#IMWAYR: Picture Book Pandemonium, Part 5—Nonfiction Edition!
Hello everyone! I'm excited for round 5 of Picture Book Pandemonium, because today, we're taking a look specifically at some nonfiction picture books. Let's get started!
Written by Kate Messner
Illustrated by Alexandra Bye
If you're in the U.S. and have been paying attention during the pandemic, you've probably heard in the news from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who, according to Wikipedia, is the current chief medical advisor to the president and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (which I feel bears noting is not the same as the CDC). Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts, Kellee Moye at Unleashing Readers, Alex Baugh at Randomly Reading, Beth Shaum at A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust, and Crystal Brunelle at Reading Through Life have all been recommending this excellent picture book biography of Dr. Fauci, written by the prolific children's author Kate Messner (who wrote an MG novel I adored called All the Answers) and illustrated by Alexandra Bye.
There's so much to love about this excellent biography! Dr. Fauci starts off by showing us Fauci's childhood in Brooklyn. We see how Fauci's family taught him the curiosity and open-mindedness that would serve him well throughout his career, and we also see plenty of details about his family and growing up that I think will help young readers connect to this book even if they had no previous interest in Fauci's life. About halfway through the book, we begin to learn more about Fauci's adult life, from his journey through medical school to his work during disease outbreaks like AIDS and, of course, COVID-19. Although I wished for a few more concrete details about Fauci's work here (which, to be fair, would likely have been boring to this book's target audience of young readers), I do think that Fauci's willingness to work with others and his dedication to searching for solutions above all else comes through vividly. A brief depiction of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will serve this book well in future years (when the young readers picking it up may not have even lived through this pandemic), and the book's loud-and-clear emphasis on approaching problems scientifically and searching for evidence will hopefully resonate with children as they navigate their way through the world of misinformation and conjecture that we live in today. (Speaking of searching for evidence, Kate Messner actually interviewed Fauci for the writing of this book, so you can be quite confident that the information in it is accurate!) In terms of illustrations, I had never heard of this book's illustrator, Alexandra Bye, before reading this book—but after having read it, I can safely say that I want to read pretty much anything else she illustrates! Her tidy drawings and use of vivid colors brings to life scenes like Fauci as a child delivering prescriptions from his father's pharmacy, or busy streets deserted during today's pandemic. Honestly, even if you mostly read picture books just to see pretty illustrations (and don't we all?), this book is absolutely worth picking up—the illustrations here are definitely in the top tier of picture books I've seen! The book finishes off with impressive and child-accessible back matter, including excellent explanations about vaccines that will hopefully combat anti-vaccine propaganda, as well as a timeline, a list of recommended reading, and some tips by Fauci himself—and, as is fitting for a book about seeking the truth through research, there's a thorough bibliography at the back too! Considering the world of utterly false information that today's kids will have to navigate, books like Dr. Fauci play an important role in teaching kids to trust the scientific method and to use it themselves—and the enjoyable storyline and lovely illustrations only make this book even more exceptional!
Illustrated by David Clark
I'm so excited to be reviewing this book, because its author, Sue Heavenrich, is a wonderful fellow blogger on MMGM who reviews science-focused books at Archimedes Notebook and other books at Sally's Bookshelf! Heavenrich has written quite a few science-themed books that you can learn about on her website, and this picture book, her newest, was available for me to borrow through Hoopla, so I did!
Oh my, kids will gobble up this book (get it?), which walks readers through the various ways that 13 different flies are consumed by all kinds of animals! The flies' deaths, while ever so slightly gruesome (as nature so often is), are quite fascinating—from animals that track down flies with echolocation or vibration detection to frogs that swallow their dinner by shoving their eyeballs into their throat, there's all kinds of fascinating animal facts to be learned here, and Heavenrich explains them all with plenty of detail. David Clark's energetic illustrations let you see the group of 13 flies up close, all with their species identified throughout the book, so you can become an expert on these little creatures too—and although elementary-school-age kids will likely learn the most from this book, any younger kids sitting around for a read-aloud can learn a quick counting lesson from the 13 flies that disappear one by one throughout the pages. Amusing back matter gives animals tips for the perfect fly dinner, including an actual fly nutrition label—not something you'll see in many picture books! And there's also plenty of citations and further reading for readers intrigued by all the fascinating facts contained in this story. It's rare to see books that will let kids have quite this much fun while learning plenty, so keep 13 Ways to Eat a Fly in mind if you have any precocious young readers looking for an informative and humorous read!
Illustrated by Stasia Burrington
The ever-wonderful Myra Garces-Bacsal at Gathering Books always has so many picture books to recommend, such as this one, that my TBR list ends up bursting at the seams! I found this biography of Mae Jemison (the first African-American woman to go into space!) on Libby, and although it appears to be mostly out of stock on Amazon, you might be able to track down a copy through your own library or another bookseller.
This biography is intriguing, because it's really not much of a biography at all—it's more a story of a child believing in her dreams in spite of prejudice, and that child just happens to be Mae Jemison. And that's not a bad thing at all—it's just worth noting if you're going into this hoping for a super-accurate, super-informative examination of Jemison's life (although there is a brief 1-page biography of her full life and achievements at the back.) In the book, Mae's parents give her the beautiful advice that she can accomplish anything she can imagine, believe in, and work toward. Armed with that advice, Mae dreams big about going into space, whether that means literally dreaming at night about being up in the sky or dressing herself (and the cat) up in cardboard astronaut helmets during the day. But then a White teacher named Miss Bell takes it upon herself to "advise" Mae that becoming a nurse would be better for, to quote the book, "someone like [her]"—and while you could successfully argue that becoming a nurse might have been easier for Mae than becoming the first African American female astronaut, you could not successfully argue that it would have been more fulfilling for Mae, and you could certainly not successfully argue that Miss Bell's advice comes from anything other than hidden prejudice she is (or isn't—who knows?) unaware of. I'm not totally certain that any of the events in the book happened exactly this way, but the spirit of a young girl believing in her own big dreams in spite of racist dream-crushing opposition seems 100% realistic to me. Stasia Burrington's illustrations are beautiful and completely unique—beyond the tiny eyes and mouths and complete lack of noses on her characters, the neat lines and solid colors of objects in the foreground contrast beautifully with the melting-watercolor faces and starry skies. It's a style unlike any I've previously seen, and it is simultaneously delightfully childlike and quite visually lovely. And there's plenty of hidden details in the illustrations that are worth keeping an eye out for, which may make this a fun re-read for young readers. All in all, Mae Among the Stars is an unconventional biography, but it's also a wonderful one that shows the spirit and determination of a real woman who channeled her hard work and determination as an adult into fulfilling the big dreams she imagined as a child.
Written by Areli Morales
Illustrated by Luisa Uribe
This book is based on the author's true experiences, so although it doesn't quite fit in with the other books here, I'm calling it nonfiction for the purposes of this post. Lisa Maucione at Literacy On The Mind, Michele Knott at Mrs. Knott's Book Nook, and Linda Baie at TeacherDance all recommended this spectacular picture book, and although I couldn't track it down on Libby or Hoopla, the impactful message and gorgeous cover (look at it!) finally compelled me to purchase a copy at full price so I could review it today!
Areli loves her life at her abuela's house in the mountains in Mexico, but it's hard knowing that her parents are far away in the U.S.—and that, even once her older brother Alex leaves to live with them, getting Areli into the U.S. when she is Mexican-born will be far harder. When the moment finally comes for Areli to leave Mexico behind, she isn't ready to leave her abuela, the rest of her family, or her friends—and America isn't without its challenges, whether it's the strangeness of bustling New York City compared to the mountains, the new language that Areli doesn't yet speak, or the looks and jeers from other kids who call Areli "illegal." But as Areli learns that she is one of a long line of people who came to America to live better lives, she starts to decide for herself that America is where she will accomplish anything she can dream of.
I was truly blown away by this book! It's no secret that there's a lot of prejudice toward immigrants, especially undocumented ones, here in the United States these days, and I hope books like this one show the kids growing up in this climate that immigrants are just trying to make a better life for themselves, and they deserve a chance here too (especially a chance that isn't filled with vitriol, and hatred, and name-calling, and fear, and...you get the point). Morales's reasonably wordy narration is immensely valuable in depicting Areli's specific experiences, and her strength in overcoming challenge after challenge and still finding the joy in her life and her new home is truly admirable (although I of course wish no one had to muster up that strength in the first place). I will say, Morales herself is a "dreamer" who has been permitted to stay in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and although there's not anything hugely specific about the program itself in here (which makes sense—it's just a bunch of paperwork and, presumably, endless nail-biting, since they are always trying to destroy the program), Morales does share an author's note at the beginning of the story that briefly explains DACA and the dangers it faces. Luisa Uribe's illustrations are unbelievably beautiful—many of them are like the cover, with rich colors, scenic backgrounds, and meaningful details tucked into every spread. I'm hoping to track down some other picture books that Uribe has illustrated because this one was so beautiful (she illustrated a book I remember hearing a lot about, Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, that I hope to borrow soon). The ending of the story, where Areli realizes that she comes from a rich legacy of immigrants to the U.S. and is thus able to make a space for herself in this nation, is particularly powerful. I really hope every child reads Areli Is a Dreamer at some point—I think it could do so much good in helping kids understand what immigrants go through, and in helping kids realize that immigrants are as valuable as any other person in this country.
Written by Kyo Maclear
Illustrated by Julie Morstad
So, if I'm being frank, I've been a little disappointed by Kyo Maclear's picture books in my last few posts. I loved—loved—her graphic novel Operatic, but Story Boat didn't quite work for me, and Spork was fun but ended up in last place against the week's competition. I was kind of wondering if I would be able to track down a picture book by her that I actually liked—but then I did. And in the most unlikely of places—I wasn't expecting to like It Began With a Page too much, but it blew me away!
In 1963, Gyo Fujikawa published a picture book called Babies. Today, it seems like a perfectly normal book, of young children playing and living their lives. But back then, before the Civil Rights Act had even been passed, Fujikawa's choice to include children of all races playing and interacting with each other was a bold one—and one she had to fight for publishers to believe in. It Began With a Page ends with this triumph, but before that, it follows Fujikawa through her entire life. We see her as a child who loved to draw and who kept drawing. We see her as someone excluded for being Asian-American and female but who nevertheless attended art school all the way back in 1926. We see her as someone whose family suffered during the incarceration of Japanese Americans in WWII. We see her as someone who painted murals and designed window displays at stores, and we see her as someone who had two pet poodles that she loved. But perhaps most of all, we see her as a trailblazer, as someone who paved the way for diversity in children's books for decades to come.
In case I didn't make it clear a minute ago, this book is fantastic! I am seriously so glad to have a hard copy of it (since neither Libby or Hoopla were offering it)—now I can re-read it whenever I choose to. First of all, I actually learned an enormous amount about Fujikawa and her achievements—I previously didn't even know who she was, but this book's ability to humanize her/treat her like the character of a story while also walking us through countless actual details of her life (which are further fleshed out in a dense timeline at the end) really gave me a strong idea of who Fujikawa was. Kyo Maclear's writing is excellent here—it's not opaque like Story Boat, but rather a perfect balance of informative, concise, poetic, and a touch lighthearted too, which should hopefully make it as enjoyable for kids as it will be for older readers. And it has that artistic, confident touch that comes through in pretty much all of Maclear's books—she crafts her stories with so much respect while not taking them so seriously as to make them inaccessible to young readers. And in terms of art, I thought I had pinned down the kind of art I really liked in picture books, but Julie Morstad's gorgeous illustrations here have made me rethink things. Every spread is different—some pages are blank white with flat black sketches, some pages have full-color characters and objects against a white background, and some pages are completely detailed from foreground to background. Some pages show a single scene, while others show a montage of different characters and events (from what I've heard and from what I can tell, those spreads seem to pay homage to Fujikawa's own art style). And there are some really creative page layouts that I don't want to spoil but that are quite expressive and meaningful. I was quite impressed with how this book is tied into some of the societal events of the time, and its discussion of the Japanese incarceration is obviously painful but still reasonably manageable for young readers. Regardless of whether or not Gyo Fujikawa sounds like an interesting person (she should, but still), you need to pick up a copy of It Began With a Page—this informative, beautiful, and fascinating book is one other picture book biographies should model themselves after.
That's all I've got for today—thanks for joining me on this nonfiction picture book adventure!
My favorite book of the week: It Began With a Page
My second-favorite book of the week: Areli Is a Dreamer