Five Favorite Nonfiction Books

So, if I could be on the Newbery or Caldecott committee, which would it be?  Neither.  I’d chose the Sibert award for best informational books.  I love nonfiction, both for children and adults.  The topics are so varied, and truth really can be stranger than fiction.  Here are a few of my favorites from this year.  (And, okay, I probably wouldn’t say no to the Newbery Committee…).

We Rock! (Music Lab) by Jason Hanley.  Published by Quarry Books.

Maybe not great literature, but one of the most fun nonfiction books of the year.  Keep on hand to introduce kids to all your favorite songs and artists…and to gain a new appreciation of them yourself.


A Chicken Followed Me Home: Questions and Answers About a Famous Fowl by Robin Page.  Published by Beach Lane Books.

Everything you ever wanted to know–but didn’t know you wanted to know–about the humble chicken.


Water Is Water: A Book About the Water Cycle by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin.  Published by Roaring Brook Press.

All the forms water takes in our every day life, gorgeously illustrated.  Jason Chin deserves to make it to the Caldecott list one of these years.  Maybe it will be 2016.


Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsburg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin.  Published by Roaring Brook Press.

This could be a Newbery contender.  A fascinating history of the Vietnam War, how U.S. government secrets made it happen, and one man’s brave campaign to bring it to the public, via the leaked Pentagon Papers.


The Founding Fathers: Those Horse-Ridin’, Fiddle-Playin’, Book-Readin’, Gun-Totin’ Gentlemen Who Started America by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Barry Blitt.  Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

The founding fathers come to life in this endlessly browseable (is that a word?) collection of profiles on the famous and the less-famous.  Readers won’t get the whole story here, but they will get engaged in the history.

Five Favorite Graphic Novels

Each year brings a larger group of graphic novels for a wider range of readers.  Here are some that I particularly enjoyed this year:

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova.  Published by Yen Press.

Awkward (Berrybrook Middle School, 1): CHMAKOVA, SVETLANA: 9780316381307: Books

Peppi treats another kid badly on her first day of middle school…then spends a good portion of the rest of the book beating herself up about it and trying to make amends.  Perfectly captures middle school angst.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer Holm, illustrated by Matthew Holm.  Published by Scholastic.  Book trailer:

The month of August in a Florida retirement community?  Sunny struggles to adapt to her sudden visit to Grandpa’s.  Flashback scenes help the reader figure out the family difficulties that have precipitated the need to have Sunny out of the house for a month.  Based on the authors’ own childhood, Sunny Side Up is a story of family love and resilience.

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson.  Published by Dial Books.

Another middle school story…Astrid and her best friend Nicole pursue different interests, and the possibility of the end of their friendship, during the summer before sixth grade.  While Nicole follows her passion for dance, Astrid decides to try roller derby camp.  Amidst the bumps, bruises, and falls, she discovers something she loves and maybe, just maybe, can learn to be good at.

Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Sergio Garcia Sanchez.  Published by Toon Graphics.

Part friendship story, part engineering manual, Lost in NYC recounts a comedy of errors school field trip on the New York City subway that results in a new friendship and a lesson in NYC’s subterranean maze.

Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang, illustrated by Mike Holmes.  Published by First Second.  Hopper’s first day in her new school is anything but ordinary, as she and a new friend discover binary coding, some unusual owls, and an underground network run by a pretty creepy custodian.

Five More Favorite Chapter Books

Well,  you never know with the Newbery, but these are less likely contenders.  Nevertheless, they were among my favorites in 2015.


The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan.  Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Nell was one of the feistier characters to grace the pages of 2015 books.  Teaming up with her based-on-real-life Aunt Kate, a Pinkerton detective, the two of them solve murder mysteries and prevent an attempt on the life of newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln.


Watch the Sky by Kirsten Hubbard.  Published by Disney-Hyperion.

And here we have one of the year’s creepiest characters.  Jory’s stepfather Caleb sees signs of end times everywhere.  His solution?  Put the whole family to work digging night and day to create a protective bunker and bury themselves before the world comes to an end.


Masterminds by Gordon Korman.  Published by Balzer + Bray.  Book trailer:

Serenity, New Mexico seems too good to be true.  And you know what they say, when something seems too good to be true, it usually is.  Five kids unravel the secrets of their perfect town and end up running for their lives.


A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen.  Published by Scholastic Press.

During the few days Gerta’s father and brother are in West Berlin looking for jobs, the Berlin Wall goes up.  Their family remains divided for years, until one day Gerta sees her father on top of the wall, pantomiming for her to dig.  Now it’s up to her and her older brother to tunnel under the wall to freedom before neighbors and East German officials can catch on to what they’re doing and put a violent stop to their plan.


The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands.  Published by Aladdin.  Book trailer:

A story about 17th-century English apothecaries?  Yeah, it didn’t really catch my eye at first either.  Turns out it’s a mystery full of complex codes, secret societies, and a serial killer who is targeting…you guessed it, 17th-century English apothecaries.  All told in apprentice Christopher’s lively and humorous voice.

Five Favorite Newbery Contenders

Given every year for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”, the 2016 Newbery will remain anyone’s guess until January 11.  That doesn’t stop wild speculation from occurring all over the children’s literature world.  Here are five that I’d like to see get recognized:

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  Published by Dial Books.

Released on January 5, the first middle grade book I reviewed, this was my favorite novel of the year.  Ada’s story of escape from her abusive mother is also the story of redemption for not only Ada, but her brother, Jamie,  and their new “mother”, Susan, as well.


Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai.  Published by HarperCollins.

I waited almost ten months to finally get around to this book.  I didn’t expect it to be so funny, or to make me want to visit the fascinating country of Vietnam.


The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelly Pearsall.  Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Arthur, the Junk Man, Arthur’s mother, Squeak…I found them all kind of unappealing at the beginning of the story, but they gradually worked their way into my heart, until I was rooting for each one to play his or her part in bringing about the unveiling The Throne of the Third Heaven masterpiece.


Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.  Published by Scholastic

Otto’s magical fairy tale weaves its way through the three stories of Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy, each enduring difficult circumstances during the years of World War II.  An enchanted harmonica falls into each of their hands, its beautiful music bringing joy during dark times, until the music brings all three together in the end.


Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead.  Published by Wendy Lamb Books.

Seventh grade is the main character of this story about three friends finding their way through this exciting and difficult year, remaining loyal despite the increasingly different paths their lives take.  A mysterious second-person narrator’s story is interspersed with the chapters that make up the main narrative, until all the threads weave together at the end.

Five–no wait, six–more favorite picture books

I haven’t seen these on many Caldecott lists, but they were still among my favorites this year, for one reason or another.  I got the list down to six, but couldn’t eliminate any more.

Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld.  Published by HMH Books for Young Readers.

Book trailer:

Everything about this book is simply perfect.  Cute characters (and really, they’re a stick and a stone, so well done, Tom Lichtenfeld), catchy rhymes, and a message of friendship–a perfect 10.

How the Sun Got to Coco’s House by Bob Graham.  Published by Candlewick.

This story travels around the world, then ends up in Coco’s house and yard.  Just right for showing young children a big, beautiful world, and how they are a part of it.

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall.  Published by Greenwillow Books.

Book trailer:

Don’t label.  Told in a way even the youngest kids will get.

The Red Bicycle: The Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Bicycle by Jude Isabella, illustrated by Simone Shin.  Published by Kids Can Press.

Can one person make a difference?  Yes!  And talk about paying it forward, this bicycle just keeps on giving as it moves from one incarnation to the next.

How to Read a Story by Kate Messner, illustrated by Mark Siegel.  Published by Chronicle Books.

I found myself recommending this book to teachers all year–as an introduction to independent reading, as a mentor text for expository writing, and as an engaging story to illustrate the joys of stories.

Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred) by Josh Schneider.  Published by  Clarion Books.

A bedtime story that will also make adult readers chuckle.

Five Favorite Caldecott Contenders

During this last week of 2015, I’m going to post lists of my favorite books in different categories.  This is the time of year when there’s a lot of buzz about what books will get Newbery and Caldecott honors. When I look at the lists of possibilities, these five are the ones I liked best, not only for the illustrations (which is the sole criteria for the Caldecott), but for the whole package.

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson.  Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Last Stop on Market Street: de la Peña, Matt, Robinson, Christian:  9780399257742: Books

When I reviewed this in April, I liked it, and since then, it’s continued to grow on me.  The collage details of the city are evocative of Ezra Jack Keats.  The grandmother turned out to be one of my favorite characters of 2015.

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle and Rafael Lopez.  Published by HMH Books for Young Readers.

Every page could be its own vibrant, colorful poster.  The book trailer is what really convinced me this is Caldecott worthy:

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall.  Published by Schwartz and Wade.

A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat: Jenkins,  Emily, Blackall, Sophie: 9780375868320: Books

I reviewed this back in February, and ever since, it’s been one of my favorites.  There’s been a lot of controversy over the depiction of slavery (Google “Fine Dessert Slavery” if you’re not familiar with this), but I stand by my original impression of this as a book that entertains and teaches on many levels.

Float by Daniel Miyares.  Published by Simon and Schuster

There have been some great wordless picture books this year.  And there have been some beautiful artistic depictions of water this year.  This one had both.

The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House by Ida Pearle.  Published by Dial Books.

The Moon is Going to Addy's House - Kindle edition by Pearle, Ida. Children  Kindle eBooks @

Okay, I admit I have a weakness for cut-paper illustrations.  These pictures amaze me.  Plus, the text and illustrations perfectly capture the feeling of a child’s world.

Jingle Bells: A Magical Cut-Paper Edition by James Lord Pierpont, illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat

Published by Candlewick


Summary:  The first verse of this famous song, written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857, is illustrated with beautiful silhouette drawings depicting a couple on their way to Christmas dinner.  Not surprisingly, their vehicle is a one-horse open sleigh, complete with green Christmas tree and red sack of gifts, which stand out as bright spots in the mostly black and white illustrations.  Alternating pages have delicate cut-paper illustrations, with a grand finale pop-up showing people gathered in around a Christmas tree in front of a snowy village.  12 pages; all ages.

Pros:  The beautiful artwork that will make this a holiday treasure to enjoy year after year.

Cons:  The conspicuous absence of Miss Fannie Bright.

Merry Christmas!

Miracle on 133rd Street by Sonia Manazo, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

Published by Atheneum


Summary: It’s Christmas Eve, and Jose’s mami is feeling homesick for Puerto Rico. Not only that, but their oven is too small to cook the roast.  So Jose and his father box it up and set off for the local pizzeria to use the big oven there.  Along the way, they meet up with neighbors in and around their apartment who are experiencing a variety of holiday stresses.  A few hours later, they return, bringing the pizza shop owner for dinner and a fragrant cooked roast.  The delicious odors draw the neighbors to their apartment, and everyone forgets their troubles to enjoy a merry Christmas Eve dinner.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A feel-good Christmas story with a culturally diverse cast of characters.

Cons:  A pretty bah humbug collection of neighbors until dinner is served.

Pete Makes a Mistake by Emily Arnold McCully; Crow Makes a Friend by Margaret Peot; Pie for Chuck by Pat Schories

Published by Holiday House


Summary:  In Pete Makes a Mistake, Pete forgets to deliver one of his sister’s birthday party invitations, resulting in some misunderstandings and hurt feelings before all is put right.  Crow makes a friend from sticks, then snow in Crow Makes a Friend, but finally realizes a flesh and blood friend is the most lasting kind.  Chuck the woodchuck can see and smell the pie in Pie for Chuck, but can’t reach it until he gets some help from his friends.  24 pages each; ages 4-7.

Pros:  These new entries into Holiday House’s I Like to Read series are all colorful, appealing offerings for emergent readers.  Fountas and Pinnell types: the website says that all the books are levels A through G.  A bit larger than the typical easy reader, these have more of a picture book feel, yet are accessible to even the newest readers.

Cons: It’s hard to make a page-turning plot with fewer than 30 words.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Published by Candlewick 

Summary:  Fannie Lou Hamer’s story is told in her own poetic voice, illustrated with collage renderings of events throughout her life.  Born in the Mississippi delta, the youngest of 20 children, Fannie Lou had to drop out of school after sixth grade to work in the cotton fields.  She married Perry Hamer and adopted two daughters after being tricked into having an operation to prevent her from being able to have children.  In 1962, she attended her first voter registration meeting, unaware that blacks even had the right to vote.  Within the year she was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, losing her job and her home as a result.  Imprisoned and badly beaten, she refused to give up her work, eventually becoming a national spokesperson for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and addressing the 1964 Democratic National Convention about voter discrimination.  Fannie Lou also worked to improve conditions in Mississippi, organizing cotton pickers and starting a Head Start program.  She died in 1977.  An author’s note, timeline, and bibliography are included.  56 pages; grades 5-8.


Pros:  A powerful story about a poor, uneducated woman who was able to make a difference on a national level.  The poetic text perfectly captures Hamer’s voice, and is complemented by the large, colorful illustrations.


Cons:  There’s a lot of information here, and even older students may need some historical context to understand all of Hamer’s contributions.