#IMWAYR: Cybils 2021 finalists in Elementary Nonfiction!

I'm back! Mostly because this post was almost completely finished last week, and I'm just finally getting it up now. Things are still mightily chaotic, but I'm making it work (I think), and hopefully I'll get a chance to finally read y'all's posts as well!

Now for the actual post! I had a truly incredible opportunity this year: thanks to the urging of Helen at Helen's Book Blog, I applied and was accepted as a Round 2 Judge in the Cybils Awards for Elementary and Middle Grade Nonfiction! It was an amazing opportunity—I got to read absolutely amazing books (choosing was so hard!!) in a genre I don't read enough of, and then my fellow judges and I had an absolutely wonderful discussion that really made me think about the books in a new light. It's funny, because I had my own personal favorites, but when we had a discussion, I saw the merits in some books I had previously discounted, which was as powerful an experience as just enjoying the ones I enjoyed!

I'd really like to thank my category chair Reshama for welcoming me to the Cybils, answering my questions about the process, and keeping us all on task so we could actually choose the winners you've heard announced! And I also want to thank my fellow judges, Alysa, Bridget, Kortney, and Tanita, for their insightful comments that really got to the heart of these books—they prove five minds are so much better than one!

Now that the winners in all Cybils categories have officially been announced, I'd like to take the time to discuss each and every finalist and share my thoughts—because boy, do I have thoughts! (Good thoughts, specifically.) I'm starting today with the Elementary Nonfiction finalists—and then next week, we can take a look at the Middle Grade Nonfiction finalists.

And I cannot emphasize enough that although I am truly confident in our final decisions, each and every one of these finalists are truly, truly incredible, and the only reason I have so many critiques is because my fellow judges and I had to literally split hairs and decide precisely why some were a smidge better than others. If I had reviewed these on my own, I'd probably have no criticism—but when you stare at a book for a long while, write many notes on it, and then discuss it with a bunch of extremely-smart people, you're bound to notice some flaws! So I'm going to use a pro-con format so you can see what we loved and what bothered us about these overall-wonderful stories.

And also, a quick note before we dive in: All of the thoughts below are mine only, and they do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my fellow panelists or judges, my category chair, or the Cybils Awards.

So let's begin! We'll go in the order I read the books.

Bartali's Bicycle: The True Story of Gino Bartali, Italy's Secret Hero ***Winner***

Written by Megan Hoyt, and illustrated by Iacopo Bruno

Preview the illustrations on Amazon

Publisher's description: Gino Bartali pedaled across Italy for years, winning one cycling race after another, including the 1938 Tour de France. Gino became an international sports hero! But the next year, World War II began, and it changed everything. Soldiers marched into Italy. Tanks rolled down the cobbled streets of Florence. And powerful leaders declared that Jewish people should be arrested.

To the entire world, Gino Bartali was merely a champion cyclist. But Gino’s greatest achievement was something he never told a soul—that he secretly worked with the Italian resistance to save hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children, and others, from certain death, using the one thing no authority would question: his bicycle.

This compelling nonfiction picture book for elementary-age readers offers a unique perspective on World War II history. It's a strong choice for units on the war and for biographies of lesser-known heroes in history and in sports.


  • Hoyt's writing jumped out to me personally as perhaps the best writing of any of these books—she writes concisely but with so much feeling, pulling together numerous disparate events into a work that truly feels like a story, complete with plot and suspense, rather than a list of events.
  • I appreciated how some of the most impactful phrases were "spotlit" using a larger font and different color!
  • The actual story that the book captures is so impactful—seeing someone risk their life to do the right thing, and seeing that person be so humble about it that they were never recognized, is truly awe-inspiring.
  • One thing I didn't pick up on but that other judges did is that Bartali made change in the world with only what he had—his bicycle. And it's a really important thing to show kids that they can change the world and help others without meeting some unachievable standard of perfection or "specialness!"

  • I personally did not connect with the illustrations very much, but the other judges all thought they were beautiful, so I think I was just being overly picky!

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizebeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars

Written by Laurie Wallmark, and illustrated by Brooke Smart

Preview the illustrations on Amazon

Publisher's description: In this picture book biography, young readers will learn all about Elizebeth Friedman (1892–1980), a brilliant American code breaker who smashed Nazi spy rings, took down gangsters, and created the CIA's first cryptology unit. Her story came to light when her secret papers were finally declassified in 2015. From thwarting notorious rumrunners with only paper and pencil to “counter-spying into the minds and activities of” Nazis, Elizebeth held a pivotal role in the early days of US cryptology. No code was too challenging for her to crack, and Elizebeth’s work undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. Extensive back matter includes explanations of codes and ciphers, further information on cryptology, a bibliography, a timeline of Elizebeth’s life, plus secret messages for young readers to decode.


  • Friedman's fascinating life is depicted in great detail—I loved seeing how she and her romantic partner both shared a love of codes and would even send each other coded messages!
  • The numerous quotes from Friedman herself, set apart in a different font, really bring her to life and give you a sense of how she herself would have told her story, rather than how others would have told it for her.
  • Smart's illustrations feature a combination of delightfully inventive layouts, like decoded messages wrapping around enemy spies to hold them captive, and an eye-catching style that personally reminded me of Julie Morstad's illustrations in It Began With a Page and Bloom, which is an enormously high compliment!.


  • The back matter is extensive and intriguing, with details about different kinds of codes and ciphers, a practice-decoding-a-basic-cipher exercise, and even some information about how modern-day computer encryption works. But it's also very dense, and in general, I think there is so much going on in this book that I'm not sure if kids will be a little overwhelmed by it.
  • The opening of the story in particular was very awkwardly written—it starts in the middle of the action, which didn't work for me, and many of the early details don't really align with the thesis of how Elizebeth cracked codes and affected the wars.
Mimic Makers:
Biomimicry Inventors Inspired by Nature

Written by Kristen Nordstrom, and illustrated by Paul Boston

Preview the illustrations on Amazon

Publisher's description: When an inventor is inspired by nature for a new creation, they are practicing something called biomimicry. Meet ten real-life scientists, engineers, and designers who imitate plants and animals to create amazing new technology. An engineer shapes the nose of his train like a kingfisher's beak. A scientist models her solar cell on the mighty leaf. Discover how we copy nature's good ideas to solve real-world problems!


  • The inventions in this book are crazy-cool—devices that pull drinking water right out of the air, just like some beetles do? Check. Drones that fly with one wing like a maple leaf can? Check. Adhesive modeled after how geckos hold onto vertical surfaces that can hold a motorcycle up to the wall? Also check!
  • Kristen Nordstrom gives us a sense of the real-world inventors of each device as well as an understanding of how each thing works—she truly has a knack for summarizing the science simply but meaningfully and interestingly!
  • Paul Boston's illustrations feature varied color schemes and layouts to match each invention, but what each drawing has in common is its clear depictions of scientific processes, its inclusion of all kinds of kids joining in on the scientific process (as I suspect many real-world kids will want to do after reading this book!), and its general engaging and lighthearted style!
  • This was personally in my original top 3, and after some later discussions, I think it moved up even higher, so it's definitely worth a look!

Sakamoto's Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory

Written by Julie Abery, and illustrated by Chris Sasaki

Preview the illustrations on Amazon

Publisher's description: When the children of workers on a 1930s Maui sugar plantation were chased away from playing in the nearby irrigation ditches, local science teacher Soichi Sakamoto had an idea. He offered to take responsibility for the children --- and then he began training them how to swim. Using his science background, Sakamoto devised his own innovative coaching techniques: he developed a strict practice regime for the kids, building their strength and endurance by using the ditch water's natural current. The children worked hard under the dedicated Sakamoto's guidance, and their skills improved. They formed a swim club and began to dominate in swimming events around the world. And then one day, the proud Sakamoto saw an impossible dream come true --- Olympic gold!

In a unique approach that makes for a moving read-aloud, Julie Abery uses limited rhyming text to tell the little-known story of Coach Sakamoto and the Three-Year Swim Club. The stunning art of award-winning and highly acclaimed Chris Sasaki perfectly complements the lyrical storytelling. This inspiring picture book offers excellent lessons in perseverance, believing in yourself and not letting others define you, while wonderfully capturing how one person can make a huge difference in the lives of others. In highlighting the team's “bright and loud” presence at events, with their Hawaiian dress and ukulele, it also encourages children to take pride in their heritage and view it as a strength. An author's note with photos and more information tell the fuller story of Soichi Sakamoto and his Three-Year Swim Club.


  • This book had really broad appeal among the judges, and as we discussed it, it moved up even higher in my esteem!
  • We all agreed that the illustrations are GORGEOUS—I was struck by the use of vivid colors, the creative layouts, etc.! The faces have a strange but intriguing style, but the rest of the art is very traditional and should work for quite a few different kinds of readers.
  • Many of us were a bit surprised by the rhyming verse in the book, but for all of us, it kind of worked! I can't explain why, but it did.
  • I'm totally borrowing thoughts from other judges here, but they were discussing how this story steps outside the typical stereotypes of Hawaii stories as either being about "paradise or Pearl Harbor," to quote them. And it's so true, so I wanted to share that!
  • Another complete borrowing of a judge's thoughts—one of us was discussing the impact here of an adult actually looking around his community, finding a need, and getting involved with kids to meet that need, which is a really lovely theme I didn't initially pick up on.
  • This is kind of a pro and kind of a con, but I think we all felt in some way or another that the story here is pretty simple and lacking in the conflict that might make it stick. As other judges pointed out, it's a benefit in some ways to have a story accessible to younger age ranges! But it's also a slight hindrance in really pulling you along through the story and making it memorable.
The Elephants Come Home:
A True Story of Seven Elephants, Two People, and One Extraordinary Friendship

Written by Kim Tomsic, and illustrated by Hadley Hooper

Publisher's description: One day in 1999, Lawrence Anthony and FranΓ§oise Malby hear that a herd of wild African elephants needs a new home. They welcome the elephants to their wildlife sanctuary—Thula Thula—with open arms. But the elephants are much less sure they want to stay. How will Lawrence prove to them that they are safe and loved? What follows is a gorgeously illustrated real-life story of a friendship . . . and the story of the miraculous way that love given freely will return—greater and more wonderful than it began.

  • This book was originally my second-favorite, but after conversations with the judges, it dropped very far in my esteem, so definitely take a look at the cons as well as the pros.
  • This story feels like a modern classic in a lot of ways—the calm, peaceful writing style and the escapist storyline feels like something kids will return to again and again, almost like Goodnight Moon (obviously not at that same level, but something about them seems similar to me).
  • There are quite a few themes threaded through the story—conservation, two people devoting their lives to doing what they love and believe in, and even the ways in which the elephants bring compassion to the people who care for them—and it makes for a really rich narrative.
  • The illustrations are absolutely INCREDIBLE—they seem to be watercolors that are then outlined with some kind of a black pen, and it makes for such a unique but absolutely lovely style! The use of color and layout is so varied and soothing—I could go on and on, but in short, they definitely stole the show.
  • I didn't notice these issues upon my initial reading, so I want to give credit to my fellow judges for pointing out that this story falls into the "white savior" stereotype, and they're absolutely right—as they've said, this is really a story of two white people going into someone else's country to "save" their own animals while trying to keep the actual residents away from them (there's a specific page mentioning the "No Hunting" signs as reminders to the native Zulu people). Especially considering the next book, which really depicts conservation in a way that is actually a collaboration with the groups who already live there, this storyline is really problematic. I can imagine the very same kids who are soothed by this story then waking up the next day and playing a game—"Let's go to Africa and save the animals!" And you can really see that white-savior idea getting internalized in them. It's kind of a major issue the more you think about it, and it definitely soured me on this story once we discussed it—which is such a shame, considering how well-executed the rest of this book is!
The Leaf Detective:
 How Margaret Lowman Uncovered Secrets in the Rainforest

Written by Heather Lang, and illustrated by Jana Christy

Publisher's description: Meg Lowman was always fascinated by the natural world above her head — the colors, the branches, and, most of all, the leaves and mysterious organisms living there. Meg set out to climb up and investigate the rain forest tree canopies — and to be the first scientist to do so. But she encountered challenge after challenge. Male teachers would not let her into their classrooms, the high canopy was difficult to get to, and worst of all, people were logging and clearing the forests. Meg never gave up or gave in. She studied, invented, and persevered, not only creating a future for herself as a scientist, but making sure that the rainforests had a future as well. Working closely with Meg Lowman, author Heather Lang and artist Jana Christy beautifully capture Meg's world in the treetops.

  • This was my absolute top pick, but it fell between the middle and the bottom for all the other judges—most of us liked it, but I think my feelings for it were unusually strong, so make of that what you will!
  • I loved seeing the themes of scientific exploration from Mimic Makers repeating themselves here—Lowman's clever ideas (walkways between trees, labeling leaves with numbers so she could track them) feel like they might inspire young readers to come up with their own clever ways of solving scientific problems (although probably not quite to the same degree as Mimic Makers).
  • And then we also pull some of the conservation themes from The Elephants Come Home into this story too—and with the added benefit that Lowman's ideas of conservation involve actually collaborating with the native people so they can benefit from their own land and keep it safe too!
  • I also really enjoyed the small details about Lowman succeeding as a woman in a male-dominated field.
  • The illustrations, once again, are GORGEOUS—they have an ethereal quality with their many motifs (leaves, spirals, etc.), and the varied layouts and use of vivid colors makes for a book that is visually stunning, put simply.
  • There are quite a few forest facts embedded through the story on little "leaves" in the corner of the page, and there's some fascinating back matter as well about rainforests—and as other judges pointed out, it gives you the freedom to spend a shorter amount of time on the main story with young readers, or a longer amount of time exploring the extra details as well!
  • Some of the other judges discussed how this biography in particular really centers around Lowman's achievements and fails to acknowledge the support of other people around her. And as nice as it can be to have a story of an inspirational individual who we can mimic, I don't think that's mutually exclusive with showing how the most successful people learn from others and build on existing foundations too!
  • Also, some judges felt like the writing in the story was clunky, and although it didn't really jump out at me, it's definitely not memorable—and it is in verse that is pretty long and sometimes reads more like paragraphs, so maybe structuring it more in prose would have been helpful.
  • In general, there's a lot going on in this story, and although I personally didn't find it overly busy, I'm also way over the target age range here, and I think we all felt like the book was maybe a little too dense for young readers. (I personally felt like it wasn't as big of an issue as in Code Breaker, Spy Hunter, but it's still worth noting.)
We Are Still Here!:
 Native American Truths Everyone Should Know

Written by Traci Sorell, and illustrated by FranΓ© Lessac

Publisher's description: Too often, Native American history is treated as a finished chapter instead of relevant and ongoing. This companion book to the award-winning We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga offers readers everything they never learned in school about Native American people's past, present, and future. Precise, lyrical writing presents topics including: forced assimilation (such as boarding schools), land allotment and Native tribal reorganization, termination (the US government not recognizing tribes as nations), Native urban relocation (from reservations), self-determination (tribal self-empowerment), Native civil rights, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), religious freedom, economic development (including casino development), Native language revival efforts, cultural persistence, and nationhood.

  • For this book, we kind of had the opposite situation—most of us liked it, but the other judges had stronger positive feelings than I did! Again, make of that what you will (keeping in mind that all of these books are excellent).
  • There are not many books that discuss the Native American experience, so that alone is enough to make We Are Still Here notable and valuable! And this book is really eye-opening—the message about Native Americans never having disappeared and never having stopped fighting for their rights is really powerful, and I learned so much about the injustices Native Americans have faced at the hands of our government. This book is not just a recitation of things you already know!
  • One thing that the other judges brought up in our deliberations is how this book would be really valuable in a classroom setting—it's a great book to have around for students to return to and learn more from each time they pick it up!
  • One thing I've learned while serving on the Cybils is the value of books that are more difficult to read in one sitting—I was somewhat frustrated with this book because it's so dense with information that I found it hard to really process it all, but if you spread this out over more than one sitting, I think you'll get way more out of it. Just know that other picture books about social issues (like Born on the Water, which is absolutely exceptional) have a more linear story that's easier to read (and to be affected by) in one sitting.
  • Also, this is a totally individual thing that doesn't apply to everyone, but I personally didn't click with the illustrations once again!
And that's what I've got! I hope some of these fantastic Cybils finalists appeal to you, and I'll be back soon (next week if I can actually get the post together!) to discuss the Middle-Grade Nonfiction finalists too!


  1. Oh WOW congrats on the Cybils! And what a fascinating category - there's such variety in subject matter, format, writing style, illustrations style...it's tough to compare books like this, when they're all so unique and fascinating in their own way! Most of these are new to me, and I'm so excited to see if I have them in my collection, and to order them, if I don't!

  2. Glad you had fun being a judge, Max. I've read a few of these & bookmarked others, like Sakamoto's Swim Club. I do love that more people whom we've never heard of have done amazing things and now we know about them. I don't know if it was discussed & possibly that's private, but when I reviewed & shared the Bartali book a person contacted me on Goodreads & shared that there was controversy about whether his story was proven. I did research & there is questioning about it. I loved the book, too, but thought you'd be interested to know. I enjoyed the way you presented the books.

  3. I have to read more nonfiction. The only one I've read here is We Are Still Here. Thanks for sharing all your thoughts.

  4. I started to get a post together for all the graphic novels that we read, but life got in the way and I got sidetracked. It really is hard to pick just one book! I really appreciate how the discussions with other readers helps us to see books in new ways.
    Happy reading this week.

  5. I do like non-fiction, but I don't read nearly enough of it. Thanks for telling me about these wonderful books. I will try to check them all out.

  6. Wow, these all sound amazing!

    And you put your finger on exactly why I love book groups so much - just like in your discussions with the other judges, I get so much more out of a book and see so much more depth to it when I discuss it with others. Glad you enjoyed the experience so much - it sounds wonderful!

    Thanks for sharing the books and the judging experience with us!

    Book By Book

  7. Oh, I am so glad you enjoyed the experience! It's one of my favorite things that I do each year. I like to change categories each year.


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