Gorgeous artwork, compelling ideas to think about, fascinating people to admire, new understanding of the universe — excellent nonfiction is at the top of my list of Good Things in the World.
Today’s list has uncommonly-good titles to suit folks from preschool through adult. I hope you find something juicy for yourself and the readers you love.
Packs: Strength in Numbers, written and illustrated by Hannah Salyer
published in 2020 by HMH Books for Young Readers
Stunning illustrations, vivid, color-saturated pages, compositions placing us right among the swirl and tumble of multitudes of creatures — that’s what greets us in the pages of this little gem.
Each species, from muscular lions to tiny ants, tells us how working together helps them survive. Together, ants harvest and store enough in their larder; together, wildebeest travel in greater safety; together, zebra herds’ stripes confuse predators.
Human communities flourish more when we work together as well! Interesting, engaging, and beautiful, it’s perfect for sharing with ages 4 and up.
Your Place in the Universe, written and illustrated by Jason Chin
published in 2020 by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House
Jason Chin is an incredibly talented author/illustrator and here once again he has created a superb piece of nonfiction for children and the lucky grown-ups who read it with them.
How does one even begin to imagine the vastness of the universe? And given that enormity, how do we retain a sense of our profound significance? This book employs inventive perspectives to accomplish that. Beginning with a small troop of eight-year-olds, Chin compares their size to increasingly larger creatures, living things, man-made objects, geological formations, expanding ever outward to the farthest reaches of the observable universe.
His clear, informative, yet brief text carries us from the familiar to the unfathomable brilliantly, while added textual notes bump up the information and engage us with cool statistics. With a swish of the wand, Chin brings it all back home in the end, assuring the reader that in this mind-blowingly big world, s/he matters. End pages provide more scientific explanations of many concepts referenced in the main text. Gobsmacking for ages 7 to adult.
Grow: Secrets of Our DNA, written by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton
published in 2020 by Candlewick Press
I’ve been eagerly anticipating this title ever since I heard that this talented team was creating it. Their collaborative work has gifted us with a couple of my top-favorite nonfiction reads for young children, Tiny Creatures and Many. Here they turn their attention to the astonishing way living things grow as instructed by the coded instructions called DNA, and do it with outstanding finesse, wonder, and beauty.
Davies begins by introducing the manifold ways various living things grow — some fast, some slow; some staying tiny and others growing to gargantuan sizes — and how they change form as they grow — from a seed to a cucumber, or in the case of the reader from a tiny blob to a baby, increasing in complexity and capability along the way.
All of this growth is the result of a set of coded instructions called DNA, the subject of the second half of the book, covered in intriguing and accessible language. Meanwhile, Sutton fills every page with glorious color and energy, with the ample intricacy of shapes and forms encompassed by life on Earth, with simply stunning beauty. Science for young children does not get better than this. Ages 4 and up.
Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood, written by Tony Hillery, illustrated by Jessie Hartland
published in 2020; a Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Communities working together has been highlighted around the globe during the pandemic. This marvelous community success story will also ignite hope in your hearts and maybe even set some dreams in motion.
Tony Hillery relates the true story of how a vacant, trash-strewn lot sitting across the street from an underfunded Harlem school was transformed into a lush, urban garden where juicy tomatoes and tangy blueberries are grown, tended, and harvested by schoolchildren. With the interest generated by that lot, more areas have been converted so that what was once a fresh food desert has now become an oasis of hope.
This is a win-win-win-win story, an example of what can happen when a problem is met with vision, persistence, and community engagement. Feast on the happiness with ages 5 and up.
Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person Ever to Run a Marathon, by Simran Jeet Singh, illustrated by Baljinder Kaur
published in 2020 by Kokila
And here’s a second helping of hope! I am astonished and inspired by the life of Mr. Singh, a man I’d never been acquainted with until I read this book.
As an infant and young child in Punjab, India, Fauja Singh was afflicted with weakness in his legs to the point that his family did not believe he would ever walk. With determination and time, however, Singh overcame these limitations. Flash forward to Singh’s elder years. At age 81, having immigrated to England, Singh witnessed his first running race and was bitten by the running bug. At age 89 he ran his first London marathon; at age 93 he ran his first NYC marathon; at age 100 he ran the Toronto marathon!
Absolutely amazing, and such a sincere, gracious person on top of all his record-breaking accomplishments. This is a joyous story that’s a clear winner for ages 5 and up, up, up!
What If Soldiers Fought with Pillows?: True Stories of Imagination and Courage, written by Heather Camlot, illustrated by Serge Bloch
published in 2020 by Owlkids Books
Imagination is a powerful force, instinctual in children but often dimmed by entrenched grown-up perspectives. The people highlighted in this collection, however, allowed themselves to envision divergent, peaceable solutions to conflicts and struggles around the world. Each story is fascinating and true.
Meet a WWII soldier, a conscientious objector, who risked his life to save seventy-five wounded U.S. men during a battle in Okinawa; an anti-war organization distributing food to the homeless and hungry; a star soccer player from the Ivory Coast who brokered a ceasefire in his war-torn country; an acrobatic troupe using the arts to heal trauma in their homeland of Cambodia; and many more.
In an era of enormous rancor, threatening speech, and anger in the U.S., elevating peace-loving, compassionate heroes who lead the way towards healing is monumentally important. Share this book, bit by bit, with children ages 7 and up and see where your discussions lead you.
The Fabled Life of Aesop, written by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
published in 2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Thousands of years ago, a Greek slave named Aesop developed quite a reputation as a story-spinner. He and his fellow slaves were painfully aware that any word of rebellion or disparagement of one’s master could result in death, so they developed a way of code talking, telling stories to illuminate truths.
When Aesop’s master discovered the wisdom Aesop couched within his tales, Aesop was tasked with telling stories to help solve sticky dilemmas his master faced, stories which were passed down over the years and finally collected in forms we know and love today.
The story of Aesop himself is shrouded in ancient fog with details unable to be verified with certainty, but it is told here as recorded in the first century BC. Lendler’s short biography of Aesop is interrupted midway through with a collection of Aesop’s fables. This interruption is signaled by a change to glossy paper and more colorful, full-bleed illustration work so that it resembles a book within a book. A lengthy Afterword tells much more about the historical Aesop. Engaging prose, elegant and whimsical illustration work, and clever design make this a delightful means of introducing children to one of literature’s most famous persons. Ages 4 or 5 and up.
Chance: Escape from the Holocaust, by Uri Shulevitz
published in 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Uri Shulevitz’s superb children’s books have appeared several times on Orange Marmalade over the years, including his picture book, How I Learned Geography, which recounts some of his experiences as a refugee during WWII. This much longer memoir is a stunning revelation of his experience of loss and survival, one that sheds light on the plight of millions of refugees in our current day as well.
Shulevitz was just four years old when, in the opening moments of his account, Nazi bombs rained down on his home city of Warsaw — incendiary bombs that lit the city on fire and explosive bombs reducing buildings to rubble. We walk with Uri through the next eight, harrowing years of his life as he and his parents flee from one refuge to the next across the Soviet Union and into Turkestan, and then, post-war, follow a torturous path back to Poland only to discover that here they were still unwelcome and in danger. Suffering, hunger, fear, severe illness, death, arduous travel, and a strained relationship between his parents afflict young Uri throughout these years.
From the time he was a very young child, Shulevitz turned to art as a way of understanding his world and we see his consistent artistic exploration throughout this memoir as one of his main ways of coping. His mother’s fierce will to survive and to bring Uri through the war is also a source of light. The entire piece is unflinchingly honest, including Shulevitz’s grappling with religion and his dismissal of faith and providence as having any impact on his own fate or others’. Gripping from the opening page, powerful in both narrative and artwork, it’s a tremendously thought-provoking, enlightening read for ages 12 through adult.
Thank you for sharing such a vibrant colorful selection of nonfiction. The subjects covered are really quite heavy but the books look like they will be exactly the opposite to a point where they will arouse curiosity. I particularly look forward to reading ‘What If Soldiers Fought with Pillows’.
Yes, the only one on the list that is quite heavy is Chance. Hope you can find the Soldiers/Pillows title!
Thank you so much for your review of What If Soldiers Fought with Pillows? I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
I’ve been thinking about your book in recent days of so much police violence at the protests in Brooklyn Center. It raises such good questions and highlights the peace that’s possible when we imagine new solutions. Thanks for your work.