My Top 10 Non Fiction Books (for right now anyway)

I have been thinking about what my 10 favorite nonfiction (#NF10for10) book list would include. Limiting myself to just 10, is kind of like having to choose my favourite child. There are so many fabulous nonfiction books here in our library!

In the end I decided to limit it to picture books types. I've included a few books for Black History month, and then branched out. Some are old and some are new.

Viola Desmond Won't be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner and Richard Rudnicki

Viola Desmond is sometimes called the Canadian Rosa Parks. She was asked to move from a white only section of a movie theater and refused. Even though she offered to pay the extra ticket price, she was arrested, ended up in jail overnight and was fined the next day for not paying it.

Ellington was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange

A young girl tells of the many visitors to their house. The text and images together are exquisite. It introduces readers to many influential black men. At the end is more detailed information about each of them. 
 Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull

This is not only one of my favourite books for Black History month, it's one of my favourite NF books of all times. Wilma has inspired many groups of children across my teaching career. Most recently, after reading it to groups of primary children, a parent come to tell me that his son came home and excitedly retold them the whole story.
Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm

I adore anything that Molly Bang writes, but this might be one of my new favourites. The text is easy to comprehend, and her illustrations in this book are dramatically glorious.
The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins

I have been waiting for this book. It finally arrived just this morning. It is the amazing story of Kate Sessions, who had a vision to bring trees to the landscape of San Diego. The illustrations are rich and full of detail. The text is simple and powerful.
What Does it Mean to Be Green? by Rana DiOrio Illustrated by Chris Blair

This is part of a series. The playful illustrations and simple text that pair together perfectly.
The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman illustrated by LeUyen Pham

I love mathematics and so I love books about mathematicians. The young Paul Erdos, "didn't like rules in life, but liked rules in numbers." Paul was fascinated by, and full of questions about numbers, especially prime numbers. In spite of his genius, he was incompetent in many other ways.
No Monkeys No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young Illustrated by Nicole Wong

This is a book about how cocoa grows within its specific ecosystem. It is entertaining and delightful to read. It has a fabulous website that accompanies it and lets readers know how a book comes to fruition.
What Lily Gets from the Bee and Other Pollination Facts by Ellen Lawrence

This is one of the books from the Plantology series I got for the library this year. They are wonderful because they are filled with all kinds of text features including stunning photographs, fact boxes, and labels. Together with the text, the process of pollination easy to understand.
Dinosaurs and me by Marie Greenwood

This is a DK book so it is one of those perfect books for kids who just like to pick up a book, open it and read. Plus, it's about dinosaurs.

Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle

I love Nate! I have two fabulous grown up sons, but if I were to have another, I would want him to be Nate.

Who is Nate you might ask? We were introduced to him in Better Nate than Ever.

Federle continues his semi autobiographical log of Nate's life in New York, where he is rehearsing for ET: The Musical. Nate is the second understudy for ET. In contrast to Federle, Nate has many gifts, but dancing isn't one of them.

In this book readers get a look at what goes on behind the scenes in a Broadway Musical. There is more of the 'parent of child star' craziness. It is stressful and tense at times, but Federle reveals the same sweetness in this one as he did before.

One of the things I loved about this book is the revelation that people are not what they may seem on the outside. It is ultimately about acceptance - acceptance of oneself and of others for who we are.  In the last book, Nate wasn't really sure of his sexuality, but in this one he seems to be coming into his own and maybe even having his first relationship.

I love, love, love all the characters.

Libby is Nate's best friend. "Nothing gets by Libby. She's like Nancy Drew on Ritalin." While she is Nate's first and foremost supporter, she is also dealing with her mother's cancer. 

I adore Asella, the first understudy for ET. Asella enlists Nate to help her with her lines and becomes part mentor, part mother, and part friend. Her words to Nate, "Just keep being you, kid. Whoever he becomes. Just . . . Nate" is the advice every child of every age should hear.

Unfortunately Nate's immediate family are not supportive. They like that he brings cash into the family coffers, but at the same time, don't accept him for who is is. His Aunt Heidi on the other hand, is a pretty impressive guardian. In Nate's words, "Behind every good man is, like, an aunt."

While this book is full of humour and even a bit of melodrama, there are many truly poignant moments. I got weepy a few times.  In my mind, this is one of the markers of an excellent read.

The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore

I am afraid I won't be able to do this book justice...

Citizens of Crystal Springs, Maine, live longer than people anywhere else in the world. Their children are smarter and stronger than average. Legends are told of the Appledore family who came to the town many years ago in search of the fountain of youth and built the Water Castle.

Ephraim Appledore-Smith knew nothing of this when his mother dragged them to Crystal Springs to stay in their ancestral home so his father could recuperate from a massive stroke.

Ephraim's siblings, Brynn and Price, settle in to the town, the school, and their new life without a hitch. In fact, it seems to enhance their existing strengths. Ephraim, on the other hand, is overwhelmed and feels stupid compared to his classmates. On top of this, his lab partner, WIll, seems to resent him because of a along standing feud between the two families. Mallory, whose family have always been the caretakers of the castle, is caught up in her own issues and ignores him.

When Ephraim realizes that there might be something in the water that will help his father, he enlists Mallory to tell him the stories of the house and people who lived there. Then Will joins the conversation. The three become friends as they set out to explore the house, and the tunnels under it, in search of a miraculous cure.

The house itself is a character in the book. Its architecture has an Escher like quality, rife with unfathomable rooms and stairways. It is constantly humming and on occasion, emits flashes of blue light.

The novel weaves together history, science, and magic. We learn about Robert Peary's, Mathew Henson's, and Frederick Cook's journeys to reach the north pole. Nikola Tesla makes an appearance. There is radioactivity, electricity and the table of elements. In addition to all this is the fountain of youth - a potion that could make you live forever. Would you drink it?

It's a complicated tale filling the reader with questions and speculation. I can imagine the scintillating conversations arising from many different aspects of the book, so I think I'll order a set for lit circles.


Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief by Wendelin Van Draanen

I had a passion for mysteries when I was a kid in elementary school. I read all the Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames and Hardy Boy books I could get my hands on. I wish Sammy Keyes had been there. 

I am off sick and couldn't imagine trying to read anything deep and profound. Thankfully this was available as an ebook from the public library. I have wanted to read something from the series for ages, but there have always been other books that must be read first. Sometimes the stars align and a book has its time. I'm so glad it was Sammy Keyes' turn. 

There is so much to love about this book. I love Sammy. She is one spunky kid; part innocence, part tough as nails, and part Sherlock Holmes. 

I love her friendship with Marissa. While the two of them are far apart economically, they don't let that interfere with their getting along and supporting each other. In fact, they envy parts of each other's lives.

I love Sammy's relationship with her Grandmother. Her mother abandoned her a year ago to make her fortune in the movies. Since then Sammy lives illegally with her Grandmother in a seniors' only apartment building. Ever present is the danger of the nosy Mrs. Graybill reporting them. 

I love Wendelin Van Draanen's characters. I feel like I have just met new friends and want to get to know them better. Some are almost stereotypical, yet leave the reader aware that there is more to them than what we see on the surface. This is especially true with the mean girl at school, Heather Acosta. You know she deserves everything she gets, but you can't help but wonder what her background is. 

Sammy spends her time looking at the world through forbidden binoculars. One day she sees a burglary taking place in a hotel in the neighbourhood. When the police arrive, Sammy has to go and check out what is going on. She seems to be a whole lot smarter than they are so it is up to her to solve the crime. Sammy does it admirably. 

The fast paced plot is rife with trouble, suspects, red herrings, action, and subplots. I'm sure Sammy Keyes and her adventures will keep kids engaged and eager for the next one. 

This book won the 1999 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best children's mystery. Read it and you will know why.


In Darkness by Nick Lake

Nick Lake configures multiple truths in this novel about Haiti. The historical component, set in the 1800's, integrates people who existed and experienced the actual events related here.  Modern day Haiti is set in Site Soléy, one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the world. He populates it with both real and fictional characters living lives trapped in poverty in the way many Haitians experience life today. Lake has called down some powerful magic to masterfully merge these realities.

The 2010 earthquake has left fifteen year old Shorty trapped in the dark under a caved in hospital. As he waits, slowly dying, he recalls his life and how he came to be a a gangster.

Toussaint, a slave, attends what he thinks will be a sham voodoo ritual calling down the Iwa of war, Ogou Badagry. His companion, Boukman, hopes that in doing so, their slave rebellion will be successful. Much to everyone's amazement, it is Toussaint's body that is possessed by a spirit.  

Magically the characters of Toussaint and Shorty are cemented together across time and space with each retaining the other's memories and skills. As the story unfolds readers come to understand how Haiti's history led it to what it has become. 

This is dark magical realism, a disturbing tale embedded with Haitian religion and mysticism.  The characters are complex and not always likeable. The setting is depressing. In spite of all this, there is a glimmer of hope - certainly for Shorty, but maybe for Haiti itself. 

I couldn't put it down except to do a bit of research on the history of Haiti. (I'm not sure this was a good idea - I recommend you finish the story first)

This is not a book that will work for many of my grade 7's. But I have learned from past experience that it is exactly the kind of book that some of them want and need to turn them into avid readers. As soon as it is in paperback I will get a copy for our school. 

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis (Red Cedar Club 2013/2014)

The Watson's Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis is one of my favourite books of all time. My finest memories of talking books with kids have been around this book. I remember one grade 7 boy stopping in the middle of a literature circle conversation and exclaiming, "Wow, this is some discussion!" 

I first discovered his work when I read Bud Not Buddy, a very long time ago. I remember it being a fabulous book. This is a companion book to it. 

Since The Watson's Go to Birmingham
I haven't been truly excited by anything of Curtis', so I wasn't sure what to expect from The Mighty Miss Malone. My Red Cedar Club readers who have finished it have been enthusiastic so I decided to give it a try. 

I liked it. Deza, 
The Mighty Miss Malone is a charming character. She is a precocious girl caught up in the racism and poverty of the 1930's. Curtis has captured the time and its influence on Deza and other girls like her brilliantly. 

I cared about Deza, her family, and her brother Jimmie, a boy struggling academically but with a voice like an angel, a boy who takes his responsibility to his family very seriously. 

In spite of the depressing setting, her family is mostly optimistic, “We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful.” That is until Joe Lewis loses a match with his white opponent, Joe Schmeling, and her father is hurt in an accident. When he leaves their home in Gary, Indiana to go to Flint, Michigan in search of work, the rest of the family is left alone and worried. Eventually they are evicted from their home and end up riding the rails to Flint, where for a time they are homeless. They find work, search for him and wait for news. After Jimmie leaves to pursue a singing career, Deza and her mother are left to struggle on their own. 

This is fine historical writing - powerful in its ability to nurture understanding of the world as it was, and yet underscoring the hardships of living in poverty in the world as it is now. 

I think I might go back and reread Bud Not Buddy to see if it is a good as I recollect. 

Encyclopedia Of Me by Karen Rivers (Red Cedar Club 2013/2014)

Getting grounded is not how Tink (Isadora) Aaron-Martin planned to start the summer before starting middle school. Bored, she decides to use the time writing her own encyclopedia. She figures it will take a long time - at least a week. 

I admit to being enchanted by Tink from the get go.
I like that she is biracial, but that isn't what drives the story. I like that Tink has two older twin brothers, one of whom is autistic, but that doesn't drive the story either. They are a family struggling with the challenges autism brings, but it isn't the vortex. 

Isadora's story is told in the form of an encyclopedia. (It reminded me of Totally Joe, an alphabiography, by James Howe) Each new entry invites us further into her life as she struggles with trying to stay connected to her BFF, Freddie Blue, find out what it is that she wants to do, and figure out if she wants a boyfriend. Freddie comes across as shallowly interested in hanging out with mean popular girls even at Tink's expense. 

In the mean time, Isadora learns to skateboard, discovers a new friend in Ruth Quayle, and decides a boyfriend is okay if it is her new neighbor, Kai. 

At times I was distressed by Isadora's dependence on Freddie Blue, and her readiness to defend her. Yet ultimately, it is also one of the things I like best about her. Isadora is the best kind of friend; strong enough to let go when she needs to, but because she truly understands Freddie better than anyone else, will always be there for her. I hope Freddie realizes this some day.