Category Archives: Nonfiction Monday

Locomotive by Brian Floca

Wow.  That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think about Locomotive by Brian Floca.  This is a nonfiction picture book that manages to pack an epic story–the building of the transcontinental railroad–into the interesting narrative of a family making their own transcontinental journey on that very railroad.  In other words, the information about the railroad is interwoven throughout the family’s journey much as if they have their own personal historical  guide they’re sharing with the reader.   The story itself is written in a very poetic prose that verges on pure poetry both in sound, rhythm, and format:

Up in the cab–small as a closet, hot as a kitchen–

it smells of smoke, hot metal, and oil.


The fireman keeps the engine fed.

He scoops and lifts and throws the coal,

from the tender to the firebox.


It’s hard work, hot work,

smoke and cinders,

ash and sweat,

hard work, hot work–

but that’s a fireman’s life!

He tends the fire

that boils the water,

that turns the water into steam.


Beautiful typography–stylized capitals, script, boldface–all help communicate this very rich narrative.  Floca‘s illustrations, which are rendered in watercolor, ink, acrylic, and gouache, are every bit as much the star of the story as is the text.  He uses a variety of perspectives to communicate the immensity, power, and detail of the steam engine itself and what it was like to travel cross country by it.  One of my favorite illustrations is a huge, two-page close-up of the train’s wheels on the track, which are accompanied by the very onomatopoetic text that includes the words huffs, hisses, bangs, and clanks in large, colored, boldface typography.  The very next two-page spread includes small vignettes:  an aerial view of the train; the ticketmaster collecting tickets; our passengers looking out their window; the engineer leaning out of his window with “the wind on his face, the fire by his feet.”  If you’re expecting a gorgeous picture book, you won’t be disappointed.  However, don’t expect a simple, pre-school story; this book is appropriate for all ages, from school-aged to adult.  I read it to my three year old, and while I think he probably missed most of the details (and honestly, so did I–this is no lightweight informational book!), he appreciated the rhythmic text and the beautiful illustrations.  From the detailed endpapers (maps, the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, and a beautifully detailed diagram of a steam locomotive) to the author note and lengthy list of sources, this is a not-to-be-missed informational picture book for history lovers and train lovers alike.  I won’t be surprised by any accolades this book receives–a Cybil, a Caldecott–whatever.  Don’t miss this one.  Highly, highly (highly) Recommended.   (Atheneum, 2013)

Related links:

This is a long-ish video of Floca discussing his creation of Locomotive (which is essentially about “a big teakettle on wheels”) at the 2013 National Book Festival:


Louisa May’s Battle by Kathleen Krull

Louisa May’s Battle:  How the Civil War Led to Little Women by Kathleen Krull is a picture book biography that focuses on Louisa May Alcott’s involvement in the Civil War as a nurse and how her experiences there led to the discovery of her voice and style as a writer, which in turn enabled her to write her wildly successful novel, Little Women.  Krull makes liberal use of quotations from Alcott’s Hospital Sketches and an article by Alcott entitled “Recollections of My Childhood” throughout this biography.  Because of the quotes, a sense of Alcott’s lively personality and her voice as a writer shine through.  I learned a lot from reading this picture book, having never read much about Alcott’s life before, and it really made me appreciate how her own experiences influenced her writing.  Additional backmatter in this book includes a page-long essay discussing various women in medicine during the Civil War, many of whom were inspired to get in on the action by Alcott’s Hospital Sketches.   Also included is a lengthy bibliography.  Carlyn Beccia‘s illustrations are luminously portrait-like  and expressive, an excellent companion to this interesting story.  (Side note:  We really enjoyed Beccia’s I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat last year!)  Highly Recommended.  (Bloomsbury, 2013)



(I’m sharing this review today at Nonfiction Monday, a brand new group blog which rounds up nonfiction titles for children each Monday.  Check it out!)

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough

This must be the year for picture biographies of world-changing women. Last Read Aloud Thursday I highlighted a new biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, and today I’m sharing a new book I like every bit as much as that one.  Miss Moore Thought Otherwise:  How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children by Jan Pinborough is the story of one Anne Carroll Moore, whose life spanned the turn of the twentieth century and who had “ideas of her own.”  At nineteen she made the unconventional decision to become a lawyer like her father.  Then tragedy struck and she became the surrogate mother to her brother’s children after their mother died.  Just about the time she was released from this responsibility by her brother’s marriage, Miss Moore learned that libraries were hiring women librarians.  This possibility exhilarated her, so she headed to New York City to enroll in the Pratt Institute library school.  What followed was a lifetime of passion given to a career for which Miss Moore was perfectly suited.  She eventually became the manager of all the children’s sections of the thirty-six branches of the New York Public Library.  She made all sorts of changes in the libraries, from allowing the children to actually touch the books (!!!) and take them home to improving the book selections.  Finally, the crowning achievement of her career was the development of a fantastic children’s room in the newly constructed New York Public Library (yes, the one with the lions out front).  After the library opened, she did innovative things like inviting children’s authors there to read their works to using a wooden doll she named Nicholas Knickerbocker as a prop to draw shy children out of themselves.  Even after the finally retired, Miss Moore went on a cross-country mission to teach other librarians how to develop their own children’s collections.  Truly, her influence cannot be measured.

Debby Atwell’s acrylic illustrations are colorful and cheerful, just like Miss Moore’s children’s room at the NYPL, and they make an already great story even better.  The refrain throughout this delightful book is the same as the title:  “Miss Moore thought otherwise.”  Aren’t we glad she did?  Highly Recommended.  (Houghton Mifflin, 2013)

I’m linking up today for Nonfiction Monday at Perogies & Gyoza.

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda by Alicia Potter

Many women down through history have done unexpected things that make them not only champions for their gender, but also heroines for the more obvious reasons. Alicia Potter’s 2012 picture book biography, Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (Knopf, 2012), is the story of just such an unlikely heroine. It is the story of Ruth Harkness, who in 1934 kissed her husband goodbye as he sailed off to China in search of a panda to bring home, the first of its kind to be seen in the United States. Ruth Harkness stayed home and designed tea gowns, as was expected of a woman in her time, though she did expect to join her husband at the end of his expedition. However, tragedy struck, and Ruth received word that William Harkness had died in China. In Ruth Harkness’ own words, “I had inherited an expedition.” She set out for China despite the naysayers and despite complications and difficulties.

After many people told her it couldn’t be done, Ruth found a champion and encourager in a young Chinese man she called Quentin Young, and he helped her on her journey in a multitude of ways, from packing for the trip (no small task!) to navigating the waterways and mountainous terrain. Ruth Harkness and her expedition finally found their panda, and when she brought baby Su Lin home to the U.S., “panda-monium” broke out. In addition to introducing these black and white furry creatures to what quickly became an adoring public, Ruth Harkness also gained for herself a new title: “woman explorer.”

Mrs. Harkness and the Panda was awarded a 2012 Cybils Award in the nonfiction picture category. Not only is this an engaging and well-written tale about a little-known woman from history, it is also beautifully illustrated by the inimitable Melissa Sweet in her trademark watercolor and mixed media style. Using actual maps, Chinese characters, and facsimiles of newspapers, Sweet’s illustrations evoke the feeling of both the time and place in history. This is an excellent biography that appeals to a variety of ages and is well deserving of the accolades it has received. Highly Recommended!

Grab Our Badge!This post was originally posted on the  Kidlit Celebrates Women’s History Month blog and linked up at Nonfiction Monday, hosted by my friend Alice at Supratentorial.  

Eggs 1, 2, 3: Who Will the Babies Be? by Janet Halfmann

Eggs 1, 2, 3:  Who Will the Babies Be? by Janet Halfmann is a 2012 Cybils finalist in the nonfiction picture books category and the second book by Janet Halfmann we’ve enjoyed.  (Her Star of the Sea was a Cybils nominee last year.)   This is a wonderful introduction to the nonfiction/informational genre for the youngest listeners, for it is a counting book.  From one to ten, the eggs are numbered and counted, and then–a chance to make a prediction:  “Who will the babies be?”  The animals in the book are not the run-of-the-mill ones you’d expect:  included are platypus puggles (imagine our delight at reading this since the DLM is a Puggle at AWANA at church!) and firefly glowworms and the fry of some sort of fish.  Halfmann does a fabulous job of including additional information in the three sentences that grace each two page spread.  For example, quite a bit of information can be gleaned from the three pages about the platypus:

Two eggs, stuck together, warmed by a furry tail in a tunnel by a stream.

Who will the babies be?

Two platypus puggles, wth bills like ducks, slurping milk like kittens.

That’s a lot of information packed into three sentences:  where the puggle eggs are incubated and how;  something unusual about the platypus–that it has a bill like a duck; and that they are mammals.  This science presented in an artful and elementary way that appeals to young listeners.  Betsy Thompson‘s cut-paper collage illustrations (?) are simple, graphic, and colorful.  At first glance I thought another type of illustrations would’ve suited this book better, especially when it is considered as a science book.  However, due to their simplicity these illustrations work well for young readers.  I love how the book ends–with all ten types of eggs side-by-side, and then with all the babies side-by-side.  My only criticism of the book is one that is probably more of a personal preference than anything.  Each two-page spread in this includes a page-sized flap to be opened to reveal the babies in those particular eggs.  I’m not a fan of this format, mostly because it makes the book too fragile for handling by young hands and for library use.  In fact, I ended up cutting the copy of the book we read because I didn’t realize that the flaps opened both vertically and horizontally, so I thought one of the flaps hadn’t been cut by the publisher.  I made about an 1.5″ cut before I realized the flap opened the other way.  :-(  I will say that this interactive element is probably appealing to young children, but it doesn’t make for a sturdy picture book.  After being privy to discussion of this title during the Cybils Awards as a round 2 panelist, I realize that there is a question of accuracy regarding what the pictures depict (i.e. how many eggs a certain animal might actually produce, etc.)  Still, for the youngest of listeners, this is a book chock-full of potential for wonderful observations and discussion.  Highly Recommended.  (Blue Apple, 2012)

Related links:

This year’s Armchair Cybils challenge is officially over, but since as a round 2 panelist in the Nonfiction Picture Books category I couldn’t review any of the finalists until the winner was announced, I’m a little behind with this review.  I am also submitting this post to this week’s Nonfiction Monday roundup at Wrapped in Foil.