How hard can it be to choose the best ten of sixty-one nonfiction picture books? Hard, as I've discovered after reading the first four and finding them all to be very good books.
It isn't going to be as easy as I thought to be a Cybils panelist.
Sparkles the Fire Safety Dog by Firefighter Dayna Hilton
The first Cybils book to arrive in the mail was this book, Sparkles the
Fire Safety Dog. Initially, I was struck by its amateur appearance; it
arrived as a soft cover book, with simple photographs used as
illustrations. I decided to set aside these reservations and take a look
at the book with fresh eyes, the eyes of a child reader.
Dogs have immediate appeal to children. There is something about
animals that draws the child in. Sparkles benefits from dog appeal.
Children also love to read about firefighters. Firefighters are heroic
figures to children. Sparkles benefits from firefighter appeal.
The text is simple, perfect for its target audience. The author is a
firefighter herself, so she has credibility. She focuses on teaching two
skills that will save children in a real fire and uses her dog,
Sparkles, to reinforce the teaching.
Don't let first appearances stop you from reading this book. It
accomplishes its task in a simple yet appealing way.
Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai by Claire A.
Sometimes we adults wonder if there are any heroes left in our world,
any people who act not out of self-interest or greed, but out of love
and concern for others. Wangari Maathai is one such hero.
Maathai is a woman born in Kenya who left her beautiful country to go
to college in America. When she returned to Kenya, she was struck by the
destruction that had taken place in Kenya during the short time she was
away. Maathai was determined to do more than complain or seek blame. She
created a program for her countrymen to work together to restore
Kenya's natural beauty by planting trees.
I loved reading this simple story of an honorable person. The details
of the Kenyan world the author presents reveal a world both like my own,
but also fascinatingly different. The illustrations are a perfect
companion to the text. The author's note provides information about
where she obtained her knowledge of Maathai. The appeal to children will be the story of a woman who dared to make the world a better and more beautiful place.
As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March Toward Freedom by Richard Michelson
Simple text...great illustrations...and a compelling story I'd never heard before...These all combined for me to make reading As Good as Anybody a wonderful experience. I ended up reading it again as soon as I got to the end. Amazing to think that the magnificent Martin Luther King Jr. would team up with another such magnificent human, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and work together to improve the world.
The book begins with the early life of Martin Luther King Jr., highlighting the suffering he incurred as a black child in a predominantly prejudiced white culture. The story then moves to the early life of Abraham Joshua Heschel, showing the suffering he incurred as a Jewish boy in a predominantly prejudiced Nazi German culture. The early lives of both men neatly parallel each other. The men come together later in life in their joint effort to march for freedom.
The book ends on a strong note, though it is jarringly unusual; the men take their first step on the march and the reader is left wondering what will happen next. The author discloses in summation form the concluding events of the men's lives. I was unable to find any documentation of sources consulted to write the story, however.
A very powerful book.
Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator by Shelley Tanaka
This is the kind of nonfiction that I love best: nonfiction that reads like a fiction story. Amelia Earhart covers the entirity of Earhart's life, with little vignettes about this moving incident and that moving incident in Earhart's life. The details the author adds to the story bring the story camera zooming in on each individual scene, making the events come alive.
The story really kicks into high gear when Earhart begins to make her attempts to fly first across the Atlantic and then around the world. For children of today who see a trip in an airplane as routine, the author is able to emphasize the life-threatening dangers that Earhart experienced. Earhart comes across as a heroic and brave figure, a role model for girls and women especially.
The book has lots of text and I must question whether it would be eagerly picked up by most elementary students because of its length. However, the author uses sidebars to break up the text in many places and that might help make a reluctant reader find his way through the entire book.
The index and the bibliography are quite extensive, and they add an air of deep scholarship to the book, a quality not usually found in a children's book.