Nevada Sharp has a Master of Library and Information Science degree. She has been a children's librarian for 25 years.
Why Narrative Nonfiction?
More and more we see educators focusing on teaching children how to read nonfiction texts and understand the information presented in them. It’s no wonder. Much of our lives as adults consist of reading nonfiction, whether we are trying to assemble a dresser or understand the day’s news. Additionally, many kids like learning facts about their world. Think of the interest in topics like dinosaurs, rocket ships, or cooking.
Narrative nonfiction is especially accessible to children because it uses a format they are already familiar with from the stories they know. Narrative nonfiction tells a true story and uses many of the techniques of fiction: characterization, plot, setting, and conflict.
The books reviewed here tell the story of innovations and inventions that children are familiar with. They can learn how their favorite toys like Legos® or Slinkys® came to be. They can also learn about inventions that changed people’s lives like the telephone or vaccines.
What I especially like about books on this topic is that they model for children how to use creativity, persistence, and teamwork to solve problems that face us all.
As you scroll through this article, you will see that I started with books for young children around kindergarten age and move progressively through older books until you get to the ones that are written for children up through 6th grade.
1. The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle: The Cool Science Behind Frank Epperson’s Famous Frozen Treat by Anne Renaud
Ages 5-9; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: food, inventors, science experiments; Pages: 40
The Boy Who Invented the Popsicle would be a great book to read to introduce science, especially the science of liquids. It’s also great to read for any kid who likes to tinker, experiment, or enjoy a popsicle on a hot day.
This jaunty book begins by showing a young Frank Epperson who says, “I want to be a great inventor!” We see him as a curious active boy thinking about such questions as "Do goldfish sleep?” or “Do woodpeckers get headaches from pecking all day?” And we see him tinkering and inventing, and especially experimenting with liquids. It turns out that what he most wanted to do was to invent different kinds of flavored soda water, trying out his concoctions on his little brother.
One day all the kids in the neighborhood decided to make their own amusement park and Frank gladly manned the soda water stand. At the end of the day, the weather became unusually cold in his city of San Francisco, and he decided to see what would happen if he left his soda water out all night to freeze. He had left a spoon in the drink, and when he came back the next morning, he discovered that the soda water had frozen on the end of the spoon, much like a lollipop. “Frank had invented a frozen drink on a stick!”
Now we fast forward several years— when Frank is married and has five children— and he decides to develop his frozen drink. He experiments with the molds and the freezing compartment and finally has a workable ice pop. At first, he called them “Ep-sicles,” but since his children were always asking him, “Pop, can we have a ‘sicle?” he changed the name to Popsicle.
All through the book, the author intersperses pages that describe different experiments that children can perform to learn about the scientific principles on which the Popsicle was developed. They can learn why oil and water don’t mix, how to make flavored soda water, and how salt lowers the freezing point of water.
The illustrations have a color palette that immerses us in “the olden days” but also captures the action and exuberance of the story. Author Anne Renaud includes a thorough author’s note that expands on Epperson’s story. She also includes photographs of him selling his popsicles as well as a vintage advertisement. It’s a fun book that teaches children practical science along the way.
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2. Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton
Ages 6-10; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: engineers, inventors, African-Americans, toys, resilience; Pages: 32
Whoosh! uses the popular super soaker as a hook to draw kids into the story of a persistent and creative African-American engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur by the name of Lonnie Johnson.
“Every day brought a challenge for young Lonnie Johnson–” the text begins, “the challenge of finding space for his stuff.” We learn that as a young child, he is a collector of rocket kits, bamboo shooters, rubber band guns, erector sets, go-kart engines, and various screws, bolts, and spare parts he had scavenged from the shed and the junkyard.
“Lonnie wanted to spend his life designing things, building things, and getting them to work.” He had hoped to be an engineer, but some sort of exam told him he didn’t really have what it took to be a good one. The author tells us Lonnie was discouraged but frames it as a challenge, not a setback.
Lonnie had already built his own robot with a movable body and arms, and in 1968 he perfected his robot and led his school’s team to a win at a local science fair, which hadn’t even allowed African American students until five years before.
He attended college at Tuskegee Institute and after graduation worked at NASA designing a backup power system for the Galileo probe’s mission to Jupiter. It was during this time that he was working on a new refrigerant system and tested an idea using water and air pressure. While he was testing it, he realized that the pressurized water "would make a great water gun.”
He had to try several toy companies until finally, one agreed to make his idea of a water gun. By then, he had ideas for several other types of toys, and when he found investors that would back his ideas, “He made a leap of faith, quit his day job, and devoted himself to full-time inventing.”
Unfortunately, over time, all of the plans fell through, and he was left without a job or any products in development. In a lesson for entrepreneurs everywhere, the author tells us, “These things sometimes happen. But when they happen one after another to the same person – well, that some pretty bad luck.” Lonnie still believed in his ideas, kept contacting toymakers, and finally was able to demonstrate his water gun for a company in Philadelphia.
This section has a dramatic fold-out page that shows the company staffers being delighted and impressed by the “Whoosh!” from the super soaker. They manufactured his idea, and it was a big hit, making Lonnie Johnson a well-off man. And what does he do after his big success? “He got a bigger workshop, which is where you’ll find him today. Because facing challenges, solving problems, and building things are what Lonnie Johnson loves to do and his ideas just keep on flowing.”
The author’s note in the back includes even more information about Johnson. The illustrations capture the surprise and joy of the inventive process.
3. Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by Marc Tyler Nobleman
Ages 6-10; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: innovators, writers, artists, superheroes; Pages: 40
Superman is such an iconic American hero that it’s hard to remember how revolutionary he seemed when two Depression-era young men concocted his story.
Boys of Steel tells the story of a couple of nerdy kids, Jerry Sigel and Joe Shuster who imagined a superhero from another planet that could do amazing things in our world. They had grown up with stories of men who had lived in exotic places and interesting times, men like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Tarzan.
Children are likely to be especially touched by the story of the writer Jerry Sigel. His father, who owned a clothing store, died of heart failure when his store was robbed. No wonder he imagined a man with other-worldly powers who could bring justice to the bad guys.
The artwork is colorful and reminiscent of a retro comic book style.
The afterword tells the story of Siegel and Shuster’s own fight for justice as they advocated to receive proper credit for their work and to share in the profits. As young men, they had sold the rights to Superman for just $150 but sued the publisher that had taken advantage of them.
Fortunately, today the courts have restored their credit, and it looks like they will allow the men’s estates to share the profits from sales of the comic books.
4. Thank You Doctor Salk! The Scientist Who Beat Polio and Healed the World by Dean Robbins
Ages 6-10; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: vaccines, polio, scientists, virologists; Pages: 40
Thank You Doctor Salk has all the ingredients you need to introduce children to the concept of vaccines, and the people who develop them. It’s a brief picture book that will only take about 10 minutes to read; the language is simple but evocative; and the large illustrations provide both poignancy and liveliness, depending on what the story needs.
The book starts when Salk is a young boy living in the city. As he watches his neighbors pass by, he sees that some are on crutches or in wheelchairs because they contracted polio. In these pages, it does mention that some of the victims even died, but does not dwell on it.
Children may recognize the situations described on the next page when people kept away from bakeries and banks, pools, and parks to avoid catching the virus. “People prayed for a cure, but who could stop this terrible epidemic?” We look on the next page, and see Jonas as a young boy, standing resolute with curly hair, glasses, a suit and tie, and knee bridges. “Jonas knew who,” the book tells us. “He would stop it!”
Over the next few pages, we see Jonas going to school and training to be a scientist all through elementary school, high school, college, and medical school. Then we see him experimenting to try to find the right mixture for a vaccine for “polio, the sneakiest virus of all.”
The story takes us through the support he received while working in the vaccine (including the establishment of the March of Dimes) and the process of testing it once he had a viable candidate. We see children being vaccinated in schools, and afterward receiving lollipops, pins, and a special card that names them a “Polio Pioneer.”
It is nice to see the street scene of jubilation once it was determined that the vaccine definitely worked in a large population. We see children waving and shouting from their apartments. “Cars honked! Bells rang! The adults danced! Children jumped for joy!” And we learn that Doctor Salk did not sell his vaccine, but instead gave it away for free to all the people.
The end matter includes an author’s note giving more detail about Doctor Salk’s accomplishment, information on how the vaccine fights the virus, the vaccine timeline, and a list of additional resources.
There may not be that many people left anymore who have suffered the crippling effects of polio, but I still have an aunt who has to wear a brace on one leg because she contracted polio as a child, and the leg didn’t grow normally after that. She had to spend eight or nine months in the city hospital, 200 miles away from her family when she was only seven years old. It is hard to imagine how terrible it was to have your child struck out of the blue with such a terrible illness. Unfortunately, it is sometimes also hard for us to remember how much fear, illness, and suffering vaccines have prevented in our lives, advances for which we should forever be grateful.
5. Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call by Mary Ann Fraser
Ages 6-9; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: telephones, inventors: Pages: 32
Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call tells us quite a bit about Bell’s childhood, how he became interested in speech and sound, and many of the other things that he developed or invented.
At the beginning we see him exploring around his native Edinburgh, Scotland asking questions about sound and hearing, which is not surprising since his mother was functionally deaf and his father was a speech therapist. We see how young Alexander had to speak into an ear tube so that his mother could hear him. We see the ways in which he tested the idea that sounds are vibrations.
We also see how he dove into The Age Of Invention and devised a better way to clean grain, as well as a “talking machine” which fastened together a couple of rubber sheets into a mouth-like device that fooled the downstairs neighbor into thinking they had a crying baby in the house.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck to Bell household when Alexander’s two brothers died of tuberculosis, and the family moved to Canada. Later, he moved to the U.S. and taught deaf students. After the telegraph became widespread, he became interested in the idea of making a “talking telegraph device” and hired the electrician and mechanic Thomas Watson to be his assistant. We see them working together, and the jubilant scene on the day when Watson comes running in to tell Bell, “I heard you. I heard every word!”
The text includes lots of little sidebars that include more information on things like antibiotics, a diagram of how an ear works, The Age of Invention, the telegraph, how a transmitter works, and how a telephone works.
Fraser’s illustrations utilize photographs (Bell had a lifelong interest in photography) for the backgrounds and places cartoon-like illustrations in the foreground making for a charming effect that conveys the historical period. The back matter includes photographs, more information on Bell’s inventions, and a list of important years in his life.
6. Flip! How the Frisbee Took Flight by Margaret Muirhead
Ages 6-10; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: frisbees, toys, inventions, flying discs, sports; Pages: 32
Almost everyone is familiar with the flying disc called a frisbee, but I wonder if it would have caught on as well if it had kept one of its original names – the Pluto Platter.
Kids will get a kick out of learning from Flip! how the Frisbee came to be. I had always heard that they were originally pie pans thrown around by college students in the 1920s, and that is partly true, but I learned that they also came from a fellow named Fred Morrison who started throwing around popcorn lids around the year 1937. “Turns out a great idea can pop up in more than one place,” the author tells us. “From then on Fred was gripped with the need to flip. Everywhere Fred went he toted that tin lid with him, ready for a game of toss.” After a while, Fred graduated to using a cake pan, and when someone on the beach offered him 25 cents for his “toy,” it occurred to him that this could be a new business idea.
He started a small business, basically selling cake pans for people to play with, and even while he was a pilot in the war, he kept thinking of ways to make his toys even better. When he came back, he had a new design, and he hit on making them out of plastic. His first plastic was rather brittle, but he didn’t give up, and soon he had a more flexible plastic and a new name for his creation, the Pluto Platter. Sales went well enough that Wham-O (the distributor of the hula hoop) bought the design.
This is where the name Frisbee comes in. Wham-O executives noticed that some of the college students in New England called them Frisbees, a reference to the Frisbie Pie Company whose pie plates they had been flipping around since the 1920s. Wham-O decided to go with that name, but to change the ie to an ee. And that is how the Frisbee got its name.
Besides giving children a little history of the Frisbee, this book also points out how important creativity and persistence are two the process of making a good idea profitable.
The illustrations are suitably sunny, happy, and active, and the back matter includes an author’s note and sources.
7. The Boo-Boos That Changed the World: A True Story about an Accidental Invention (Really!) by Barry Wittenstein
Ages 6-9; Format: picture book non-fiction; Subjects: bandages, inventors, injuries, medical innovations, perseverance; Pages: 32
Anyone who has worked with a group of children knows they are all eager to show you their boo-boos when the subject comes up. The Boo-Boos That Changed the World taps into their interest by telling us the story of the invention of band-aids.
We start with a husband and wife who lived in New Jersey in the early 1900s. The wife, Josephine, was quite accident-prone and often managed to cut herself while working in the kitchen. The problem at the time was that there was no way to efficiently cover a small wound. Josephine had to make do with a rag to stop the bleeding, but then she found it even harder to do cooking with a bulky rag tied around her hand.
Her husband, Earle, tried to figure out how to help. Earle worked for a company that made hospital supplies, so he made it his mission to come up with a prototype. He put down a bit of adhesive tape, laid some squares of sterile gauze on top, and then put a layer of crinoline on top to keep the whole thing sterile. Now his wife could just cut off a hunk whenever she needed it.
It worked so well that Earle went off to his company president to show how his innovation worked. They created the name Band-Aid from a combination of the words "bandage" and "first aid." Unfortunately, the first batch they manufactured didn't go that well. It was slow to make them, and they came in a size 18 inches long and three inches wide. The whole thing was rather unwieldy. But, their company kept innovating and eventually came up with a machine that makes a smaller band-aid, more like the one we know today.
Even after they were modified, the band-aids weren't exactly flying off the shelves. Then the company came up with the idea of giving away samples to the boy scouts, who always seemed to be scraping and cutting themselves. Those boys’ mothers recognized a good thing when they saw it. The band-aid had finally caught on. The troops in WWII used them, and in time, we were able to have all the sizes and types we see today.
This book would make a wonderful read-aloud for a group of children. Many times the author playfully teases us by pretending to end the story, but then he continues, telling us another important part of the band-aid's evolution. The story has a kind of "Wait, there's more" feel to it, and I think the writing will make the kids giggle.
The author's note is also well worth reading to the children. Sure, this is a little story about the evolution of the band-aid, but it's also a story about how the right expertise had to come together to make a product, how a person needs to keep refining their product to make it better, and finally find ways to market it to customers. This is a book that would be a great introduction to a unit in which children are going to work on making their own inventions.
The whimsical illustrations add to the story and the text is short and conversational. I would have to say that this is one of the best narrative nonfiction books I have seen.
8. Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade by Melissa Sweet
Ages 6-10; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: innovators, parades, balloons, marionettes, puppeteers; Pages: 40
Teachers all over the United States pull out this book when it’s time for Thanksgiving.
Balloons Over Broadway starts with a boy by the name of Tony Sarg who “loved to figure out how to make things move.” When he was young, he figured out how to rig up a device that would let him pull a rope and feed the chickens from his bedroom, so that he wouldn’t have to get up to do the chore at 6:30 in the morning. Author Melissa sweet tells us that his father was“ so impressed, [he] never made Tony do another chore.”
When Tony grew up, he headed off to London and made a name for himself constructing marionettes. He later moved to New York City and did so well in puppetry that his marionettes were featured on Broadway.
At that time, Macy’s department store had elaborate displays in the windows during the holidays, and they asked Tony to design a “puppet parade” for the windows. “So Tony made new puppets based on storybook characters, then attached them to gears and pulleys to make them move.” They were a hit, and when Macy’s decided to put on a parade, they asked him to help out with that.
At first, the parade organizers brought in lions, tigers, bears, elephants, and camels from the zoo to be in the parade, but the animals scared some of the children. They wanted something different, so they asked Tony “Can you think of something spectacular?” He came up with the idea of balloons; the first ones were made of rubber and filled with air.
Those balloons worked okay, but they were still a little hard for everyone to see, and they were heavy. Then he hit on the idea of making the balloons out of lighter material, filling them with helium, and using strings and controls that hung down from the balloon, making it a sort of “reverse marionette.”
At this point, we get to see illustrations of the first parade using the new balloons, and there is a dramatic two-page spread that shows how high the balloons could fly.
Sweet’s delightful watercolor/collage illustrations are impressive enough that they have won a Caldecott Honor award, and children who have seen the parade will appreciate getting an inside view of one of its most iconic traditions.
9. Little Libraries, Big Heroes by Miranda Paul
Ages: 6-10; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: innovators, ideas, reading; Pages: 40
Little Libraries, Big Heroes tells the story of the man who started the Little Free Libraries movement, those decorated book boxes that have popped up in neighborhoods around the United States. If children aren’t familiar with them you can show them the Little Free Library website .
This book would be a great introduction to a group project in which children install and maintain a Little Free Library, or you may want to find one in the area that the children will help to keep stocked.
This book tells the story of a “pretty ordinary” man, named Todd, and the community-wide library movement that he started. The author 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."
From there, we jump ahead to Todd's adulthood, after his mother had passed away (mentioned briefly in the text). In memory of his mother, he came up with the idea of constructing a little library out of an old door that he was able to cut up and nail together into a box. He added some books and included a sign that said that passersby were free to take one.
Later a friend of his helped him expand the idea. Today there are thousands of little libraries all over the world, including places like Uganda, Pakistan, and South Sudan. Teachers and leaders could easily extend the book into a geography lesson, having the children discover countries that host little libraries and learning more about them.
10. The Unstoppable Garrett Morgan: Inventor, Entrepreneur, Hero by Joan DiCicco
Ages 7-11; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: safety, inventors, perseverance, machinery, racial prejudice, African-Americans, gas masks; Pages: 40
In the United States, we have long celebrated men like Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell for the breadth of their inventions that solved all kinds of problems. But we don’t know as much about African Americans who also used their ingenuity and mechanical know-how to contribute solutions to many of our problems.
This biography, The Unstoppable Garrett Morgan, brings to light a man who not only worked persistently to invent machines and devices to make life better for those around him in the early 20th century but also had to overcome the racism that threatened to keep his ideas hidden.
Author Joan DiCicco starts the book with a common scene in Morgan’s young life, a fellow sharecropper’s house had caught fire, and he started trying to think of a way to help people avoid the poisonous smoke they encountered when they tried to rescue people. “Innovation became a way of life for Garrett,” she points out. “If his family needed something they didn’t have, he figured out a way to make it himself.”
He didn’t figure out the solution right away, but the problem stayed with him as he made his way in the world, joining the Great Migration north in order to find more opportunities. Eventually, he made his way to working as a janitor in a clothing factory and he devised a method for tightening up the slack in the sewing machines. He impressed the white boss enough that he was promoted to repairman at the factory.
Along the way, he became enamored with a German woman named Mary, but he knew that he couldn’t keep his job if he married a white woman. To solve his problem, he opened his own shop that repaired sewing machines so that he wouldn’t be controlled by a supervisor. He was able to marry Mary in 1908. He lived by the motto, "If a man puts something to block your way, the first time you go around it, the second time you go over it, and the third time you go through it.”
After a devastating fire in his home city of Cleveland, he went back to trying to devise a way for people to rescue those caught in a fire. By 1914 he had invented a device he called the Safety Hood and won a gold medal at a safety and sanitation exposition.
He ran into a roadblock when he tried to demonstrate his invention to fire departments because they did not want to buy an invention developed by an African-American. He solved that problem by asking a friend who was white to demonstrate his invention while he posed as the assistant. After that, he got plenty of orders.
The biggest test of his Safety Hood came when several workers were trapped in the Cleveland Waterworks amid smoke and poisonous fumes. He rushed to the site with his invention, but most of the white men didn’t want to put it on because they didn’t think his invention would keep them safe. He and his brother and a few men put on the hoods, went into the tunnel, and were able to rescue some of the men. When the others saw it was safe, they joined in, and their rescue made the front pages of the newspaper.
The white men who participated received the Carnegie Medal for Heroism, but Morgan and his brother were passed over since the committee wasn’t willing to give an award to Black men. The community leaders who had actually witnessed his heroism decided to honor him and presented him with a solid gold medal studded with diamonds. And, during WWI, the gas masks that the soldiers wore were developed from Morgan’s Safety Hood.
He continued innovating and finding ways around prejudice. He started a newspaper for the Black community, and he also developed an improved traffic signal. DiCicco sums up by saying, “With determination and courage, Garrett Morgan went around, over and through every obstacle between him and his goal to help others.”
The illustrations are sepia-toned and impart a dignified strength. Back matter includes a list of highlights in Garret Morgan’s life arranged by year and a bibliography.
11. Full of Beans: Henry Ford Grows a Car by Peggy Thomas
Ages 7-10; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: automobiles, inventors, soybeans, creativity; Pages: 48
Henry Ford is of course known for his car company and coming up with the assembly line, but this book shows that his interests ranged far and wide, as he was always trying to figure out how to do things better.
Full of Beans is a lively book that focuses on his innovations in using soybeans in the car manufacturing process and his support of research into many other uses for the versatile bean.
During the Great Depression, he remembered his mother’s advice to him, “Do something useful.” He wanted to help the farmers who were suffering and he cast about for an idea for something they could grow that he could use in manufacturing.
He hired a team of young men to study the problem and they discovered that soybeans, with their oil and protein content, were a crop that was easy to grow, helped the soil, and could be turned into lots of different things. First, they used them to make paint, and then they manufactured a plastic which they used for things like horn buttons, light switches, and gearshift knobs. Ford even made a whole car out of the plastic as a prototype, but World War II stopped development on that project.
Children will likely be interested to know just how many things Ford did with soybeans. He would snack on a cracker called the “Model T” made from soy flour and cut out with an actual Model T hubcap, and he wore a suit made from thread spun from soy protein. He also served an entire meal made from soybeans at the 1934 world’s fair in Chicago, and the menu is printed in the back matter. There are 17 items on the menu, and children can decide whether they would like to try “pineapple ring with soybean cheese and soybean dressing,” “soybean bread with soybean relish,” or if they would like some soybean cookies, cakes, or candy.
The back matter also contains all sorts of goodies like a list of products that contain soybeans, a picture of a soybean field, a recipe for Model T crackers and for soybean plastic, a timeline, and websites for more information.
The illustrations are just outstanding and impart energy and colorfulness to the subject matter, large illustrations that will cement the ideas of the book into readers’ minds.
12. The Fantastic Ferris Wheel: The Story of Inventor George Ferris by Betsy Harvey Kraft
Ages 7-10; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: engineers, inventors, world’s fairs, Chicago; Pages: 42
Some people might consider the Ferris wheel one of the tamer rides at today’s amusement parks, but The Fantastic Ferris Wheel shows what an innovative and daring invention George Ferris presented at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
We first meet Ferris as a young boy watching the local water wheel and thinking about ways to make the wheel move without using water. We then jump ahead to Ferris as a young man, an engineer who designed bridges buildings, and roads.
He was an accomplished man by the time planning began for the Columbian Exposition which would take place in 1893. The fair’s planners wanted something amazing to be the centerpiece of the fair, much like Gustave Eiffel’s tower, which had been built in Paris for the 1889 World’s Fair. Ferris drew up plans for a giant wheel that would lift as many as 2,000 people high into the air, but the organizers were afraid it would be too dangerous.
Determined to make his plan a reality, Ferris found his own investors and once again presented it to the committee. By then it was mid-December 1892, and they were desperate for something really splashy, so they went ahead and approved it. Author Betsy Harvey Kraft reports them saying, “Go ahead and build your crazy wheel, but make sure it’s safe. And hurry. The fair opens to the public in four and a half months.”
In the next few pages, we learn of the challenges in building a wheel that would carry 36 passenger cars as large as a living room, each holding up to 60 riders. We learn that the wheel had more than 100,000 different parts and that workers had to blast through the frozen ground using dynamite in subzero temperatures. We see an illustration of the wheel in progress as it rises 26 stories into the air. Kraft tells us, "Some people were terrified just looking at it. Others couldn’t wait to a ride on it.”
When it opened in late June, it was an instant hit, giving its passengers a view of Chicago, Lake Michigan, and several neighboring states. And at night, it was lit with hundreds of electric lights, along with many buildings at the fair, giving the place the nickname “The White City.”
In a dramatic sequence, we see what happened when a violent storm hits in July. The wind was strong enough to pull tent stakes out of the ground and sends panels from one of the main buildings shattering to the ground. The wind rose to 115 miles per hour. “The wheel will collapse people worried. The flimsy spokes could snap. Or the passenger cars might blow right off the wheel. Now, as everyone watched the storm rage across the fairgrounds, they feared the worst.”
But amazingly, the wheel rode out the storm smoothly, and a newspaper reporter wrote, “The beautiful wheel hardly shivered.” Ferris’s wheel proved his architecture and engineering genius, and his design continues to be enjoyed by fairgoers across the world.
The illustrations have an 1890s feel to them and are at their best when showing scale, like the throngs of fairgoers who came to see what the place had to offer, or the view of the grounds at night.
13. Gizmos, Gadgets, and Guitars: The Story of Leo Fender by Michael Mahin
Ages 7-12; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: rock music, electric guitars, inventors, overcoming obstacles; Pages: 40
Kids who like music will be fascinated with this story of the fix-it man who loved tinkering, and invented an electric guitar even though he couldn’t play guitar himself. And I think other kids will like it because the story is so well told. Take a look at how author Michael Mahin describes the reaction to Fender’s model of his guitar, which he called the Telecaster: “Everyone else called it a toilet seat with strings. Or a canoe paddle. Or a snow shovel. The old guitar makers laughed. No one liked it. No one… except guitarists.” The illustrations are a delight, whether they are portraying Fender’s fix-it shop, condescending “guitar men,” or rock-and-rollers.
14. Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thinmesh
Ages 8-12; Format: illustrated non-fiction; Subjects: women, inventors, creators; Pages: 64
Girls Think of Everything, a collection of the true stories of a variety of women inventors, works nicely as both a “read-straight-through” kind of book or as a nonfiction resource for writing a report.
Author Catherine Thinmesh’s style is conversational and engaging. For her first subject, she has picked an innovation that is sure to draw her readers into the book: the chocolate chip cookie. “It was an accident. A simple mistake,” she tells us. “A last-minute effort to save time. A Just-toss-it-in-and-it-will-all-work-out sort of gesture…but it led to Ruth Wakefield’s creation of the crunchy, chewy, oh-so-delicious chocolate chip cookie.” You know that Toll House Cookie recipe you see printed on the back of a bag of Nestle’s chocolate chips? That’s Wakefield’s recipe, the one that came about when she was trying to make chocolate drop cookies, but the chocolate didn’t melt all the way.
The other examples in the book continue focusing a little more on science. Thinmesh profiles a pair of Columbia graduate students who worked to develop a sturdy, portable solar light, an Egyptian woman who discovered how to turn plastic into fuel, and a South African woman who figured out how to combat drought using common materials like orange and avocado peels. Along the way, we also encounter the women who invented things like the computer compiler, windshield wipers, Kevlar, an alarm that will tell you if you left your infant in the car, an anti-bullying app, a space bumper, a paper bag folding machine, laser surgery for cataracts, Scotchguard, the Snugli, and an engineering toy for girls.
It’s a diverse mix of short profiles (2-6 pages) with spare watercolor illustrations that depict each of the women.
15. The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton
Ages 8-12; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: innovators, colors, paint, fluorescence; Pages: 44
Can a person invent new colors? At first, it seems an impossible thing to do, but The Day-Glo Brothers shows how brothers Bob and Joe Switzer invented a paint that glows. The colors they developed are the ones we now call fluorescent colors.
Like many siblings, the brothers seemed opposite in temperament. Bob, the older brother was a no-nonsense practical fellow who wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. Joe, the younger, was a more laid-back fellow who liked to practice magic tricks, but nonetheless was a problem solver.
When Joe was in an accident and had to convalesce in a bed in the basement, he ended up spending quite a bit of time around Joe who was working with ultraviolet lamps to try to figure out new illusions for his magic act. Together, and with much trial and error, they developed fluorescent paint.
At first, their paint was used for novelties, and children will enjoy seeing how they were used in magic acts, dance performances, Christmas displays, séances, and movie posters.
But after a while, the brothers figured out how to make paint that would glow in regular daylight and not just under blacklights. This new paint found quite a few uses during WWII to send signals to airplanes, mark lifeboats and help during night-time plane landings.
Author Chris Barton sums up the story by saying, “One brother wanted to save lives. The other brother wanted to dazzle crowds. With Day-Glo, they did both.”
The large illustrations are rendered in a charming retro 50s style. In an inspired choice, artist Tony Persiani starts with pictures that are all black, white, and gray but adds bits of color in keeping with the action of the story until the final pages glow with bright oranges and greens.
It’s a great book that highlights teamwork, problem-solving, and creativity.
16. Kid Innovators: True Tales of Childhood from Inventors and Trailblazers by Robin Stevenson
Ages 9-12; Subjects: inventors, business people, artists, educators, medical professionals; Format: nonfiction chapter book; Pages: 208
Kid Innovators focuses on the childhoods of notable people, getting at the traits and interests that made them successful in their fields. In a book like this, we would expect author Robin Stevenson to cover people like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates – and she does— but we also get information on people like Grace Hopper, who developed the computer language COBOL; Reshma Saujani, who started the national group Girls Code, Jacques Cousteau, the ocean filmmaker; William Kamkwamba the boy who built a windmill in Malawi; Heddy Lamar, who developed technologies that led to wireless networks; Maria Montessori, who developed new educational programs; and Alvin Ailey who founded one of the world’s most successful dance companies.
We can find biographies of most of these people, but this book stands out because it includes so much information about these figures’ early lives. Stephenson provides 10 to 15 pages on each person’s childhood, introducing each chapter with a brief explanation of what each person accomplished. In these pages, children will learn about how Grace Hopper was so curious that she dismantled almost all the clocks in the house, how Jacques Cousteau was a shy, somewhat sickly kid until he came alive when sailing on the water, how William Kamkwamba built racing carts with his friends, and how Florence Nightingale nurse a collie with a broken leg back to health. They will find that all these famous people were once kids with peers, challenges, and interests, just like them.
My Other Children's Book Reviews
I have other articles about narrative nonfiction for kids, including one that recommends narrative nonfiction on the theme of social justice and one that lists nonfiction books about people with disabilities.
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