Read this Incredible Book! All Thirteen by Christina Soontornvat

Let me tell you about a book that left Jacob, Benjamin and I totally blown away.

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat


Many adults remember the 2018 news story about a team of boys stranded in a cave. People all over the world watched as, miraculously, all 13 made it out alive. This book tells that man-vs-nature narrative in such a compelling way that even though you know how it ends (it's right in the title!) you're still on the edge of your seat with suspense. 

"I loved it. It was great. There were a bunch of boys trapped in a cave. It was really hard to get them out, even though they tried a bunch of different techniques. 

"It was informational, with pictures and facts on the side, but still a clear, concise story. Honestly I want to reread it; it was really good." - Benjamin, 7th grade 

I think one thing that makes this book so amazing is the author's background. She lives in Texas, but she was visiting relatives in Thailand during the time the rescue took place. She knew immediately she wanted to write a book about the rescue. Her understanding of American culture, Thai culture, mechanical engineering, and education all come into play. And her research talking to American students (Q: what they would like to know from a book like this?), combines with her research in Thailand and meeting with those who took part (Q: What do they think the media neglected to cover properly?). The primary resources she gathers and her meticulous citation of them is just mind blowing, and makes the whole book so much better. 

Soontornvat takes the time to set the stage in every aspect, guiding readers along so that they know why things happened the way they did and what was at stake. I was occasionally tempted to skip an informative section (these were always marked by a green background) because I was biting my nails over this story -- were these sections in here just to pad out the book? No. I'm glad I paused to read each one. The payoff always came. I feel like I learned about Thai culture and then understood the rescue even better because of that. All the relevant information is presented in this book, and none of the info in the book is irrelevant. Everyone who reads this book, whether they know nothing about the rescue or they followed it closely, will learn so much. 

Great photographs accompany and enhance the text on nearly every spread. We get the story of the boys before they became trapped, during  their time in the cave, and afterward -- how did they cope? We get the story of the rescue from many different perspectives on the outside, and each perspective rounds out the book. Soontornvat also writes in a way that helps readers relate to the book, calling to mind universal experiences that help us connect to the people in the story. 

This is my new standard for excellence in nonfiction. I highly recommend this book. 

5 Non-fiction Picture Books Worth Reading

I have five more reviews of non-fiction picture books for you, today!

Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohman

Honeybee has the most detailed illustrations I haven ever seen of bees. If you haven't seen a bee tongue yet, check it out! These illustrations may be even more detailed than a camera could possibly be at this point in our lives. Honeybee also has a great story to pull you along. It's a picture book through and through (no sidebars, no sub headings, no bolded vocabulary words) and the big question is "when will this bee get to fly?" The book teaches about all the jobs a worker bee has before she ever makes her first flight away from the hive, and the rest of her life, too. Honeybee was a big hit with my second grade daughter. It was a little bit text-heavy for my preschooler, but he listened in, too. We liked and learned from the labeled diagram of a bee in the book's backmatter as well. I'm happy to give this book a bit more "buzz." (Oh ho! See what I did there?)

A New Green Day by Antoinette Portis

I loved this little book! It is small in size at just 8x8 or so, but it has a big concept. Is it a book of riddles? A book of poetry? A book of nature art? It is all three.

Each page has a short nature poem on it, not quite a haiku, but close in length and imagery. This small poem is set in square of color, a clue! Turn the page, and reveal what aspect of nature spoke this poem on the previous page, and what it looks like through human eyes. 

The illustrations, "made using brush and sumi ink, leaf prints, vine charcoal and hand-stamped lettering" are simple and lovely. The book is short enough that you could read it to a group of preschoolers, but its their older siblings and parents who would love guessing the riddles.

This one is a treat, and I want to remember it.   

Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built by Angela Burke Kunkel illustrated by Paola Escobar

Digging for Words is the kind of book that librarians and bookworms will love. It tells the story of two Josés who live in Bogota. One is a boy, waiting for Saturday, the other a garbage man, out for his nightly work. With a slow pace and lots of poetic prose, the book tells the story of how and why Señor José has built an amazing library for children to visit on Saturdays. The book is also a love-letter to books, and illustrations make books that have been important to José come to life. I particularly liked the little bit more we get to learn about José after the story is over. He seems to be a normal guy, choosing to make the world a better place. 

This book highlights 14 young activists. Each two-page spread has several components: a poem, an illustration, and explanation of that person's activism, and an application that readers can try for themselves. It's an incredible versatile book. Teachers could use just one or two pages, and the book can also be enjoyed whole. There's a page in the back about all the poetry forms used in the book, from ballad to cinquain and more. The featured children come from a variety of backgrounds, and have helped make change in areas like bullying, transgender equality, finding a cure for diabetes, gun violence, and living with Downs syndrome. Some poems and pages I enjoyed more than others, but it's a nice collection. This one made the 2020 Cybils Non-fiction Shortlist for Elementary readers. 

A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan illustrated by Floyd Cooper

This one stood out to me from other civil rights picture books I read this year because it is told in the first person. Reading this book feels like sitting in on a conversation with Sharon Langley and her family. This is a book I plan to read with my family on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. The story is relatable, and shows not only problems but progress and hope when it comes to Civil Rights. I particularly liked how the authors brought in the broader context of the movement, and also told about where the stories artifacts are now. I think this book would make an excellent starting point for talking to kids about race. And I loved the backmatter, complete with photos and a timeline. 

My Favorite New Picture Book: Winged Wonders

Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery by Meeg Pincus illustrated by Yas Imamura

This is probably my favorite picture book I've read this year. I love it. For the Cybils non-fiction category I read lots of books about people who did awesome things, made great discoveries or invented irreplaceable improvements to society. Here's the thing though, I hate it when those books get tunnel vision. I hate it when they're like "This one person did a very amazing thing! Alll by themselves!" For reference, my problem with the first book in this post. Also there are probably several other books I won't bother reviewing that had the same deficiency. Well. This book is the vitamin, the antidote!

Winged Wonders is so smart. It doesn't answer the question "where do monarch butterflies go?" It asks the question posed by Homero Aridjis (and quoted in the book's backmatter), "Did the white scientists really 'discover' the wintering sites that people in Southern Mexico know about for centuries?" This book lays it all out: who did what. It represents those people of Southern Mexico. It tells the stories of many men and women and their work to solve this mystery. It gives credit for the discovery of monarch butterfly migration patterns to literally thousands of people. 

Even more than that, though, it inspires. It makes you want to help butterflies, too. It does not throw guilt trips, it inspires wonder and awe for butterflies -- the natural follow through is that after your second grader reads this book on her own, she comes up to you and says, "Hey Mom, can we plant some milkweed?"

And can we talk about the prose for a bit? So poetic! But yet also it lays out the facts. Each two-page spread in the meaty middle section of the book asks "Was it [this person] who [did this], who [did that], who did [a third thing to help]?" The strict structure builds and builds, higher and higher until a triumphant flag is placed on top of the tower: "Yes!" The text layout and design helps with this, too. Rock on. 

Ok but also we have to talk about the pictures. The texture! The layers! The movement! Truly, the sense of movement you get from the butterflies is awesome. Every page has movement, even when no butterflies are pictured. The look of wonder that is on almost every person's face is a subtle influence that connects the people to each other and brings a sense of wonder to us as we read. I don't know if the illustrations were rendered digitally or not, the copyright page didn't say. But they look like they're done in oil pastel and they're just gorgeous. 

Winged Wonders is a complete package. It's got the story, the facts, the pictures, the personal applications, the power to shift your mindset away from individual glory to community accomplishments and collaborative success. I will definitely be adding Winged Wonders to my personal collection.

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