nonfiction gems recently read

The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of the Piano, written by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
published in 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Fascinating! The evolution of today’s piano from its ancestors the clavichord and harpsichord via the perseverance, ingenuity, and vision of one Italian musician and instrument-maker.

Elizabeth Rusch distills a tremendous amount of information into this wonderfully lively, readable account. It’s packed with period details of 15th and 16th century Florence, woven through with instrument-maker know-how, yet doesn’t bog down at any point. Of course, Marjorie Priceman’s fluid, ravishing illustration work is an equal partner, wowing us on every page.

Especially for kids who study the piano, this is brilliant. Included are a timeline, information about the surviving pianos built by Cristofori, ways to listen to the sound of those old instruments, a comparison between his first pianos and the one in your living room, wonderful listening suggestions for piano music from Beethoven to Lady Gaga, and copious notes explaining how Rusch researched the book, great for inspiring kids crafting their own research papers. Ages 7 to adult.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, written by Michael James Mahin, illustrated by Evan Turk
published in 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Brassy, gritty, coarse-textured illustrations seize us immediately in this sizzling account of bluesman Muddy Waters.

Such a rough and tumble life and formidable obstacles, such tenacity and stubborn determination, are revealed in the “deep-feeling, gutbucket, gut-aching music full of life and love and trouble and pride” that Waters created and muscled onto the scene. The collaboration between text and image in this book are unusually powerful. Even if you don’t know Waters, you’ll be irresistibly drawn to experience his music. An Author’s Note fills in more detail. Great biography for ages 6 and up.

One Proud Penny, written by Randy Siegel, illustrated by Serge Bloch
published in 2017, a Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press

Yeah, there’s an anti-penny movement out there, but you can bet not a single child has signed on! Kids love pennies. Small and bright, glinting oh so tantalizingly under a park bench or at the bottom of the dentist office’s goldfish pool. Just right for a tiny pocket.

This jaunty account of pennies holds all that same magic, which is nearly unbelievable, right? How can the history of pennies in general, and the one 1983 penny who narrates our story, be so enticing? Trust me, though, this talented duo has created a book with gobs of personality, generous splashes of curious info, and oodles of charm. Ages 5 and up. End pages hold A Brief History of U.S. coins that older siblings and parents will most definitely read after this tasty appetizer.

Danza! Amalia Hernández and el Ballet Folklórico de México, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
published in 2017 by Abrams Books for Young Readers

One of the things I love about author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh is his selection of subjects, always intriguing and nearly always quite unfamiliar to me. I love learning from his brilliant picture books!

Here he tells us about an impressive, talented, woman called Ami, whose love for dance and dedication to the traditions of her homeland of Mexico came together with extraordinary, joyous results.

Born in 1917, Ami was entranced by the musicians and dancers she saw as a child performing in open air squares. She went on to study ballet, then began choreographing new ballets incorporating unique elements from regional, folkloric dances found throughout Mexico. Her amazing drive, creativity, and talent can now be seen in the work of the Ballet Folklórico de México, a highly-decorated dance company  which performs and inspires dancers worldwide.

Accompanied by his trademark illustrations, Tonatiuh regales us with Ami’s story and the riches of folkloric dance. Ages 4 and up. An Author’s Note, Glossary of terms, and bibliography including websites for learning more, are included.

Rube Goldberg’s Simple Normal Humdrum School Day, written by Jennifer George, illustrated by Ed Steckley
published in 2017 by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Rather than telling us about Rube Goldberg — yada, yada, yada — the creators of this energetic picture book allow us to experience all the fantastical, thingitybobness of Goldberg’s cockamamie inventions.

Little Rube nonchalantly goes through his day by stepping from one convoluted mechanism to another. Witty, comic-style pictures illustrate all fourteen of them, from his solar-power- boxing-glove-choo-choo-train-vacuum-cleaner-water-pitcher alarm clock, straight through to his lights-out, tucking-in machine which requires a jack-in-the-box, padlock, telescope, softball, encyclopedia, bike helmet and several other bits and bobs. A total blast for kids and their grown-ups, ages 4 or 5 and up.

Birthdays Around the World, written by Margriet Ruurs, illustrated by Ashley Barron
published in 2017 by Kids Can Press

Another colorful, intriguing entry from Kids Can Press, this time popping in on seventeen children around the world to find out how they celebrate their birthdays.

Which cultures place particular importance on certain birthdays — the first, the third, the seventh? Where might a child wear a paper crown in school on his birthday? Where does everyone in the whole country turn one year older on the same day? Which child enjoys an all-out celebration on the King’s birthday? Where might the birthday girl be treated to many gifts of flowers, always bunched in odd numbers?

A delightful way to learn about the world, illustrated by Barron’s jolly, cut-paper designs. A treat for ages 2 and up.