Two Recommended Native American Non-fiction Picture Books

Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Natasha Donovan.

This is a picture book biography of Mary Golda Ross, who grew up with a strong connection to her Cherokee tribe. As a woman in the 1920's who lived until 2008, her love of math and eventually engineering was uncommon, and she helped blaze a trail for other women and Native Americans. 

From the first page, Classified focuses in on four Cherokee values: gaining skills in all areas of life, working cooperatively with others, remaining humble when others recognize your talents, and helping ensure equal education and opportunity for all. I love how the material in the back of the book shows the syllabary, transliteration, pronunciation and English translation of each of these values. In my review here I thought of summarizing the four values, using one word each, but that doesn't really capture what the actual, translated values are. It feels more true to share the direct translation. 

Classified by Traci Sorell
Sprinkled with interesting truths about Mary Golda Ross, this biography tells us some of the work that Mary accomplished -- but much of it is still "classified." This made it a little bit difficult for me to remember the book, when I read it among a stack of contenders, and after it had been a little while between readings. What was it she did, again? There is no "one thing" that the book gives her complete credit for. However, this is the big truth -- our accomplishments are cooperative, and Mary Golda Ross apparently understood that well. Upon re-reading the book, I realized it's not the sort of picture book biography that is meant to tell you about one person so much as it is meant to teach you, through one woman's example, these four Cherokee values that she lived by. 

On my first read? Meh. On my reread? I like it a lot!

The illustrations are well done, and add to the understanding you get from the text. Simple, but not oversimplified, colorful yet still realistic, the art isn't showy, but it is solidly helpful. The backmatter of the book includes a timeline, source notes, bibliography, author's note, and the aforementioned four Cherokee values. 

This book was shortlisted for the Cybils Award in the Middle Grade Nonfiction (ages 8-12) category, and I think ages 8 and up is about right for it.  I would recommend it to kids parents and teachers who are interested in learning about other cultures and the core values that drive us! Bonus, you will also learn about women in STEM.

We Are Still Here: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lessac

Another Cybils nominee in the elementary nonfiction category, We Are Still Here reminds me of a young adult graphic novel I read for the Cybils called This Place: 150 Years Retold. This Place won the Cybils award (for Young Adult Graphic Novel) back in 2019. It was so good. I can't believe I didn't review it here! But I helped to write the review of it posted here. Anyway, We Are Still Here gives readers a lot to unpack, and I was grateful for the context that I had from previously reading This Place

The premise of the picture book, We Are Still Here, is that each page is the project that a student has created to teach classmates about some aspect of indigenous people's history that still affects life today. There are twelve topics covered and they range from assimilation and allotment to language revival and sovereign resurgence. The text of We Are Still Here has very high vocabulary and a lot of information on each page, but the repeating refrain "we are still here," ties each page to the next. 

Hand-painted art sets the scene for each "presentation" and features a lot people -- presidents of the United States, children at school, and people on the street just to name a few. 

Backmatter is robust in this book, and includes more information on each of the twelve topics, a timeline from the 1870s to the 2007, a glossary, sources, an authors note. While I feel like this book packs a lot of information in, it also gives readers resources for further learning so that they can delve deeper into each of these topics. 

I really appreciate that repeating refrain which titles the book: We are still here! The more I have learned and the older I've become, the more I realize the truth of this and the obstacles that indigenous people have faced. I still have a lot to learn. When we moved to Connecticut, I enjoyed learning that "The Last of the Mohicans" -- a movie/book I've never watched/read -- was wrong. The Mohegan tribe is still here! 

I recommend this book for older elementary school kids and as a great resource to older students and adults. I have to agree with the books subtitle, it contains history that everyone should know. 

Four Fabulous New Non-fiction Picture Books

Ok friends, get your library cards ready, because today I'm telling you about more of the awesome finalists for the Cybils award that I got to read this year! They're so good!

Mimic Makers: Biomimicry Inventors Inspired by Nature by Kristen Nordstrom illustrated by Paul Boston

Mimic Makers was a big hit at my house. I think all four of my kids (ages 13, 11, 8, and 4) read all or part of it. 

I know that biomimicry is a topic discussed in first/second grade classrooms because I helped my daughter with a project about biomimicry when her school was online during the pandemic. So, when I opened this book, I hoped for some fresh examples. The shinkansen is a well-known example and I was starting to roll my eyes, but then every other example in the book was something I had NOT heard about and found absolutely fascinating.

The information is presented with a clear structure, with human interest elements, and is just so fascinating that I found myself bringing the inventions up in everyday conversations I was having. I love the way inventors from around the globe were interviewed! And, you can tell from the stories shared in the book (as well as her backmatter) that the author interviewed the inventors personally.

Meticulously researched! Fabulously written! Broad appeal! When I finished reading this book I immediately wanted to gift a copy to my daughter's teacher. (And don't tell all the other books, but I pitched this one as my personal favorite to our panel of judges.) 

I really enjoyed reading this book! Of the books on the Cybils Elementary Nonfiction shortlist this year, this was the book I was most excited to read to my family. It is a beautiful story and it did make my voice catch when I read it aloud. 

The Elephants Come Home has broad appeal. My 4 year old was very interested in it. When faced with all the nominees, a 9 year old friend of the family picked it as the most appealing cover. My kids and Jacob all read it or listened to me read it. I myself loved it. The first page gets a reaction! It seems like a love-it-or-hate-it beginning and it does hook you in. Then, the writing is crystal clear. You’re guided seamlessly through the story, which is a beautiful human and animal connection story! There’s no doubt in my mind it has both kid appeal and literary merit. 

The one thing that gives me pause is the book's treatment of race. The only time race is overtly mentioned in the book, it doesn’t put Zulu people in a positive light. Race is depicted in the illustrations, but the people of color in the book are not named. When I read it aloud to kids now, I plan to point out some of the illustrations and wonder aloud what the names of the people of color are. I think they were purposely left off to keep the story simple and the writing very crisp. The writing is crisp, but it does anonymize people of color. Despite this, I still highly recommend The Elephants Come Home.  

This book was the first of the Cybils finalists that Jubilee (age 8) read this year, and she quickly asked me if I had read it yet. "It's really good," she said. 

Code Breaker, Spy Hunter tells the story of Elizebeth Friedman, who broke SO many coded messages  and invented and taught code breaking in WWI, WWII and beyond. Her work has only recently come to light because it was kept classified for years. 

Jubilee and I both liked the page that tells about Elizebeth testifying in court and proving the opposing counsel wrong when they said she was making up the answers to the decryptions she had solved. Victory! Jubilee also liked the story of her sousing out the solution to a code that involved code words and suspicious letters about dolls. I liked the tidbits about Elizebeth's personal life and dreams - the mysterious party hosted by the Friedmans in which invitations were sent in code, and the priority that Elizebeth put on her family and home life. 

The illustrations are done in colored pencil (or colored pencil style...it's so hard to tell these days with digital art making huge strides!). The images obviously contain hidden codes that it would be super fun to try and decipher. Sadly our copy was overdue at the library all too soon! We did crack the one cypher in the back of the book that is meant to be cracked, but I have a feeling that there are many more hidden messages in the illustrations.

My book club read The Woman Who Smashed Codes, a biography of Elizebeth Friedman, last year. I didn't finish it in time for our club meeting but found it interesting and recognized a lot of the details of Friedman's life from that book. However, The Woman Who Smashed Codes has over 400 pages in which to tell her story. I think it spoiled me a little bit, because I felt like the picture book left too much out. But, that's just a personal problem. 

Multi-layered digital art made this gorgeous book stand out among the forest of options, and it was a close contender for the winning spot. 

The Leaf Detective tells the story of Meg Lowman, "Canopy Meg," as she is sometimes called. She revolutionized the way that trees are studied, invented canopy walkways, and educated countless people about trees and how and why to protect them. 

One thing I loved about this book was that aside from the main text, on a leaf on each page, new insights and facts added to the narrative. For instance, before Lowman revolutionized the field, did you know that most scientists studied tall rainforest trees by chopping them down to see what the top looked like? Or sometimes they gassed the trees so that all their leaves would fall and they could study the leaves that way. I mean, that's mind blowing! Meg sewed herself a harness and hoisted herself up into the trees to study them without killing them. You go, girl!   And her work as an inventor and educator is no less inspiring, but I'll stop ranting and let you read the book.

If I read a picture book biography, I want it to impress me with facts and research as well as story and have the answer to that all-important question that I ask myself as I pretend to be a grade school boy who could be playing video games right now, "Why should I care?" Check, check, check. The Leaf Detective was a great read. 


Guest Review: Humble Pi

Well hello there! Today I have a guest review for you. This review comes from Spencer, who is 14 years old. I was able to obtain Spencer's review for you because his mom, Ashley, and I are good friends. Some of you may remember that Ashley used to post on Everead regularly. Take it away, Spencer!

I have a book recommendation. It's called Humble Pi. It is my absolute favorite book by a long shot. It's about math gone wrong in the real world. It showcases many mathematical problems that have occurred over the years, covering things like coding issues, 8-bit rollover errors, bridges falling, fence-post problems (Who knew the piano was a fence-post problem?), a single book's price accidentally rocketing up to $20,000,000, and a rocket activating its self-destruct system and blowing up. Matt Parker’s writing makes these math issues accessible and hilarious. You don’t have to be a math whiz to enjoy it. It's an amazing book and cannot be ignored.  So whenever you get the chance to get it, you should read it. It's amazing. 

-Spencer Bair

Thanks, Spencer! This looks like the sort of book my family would love! For anyone else looking for a copy, I'll embed a preview and link to it below. And if you're looking for more books I recommend for teens, click here and you'll see all the posts I've made about YA fiction. This next link will take you to a post I made for some of the 13 year old readers in my life.  

Humble Pi: When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World by Matt Parker 

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