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Wow, I Never Knew That! Book Reviews

 | May 22, 2013

The world is filled with fascinating stories that keep youngsters intrigued. But often, what they think they know about a topic or even a famous person or event is not the whole story. It might be based on one person’s perspective or contain one author’s biases or there may even be parts of a story that have been forgotten or are only known by a few individuals. Once someone becomes interested in a topic, he/she may want to know more and start digging for the story behind the story. This week’s book reviews by members of the International Reading Association's Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group highlight recent titles that provide insight into fascinating topics while providing the rest of the story.




Arnold, Tedd. (2013). Fly Guy presents: Sharks. New York: Scholastic.

Buzz and his pet fly, Fly Guy, use a field trip to the local aquarium to learn interesting facts about sharks and also put the lie to many myths about the ever-fascinating creatures. The book introduces some of the more than 400 types of sharks, and readers can view great photographs of sharks, their teeth, their denticles, and some of the food they eat. This is a fine introduction to sharks sure to have high reader appeal because of the sparce but engaging text, and the nifty photos. Also see the "Ferocious Fighting Fish: An Ocean Unit Exploring Beginning Word Sounds" lesson on

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University


Chin, Jason. (2013). Island: A story of the Galápagos. New York: Macmillan Group/ Roaring Brook Press.

Starting as a volcanic island erupting over six million years ago, this special part of the world is introduced through a beautifully designed book that begins with end papers that are entitled “Species of the Galápagos” and contain thumbnail sketches for the very unusual plant and animal life that were spawned on these unique volcanic islands. In rather simple language with beautiful paintings, this narrative nonfiction book is divided into five sections describing the evolution of the island: Birth, Childhood, Adulthood, Old Age and an Epilogue. Interestingly, the epilogue is dated 1835, the year that Charles Darwin visited the islands and wrote about them for the world to know. The author has included detailed notes at the end of this biogeography to add further explanations for the appearance of the island and its strange inhabitants. This book has been named one of the Outstanding Science Trade Books for 2013. Teachers will want to check out the author’s website with award news and more reviews or visit the publisher’s website for more enlargements of the interior art.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Flat, Lizann. (2013). Sorting through spring.  Illus. by Ashley Barron. Toronto, ON: Owlkids Books, Inc.

From the Math in Nature series, this title introduces math concepts through inquiry. “Do you think that math matters to the animals and plants?/ What if nature knew numbers like you?/ Let’s look at the spring./ Imagine what patterns and sorting could do/” (p.1). With cut paper collage illustrations and poetic rhyming language, this math information book asks young readers to look for patterns and groups within the context of nature in spring. Question boxes accompany each double-page spread, making the book an interactive approach to the patterns observed. “Nature Notes” at the end of the book add even more facts for each of the scenarios throughout the story. Teachers will want to visit the publisher’s website for a detailed teacher’s guide for this book or visit the author’s website for more back matter information.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Gerber, Carole. (2013). Spring blossoms. Illus. by Leslie Evans. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge Books.

Written in rhyming text, this book follows two children as they walk through the forest in spring and observe the flowers on the trees. Ten flowering trees are described as the author combines rhyme and factual information to describe the flowering cherry trees, the dogwoods, flowering crab apples, white oak, white pine, balsam fir, beech trees and more. Block-print and watercolor artwork adds to the beauty of spring through these flowering trees. This is the third book in the seasonal series that this author/artist team has produced for young readers and budding scientists. Teachers will want to visit the author’s website for more information about her writing and school visits.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Kelly, David A. (2013). Miracle mud: Lena Blackburne and the secret mud that changed baseball. Illus. by Oliver Dominguez. Brookfield, CN: Lerner/Milbrook Press.

Competent enough to play Major League Baseball for several teams, Lena Blackburne longed to be a great baseball player. Despite his ambitions, he was never talented enough to become famous through his athletic talents. Still, he earned a measure of fame and made a contribution to his sport in a most unlikely way. After a chance conversation with an umpire about soggy baseballs, he happened upon some mud near a New Jersey river that would make the balls less shiny. The mud made its way into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a fascinating footnote to baseball's history. The back matter includes more information on baseball mud and its supplier. Baseball fans and fans of the curious and strange in our world will be intrigued by the text and the colorful, movement-filled illustrations. After reading this story, it will be hard for anyone not to think about Blackburne whenever the umpire shouts the words, “Play ball!”

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Kelly, Susan and Deborah Lee Rose. (2013). Jimmy the joey: The true story of an amazing Koala rescue. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Kids.

Jimmy is a koala joey that was rescued when his mother was killed trying to cross a highway in Australia. Found the next day, he was taken to the Koala Hospital. The volunteers there kept him warm and named him Jimmy. Only six months old, Jimmy was cared for like a real baby even though he was a marsupial. A volunteer named Barb took Jimmy home with her to care for him. He slept in a laundry basket and cuddled with Barb like a living teddy bear. Eventually, Jimmy started to munch on eucalyptus leaves like all koalas do. By the time he was a year old, Jimmy was placed in the hospital’s tree yard so he could be with other koalas and where he learned to climb trees and bonded with the other koalas. As Jimmy grew bigger, it was time to release him back into his natural habitat in the forest. The final pages of the book include a map, additional information, websites and places to visit to see koalas. Teachers will not want to miss the detailed teacher’s guide provided by the publisher with CCSS connections and also Jimmy’s own FaceBook page! They can visit the Koala Hospital page to see where Jimmy was given a second chance at life or the author’s page with early videos of Jimmy.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Miche, Mary. (2012). Nature’s patchwork quilt: Understanding habitats. Illus. by Consie Powell. Nevada City: Dawn Books.

Important natural science concepts such as habitats, biodiversity, and adaptation are covered in simple language in this intriguing book. Because the text and illustrations are linked to different patchwork quilt patterns with their own unique but interlocking designs, readers will quickly recognize how the effects of one species or habitat affects another and another. Particularly appealing is how the essential science fact being introduced is in the center of the page with the rest of the design and life forms surrounding it. This is an excellent reminder of how much is lost as humans intrude on the habitat of other species, and the consequences of the loss of even one species or habitat.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Skead, Robert. (2013). Something to prove: The great Satchel Paige vs. rookie Joe DiMaggio. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. Brookfield, CN: Lerner/Carolrhoda Books.

Once again the fight for civil rights is played out on the infields of American’s game. Drawing on a little-known incident involving two men who have something to prove (Satchel Paige, the great pitcher, and Joe Dimaggio, the rookie looking to make a name for himself as a hitter), this picture book describes what happens when they meet on the field. Despite his prowess as a baseball player, Paige was not allowed to play in the major leagues due to the color of his skin. He accepts an invitation from the New York Yankees general manager to pitch against DiMaggio who is being given a try-out for the majors. DiMaggio is delighted when he eventually manages to get a hit off the great pitcher. The story highlights the men’s mutual respect, and the back matter poignantly describes how Paige has to wait 12 more years before he can join Major League Baseball. Poignantly, the Author's Note also provides information about the debate over whether Negro League players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame would have their plaques hung in the main wing or a separate wing. As always with the work of Floyd Cooper, the illustrations are memorable and filled with a zest for life and the love of the game. This title is a worthy addition to a text set on baseball and one on civil rights. For more about these two players, visit the official Satchel Paige website and the official Joe DiMaggio website.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman




Dyer, Hadley. (2012). Potatoes on rooftops: Farming in the city. Toronto, ON: Annick Press.

Where does food come from? The introduction to this book asks this question to prompt readers to think about how they get the food they eat every day. The author’s work with FoodShare’s Field to Table has given her experiences to prove that people do not think about their food, and the book answers that question including how to grow food in a city environment. The book is divided into four parts: Hungry Cities; Plant a Seed; Green Your City; and Your Green Thumb, and the author presents ideas for urban gardening. The layout of the book offers text features that include a plethora of sharp photographs, charts, diagrams, fact boxes artistically inserted with various formats, posters, graphics, a glossary, further resources and a detailed index. Teachers interested in urban farming or starting projects for their classrooms will find this a valuable guide to share with students. Teachers can use these downloadable inserts to use with the book or visit the author’s blog for information about vertical farming. They may want to watch this 4-minute video intro and talk with the author about this book.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Harness, Cheryl. (2013). Mary Walker wears the pants: The true story of the doctor, reformer, and Civil War hero. Illus. by Carlo Molinari. Albert Whitman & Company.

Although it's wonderful to have another picture book biography about an early feminist to add to the book shelves, readers will finish this one wanting to know even more about the stubborn and ground-breaking Mary Edwards Walker. The author's decision to focus on her choice of clothing shows how radical she was for her times, but in some ways it detracts from her other ground-breaking feats. Walker became a physician in 1855, one of the first females to do so. Once the conflict between the North and the South began, she volunteered her services as a surgeon during the Civil War. Although she was forced to work as a nurse, she also spied for the Union, and eventually was awarded a Medal of Honor. Readers will enjoy reading about the adventures of this outspoken, courageous woman, but they are sure to wonder what motivated her or compelled her to defy the social conventions of her times. Perhaps including some of her actual words would have added even more authenticity to the story. As it is, the back matter provides an ironic note about how Congress asked her to return her medal since the rules for receiving it had been changed. The colorful illustrations effectively create a vivid sense of time and place. Readers will want to know even more of the rest of her story.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Krull, Kathleen. (2013). Louisa May’s battle: How the Civil War led to Little Women. Illus. by Carlyn Beccia. New York: Walker Children’s Books.

Even today, the books of Louisa May Alcott remain popular with the late elementary and early middle grade set who read Little Women and Little Men countless times. This picture book biography describes how the author spent time volunteering as a war nurse during the Civil War. Having led a quiet, sheltered life, the experience of navigating through an unfamiliar city and taking care of the injured soldiers transformed the aspiring young author in many ways. As she nursed the wounded men and wrote letters home for them, she also listened to their stories, and took notes about her experience. The work was demanding, and she became ill and almost died. Relying on the notes she took during her time near the battlefront, she created verbal sketches of hospital life that were later published and helped her find her authorial voice. Later, of course, she immortalized the March family in the wildly-popular Little Women. The digital oil illustrations show the determination of a woman who had to content herself with making a contribution to the world in whatever way she could—in her case, through her writing. For lesson ideas, see ReadWriteThink's Louisa May Alcott classroom resources. Also see author Kathleen Krull's post "The Common Core: Showing Nonfiction the Love" on the Engage blog.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Robinson, Sharon. (2013). Jackie Robinson: American hero. New York: Scholastic.

Deservedly inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, Jackie Robinson’s life story is inextricably linked with the integration of baseball. This biography for young readers, written by his daughter, provides an insider's perspective on Robinson’s formative years, the challenges he faced once he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his impressive batting, base stealing, and fielding statistics. But what runs through this story is the reminder of how much courage it took for him to endure the taunts and threats from baseball fans. Had he not been able to face those verbal assaults with grace, it might have taken much longer for his sport to be integrated. Containing several photographs, the book also explains how important his family was to Robinson and describes life after baseball for this heroic man. Readers may be interested in checking out the new movie, 42 (his baseball number), about Robinson’s playing days and look for even more information about him.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Smith, Icy. (2013). Three years and eight months. Illus. by Jennifer Kindert. Manhattan Beach, CA: East West Discovery Press.

Based in part on the author’s own family's experiences during WWII, this book describes the atrocities committed by the Japanese during their occupation of Hong Kong. Food for civilians was severely rationed, and local currency no longer had any value. Many citizens were forced to do work for the Japanese. Choi, the ten-year-old narrator, and his friend, Taylor, become slave boys for the Japanese military, and run errands and deliver packages. Thanks to the attention of Watanabe-san, a kind Japanese soldier, they even learn some Japanese. They also secretly join the resistance movement. When the war finally ends, their benefactor returns home to an uncertain welcome, and the boys wait for news from their families. The author deftly describes the complexity of war, which featured great cruelty as well as small acts of kindness as well as the courage displayed by the two boys. Back matter includes archival photographs of the events described so movingly in the book. History fans will be surprised and delighted to have a book for children that deals with a part of history that seemingly has been forgotten or whitewashed in some cases. The softly-hued illustrations add even more depth to the story as readers can see that these are real men, women, and children, civilians, trying to endure harsh treatment with as much dignity as possible.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Wilson, Janet. (2013). Our rights: How kids are changing the world. Toronto, ON: Second Story Press.

This companion to the author’s Our Earth: How Kids are Saving the Planet (2010) takes on issues of social justice and human rights. Profiling ten children from around the world, readers will see how kids can make a difference. Opening with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and using the short story “The Star Thrower” about throwing starfish back into the sea (p. 3), the theme of the book is launched. Using double-page spreads to introduce each child and his/her human rights work, stories from the United States, India, Philippines, Canada, Yemen, Congo, Brazil, South Korea, and other countries are represented. Sidebars with photographs offer additional short pieces about even more children and their activities dealing with human rights. Additional information and suggestions for “What YOUth can do” can be found at the end of the book. Teachers should visit the author’s website for more of the backstory on her work.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant




Bowers, Rick. (2012). Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: The true story of how the iconic superhero battled the men of hate. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Press.

This highly-engaging story about the birth of Superman, a stalwart of the comic book industry, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War, is fascinating because of all the personalities involved in both strands of the story. Most readers know about Superman’s battle against various evil villains, but few of them will be familiar with his campaign against prejudice. When the team behind Superman, including the advertisers who supported his radio program, decided to have him fight against a different form of evil—racial bigotry—in 1946, the response to his campaign and development of a social conscience is overwhelmingly positive. Middle grade and teen readers will be fascinated by the separate stories of Superman and the background of the Ku Klux Klan as well as how the two stories eventually intersect in such an unexpected way. They will also be intrigued to learn some of the reasons behind the popularity of this superhero and to note the evolution of his character. Teacher looking for a coordinating lesson plan can use "Fantastic Characters: Analyzing and Creating Superheroes and Villains" from ReadWriteThink.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Flowers, Arthur. (2013). I see the promised land: A life of Martin Luther King Jr.  Illus. by Manu Chitrakar. Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books.

Using expressive and vibrant Patua scroll painting techniques and a rollicking, distinctive voice that unabashedly provides the author's unique perspective on the civil rights struggle, this graphic novel reveals the complexity of the movement as well as the inner struggles with which civil rights leader Martin Luther King contended. Although some readers may be disconcerted by the lack of correct grammar in some of the lines, it seems to work here and be an appropriate part of the spoken word that fills the book's pages. Readers will wonder anew at King's personal and professional journey and consider again the role fate plays in our lives. Although the book is sure to be provocative since it describes some of King's failings and his increasing concern that the movement and his part in it had become irrelevant, it is certainly useful for sparking conversations about the man and those who followed him. Although the back matter includes information about pertinent symbols or reference points in the narrative, the book is not an introductory text and assumes that readers have background on King and his times. Those with little awareness of the book’s historical context will need some support in understanding the events described in this revised edition of an earlier publication. Pair this book with Marching to the mountaintop: How poverty, labor rights, and civil rights set the stage for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final hours (2012) by Ann Bausum. See the CL/R SIG's Civil Rights book reviews for more.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


MacLeod, Elizabeth. (2013). Bones never lie: How forensics helped solve history’s mysteries. Toronto, ON: Annick Press.

Forensics is certainly a hot topic these days, particularly for television audiences and movies. As young readers have become fascinated with this topic, the science behind solving mysteries has become a popular concept. Solving mysteries from history using 21st century scientific forensic methodology is even more fascinating as it unlocks a few of the secrets of the past, in some cases, changing the way we look at historical events today. Author Elizabeth Macleod has selected seven historical mysteries that proved fatal and presented them in her book that details the forensic investigations and conclusions. The mysteries include timelines, the suspects, the suspicions, the historical facts and violence for the deaths of the Mayan Royal Family (2600 BC); the poisoning of Napoleon Bonaparte (1821); revealing the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask (1703); how Thailand’s King Rama VIII really died (1946); did Anastasia of Russia survive the royal massacre (1918); how King Tut really died (1321 BCE); and what was the fate of Marie-Antoinette’s son, Louis XVII (1795)? With colorful photography, excellent graphic images, poignant questions and a fast-paced writing style, this intriguing book will fascinate young readers. Teachers can download this detailed teacher’s guide to use with the book.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Sheinkin, Steve. (2013). Lincoln’s grave robbers. New York: Scholastic Press.

Author Steve Sheinkin, award-winning author of Bomb (2012), brings another little-known piece of history to intermediate readers. He learned about the 1876 plot to steal President Abraham Lincoln’s body from his burial site in Springfield, Illinois. The facts unfold as a counterfeit ring under the leadership of James Kennally plan to steal Lincoln’s body and hold it for $200,000 ransom and the release of their partner in crime, skilled engraver Ben Boyd. Counterfeiting is big business after the Civil War, and Sheinkin’s research points out that half the money in circulation at the time was counterfeit. He also discusses how the Secret Service is created and becomes involved, more to capture the counterfeiters than the realization of the grave robbers’ plan. Written as a fast-paced crime thriller, Sheinkin has brought to life an interesting piece of criminal history. A very detailed index and source notes are found at the end of the book. Teachers will want to download this discussion guide from the Scholastic website. Read more about the author in "5 Questions With...Steve Sheinkin" on the Engage blog. 

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


Wolfe, Mike and Lily Sprengelmeyer. (2013). Kid pickers: How to turn junk into treasure. Illus. by Mike Right. New York: Macmillan Group/ Feiwel and Friends.

“From the creator of American Pickers on the History Channel (cover statement),” Mike Wolfe, star of the hit show American Pickers, and writer Lily Sprengelmeyer share with young readers the idea of collecting. Mike started with all the junk in his bedroom as a kid and tells how he loved to collect all sorts of miscellany. From plastic soldiers to comic books, cigar boxes, model sets, he had ideas for creating collections. He is now offering this guide for kids today to become “pickers” or scroungers of junk to discover the value of old things, odds and ends, or just curious kids. Featured throughout the book are kids who have developed special collections, such as 11-year-old Hannah who collects jewelry, old pots and pewter items, old tools, Radio Flyer sleds, wind chimes, small glasses and her best pick yet: “old tires that were resold to a used-tire wholesaler.” (41) Colt, age 10, collects old cars, Lincoln Logs, and old toys. Suggestions for getting started, reasons why collecting is “green,” best places to pick, the stories behind the picks, unlocking the past, and developing your style for picking are just some of the topics covered in this fascinating look at the value of junk/treasure. Teachers will want to visit the Kid Pickers website for more background on the author and how to begin a collection and become a kid picker or watch this video of Mike talking about collecting at the Macmillan website.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


These reviews are submitted by members of the International Reading Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Reading Today Online. The International Reading Association partners with the National Council of Teachers of English and Verizon Thinkfinity to produce, a website devoted to providing literacy instruction and interactive resources for grades K–12.



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