Sunday, June 5, 2011

Non-Fiction Not to be Missed

Non-fiction for young readers becomes more interesting and and eye-catching every day. The books on this list are not so much designed for research as for enjoyment. They tell interesting stories that just happen to be true. To add to the pleasure, they are full of fabulous illustrations or, in a couple of the titles, amazing photographs. These are a great way to get younger readers to realize that there is much to enjoy in non-fiction and an ever better way to spark interests that may well lead to deeper investigations.

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill ( grades 2 and up) won both a Caldecott Honor award and the Coretta Scott King Artist Award this year for its amazing illustrations by Brian Collier. With little text, this magnificent work of art tells of an impressive artist who was also a slave known only as Dave the Potter. Dave crafted huge clay pots for the plantation owners but his special touch is obvious in their beauty. Additionally, he added a simple poem to each of his pieces which are still be uncovered today. Even if you don't feel the urge to rush out and make a pot, you will be moved by the stunning book.

Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse by Emily Arnold McCully (grades K-4) tells of another slave who did amazing things. Bill Key was born a slave in 1833 and grew up with a special affinity for animals. After Emancipation, he became a veterinarian who believed in the power of kindness which led him to raise an injured Arabian colt that he taught to recognize letters, identify the primary colors, tap out answers to simple arithmetic, make change, and dance. Key took his horse out on the road, billing it as an "Equine Wonder". When a newspaper questioned the horse's intelligence, Key brought in Harvard professors to confirm that his horse was no a hoax. Do not overlook the final notes that talk about discrimination that Key faced as well as the work of organizations like the SPCA.

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery (grades 4-8) is the latest in the Scientist in the Field series. This one takes the reader to a small island off of New Zealand to meet the flightless, nocturnal Kakapo who, at about nine pounds, weighs in as the world's heaviest parrot. They have cat-like whiskers and a growl like a dog. Although they can live to be 100, there are only 87 of them left in the world, in large part because they have never thought of humans as a threat. Montgomery covers just one short part of the hatching season, showing the ups and downs that are all part of the hard work, scientific methods and pure luck that fill each day. The photos by Nic Bishop beautifully capture both the birds and the scientists who are working to save them.

Nic Bishop also publishes books of his own work. His latest is Nic Bishop's Lizards. If you have not seen Bishop's other books you will be rushing out to find them after seeing the brilliant, colorful, energy packed photos here. Each photo is accompanied by a brief essay filled with fascinating facts. Don't forget to read the author's note at the back of the book which describes the lengths to which Bishop will go to get the perfect picture. Other subjects that have been "shot" by Bishop include Butterflies and Moths, Frogs, Marsupials, and Spiders as well as many more critters in books with other authors.

A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston (grades K-5) features beautiful soft illustrations by Sylvia Long. The illustrations are matched with descriptions and facts that are almost poetic as they lead to new appreciations of butterflies. Equally beautiful and informative are two other titles by the same author and illustrator--A Seed is Sleepy and An Egg is Quiet.

The bright colors of Biblioburro: A True Story from Columbia by Jeanette Winter (grades K-6) will catch your eyes but is the story that will capture your heart. Luis Soriano is a teacher in a remote area of Columbia who decided that people in the villages around him needed access to books. He loaded up his two donkeys, Alpha and Beta, with a small collection of books and set off with stories to tell and books to loan. That collection has grown since he began in 2000 and now even has a building in which it is stored. Students who have easy access to books and libraries can find new appreciation through this simple story that includes not just books and donkeys, but also bandits.

Chris Van Allsburg, a master illustrator best know for fantastic fantasy picture books like Jumanji, now offers us non-fiction that suits his black and white illustrations to a tee. Queen of the Falls (grades 1-5) is the story of Annie Edson Taylor who at 62 became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She hoped for fame and fortune but found little of either. People were skeptical of an elderly woman claiming to be such a daredevil. Van Allsburg captures the magnitude of both her courage and her disappointment.

Pop! The Invention of Bubblegum by Meghan McCarthy ( grades K-4) is as bold and pink as a chunk of Double Bubble and as full of surprises as a bubble that pops just a minutes too soon. Walter Diemer was an accountant at the Fleer family candy factory who could not give up on a project in the next door office to find a gum that made bubbles. His boss had long given up hope, but Walter kept working until, in 1928, he found a recipe that worked. The rest, it could be said, is history, though if you want more history and trivia of gum and bubbles there is plenty of that here too.

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