Category Archives: Non-Fiction

All Star: Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever

Batter up!  Baseball is in full swing.  Isn’t it high time for big, beautiful picture book with a giant helping of Americana?  All Star:  Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever (2010) is written by Jane Yolen and illustrated with Jim Burke’s intensively-researched paintings.  The inside flaps are decorated with memorabilia including the Honus Wagner card that sold in 2007 for almost three million dollars.

Yolen is known for her hundreds of books.  In this title, Yolen performs a marvelous feat, condensing his life from being born into a poor German immigrant family in Pennsylvania, working in the coal mines, and then making his way into pro baseball, all in just a few hundred words.  Yolen’s prose is super-efficient, dense with meaning, like a poem.

Even though he had a big nose and large head, his parents thought their fourth son was gorgeous.  His hometown had dark skies from the steel and iron mills. At age 12 Honus was loading two tons of coal a day for seventy-nine cents a day.  He worked six days a week, but fortunately he was off on Sunday and could play baseball.  We read about his  eventual rise into the greatest of shortstops, “with legs like hunting bows”.

Honus Wagner loved kids and didn’t want them using tobacco, so his cards were taken off the market.  Ironically the card’s rarity makes it valuable and helps Wagner be remembered.

All Star is a compelling look at this athlete who was at his peak a century ago.  But Yolen and Burke make Wagner much more than a face on an ancient baseball card.  So dust off your mitt and give old Honus a look.


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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Non-Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews, Uncategorized

The Wall

One of the most delectable, memorable pictures books I’ve ever seen is The Wall:  Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis.  This 2007 picture book/ memoir/ history lesson joins a remarkable set of childhood memoirs by some of our most distinguished picture book illustrators, all of them American immigrants. (See also my reviews of Ed Young’s The House Baba Built describing a wartime childhood in China, Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory set in Japan,  and Yuri Shulevitz’s How I Learned Geography giving a snapshot of his time as a Holocaust era refugee in what is now Kazakhstan.)

          Sis’s cover is a small boy banging a drum enclosed by a wall on all sides. Inside the book’s text is as simple or detailed as you want it to be.  For the basic story of a boy who loved to draw, Sis ingeniously has a simple one line narrative going at the bottom of most pages.  For the complex world of Communism in Czechoslovakia little captions on the margins describe events.

His wonderful black ink drawings feature color very sparingly, notably red, emphasizing the hold of repression in Czech life.  His babyhood coincided with the Soviets taking control of the country and closing the borders in 1948.  Even as he scrawls a zigzag on his paper in a crib, a red flag hangs in the background.

I doubt this book would much interest elementary students, but what a concise and compelling trip for middle schoolers all the way to adults!  Margin notes define Cold War, Iron Curtain, and Communism.  In one tiny frame happy little Peter brings his parents a red flier and they quietly recoil, afraid to criticize the propaganda.

Like the other amazing memoirs I’ve been pushing, this one is multimedia too.  One spread has notes from childhood journals with a background of his drawings,  childhood photos, and Soviet era propaganda signs and posters.  As a teenager, he begins to question things.  The Beatles, Elvis and the Rolling Stones sounds slip into his world.  He joins a rock band.  The Prague Spring in 1968 brings incredible hope and a taste of freedom.  The center spread is a crazy full-color painting.  He’s banging his guitar in a landscape of wonder, with a yellow submarine flying by.  In two more pages Soviet tanks crush it all.  Back to black and white with red flags on the pages.

And yet there are tiny glimmers of hope.  One page says “The Beach Boys arrived.  America to the rescue!”  The end notes describe him being a disc jockey, interviewing the Beatles and others, and traveling to Czechoslovakia with the Beach Boys. (This reminds me of  the late Czech playwright, dissident, and eventual president Vaclav Havel being inspired in the ‘60s by rock culture like Frank Zappa and Velvet Underground.)

His last spread is the enormous wall falling in 1989 with tiny people chopping it up or standing atop in triumph.  “Sometimes dreams come true.”  Way up in the blue sky is a map of Europe with the political boundaries and all the countries that gained freedom 1989-1991.

So read The Wall, a book for anyone who cares for dreams, art or freedom.  The graphic design is pretty incredible too.

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Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews

She’s Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head!

I’m wild for David Catrow.  His illustrations are so comic and appealing that I instantly recognize his books and want to read them.  On his large list of books I’ve never found a better one than She’s Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head!   It’s a 1995 book written by Kathryn Lasky.  It’s a long, super-engaging story of two real ladies in 1890s Boston who are scandalized by women’s hats adorned with exotic bird feathers.  They set their local Audubon chapter into high gear, going to great lengths to kill this fashion and save the birds endangered by it.

In a book crammed with amazingly great pictures my favorite might be the last.  Minna and Harriet our two heroes are reaching out for a birthday hug.  I love how on the wall is a famous, framed Audubon bird that is stepping right out of the frame.

I’m a great believer in picture books for all ages.  This one might be lost on a pre-schooler, would possibly engage  the early elementary crowd, and is GREAT for intermediate and middle schoolers.  That age group is learning that how things are is not how things always have to be.  Harriet and Minna could lead older readers through some wonderful portals.


Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Middle Grade, Age: Young Adult, Non-Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

How I Learned Geography

What is it about terrific illustrators who have immigrated to the US giving us brilliant picture books about their childhoods?  I’ve already reviewed recent books by Ed Young (The House Baba Built) and Allen Say (Drawing From Memory).

Now here’s a slightly older gem by Uri Shulevitz, How I Learned Geography (2008).  Shulevitz is a distinguished picture book artists known for his Caldecott honorees like Snow.  He also wrote a leading text for would-be picture book authors, Writing with Pictures:  How To Write and Illustrate Children’s Books (1997).

How I Learned Geography is a quick, delicious book I’ve shared with many classes of various ages.  Little Uri is a displaced person living far from home.  (We find out in an explanation on the back page that he and his family fled Warsaw, Poland, with his family in 1939 and ended up in Central Asia, in what was then part of the Soviet Union and is now Kazakhstan.)

They live in squalor, the three of them sharing one room with another couple.  One day his father goes out in his mis-fitting clothes to try to get a bit of food for the family.  Much later he comes home with no food and a long paper roll under his arm.

“I bought a map,” he says.

His family is shocked.  “’No supper tonight,’, Mother said bitterly. ‘We’ll have the map instead.’

’I had enough money to buy only a tiny piece of bread, and we would still be hungry,’ he explained apologetically.”

Shulevitz writes that he was shocked and thought he would never forgive his dad.

cropped imageThe second half of the book is Dad hanging the giant world map on the wall and Uri becoming completely absorbed in it.  He studies it and draws it on scraps of paper.  Soon he is going on flights of fancy to deserts, beaches, snowy mountains and exotic temples. We see him dancing, climbing and even flying over wonderful scenes the map brings out of his imagination.

Maps are magical to me too.  Shulevitz gives us a touching, true story.  And it gives a chance to think and talk about wonderful places you want to discover someday.  What a big, exciting planet to explore, even if it’s just with a picture book.


Filed under Age: All, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

Are We There Yet?

I’ve been to Australia!  It was free!

Are We There Yet?Okay, it was actually via Are We There Yet?  A Journey Around Australia, a picture book written and illustrated by Alison Lester.  But her 32 page trip is so marvelous that I can only hope the actual Australia is as wonderful as her book.    The other three quarters of my family discovered this 2005 book without me.  But when I finished reading it to my then-toddler and kindergarten kids (taking 10-15 minutes- lots of detail!) they asked for me to read it again immediately.

Lester  has some kind of magic touch because turning your year-long family trip in the camper into a compelling picture book for all ages sounds like an unlikely feat.  She takes us to a coral reef, to the Outback including Uluru, the famous rock, and through the rainforest.  Her ink and water color pictures scattered over each page give you a sense of the varied landscapes of Australia.

But it’s the little details that make it magic to me.  For instance, she gives us a map and cross-section of the camper and even shows big brother Luke sleeping on the ground nearby in his sleeping bag.  We attach to the story as we see the family interact with each location, like when Luke is pretending to surf on the curves of Wave Rock or when Grace (the eight year old narrator) reaches her fingers in the air to imitate boab trees with huge trunks and little branches like claws starting way up high.  You’re there!

I enjoyed frequent little maps showing us our progress in a full trip around the continent.  What a superior way to start finding out about Australia compared to a thick, intimidating adult book.  Then Joe Curious has a little foundation for finding out more.

What family trip do you wish Alison Lester could have documented for you?


Filed under Age: All, Non-Fiction, Picture Books, Reviews

Who is Alvin Ho?

Alvin Ho, illustrated by LeUyen Pham Alvin Ho:  Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look is so much fun from the moment you see the front cover it almost doesn’t need a review.  Alvin, a second grade boy, proudly tells us “I come from a long line of farmer-warriors who haven’t had a scaredy bone in their bodies since 714 AD.  In China my ancient grandpas and grandmas fought off leopards and tigers in their gardens the way Calvin and Anibelly and I fight off mosquitoes at Walden Pond.”

Unfortunately, as you know from the title, Alvin is afraid of practically everything.  He lives in historic Concord, Massachusetts, where the American Revolution started.  Fortunately he is not afraid of anything that explodes.  “I was practically born with gunpowder in my blood!”  In the very first chapter he tells us all we need to know about him for starters including all his fears and the fact that he can’t speak a single word at school.  (He doesn’t use the term selective mutism, but we get the idea.)  Lucky for him, his seatmate is his good friend Flea.  As she says, “Alvin can talk with his eyes.”

He’s a narrator with so much zing and gusto that we’re captured from the start.  The ink drawings by LeUyen Pham are cartoon perfect.  They’re so frequent it almost feels like a graphic novel.  You feel like you’re right there in his family by page 3 when you see the picture of big brother Calvin, baby sister Anibelly and his big dog Lucy. employs great, laugh-aloud story-telling all the way through, and like I mentioned, the drawings are amazing.  It’s sheer, 21st century genius to have this Chinese American boy living in this  American cradle of liberty, filling us in on all we need to know.  His “woeful glossary” at the back gives his funny take on everything from Minutemen and Chinese radishes to Beethoven and his brother Calvin.

Alvin Ho is more than belly laughs.  It has great storytelling and lots of heart.  I read it to a 4th and 5th grade class at the start of a year and they loved it.  Fortunately, the first Alvin Ho from 2008 has been followed by Alvin Ho:  Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters and Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects and Other Man-Made Catastrophes.

Alvin’s life is woes and joys and dramas like the human experience.  If I were the Newbery committee, Alvin could proudly wear the Newbery Medal around his neck.  Keep working things out, Alvin.  We’re with you all the way.


Filed under Age: Middle Grade, Chapter Books, Non-Fiction, Reviews

How Stories Shape Us

I recently read a terrific book for adults who love kids and kidlit.  The Girl with the Brown Crayon:  How Children Use Stories to Shape Their Lives by Vivian Gussin Paley.  If Paley’s not a national institution she deserves to be.  She was a teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School for many years and has several written wonderful, very short books for adults about her experiences.  Wally’s Stories, for example, gives amazing, magical insights into kids and how they perceive the world.

This book, Girl with the Brown Crayon, is about her last year of teaching, in which she delves way deep into the picture books of Leo Lionni.  (Lionni wrote scads of picture books before his death in 1999.  His simple-seeming, stylized artwork has always reminded me of Eric Carle.) Paley’s kindergarteners take to his stuff.  They read his books again and again, act them out, externalize them.  They analyze them and philosophize about the world in ways that even she didn’t know a kindergartener could do.  A remarkable little girl named Reeny becomes the defacto leader, caring intensely about the stories and helping them all find their path.  Little Reeny even helps the author understand and make peace with the one she has hated, Tico and the Golden Wings.

Naturally, my son and I have been reading several Lionni titles since then.  He has enjoyed them.  Swimmy about a left-out little fish is an old favorite.  A new one (to us) that we really enjoyed was Frederick (1967).  Frederick is a mouse in a family of five.  While the rest of the group works tirelessly to prepare for winter, Frederick sits.

“Frederick,” why don’t you work?” they asked.

“I do work,” said Frederick.   “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.”

His idea of work is much different than theirs.  Will they tolerate him?  Read how it all works out.  And if you go in for that kind of thing, check out the magical teacher and writer Vivian Gussin Paley.  If only we could all have a teacher as respectful and kid-driven as she was!


Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool, Non-Fiction, Reviews