My work as a Fiction Picture Book panelist is over, but the great things about the Cybils is the lists of finalists to keep reading from for the rest of the year! This month, I decided to find the seven nonfiction picture book nominees to see what the fuss was about in the nonfiction sector.
For the Youngest
All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon and illustrated by Katherine Tillotson (Atheneum, 2011) is a sparsely worded picture book about the water cycle, a subject I was happy to see since my four-year-old son is very interested in the subject. The artwork is digitally rendered, and the text on each page is also attractively integrated in to the artwork, producing an compelling and yet informative account of how the water that we get from hoses, faucets, and so forth go around the world: revisiting us as rain and coursing through yours and my bodies. All the Water in the World is a gorgeous explanation of the water cycle – and the need to take care of the water of the world — for the youngest of readers.
Planting the Wild Garden by Karen O. Galbraith and illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin (Peachtree, 2011) captures the mystery of how plants get into the wild. The first pages show two gardeners planting a garden; the rest of the book depicts the seeds spreading by nature. As the wind blows and birds move from place to place, the seeds are planted in new places. I loved how the soft and detailed watercolor and pencil illustrations capture the growing of these wild seeds, much as the first page captured the growing vegetable gardens various stages of growth. In the end, the book comes full circle in showing how humans have spread seeds too, and how, together with the elements and the wild animals, we’ve all planted the beautiful wild gardens of the world. A bibliography for further reading is included.
Bring On the Birds by Susan Stockdale (Peachtree, 2011) is also a sparsely worded picture book for the youngest of readers, this time showing a variety of birds in their natural habitats. A distinctive characteristic is noted for each bird, from the “swooping” owls to the “birds with tails held high” (the Indian peafowl or peacock, which was my son’s favorite illustration). The pictures are acrylic illustrations, and while the style of the illustration isn’t my personal favorite, I’m amazed at how deceivingly simple the illustrations are, as each pictures does provide much detail about the birds and in many cases the environment that the birds live in. The progressing pages rhyme, making it a pleasant read aloud, and the last page provides further details about the birds, including where they live and how their “special feature” is important or useful, as well as a “for further reading” list. In short, Bring On the Birds may be a great introduction to a variety of birds around the world.
For the Older
Thunder Birds: Nature’s Flying Predators by Jim Arnosky (Sterling, 2011) is simply a masterpiece of a picture book for the older child. With gorgeous fold-out illustrations done in acrylic paints, pencil, and chalk, Arnosky brings to life the majestic predatory birds of America, from Bald Eagles and vultures to pelicans and herons. His text also does justice to the majestic animals. Although the book may be rather text-heavy for many young readers, for the older picture book crowd he manages to impart a passion for the animals based on his personal observations in nature, as well as an informed voice that gives him authority. The last pages provide a further reading list, as well as a list of natural parks in the United States where the young naturalist may be able to observe these birds for themselves. I’m not a bird person, but I personally loved pouring over the details and true-to-life illustrations in Arnosky’s picture book.
I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History’s Strangest Cures by Carlyn Beccia (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) is a completely different feel from the other nonfiction titles on the list, as the title and the cartoonish digitally rendered illustrations may suggest. By providing quizzes along the lines of “which remedy will help you feel better?” Ms Beccia manages to surprise the reader with historical and medical facts that will help one understand just why some of the remedies of history actually do work. It’s a hilarious look at life in the past – and it sure makes this modern-day reader grateful for modern medical care! I Feel Better is amusing and informative for the child and adult reader alike. Beccia indicates the origin of the remedies in the text, and provides a detailed bibliography on the last page, so the reader knows he or she is reading fact.
Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Vicky White (Candlewick, 2011) tells the story of a number of extinct, nearly extinct, or once nearly extinct animals in a conversational yet imperative tone. Mr Jenkins tone makes the book both approachable and a cry for action, and Ms White’s detailed illustrations are jaw-dropping realistic, thus giving the animals life as the reader ponders their tenuous grasp on life in the wild (and the fact that some of the animals will never again be seen in the wild). The book, which is larger than a typical picture book, provides amble white space as needed, thus emphasizing the fleeting nature of some of the small animals in danger. Each illustration throughout the book is accompanied by details about the animal: its scientific name, its habitat, and other necessary information. Although the author is blatantly providing a message, the reader doesn’t mind. He is right: it would be a shame to lose the tiger and the polar bear in nature! Can We Save the Tiger? provides the facts (via text and gorgeous illustration) for the reader to understand the issues, as well as a compelling argument that animal extinction is an issue to be concerned about.
The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle (Millbrook Press, 2011) is about a very specific subject: the golden frogs are dying in the rainforests of Panama. In an engaging way, Ms Markle manages to bring us in to the mystery so that we care about these little frogs and hope for a solution to be discovered. She doesn’t tell us right off the bat, but rather follows the history of the frog’s increasing disappearance, leaving us to wonder what will happen. Markle describes what has been done to discover why and the possible reasons for the frogs disappearance in the wild, but in the end, we find it’s still a mystery in search of a solution. Illustrated with photographs, microscope images, maps, and other supporting material, The Case of the Vanishing Frogs becomes a fantastic book to pour through, even for the non-scientific reader (like myself). For the student interested in extinction, animals, or the influence of man on the natural world, it’s a fantastic in depth look at a small frog that the modern environment is destroying in the wild. Further notes at the end include a note to help your local frogs, a glossary, and a “digging deeper” list with books and websites.
All these books are fantastic examples of great nonfiction for kids. I’m glad I’m not on the finalist panel! I’d have a hard time deciding which was the best of these seven books!