Adele has been a youth services librarian in public libraries for 20 years.
What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
Narrative nonfiction is way of writing that conveys factual information using a format that uses many of the techniques of storytelling. An author of narrative nonfiction will typically introduce an actual character (the following books have scientists, toymakers, and even a baboon!) and narrate some sort of experience or journey, all the while teaching kids pertinent concepts about topics like science or zoology along the way.
By using a narrative structure (beginning, middle, and end), writers can discuss a true event using many of the techniques which storytellers use: characterization, dramatic tensions, foreshadowing, etc.
Narrative nonfiction is a type of writing that provides kids with information in a story format that is interesting to them.
A Note About Reading Levels
When a reading level is available, I have included it before the review of the book. One of the leveling systems is called Accelerated Reader, which gives a number that roughly corresponds to the grade level of the book, though you will find that children will be able to read at a variety of levels, especially if they are interested in a topic. (Please don’t keep a 3rd-grader from reading something with a 5.0 reading level if the child is interested in the topic!) Nonfiction usually scores at a higher level than fiction, but remember that the text is usually broken up into smaller chunks, which makes it less daunting for readers.
When I wasn’t able to find the AR Reading Level, I looked for another readability formula called Lexile.
If there is no readability number, it’s because that information is not currently available.
Books Reviewed in This Article
- From an Idea to Lego: The Building Bricks Behind the World’s Largest Toy Company by Lowey Bundy Sichol
- 125 Animals That Changed the World by Brenna Maloney
- Railway Jack: The True Story of an Amazing Baboon by KT Johnston
- Elizabeth Started All the Trouble by Doreen Rappaport
- Captain Sully's River Landing: The Hudson Hero of Flight 1549 by Steven Otfinoski
- When Sue Found Sue by Toni Buzzeo
- Guitar Genius by Kim Tomsic
- The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins and Her New Deal for America by Kathleen Krull
- When Bill Gates Memorized an Encyclopedia by Mark Weakland
- Caught! Nabbing History's Most Wanted by Georgia A. Bragg
- Eclipse Chaser by Ilima Loomis
- The House That Cleaned Itself: The True Story of Frances Gabe’s (Mostly) Marvelous Invention by Laura Dershewitz and Susan Romberg
- Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children by Jonah Winter
- Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
- The Poison Eaters: Fighting Danger and Fraud in Our Food and Drugs by Gail Jarrow
- Soldier for Equality: Jose de la Luz Saenz and the Great War by Duncan Tonatiuh
- Karl’s New Beak: 3-D Printing Builds a Bird a Better Life by Lela Nargi
- Close Calls: How Eleven US Presidents Escaped from the Brink of Death by Michael P Spradlin
From an Idea to Lego: The Building Bricks Behind the World’s Largest Toy Company by Lowey Bundy Sichol
Grades 3-6, 128 pages
From an Idea to Lego is part of a series that reminds me of the Magic Tree House Fact Tracker books. They look like short chapter books with fairly large print and lots of black and white illustrations, and they tell the story of a factual occurrence, in this case, the history of the LEGO toy company. As of publication, I haven’t been able to find a reading level for this book, but the same series has one on the Disney Company that has an AR reading level of 7.0. It stands to reason this one may be similar, making it a perfect book for a child who is ready to step into a little more challenging reading but would feel more comfortable reading a book like this that splits the text into manageable chunks.
LEGOSs have been around for several decades, and it may seem to children they have always existed, but I’m betting they’ll be intrigued by this book that relates the history in an engaging way.
The story starts back in the early 1900’s with a young Danish carpenter, Ole Kirk Christiansen. He had built a shop that made furniture and such, but suffered a number of hardships: fire, the Great Depression, the death of his wife. At some point, he hit on the idea of making wooden toys, which did well, and in 1934, he came up with a brand name that combined the Danish words leg and godt (which mean “play well” in English) to come up with LEGO.
Christiansen needed one more innovation to pave the way for his most successful toy: plastic. When he came across a machine that would mold plastic, he knew it would make his toys less expensive and easier to clean. Here’s a surprise: he didn’t come up with the idea of interlocking bricks himself. The plastic molding machine he bought came with a sample of self-locking bricks. He liked the bricks and had his team modify them to a toy they could manufacture and sell. One of the big insights the company had with this toy was that they should be a system and that every brick they sold should fit evey other one, no matter when it was bought.
From there, kids will no doubt enjoy reading about the innovations in LEGO toys: the themes like Town, Castle, and Space; the minifigures; the architectural and robotic kits. They may also be surprised to learnthat LEGO was on the ropes in the 1990’s when it lost focus and started to emphasize video games. They managed to re-focus, re-connect with their fans, and now they are the biggest toy company in the world.
The book is sprinkled with “fun facts” features (ex: the biggest LEGO model that was ever built was a Star Wars spaceship that took 17,000 hours to build) and has short sections that discuss things such as brands and other business concepts. The back matter includes a timeline, and explanation of how LEGO bricks are made, source notes, and additional book and web resources. This 17-minute video, on the LEGO story is especially well done. (Warning – it does talk about the deaths of the founder and his wife.)
125 Animals That Changed the World by Brenna Maloney
Grades 3-6, 112 pages
Far all the kids who are animal lovers, this provides fascinating stories about a variety of our furry friends. 125 Animals That Changed the World, has all the things we expect from a book published by National Geographic: lively writing, eye-catching design, and—of course—clear, colorful photos. This is a book for older readers who still like the text broken into manageable chunks. Each of the animals gets a picture and a paragraph or two that tells their story.
Some of the tales are about animals you would expect: Washoe, the chimp who learned sign language; Laika, the first dog in space; Seabiscuit, the scrappy champion racing horse. But, we also have some more obscure world-changing animals like “The Goats That Discovered Coffee” and “Caspar the Communicating Cat.”
One of my favorites is a tiny creature known as a tardigrade, or a water bear. We are told, “You can boil them, bake them, deep-freeze them, crush them, dehydrate them, or even blast them into space. It doesn’t matter. Tardigrades will survive whatever you throw at them!” They are so small you have to look at them with a microscope to see what they look like. When these tiny animals are stressed from things like lack of water or food, they can roll up into a ball and sleep for decades, reviving when they come in contact with water.
They may, in fact, be living on the moon right now. An Israeli lunar lander crash-landed on the moon and spilled tardigrades all over the place. Eventually, someone will probably go back there and see if those little water bears can survive conditions on the moon.
This book will appeal to the children who like to dip into short pieces for interesting stories, and will appeal to the same crowd who likes world record books and “believe-it-or-not” books.
Railway Jack: The True Story of an Amazing Baboon by KT Johnston
Grades 3-6, 40 pages
The children you interact with are probably familiar with the idea of a service dog, but have they ever heard of a service baboon? Railway Jack is about a baboon that learned to help a disabled railway worker, but more than that it’s a touching story of a resilient, persistent, and creative man and a loyal and clever primate companion. At the end of the book, author KT Johnston provides a wealth of extra resources that can provide the structure for a lesson on primates, friendship, animal helpers, disabilities, problem-solving, railroads, or any number of topics.
The story is extraordinary. It starts with a South African fellow named Jim Wide, who looked like he might have his railroad career cut short when an accident caused him to lose both of his legs below the knee. He figured out how to build a handcart that helped him do a different job at the railyard, but it was still difficult for him to do with the two wooden legs he had fashioned.
One day, Jim saw a man who had a baboon with him to help lead his oxen. Realizing how helpful such an animal could be, he made a deal to get the baboon on. At first, he wondered if the baboon, named Jack, would just be more trouble, but he was happy to find that the two of them bonded well and that Jack was able to do things like sweep and pump water.
It turns out, Jack could learn to do a great deal more. He could load Jim’s cart on the tracks and push him to work. It’s charming to see the two of them riding down hills together, having a great time. Johnston tells us “He [Jack] was so helpful that Jim came to think of Jack not merely as his assistant, but also as his best friend. It was clear Jack felt the same way. He would sit with his arm around Jim’s neck and stroke Jim’s hand, chattering endlessly.”
Jack even learned how to throw the switches for the trains that came, learning from the number of whistle blows which track the engineer wanted. One of the passengers on the train was understandably not too happy to see a baboon running the switches, and complained to management. Here we have the showdown of the story, with the company bosses testing Jack to see if he could actually do the job. I won’t give away all the ending here, but will say it ends happily for both Jim and Jack.
This is a charming story with all kinds of funny details that will interest and amuse children—as well as grownups. After the story, Johnston provides more information on what happened to Jim and Jack and includes several photos, which I loved seeing. She also includes information about baboons, a history of service animals, a glossary, discussion questions, internet resources, other books about remarkable animals, and a bibliography.
The story is presented in a picture book format with large illustrations and 2 to 4 paragraphs on the pages with text. César Samaniego’s illustrations have a smudgy, coal-suffused feel to them, appropriate to the railyard and effectively conveying the emotions and action of the story.
Elizabeth Started All the Trouble by Doreen Rappaport
AR Reading Level 5.0, Grades 3-5, 40 pages
I went looking around for children’s books on women’s suffrage since we are so close to the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment which recognized women’s right to vote.Elizabeth Started All the Trouble is one of the best brief overviews I've found of the women’s suffrage movement. It’s just 40 pages long and in picture book form. It would make a nice read-aloud for a group to introduce the topic.
Despite its title, the book doesn’t focus solely on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but instead provides a narrative on the movement, starting with Abigail Adams who 235 years ago encouraged her husband to remember women’s rights in the new country they were forging. “She warned John [Adams] that if women were not remembered, they would start their own revolution. John laughed at her. It took much longer than Abigail wanted for that revolution to begin. But it finally started, seventy-two years later.”
Turn the page, and there we see Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott traveling to London for an abolitionist meeting. But, the women were not allowed to be delegates. In fact, they were expected to sit behind a curtain and listen to the men speak. “Elizabeth and Lucretia were shocked. How could men who were against slavery deny women their rights just because they were women? They had to do something about this.”
It took 8 years, but they finally were able to put together a 2-day convention. To their surprise, 300 women came. They came up with their own declaration, complete with Stanton’s assertion that women should have the right to vote. That was a bridge too far for most of the delegates. Even Elizabeth’s husband left town when he learned what she wanted. Author Doreen Rappaport tells us. “That’s when the big trouble started. It had taken seventy-two years, but just like Abigail had predicted, Elizabeth’s declaration started a revolution.”
Ministers, newpaper reporters, and lawmakers (“all men, of course” Rappaport tells us) laughed and spoke out against her ideas. But, those ideas turned out to have legs and soon a thousand women were coming to the next conference, one of them being Sojourner Truth.
From there we are introduced to people like Susan B. Anthony and Mary Lyon, who started a women’s college. Even Amelia Bloomer makes an appearance, designing more comfortable clothes for women. We see how long and hard the suffragists worked, through the Civil War and beyond. Think of it—Susan B. Anthony made more than 75 speaches a year for forty five years.
The next part of the story warms my heart because I’m from one of those big square states out west. “Then hooray for Wyoming!” says the text. That was the first placein which women won the right to vote, followed by Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and a whole bunch of other states out west.
The struggle wasn’t over, though. Women who decided to picket the White House were attacked by mobs, arrested, sent to prison and beaten. The illustrations turn somber here, but the descriptions aren’t so graphic that they’ll disturb most young children. After a full year of protesting, President Wilson finally said he would support a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. The last page shows women from all time periods with equal rights signs. Rappaport notes that there are still unfair laws to change. “And we’re still working on it,” she concludes.
The illustrations by Matt Faulkner capture the essence of this book remarkably well. They are strong and lively, portraying the sometimes raucous activity along with the dignity of all the women involved. I like the creative ways he portrays moments, such as when he shows these self-important men looming over and scolding women who seem to be half their size. The back matter includes a list and short description of “The Trailblazers” along with short description of important dates
Captain Sully's River Landing: The Hudson Hero of Flight 1549 by Steven Otfinoski
AR Reading Level 5.3, Grades 4-6, 112 pages
At first glance Captain Sully's River Landing looks like a staid nonfiction book, but once you start reading it, you realize that the plotting and pacing are much like the "I Survived" historical fiction books that are so popular. I imagine this book will be as appealing to children who like that series. (To be clear, the book is still straight narrative nonfiction; there aren't invented characters or dialogue like you would see in historical fiction.)
I remember hearing about this flight that had to landed in the Hudson River, but I hadn't realized how quite how dangerous the situation was until I read this book.
We start with a chapter that sets the scene, talking a little about the historical conditions in the US back in 2009 and the weather in New York, which was prompting many people to fly to midwinter vacations. One of those flights was Sully's flight out of LaGuardia. "Normally a routine flight," author Steven Otfinoski tells us, "on this day it would be anything but ordinary."
Otfinoski then uses a number of 1-to-2 page chapters to tell us the rest of the story, each from the point of view of one of the people who was involved in the crash. We start with an 85-year-old woman who was taking the flight; then we go to the cockpit where Captain Sullenberger is preparing for the flight; then to a woman who is traveling with her 9-month-old baby.
About 20 pages in, we get to the accident, when a flock of geese are taken into both jet engines, causing them to fail. We cut to the reactions of the passengers and then back to the cockpit as Sullenberger is trying to figure out what to do. The technique heightens the suspense and make the story a page-turner as we learn that the captains determines the only option is to land in the river. Dangerous, yes, but less dangerous than the alternatives.
Almost everyone on board is surprised that they land safely, but their ordeal is not over as they have to wade through the cold water to get to life rafts (more difficult for people traveling with the elderly and with babies) and some of them have to stand on the wing to stay out of the water.
We meet some of the ferry captains who came to rescue the passengers and all the people who came to help. I had to smile when Otfinoski relates the conversation between Sullenberger and the operations manager of the airline he was flying for.
"This is Captain Sullenberger."
"I can't talk now. There's a plane down in the Hudson!"
"I know. I'm the guy."
The book uses larger font, spacing between lines, small pages, and photos to break up the text to make the story less daunting to read. It reminds me of the Magic Tree House nonfiction companions in size and scope.
It includes all kinds of the finding tools we see in nonfiction books, including a table of contents and index, along with a timeline, a glossary, critical thinking questions, internet sites, and further reading.
When Sue Found Sue by Toni Buzzeo
AR Reading Level 5.1, Grades 2-5, 32 pages
This is a book for the quiet kids in your class, the ones who like to read and to take a close look at the world around them. It will interest kids who like dinosaurs and also show them some of the kinds of work involved in making discoveries like this.
In When Sue Found Sue, author Toni Buzzeo tells us “Sue Hendrickson was born to find things: missing trinkets, prehistoric butterflies, sunken ships, even buried dinosaurs.” Turn the page, and we see Sue as a small girl, out in her neighborhood with a magnifying glass looking for little treasures, and finding things like little brass perfume bottles. “Sue wasn’t like other kids,” Buzzeo tells us. “So shy and smart, Sue gobbled up books the way other kids gobbled up gingersnaps.” One of the things she liked to do was to visit the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and see all the treasures other people had found.
On the next page, we are with Sue at age 17 as she set out on her life, joining teams that dove in the sea to find tropical fish and lost boats; who searched Dominican amber mines for prehistoric butterflies, or explored the hills of South Dakota for dinosaur bones. The dinosaur excavation kept Sue going for four summers, digging in the rock for duck-billed dinosaurs. Sue had always been drawn to a bluff near the dig site, and finally she followed her curiosity and hiked for four hours to get to the rock face. After walking around the base of the cliff, she noticed what looked like bones on the ground, then she looked up. “She stared up at three enormous backbones protruding from the cliff eight feet above her.”
She had been in the business long enough to know that bones the size she was seeing must belong to a T. rex, and that is what they turned out to be, the “largest, most complete, best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil discovered so far.” The team named the dinosaur skeleton Sue, in honor of the woman who found it.
In a nice twist, the Field Museum ended up being the one who bought the skeleton at auction, and now it graces the museum. Here is a little five-minute video from the museum that tells its story and shows how big it is.
This book is in picture book format with full page illustrations and 3 or 4 sentences on each 2-page spread, making it a quick read to a group of children. The back matter includes an author’s note that gives more information on Sue and her T. rex, and a short list of resources for children along with additional resources. Her website is worth taking a look,
Guitar Genius by Kim Tomsic
AR Reading Level 4.3, Grades 2-5, 48 pages, 2019
How is this for a tale of resilience? A boy’s music teacher sends a note home to his mother, “Your boy, Lester, will never learn music, so save your money. Please don’t send him for any more lessons.” But this boy learns to play, well enough to get on the radio. Then over the years, he tinkers around with instruments enough so that he invents a harmonica stand, the solid-body electric guitar, and even the process for recording 8-track tape. As the years go on, he is inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, and also the National Inventors Hall of Fame. As author Kim Tomsic tells us in this picture book biography of Les Paul, Guitar Genius, the boy had grit.
Can I just say how much I love the illustrations by Brett Helquist? Probably only people my age will appreciate the book cover which hearkens back to the album covers from the 50’s. Throughout the book, his illustrations bring Paul’s story to life. I especially like that they are big enough to share with a large group of children.
And, the turns of phrase that Tomsic uses make this a fun book to read aloud. When she describes how Paul learned to play his first guitar, she says “He fumbled through the chords. His fingers floundered over the fret board. He even blundered through the B notes. His hands weren’t big enough to reach all six strings, so he removed one.”
Kids who love gadgets will also be intrigued by this book. Paul starts out by learning to make his own radio. Then he builds a device that lets him record his music using “a Cadillac flywheel, a dentist’s belt, a nail and other pieces and parts...” Next, he comes up with a device that would hold a harmonica so that he could play it together with his guitar. Then, when audience members complained his guitar wasn’t loud enough, he figured out a way to amplify the sound and also to create a solid body to eliminate the echo and feedback that a hollow body would make.
For anyone musical or mechanic al, or for anyone who has been told they are no good at what they dream to be, this is a great book to read.
The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins and Her New Deal for America by Kathleen Krull
Lexile reading level 950, Grades 3-6, 48 pages
The Only Woman in the Photo serves as a biography of a strong woman figure in Frances Perkins, but it is also an excellent introduction to the social and labor movement in the United States.
Many children--and indeed, many adults--don't know how dirty and dangerous working conditions were for the people in factories and other workplaces across America. Once they read this book, they will certainly remember author Kathleen Krull's description of bakeries of the time: "Rats nibbled on bags of flour, and cats had kittens on the counters. Dirty water, instead of chocolate, dripped onto pastries." Frances Perkins wrote it all down in her report to New York's Board of Health, and they forced bakeries to make conditions cleaner and better for the works, and for the public. We can all be glad that there are regulations for how food should be prepared.
I'm getting a little ahead of the story, so let me go back to the beginning when we learn that Frances Perkins was quiet when she was a little girl, too shy to ask for what she wanted or at the store. However, she was inspired by her grandmother who would say, "Take the high ground if someone insults you & when someone opens a door to you, go forward." Perkins was the kind of child who watched and listened and felt empathy for anyone who was poor or having a difficult time.
Her father realized how smart she was and encouraged her to learned, even though some people at the times were afraid that "women's 'delicate bodies' would suffer if their brains go too big." Perkins went to college, and a part of her assignment for her classes was to observe the working conditions in the mills nearby. She was horrified at how people were treated, especially the children, and she moved to New York City to begin a career in the developing field called social work. She said "I had to do something about the unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to me."
Perkins overcame her shyness to speak out, especially for the cause of women's suffrage. After witnessing the terrible fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, she entered politics and took a position heading up a committee Theodore Roosevelt started to investigate workplace safety.
From there, she took increasingly responsible jobs with the state of New York and then with the whole United States, accepting control of the Department of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt. The title The Only Woman in the Photo refers to the fact that Perkins was the only woman in the president's cabinet, and thus, the only woman at official functions or meetings when photos were taken. She would study the men around her and figure out how to act to best persuade them. Krull tells us that she found she was more successful at work in her "staid three-cornered hat," that reminded the men of their mothers, she would have more success.
We learn more about her federal career, how she was one of the main architects of the New Deal and in charge of the Civilian Conservation Corps. I can see this book sparking more interest in the New Deal and what it did for America.
The illustrations are delightfully colorful and evocative. They have an old-fashioned, yet lively feel to them. The pictures take up the bulk of the pages, and they convey the feel of the times and the action of the story. Some of the main quotes from the book are expanded poster style with different typography.
The back matter includes more information about Perkins and a list of sources.
When Bill Gates Memorized an Encyclopedia by Mark Weakland
AR Reading Level 4.1, Grades 1-4, 32 pages
When Bill Gates Memorized an Encyclopedia is a picture book biography that uses kid-friendly details and illustrations a little reminiscent of cartoons to tell the story of Bill Gates's life. Kids who like working with computers will especially like learning about one of the most successful computer nerds in history.
The book spends quite a bit of time on Bill's childhood relating some funny family stories: how his grandparents bought everyone matching pajamas every Christmas and hung them on the Christmas tree; how the family would play games after dinner and the winners wouldn't have to do the dishes.
Parents and teachers will be glad to see how voracious a reader young Bill was, and how he won a school reading contest for several years. We also learn that he liked to compete in sales, a young man selling nuts for the Cub Scouts, going door to door and making notes as to why some people would buy his nuts and some wouldn't. And, of course, he read a whole set of encyclopedias when he was eight and remembered many facts from it.
I also appreciated the author acknowledging that Bill wasn't perfect, though. He was strong-willed, argumentative with his parents at times, and inclined to act like a know-it-all. His parents decided to enroll him in a private school, the place where he became absorbed into computers, a rarity in the 60's when he went to high school. "'Of course, in those days we were just goofing around, or so we thought,'" he said later. 'But the toy we had--well, it turned out to be some toy."'"
Bill and his friends actually got into trouble, sneakily changing the usage data on the machine so they could get more time on it. At first, the computer company banned them, but then they decided to let them have the time if they would do the work of looking for bugs in the software. Gates points out he was fortunate that the company found a way for the boys continue with their interests, rather than shutting them down permanently.
The book also describes the first company he founded with his friend, one that would track traffic data. Of course, his big company was Microsoft, and the story of that company curiously turns up in the author's note, rather than in the main part of the text.
Even so, it's a book that will show children how everyday kids can read and learn and have their ideas be successful. The illustrations convey the sense of activity and fun that is very much a part of Gates' story.
Caught! Nabbing History's Most Wanted by Georgia A. Bragg
Grades 4-8, 224 pages
Even though Caught! is over 200 pages long, it reads quite a bit faster than you'd think due to relatively large print, the numerous illustrations and sidebars and the rollicking style of author Georgia Bragg. In these pages, she tells the stories of 14 notorious characters in history and how they were caught. Some were out-and-out criminals like All Capone and Billy the Kid. Some were blamed for things they probably didn't do, like Mata Hari. And some were careless people or hapless people who caused lots of misery, like Typhoid Mary or the (sometimes) spy Bernarnd Otto Kuehn.
Bragg's style is conversational and often hilarious as she gives each of her subjects about 10 pages of text to tell the story of how they went astray somehow and how things caught up with them. The author is also not shy about giving her opinion about the person in question. Describing Joan of Arc, she says, "[She] is like the kind of friend you can't stand, but when you need her for something important, she's there at the rescue...She showed up and led the French army when she was only seventeen years old, at a time when girls were barely allowed to do more than peek out a tower window or feed a goat."
Of Blackbeard, she says, "The best-dressed pirate was Blackbeard. He didn't need a patch, a hook, or a peg leg to scare everybody to death; he used pyrotechnics. But it was just a flashy show of fire and smoke. Blackbeard captured over a hundred ships and he never killed a single prisoner. Except for the stealing, kidnapping, and destroying of property, he wan't that bad."
Children, like the rest of us, will surely be both fascinated and repulsed by her account of Typhoid Mary, a cook who spread disease because she refused to wash her hands after going to the bathroom. Says Bragg, "She didn't exactly mean to poison the food with a deadly disease...not at first, anyway. But the poop was in the pudding."
Illustrator Kevin O'Malley provides each person with a full-page drawing and provides little illustrations throughout. After each story, Bragg provides more interesting little factoids about the life of the person in question. For instance, in the section about Vincenzo Peruggia, she lists 5 of the biggest art heists, and gives a short history of the use of fingerprinting to catch criminals.
I can see this book working well for a child who needs to give a presentation about a historical character and includes some graphics about related topics.
Here is a list of people who are covered in this book:
- Joan of Arc
- Sir Walter Raleigh
- John Wilkes Booth
- Jesse James
- Billy the Kid
- Mata Hari
- Typhoid Mary
- Vincenzo Peruggia
- Bernard Otto Kuehn
- Anna Anderson
- Al Capone
Eclipse Chaser by Ilima Loomis
Grades 4-7, 80 pages
Eclipse Chaser is the book I wish had been available before I loaded up the car and drove to the town of Glendo, Wyoming to see the 2017 eclipse. I had read Wendy Mass’s book Every Soul a Star, which convinced me that an eclipse was a magnificent thing to see.
All those photos you see in the newspapers that show a little bit of light peeking around the dark moon don’t really do the sight justice because they don’t show the sun’s corona, the part that is outside the blazing center. If you are at an eclipse in person, you will see the corona, a wild tangle of white wisps that whip around half the sky. (We usually can’t see it because the sun is so bright.) The photos in Eclipse Chaser are the closest approximation I’ve seen to what a total eclipse looks like. You can see some of them in this
This book is designed to give children a sense of what it’s like to work as a scientist in the field, and here we follow a woman named Shadia Habbal as she directs several different teams to gather data about the sun’s corona during the Great American Eclipse of 2017. We see that she needs to have a variety of skills to decide on the five sites she’ll use, to staff the teams at each site, and then to decide on the equipment and what kinds of measurements they’ll take.
Though the author, Ilima Loomis, has quite a bit of text in this 80-page book, she keeps the narrative moving along. She describes Habbal’s first eclipse in India in 1995: “As day turned to night, she looked up in amazement at the shimmering white corona. Near the center, angry red solar prominences jutted out from the sun’s surface into the lower atmosphere, while father out, long white streamers of plasma cascaded into space so dramatically, she almost felt as if she could hear them whooshing away. She wasn’t just looking at an eclipse, Shadia thought. She was looking at answers. The eclipse only lasted forty-two seconds, but that was long enough. Shadia was hooked.”
Almost every page has one or more photos which serve to give the readers a sense of the places to which the eclipse team has traveled. They also show us some of the equipment that the team uses and illustrate some concepts about the sun which explain what Shadia is trying to find out with her data gathering and studies. Just as important, they show Shadia throughout her whole adventure. We see her standing with her equipment that has all kinds of lenses and knobs. We see her looking through eclipse glasses to see the sun. We see her working with her sister to make dinner for the team. We see that this is her job, and her passion.
We also learn lots of the things about the corona. For one thing, it gets hotter as it gets farther away from the center of the sun. Why? No one has figured that out yet, and that’s why scientists need Shadia’s data. She also uses special equipment to figure out which elements are in the corona. The pictures she gets are pretty cool, and sure to interest the science and space aficionados out there.
I started out by saying I regretted this book wasn’t available before I went to see the eclipse. But, guess what? There is another total eclipse headed to the US in 2024, and this book would be a great one to read before going and taking a look at it. The eclipse will enter the US in Texas and travel north east until it exits through Maine. If you’d like to see if it’s coming near you, take a look at this National Eclipse site.
The House That Cleaned Itself: The True Story of Frances Gabe’s (Mostly) Marvelous Invention by Laura Dershewitz and Susan Romberg
Grades 2-5, 40 pages
The House That Cleaned Itself would be a great book to read before starting a project on problem-solving and inventions. It tells the story of Frances Gabe, a woman who got fed up with housework and finally set about to see if she could invent the kind of house that could clean itself.
One thing that makes this book a delight is the lively voice of the story. When it begins, we learn “Frances Gabe was NOT happy. A gooey glob of fig jam was crawling down the wall like a slug. Nobody would say how it got there. But one thing was for certain: it was Frances’s job to clean it up…But Frances couldn’t stand back-breaking, knee-creaking housework. She found cleaning ‘a nerve-twangling bore.’”
What did she do? She went and got the garden hose and fired away at the wall. “All Frances had to do was stand there. The wall practically cleaned itself! And that day, as the story goes, she had the beginning of an idea.”
Years passed, but finally she was able to sit down and try to design a place that would literally clean itself. The authors tell us it essentially worked like a car wash with sprinklers and soap and drying jets. She figured out how to have a self-cleaning bathroom, and a cupboard that would wash and store the dishes. Here’s one invention I’d like: a waterproof cabinet that will wash and dry your clothes on the hanger. Didn’t the Jetsons have something like that?
Her ideas caught some interest. Scientists studied them. Museums displayed models of her home. Unfortunately for everyone who has to do housework, her ideas hit some snags and none of us have self-cleaning homes.
Why read this book, then? As the author’s tells us, “There’s another funny thing about ideas, you know. New ones tend to connect to old ones….Maybe one day a young inventor will figure out how to build on Frances’s ideas—and go out and do something about it.”
This would be a great springboard to talking about the different kinds of chores there around the house and have the children brainstorm ideas about how to design something to perform them.
The illustrations are whimsical and eye-catching. The back matter includes a bibliography and more information about Frances Gabe, including a picture of her standing in a raincoat and umbrella inside her self-cleaning house.
Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children by Jonah Winter
Grades 2-5, 40 pages
Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children is a book that makes history come alive for children and helps them see how the social policies we now take for granted came to be. The children I've talked with usually have no idea that little kids used to have to work in the factories for ten hours straight for just two cents an hour. The factories were dangerous places, full of dust that damaged their lungs and machines that could take off a finger, or worse.
Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children introduces today's children to the struggle to end child labor in as gentle a way as possible, considering the subject matter. I think it works brilliantly because author Jonah Winter decided to narrate this story of the March of the Mill Children, 1903, in Mother Jones's voice. It would make an excellent read-aloud to introduce history, especially the labor movement. On the first double-page spread we see Mother Jones, dressed in her trademark black and white, striding purposefully towards us. "My name is Mother Jones, and I'm MAD," she says. "And you'd be MAD, too, if you'd seen what I've seen."
After telling us about how miners had been mistreated, and how she'd been arrested because she spoke up for them, she talks about the mill children, "I saw children YOUR AGE--nine and ten years old--who worked like grown-ups, forced to stand on their feet for TEN HOURS STRAIGHT, tying threads to spinning spools, reaching their hands inside the dangerous machines that make the fabric...breathing deadly dust--robbed of their childhoods, robbed of their dreams, and all for a measly TWO CENTS AND HOUR, while outside the birds sang and the blue sky shone." The illustration, with a subdued pallet, show young children, most of them barefoot, hunched over at their machines, looking exhausted. One little girl looks back at us, her face a mixture of sorrow and longing.
Turn a couple of pages and we see Mother Jones calling the newspapers on an old-fashioned phone giving them what for. She tells us though, that those newspapers were owned by rich men "who were buddies with the rich folks who owned the mills," and weren't about to print any stories about how evil and greedy the mill owners were. One of the most chilling illustrations is on the facing page, showing a bunch of fat cats holding the phone away from their ears and laughing while the hold a newspaper with a headline that says "Kids Enjoy Factory Work."
In the most important line of the book, Mother Jones tells us, "Money is a powerful thing. But there is power in the people. There is POWER in the UNION...What--you never heard of a union?" she says, and then explains briefly what a union is and what it does.
She came up with a plan to gather the children and march them to see the president. It's heartening to know that people along the way helped them out. Train conductors let them ride for free, sometimes, and people would bring them food.
By the time she got to the president's mansion, she only had three children with her, and the president would not come to see them. But, Mother Jones tells us that the march was not a failure. "HECK NO! What we did that summer changed the world." The march had "shined a great big SPOTLIGHT on child labor.” She lists the things that they accomplished: children under 18 could not work dangerous jobs, children under 16 could not work during school hours, and children under 14 could not work after school.
It's a lively and inspiring book that memorably portrays an important time in American history. The back matter includes a bibliography and an Author's Note in which Winter reminds us that there are still 215 million child workers worldwide and that even here in the US, some people want to reverse the child labor laws. He ends by saying "We need Mother Jones."
Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
AR Reading Level 4.7, Grades 3-6, 40 pages
We usually think of cowboys in the West looking like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, but in reality twenty-five percent of the cowboys from that period were black, and even more were of Mexican origin.
Let ‘Er Bucktells the story of a young African-American man, George Fletcher, a skilled bronc rider and of his participation in a contest that took place in eastern Oregon.
The story starts when Fletcher was about 10 years old and his family moved to Pendleton, Oregon. Author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson flavors her work with Old West phrases as she tells her story. “…there weren’t many black people in Eastern Oregon, and most whites didn’t cotton to them. George suffered meanness and hurt because of his skin color. Life at home was no bushel of peaches either. He had to make his own way.” They lived near the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Fletcher found he “took to their ways like a wet kitten to a warm brick.”
One of his favorite games was to ride a barrel that had ropes attached to it. The other children would pull those ropes to make the barrel “buck.” As he grew older, Fletcher moved up to actual bucking broncos and rode in rodeos and exhibitions all around town.
When he was 21, Fletcher competed in the Saddle Bronc Champion contest in the biggest rodeo held in the Northwest. His main competitors were Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce, and John Spain, a white rancher. Sundown was disqualified when he lost a stirrup, and Spain had a "dandy ride." But it was Fletcher's ride that inspired the crowd. According to the newspaper, George rode his horse "with such ease and abandon that the crowd shouted itself hoarse." It described him as "limber and elastic as a rubber band" and "easily made the most showy ride of the Round-Up."
When it was time to announce the winner, though, the judges gave Fletcher second place. Nelson tells us he "took it like a cowboy. He'd felt the sting before." It didn't sit well with the sheriff, though, and he cut up Fletcher's hat and sold the pieces to crowd members as a keepsake, bringing the bronc rider more money than if he's won the first prize of the silver-trimmed saddle. The audience had "plumb decided--heck with the judges--George'd won." Today, he is still known as "The People's Champion," and in 2014 the City of Pendleton put up a statue to honor him.
The Poison Eaters: Fighting Danger and Fraud in Our Food and Drugs by Gail Jarrow
AR Reading Level 7.7, Grades 5-8, 157 pages
Here is a book that gives children a window into seeing how public policy can change lives. The Poison Eaters is one of those books that doesn't seem as long as it is because the information is so riveting. It's a book about the fight for making our food safer, which might seem a bit of a yawner, but in author Gail Jarrow's hands, it's a story that draws you in because you can't really believe things used to be this bad.
She starts with a description of a typical dinner scene for a family near the beginning of the 20th century. In days past, most families ate what they grew on the farm, but by 1890 many families got their food in a grocery store. But food companies were using tricks to sell people substandard--and even dangerous--food. Here is Jarrow's description of one of the family's food items, "The sausage sizzling in the pan... came from a filthy factory a thousand miles away. It was made from a pulverized mass of meat scraps swept off the floor off the floor--along with the rat feces--and mixed with borax to keep it from rotting." In case children are not familiar with Borax, she explains "Borax is the same stuff in scouring powder and laundry detergent."
We also find out that this milk is laced with formaldehyde, the "baking eggs" have been deodorized so that you can’t tell that they are rotting, and the supposed strawberry jam is full of cheap sugar, leftover apple pieces, a dangerous red die and a preservative that is dangerous to eat. To top it off, the "soothing syrup" that the mother gives the baby because he is cutting a tooth has highly addictive morphine in it. People had no idea what was in the food they ate because food and medicine producers were not required to list the ingredients in their products.
By the time we are finished reading the first chapter, we are starting to wonder how anyone made it out of the 1890’s alive.
The bulk of this story, though, is a good guy scientist tale, a recounting of the career of Harvey Wiley, a chemist who did testing for the government and eventually became the first commissioner of The Food and Drug Administration. As a scientist, he was suspicious of the substances that were added to food and set about to test them to see if they were harmful. He even devised an experiment to have a number of young men eat food with borax in it to see if it impacted their health, a group that was dubbed "The Poison-Eaters." Even though his experiment lacked some scientific rigor because he didn't have a control group, it attracted the attention of the press and led citizens, especially women's groups to push for a pure-food law that would require manufacturers to list the ingredients of their products and stop putting harmful chemicals into them.
I believe books like this are important for children to read because they will realize how hard people have to work to effect change, even when people's health and lives are at stake. It took decades and decades of struggle to get Congress to act because the food and drug manufacturers always pushed back, not wanting these laws to hurt their profits. It's a story told time and time again. Someone has to hold companies accountable because they always seem to value the bottom line over their customers' welfare.
Jarrow's writing stays engaging as she tells how journalists, concerned citizens, and--regrettably--several tragedies finally moved the needle and convinced Congress to pass a pure food act in 1906 and provide needed strengthening in 1938 and 1962.
Some of the instances she tells about are quite disturbing: the radium poisoning that caused people's bones to crumble, the eyelash dye that blinded people, the thalidomide that led to deformities in babies. As such, you would want to make sure that the readers can handle the topic and provide them support and a way to talk about what they've learned.
It's such an important topic, that it is worth introducing to older children and teens. Jarrow concludes by talking about the status of the FDA today and some of the products that they are still researching.
Throughout, there are plenty of photos, graphs, and sidebars to give readers a good grasp of the information. Back matter includes a glossary, an author's note, timeline, source notes, a bibliography and an index.
Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War by Duncan Tonatiuh
AR Reading Level 5.3 Grades 3-6, 40 pages
This is an important book for fostering empathy for people who have been bullied because of their heritage. It also adds to the diversity of stories we hear about American hereoes who worked for fairness and justice. Soldier for Equality uses a picture book format to tell the story of José de la Luz Sáenz (called Luz in the text), a teacher who fought in World War I and helped found the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a civil rights organization that works for equal rights for Americans of Latinx descent.
Tonatiuh starts his story with a situation that children can easily understand. As a young boy, Luz is bullied by other children who called him names because his family came from Mexico. When a boy yells out "Greaser!" we are told, "Luz (looz) ran toward the boy and tackled him to the ground. Luz had had enough. ¡Ya basta! Why were those kids mean to him just because his family had come from Mexico?"
On the next page we learn that Luz's grandmother had come to the US more that 25 years before and Luz and all his siblings were born in the US, making them American citizens, just like those who tormented them. We learn that children of Mexican descent were made to attend schools that were far worse than the others and that some businesses had signs posted that said, "No Mexicans allowed."
Luz became a schoolteacher, but was still frustrated at the injustice his pupils had to deal with. In 1918 he joined the army, even though he could have gotten an exemption, because he believed it was his duty and that other Americans would see that his people were entitled to the same rights because they fought for the country.
While at training camp, he met Native Americans and fellow Mexican Americans who also met with discrimination. He mostly got along well with the others, but once again an officer called him "greaser." "This army will fight against tyrannical rulers and injustice in Europe," he thought. "How is it possible that some officers here can be so unfair to their own countrymen?"
After his training, Luz was shipped to France where he taught himself to read French, a language that has quite a bit in common with Spanish. When the colonel found out that Luz could translate, he assigned him to work in intelligence where he served honorably.
Once he returned home, though, Luz found conditions the same for Mexican Americans. They had all done their part for the war effort, and they wanted equality and justice. Luz began to give speeches and help organize the people, eventually helping to found LULAC with other activists.
In his Author's Note, Tonatiuh tells how he learned of Luz's journal which proivded quite a few insights into life of Tejanos in the military and in south Texas. He also points out that while Hispanics comprise 12% of the military today, they do not hold a corresponding number of high-ranking positions.
Tonatiuh also did the illustrations, showcasing the folk-art style he has used in other books such as Separate is Never Equal. They carry the mood of the story whether it is the isolation Luz felt when he saw exclusionary signs, the dangers of war, or the joy of a homecoming celebration.
Back matter also includes timelines, a bibliography, and index, and a glossary of Spanish words and phrases used in the text.
Karl’s New Beak: 3-D Printing Builds a Bird a Better Life by Lela Nargi
AR Reading Level 4.8, Grades 3-6, 32 pages
Karl’s New Beak, a short book published by the Smithsonian, could be an accompaniment to so many topics of study including methods of problem-solving, perseverance, the work of a scientist, bird physiology, adaptations, technology, and 3-D printing.
Children may already be familiar with hornbill birds, since Zazu of The Lion King is a hornbill, though he’s an Abyssinian ground hornbill, rather than an African red-billed. They may have also seen a 3-D printer at work, perhaps making a small plastic toy. This is the story of how the two came together.
Karl lives at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., but he used to have a problem. Part of the lower section of his beak had broken off, making it hard for him to eat a normal hornbill diet. Zookeepers worried that he might be getting bored since he couldn’t go around hunting wild creatures. Additionally, it would be tough for him to get a female to mate with him since he couldn’t be a good provider.
Here, it’s worth bringing in a little of author Nargi’s text so you can see what her writing style is like: “A male hornbill in the wild blinks his velvety eyelashes at the arid landscape. When he notices a venomous puff adder, he POUNCES. He snatches up the snake using his beak like toothless tongs. Then he crushes the snake’s head. He might bring this prize to his mate and chicks in their nest.” The upshot: no snake for Karl, no family for him, either.
Enter James Steeil, the zoo’s veterinarian, who realized they could use they could use a skeleton from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History as a model for 3-D printing a new beak. The bulk of the book describes the process, illustrated with lots of photos of each of the different steps. We see the scientists measuring carefully, modeling on their computers, making prototypes, then making modifications. Finally, after all their careful planning and testing, it worked. Karl’s a new bird now with a new beak to eat just what he wants.
Nargi keeps her text short with usually only about 4 or 5 sentences on each page. In addition to the photos, there are some drawings illustrating Karl’s difficulties and final restoration. The back has a glossary and more facts about Abyssinian ground hornbills.
Close Calls: How Eleven US Presidents Escaped from the Brink of Death by Michael P Spradlin
You may have kids whose eyes glaze over if you want them to read a book about US presidents. But how about a book about how eleven of our presidents escaped from death? Now, you’ve got an angle that will make at least some of them prick up their ears. Who knew that they had such dangerous lives?
Close Calls is a slim volume that sneaks in quite a bit of information about our presidents and the times they lived in while also narrating some pretty exciting tales. Here you will read about John F. Kennedy and the several times he came close to death after the sinking of his boat, PT-109. You’ll learn how Harry Truman had to duck out of sight while the Secret Service fought off two assassins outside the house where he was staying.
The one I found most interesting was Teddy Roosevelt. A deranged man shot him in the chest, but Roosevelt was saved by the 50-page speech he had in his pocket which blocked the bullet somewhat. It lodged in his body, but was not a mortal wound. Being who he was, the rough and ready presidential candidate refused to go to a hospital until he had given his speech. When he addressed the crowd, he said “The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.” His “not very long speech” turned out to be 90 minutes!
Spradlin chose good subject matter, and he also heightens the interest with lively writing. At one point, he tells us about a plot against George Washington in a section titled “If they kill the general, he can’t be the father of his country.” He tells us that a man named Thomas Hickey “supposedly had the idea to sneak some poisoned peas to the Washington household for the general to eat. Since peas were Washington’s favorite veggie, this was probably a pretty sound plan.” In one version of the story a tavernkeeper’s daughter found out about the plot and went to Washington. “He was about to take a bite of peas, and she snatched them out of his hands and dumped them out the window. According to the legend, some chickens outside scarfed down the peas and immediately keeled over dead. This is probably unlikely—although it makes a really good story, especially the keeling-over chickens part.”
Here are the presidents he covers: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln (who survived all but one of the attempts on his life), Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. Throughout the stories, he includes sidebars which explain more about the historical situation, things like how Allan Pinkerton started his detective agency and Kate Warne became his first female detective. Back matter includes sources and an index.
© 2020 Adele Jeunette