highlights. It’s a surprising choice but it works very well here with the sketchy, improvised look of the art.

Calkins Creek Publishing typically lavishes care on back matter. This book is no exception. The author’s note gives fascinating details that had to be left out of the main text and talks about Gershwin’s legacy in American culture.

Ideally, you’ll want to listen to Rhapsody in Blue while you read this book, but if you can’t do that, the text may make you hear it in your mind anyway.

The Music in George’s HeadGeorge Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Stacy Innerst. Calkins Creek: 2016.

Children around a globe.



I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challene every week at KidLit 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. 

Cover of book shows whale watching cruiseI’ve been thinking a lot lately about nonfiction text structures. I love lots of nonfiction picture books with traditional story structures: following a character through her life from birth to death, or recounting an event from beginning to end. But there are lots of other text structures possible, as well. Whale Trails: Before and Now elegantly sets up a compare/contrast structure to explore the differences between whale watching trips with whaling voyages.

The design of the book invites the reader to compare and contrast. Every spread has, on the left, full color with illustrations that bleed to the edges of the page. The right hand page of the spread, though has a black and white illustration enclosed within borders. But every spread deals with the same idea, showing how it differs or is the same across the centuries.

The narration is in first person present tense:

My father and I live for the sea. He is the captain of the Cuffee whale boat, and today I am his first mate.

But it invites us to look back to the past:

Before now, each generation of my family sailed these waters in search of whales.

We see the whale watching travelers traveling up the gangplank, and the whaling boat crew traveling up the gangplank; the route of the whale watching cruise and the route of the whaler; the gear aboard the whale watching cruise and the gear aboard the whaler, and so forth.

This fascinating book is another great example of a book with solid nonfiction content that ably uses a fictional framework–the girl who is serving as first mate today. Would you shelve this in the fiction section? Or the nonfiction? I’m not sure, but I think it’s clear to the reader what is fact and what is not.

I’ve never gone whale-watching, but I loved doing it virtually in this book!

Whale Trails: Before and Now, by Lesa Cline-Ransome. Christy Ottaviano Books: 2015.

Children surrounding a globe and the words "Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2016"


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


Cover of book showing the Beatles performing togetherThis visually lovely biography looks at each Beatle individually. The first–and longest–chapter shows John Lennon’s troubled growing-up years. In other chapters we see Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr before they joined the band. Susanna Reich focuses on the boys’ inner lives–what drew them to music and why they were looking for a group to make music with.

Reich has woven wonderful quotations throughout the book. For example, Lennon’s aunt, whom he lived with, told him, “The guitar’s all right for a hobby, John, but you’ll never make a living at it.” And Richard Starkey, before he became Ringo Starr, told his family, “Drums are my life.”

Biographers always face the difficult question of how to frame the story they’re telling. This is a particularly difficult problem for a group like the Beatles with such a dramatic and famous trajectory. Reich chooses to end this biography with the formation of the Beatles, as we know it, and their triumphant year of touring in the United Kingdom. It’s a great craft choice, since the stories she has told are all about why and how these musicians looked for each other. Ending here, with a successful musical band, gives a satisfying close to the narrative arc.

In her author’s note, Reich tells about how she got interested in the subject and talks about the difficulty she faced in compressing so much material into a picture book format.

Adam Gustavson’s illustrations add a wonderful layer to the story. He’s a great portraitist. The Macmillan website is highlighting 8 of his paintings from the book. Younger readers will love the pictures, but the text is definitely written to older kids.

Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the BEATLES by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson. (Henry Holt: 2015)



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.






Tiny Creatures introduces us to the world of the microbe. What are microbes? Where are they found? What do they do? Nicola Davies’ text answers these questions in an engaging, accessible way that left me filled with wonder. She’s particularly good at finding wonderful similes to help us understand this world-under-a-microscope. For example, on this page, she compares the number of microbes found in the spoonful of dirt pictured in the upper left corner of the page to the number of people living in India. An unforgettable image that makes her point handily!







This book engaged both tiny and big readers at my house!

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton. Candlewick: 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.

In writing biography, it’s tempting to start at your subject’s birth and finish at your subject’s death. But usually that’s not the structure that will best tell the story.

In this biography of an astronomer, the book starts with her gazing at the stars as a child and wondering about them. We see her work to learn the answers to her questions, and the book concludes as she publishes an academic paper to answer those questions. The beginning and ending relate directly to the story Burleigh’s telling. Sure, a lot of Leavitt’s life is left out, but the book feels complete because it tells one story, beginning to end.

The book is a great look at a girl growing up to be a scientist. The extensive back matter profiles other female astronomers as well.

Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Raul Colon. Simon & Schuster, 2013.



Tomorrow is Election Day here. I’ll be going to the polls, grateful that I have the right to cast a ballot.

This book is the story of Susan B. Anthony’s illegal vote in 1872 when she cast a ballot in the presidential election. The book tells an important story and it’s beautifully constructed. Malaspina doesn’t try to tell us about all the great things Anthony did in her long life; the book tells just about that one vote and its dramatic consequence (spoiler: the consequence was NOT women getting the vote!).

Instead of using wordy transitions between scenes in the book, Malaspina heads sections with their time and place: “Rochester, New York, November 1, 1872.” She also repeats a refrain to keep the book organized and connected: “Outrageous. Unvelievable. True.”

The book comes alive with the richly-textured sensory detail she uses: she “jumped up to grab her purse and wrap”; they “hoisted their skirts”; “Miss Anthony’s heels tapped faster and faster.”

After you cast your ballot, sit down and share this book with a child.

Heart  on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President by Ann Malaspina, illustrated by Steve James. Albert Whitman, 2012.