Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bird By Bird: 25 of My Favorite Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book Nominees

Thank goodness I'm not a professional book reviewer. I would have starved the last six weeks. Never have I been so slow to write up my book reviews.

It's not my fault.

The Cybils nominees are too good. They are too good for me. I can't possibly write words that will tell you how wonderful they are.

I've been stuck.

But no more. I vow to spend the day here at my laptop writing, writing, writing. Alas, I cannot really tell you how wonderful these books are, but I must try. Book by book, or bird by bird, as Anne Lamott would say. I've got my Sun & Sand candle going. Still, Still, Still channel on Pandora. My lucky moose puppet here at the ready.

Here we no particular order...

Bon Appétit: The Delicious Life of Julia Child written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland

Julia Child is a wonder to us in America. She somehow managed to break every cultural norm for women of her time (she worked and lived independently for many years before marrying, she married yet never had children, and she created a fabulous career for herself as a chef and a tv personality) and still was able to captivate her audience of (mostly) middle-class American stay-at-home wives and mothers. She was odd for a tv personality (very, very tall and gawky and somewhat plain) but she also had that wonderful quality of self-consciouslessness that endeared her to her readers and her viewers of the time and endears her to her readers and her viewers even today.

This little children's picture book captures that charming essence of Julia Child. The book is a comic book, told in clever text (with fun asides to the reader) and child-like illustrations. In this little book the author/illustrator somehow shares all the disappointments and surprising successes of this woman's life in a way that is captivating to both children and adult readers.

This was the first Cybils nominee I read and it immediately wooed me and won me. 

Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why written and illustrated by Lita Judge

Yes, there have been many books about birds for children (there are at least three in this batch of Cybils nominees) but this book is the definitive children's book for one aspect of birds: bird talk. Lita Judge shares all the quirky little-known information she could find with us, her readers, about where and when and how and why birds communicate. Add to the fascinating information big bold drawings of birds and you have a book that children will linger over. Wonderful book.

Looking at Lincoln written and illustrated by Maira Kalman

I admit it. I'm a Maira Kalman fan. When I saw she was coming to the Texas Book Festival last year, I purposefully walked out of another great session early just to ensure an upfront seat at her talk. I was so thrilled to listen to her share bits of her life and her writing with us that I never got around to taking a photo.

So, I'm a Maira Kalman fan, but, even if you don't know her work, try one of her books and I promise that she will captivate you. 

Looking at Lincoln is a great Kalman book. Kalman takes a worthy subject, a big subject, and talks and draws around and around it, telling more about the subject when she doesn't tell about it that you can get from most books about the subject. She looks at Lincoln by sharing little things about Lincoln that she loves so much that you can't help but loving them, too.

Utterly captivating.

There Goes Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived written by Matt Tavares

I know nothing about baseball. I grew up in Alvin, Texas in the sixties. When I grew up, I went to work teaching out-of-town and the first thing people said to me when I introduced myself was whether I knew Nolan Ryan. "Who is Nolan Ryan?" I asked.

So don't think that I adore this book just because I adore baseball. I am still clueless about baseball.

Even if you are like me, don't let that stop you from reading this book. Matt Tavares shows his adoration of Ted Williams on every page. You can't help starting to love Ted, too, as you read along, learning that Ted grew up always swinging something, becoming one of the best hitters ever by the time he was twenty-two when he was unexpectedly drafted in World War II, coming back from the war and picking up right where he left off in baseball, and then being sent off again for combat missions in Korea this time, crash landing his plane, somehow okay, and then going on to play for seven more baseball seasons. 

Amazing how much this story made me love Ted Williams and baseball. Just think how much you will like this book if you already love Ted and baseball.

Dolphin Baby written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Brita Granstrom

I'm a school librarian but I really didn't know much about Nicola Davies until the literacy coordinator at my school started raving about what a great writer she is. With all that, I still never took the time to read one of her books until Dolphin Baby appeared at my door as one of the Cybils nominees.

Wow. What a great story. How did the author do it? Page one and suddenly I was a baby dolphin, swimming along with my mother. 

Davies tells the story just right, mixing cool facts ("Every dolphin has one whistle that's its own....") as sidebars to the story of the day-by-day life of a little dolphin. The dolphin is enough like the child reader that he can identify with the dolphin and yet different enough to intrigue him with his other-ness. 

I love the voice of Davies in this book, a voice that sounds like she is right here with the child as he reads along, sharing info that will help the child read through all the hard parts. 


Just Ducks! written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino

I discovered the amazing Nicola Davies for the first time this year when I read her Cybils nominee Dolphin Baby. Davies wows me with her writing. Dolphin Baby is wonderful.

Then what do I learn? Not one Nicola Davies title is up for the Cybils nonfiction picture book award but two! How can they do this to me? Pitting Wonderful against Equally Wonderful. 

And Just Ducks is wonderful. Davies brings you into the world of ducks with a "Quack-quuuack, quack-quaack, quack" that begins the book. And you are there. With ducks. A nonfiction story every big as mesmerizing as any fiction tale and it's just about ducks. Just ducks. 

Love this book.

Island: A Story of the Galápagos written and illustrated by Jason Chin

Redwoods was my introduction to the wonderful Jason Chin a couple of years back, but it was a bit too fiction-y for the other Cybils panelists back then. Times have changed, though, and we readers are more open to a whisk here and there of fiction elements in our nonfiction. And (at least I think) it makes for a better world.

So then Island. Let's look at Island. Chin, panel by panel, takes us through the birth, growth, and eventually disappearance of an island in the Galápagos. We see the island and its inhabitants change, over years and years, in little ways that, as time passes, become big and helpful modifications. Chin pulls his characters, all the creatures who begin to populate the island, right to the center of his drawings, posing for us, where we can look closely at all the curious developments, and slowly, reading along, we are pulled into the story of this intriguing spot in the world. Perhaps for the first time,  like the first people who visited the islands, we see the inevitability of slow evolution and change in our world. Beautiful.

Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team written by Audrey Vernick and illustrated by Steven Salerno

I'm not a sports girl. I know nothing about football despite the fact that I have lived my entire life here in Texas where football is the national sport. 

Why then, you might ask, do you love not one but two Cybils nominees that are sports stories? 

It's the power of the story. This story is every baseball dad's dream: a baseball team composed of twelve brothers. That's enough boys to populate the whole field with three left on the bench. And not only did this team of brothers play together, but they played together nicely. 

You just can't help but being captivated by the little stories about all the brothers, as they form their own semi-pro team and draw crowds, as they disband for the duration of the war and fight for their country, as they return home from war safely and once again do what they do best, play ball. 

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet

There's something that is especially compelling to me about a book that is both written and illustrated by one person. Balloons Over Broadway is such a story and Melissa Sweet is such an author/illustrator.

Sweet uses scraps to make her book, scraps of stories and scraps of real objects and even scraps of words, and these add an extra fun layer of realism to her gentle illustrations and tale. Sweet takes charge of the book, always surprising the reader by flipping the perspective and adding real maps and marionettes to the margins. 

A wonderful book.

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda written by Alicia Potter and illustrated by Melissa Sweet

When you have read a lot of children's nonfiction as I have, you might start to think you've heard all the  good stories. Then a book like Mrs. Harkness and the Panda arrives at your door and you happily learn there are many more amazing stories to tell.

Ruth Harkness never expected to venture very far away from her comfortable home. But then her husband died and she felt a need to carry on his work, to find and bring a panda home to America. 

The reader will love following Mrs. Harkness' difficult journey, beautifully illustrated with cartoon panels of conversations and actual photographs of Mrs. Harkness and her panda, maps of the journey and real postcards of old China.

Puffling Patrol by Ted and Betsy Lewin

Who needs to travel when there are authors like Ted and Betsy Lewin? This time the Lewins take us to a group of islands off the coast of Iceland where thousands of puffins spend their summer raising their chicks. In August the chicks, called pufflings, must go to sea and the children of the islands go to work to help the pufflings. 

The illustrations are a perfect mix of large startlingly realistic paintings (Ted, I think) and quick friendly small sketches (Betsy?). Who could not be charmed by this small story of courage and patience with these brilliant illustrations? 

Nic Bishop Snakes by Nic Bishop

Not many would dare to title their book not just an enormous broad subject name (Snakes) but would actually be bold enough to include their own name to describe the subject of the book (Nic Bishop Snakes). And to do so with our blessing, because he has done it before (Nic Bishop Spiders, Nic Bishop Frogs, Nic Bishop Lizards) and we have loved it.

And this is another bell ringer of a book. Bishop is a great photographer whose photos of snakes surprise and startle us on every page. You can't help yourself from saying, "Look at this! Oh, and this! And this!" as you turn the pages. But he is not just a good photographer; he shares all the cool things in the text you never knew about snakes, too. Bishop somehow captures the very essence of snake-ness without being pedantic or stereotypical. We don't know how he does it, but we ask him to please please keep going, on to Nic Bishop Owls and Nic Bishop Ants and Nic Bishop Bats. We are eagerly waiting.

Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Amy Bates

Not only have I fallen in love with two baseball books among this year's Cybils nonfiction picture book nominees, but I am enamored of two books about Julia Child. This one tells the story of Julia's journey to become the premier American chef, from the point of view of a little stray French cat. Author Reich and illustrator Bates push all my happy buttons, with Julia Child and amazing food and Paris and cats. Wonderful.

How Many Jelly Beans? A Giant Book of Giant Numbers written by Andrea Menotti and illustrated by Yancey Labat

Big numbers are hard for children. This is a big book to help with big numbers.

You can see five things. You can hold five things (probably) in your hand. But what about five hundred things? Five thousand? A hundred thousand? A million?

This big book (librarians should be warned that it will not fit in a child's backpack and has foldout pages that will tear easily, but please don't let that stop you from acquiring it for your collection) uses a competitive brother and sister to allow children to visualize big numbers. With jelly beans. This amazing illustrator (how long did it take Labat?!) actually draws, on an enormous foldout page, one million jelly beans. 

Love this one.

Here Come the Girl Scouts! The Amazing All-true Story of Juliette "Daisy" Gordon Low and Her Great Adventure written by Shana Corey and illustrated by Hadley Hooper

Why wasn't this book around when I was a little Girl Scout? Sadly, I rarely ran across stories of strong girls who grew up to be strong women. I wish I'd heard Daisy's story when I was young. I'm happy that girls of today can get to know her through this great book. 

Daisy, despite becoming deaf in one ear, lived an adventurous life, learning blacksmithing and riding elephants in India, in a time when women rarely left their homes. Then she discovered Boy Scouts and she was determined to create something like it for girls in America. 

The author and illustrator work together to create a book that reminds us that girls were not always free to explore as they are today and to create the inspiring story of a courageous and daring woman that has given girls today bigger lives. 

If You Lived Here: Houses of the World written and illustrated by Giles Laroche

So many houses in the world! Giles Laroche shares dogtrot log houses and chalets and cave dwellings and chateaus and yurts and other houses with us in this beautiful book. 

Laroche tells us what life would be like if we lived in these homes and shares details of the homes that we've always wanted to know. The illustrations are of the detailed cut paper that children loved to explore. 

I hope Laroche is now working on a followup book about clothes or pets or transportation of cultures around the world. Delightful.

A Rock is Lively written by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long

If you want Astonishingly Amazingly Beautiful in a children's book, look no further than the writing/illustrating team of Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long. A Rock is Lively is Aston and Long's fourth joint effort following the success of An Egg is Quiet, A Seed is Sleepy, and A Butterfly is Patient. 

I knew this would be a lovely book, but I'd almost despaired of obtaining a copy in time to evaluate it for the Cybils when my librarian friend surprised me with the book last week. 

I hope you'll forgive me for loving this book best of the series as my husband is a longtime rockhound and gem cutter. I've seen a lot of beautiful rocks and a lot of beautiful rock books, but I must say that I've never seen more beautiful rocks in a more beautiful rock book. And not only is it beautiful, but it explains rocks better than any other rock book for children that I've read.

Fabulous. It will not disappoint.

Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John "Appleseed" Chapman written by Esme Raji Codell and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins

Do we really need another book about Johnny Appleseed? In my primary library I have seventeen different books about Johnny Appleseed. 

Now I have eighteen. And I am very happy with this new look at Johnny. Before I even saw the book, I knew I'd love it; how can you go wrong with a collaboration between the amazing Esme Raji Codell and the wonderful Lynne Rae Perkins?

This is a magnificent book. The story carries us from present day America into life at the time of John Chapman. We spend time with Chapman and come to know him by the legacy he left for us: use what you have, share what you have, respect nature, try to make peace where there is war, and you can reach your destination by taking small steps. 


Seeing Symmetry by Loreen Leedy

Sadly I was born with a Word Brain not a Math Brain. Math was a loathsome task when I was young. It would have helped me so much, me with my Word Brain, to have understood math had I had books like this new wonderful book, Seeing Symmetry, by Loreen Leedy. The title page with, on one side, the title, author's name, publisher, and half an owl, and on the other side, a reflection of the left, immediately alerted me to the Leedy's whimsy. 

You will understand symmetry after reading this clever and colorful book, whether you are fifty or five. 

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors written by Hena Khan and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

We see tiny windows into the Muslim world in this little book, color by color. Khan leads us through all the distinctive vocabulary of Muslims---henna and Ramadan and zakat and mosque---with gentle rhyming explanations while Amini reveals us the beauty of the Muslim world. 

A radiant and simple look at the Muslim experience.

It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw written by Don Tate and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Bill Traylor was eighty-one years old when, out of the blue, he began to draw. He'd saved up memories of a lifetime, memories of Sunday morning church services and swimming in the river with his friends and picking cotton on the farm, and he suddenly began to draw little pictures of fighting cats and men in tall hats and hunters on horses. A show was arranged for Bill and he had a chance to share his memories with the world.

I love this beautifully written story of a simple man who suddenly became an artist at an age that most people are starting to wind down, a man who almost compulsively drew and drew, a person who created simple beautiful art.

Monsieur Marceau written by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Gerard Dubois

This year was the year for fantastic picture book biographies and Monsieur Marceau was one of my favorites. Leda Schubert tells, in simple words, and Gerard Dubois depicts, in quiet pictures, the story of a man with no words. It's all the details of the story---how Marceau loved to talk when he was not performing, the story of Marceau leading Jewish children to safety during the war---that the book draws its strength.

Noah Webster & His Words written by Jeri Chase Ferris and illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch

This book barely made it in under the wire, but I'm happy it did arrive in time for me to read it for the Cybils. The charm of this book is the novel way Ferris tells Webster's story, using big words that are written like dictionary entries. Absolutely Absolutely cap·ti·vating [kap-tuh-veyt] 1. to attract and hold the attention or interest of, as by beauty or excellence; enchant.

Eggs 123: Who Will the Babies Be? written by Janet Halfmann with illustrations by Betsy Thompson

This is one of those books that draws big Oooo's and Ahhh's from the young children in my school. Halfmann recites a number alphabet for eggs, with just enough rhyme to charm but not so much that the rhyming becomes annoying. Thompson created fun lift-the-flap pictures to accompany the number alphabet. A delightfully fun interactive book.

I Have a Dream: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. illustrated by Kadir Nelson

I shared this book with a group of kids at the recent book fair and they haven't stopped bugging me about readying this book for checkout. It's a beautiful book. Kadir Nelson, with his starkly realistic paintings, brings us up close to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous speech. Mesmerizing.

That's it for now. Twenty-five of my favorite Cybils nonfiction picture book nominees, in no particular order. I hope to share more nonfiction picture book nominees that I loved before the end of the year.

What do you think about these? Have you read any of these? Any thoughts you'd like to share about these?


  1. I haven't read any of these but they look like books kids would love. Would you believe I've written several children's stories and waiting to see if an agent will pick them up? If not, I'll send them to my grandkids anyway!

  2. Wow! That must have taken a lot of work getting all those nice reviews up. :) Good job!

    My Sunday Salon

  3. What enticing books! If I had to pick a favorite, I would be hard pressed to do so. But the first one to really catch my eye was Minette's Feast. I loved the book (and movie), Julie & Julia, and ever since have been fascinated by Julia Childs and her journey.



  4. Wow, you have been busy with these CYBILS! I am totally impressed :)

  5. I just took some pretty strong cough syrup and the everything is starting to move on me, but I'm definitely going to have to come back later and look at this closer. I'm going to need to try some of these for sure.

  6. There are some great picture books there. I will have to keep my eyes open for some of those.

  7. Looks like you definitely broke your "blog jam!"

  8. Ooh, my reading list just got a lot longer. These look beautiful.

  9. You folks on the Round 1 panel sure had your work cut out for you. I am really enjoying the books your picked out for us on the Round 2 panel to read! But the decision will be tough.

    So many that didn't make the shortlist I want to read; If You Lived Here, How Many Jelly Beans, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and well all the rest really!!

  10. I can't remember a year when we had more discussion about the Cybils books we loved.

  11. Terrific group of nonfiction books AND reviews! Glad you didn't starve first :) I haven't yet read There Goes Ted Willams or It Jes' Happened -- off to check those out. Thanks for sharing the list.


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