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Explore! Discover! Investigate!

by Karen Hildebrand
 | Nov 16, 2015

Reading nonfiction books offers all of these experiences as readers delve into real lives and real science or move into the past or stand beside real people while reading these informational books. Nonfiction offers beautiful photography and other text support features that make the reading even more interesting by looking at text boxes, timelines, charts, diagrams, and many other innovative illustrative techniques. To borrow from Dr. Kylene Beers as she describes nonfiction readers in her new book listed in this review: “We want students aware of what they are discovering as they read. We want them to enjoy that feeling of surprise, amazement, and even skepticism. We want them to say, Really?” (Reading Nonfiction, 2015, Heinemann)

Ages 4–8

Amphibians and Reptiles: A Compare and Contrast Book. Katharine Hall. 2015. Arbordale.

amphibians and reptilesIn large print and beautiful close-up photographs, the author explains to young readers the differences between amphibians and reptiles. Using scientific terminology throughout the book, students who love “critters” will enjoy learning about the study of herpetology. A strong point of the book is presenting these animals in their environments so children can get a true feel for where these creatures live within their natural habitats. Each page points out differences and similarities in the amphibian world from egg laying to breathing. Teacher resources for this book are available at the publisher’s website.
(Other books in this Compare and Contrast series: Polar Bears and Penguins, Clouds, Trees, Mammals,
Sharks and Dolphins)

Little Kids First BIG Book of the World. Elizabeth Carney. 2015. National Geographic for Kids.

Little Kids First Big Book of the WorldOpening the book to a detailed table of contents will allow teachers or parents an entry into the arrangement of this colorful book for young readers. Each chapter is a different continent and the format for each continent chapter contains the countries, the land, the weather, the people, the animals, the sights, and then a Let’s Go! piece that suggests activities with instructions. Use the Map Keys and Legends to show young readers how to read a map. The Fact boxes and sidebars offer additional information in colorful ways. Parent Tips at the end of the book suggest further search strategies that stretch across music, math, arts and crafts, geography/landforms, exercise, creative thinking, and technology. Loaded with easy-to-read maps and sidebar facts, in addition to captioned photographs, this is a book that teachers, parents, and children can pore over for hours of exploring the world.

Tree of Wonder: The Many Marvelous Lives of a Rainforest Tree. Kate Messner. Illustrated by Simona Mulazzani. 2015. Chronicle.

Tree of WonderDuring a trip to Costa Rica, author Kate Messner discovered the Almendro tree. As the idea for this book grew, so did many aspects of the rainforest. Using an interdisciplinary approach to introduce this tree, she combines math and science and life cycles to the concepts represented and the sense of wonder she discovered. Using the right column to convey the multiples of lives involved, the math begins: 1 almendro tree, 2 great green macaws, 4 keel-billed toucans, 8 howler monkeys, 16 fruit bats, 32 fer-de-lance vipers, 64 agoutis, 128 blue morpho butterflies, 256 poison dart frogs, 512 rusty wandering spiders, and 1,024 leaf-cutter ants. From page 1, “More than a thousand different living things depend on this tree.” The lush acrylic illustrations add to the verdant life that is found in the rainforest. Listen to a podcast with the author about how she came to write this book.

Ages 9–11

Brain Games: The Mind-Blowing Science of Your Amazing Brain. Jennifer Swanson. 2015. National Geographic for Kids.

Brain GamesThis book is the companion to the National Geographic Channel TV show, Brain Games. Divided into five chapters and illustrated with interesting photographs and infographics, author Jennifer Swanson presents brain challenges on many levels. The chapters include Cruising Along the Cerebral Superhighway, Down Memory Lane, Emotion Expressway, Decision Drive, and Action Avenue. Each chapter discusses different functions of the brain as it relates to the different areas within the brain. Activities are then placed on the pages that activate those brain parts discussed in each chapter. This is a fun book for young and old. Visit the TV show companion website for additional interactive brain games fun.

The 50 States. Gabrielle Balkan. Illustrated by Sol Linero. 2015. Wide Eyed Editions, Aurum.

The 50 StatesTween readers will enjoy browsing this oversized and colorful atlas of the United States. Organized alphabetically, the pages are artistically presented in pinks, blues, greens, and gold. Small portraits highlight important people from the state who represent cultural, ethnic and gender groups of all types. Each state that has a Newbery or Caldecott winner is featured. Fun facts as well as historical events are featured on each double-page spread. A Welcome box introduces each state and Moments to Remember and Key Facts are included in sidebar panels. Though not overloaded with facts, each state is respectfully represented and will offer hours of browsing pleasure. Colored tabs along the right side make for easy chapter movement.

Infographics: Space. Jennifer Daniel. 2015. Big Picture/Candlewick.

Infographics SpaceThe beauty of this book is the infographic style of presenting information about space. With the use of neon-bright colors, the infographics direct the readers’ eye to a kind of linked thinking to explain the scientific concepts about the universe. The bright colors draw readers to the explanations and are often used to develop a comparative look at the concepts. The pages illustrating a Black Hole, the Big Bang theory, and the sun are especially vibrant. Chapters represented include The Universe, Galaxies and Stars, The Solar System, and Exploring Space. Written and designed for the early readers of space and the universe, information is given in small factoids that are presented visually in these infographic pictograms.

This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs. Gary Paulsen. 2015. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

This Side of WildNominated for the 2015 National Book Award, This Side of Wild brings a return of Gary Paulsen’s stories of dogs, animals, and adventures in the wild back to middle-grade readers. As readers of Paulsen’s earlier works, children know his love and respect for animals. He has witnessed amazing acts of bravery and intuition from his many experiences with animals of all kinds: dogs, horses, birds, and more. Check out the cover for the “warning” poodle and grizzly bears! Paulsen writes about how these various animals all have contributed to making him a better person—from his horse in Wyoming that allowed not only Paulsen to ride the horse but also his border collie, Josh, to Betty, the mynah bird that could mimic the voice of President Kennedy so that one would think he was in the same room. Pen-and-ink illustrations add to the charm of this animal memoir. This book is for animal lovers of all ages.

Ages 12–14

Breakthrough! How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever. Jim Murphy. Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Breakthrough Blue BabiesAward-winning author Jim Murphy returns to the nonfiction arena of medicine and science as he tells of the breakthrough in the surgical procedure to save infants from a congenital heart defect known as “blue baby syndrome” (medically referred to as Tetralogy of Fallot). Murphy tells the story of surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock and pediatrician Dr. Helen Taussig as they perform this procedure for the first time in 1944. However, a portion of this credit goes to African American lab technician/research assistant, Vivien Thomas, seated right behind Blalock during the surgery, who was responsible for painstakingly creating this precise surgical procedure. The groundbreaking work of these three medical colleagues and their relationship with each other is the focus of the book. Thomas was often mistaken as a janitor in the building and worked without a college degree but spent hours researching and developing procedures. At a time when women and ethnic minorities were not given much notice let alone credibility, the outstanding contribution to open heart surgery researched and performed by this trio was truly groundbreaking in science and medicine.

Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal and the Growth of our Nation’s Capital. Tonya Bolden. 2015. Abrams.

capital daysWritten as a memoir that includes pages from Michael Shiner’s diary, this historical look at the growth and development of the city of Washington, DC is told through journal entries, archival photos, timelines, maps, newspaper clippings, and other primary source materials. Shiner’s journal reflects the burning of the White House during the War of 1812, the building of the Washington Monument, and other aspects of the ever-expanding nation’s capital. Bolden has created a timeline of the growth of this city but has also captured the atmosphere of what life was like for the enslaved Michael Shiner as he witnessed the growing importance and evolution of Washington, DC. The inclusion of a wide variety of historical documents will provide readers with a feel for how historical information is preserved and its importance in re-creating an accurate picture of many aspects of lives during this period when Michael Shiner lived, roughly 1804–1869 (though author Tonya Bolden has provided the history of the city before and after the life of Michael Shiner).

Watch Out for Flying Kids! How Two Circuses, Two Countries and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community. Cynthia Levinson. 2015. Peachtree.

Watch Our for Flying KidsAuthor Cynthia Levinson has introduced to the world the youth “social circus” for middle-grade readers. Featuring the youth circuses of the Circus Harmony of St. Louis and the Galilee Circus in Israel, she presents these kids from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds coming together to perform their acrobatics and contortions and flying trapeze acts under the big top or rather, the backdrop of politics and friendship. Levinson followed nine youth performers, two circus directors, and the coaches to bring the story to her readers. She interviewed all the people involved, and the information is told through quotes, sidebars, photographs, and her narration of these social circuses. Overcoming racial and political discrimination and conflict, the social circus idea brings youth together working toward overcoming the ideologies that keep them apart. Levinson has included even more information at the back of the book, introducing readers to some of the performers, adding a closer look, and providing further notes about the project. For a closer look at Global Citizenship and the Social Circus movement, visit its website.

Ages 15+

The Amazing Book Is Not on Fire: The World of Dan and Phil. Dan Howell and Phil Lester. 2015. Random House. 

The Amazing Book is Not on FireThis very unusual book is a biography, a memoir, or maybe best described as an explosion of visual information about YouTube stars Dan Howell and Phil Lester. Photos, charts, diaries, posters, letters, e-mails, collage, hand-written (illegible?) notes, YouTube screenshots, video screenshots, chat logs, interviews, text messages, album covers, lists, manga, doodles, cartoons, Emoji interviews, and more
illustrate the lives of these two young men and their path to popularity in creating five different YouTube programs. Starting their journey as teenagers, Dan and Phil created an online world that thousands of kids around the world tapped into and became huge fans of the hilarious antics of Phil and Dan. Learn about the behind-the-scenes journey that led to Internet fame for Dan and Phil. Check out the video “Making of ‘The Amazing Book Is Not on Fire'”.

Urban Tribes: Native Americans in the City. Edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. 2015. Annick.

Urban TribesThis visually beautiful book presents poetry, stories, essays, and art about young Native Americans living in urban areas today in Canada and the United States. Illustrated with photographs and artistic renderings, the voices of these young people express both frustration and hope. Living in urban areas, they continue to battle the stereotype of living on a reservation in a teepee. Many of these young people walk the line of several cultures in wanting to maintain the links to their heritage. Representing the various aspects of their tribes and cultures, these young authors, artists, actors, and students express their thoughts and dreams in this anthology describing life for Native people living in urban areas today.

Professional Reading

Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note, Stances, Signposts, and Strategies. Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst. 2015. Heinemann.

Reading NonfictionFrom the authors: "When students recognize that nonfiction ought to challenge us, ought to slow us down and make us think, then they're more likely to become close readers." Following the success of Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading (2012), authors Kylene Beers and Robert Probst have written a teacher-friendly, classroom-tested book on reading nonfiction. Part One discusses “Issues to Consider”: defining nonfiction, research findings, complexity and readability, and more. Part Two stresses “The Importance of Stance”: What did the reader discover? Part Three explores “The Power of Signposts” that includes contrasts and contradictions, numbers and stats, extreme or absolute language, and more. The book continues with Part Four and strategies. The appendices are full of excerpts for teachers to use, in addition to surveys and booklists with online additional resources. Listen to the authors discuss their work in writing this nonfiction book for educators. Additional teacher resources can be found at the publisher’s website.

Karen Hildebrand is a retired library media specialist and library director for Delaware City Schools in Delaware, OH. She is currently an adjunct professor at Ashland University in Ohio, a reading consultant, and a Holocaust Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. She also chairs the Education Curriculum Committee for the Delaware County Historical Society.

The review contributions are provided by members of the International Literacy Association’s Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group.


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