Saturday, November 1, 2008

Some Great Non-Fiction for All Ages

Non-fiction is rarely thought of as a relaxing afternoon's read, but these books could prove that concept wrong. Any of these books, and so many more that are out there, is as interesting and enjoyable as a good novel with the added advantage of offering a chance to learn something new. Non-fiction: It's not just for report writing any more.

Sandy’s Circus: A Story about Alexander Calder by Tanya Lee Stone is a good representative of the popular practice of biographies in a picture book format. By focusing primarily on the youth and early work of Alexander Calder, the author increases the book's appeal to younger readers. The pictures are inviting and do a good job of conveying the energy and whimsy of Calder’s circus people. This is a good start for aspiring artists or those who are writing a report.

The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West by Sid Fleischman makes it immediately clear that this is a biography that, like Twain, may take some liberties with the truth. The end result is a light and airy read with plenty of personality, though I suspect that Flesichman’s respect for Twain results in a character with a little more charm than the original. The text is peppered with quotes from Twain’s shows and illustrated with photos and other memorabilia. Students in grades four through eight will find much to enjoy in this friendly biography.

This is Your Life Cycle by Heather Lynn Miller uses the format of the old TV show “This is Your Life” to teach about the life cycle of the damsel fly. Even second to fifth graders who have never heard of that old show will enjoy the humor of the presentation while gaining a more clear understanding of insect life cycles.

Duel! Burr and Hamilton’s Deadly War of Words by Dennis Brindell Fradin contains much more information than its picture book format might suggest. If you are like me and want to know more about the people and the problems of American history, this is a good place to start. The famous duel was not a new argument and it seems both men had some right to be angry while neither is free of blame for the problems that brought them to face off in a field.

The Night Olympic Team: Fighting to Keep Drugs Out of the Games by Caroline Hatton takes the reader to the basement laboratories at the Salt Lake City Olympics as scientists scramble to find new tests for drugs that athletes might use. Since the use of drugs has become such a part of sports around the world, this is a very pertinent subject. The author worked in those labs at Salt Lake so she knows her stuff. I was glad to see the clear explanation about why performance enhancing drugs are banned and their effects on the human body.

Where Does Pepper Come From? And Other Fun Facts by Brigitte Raab offers creativity, facts, and ideas for research in one attractively illustrated package. Starting with a question that needs some research for an accurate answer, this book first offers a creative and humorous suggestion for an answer. The correct answer is offered in a few short sentences on the next. Here is an opportunity to laugh and learn that will appeal to kindergartens through fifth graders.

Sisters and Brothers: Sibling Relationships in the Animal World by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page contains Jenkins’ trademark collage-style illustrations and interesting facts about nature. Look here for information about animal child-rearing, quirks of birth order, and other idiosyncrasies of families in the wild. Any title by Steve Jenkins is a good bet for learning about nature from a new angle. You can't beat his pictures.

Lady Liberty: A Biography by Doreen Rappaport is the most interesting and eye-pleasing book I have found about the Statue of Liberty. The biography of the statue is told through biographical sketches of the people who had something to do with the creation and erection of this powerful symbol. The illustrations are clear and bold, carrying the sense of the immensity of the statue itself.

Close to the Wind: The Beaufort Scale by Peter Malone is much more than a story of the common sense measure of wind speed. It is a story of sailing in the 19th century presented through imagined diary entries along with facts about the realities of survival at sea. The importance of the Beaufort Scale becomes clear as the weather at sea changes and the sailors must respond appropriately.

The Whale Scientists: Solving the Mystery of Whale Strandings by Fran Hodgkins is just one of many in this informative series about scientists working with wild animals. Look for all of them for upper elementary and middle school students interested in a science career. This particular title discusses the whaling industry, whale genealogy, and the current research on whales that seem to beach themselves for no apparent reason.

Eggs by Marilyn Singer goes beyond where most books about end by looking at all of the world’s creatures that lay eggs from birds to the platypus, insects to snakes, and more. The introduction talks about all aspects of eggs including fertilization, hatching, and rearing the young. The illustrations are soft yet detailed. Facts are presented amidst the illustrations in a way that will inspire further investigation.

One Well: The Story of Water on Earth by Rochelle Strauss comes with a clear agenda. Water conservation affects the whole world, it states, because essentially we all share the same well, the same limited amount of water. The author talks about everything that uses water, the water cycle, the abuse of water, and the rescue efforts that are currently under way. I wish that the illustrations were better, but the message is well worth sharing.

Wild Tracks: A Guide to Nature’s Footprints by Arnold Arnosky is just what the budding tracker needs because it contains life-size footprints of animals likely to be found in the woods of North America. There are just enough facts to keep things interesting without detracting from the tracks that will be the top priority for most readers.

Frogs by Nic Bishop is yet another collection of this Michigan author/photographer’s amazing work. He must spend hours and hours just waiting for a frog to leap to get the perfect picture. The facts that are added to every illustration are well presented to provide a wealth of information. Look for Bishop’s Spiders and anything else you can get your hands on by him.

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