Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Three Cheers: Memorable Nonfiction

I've been trying to think of at least one nonfiction picture book from my childhood, but I haven't been able to come up with one.  That doesn't mean they didn't exist, of course, but I can't name a single title.  Perhaps the books from my youth were just forgettable, but that is not the case now.  With books like Me . . . Jane by Patrick McDonnell, The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton and Tony Persiani,  Nic Bishop's animal books, and others, we are seeing nonfiction picture books published that are engaging, visually captivating, and certainly, memorable.  Where once they may have been used primarily by teachers as classroom assignments, nonfiction picture books today are read and re-read by children who are fascinated by the stories they tell and the worlds they explore.  Here's a look at three recently-published, terrific picture books.

Perfect for preschoolers is Lucky Ducklings: A True Rescue Story by Eva Moore.  (While it may be classified as fiction, this book is based on an actual event, so I have taken the liberty of including it in a nonfiction post.)  When Mama Duck takes her five ducklings for a walk, the ducklings fall into a storm drain in their path.  People in the town come to the rescue and work together to get Mama Duck and her ducklings safely home.

Moore's rhythmic text repeats the ducklings' names, "Pippin, Bippin, Tippin, Dippin . . . and last of all, Little Joe," and Mama Duck's forceful, "Whack! Whack!" which makes the story a delight to read aloud.  Moore sets up suspense before the page turns and pulls listeners along with, "that could have been the end of the story.  But it wasn't because . . ."

Beautiful illustrations by Nancy Carpenter convey the ducks' personalities in a realistic fashion and are reminiscent of Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings.  I read this book to my kindergartner and then immediately, read it again.

Next up is a book for slightly older kids about an invention that most of them have probably never thought of as being invented--basketball.  Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball by John Coy is a spirited story that demonstrates creative problem solving at its best.

With an economy of words, Coy tells of James Naismith's attempts in 1871 to teach a rowdy gym class that no one else wanted.  Since it was winter, he tried playing games indoors--first, football, then soccer, and finally, lacrosse--but the resulting injuries led him to abandon each.  What he needed was a new game, and so, he invented one: basketball.  Played with a soccer ball and peach baskets, the first game was so successful that when "Naismith blew the whistle to end the game, nobody wanted to leave."  The story includes interesting detail, sometimes in the pictures like the attempted calisthenic and gymnastic training of the first two teachers who quit before Naismith took the class, and sometimes in the text which includes the name of the player who scored the only point in the first game.

Illustrations by Joe Morse--done in a palette of maroon, blue, gray, and brown--have a distinctly 19th-century feeling.  Angular, contorted figures convey the energy of the boys and the physicality of the games in full-page pictures.  As an added bonus, the original typewritten rules are reproduced on the end papers.

Last up is Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, the story of one woman courageously standing up, speaking out, and influencing thousands.

When Clara Lemlich immigrates to America, she finds a job as a garment worker.  Conditions are unreasonable, and the details Markel provides emphasize that: half a day's wages lost for being late, locked doors, unsanitary conditions, and more.  Clara's meager pay helps buy food and contributes to the rent for her family, but Clara wants something better.  At night she studies in the library, and during the day she urges the girls who work with her to "fight for their rights" by striking.  She is beaten, jailed, and fired, but she perseveres.  Finally, at a union meeting, she calls for a general strike saying, "I have no further patience for talk" and starts "the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history."  Again, details underscore the determination of the girls, some as young as twelve, to improve their conditions.

Melissa Sweet's illustrations incorporate stitching and fabric swatches, reflecting the garment workers' jobs.  She does a remarkable job representing the power of the companies and the insignificance of the girls with a dramatic overhead view showing rows of tiny girls at their machines and another picture of the large Triangle Waist Company building, which gives even more weight to Clara's efforts.  The opening picture of people looking toward the Statue of Liberty from the ship arriving in New York harbor is echoed in the final picture of Clara looking from the shore toward the same statue, bringing the story of a hopeful girl who finds out America can be unfair, full circle as she regains faith in her new country.

History brought to life with an engaging text and captivating illustrations--this is memorable.


  1. We love Me...Jane around here as well. I think we'll be trying, "Hoop Genius" for the older one next!

  2. I definitely have to read Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers' Strike of 1909 next, and I really loved reading Lucky Ducklings: A True Rescue Story. I guess I will be reading a lot more nonfiction.

  3. Thanks for more nonfiction recommendations. We love Lucky Ducklings and Nic Bishop. Having fun "true stories" is a must to diversify your library.