Summary: Before 9/11, the Callery pear tree stood, mostly unnoticed, in the shadow of the Twin Towers. “One September day, the perfect blue sky exploded,” and the tree was buried in the rubble. Workers noticed a green sprout growing out of it, and the tree was taken to a nursery where it gradually came back to life and flourished for the next ten years. Eventually, it was transplanted back to the 9/11 Memorial, where people now stop and marvel at the tree, now known as the Survivor Tree, the last living thing pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Includes additional information about the tree, an author’s note, an artist’s note, and a photo. 48 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: This beautiful book tells the story of the Survivor Tree in sparse, poetic language, with watercolor illustrations by Caldecott honoree Aaron Becker. The same tale is told from the tree’s perspective in another 2021 book, This Very Tree. I’d be hard-pressed to choose one over the other; both offer stories and illustrations that will engage younger readers with enough back matter to make them excellent resources for older kids.
Cons: I wish this book had been released prior to August 31 so I could have reviewed it in time for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.
Summary: On April 10, 1912, the Titanic set sail from Southampton, bound for New York. The next day, the Carpathia left New York, heading for various ports in Europe. A few nights later, just after midnight onboard the Carpathia, 21-year-old radio operator Harold Cottam received a message saying, “Come at once…we have been struck by a ‘berg.” As soon as Captain Arthur Rostron got the message, he turned his ship around and headed full-speed for the Titanic, navigating through iceberg-infested waters to see if he could save anyone. Around 4:00 a.m. the Carpathia reached the lifeboats and started bringing survivors onboard. The heroism didn’t end there, as the shipheaded back to New York, with passengers and staff providing food, clothing, and medical care. The Carpathia docked in New York on April 18, where it was greeted by a crowd of 30,000 people. Includes a glossary and lists of sources and further reading. 80 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: I had pretty much vowed to never read another Titanic book for the rest of my life, but I really enjoyed this one, which focused on the heroism of Captain Rostron and others on board the Carpathia, usually just a footnote in the Titanic tragedy. The illustrations are well-done and really support the text, and there’s lots of interesting information about all things nautical, as well as the historical stuff.
Summary: “War spreads through the day like a whispered, swift disease.” The opening pages of this book show spiders, snakes, and a large black bird traveling through a landscape until they land on a uniformed man, alone in a room, studying a large map and selecting a knight’s helmet before he throws a torch on a huge pile of books. Planes and soldiers gather in armies before bombs are dropped on cities and tanks roll in. The final pages show a destroyed city and large spiders moving in with the sentence, “War is silence.” Originally published in Portugal. 64 pages; grades 4 and up.
Pros: The watercolor illustrations done grays, blacks, and military drabs provide haunting images of the hatred and destruction of war. Combined with spare but powerful text, this would be an effective way to begin a discussion of war at the upper elementary, middle school or even high school level.
Cons: I will definitely not be putting this in the picture book section of my library. It looks like a picture book, but I kept imagining some kindergartener bringing it home to be read as a bedtime story.
Summary: When Roberto Alvarerez returned to school from Christmas vacation on January 5, 1931, he was told he was no longer a student at the Lemon Grove Grammar School. He and the other Mexican American children were supposed to go to the new Olive Street School. Most of the kids headed home, as they had been instructed to do by their parents when rumors of the new school started to make their rounds in the neighborhood. Families filed a lawsuit with Roberto’s name on it against the Lemon Grove School District. On March 12, a judge ruled that there could be no separate school for Mexican children, and the students were allowed to return to Lemon Grove. Includes a six-page author’s note with additional information and photos; and sources and source notes. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This straightforward picture book tells a story of standing up to school segregation that happened years before Brown vs. Board of Education. While the story and folk art style illustrations could be understood and appreciated by a second-grader, there’s enough information in the author’s note to get a good start on a middle school project.
Cons: 90 years later, de facto school segregation is still prevalent all over the United States.
Summary: “Escape (verb) – To avoid a threatening evil”: that’s the definition given on the title page. Each spread has another verb–cling, defy, swim–with a story of refugees escaping danger. Yusra and Dara Mardini cling to their boat as they escape from Syra; Yusra goes on to swim for the Refugee Olympic Team in 2016. Chinese diplomat Dr. Feng Shan Ho defies orders and issues over 4,000 visas to Jews escaping Germany during World War II. Chan Hak-chi and Li Kit-hing swim for six hours through shark-infested waters in a typhoon to make it from mainland China to Hong Kong. Each story is accompanied by a somewhat abstract illustration showing the escape. Includes Articles 13 and 14 from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a link for more information. 40 pages; grades 2 and up.
Pros: Each story is brief and compelling, making it a gripping read-aloud for older elementary or middle school kids. The brief text, abstract illustrations, and even slightly mysterious authors (identical twins known simply as Ming & Wah) add an air of suspense that is perfect for the topic.
Cons: I definitely wanted to know where I could find out more information about every one of the stories.
Summary: Listen, my children: many of us have grown up with at least some knowledge of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride”. Jeff Lantos takes a deeper look, going through it piece by piece with a retelling of the actual events and how they compare with the poem. Both the prologue and the final chapter give additional context to the poem and the reasons that Longfellow wrote it in the early days of the U.S. Civil War. Includes a cast of characters (the people mentioned in the book); the complete text of the poem; many illustrations, photos, maps, and sidebars; 18 pages of source notes; a six-page bibliography; and an index. 160 pages; grades 5 and up.
Pros: A lively addition to any American history curriculum, which not only presents the facts around the events of April 18-19, 1775, but also puts Longfellow’s poem in the context of the U.S. Civil War, and his fervent hope to end slavery and preserve the Union. The plentiful illustrations and maps, the brief but interesting sidebars, and the extensive source material make this an excellent nonfiction resource.
Cons: The title seems a bit of a harsh judgement on Longfellow, although I guess “Why Longfellow Used Artistic License in Recounting Historical Events in a Heartfelt Attempt to Preserve the Union” isn’t quite as catchy.
Summary: The author recounts the story of her childhood, beginning with a happy life with her parents, younger sister, best friend Marika, and most of all, her special dog Bodri. Then soldiers came to their town, and everything changed. Jews like the author and her family could no longer go places, and the two best friends couldn’t play together. Eventually, her family was taken away to a concentration camp, and the two sisters separated from their parents. They almost died, but Hédi kept dreaming about Bodri, and the memories kept her going. Finally, the two girls–emaciated, with their heads shaved–were free, and Hédi and Bodri had a miraculous reunion. “We are here, and we go on telling everyone about what happened. So that it will never happen again.” 32 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: A moving Holocaust story, with an unusual focus on what happened to the family dog. The illustrations of the girls in the concentration camp are disturbing, but appropriately so for the history being told. The beautiful pictures of trees throughout the story help to mark the passage of time.
Cons: I was curious to learn more of Hédi Fried’s story, but I couldn’t find much biographical information about her.
Summary: Each page of this alphabet book is a collage of immigration-related words that begin with the featured letter. For instance, A is for ancestors, African dance, Abuelita, ambition, and aspire; the Z page shows zest, a ziti dinner, Zen, a zither, and a sleeping mother and child (“Zzzzzzzzz”). An author’s note tells of her own immigrant experience. 40 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: This would make an excellent introduction to immigration, whether it’s for a preschool class or the start of a third- or fourth-grade social studies unit. The colorful collage illustrations and words will get readers thinking about all the contributions immigrants have made to American culture. Students could make their own collages as an extension activity.
Cons: There’s not much context for the individual words, and younger kids will undoubtedly need some help with understanding some of them.
Summary: Horses first appeared on Earth fifty-six million years ago, and although the earliest ones lived in North America, they eventually died out. They survived in Europe and Asia, though, and their domestication revolutionized societies there. Eventually, horses found their way back to North America in Spanish ships, and became part of life for both European settlers and indigenous people. Horses allowed people to travel faster and work harder, and were a key part of the Industrial Revolution. At the end of the 19th century, though, they began to be replaced by cars, and today are used by humans mostly for sports, fun, and entertainment. Includes an author’s note timeline, and list of sources. 48 pages; grades 2-7.
Pros: Anyone who has enjoyed a Jennifer Thermes book knows that maps are a key part of her illustrations, and this one is no exception. Her maps and diagrams help show horses in local settings as well as how they have traveled around the world. Horse lovers everywhere will enjoy this book and undoubtedly learn a lot from the text and illustrations.
Cons: As with any nonfiction picture book that covers a huge topic and span of time, this one is necessarily a little brief on the details. It’s a good introduction, but kids seeking more information will need to delve into other sources.
Summary: Areli Morales tells her story, beginning with her childhood in Mexico where she lived with Abuela. Every Saturday her parents would call from the United States, and Areli dreamed of the day she could join them there. Her older brother Alex lived with her, but eventually was able to leave, because, unlike Areli, he had been born in the U.S. Finally, when Areli was in kindergarten, she got word that she would be able to join the rest of the family. When Areli arrived, she was thrilled to be with her parents and Alex, but struggled to learn English and fit in at school, where kids sometimes called her “illegal”. As the years passed, things got easier, and a fifth grade field trip to Ellis Island made Areli realize how many other immigrants had come to America just like she had, and helped her to dream of a bright future in America. Includes an author’s note about her DACA status: how she obtained it, what opportunities it opened up for her, and how it has been threatened. 40 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: Areli’s story is told in a way that will engage younger readers but also show older kids the experience of immigrating to the U.S. and what it means to be a DACA recipient. Kids who have had an experience similar to Areli’s will appreciate her story, and those who haven’t will get a child’s perspective on what it’s like.
Cons: I liked Areli’s author’s note, but I would have liked even more information or additional resources about DACA.