Adele has been a youth services librarian in public libraries for 20 years.
What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
In a nutshell, narrative nonfiction describes a text that imparts factual information in a format that uses many of the techniques of storytelling. An author of narrative nonfiction will typically introduce an actual character (perhaps a kid inventor or a sea otter) and narrate some sort of journey or experience, all the while teaching kids some facts about topics like science or zoology along the way.
By using a narrative structure (beginning, middle, and end), writers can relate facts using many of the techniques that storytellers use: characterization, dramatic tension, foreshadowing, etc.
Narrative nonfiction 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 with the description. The Accelerated Reader book level 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 1st-grader from reading something with a 3.2 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.
For some of the titles, readability data was not available.
Books Reviewed in This Article
- The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons by Natascha Biebow
- A Sea Otter to the Rescue by Thea Feldman
- Little Libraries, Big Heroes by Miranda Paul
- The Lost Forest by Phyllis Root
- My Journey to the Stars by Scott Kelly
- Kids Who Are Changing the World by Sheila Sweeny Higginson
- Look Up with Me: Neil DeGrasse Tyson: a Life Among the Stars by Jennifer Berne
- Turning Pages: My Life Story by Sonia Sotomayor
- Daring Dozen: The Twelve Who Walked on the Moon by Suzanne Slade
- Liberty Arrives! How America’s Grandest Statue Found Her Home by Robert Byrd
- Borrowing Bunnies: A Surprising True Tale of Fostering Rabbits by Cynthia Lord
- Samuel Morse, That's Who! by Tracey Nelson Maurer
- Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen
- Our House is on Fire: Greta Thunberg’s Call to Save the Planet by Jeanette Winter
- Hello, Crochet Friends by Jonah Larson
The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons by Natascha Biebow
AR Reading Level 5.1, Grades 1-4, 40 pages
It would be fun to introduce this book by showing children the kinds of things children used for drawing implements before the invention of Crayola crayons: chalk, bits of colored clay. They would see that it’s pretty hard to get a colorful, detailed picture with these kinds of materials.
The Crayola version of crayons been around for long and they have been so popular that it seems that they have always existed, but as The Crayon Man tells us, they actually had to be invented. In picture book format, Natascha Biebow tells us the story of Edwin Binney , a man who started out making a product called carbon black, a pigment used in printing inks, street lamps and shoe polish.
Crayons existed before Binney came along, but they were made from colored clay. They only made fat lines, broke easily, and were too expensive for most people to afford for their children. Also, some of them were poisonous, a pretty big drawback when it came to using them with children.
Binney’s wife, a schoolteacher, was among those to tell him that children needed some sort of drawing tools that were better, cheaper, and preferably not poisonous. So he got to work inventing, melting paraffin (you can show the children a piece of wax so they have an idea what paraffin is like) on the stove and adding powdered colors to them.
He developed non-toxic colors and designed a stick that would be easy for children to hold. His wife coined the word Crayola, and they were off. It didn’t hurt that companies had figured out how to make inexpensive paper so that children had something to draw on, rather than the slates they had been using for school. Binney took his creations to the World’s Fair and they caught on right away.
Children will be interested in learning that the company solicited children’s ideas for naming certain shades. Those names include “tropical rain forest,” “tickle me pink,” and, my favorite, “macaroni and cheese.” A fun follow up activity would be to take some shades of crayons and come up with new names for them.
Steve Salerno’s drawings are bright, lively, and—of course—colorful. The back matter has a section that shows how crayons are made today, along with s more information about Edwin Binney, and a selected bibliography.
A Sea Otter to the Rescue by Thea Feldman
AR Reading Level 3.5, Grades 1-3, 32 pages
The thing about sea otters is that they are so darn cute, little mustachioed creatures that hold each other’s paws and rub their little faces. We’re naturally attracted to all this adorableness, and they provide an enjoyable way to look deeper into the reasons behind animal behaviors. Before sharing this book with youngsters, have them take a look at this video “Decoding Cute Sea Otter Behaviour” from the Vancouver Aquarium.
A Sea Otter to the Rescue tells the story of a full-grown sea otter named Toola who was brought into a California aquarium because she had become ill from cat litter that had made its way into the ocean. Soon after, staff brought in a rescued sea otter pup which had been orphaned. “In the past,” author Thea Feldman tells us, “some of the aquarium staff had raised sea otters. The humans had become parents for the orphaned pups.” After they were grown, they were released into the wild, but not many of them lived very long there. “Maybe it was because they had spent too much time with humans. This time, the staff had an idea. What if they gave the new orphaned pup to Toola? She was old enough to be a mother.”
It worked! In the next few pages, we read how Toola taught the pup to swim and open clamshells and keep its fur groomed, all skills needed for living in the wild. She was so successful that the staff brought her 12 other pups to raise.
The full-page illustrations are clear and simple, showing scenes that help convey the story. The back matter includes more facts about sea otters (they have around one million hairs per square inch, the most of any animal), and tips on how kids can help sea otters.
Here are a couple more videos that features Toola and her 11th pup, who is called “501.”
Little Libraries, Big Heroes by Miranda Paul
AR Reading Level 4.3, Grades K-3, 34 pages
Little Libraries, Big Heroes is about the genesis of Little Free Libraries, which children may have seen around their neighborhood. If they haven’t, you could show them the Little Free Library website or show them a few photos on an internet image search.
If you are looking for a group project for children, they could arrange to place one of these little libraries, or they may want to help people who already have them keep them stocked.
I had always wondered how they got started, and I was pleased to see this new book which tells the story of a “pretty ordinary” man, Todd, and the community library movement he started. We start when Todd was a boy who loved superheroes, but had some challenges at school. Author Miranda Paul tells us, "Even though his mother had been a teacher who loved books, reading was difficult for him. He was often scolded for asking too many questions, and was told that he wasn't a good student. Fortunately, Todd's mom disagreed. She told him he was gifted and had something big to offer the world."
Fast forward to Todd's adulthood. He had graduated from school and gotten a job and discovered he liked to help others. The text tells us briefly that Todd's mother died, and he needed some help getting through sad times. Remembering how his mom had taught kids in the neighborhood to read, he got the idea of making a little library out of an old door that he cut up and hammered together. He put in some books and attached a sign that said they were free for the taking. At first, not many people came by, but when he had a rummage sale, people noticed the library and started gathering in that spot.
Then his friend Rick came along and helped him broaden the idea. Now there are thousands of them all over the world, including the US, Uganda, Ireland, Pakistan, South Korea, and South Sudan. The book ends by saying, "And tomorrow--who knows? Tomorrow might bring another hero story, written by YOU...and shared with the whole wide book-loving world."
The illustrations are joyful, colorful, and have a folk-art feel to them. Back matter includes an author's note that gives more information about Little Free Libraries and a list of book and web resources.
The Lost Forest by Phyllis Root
Grades 1-3. 40 pages
The Lost Forest tells a story unlike any I've ever heard. Back in 1882, a surveyor and his crew went out to survey three townships in the wilderness of Minnesota. In among all the trees, they made a mistake and marked a plot of trees as a lake.
The reason it makes a difference is that the timber companies and developers never bought the land or logged it because they though it was all water. While just about all the trees in the rest of Minnesota were cut down at the time, the "lost" trees in that plot continued to grow undisturbed. Some time in 1958 someone noticed the mistake, but by then the surrounding area was National Forest. And this 114-acre plot that had been mis-marked became a place where "you can go today and walk under trees so tall you have to crane your neck to see their tops. You can try to wrap your arms around a white pine tree that is 350 years old. You can walk through time and see the woods as it used to be and still is in the Lost (and found) Forest."
This is a book that has dozens of uses for children who are learning about science or nature. The text is formatted like poetry, and author Phyllis Root's writing draws the reader in. "How do you lose a forest?" she begins. "First you need a forest to lose./A forest like the red pines and white pines/ that once towered in Minnesota/ trees that had never been logged." The text is relatively short, with only two or three sentences per page
Betsy Bowen's spare and textured illustrations convey the feel of a sturdy forest. She also includes sections that look like pages from journals. Children could start their own nature journals and record things like tree circumference, or make drawings of the plants and animals they see.
Root also includes a bit of history with the text. She explains why the US government sent surveyors out to the land and describes how surveyors worked. She also includes a list of what they brought with them into the wilderness: canvas tents, flour, pork and beans, dried apples, nails for mending boots, wool hats, coats with waterproof pockets, and--as anyone who has been to Minnesota knows--you need a large silk handkerchief to keep flies, gnats, and mosquitoes off of your neck and ears.
She also includes a wealth of material in the back matter: a description of an old growth forest, a list of places to see them in Minnesota, a list of the plants and animals which are most common (along with short descriptions and drawings of each), a more detailed description of how surveying worked, a section on surveyor jargon called "How to talk like a surveyor" and section on clothing called "How to dress like a surveyor”), and a couple of photos of surveyors and loggers.
My Journey to the Stars by Scott Kelly
AR Reading Level 3.9, Grades 1-4, 48 pages
What’s better than a book written by a real live astronaut? A book written by a real live astronaut who has a twin brother who was also an astronaut.
When children read Scott Kelly’s My Journey to the Stars, they will learn all kinds of cool things about being an astronaut. More importantly, they will learn that he was an ordinary kid, much like them, and that he worked hard to realize his dream. By telling his story in picture book format and using fairly simple sentences, Kelly makes his biography relatable to even young elementary children.
He pulls them right in, essentially starting at the end of his space journey, “It’s been 340 days since I set foot on Earth. I’ve spent almost a full year living and working on the International Space Station (ISS). It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I miss fresh air and the feel of rain on my face.”
Throughout the book, he intersperses photos with drawings, and on the second page, we see how tightly he is packed in with the other astronauts who are traveling home. As he describes it, “The spaceship is so small my knees are folded against my chest. My two Russian crewmates sit so close to me, our elbows touch.”
One the next page, he flashes back to when he and his twin brother, Mark, were small. We see them doing things like building a snowman or showing off the fish they’d caught. In the flowing pages, he relates some of the things he remembered most about their childhoods, like the time his brother was hit by a car. (He was injured, but healed OK.) He also briefly talks about how his parents would argue and how it made the boys feel scared. He said the experience turned him and his brothers into peacemakers who learned to stay calm through tough times.
He also spends some time describing how his mother became a police officer in the 1970’s, just as police departments were starting to let women join the force. We see how the whole family pitched in to help her, acting as practice dummies for her to rescue and building her an obstacle course in the back yard. She became one of the first policewomen on the force, and he says “Her success showed Mark and me that if we had a plan, with small steps we could turn a big dream into something real.”
At first, Kelly had trouble coming up with a dream He didn’t like to sit still in school. He and his brother joined a volunteer ambulance unit and he thought of going to med school, but didn’t want to think about sitting through all those classes. Then, (in a story that will warm teacher’s hearts everywhere) he happened to pick up a copy of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, and he says “That book change my life forever.” He knew he wanted to be a test pilot and found the will to get through college and join the Navy.
From there, we see photos of him and his brother in the astronaut program. NASA was interested in having twin brothers so that they could send one to space and have the other back on earth and study them to see what kinds of things changed when a person was in space. We see photos of him on the space station and he explains things the children will be curious about, like how they sleep in space, and of course, how they go to the bathroom.
At the end, when Kelly is back on earth, we see him jump into his pool at home with all his clothes on. “AHHHHHH…” he says. “What an amazing journey!”
Andre Ceolin’s simple illustrations do a nice job of supplementing the photos. For anyone interested in learning more about Scott Kelly’s life and his time on the ISS, I highly recommend his book Endurance which gives the reader a great sense of daily life in space. It’s written for adults, but children might like hearing selected stories from the book.
Kids Who Are Changing the World by Sheila Sweeny Higginson
Grades 1-3, 48 pages
Kids Who Are Changing the World is geared to elementary-aged children who have advanced beyond the very beginning reader stage and are starting to get comfortable with more text, longer sentences and a higher level vocabulary. It is still in early reader format, which means that the letters are a relatively large font (around 14 pt), the space between lines is bigger than in normal print, and there are still only about 4-6 sentences per page. The book also includes quite a few illustrations to break up the text.
Even though it is short, this book does a good job of introducing us to four children who came up with ideas to make the world better. Eight-year-old Jahkil Naeem Jackson started a charity that makes "blessing bags" which contain things like tissues, soap, and deodorant for the homeless. Seventh-grader Natalie Hampton developed an app called Sit With Us which helps children avoid isolation by finding other kids to sit with at lunch. Gitanjali Rao built a device that is able to detect lead in water more quickly and accurately than other methods. And Joris Hutchinson organized a fundraiser to pay for tracking collars that help with cheetah conservation.
Each of these stories can serve as a springboard for children to brainstorm ideas for helping with a problem they see in the world.
The back matter includes quite a few supplementary materials. The section "Young Inventors in History" briefly tells the stories of a teenaged Louis Braille improving and developing the raised dots that became the Braille system and 12-year-old Margaret Knight who invented a device to keep children from being injured in mill machines, as well as the folded paper bag we use in grocery stores today.
Another page has a section in "The Science of Kindness" which explains how giving can make us happier. The next few pages have tips on being kind and on conservation. The last page is a quiz which covers some of the facts in the book.
Look Up with Me: Neil DeGrasse Tyson: a Life Among the Stars by Jennifer Berne
Grades K-3, 40 pages
This would be a great book to read to a group before visiting the planetarium. It also ties in with units on space, the solar system, or Black History Month.
It’s rather charming to picture astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson as a young boy, lying in his bedroom, looking up at the glow-in-the dark stars he attached to his ceiling--arranging them in the form of constellations, of course. In Look Up with Me illustrator Lorraine Nam does just that, showing Tyson as a cute young boy in tweed shorts as he pursues his interest in the universe above him.
As the story begins, we see that Tyson was inspired by a trip to Hayden Planetarium in New York City. As author Jennifer Berne tells it, “Projected on the huge dome above his head was the night sky with countless thousands of stars. A gigantic, spectacular, beautiful cosmos Neil never knew existed. And in that moment, his life was changed forever.” For two years he walked dogs for fifty cents a walk until he could buy a telescope. One of my favorite 2-page spreads shows him running his dog-walking business, holding the leashes of a variety of dogs.
When he was just 15, he gave his first astronomy lecture and was paid fifty dollars for it, an occurrence that made him realize that perhaps he could make a living by talking about the wonders of the universe. We follow him through college and the start of his teaching, writing and researching career. His life came full circle when he became director of Hayden Planetarium, the very place which had inspired him years ago.
The book ends by showing how much Tyson is “fascinated by the mysteries and the unknowns…All the mind-blowing secrets that will be explored by the next generation of scientists and the next. Perhaps by you.”
The illustrations are bright and colorful Each page has 2-5 sentences, making it perfect for a read-aloud in one sitting. The back matter includes a glossary and a list of additional resources about Tyson and about the universe in general.
Turning Pages: My Life Story by Sonia Sotomayor
AR Reading Level 5.2, Grades 3-6, 36 pages
Here is a picture book biography that introduces children to an accomplished Latina and shows how helpful reading can be throughout all our lives, even in overcoming our fears.
In Turning Pages Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor describes for children how important books have been to her. She starts, “My story is a story about books—of poems and comics, of law and mystery, of science and science fiction—written in both Spanish and English….Reading was like lighting candles, each book a flame that lit up the world around me.”
As the book begins, we see her with her mother, visiting the market and bodega in New York City where the family lived. Turn the page, and she tells us how her grandmother would recite poems about Puerto Rico at family gatherings. “I didn’t know how to read yet,” she says, “but written words, I discovered, were electrical currents that jolted feelings to life.”
She also relates some of her early struggles. She was diagnosed with diabetes when she was seven years old, and she was so afraid of the needles that she ran out of the hospital and hid under a parked car. She, of course, had to get over this fear because she required shots every day. She says "I found my courage in an unlikely place--comic books. After reading stories of regular people who had secret superpowers that could save the world, I imagined being as brave and powerful as they were. Then I learned how to give myself the shots, and in time I got used to it."
She goes on to talk about how much the library meant to her as a child and how excited she and her brother were when they received a set of encyclopedias in the mail. She also reminisces about a few specific books she read when she was young. Nancy Drew inspired her, Lord of the Flies showed her why why need rules and laws to flourish, and the Bible taught her how to treat her neighbors, especially not to judge them. She kept her love of books and libraries all through her studies at Princeton, her law career, and her current position on the Supreme Court.
Illustrator Lulu Delacre does a wonderful job of bringing Sotomayer's story to life, especially by using printed pages as a motif to echo the justice's love of books. My favorite illustration shows her sailing in a paper boat made from a book page, library card tucked in the stern.
The end papers are decorated with actual snapshots of Sotomayor's childhood and then some important occasions in her adult life. The publisher included a brief timeline of her life in the back of the book.
Daring Dozen: The Twelve Who Walked on the Moon by Suzanne Slade
Grades 1-4, 48 pages
Before picking up this book, I hadn't realized that the US has sent exactly a dozen men to walk on the moon.Daring Dozen serves as a good brief introduction to all the moon landings, covering each with a few paragraphs and 2-5 full-page illustrations. It would be perfect for starting a unit on space exploration – and the Apollo program in particular.
Children can learn a few interesting facts about each mission and decide if they want to find a more in-depth book to learn about them.
With its evocative illustrations and text, this book is more about getting across the feeling of being in space. I'm reminded of Buzz Aldrin's description of the moon as "magnificent desolation." For instance, on the first page we see a night peppered with stars. In the lower left corner, we see a small bit of the earth, and on the facing page we see the small moon glowing in the night. The text reads, "On the still, silent moon, no wind blows. No water flows. No life grows. Year after year the moon circles the earth. All alone.”
Turn the page, and we see the lunar landing module reaching out towards the moon which now takes up almost the whole page. The text reads "Until one day a spacecraft zooms by. Closer. And closer. Its long legs reach down. Finally it touches the ground." On the next page, we see the iconic image of Neil Armstrong in his space suit climbing down the ladder, about to step on the moon.
On the next page we see him with Buzz Aldrin as they do a "jog-hop moon walk" in the low gravity. But, just like that, their time is up and they leave as the dust flies.
I always like it when I learn something new, and with Apollo 12, I learned they landed in a group of craters called the Snowman. Pilot Pete Conrad's goal was "to land inside the snowman's belly button." That mission was notable because they were able to guide their craft precisely, meaning that other NASA missions could choose different landing sites for their missions.
As we read about each mission, we learn a little more about the geology of the moon and we see another iconic scene: that of Alan Shepard hitting a golf ball. Once we are done reading about each of the missions in this picture book format, we find quite a lot of information in the back matter. There is an afterword by Alan Bean who talks about what it was like to walk on the moon, We have a timeline and some more information, with pictures, of each of the vehicles: Saturn V, Command Module, Lunar Module, and the Lunar Roving Vehicle.Then, we have even more information on each of the missions, a full page being given over to description of the mission and pictures of the crew.
Finally, the author includes suggestions for further reading and a selected bibliography that also includes websites.
Liberty Arrives! How America’s Grandest Statue Found Her Home by Robert Byrd
AR Reading Level 6.1, Grades 1-4, 40 pages
Here’s a good way to introduce Liberty Arrives! to children: show them a photo of the Statue of Liberty, just in case they haven’t seen it before. Then show them the graphic at the back of the book that shows how big she is. Her mouth alone is three feet wide. Bring out a yardstick and let them imagine a face that has a mouth that big. Then, tell them that we were able to have her in America because a lot of kids gave a little bunch of money each, and it was enough to pay for the pedestal she stands on.
Author Robert Byrd is mostly known for illustrations, and they don’t disappoint in this book. We have several full-page drawings and lots of smaller ones throughout which serve to demonstrate to the reader things like the the enormous scale of the statue, the intricacy of the supporting structure, or the homes of the everyday folks who contributed to the fund to erect it on the island in New York harbor.
In his introduction, Byrd discusses how the French people admired the US and wanted to make us a gift for our 100th birthday. “Big ideas are not small things to accomplish,” he says. Many people helped: a sculptor, a bridge engineer, and “the American people—immigrants, working folks, and even school children” donated the money for it. Then, to keep us reading, he throws in a little teaser. “This is the story of a most marvelous gift and the people who made it happen—and how Lady Liberty almost didn’t come to stand in America at all.”
He starts by telling us a little about a Frenchman named Bartholdi and how his love of Egyptian monuments like the Great Sphinx inspired him. He also tells us about a man named Laboulaye wanted to honor the US, especially after it abolished slavery. Bartholdi had an idea for a statue modeled on the Roman goddess Liberty. Brimming with confidence, they started on the momentous statue without having the funding in place.
Their plan was to collect donations from the French people for the statue itself. The American would collect donations for the pedestal. Bartholdi made the hand holding the torch and sent it across the sea to inspire the Americans. The head was finished and displayed in France. Fundraising went well in France and soon they had about half of what they needed.
The going was much slower in America. I have to admit I felt embarrassed for the US. Here we were, going to get this marvelous statue if only we could build a place for it to be. But people weren’t too enthused. As Byrd tells it, a group of millionaires debated it for hours, then decided they would donate just twenty dollars to the cause. He explains “Philanthropy, the idea of giving generously to a worthy cause, just didn’t happen then as it does now. Except for feeling good about themselves, the wealthy had little incentive to donate.”
At least one person “was digusted with the greedy millionaires” and decided to do something about it. He was Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant who served in the Union Army and became a newspaper publisher. While he was working on convincing the American people, Bartholdi had built the whole thing and sent it over to the US, waiting in crates until there was a place to put it.
Finally, Pulitzer came up with an idea. “Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money. It is not the gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America…Give something, however little. Let us hear from the people.” He also promised to print the name of every person who gave something, no matter how small the amount. School children loved seeing their name in the paper, and they sent their pennies, nickels, dimes. They would write notes to send with the money, and Pulitzer would print them as well. Byrd has included several of these notes, and made illustrated pictures to go with them.
Finally, this “crowdfunding” brought in $102,000 from 121,000 people. Lady Liberty was finally raised over the harbor.
And that, boys and girls, is how the kids did more for Lady Liberty that all the millionaires in the land.
The back matter includes the graphic of Liberty’s size, as I mentioned before. It also has a timeline, more facts on the story, and a bibliography for adults as well as children.
Borrowing Bunnies: A Surprising True Tale of Fostering Rabbits by Cynthia Lord
Grades K-2, 40 pages
From this book, I learned that when a bunny is happy, it "leaps in the air and twists," a movement that is called a "binky." How cute is that?
Borrowing Bunnies, a book about fostering pet bunnies by the award-winning author Cynthia Lord, is full of adorable, high-quality photos of some of the baby bunnies Lord and her family have taken care of over the years.
She starts by explaining what it means to foster bunnies for an animal rescue "...we take care of the bunnies at our home for a few months until they're ready to be adopted by another family. Some bunnies we foster have never lived in a home or been loved. It's our job to teach them how to be good pets for their new family."
The story for this books starts with a pair of Netherland Dwarf bunnies who had lived in less-than ideal conditions. Besides feeding and caring for them, Lord's family also needed to show them "that people could be kind." The two rabbits were names Benjamin and Peggoty, after Charles Dickens characters. The two were kept in separate pens because "Benjamin was a boy and Peggotty was a girl." The author doesn't give any more explanation than that, so it's up to you if you want to explain more whey they didn't want to put males and females together.
Separate pens notwithstanding, Peggoty had a few surprises in store, and anyone who has taken home a female pet of unknown origin can guess what they were. Yes, Peggoty had brought four more little bunnies into the world. The book has full-page photos of the newborn bunnies nestling together, and Lord comments "They looked like miniature hippos!” They do indeed, with their pudgy bodies and wispy fur.
Lord's family named the new babies after other Dickens characters and tried their best to care for them, but sadly, two of the babies died. In her text, Lord handles their deaths briefly but sensitively. She tells us they "were not born well and strong." When they died, she says "My heart was broken." She describes that she felt happy when the two surviving bunnies grew and developed, but she was sad that the others hadn't had the chance to grow up, too. In the space of a couple of pages, she prepares the children for what happened, described her feelings (and gives children permission to have those feelings, too), and describes the bittersweet feeling we get when happiness is mixed with sadness.
After this, we get to watch the other two bunnies play and explore, first with toys insde and then outside witht he breeze and the grass and the sounds of hammers and dogs and birds in the neighborhood. During each experience, she tells us, they were first shy, then brave. She held them every day and invited others to hold them so they wouldn't be afraid of new people. She tells us she had mixed feelings when it was time for the bunnies to go to a new home, and she sent them off to new families with their favorite things.
It's a sweet book that could serve as an introduction to growth and development, pet care, family formation, and sensitivity to others. The text is relatively brief, with 2- 5 sentences per page. Sprinkled throughout are charming illustrations which illustrate some of the behaviors and things she mentions in the text.
Samuel Morse, That's Who! by Tracey Nelson Maurer
AR Reading Level 4.1, Grades K-3, 40 pages
I had never thought of the telegraph as the first instant message, but when you consider how long it used to take for news to travel through the mail, you realize that the telegraph revolutionized the spread of news.
And in Samuel Morse, That's Who! we find out that the man who invented the telegraph machine originally aspired to be a painter, not an inventor.
In this brief, picture-book format biography, Tracey Nelson Maurer starts by describing the world of Morse's boyhood, "In the early 1800s, nothing traveled long distances fast. So, who would dream of instant messages?" Turn the page, and we see a full-page illustration of Morse as a young man holding his schoolbook as the text declares "Samuel Morse, that's who!"
We find out that he tinkered with a few unsuccessful inventions when he was young, but his real passion was to bring a love of painting to the American people. However, that endeavor wasn't going too well, either, as his paintings "earned little attention and even less money."
In 1829 he went to Europe to study the Old World masters and while he was in France, he learned about the workings of an optical telegraph which helped to keep military men informed during wartime. As long as they had a clear view, they could send codes for up to 10,000 message. The problem was that if it was foggy or dark, the military could not use the system.
In her catchy refrain, Maurer asks, "Who could think of a better system?" Turn the page: "Samuel Morse, that's who."
When the fellows on the ship started talking about whether this new-fangled idea of electricity could ever be helpful, Morse started thinking he could use electric pulses to transmit codes between machines. And a system that relied on electricity wouldn't be rendered inoperable by darkness or bad weather.
In the next few pages, Maurer describes the process Morse went through to test his device and demonstrate it to the public, overcoming setbacks along the way. Finally, the machines worked, and we see a map of how telegraph lines spread across the US and Europe.
Ramon's spare and angular, yet friendly, illustrations capture the times and the sense of possibility, complementing the text perfectly. The end matter includes a photo of Morse, a time line, more facts about telegraph history, and a bibliography. With only a few short sentences per page, it would make a perfect read-aloud introduction to Morse, telegraphy, and the start of our communication revolution.
Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen
Lexile Reading Level 750, Grades K-4, 36 pages
Away With Words would be a perfect introduction to a unit on Women's History Month, or anything about travel, geography, or resiliency. I live in Colorado and have often heard of Isabella Bird and her travels here, but I didn't realize she had traveled and adventured so widely, which was unique for women of her time.
Her feats were all the more amazing because she was a withdrawn child, prone to aches, pains, and melancholy. In this picture book biography author Lori Mortensen starts out poetically, "Isabella Bird was like a wild vine stuck in a too-small pot. She needed more room. She had to get out. She had to explore. But petite Isabella, pale Isabella, proper Isabella was an unlikely candidate for adventure."
As the story continues, we learn that this 19th-century girl became much more animated once her father took her for a ride in the countryside, the novel sights prompting her interest and lots of questions. She learned the names of the flowers, animals, and crops she saw. "Question by question," Mortensen tells us, "Isabella bloomed."
As she grew older, she was inspired by letters from relatives in India and from missions in Africa. Yet, she still found herself constrained by the attitudes of the time, that young women wore dresses and stayed home. We learn that "Some days, Isabella felt so low that she couldn't even stir from the couch."
Finally, when she was 22 years old, a doctor suggested she take an ocean voyage, and Isabella was hooked. In a series of panels reminsiscent of graphic novels, we learn that she traveled to America where she ate johnnycakes and buffalo with the westerners, steamed down the Mississippi with traders and trappers and rode horseback in the canyons. When she came back, her father encouraged her to write a book about her adventures.
Bird enjoyed her experiences so much, she traveled again with the intention of writing another book, but when she arrived home, her father fell ill and died a month later. Once again, the pull of propriety drew her in and she decided to stay at home, believing she had failed the part of being the dutiful daughter.
Over the following years, her aches and pains and despair once again threatened to overtake her and her friend told her she had to follow her dreams. Once again, she set out, and we see her riding mules and camels and elephants, traveling across five of the continents. She rode up the slopes of a volcano and across "the numbing, windswept desert at the roof of the world [emphasis in book]." She continued writing books, and by 1892, she became the first woman to be a member of London's Royal Geographic Society. In the author's note at the end, we learn that Bird suffered from back pain on her travels, but she found that lying around on a sofa made it feel much worse. I appreciated the quote that was included "No man now ever says of any difficult thing that I could not do it!"
The story, which has only 4 or 5 sentences on each page, would make a good read-aloud for a group, and the large illustrations will give children plenty to talk about. The book could inspire lots of hands-on enrichment activities such as identifying plants and animals, learning how people lived in the Old West or researching the kinds of foods served in the countries she visited.
The end matter includes a timeline, citations, and a bibliography.
Our House is on Fire: Greta Thunberg’s Call to Save the Planet by Jeanette Winter
Lexile Reading Level: 680 L, Grades K-4, 40 pages
Our House is on Fire would serve as a good introduction to a unit on ecology or climate, not only because it tells the story of Greta Thunberg, but because it also ends with a question which is a springboard to discussion and a number of projects the children could do.
Children may know Thunberg as a famous climate activist, but this book goes back to the time when Greta was a quiet girl leading a quiet life in Stockholm. The illustration shows her standing alone, a young girl amongst grownups “All my life I’ve been invisible….the invisible girl in the back who doesn’t say anything.”
One day, her teacher talked about the effects of climate change, prompting her to spend hours and hours researching what was happening to our world. Author Jeanette Winter tells us, “Greta could think about one thing for a long, long time,” a nod to the autism and OCD diagnosis which led her to study the subject more than some other children would. We see her watching videos that show icebergs melting, storms, bleaching coral reefs, floods, and fires.
Winter specializes in telling stories which take place during calamities. Among her titles are The Librarian of Basra which is about a woman who saved a library’s holdings during wartime and Mama, the story of a baby hippo swept away in the 2004 tsunami who found a new home. In this story, we see Greta become distressed at what she is seeing until she looks at us wide-eyed across the page from a large sign reading “Our House is on Fire.” The muted colors of the illustrations, the scenes on the videos, and the expression on Greta’s face convey the seriousness of the topic, and rightly so since climate change is an actual existential threat for our children. Still, parents and teachers might want to preview the book to judge whether it might frighten the children they are sharing it with.
To continue with the story, at first Greta fell into a deep sadness, but then she started painting signs and sitting on strike at the Parliament building every Friday. At first, no one noticed her, but after a while, news of her strike spread through cyberspace and children started striking all over the world.
Soon, we are seeing Greta address the United Nations and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Winter tells us, “Greta’s protest, all alone, sparked a worldwide children’s march. Her quiet voice, joined by thousands of voices, became a roar.” Another full-page poster asks, “Can you hear us?” Turn the page and we see children with protest signs. Turn the page again, and a two-page spread asks the reader, “What Will You Do?’
Children could brainstorm what kinds of things they could do, both personally and to influence policy regarding the earth’s climate.
Hello, Crochet Friends by Jonah Larson
Grades K-5, 48 pages
My library puts Hello, Crochet Friends! in the section about learning to crochet, but it's really the story of a young Ethiopian boy who was adopted by American parents and became intrigued with crochet when he was five years old. It can serve as an introduction to the many heritages and cultures which American children identify with. My own daughter was adopted from China, and I appreciate the sensitive way this book portrays adoptive families. It's also an interesting story of how a boy learned to control his "rascally" thoughts in school and become a more focused student.
Jonah starts his story at the beginning, from the time of his birth. He mentions that he doesn't remember his birth mother or the orphanage that took him in, but he says he knows his story because "My parents have told it to me for as long as I can remember. It goes like this: My birth mother left me wrapped in a banana leaf under a tree, protected from the sun, near a water trail where she knew I would be found." A woman who walked along the way heard the baby and took him to an orphanage.
When he was just a baby, his parents adopted him and took him to their home in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. A year after, they adopted a girl from the same orphanage.
Jonah was a quick learner and was able to read when he was three and do advanced math quite early as well. But, there were some problems. As he tells it, "I wasn't quite so good at being a 'friend,' which is what my daycare called the children. I'm not very proud of it now, but I got kicked out of not one, not two, but three daycare centers."
Children who get antsy at school will be able to relate to some of his behaviors. He explains that the classroom was kind of boring for him, and after he finished his work, he wanted to find something to entertain himself. He would take the blankets off of other children who were trying to nap. As he grew older in school he would tear up his classmates' work, throw his shoes, or pour paint on the floor and slide through it. One year, he got 57 behavior slips until his parents suggested the school stop sending them home. because they suspected he was making a collection of them. "I was!" he says. Children will also recognize how he felt when he says "I didn't want to act up, but I did."
The solution to his problem is surprising, though maybe you're not surprised since he mentions crochet in the title. When his aunt dropped off some leftover yarn for them to use for art projects, he became fascinated by a crochet hook he found. His mother found some beginning crochet videos on the internet, and the rest is history.
Jonah is an insightful child, and he points out that when he discovered crochet at the age of 5, he wasn't hampered by the ideas that boys didn't do things like crochet. While he was crocheting, he also noticed that he didn't feel as jittery, and a teacher suggested he bring his crochet to school. To their credit, his classmates didn't tease him, but rather became interested in what he was doing. In a humorous aside, he reflects that perhaps the children were just happy he wasn't tearing up their work.
Now, since he started to crochet in school, his parents haven't had to pick him up early for misbehavior. It reminds me of the "fidgets" that teachers sometimes give out to kids to keep their hands busy so they won't feel so out of control and restless. Jonah says that crocheting calms him and gives him focus. He's also completed hundred of projects and has started his own business called Jonah's Hands. You can learn more about him in this video: Jonah's Hands: Meet the 11-year-old Crochet Prodigy
He has his own YouTube channel and a large social media following and has connected with charities to help children in other countries.
The last third of the book is given over to showing crochet projects, explaining a little how it's done and includes a pattern for a dish cloth that sports the colors of the Ethiopian flag. One especially striking feature is a world map which shows the 136 countries in which Jonah has connected with crochet friends. He remarks, "It's almost as though all of our crochet hooks are working to stitch us all closer together."
© 2020 Adele Jeunette
Liz Westwood from UK on April 09, 2020:
This is a very interesting collection of books and makes a useful reading list for parents of children during lockdown.