Sunday, December 21, 2014

My 15 Favorite Non-Fiction Picture Books of 2014 (Alphabetical by Title)

Recently I posted my list of my 30 favorite fiction picture books (please see below for that post).  Here are my 15 favorite non-fiction picture books of 2014!  Please keep in mind that some of these are for older kids.

All Different Now:  Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom, written by Angela Johnson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis.  On June 15th, 1865, under a hot Texas sun, slaves hear that they have been freed.  Done in striking first person narration from a young girl's point-of-view, Johnson's moving account deftly uses succinct prose to describe the emotions and elation on this historic day.  Lewis' illustrations, evocative as ever, do a powerful job of showing the people before hearing the news, working hard in the fields, and then after, looking with disbelief, surprise, and then pure tear-filled joy.  My favorite spread shows the girl looking at her mother, holding her hand, and looking beyond to a future filled with promise.  The extensive back matter includes author's and illustrator's notes, important dates, and a description of the legacy of Juneteenth.  

Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas, written by Lynne Cox, illustrated by Brian Floca. Based on a true story, this delightful tale of perseverance and a truly unique elephant seal shines thanks to Cox's succinct storytelling and Floca's charming illustrations. In Christchurch, New Zealand, the rather adorable Elizabeth (named after Queen Elizabeth) defies the habits of her fellow elephant seals, who love to hang out in the ocean and on the rocky coasts, by living in the shallow Avon River that flows through the heart of the city. She also likes to sunbathe...on the two-lane road, causing panic among some of the townsfolk who fear that she will cause an accident or get hurt. Three times people take her by boat far far away, but guess who comes swimming back? Cox reveals that a young boy (and his sister) told her this story while she visited New Zealand, and this child Michael, who loves spotting Elizabeth, in the story. Floca, the recent Caldecott winner (for Locomotive), captures Elizabeth's fun-loving, feisty personality with finesse.

Gravity, written and illustrated by Jason Chin. Yet another winner from the enormously talented Chin (Redwoods, Island). Using easy to understand, pared down prose, this concise, striking exploration of how gravity works soars thanks to his innovative and meta approach. The book Gravity falls from the sky (I'm talking the actual book Gravity by Jason Chin), startling a boy playing with outer space toys on a beach. He then experiences a world without gravity as everything floats away. But fear not: gravity prevails and order is restored. Repeat readings reveal how clever innovative this book truly is; readers will discover cool details in the art that they did not notice before. Easy non-fiction at its very best.

Have You Heard the Nesting Bird?, written by Rita Gray, illustrated by Kenard Park.  2014 was an excellent year for books about birds and this  is one of the very best.   Thoroughly charming and interactive (and perfect for preschoolers), this celebration employs a fetching rhyme pattern while celebrating our feathered friends.  A boy and girl enjoy the sounds of mourning doves, woodpeckers, and others, and this invites the audience to say things like "whip-poor-will" and ""ee-oh-lay."  Gray returns to a catchy refrain:  "But have you heard the nesting bird," referring to the quiet robin sitting on a nest.  Park's illustrations delight (I love the shrieking blue jay and crowned cardinal--beyond adorable), with one nighttime spread creating a sense of wonder and mystery.  When we see the robin's secret, we feel pure elation.

Here Is the World:  A Year of Jewish Holidays, written by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Susan Gal.  A first-rate introduction to Jewish holidays, with easy-to-understand couplets explaining to the very youngest of readers what makes each of them special.  Starting with a baby's naming ceremony in autumn, Newman's text is concise and poetic and very kid-friendly as she goes on to succinctly describe high holy days and other holidays.  Gal's beautiful, vibrant illustrations show people young and old honoring tradition and celebrating together.  When I included this book in a recent presentation, many told me they are so happy with this book because it fills a niche for a young audience.  It's exquisitely done.  

The Iridescence of Birds:  A Book about Henri Matisse, written by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper.  This excellent picture book biography does a miraculous job showing the factors that possibly led to Matisse becoming the artist he became.  MacLachlan's masterful, spare text uses the "you" pronoun effectively as she puts the reader in Matisse's place. Hooper starts off picturing the artist as a young boy, walking on a gray street on a dreary day in northern France where "you wanted color and light/And sun."  A turn of the page becomes more colorful and alive as the account introduces the budding artist's mother who paints colorful plates, and also gives Henri a chance to mix paints and be creative himself.  One great spread shows Henri as a boy watching Henri the man at work.  An inspirational book for budding artists.

Jospehine:  The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson.  For older readers, this is one dazzling and ebullient look at Josephine Baker, the groundbreaking African-American performer and activist who would take Paris by storm.  Hruby's bubbly, bouncy prose mirrors the personality of this confident legend, showing how even at a young age she wanted to become a star.  Encountering racism in the States, she travels to Europe where people adored her stage act.  Robinson proves one against why he is one of the most exciting and unique illustrators today, giving us vivid, colorful, and witty drawings that capture Josephine's indefatigable spirit.  She was a force of nature and you can tell the book's creators love telling her story.

The Lion and the Mouse, by Jenny Broom and illustrated by Nahta Nój. This bright, bold, and glorious book employs innovative paper craft to retell this Aesop fable about a mouse who repays a lion's kindness with a kindness of its own. Cool die-cuts play with perspective as a mouse finds itself craving the berries right above a sleeping lion's head. The creeping mouse of course wakes the lion up but the beast responds with empathy instead of anger, but then laughs at the little critter when it says that someday it will help the lion. After an effective die-cut involving hunters' footsteps, Nój leaves his most breathtaking flap for towards the end when we see the lion trapped in a net, with the mouse coming to his rescue. Pair this charmer with Jerry Pinkney's lovely near-wordless Caldecott winner for maximum impact. 

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, written by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison. Morrison's (really cool) signature illustrations, with his characters possessing long limbs, is a perfect match for this picture book biography of Little Melba Liston who needs to stretch her arms to play her beloved trombone. At a young age, Melba discovers a love for music, and Russell-Brown's lively prose captures this little girl's affection for the "plink of a guitar, the hummm of a bass, the thrum-thrum of a drum...". This concise work manages to hit on all the high notes of Melba's life, showing, for example, how her Grandfather taught the prodigy to handle the cumbersome trombone. In a manner younger children can understand, the text also describes how she encountered sexism and racism even after she became a successful musician. Young readers will enjoy seeing photos of the real Little Melba and Her Big Trombone in the very informative back matter. A rousing tribute to a music great.

Music Everywhere!, by Maya Ajmera, Elise Hofer Derstine, and Cynthia Pon. Packed with photographs from all over the world, this uplifting work (part of the Global Fund for Children Book series) shows children dancing, singing, clapping hands, stomping feet, and, most impressively, playing a wide variety of cool-looking instruments. A little Scottish kid plays the bagpipes, while girls in China strum the yueqin, for example. Captions accompany the vibrant, colorful photos showing wildly enthusiastic children. From Malawi to the Cook Islands, from Belgium to Brazil, the book takes readers on a whirlwind, epic tour.

The Noisy Paint Box:  The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art, written by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPre.  This exciting exploration of what makes Russian artist Vasya Kandinsky's colorful abstract paintings so unique and alive is a burst of captivating energy.  Rosenstock (who had quite a year with other great books such as Ben Franklin's Big Splash and The Streak:  How Joe DiMaggio Became America's Hero) does a great job using action words that convey what it feels like to have synesthesia (in an author's note Rosenstock says it was thought Kandinsky had this)--hearing colors, seeing music, and so on.  GrandPre runs with this idea, filling the page with swirling colors and dynamic spreads, and giving us lovely images of Kandinsky experiencing pure bliss when he sees the colors. GrandPre deftly gives the reader a striking visual contrast between the drab, dull world of polite society to which Vasya belongs and the vibrant colorful nature of his artistic vision (ha, this is a stretch but this would make a good double feature with Peter Brown's Mr. Tiger Goes Wild in elementary story times).

On the Wing, written by David Elliott, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander.  Did I mention what a good year it was for bird books?  This wondrous picture book collects several short poems about all kinds of birds.  The verses mix in facts about their winged, feathery subjects, and often contain humor and wit.  For example:  The Oriole and the Woodpecker says "Music lovers fast await/the first duet/of summer.  Oriole is vocalist.  Woodpecker is drummer."  Stadtlander's page-filling goauche illustrations create beautiful scenes for the each bird species, from the wintry scenario enjoyed by the dancing Japanese Cranes to stormy ocean spread starring the Wandering Albatross.  Of all the birds featured, I must confess I like the sparrow who wants "to roar" because it's the "small cousin of tyrannosaur" the most.

The Right Word:  Roget and His Thesaurus, written by Jen Bryant, illusrated by Melissa Sweet.   I'm trying to think of the right word to describe Bryant's text:  succinct, clear, captivating, informative, illuminating.  And how does one describe Sweet's art, collages and layout?  Playful, witty, intricate, evocative, inventive.   Bryant and Sweet also collaborated on the great A Splash of Red:  The Life of Horace Pippin (2013) and the Caldecott Honor book A River of Words:  The Story of William Carlos Williams  (2008), and they are a perfect match to tell the story of the Swiss-born Peter Roget who loved books and words.  He would often find even as a child that he wanted to find "the right word" when interacting with people, so he started making lists of words that served as better, more effective choices.  And thus a thesaurus is born!  Sweet (who had a great 2014 thanks to the wonderful poetry anthology Firefly July) gives us a tour de force of book layout and illustration, with endpapers so detailed your jaw will drop. 

Separate Is Never Equal:  Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh.  In his powerful look at the case that led to the end of segregated schooling in California in 1947, Tonatiuh beautifully uses his signature illustration style (the people all stand in profile) to great effect.  The book starts with young Sylvia encountering bullying and bigotry at the hands of white students:  "Go back to the Mexican school," they sneer at her.  When Sylvia tells her mother she wants to quit, the mom reminds her of how hard her parents and others fought to get Sylvia, her siblings, and others into the school (she listens to her mother and then triumphs at the book's end).  Tonatiuh doesn't shy away showing disturbing bigotry (a sign outside a public swimming pool says that dogs and Mexicans are not allowed), and this makes the ultimate triumph all the more satisfying as communities come together to prevail.  Excellent back matter shows us photographs of Mendez as a girl and as a proud adult.

Viva Frida, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, photography by Tim O' Meara. This is a truly unique celebration of the artistic vision of brilliant artist Frida Kahlo. Using spare bilingual (Spanish/English) text, Morales presents a playful and sensitive Kahlo who embraces life, love, and her imagination. Beautifully composed photographs capture a Frida figurine in motion, interacting with animals such as a monkey and a dog. Then Morales inserts a haunting dream sequence done with masterfully composed paintings as Kahlo flies and comes to the aid of a wounded deer. This lovely creature joins the Frida figure in the real world, inspiring one of her pieces of art. Diego Rivera makes a special appearance, too! The final triumphant spread with the words "Vivo! I live!" gives me goosebumps every time I look at it. A stirring, wondrous creation with excellent back matter. 

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