Time for more true confessions: as a child I was quite opposed to nonfiction books, and would even skip over nonfiction articles in Cricket, otherwise my favorite magazine. Then I had a son who will bring home nothing but nonfiction from the library given a choice. And of course the real world is full of interesting things. It’s essential to find books that are able to convey to kids just how cool the world is, while of course sticking to accuracy. Here are three of this year’s Cybils Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction finalists, all guaranteed to keep kids hooked.
Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart. Illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen. Charlesbridge, 2014.
The winner, and for good reason! Large-type text compares different kinds of birds and the way their feathers help them to everyday objects in the human world: “Feathers can distract attackers like a bullfighter’s cape… or hide a bird from predators like camouflage clothing.” Smaller text goes a little more into detail on each of the birds and their feathers. Beautiful watercolor paintings form a scrapbook, with close-ups of feathers, pictures that look like photos of the bird in their natural habitat pasted or clipped into the book, and bits or pictures of the everyday items the feathers are acting like also on the spread – sponges, umbrellas, blankets and sunscreen. This book is immensely appealing to look at for all ages – I found both of my kids, five years apart in age, curled up looking at it. The large text makes it easily accessible to younger kids, while the smaller type can go more into depth for those who want it or are old enough for it. It made for a great read-aloud, with both kids listening again. This one could work from preschool on up, with even older kids finding new things to learn. Take a look at the interview with Stewart and Brannen on the Cybils blog for a look at the mind-blowing amount of research that went into this book!
Handle with care: an unusual butterfly journey by Loree Griffin Burns. Millbrook Press, 2014.
It’s fairly common for schools and museums to have butterfly pupae for children to watch turn into butterflies – but where do those caterpillars come from in the first place? Many of them from Costa Rica, it turns out, and Burns traveled to a butterfly farm there, El Bosque Nuevo, to see how it works. She’s able to give us the inside scoop on things like the sound of thousands of caterpillars eating all at the same time, and the large area of empty dirt needed around the caterpillar conservatory to keep the tasty little things safe from predators. There’s also, of course, good information on the butterfly life cycle with gorgeous close-up photos. The main text on this one is a little more advanced than that of Feather – still I’d say a great level for early elementary aged kids, and would work well read aloud to younger kids. This was a hit with my five-year-old daughter.
Chasing Cheetahs by Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
So often conservation stories can be depressing – it’s a real treat to find this story of how one woman’s efforts to save the cheetah are proving effective. The author and photographer traveled to Namibia to visit Laurie Marker at the Cheetah Conservation fund. A former farmer herself, she’s been able to talk with the farmers there to solve the problems that cause them to kill cheetahs – rather than just trying to leverage bigger and bigger punishments. This is a lot of information, and the photographs are gorgeous. It is not, however, one of those mostly-photo books that visual learners like my son can learn from without looking at the main text. That text is meaty, and the photographs are there to support it, not the other way around. It was too dense for him to get into by himself, but he listened avidly over several days as I read it to him, and even had Grandma finish one day when I was at work because he was just too excited to wait. Great information with a bonus section on how kids reading the book can make a difference themselves. This one is definitely more for the upper elementary to middle school end of the spectrum.
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