The 2020 Holiday Recommendations Post! [Post is OPEN]

Every year, I like to make personalized book recommendations for my friends (and their friends)! It is that time of year again. I love helping you guys find good books! Please let me know if there's someone you're shopping for, or someone you're selecting library books for, and I'll post a recommendation. 

Comment if you want a book recommendation! (person's age, a little info about the person.) 

This post will be updated all during the holiday season. 🎄 Past years: 2014201520162018, 2019.

Also this year I've asked a few friends with great taste to recommend some of their favorite books. When that post is live, I will link it here.  

Speed Reviews of 5 New Nonfiction Picture Books

Today's reviews of non-fiction books are a little of this and a little of that, but all worth their salt. And they all need to go back to the library today, so it's a speedy review for each!

Rescuing the Declaration of Independence: How we Almost Lost the Words that Built America by Anna Crowley Redding illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

Loved the illustrations in this one. It was definitely a cool story that I had never heard before. Stephen Pleasonton was James Monroe's clerk when he got an urgent message that the British were coming to attack Washington. Despite the possibility of it being a fake-out, and even though it took a ridiculous amount of work, he moved the records from his office in the State Department and kept them safe during the attack. The problem I had with this book was that Peasonton was given all the glory, even though it was a huge group effort. Still, a very cool story, well written and illustrated.

The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

This gorgeous, meticulously illustrated book tells the story of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, an ambulance driver who stayed behind in war-torn Syria when his family and friends fled the country. With so many people gone, all the cats of the city begin struggling. Alaa finds a great sense of purpose in caring for the cats, finding a place for them, and eventually building a far-reaching service oriented community. This is an inspiring book, and my cat-loving son liked it, too. 

Who Will It Be?: How Evolution Connects Us All by Paola Vitale and Rossana Bossù

I found this one a little bit abstract. It wasn't until I read the backmatter and then re-read the book that I felt I understood what author & illustrator were going for. The book takes us through how we all have a common form early in our gestation -- fishes, lizards, foxes, ducks, humans, we all have very similar form in the earliest stages of life. I felt like I learned from this book, but it bothered me that the abstract art was also mixed with real but unfamiliar science art. I wondered which parts of the art were true and which weren't. The book is certainly informative and beautiful to look at. 

Nature Did It First: Engineering Through Biomimicry by Karen Ansberry illustrated by Jennifer DiRubbio

Since biomimicry was an area of focus in my first-grade daughter's classwork, I was interested to read this book. It introduces 7 concepts from nature that people have imitated to their advantage. Each has a page with a poem on it, and a page with facts and information. The poems were alright. The informational pages were cool. Each info page had 4 paragraphs and the last one was devoted to how humans have engineered this nature concept. I think I would have liked more on that, and less poetry, but it's still a great book to use if you're studying biomimicry. The watercolor illustrations were detailed and pretty awesome. 

You're Invited to a Moth Ball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration by Loree Griffin Burns photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz

The step-by-step instructions in this book make it seem both possible and fun to host a party in which the main attraction is moths. The photos are great, and show set-up as well as many amazing moths. The conversational tone of the book  makes it easy to read in one sitting and the big headings would make it easy to flip back through the book as you were setting up your own Moth Ball. Recommended for the curious and scientific ages 8 and up, I'd say!

Serious, Short, Uplifting: Two New Books

My non-fiction reading for the Cybils awards continues! Sadly I'm not as quick at writing reviews as I am about reading books. Nevertheless, I have two more great books to recommend today. 

The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love and Truth edited by Wade Hudson & Cheryl Willis Hudson

The title of this book scared me a little. But the book is fantastic! A variety of authors and illustrators come together to present what they would say to their kids about race; something short to "give them tools to make their way." 

A few weeks after my reading I'm still returning in memory to these short, powerful  stories. I think of the story by Adam Gidwitz, who wrote about talking with his daughter on the balcony about her inheritance of racism. I can relate. I think of the short letter by Grace Lin who urged her daughter to remember that she is a person, even when people call her a China doll. I think of the story by Wade Hudson, who tells about his childhood and his dream of getting a bike for Christmas, and how he grew up a little that day. I read that one aloud to my son. 

There are 17 stories in all, and I'm sure you'll find them as eye-opening, moving, and memorable as I did. 

On the Horizon: World War II Reflections by Lois Lowry

Wow. This book. So moving. I judged this book by its cover and wasn't wild to read it, but I'm SO glad I did. It's now one of my all-time favorite books of poetry. 

This is a short book of poetry by author Lois Lowry, who is best known for writing The Giver. I kind of think she has become The Giver, in this book. She shares her memories of living in Hawaii and Japan, and also her distillations of the memories of many others, particularly those associated with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Hiroshima. 

This book feels both like a meaningful tribute to veterans and a petition for future peace. There were several poems that I insisted on reading aloud to my family, but the emotional impact of the book is unquestionably greater if you read it from cover to cover (and don't skip the afterword!), rather than picking and choosing poems.  

I feel sure that this is a book for adults. Sure, I'd let my child read it, but I think it is published/marketed for children because it is short (75 pages), has no objectionable content, and is written by a famous children's author. It deserves to go viral and I want to send a copy to every elected official in the United States. 

Please pick this one up. Highly recommended.

Teens and Adults, These Two are for You!

Most of what I've read and reviewed so far for Cybils nonfiction this year has been picture books. But now I'll share with you a couple of great books that weigh in at 200-300 pages. 

Fly Like a Girl: One Woman's Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front by Mary Jennings Hegar

This is the young readers edition of Mary Jenning Hegar's autobiography, Shoot Like a Girl. In Fly Like a Girl, MJ shares her journey to becoming a Combat Search and Rescue Pilot, her experiences (good and bad), and some of her life after service. 

I found this book chock full of amazing stories. The writing is accessible and visceral -- I felt I was there with MJ. The way Hegar balances the description of events with her own feelings about them is really well done. I can't really see myself putting this into the hands of someone younger than high school age, because of the book's content. Gender discrimination is a big theme, of course, and Hegar touches on some of the assault she faced. I felt this was done well. That is to say, her experiences stayed on my mind for a while, but didn't give me nightmares. Hegar also did 3 tours in Afghanistan, and talks about her experiences with war. It was fascinating to hear not only about the exciting missions, but also about the typical day. Swearing is starred out in Fly Like a Girl -- but just the middle two letters of your average four letter word. So, this book is not going to teach any kids how to spell swears, but those who know them already will surely experience swearing as part of the reading. I really liked this book, and I won't soon forget it. 

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi & Jason Reynolds

Stamped is also an adapted book, the cover proclaims it "A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped From the Beginning."  I liked that this one was not called a "young readers edition" because I feel it would be great for adults, too. I'd like to get a copy of Stamped From the Beginning and compare the two books. 

Anyway, Stamped was so educational for me. I really appreciated how it quickly dove in and defined racism and antiracism. I have heard plenty about personal racism vs. institutional racism recently, but I haven't heard nearly as much about segregationist vs. assimilationist racism. (I did learn some about segregation, assimilation, and integration in college, for my TESOL minor.) After defining the terms, the book covers history and explains how racism began and continues. It is a fascinating book. 

I was annoyed a little bit by the tone and word choice of the book, sometimes. For instance, I wasn't wild about how the book started off saying "this is not a history book" but then backtracked and, what do you know, it is a history book. I think the tone is meant to be hip and accessible. It probably is. On the whole I found the book very good. I'm guessing, though, that Jason Reynolds was writing with black teens in mind, not white women. It wasn't usually a problem for me, but it did bother me when I felt like it was trying to make me feel a certain way, instead of presenting me with truths and letting me feel.

Stamped does a really good job of showing how complex and multifaceted Black Americans are. They're not a monolith. I'm convinced now that while a lot of Black people esteem famous Black Americans like Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and W. E. B Du Bois, some have mixed feelings about them and what they did. Just because I know one Black person and know how they feel about something doesn't mean I know how Black people feel about it. I hope I knew that already, but now I know it even more. 

I recommend this book. I feel like I have eyes that can see racism just a little bit better than before. I've noticed it and called it out in a few places that I wouldn't have, otherwise. And I'm curious to get my hands on Stamped From the Beginning to see if I find it even more educational.


Books for a 3 year old boy

 My friend Jen asked me to recommend some books for a 3 year old boy. Easy! I have a 3 year old boy at home right now. 

Sam loves reading, and we read to him every night as part of his bedtime routine. The books that he has "on repeat" right now are the Stanley books by Williambee. We own Stanley's Garage and Stanley the Builder. Sam has told us that he wants to read "dat one!" pointing to Stanley's Diner on the back cover of the other books. 

Sam also loves books by Leslie Patricelli. My personal favorite of these is Yummy Yucky, which I reviewed here. But I also really like Quiet Loud, Tubby, Higher Higher!, and Big Kid Bed

Because Sam has good reading stamina, we've been reading The Princess in Black series together lately. They're early chapter books with lots of illustrations and action. Would I read them with every 3 year old? No. But Sam's a big fan. 

If your three-year old is less likely to sit still, I recommend a lift-the flap book, or a book that's interactive in some way. Sam's recent favorite of these is Stir Crack Whisk Bake: A Little Book About Little Cakes. Sam has checked this one out of the library multiple times, and was very sad when we turned it in last week.


We also have a large and well-loved collection of books by Karen Katz. I recommend Vroom, Vroom, Trucks! for its inclusion of both animals AND construction trucks. We like the "big reveal" at the end and flipping back in the book to find each animal and truck that's in the final spread. 

Speaking of trucks, we are both fans of The Little Blue Truck, a rhyming book (really well done poem!) about a truck, animals, and friendship. We've checked out the Springtime sequels and the Christmas sequel from the library and the lights on the Christmas one are impressive. But, I still like the first one the best. 

Enjoy reading with that 3 year old, Jen!

p.s. What do you guys think of the amazon widget links I did this time? I think the yellow is a little overwhelming, but I like that the price shows up (and will update automatically). Tell me your feelings. 

2 Commendable New Biographies in Poetry

 In my reading for the 2020 Cybils Awards for Non-fiction, I've read a lot of biographies so far. These two stand out for being written well written in poetry.

Yusra Swims

I think this may be one of the most moving picture book bios I've read this year. It tells the story of Yusra Mardini who was training to swim in the Olympics when war forced her to flee her country. The spare text with a driving, repetitive rhythm does a great job of moving the story forward quickly. The predictable rhyme scheme is a great foil to the unpredictability of the story. You could read the book in a minute or two!

But the pictures and the word choice keep you on each page longer, engaging your brain to think about what this story means. And they've brought me back, several times. This is a book I can see working well for many, many ages. It could seamlessly fit in a high school classroom. With discussion, it could work for the very young. A short page of backmatter, "About Yusra Mardini" adds some interesting details to the story. This isn't a book I'll soon forget. 

The Superlative A. Lincoln

This book was a lot of fun. Eighteen poems describe the life and work of Abraham Lincoln, each accompanied by an illustration and some explanation. Each poem has a superlative title: Best Lumberjack, Greatest Speech, Most Likely to Tinker, etc. I found myself discussing this book with my family at the dinner table and impressing all with my little-known facts about President Lincoln. The poetry is colloquial, even conversational, and very accessible. I could see third and fourth graders enjoying this book on their own. 

7 New Picture Book Biographies

Here's another bunch of new nonfiction books I've been reading for the Cybils Award this year!  

Fred's Big Feelings: The Life and Legacy of Mister Rogers by Laura Renauld

This book would be a good fit for an elementary school audience that is familiar with Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The book talks about Fred Rogers life growing up, his journey into and work with television, and his legacy. Throughout the book, words that name feelings and emotions are italicized.  As far as backmatter goes, just an author's note comes along with this one, no photos of Fred Rogers or timeline of his life. It's a book about feelings that also happens to be about Mr. Rogers, rather than the other way around. The art and color in the book do a good job of complimenting the text and evoking mood. 

Having watched the recent Mr Rogers documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor, I didn't learn anything particularly new about his life from this book. Still, if I were teaching about feelings and emotions, this would be one to reach for. 

Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes

This picture book biography of Senator Harris has a side story: A narrative about a first-grade girl, Eve, who is annoyed with a classmate who said "girls can't be president." She tells her mom about the situation and her mom tells her about how Kamala Harris hopes to be president someday. As the biography tells about Kamala Harris's upbringing and how she got into politics, Eve and her momma speak in italics at the bottom of some pages. The book preaches hard work and perseverance and ends the biography portion with "Kamala Harris is still writing her American story." A little bit of humor from Eve and her mom close it out. A timeline and sources can be found in the backmatter, and the timeline adds salient details that didn't fit in the text. 

I have read Grace for President innumerable times to my daughter, and this book reminded me of that one. They make a nice pair. If you're looking for insight into the background and motivations of Kamala Harris, this seems like a good place to start. 

Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist by Linda Skeers

Having never heard of her before, I found it fascinating to learn about Mary Anning and her discoveries near her home. We learn about Mary from her childhood to her adulthood, and the book touches on the discrimination she experienced because she was a woman in the early 1800s. The amount and quality of fossils that she discovered, and the depth of her curiosity and knowledge were impressive.  The book was written well for an elementary audience and the backmatter added to the understanding for older readers. Great timeline, too. This was one I caught my kids reading on their own.

Lizzie Demands a Seat!: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights by Beth Anderson

The book details an incident of racism when Elizabeth Jennings was refused a seat on a streetcar in New York City in 1854. It then takes us through the aftermath of that incident in her community, to the court where her case was heard, and to her community and the country after the verdict.  

This book was interesting. I know of Rosa Parks, and I was blown away by Claudette Colvin a few years back, but Elizabeth Jennings' name was new to me. Her story is compelling and the book adds to the overall story of civil rights. I didn't much care for the illustrations, done in watercolor, but I loved the author's note (which included some photographs and lots of extra facts). 

Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson by Jen Bryant

I didn't know who August Wilson was, and this book took a little while to get around to telling us what August Wilson did, so that was an interesting experience. The washing machine story at the beginning of the book is an excellent example of the kinds of discrimination that make life difficult for People of Color. Over all, the book was very interesting, and the way August Wilson educated himself in libraries is inspiring.

HIghly organized and complete with extensive backmatter (author's note, detailed timeline, notes from each page, bibliography and more) this book leaves you with no doubt that the author knew her stuff. Great for upper elementary ages and older. 


Saving the Countryside: The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit by Linda Elovitz Marshall

This was the one my librarian knew. "I love the illustrations!" she said. It was an awe-inspiring story, explaining how Beatrix Potter overcame societal expectations to write and publish, and was a champion of conservation. Potter is presented in a wholly positive light here, and her struggles as a woman in earlier times are detailed, too. I wasn't not aware of the massive impact she had on conservation in English countryside, so I learned something. I'd recommend this to those who love Peter Rabbit and for general young audiences.

Ruth Objects: The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Doreen Rappaport

Another Feminist addition to this collection! This one was fascinating especially considering a) it's the first bio of RBG I've read b) she so recently passed away and c) she consulted on the book. It touched a lot on the work she did to help people of both genders by ensuring that they were treated equally by the law. 
This one was very well illustrated, and I liked the design element of having quotes by Ginsburg in a larger, bolder font. Reading so many of her own words helped me feel like I knew her better. It had extensive backmatter, in case the main text piques your interest. I'd recommend this for upper elementary ages and older. 

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