Tag Archives: non fiction

Non-Fiction Monday: School Rules!

With Summer Reading over I’ve been working on the Back to School display, which is good because requests will start to pour in for books to help kids who are starting school. Starting school is one of those perennial topics, like books on going to the doctor, getting a new sibling, and potty training. Like those topics, books on this subject straddle the line between fiction and non-fiction. Since I have nothing to do with the cataloging decisions at my library, I like to distinguish these books based on whether they tell a story or list information.

Back-to-School Rules Recently, I received an e-arc of an informational picture book on going back to school. Back to School Rules by Laurie Friedman. In this short picture book, a young boy lists rules for school success, such as:

That means no naps in class.
No running through the halls.
No climbing up the flagpole.
No writing on the walls.

For the most part, these rules are actual things kids need to know in order to behave properly in school. Sometimes they go over the top like not hanging from the ceiling, but for the most part they cover typical situations.

My biggest question with this book is audience. Kids starting school for the first time would be overwhelmed and many of the rules don’t necessarily apply, as pre-school and Kindergarteners can and do Moo frequently. Also they don’t understand what contradict means–I’m not sure even second graders know what that means.

I think if the author had been a little more funny, a little less informational, and a little less preachy this book could have been a hit for the 1st to 2nd grade crowd.


One World, Many Stories, Many of which are Non Fiction

In getting ready for the summer, I’m reviewing some non fiction titles that go along with the Summer Reading Program theme: One World, Many Stories. I’ll post some folktale collections later, but today I have some more books on children of the world.

A Life Like Mine A Life Like Mine, UNICEF. This is a very nice profile of the lives of children around the world. The pictures of children and stories really bring the varying circumstances to life, and statistics and diagrams can clearly explain what are sometimes complicated situations. The one problem with this is that it is growing dated. There is a profile of a girl in Afghanistan that talks about 2001 and there is no question in my mind that circumstances are vastly different today. I hope that this is updated, as it is a beautiful resource.

Children Around the World Children Around the World, Donata Montanari. On one hand this book seems less dated then the previous book, though it is older, but on the other hand the children seem less real. This is because the children are represented with colorful illustrations, not pictures, and the descriptions are sketchy and vague. Because there are no actual photos, this book makes the children seem like stereotypes that are not real people. Personally, I’d rather have real children, who are a little dated.

One World, One Day One World, One Day , by Barbara Kerley. Another beautiful photo montage book from Kerley and the National Geographic. This book follows children as they go about their days, waking up, eating, going to school, working, play, and going home. These children are from around the world, and the end of the book includes extensive details of where the pictures were taken and what was going on at the time. I love those details of the photographer, but the text is super small. It makes me feel old, but I couldn’t read them with or without my glasses on. Overall, this is a great resource for showing how alike and yet different children are all over the world.

Houses and Homes (Around the World Series) Houses and Homes (Around the World Series) by Ann Morris, Ken Hayman, photographer. Interestingly, this beautiful book about the places people live is the oldest title represented here, but still doesn’t feel as dated. Perhaps because it focuses on houses, and not people, and perhaps it is because it is assumed (incorrectly) that if you get pictures of people in other parts of the world they are going to look old fashioned in some way. Regardless, it is a great book, and the illustrations and text are suitable for very young children. I used this in preschool storytime on houses.

As summer approaches, I plan on posting more non fiction reviews of titles on the summer reading theme.


For quite a while I’ve been interested in the politics of water, I once tried to explain to a group of undergraduates how important water and the access to it has been throughout history. They were not impressed. Water is the stuff of life, and has always been that way. But living in the United States, children (including undergraduate students) do not comprehend the complexities and absolutely essential nature of water because it is always there when we need it. However, access to clean water is not universally available, and even for those who can access clean water, many have to travel outside of their homes to get it.

This summer, as part of our Summer Reading Program on “One World, Many Stories,” I plan on doing a program on water an its significance world wide. Hopefully this will be more successful then my presentation to the undergrad students in Ohio. To prepare, I’ve been reading non-fiction books about water around the world. Here are a few of the titles I’ve read.

A Cool Drink of Water A Cool Drink of Water, Barbara Kerley, A beautiful national geographic picture book that just talks about how universal water is, by showing people around the world drinking water and highlighting some of the places that they go to get the water. It is a nice introduction for very young kids to the idea that water doesn’t always come from the tap, but that it is something that draws us all together.

Our World of Water Our World of Water: Children and Water Around the World, Beatrice Hollyer. This book goes into more depth about the ways water works in the lives of 6 children from around the world. The pictures really bring the different culture and climates to life, demonstrating that these are real kids dealing with issues of water scarcity. The child from Ethiopia is a good example of how some kids’ lives are controlled and consumed by their need for water.

One Well: The Story of Water on Earth One Well: The Story of Water on Earth, Rochelle Strauss. This book takes the broadest perspective, covering the water cycle, water use, and the need for conservation. One of the strongest points the book makes is that while the amount of water on earth remains constant, the distribution is uneven, and that there are limited supplies of easily accessible clean water. It is a good introduction to the many ways water is crucial to life on earth.

These three books make a nice introduction to the importance of water around the world. I’m still looking for more titles, so any suggestions would be welcome.

A Life in the Wild

A Life in the Wild: George Schaller's Struggle to Save the Last Great Beasts Focusing on one scientist, whose work has brought him around the world, A Life in the Wild: George Schaller’s Struggle to Save the Last Great Beasts is less of a biography, then a profile of a life’s work. From his early fascination with birds, Schaller’s work took him from Alaska to high Tibet, through dangerous areas of Africa. During all of these visits, he was not just expanding knowledge of remote habitats and species, but he was pioneering modern practices of animal observation and conservation.

Few children realize that prior to the last 50-60 years, most naturalists and scientists studied species primarily through capturing and killing them. George, and others of his time, set out to study live animals within their natural environments, and in doing so they discovered the importance of the interrelated species and ecosystems within which the particular species of interest lived. Out of this realization grew the knowledge that to save these threatened species was to save the environment they lived in, to preserve these relationships. Much of Schaller’s work went directly to providing the evidence to support the establishment of national parks and conservation areas world wide, beyond which he spoke out against practices that he could see threatening the species he studied.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the broad scope of Schaller’s work, covering so many different species and areas of the world. It showcases the different challenges faced by different environments and political climates. Gorilla’s in the Congo and Cloud Leopards in the Pakistan/Afghanistan/China/Russia are each in dangerous and frequently contested territory. The chapter on Schaller’s work with pandas in China was particularly interesting because of the politics involved, but more showcasing how even a country that desires to save a species can fail when they don’t take into account the importance of the animal within its environment and community.

This book is a good companion to the scientists in the field series, as it provides the same sort of insight into the process of science, only from a longer term and larger scope. Certainly there is a strong conservation/environmentalist perspective to this book–it isn’t science just for science’s sake. But it is a great starting point for students interested in science, conservation, or animals.

One small criticism I have is that I wish the book had more pictures, particularly of Schaller himself. I know the challenge of writing a biography of a living person, who might prefer attention be given to his work and the animals. But part of the fascination of this book is discovering this man and his and his family’s experience with the animals. Plus, from the few little pictures there are of him, he was kind of cute (may still be, but I didn’t see any recent pictures!)

Non Fiction Monday is here, check out the other great books

The Watcher: Jean Goodall’s Life with the Chimps

The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps From childhood, Jean Goodall was interested in observing nature around her, watching the world and wondering about its marvels. Thus her move to Africa and her work observing apes was a progression of a childhood interest. In The Watcher: Jean Goodall’s Life with the Chimps Jeanette Winter focuses on Jean’s love of animals and desire to watch and learn from them. The text emphasizes her persistence in seeking the apes, but also her willingness to let them teach her rather then force herself on them. When the animals she studies are threatened, Jean is shown as a fierce defender, moving from a watcher to an advocate, speaking out to protect the animals and environment she loved.

Because of the picture book format, and the intended young audience, the story of her work and life are told very generally. Though information about some of the most important discoveries she made is included, such as she saw that the apes used tools, had emotions, and functioned in family groups. In this case, I think it works very well. She was self educated and self motivated, which makes her an interesting role model for children. This masterful portrayal is perfectly pitched to children who have a variety of passions, because it demonstrates how an interest in their youth can carry on through their lives.

The illustrations, also by Jeanette Winter, are simply gorgeous. Colorful without being overpowering, they depict the apes, the jungle, and Jane through rain and sun. They are a perfect match for the simple text.

There is an afterword, with a suggestion to look to Jean Goodall’s autobiography, but I wish there were listed resources more suitable for the audience, so that children who read this and want to know more can look for further information.

Highly recommended.

Check out the other great informational books reviewed this week for Non Fiction Monday at Telling Kids the Truth.

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot

Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot (Scientists in the Field Series) Looking something like a parrot crossed with a football, there are just over a hundred Kakapo alive today. With honey scented feathers, the heaviest of all the parrots lives in burrows on the ground and cannot fly or speak, but they make a variety of vocalizations like purring, booming, and clicking. In Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop travel to a remote island off of New Zealand to chronicle the desperate battle volunteers and scientists are waging to protect the tiny population and try to find some way to find a future with a more stable Kakapo population.

The story of the Kakapo is partly the story of the world and how even the small things that we don’t see or realize can lead to destruction, and how sometimes even all of us together working are powerless to repair the damage. New Zealand, set apart from Australia, was a land of birds, big, little, and strange, most of them flightless, with few predators and few mammals. Until the Maori, and later the Europeans, came and brought hoards of alien organisms that relatively quickly drove one native species after another to extinction. Now rats to rabbits to rabid livestock and pets, over-run the largest parts of the two islands, forcing scientists turn to ever more remote islands to create sanctuaries where native species can be safe.

On Codfish Island, all of the drama, tragedy, triumph and sacrifice play out during the short 10 day stay Montgomery and Bishop were allowed on this protected island. Bishop’s photographs are a stunning glimpse into a world few are able to visit, and Montgomery’s text will bring the experience to life, with all its highs and lows. Read Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot to gain a glimpse of these amazing creatures and those who struggle tirelessly to save them.

In 2011 this wonderful book won the Sibert Medal for best informational book published in 2010. You can find more information on the Kakapo at http://www.kakaporecovery.org.nz/index.php The author and photographer have also teamed up for other Scientists in the Field books. I wrote this up for a book talk for my earth day visit to the fourth graders.

World Families for Toddlers

Like a lot of the United States, our Summer Reading Program theme for 2011 is “One World, Many Stories,” a fantastic theme that we hope will introduce children in our community to the world. There are SO many good books to use on this subject, and as I’ve reviewed new books coming in I am starting to identify some that I hope to share. Here are some good non-fiction titles for very young participants, which demonstrate how parents and grandparents are similar and different around the world. I think toddlers will enjoy these books, full of pictures and light on text.

You and Me Together: Moms, Dads, and Kids Arounds the World You and Me Together: Moms, Dads, and Kids Around the World There isn’t a lot of information here about how families are actually different, rather this book is mostly pictures with a few words. Each spread features a different thing that families do, like eating or reading together, and has pictures of families from around the world doing that thing. This title focuses on mothers, fathers, and children, while the next features grandparents.

Our Grandparents Our Grandparents: A Global Album . This title is very similar to the previous, only focusing on grandparents and having more representation from different groups in the United States. It does have a very nice introduction by Desmond Tutu, which is written for adults, but the text seems to be designed for toddlers.

At my branch for Summer Reading Club, we have massive programs every other week. So many kids come, that we usually divide the group in two. One group is for younger kids, and is basically a storytime, while the other is a full blown activity. We then gather to do crafts at the end, with some for older kids and some for younger. So it is nice to find books like these that would work for the youngest kids. I’d love to hear about others to add to the list!

Non-Fiction or Not Fiction, Going to School

After my last non-fiction Monday post, I really started thinking about the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Some books automatically fall into one or the other category, particular those series books written for school reports, like the titles I recently ordered on each of the United States. But others are more flexible, particularly in the areas of non-fiction for very young children and narrative non-fiction. I think that this lack of clarity is one of the reasons I try to present the distinction as more of a cataloging issue than a moral imperative when talking to kids. Non fiction is not true and fiction is not false.

As a librarian, I’ve looked at books cataloged in the non-fiction and thought they’d circulate better in the picture book section, while other times I’ve wondered why some titles end up labeled as picture books. (Truthfully, the cataloging team here just goes by whatever comes with the book, and since they don’t do their own cataloging can’t switch from fiction to non-fiction easily) I think there isn’t a right or a wrong place to put these books, though sometimes I wish we could have copies in both sections so they could be discovered by more people. This is particularly true of books that depict the everyday experiences of children, because books on going to school, going to the dentist, and going potty are staples of picture books and non-fiction sections.

Today I want to share a selection of books that fit into this category, some are in the non-fiction and some in the picture book section, but I would say all of them are not fiction. Bonus points if you can guess which are cataloged as non-fiction and which as picture books.

Rain School

Rain School, James Rumford, This is the story of a school in Chad, where students have to build their school every year during the dry season only to have it wash away in the monsoons.

Nasreen's Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan

Nasreen’s Secret School, Jeanette Winter, Set in Taliban Afganistan, this book tells the story of girls who secretly sought education, how they escaped detection, and how education provided light in a dark time.

Kindergarten Day USA and China/Kindergarten Day China and USA

Kindergarten Day USA and China/Kindergarten Day China and USA, Trish Marx, Ellen Senisi, In a neat flip format, this book tells the story of two kindergartens, one in the USA and one in China, following each class through very similar days.

Deron Goes to Nursery School

Deron Goes to Nursery School, Ifeoma Onyefulu. Starting nursery school is similar all over the world, as readers discover as they follow Deron to his nursery school in Ghana.

Listen to the Wind: the Story of Dr. Greg & Three Cups of Tea

Listen to the Wind: the Story of Dr. Greg & Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson and Susan Roth. Though initially skeptical about this adaption of the popular adult book, I was charmed by the illustrations and the simple story of building a school in Nepal.

Non-Fiction Monday is hosted this week by The Children’s War, check out the other interesting posts there!

Ain’t Nothing but a Man

Ain't Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry
Ain’t Nothing but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson, Marc Aronson

It seems appropriate that I would discover this book years after it was published, when I was looking for something else. It was listed as a biography of John Henry, which it is in part. More quest than biography, as the title suggests. This short volume tells the story of history professor Scott Reynolds Nelson’s detective work, sometimes circuitous, sometimes serendipitous, but always fascinating, leading closer and closer to a true vision of the man behind the legend.

Part of my enjoyment of this book came from the memories it evoked of my own past in graduate school, doing historical research, arguing theories of how something might have been. History, like most other liberal arts fields, is open to speculation and full of people looking for evidence to suggest that their vision of the past is closer to the truth than another scholar’s. For children, and even adults, outside the field this is a rare view. Literal minded youth believe things are one way or another, not both or neither. While historians can say that John Henry both existed and didn’t (which is my reading of this book), children and some adults want to know definitively if he lived or not.

In large part, the beauty of this book is more in the lesson that it teaches of history work and the uncertainty of the past. Children reading this, or listening to this story, have to accept that the pictures uncovered are John Henry, but maybe not the John Henry. That John Henry died during a time period when things ascribed to him happened, but that it is not necessarily certain that he was involved.

When I book talked this book, I asked how many kids knew who John Henry was, and of those who did, who thought he was a real person. The kids were split, some were sure he was real and some were sure he wasn’t, but what they lacked is what this book demonstrates, the ability to see him as both.

I think that this is the beauty of speculative non fiction. If done right, it prompts children to think, to engage in more then one truth, to see that things are not static, even in the past, and that they have the ability to think and determine what is true once they learn to look at the data they are presented with.

When I do library tours, I ask the kids what the difference between non-fiction and fiction is, and usually someone shouts out “one is true and the other false.” As we walk to the beginning of the non-fiction stacks, I pull out books on Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, and I ask them if they think these creatures are real. Through our discussion on these tours I try to encourage children to look at the non-fiction as an area where the books are organized by subject, and tell them that they, as readers, have the responsibility to decide for themselves as they read the books here if they think they are true.

Critical thinking is the most useful skill anyone can have, and through reading, discussing, and thinking about books like Ain’t Nothing but a Man I believe children can begin to develop this skill.

This non-fiction Monday post is, in part, my response to the controversy over Marc Aaronson’s debate over speculation in children’s nonfiction.

Poetry Friday–Haiku

Today all of our hearts go out to the people of Japan, whose lives have been turned upside down by the earthquake and tsunami. My prayers and thoughts are with them. I wanted to share some poetry today, as part of Poetry Friday, and what better poetry to share, in honor of Japan, than Haiku from Issa.

Cool Melons - Turn To Frogs!: The Life And Poems Of Issa In Cool Melons–Turn to Frogs: the Life and Poems of Issa the author/editor/translator Matthew Gollub illustrates how the poems reflected the experiences of Issa’s life and times.

How as a child fighting to hold back his words during conflict with his stepmother he may have written:

photo courtesy of Delgrosso

A silent toad—
the face of one
bursting with much to say.

How he lived on the streets after being kicked out of the house by his father at 13 years old, and wrote that:

A newborn butterfly,
a dog’s dish–a place
to sleep through the night!

And how he wrote after the death of his first daughter that:

A dewdrop world,
so fresh, so precious,
like morning dew slips away.

And for this last poem, I can only think of how quickly an earthquake, a tsunami, or other natural disaster can make the normal dewdrop world that we know slip away.

Poetry Friday is hosted by Liz in Ink.