Another list of six: favorite nonfiction books

Your Place in the Universe by Jason Chin

Published by Neal Porter Books

Your Place in the Universe: Chin, Jason: 9780823446230: Amazon.com: Books

I notice that Jason Chin has made it onto three of my last five favorite nonfiction book lists, so guess I’m a bit of a fan. His illustrations are awe-inspiring, and I loved the comparisons in this book that made enormous numbers and sizes a little more understandable.

Grow: Secrets of Our DNA by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

Published by Candlewick

Grow: Secrets of Our DNA: Davies, Nicola, Sutton, Emily: 9781536212723:  Amazon.com: Books

Explaining DNA and genetics in a way that’s accessible to readers as young as kindergarten is no easy feat, but Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton pulled it off. Watson and Crick would be proud.

We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World by Todd Hasak-Lowy

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers

We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World: Hasak-Lowy, Todd:  9781419741111: Amazon.com: Books

I thought I knew a fair amount about nonviolent activism–I’m a Quaker, for Pete’s sake–but I learned so much from reading this book. 2020 had its share of activism and books about activism, but this was the one I found most inspiring.

The Fabled Life of Aesop by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Fabled Life of Aesop: The extraordinary journey and collected tales of  the world's greatest storyteller: Lendler, Ian, Zagarenski, Pamela:  9781328585523: Amazon.com: Books

I’m sure Aesop never imagined he’d be part of the Common Core, but there he is. As a school librarian, I am grateful for this comprehensive introduction to his life and fables, and I also appreciated the sly observations on what it means to have power. Pamela Zagarenski has a couple of Caldecott honors to her name, so don’t count her out this year.

Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots by Michael Rex

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books

Amazon.com: Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots (9781984816269): Rex, Michael,  Rex, Michael: Books

Who knew that when I was playing Kick the Can with Michael Rex and the rest of our neighbors in 1970’s suburban New Jersey that in 2020 I’d be reviewing his book? Well done, Michael, I loved your take on facts vs. opinions. Librarians everywhere should thank you for this book.

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat

Published by Candlewick Press

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team -  Kindle edition by Soontornvat, Christina. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon .com.

I guess none of us should be surprised that this drama we watched unfold a couple of years ago would be made into a gripping nonfiction tale. Christina Soontornvat added so much context with her sidebars on Thailand, caves, and Buddhism, as well as her personal connection to the story that readers get much more than just a survival story.

The Little Mermaid by Jerry Pinkney

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Amazon.com: The Little Mermaid (9780316440318): Pinkney, Jerry: Books
Watery Fairy Tales - The New York Times

Summary:  Melody, the youngest daughter of the Sea King, has a beautiful singing voice and loves to go exploring.  One day she discovers the world above the sea and sees a girl named Zion.  When Melody starts to sing, Zion sees her, and the mermaid knows the two of them are meant to be friends.  Desperate to find a way to be with her new friend, Melody goes to the Sea Witch, who gives her legs in exchange for her voice.  Melody and Zion meet, but Zion is dismayed when she discovers her new friend can’t speak.  Melody draws pictures in the sand to tell her what happened, and Zion says she should never have given up her voice.  A disturbance in the sea alerts Melody to danger for her family, and she returns to the undersea kingdom in time to help defend it against the witch.  When she sees the shell with her voice in it around the witch’s neck, she manages to get it back and to use her voice to defeat her enemy.  Melody’s father realizes his daughter should be allowed to have adventures, so, even as a mermaid, she can visit with her new friend Zion.  48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  Usually, the story of The Little Mermaid kind of bums me out, but I love this retelling with a friendship instead of a romance, and a celebration of being adventurous and using your voice.  Add this to the cannon of beautiful fairy retellings at the hands of Jerry Pinkney.

Cons:  This story is a longer than some of Pinkney’s other folktales, and may be a bit of a stretch for reading aloud to preschoolers.

Sugar In Milk by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le

Published by Running Press Kids

Sugar in Milk: Umrigar, Thrity, Le, Khoa: 9780762495191: Amazon.com: Books
Sugar in Milk: Umrigar, Thrity, Le, Khoa: 9780762495191: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Sent to America to live with her aunt and uncle, the narrator is struggling to adjust to her new life, missing her family and friends back home.  One day her aunt takes her on a walk and tells a story from ancient Persia about a group of people forced to leave their home.  They arrive by boat in India, ragged and exhausted, only to be told by the king that they can’t stay.  His land is too crowded, and there is no room for these strangers who don’t speak his language.  He fills a cup to the brim with milk to demonstrate this.  One of the refugees takes some sugar from his pack and adds it to the milk.  The milk has become sweeter without causing the cup to overflow; the king understands the message that in the same way the Persians will bring happiness to his country, and he welcomes them.  The girl learns from her aunt’s story, and begins to see the beauty in her new country, carrying a packet of sugar to remind her to bring sweetness wherever she goes.  48 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  With spare prose and gorgeous illustrations, this book delivers its message about immigration without preaching.  It’s also a great example of the timelessness of folklore and how ancient stories can still be relevant today.

Cons:  I would have liked some additional information about the history of the folktale.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Myth by Duncan Tonatiuh

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Myth - Kindle  edition by Tonatiuh, Duncan. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Summary: Before the present time, there were four tonatiuhs or suns.  During each one, the gods created humans, but something always went wrong.  First, the humans were too big, so they were turned into mountains.  Then they were too small, so they became fish.  Finally, after the fourth tonatiuh, the gods gave up, and handed off the sacred bones to the lord of the underworld.  But one of the gods, Quetzalcóatl, or Feathered Serpent, didn’t want to give up.  He decided to travel to the underworld in search of the bones.  His journey was long and dangerous, but his cleverness and strength helped him to overcome all the obstacles, and to recover the bones once again.  He and the other gods created humans that are still alive today, the time of the fifth tonatiuh.  Includes an author’s note, glossary, and bibliography.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Award winner Duncan Tonatiuh uses his distinctive style of illustration to bring to life this Mesoamerican tale filled with interesting mythological creatures and plenty of adventure.  The author’s note gives more details about the story, making this an excellent resource for older readers.

Cons:  You will definitely want to do a practice run-through before trying to read this aloud and encountering words like Itzcuintlán and Mictlantecuhtli.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

The Fabled Life of Aesop by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

The Fabled Life of Aesop: The extraordinary journey and collected ...

Summary:  Aesop was born a slave in ancient Greece over 2000 years ago.  He learned that speaking out could be dangerous in his position, so he learned to talk in code, telling stories about the powerless and the powerful through his fables.  Following an introduction to Aesop’s life, the book presents ten fables.  Each telling is only a few paragraphs, with an illustration or two, and the moral in gold type at the end.  The final few pages recount how Aesop was freed, and how his fables were told for many years before they were finally published in book form.  Includes an afterword that explains more about what we do and don’t know about Aesop and which parts of his story in this book are true; also, a bibliography.  64 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  An excellent introduction to Aesop’s fables, giving some context  about how they are not only lessons about morality, but give advice on “how to survive in a world in which some have power and some do not.”  Caldecott honoree Pamela Zagarenski will surely get some additional consideration for her beautiful illustrations here.

Cons:  I would have preferred that the afterword were a foreword, so readers would be aware of the uncertainties around Aesop’s history before reading the pages about his life.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Federico and the Wolf by Rebecca J. Gomez, illustrated by Elisa Chavarri

Published by Clarion Books

Amazon.com: Federico and the Wolf (9781328567789): Gomez, Rebecca ...

Federico and the Wolf by Rebecca J. Gomez

Summary:  Federico heads off in his red hoodie, ready to shop from Abuelo’s grocery list for the ingredients to make the perfect pico.  After he leaves the market, he takes a shortcut through the woods to get to his grandfather’s store.  There he encounters a hungry wolf, but manages to escape on his bike.  When he gets to la tienda, it’s mysteriously closed with pawprints outside the front door.  Abuelo, waiting inside, seems to have grown an extra-thick beard and some hefty biceps, and acquired a new set of dentures.  When Federico realizes it’s the wolf, he fends him off with quick thinking, chili pepper, and an extra hot habanero.  The wolf runs off, and Abuelo is found inside a locked box.  None the worse for their experiences, Federico and his grandfather work together to cook up a new treat: Wolf’s Bane Salsa.  Includes a recipe for the perfect pico, and a list of Spanish words with their location in the story.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This clever rhyming retelling of Little Red Riding Hood includes a fun Mexican twist that extends to the bright, colorful illustrations.  This reminded me of Corey Rosen Schwartz’s rhyming fairy tales, and a little investigation revealed that Rebecca J. Gomez was the co-author of one of these.

Cons:  Seemed like Abuelo and Federico should have made Wolf’s Bane pico, not salsa.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Rónán and the Mermaid: A Tale of Old Ireland by Marianne McShane, illustrated by Jordi Solano

Published by Candlewick

Rónán and the Mermaid: A Tale of Old Ireland: McShane, Marianne ...

Rónán and the Mermaid: A Tale of Old Ireland: McShane, Marianne ...

Summary:  When Brother Declan discovers a boy lying in the sand surrounded by seals, he takes him back to the Abbey of Bangor.  As he picks up the boy, he notices two things: a flash of gold in the water and a silver ring with the letter L on it in the boy’s hand.  As the boy recovers, he tells the monks that his name is Rónán, and that he and his father were caught in a storm while out fishing.  His father drowned, and as Rónán hears stories from the monks about mermaids, he starts to believe he was saved by one, specifically a legendary mermaid named Lihan.  The boy stays at the abbey, learning to do chores and to play the harp.  One night he hears the song of the mermaid, and plays his harp back to her.  The next morning, he goes out in a boat and finds Lihan.  It turns out she’s been waiting 300 years for peace, which she thinks can be had by getting blessed by the abbott.  Rónán brings her back to the abbey, and Lihan receives the blessing, is christened Muirgen, and becomes known as the Mermaid Saint.  Includes an author’s note telling the origins of this story.  32 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  A fun and interesting retelling of a tale that will appeal to anyone with an interest in mermaids (selkies are mentioned as well).  The watercolor paintings add the right touch with their renderings of the Irish coast and the sea.

Cons:  The ending was kind of anti-climactic.  If I ran across a mermaid, I don’t know what my first thought would be, but it wouldn’t be to turn her into a saint.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Three Billy Goats Buenos by Susan Middleton Elya, illustrated by Miguel Ordóñez

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Image result for three billy goats buenos

Image result for three billy goats buenos

Summary:  The familiar story of the three billy goats gruff is told in rhyming text with a few dozen Spanish words incorporated into the story.  A glossary of the Spanish words appears at the beginning of the book so readers can refer back to it. The story is simple, but includes a twist when the biggest goat discovers the troll has a thorn stuck in her toe.  His sympathy brings a few tears to the troll’s eyes, and the goats work together to remove the thorn and apply some soothing herbs. There’s a happy ending for all four of the new amigos.  32 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  Susan Middleton Elya has produced another winning retelling of a familiar folktale that incorporates Spanish words and culture.  The rhyming text and simple, geometrical illustrations will make this an appealing choice for even the youngest readers.

Cons:  I didn’t care for the illustrations as much Juana Martinez-Neal’s in La Princesa and the Pea.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly

Published by Greenwillow

Image result for lalani of the distant sea amazon

Summary:  Lalani lives in a village suffering under a drought.  She takes a trip up the forbidden mountain near the village, and meets a strange man there who grants her wish for rain.  Unfortunately, he causes the rain to fall without ceasing, and when flooding begins, the villagers blame Lalani. Meanwhile, her mother has fallen ill with mender’s disease, an illness that is nearly always fatal.  Lalani decides to travel over the sea to the fabled land of Isa. Many men from her village have sailed away in search of this land, but have never returned. Her voyage turns out to be perilous, but she is kind to all the strange creatures she meets, and they help her get the help she’s seeking.  Her friends at home take care of some difficult situations there, so that everyone is reunited for a happily-ever-after ending. 400 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  I wouldn’t be surprised to see this win the Newbery medal or honor.  It’s a beautifully written book with amazing world building that is based on Filipino folklore.  There are many interesting characters (human and otherwise), settings, and legends that fans of folklore-inspired fantasy are sure to love.

Cons:  While I can appreciate the mastery at work here, this genre is just not my cup of tea, so I really had to push through to the end.  If you liked The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill or Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, you will undoubtedly love this.  If you didn’t, come sit next to me.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Lion and Mouse by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng

Published by Groundwood Books

Image result for lion mouse jairo amazon

Image result for lion mouse jairo amazon

Summary:  Aesop’s famous fable is retold with a few modern twists and some attitude.  A “very lovely” lion who is “like a sun” lives in a forest with a mouse who is “a busybody and a glutton”.  One day the mouse goes into the lion’s cave; the lion almost eats him, but changes his mind. When the lion is caught in a trap the next day, it’s the mouse who frees him. But this story continues as the two continue to trade favors.  At first it’s with a feeling of obligation, but soon they are simply being kind to one another. In fact, they end up getting along so well that they live together for the rest of their lives. 32 pages; ages 4-7.

Pros:  You can never have too many versions of a classic folktale, and kids will get a chuckle out of the illustrations and tongue-in-cheek text.

Cons:  It doesn’t quite measure up to Jerry Pinkney’s version, in my opinion.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.