A Must-Have Non-Fiction Chapter Book

As an upper elementary school teacher, it’s hard to find interesting and well-written non-fiction texts for kids ages 8-12. Non-fiction books for younger readers are easy to find, with amazing authors like Seymour Simon and Gail Gibbons. For middle-school-aged students, there are plenty of narrative non-fiction chapter books that are engaging. But for the middle-level reader, there seems to be an absence of rich, substantive non-fiction books for them to grow their skills as readers of this genre.

That’s why I get SO very excited when I discover a non-fiction book that is not only interesting and well-written, but perfect for this age group. Kid Artists: True Tales of Childhood From Creative Legends is one of these books.

Kid Artists… by David Stabler focuses on the childhoods of the most well-known artists, their lives before they became famous. The reader does not even need to know who the artist is in order to appreciate their experiences growing up. This book humanizes the legends, from Dr. Seuss to Keith Haring.

Each chapter features a different artist and the book is organized into three different sections: Call of the Wild, It’s a Hard-Knock Life, and Practice Makes Perfect.

For example, Georgia O’Keefe’s chapter is in the section Call of the Wild because she grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and drew so much of her inspiration from nature and the world around her. In her childhood, Georgia O’Keefe challenged gender norms, from her favorite pastimes to her preferred clothing. Readers can easily relate to the competitive dynamic among siblings as well as receiving and responding to academic criticism. For Georgia O’Keefe, art became a way of expressing herself and communicating with others.

 

Kids will be delighted to read the chapter about Ted Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss. Ted Geisel grew up near a zoo and he spent a lot of time as a child studying and drawing animals, though his drawings did not resemble the real living ones. His animals were imaginary and wonderful. Word-play was also a big part of his upbringing, which contributed to his interest in language.

When the U.S. went to war with Germany, Ted Geisel became the target of teasing for being a German-American. He stood up to the bullying and became determined to demonstrate his patriotism. Kids will learn about the importance of advocating for social justice and how Ted Geisel’s own experiences with discrimination and intolerance influenced his work as a children’s book creator.

There are so many aspects of Kid Artists that make it a strong non-fiction book. It is ideal in that it is organized into sections and chapters. Kids can examine why the author made the decision to arrange the book this way and how each chapter connects to the greater section. Within each chapter, readers can be challenged to examine the cause and effect relationships, how events or experiences in each artist’s childhood impacted his/her later work. Not to mention, readers do not have to read this book from beginning to end, they can use the table of contents to decide what chapters are interesting to them and read just those sections.

Doogie Horner’s illustrations are peppered throughout each chapter. They support the text, helping the reader envision elements of the text, while adding elements of humor to keep the reader engaged.

*I received a complimentary copy of Kid Artists: True Tales of Childhood From Creative Legends in exchange for my honest review.

 

Click here to purchase a copy of this book (affiliate link).

 

 

The Perfect Picture Book for Chinese New Year

The Nian Monster* by Andrea Wang is a delightful story about the Chinese New Year. Xingling and her grandmother PoPo are getting the family apartment ready for the annual celebrations. PoPo shares with Xingling the legend of the Nian Monster, who would eat whole villages each new year. The villagers learned that the Nian Monster had three weaknesses, loud sounds, fire, and the color red. From then on, people decorated their homes with red banners and lanterns, drums and gongs, and lit firecrackers to keep the monster away. 

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the Nian Monster appears, threatening to terrorize the city and devour its inhabitants. It’s up to Xingling to outsmart the monster and save Shanhai. Xingling is a strong and clever female protagonist, reminiscent of Elizabeth from The Paper Bag Princess.

The Nian Monster teaches young readers about the Chinese New Year. From the casserole that Xingling helps her grandmother prepare to the noodles eaten to represent long life, we learn about many of the culinary traditions of the New Year in a fun way.

Alina Chau’s illustrations are colorful and playful watercolors that add an element of comedy to the text, instead of making it intimidating or scary. The Nian Monster is adorable, with its warm color scales and large, round eyes.

The Nian Monster is not only a wonderful book for celebrating the Chinese New Year, but can be read year round as a picture book with a strong female character. This book is perfect for readers ages 4-8.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Nian Monster (affiliate link).

*I received a complimentary copy of The Nian Monster in exchange for my honest review.

A Touching Picture Book for Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in China. It is a period of rest and celebration before the next farming season begins. Families come together to celebrate the New Year. This year, Chinese New Year is on Saturday, January 28!

A New Year’s Reunion by Yu Li-Qiong is a very moving story about a young girl named Maomao whose father comes home only once a year, for the Chinese New Year. Though the visit it short, it is very special. Maomao and her mom go to meet her papa, then they get ready for the celebrations together.

Papa helps Maomao make sticky rice balls. A seemingly simple task, that is meaningful because the young girl gets to spend this time with her father.

A New Year’s Reunion highlights aspects of the Chinese New Year, including visits with family and friends, but at it’s heart lies the story of a father who is separated from his family for the majority of the year by his job. It’s a story that emphasizes the importance of family and coming together, but it also tackles how difficult it can be to be apart. Zhu Cheng-Liang’s illustrations are beautiful and colorful. They capture the energy and celebration of the holiday, while also creating intimate scenes in which the young girl is reunited with and later says goodbye to her father for another year.

This book is great for readers ages 4-8. Click here to purchase a copy of A New Year’s Reunion (affiliate link). 

 

Lovely Multicultural Reads

I am such a huge fan of the Bharat Babies books. They feature diverse characters, introduce different cultures and challenge gender roles.

Padmini is Powerful* by Amy Maranville is a board book that is perfect for babies. Each page introduces a different Hindu god and highlights an attribute of the god that Padmini possesses. She is generous and kind like Lakshmi and she creates like Brahma. The comparisons are supported by the bright and colorful illustrations, making the connections easy for the reader to see. I love that Padmini’s character transcends gender stereotypes, from her appearance to her interests.

Sarla in the Sky* by Anjali Joshi is an inspirational early readers about Sarla Thakral, the first Indian woman to earn her piloting license in 1936. Sarla dreams of flying from an early age. She imagines herself as a bird, a kite and even a butterfly in hopes of one day sailing in the wind. The odds are stacked against her, and many people told her that flying planes was not for women.

The illustrations by Lisa Kurt have a dream-like quality to them with simple backgrounds of clouds and landscapes which places the focus on the characters themselves.

Sarla remains focused on her goal of flying and overcomes a series of obstacles in order to achieve her dream. Sarla in the Sky teaches the importance of not giving up in a beautiful way. Like Padmini is Powerful, it tackles gender stereotypes in a way that empowers girls to pursue interests and careers that have been traditionally identified as being for boys. 

Click here to purchase a copy of Padmini is Powerful and Sarla in the Sky (affiliate links).

*I received a complimentary copy of Padmini is Powerful and Sarla in the Sky in exchange for my honest review.

 

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

Pam Munoz Ryan is one of my favorite writers for kids ages 10-14. Her books have serious depth, with complex characters dealing with real-life issues that are not easily resolved. They go through significant changes, sometimes big and other times subtle, always with the help of important relationships. If you have young readers in your life and you want to expose them to some sophisticated texts, check out any of Pam Munoz Ryan’s books.

I was super excited to borrow Echo from the library. I’m ashamed to admit that it took me a solid three months to read through it because we do have a young baby at home. When I reached suspenseful parts, I would find pockets of time to read it out loud to our little one just so I could find out what happens next.

The story begins with a young boy named Otto who meets three sisters in the forbidden forest. He learns that the sisters are trapped in the forest by a witch’s curse. They share with him the prophecy and they gift him a harmonica to pass on when the time is right.

The book is then divided into three sections, each belonging to a different preteen who encounters the harmonica and recognizes the magical quality it possesses. First we meet Friedrich living during the rise of Nazi Germany, whose face is marked by a large birthmark that so many cannot see beyond. Mike is an orphan living during the Great Depression who is fiercely loyal to his younger brother. Lastly, Ivy a young girl living in California whose family members are migrant workers. They move to Orange County to care for the farm of the Yamamoto family, who has been sent to an internment camp following the attack of Pearl Harbor.

Each section is beautifully crafted, infusing rich historical details of the different times and places without overwhelming the reader. These characters are brave, thoughtful and proponents of social change. The harmonica is the thread that connects their lives as it makes its way to the intended owner in order to fulfill the prophecy that will set the three sisters free.

Echo blends elements of fantasy in a mostly historical fiction book in an extraordinary way. This book is great for kids ages 10-14. Click here to purchase a copy of Echo (affiliate link).

A Picture Book About the Kindness of Strangers

Oskar and the Eight Blessings is a wonderful story about the kindness of strangers during the darkest of times. On the 7th day of Hanukkah, which also coincided with Christmas Eve, Oskar arrives in New York City. He is a refugee who escaped the horrors of Nazi Europe. Oskar carries with him an address and an outdated photo of his Aunt Esther. He makes his way from lower Manhattan to the north of the city encountering many acts of kindness and generosity from strangers along the way.

The illustrations, by Mark Siegel, are beautiful, organized into panels reminiscent of a comic book. They contribute to the pace of the story and bring the action to life.

His journey reminds him of his father’s words, “People can be good.” Just then he sees his Aunt Esther. They share a touching reunion filled with sadness and grief, but also a glimmer of hope.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings is a touching story that takes place during a horrendous time in history.  It teaches the reader that even in the darkest times people can help lift one another up. This book is perfect for kids ages 4-8.

Click here to purchase a copy of Oskar and the Eight Blessings (affiliate link).

Picture Books Based on Hindu Mythology

 Ganesh and the Little Mouse by Anjali Joshi is an adaptation of the tale of Ganesh and Kathikeya’s race around the world. In the original tale, they race to win the tastiest mango. Kathik relies on his physical strength while Ganesh his smarts. Ganesh declares that his parents are his world and walks around them and wins.

Anjali Joshi’s beautifully told version of this story infuses elements of friendship that makes it easily relatable for kids of all ages. Ganesh and Little Mouse are best friends. The other gods teased Ganesh for being friends with such a feeble, small creature. Ganesh’s parents comfort him and reassure him that his friendship with Little Mouse is very special. When Ganesh sees a sign for the Annual Around the World Race he and Little Mouse enter hoping to prove to the others how strong and fast they both are. The other gods taunt Ganesh, even his brother, but he remembers his parents’ advice to him and tries to stay strong.

The day of the race, it seems like the odds are stacked against Ganesh and Little Mouse. Until Ganesh demonstrates his true devotion to his parents and best friend in a clever way that makes them the winners.

Ganesh and Little Mouse’s gorgeous illustrations by Christy Mccreery are colorful and captivating and help bring the story to life. Just look at the pictures above!

This is the perfect picture book for introducing different cultures and mythology. Joshi’s adaptation highlights the message of the importance of friendship and family in a way that is accessible for young readers. The author and illustrator capture the emotional toll that such treatment and bullying from others can take on a person, but they champion open communication and standing up for what you believe in. This book is perfect for readers ages 6-10.

Click here to purchase a copy of Ganesh and Little Mouse (affiliate link).

 

Hanuman and the Orange Sun by Amy Maranville is another wonderful picture book that retells the story of the god Hanuman mistaking the sun for a giant mango, in this version the sun in an orange.

The main character is a young girl named Harini who comes home very hungry one day and her mom compares her to Hanuman Dada. Her mom proceeds to share the story of baby Hanuman who ate the sun by accident. Here is Hanuman on his way up to the sun!

Without the sun the world is left in darkness. The gods turn to Indra, the King of the gods for help. Indra acts severely and impulsively, as most gods in mythology do, and strikes Hanuman with a lightning bolt. Hanuman’s father, Vayu the God of Wind, retaliates by stopping all the winds, which impacts the crops and the oceans and the entire Earth until the gods apologize to his son.

At the end of the story Harini’s mom asks her if she understood the lesson of the story, to which she answers, “Be careful what you bite.” (A very accurate kid response to such a question.) Then she explains, “Think before you act because you are more powerful than you know.” A lovely yet simple message that can prompt a great conversation with kids of all ages.

The illustrations by Tim Palin are rich and colorful. They are fun to look at and support the text beautifully.

Hanuman and the Orange Sun is a great picture book for kids ages 4-7. Click here to purchase a copy of this book (affiliate link).

 

The Trees of the Dancing Goats

Patricia Polacco is a phenomenal author. Her children’s picture books address important issues in a sophisticated way. She crafts strong characters who face real-life problems with courage and integrity. The Trees of the Dancing Goats is no exception.

img_0253

Based on a true childhood memory, Patricia Polacco wrote the story of young Trisha and her family preparing for the eight days of Hanukkah. Everyone is hard at work. Her cherished Babushka makes the candles and potato latkes. Her Grampa is hidden away carving marvelous animals as presents for the kids.

img_0252

Trisha’s mother sends her to the Kremmels’ house for cornmeal and she discovers that the family is quite ill. She learns that scarlet fever is affecting many of the families in the neighborhood. Her own family is one of the few not impacted by the epidemic. They try to continue preparing for the holidays as planned, but it just doesn’t feel right while so many of their friends and neighbors are unwell.

Thinking about the meaning of Hanukkah and the miracle of the light that it celebrates, Trisha’s family decides to make the holidays special for their neighbors as well. Even if they celebrate different ones.

img_0251

They cut down parts of trees to make small Christmas trees and decorate them with their own wooden carvings. Though Trisha is initially sad that she will not be able to enjoy the beautifully carved figures her Grampa made, she knows it’s the right thing to do. They pack baskets with chickens and latkes and her Babushka even puts one homemade Hanukkah candle in each and they deliver them to their ailing neighbors.

The Trees of the Dancing Goats is a fantastic picture book with a powerful message. It teaches the importance of friendship and making personal sacrifices for the happiness of others. It also recognizes one commonality between Hanukkah and Christmas, the coming together of friends and families to celebrate their traditions and histories.

In a classroom setting, this would be a wonderful mentor text for a memoir writing unit.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Trees of the Dancing Goats (affiliate link).

 

Squanto’s Journey – A Different Perspective on Thanksgiving

img_3897

Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac is a must-have in every 3rd-6th grade classroom library. Written from the point of view of Squanto, it provides the often silenced Native American perspective on interactions with settlers from Europe. Squanto’s Journey shines a light on the harsh treatment of the Native Americans during these initial encounters.

For example, in 1614 Squanto and several other Natives were invited aboard a ship under the guise of sharing a feast, when in reality they were captured and taken to Spain where they were to be sold as slaves. Squanto was brave and determined to return back to his homeland. With the Friar’s help, he made his way to England. There he worked hard to master the English language, realizing that he could be of great value if he could serve as a translator between the English and the Native Americans.

Squanto’s Journey portrays the tensions between the Natives and the settlers. It teaches of the violence between the groups as well as an underlying distrust. It reveals that huge numbers of Natives were wiped out by sicknesses brought on by the settlers.

Despite all of this, the Natives played an integral role in the survival of the Pilgrims during this time. Throughout the story, Squanto remains optimistic that the Native Americans and settlers will be able to share the land peacefully.

Squanto’s Journey is an important picture book because it provides the point of view of an important figure in the history of the United States. It is a great way to introduce different perspectives and engage students in an open dialogue the real impact the settlers had on the Native Americans and their land. This picture book is ideal for children ages 7-12.

Click here to purchase a copy of Squanto’s Journey (affiliate link).

Capturing the Spirit of Thanksgiving

img_3849

How Many Days to America: A Thanksgiving Story by Eve Bunting can be considered realistic fiction or historical fiction. This picture book illustrates the challenges faced by a family that immigrates to the United States in search of freedom. The specifics of the setting, the times and the characters’ names are intentionally vague. The hardships faced by this family are representative of the experiences of so many who leave their homes, belongings and everything they have known behind in search of a better tomorrow.

The illustrations, by Beth Peck, echo the sentiment created by the text. The air is full of anxiety and worry, shown by characters blurred by fog. The ocean and the sky form a bluish-grey blanket of sadness and fear.

The story is filled with similes, metaphors, and personification to help the reader better understand the emotional setting. The family deals with many challenges, from encountering thieves, to running low on food and water, to being turned away from the first island they happen upon.

When the family finally arrives in America, the are welcomed. It is Thanksgiving Day and they participate in a traditional feast. Though their journey didn’t take place at the same time as the first Thanksgiving, this story reminds us of what America represented to the Pilgrims, freedom from religious persecution. And in the many years since America has been a symbol of hope for a better future.

img_3850
How Many Days to America: A Thanksgiving Story 
is great for upper elementary aged kids, (8-11).

Click here to purchase a copy of How Many Days to America: A Thanksgiving Story (affiliate link).

 

img_3847

The Thanksgiving Bowl by Virginia Kroll is a sweet story about the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving, taking a moment to appreciate what you have. Thanksgiving at Grandma Grace’s house includes a special tradition, anonymously jotting down one thing you are thankful for and placing it in the bowl. After dinner, each slip is read and the family guesses who it belongs to. At the end of the meal, the Thanksgiving bowl falls to the ground and rolls away.

In December, the bowl provides a scared mouse shelter from a hungry barn owl. In January, it becomes a hat for a snowman. In February, two curious otters climb into the bowl and sled downhill and into the water. The Thanksgiving bowl travels from place to place providing different people and creatures with a creative solution to a problem they are encountering at the moment. Luckily, the Thanksgiving bowl is found and returned to Grandma Grace’s just in time for the following year’s Thanksgiving meal!

img_3848

The Thanksgiving Bowl is a great picture book for kids ages 5-8.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Thanksgiving Bowl.