cover of book--black with words "The Secret Project"I was excited to get my hands on The Secret Project. Who could resist that mysterious cover? And I love nonfiction picture books that interpret tough moments in history for kids. What could be a tougher moment to interpret than the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb?

The book is gorgeous and carefully composed. But it totally surprised me. I expected it to be a biography of the scientists who worked to create the atomic bomb. I expected it to explain why creating the atomic bomb seemed important at the time and why some of those scientists have, in the years since then, come to have deeply conflicted feelings about what they created.

But the book doesn’t do that. In fact, the scientists are never individualized or named. In the illustrations, they remain silhouettes, figures always in the shadows or in darkness. One illustration about their “research on a metal called uranium…and research on a metal called plutonium” shows diagrams of atoms and firework-like blasts inside the outline of a head.Silhouette of a head. Inside are fireworks and diagrams of molecules.

While the scientists remain shadowy, the people around them are full color and individualized. We see children at school, a landscape artist painting, a Native craftsman carving, even Los Alamos support staff arriving at the facility “to cook, to clean, to guard.” We see New Mexico locals in their colorful clothes on the roadway toward Los Alamos and in the town square. Ultimately, this book is not about the scientists who created the atomic bomb but about how that invention changed the world for everyday people.Native craftsman carving dolls.

The conclusion of the book is dramatic and sobering. We see silhouetted scientists crouching in a bunker and then turn to a spread that is simply words, counting down from ten.

The next two spreads show the violent red and yellow mushroom cloud growing and expanding, and the final spread of the book is simply blackness.

It’s a beautifully illustrated book, but has very serious content. I don’t think it’s a book to hand to a kid to read on his or her own, but it’s definitely a book worth sharing with children–especially older ones–and one that might prompt a lot of discussions with caring grown-ups about America’s past and about unintended consequences.

The Secret Project by Jonah and Jeanette Winter. Beach Lane Books: 2017.

 

Children with book around a globe

 

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

 

Cover of The Tree in the Courtyard shows Anne Frank writing in her diary next to a window through which we see a tree.The Tree in the Courtyard is another nonfiction picture book that uses fictional elements to tell a nonfiction story. Here, the story of Anne Frank’s experience of hiding from the Nazis is told from the point-of-view of the horse chestnut tree growing in the courtyard outside her hiding place.

The story is written in the third person but it’s clearly told from the tree’s point of view. Throughout, the tree is anthropomorphized:

The tree loved the sight of her [Anne Frank].

The tree dropped worried leaves.

The tree did not understand.

With the tree looking on, we see Germans invade the Netherlands. We see the Frank family go into hiding. We see Anne write in her diary, celebrate Chanukah, and fall in love. We see soldiers swarm through the hiding place. Ultimately we see Mr. Frank return alone from a concentration camp and we see Anne Frank’s hiding place become a museum where other children visit.

I think I would have been annoyed by the tree-as-narrator device, except that the tree is thoroughly grounded in fact. There was a horse chestnut tree growing in the courtyard while the Franks hid–Anne refers to it three times in her diary, in fact. Just as the book describes, the tree really did start to die after the house become the famed Anne Frank Museum.

Many strangers came to try to save her. They injected her with medicine. They trimmed her crown and cut sprouts from her trunk. They built her a steel support and collected her seedpods like gold coins.

Despite all the experts’ efforts, the tree died. But people planted the sprouts they had harvested all over the world (the book includes a list of ten spots in the US where sprouts from the tree are growing).

Just like the girl, she [the tree] passed into history. Just like the girl, she lives on.

This moving retelling of Anne Frank’s experience is paired beautifully with sepia-toned ink drawings.

The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window by Jeff Gottesfeld, illustrated by Peter McCarty. Knopf: 2016.

Children around a globe.

 

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

Cover of book showing a young girl with gardening equipment in front of the White House, with FDR's dog Fala.This charming book tells the true story of how a little girl helped with Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s White House Victory garden during World War II.

Diana Hopkins lived in the White House with her father, the president’s chief advisor. Eager to do her part to help the nation fight its war, Diana ended  up as the nation’s First Kid Gardener, dealing with the frustrations and disappointments any gardener knows but eventually growing a crop of vegetables for the White House staff to cook with.

The book has a very traditional picture book structure. As I watched Diana try, unsuccessfully, different ways to help the war effort before hitting on the victory garden idea, I kept being sure I was reading authorial invention. The cover says “based on a true story,” so I figured that part of the book must have been made up. But the back matter verifies that each of those experiences I had doubted actually happened. The back matter also has a wonderful photo of Diana holding Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand on the White House lawn.

The back matter explains the importance of the victory garden movement in the war effort, so it might be worth sharing at least parts of it with young readers. But the book itself would pair delightfully with an urban gardening book, like Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, or with another book about kids helping the war effort during World War II, like the historical fiction Knit Your Bit.

Front endpaper showing newly-planted garden in front of White House.

 

 

Back endpaper showing lush garden in front of White House.Don’t miss the delightful endpapers. The front endpapers show a newly-planted garden in front of the White House, but at the end we see the garden verdant and bursting.

 

 

More information about victory gardens is available through the National World War II Museum.

Diana’s White House Garden by Elisa Carbone, illustrated by Jen Hill. Viking: 2016.

Children around a globe.

 

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

It’s hard to find a new angle on topics that have been written about before. Over. And. Over. But Selbert does so charmingly:

Rufus’ best friend, Winston Churchill, is a busy man, but most days Rufus and Winston share a walk.

From this auspicious beginning, we watch Churchill save the Western world from the perspective of his poodle. Selbert never, however, slips into cloying cuteness. This is carefully-crafted nonfiction, and she sticks to the facts. Most pages include a quotation from Churchill. Rather than incorporating the quotes into the text, they are worked into the art, appearing as card tacked onto bulletin boards.

An inspiring look at a great man.

War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus by Kathryn Selbert. Charlesbridge: 2013

Historical fiction can be used to present troubling topics in a controlled way appropriate for young children. In this historical fiction, Yamasaki skillfully tackles a difficult subject–World War II Japanese-American internment camps. Her story shows the triumph of brotherly kindness and courage, without glossing over the institutional cruelty of the camps. Her narrative voice is spare. She uses few adjectives and descriptions to tell her story, but it is deeply moving. The story comes out of Yamasaki’s own family history. I only hope more writers find such beautiful family stories to share!

Fish for Jimmy by Katie Yamasaki. Holiday House: 2013

 

Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak is an amazing story in itself, but Rosenstock puts the streak in its historical context. We see how DiMaggio struggled to achieve the record and how his brilliant success gave hope to a nation facing a world war. Rosenstock sets the stage deftly on the first page where she talks about the first hit in DiMaggio’s streak:

It wasn’t news. Instead, the headlines in 1941 shouted about the war spreading like a fever through Europe.

She keeps her focus on DiMaggio, but with a few words here and there, we’re reminded of that war threatening in the distance.

Rosenstock’s verbs quiver with life: “whip,” “scuff,” “roar,” “soak,” “surge,” “yell,” “grab,” “rub,” “pound,” “trot,” “dance.” Her narrative voice is muscular and nimble. It’s a fun book to read aloud.

The back matter is satisfyingly hefty. She writes more than 500 words about what happened next, gives us memorable quotes and statistics, as well as providing quote attributions and explaining the sources of the newspaper headlines shown in the illustrations.

I admire Rosenstock’s ability to shape real life into a compelling, vivid story. She’s on her own streak with with creating great nonfiction picture books.

Here’s the one minute trailer, which focuses on the mystery aspect of the book: can DiMaggio break the streak without his beloved bat?

The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America’s Hero by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Terry Widener. Calkins Creek: 2014.

 

E Roos cropped

How do you tell a life in picture book format? The most obvious story structure–birth to death–often flattens the historical character. It can be boring.

Zeroing in on a single moment in that astonishing life, though, makes that character spring to life. In Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic Leslie Kimmelman writes about Eleanor Roosevelt by focusing on a single picnic in 1939. In the process of telling us the story of this outdoor feast, she shows us Eleanor Roosevelt’s personality and her passions, as well as giving us glimpses of FDR, the king and queen of England, and everyday American life at the time.

Kimmelman’s dive into primary sources shows in the book. We hear the voice of the outraged public in well-chosen quotes from angry letters and Eleanor Roosevelt’s measured response in her newspaper column (I only wish the quotes were attributed in the back matter!).

Victor Juhasz’s political cartoon-style illustrations are a great match for the easy-going, conversational voice of this book.

Pull out the mustard and relish and dig into this book!

Leslie Kimmelman. Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrations by Victor Juhasz. Sleeping Bear Press: 2014.