Friday, February 19, 2016

Nonfiction 10 for 10 - Recommendations from a Teenage Boy

How could I possibly pick the 10 nonfiction books I can't live without? Frankly, it's an impossible task for me. I use children's literature in every class I teach. I loan them to students, take them on school visits, and read them to my kid (who is now 15).

I also create a LOT of thematic book lists for teachers, so as I look at my shelves I find them lined with favorites. Since I couldn't settle on a topic or find it in my heart to stop at 10, I asked my son to pick some of his favorite books to share. Here are the books he remembers fondly and thinks other nonfiction loving boys will enjoy. I'll add that I believe boys and girls, avid and reluctant readers—ALL kids will find these interesting reads. So without further ado, William's list. Whatever you do, don't let the first title scare you away, as this is a pretty amazing list of titles.

Jurassic Poop: What Dinosaurs (And Others) Left Behind, written by Jacob Berkowitz and illustrated by Steve Mack is a book about ancient poop. This is a boy's dream--dinosaurs and poop in one book! I'm not a fan of potty books or humor, but must admit that this book is a real gem. Chapter 1, A Message From A Bottom, begins with illustrations of a T-Rex leaving a turd "larger than two loaves of bread" and shows how that "king-sized poop" becomes a coprolite. Coprolite is the "polite word for fossil feces." Readers learn that coprolites can be frozen, dried or lithified. They also learn about doo-doo detectives (scientists who study coprolites) and much more. There is humor in this book, a huge number of synonyms for poop, and a TON of science.

Can We Save the Tiger?, written by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Vicky White, is an oversize volume with gorgeously detailed pencil sketches and a text that neither talks down to readers nor glosses over the difficult problems we humans have created. While Jenkins begins by discussing animals that are now extinct and why that is so, he goes on to discuss endangered species and once-threatened animals whose numbers are now on the rise. Discussing endangered species is a complex issue, impacting not only the animals themselves, but the humans that live in close proximity to them. Saving animals, while noble, is not always a black and white issue. Jenkins tackles this head on in a conversational and understandable way. 

Animals profiled include dodo, stellar sea cow, marsupial wolf, great auk, broad-faced potoroo, tiger, Asian elephant, sloth bear, African hunting dog, partula snail, quokka, mariana fruit dove, ground iguana, white-rumped vulture, sawfish, European crayfish, golden arrow poison frog, American bison, white rhinocerous, Antarctic fur seal, vicuna, kakapo, Rodrigues flying fox, whooping crane, Bermuda petrel, and polar bear. On the final page readers will find an illustration of Sander's slipper orchid, a plant that is protected because it is endangered. Back matter includes suggestions for further Web research and an index. 

Vulture View, written by April Pulley Sayre and illustrated by Steve Jenkins - Scavengers and decomposers play a very important role in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. In helping to break down dead organisms, they are responsible for returning basic nutrients to the soil so that they may reenter the chain. In this book, we get a glimpse of the scavenging role that vultures play. I know that right now some of you are saying, "Gross! Why would I want to learn about these disgusting birds?" Here's my response. First, vultures are incredibly clean birds, bathing and preening regularly. Second, and more importantly, vultures are a vital part of our natural environment, cleaning up dead carcasses and decreasing the spread of some diseases. Third, they're just plain interesting.

In rhythmic, precise text, Sayre teaches us much about the amazing turkey vulture. Here's an excerpt on how they find their food. Readers learn that vultures soar on thermals, taking to the air as it warms, returning to roost in the trees as air cools. The book ends with a section entitled Get To Know Vultures, with the Subsections: (1) Soaring Up, Up, Up!; (2) The Vulture Family; (3) Nature's Cleanup Crew; (4) Family Life and Range; and (5) Heads Up, Young Scientists. It is packed with information and even includes a link to the Turkey Vulture Society's web site, as well as information on festivals that celebrate vultures/buzzards.

Down, Down, Down: A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea, written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins, treats readers to the wonder of the world's oceans. Jenkins' tour of the oceans begins at the surface and ends in the Marianas Trench. Each double page spread contains a paragraph (or two) of information about that particular depth, illustration of the inhabitants, and a depth meter. The depth meter appears on the right edge of each spread and extends from the top of the page (the surface) to the bottom (deepest spot in the ocean). The depth is marked with what looks like a red push-pin and is labeled with the distance below sea level (in both feet and meters) and the temperature (in both Fahrenheit and Celsius).

How much do we really know about the earth's oceans and the creatures that live there? The answer is, not much. In clear, concise text, Jenkins takes us on an unbelievable, fact-filled journey. The illustrations of the creatures, from the beautiful and familiar to strange and exotic (weird!), are gloriously rendered. (See images herehere and at this terrific review at Seven Imp.) At the end of the book are five full pages of background information on the animals in the book. Each section includes a diagram that shows the size of each creature compare to an adult human's body or hand. The final page includes a brief bibliography and another depth meter that shows how deep humans and sea vessels can descend.

Volcano Rising, written by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated by Susan Swan, looks at volcanoes as constructive forces of nature, building up the surface of the Earth. Beautifully illustrated in mixed media with lots of examples and labels, this book uses two levels of text to engage readers. The first level of text provides readers with basic volcano information. This is accompanied by detailed informational text that provides more comprehensive information on volcanoes. Both levels of text are well-written and make the concepts accessible for readers across a range of ages. Together the text and illustrations offer a dramatic introduction to volcanic activity.

Rusch introduces readers to 8 different volcanoes around the world and explores their impact when found in what some might consider unusual places, like under a glacier or on the seafloor. Back matter includes a glossary of 30 volcano vocabulary words and an extensive bibliography.

Bubble Homes and Fish Farts, written by Fiona Bayrock and illustrated by Carolyn Conahan, is an all-out fun-fest of animal bubbleology. Ho do animals use bubbles? After reading this title, a better question is how don't they?! Before reading this try to guess what animals and/or bubble strategies might be highlighted. Whales and bubble netting? Check. Tree frog nests? Check. And ... that's where the knowledge of most readers ends. Who knew there were so many ways to use bubbles? All total, Bayrock has introduced readers 16 different animals that sail through the water, run on its surface, and even taste disgusting, all thanks to bubbles.

Accompanied by a soft palette of gorgeous watercolor illustrations, Bayrock takes readers on a journey into worlds not often explored. Each double-page spread begins with a short sentence that describes the way in which bubbles are used. Beneath that are the common and scientific names for an animal, followed by a paragraph that describes how that particular creature uses bubbles in its daily life. The illustrations are whimsical, with each animal spouting its thoughts in, you guessed it, a bubble.

The back matter in the book contains end notes about each animal, including its habitat, where in the world it lives, and even more amazing facts. There is also a glossary of terms and an index, as well as a lengthy list of acknowledgments, a huge number of them scientists and scholars who aided the author in her research. This is a well-researched, thoroughly engaging book for studying animals and the way they adapt to their environment. 

What's for Dinner?: Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World, written by Katherine B. Hauth and illustrated by David Clark, is a collection of poems about food chain topics. The introductory poem, "What's for Dinner," explains why animals must find food. What follows this introductory piece are humorous, graphic, scientific, inventive and just downright fun poems. Accompanied by equally graphic and humorous illustrations, the perfect pairing of word and art gives us a book that readers will love. In the poem entitled "Waste Management," a rather haughty-looking vulture pulls at a strand of the innards of a carcass while standing on the exposed ribs. While most of the poems are about animals, the last entry, "Eating Words," uses poetry and word roots to define insectivore, carnivore, herbivore, and omnivore.

The back matter includes a section entitled More Words About the Poems, which explains a bit more of the science and further explains vocabulary terms such as symbiosis, parasitism, mutualism, commensalism, and more. More Words About  the Animals provides background information for each of the poems. The final page of the book provides some additional titles for learning more about the animals in the book.

Hottest, Coldest, Highest, Deepest, written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins, is a book that examines extremes in the natural world, such as the highest mountain (based on elevation), longest river, location with the most extreme tides, the driest spot on earth, and more. Jenkins grabs the attention of readers from the first page and makes them want to know about all these places. On every double-page spread that follows is a statement of fact, an inset map showing location, a bit of informational text, and some other graphic to help readers visualize and better understand the information. There is no back matter in this volume, but the final page does include a world map that pinpoints the 12 locations described. 

Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World, written and illustrated by Lita Judge, not only answers this question, but explores how dinosaurs hatched from eggs grew and survived to become some of the largest creatures that ever walked the earth. Judge uses evidence discovered by paleontologists and to hypothesize how dinosaurs may have behaved. Judge doesn't shy away from difficult vocabulary in the text, using words like altricial and precocial. However, readers are supported in understanding these words through simple, explanatory sentences, as well as the inclusion of a glossary. Eight species of dinosaur are explored in the book. Early on readers are introduced to Argentinosaurus, a dinosaur that likely weighed as much as 17 elephants. Imagine for a moment just how large this dinosaur must have been. Now juxtapose this with the knowledge that the largest dinosaur eggs ever found were only 18 inches long. As Judge tells readers, "These mothers probably couldn't protect their tiny babies without trampling them underfoot." Dinosaurs may have been giants, but surviving to adulthood was no easy task. The text leaves readers much to ponder while also providing a wealth of factual information. There are some brief notes in the back matter about each of the dinosaur species, including pronunciation (always important with dinosaur names), approximate size, location of fossils, and period of appearance.

Nic Bishop Frogs, written and photographed by Nic Bishop, provides readers with a thorough introduction to members of the order Anura. Found on every continent, frogs and toads (which are just a type of frog) come in every imaginable size and color. Bishop does an outstanding job presenting this variety in the photographs and text. The text in this book is inherently understandable. Each page has a main idea written in large font, a paragraph of information, and a short section in small font with an additional fact or two. Every page is filled with scientific information, amazing and sometimes quirky facts, and gorgeous photos. One the page accompanying a photo of a glass frog (one in which you can see through its skin to its internal organs), readers learn that frogs have 159 bones, nearly 50 less than the number found in the human body. Bishop explains that frogs do not have rib bones, and that this explains why frogs are so good at squeezing through "small gaps, like between your fingers when you are trying to hold them."

It is clear that Bishop has his readers carefully in mind. Scientifically, he doesn't talk down to them, but rather helps to make the mystery that is life and science more understandable. The conversational tone hooks readers and keeps them interested. What kid hasn't wanted to hold a frog in his/her hand, only to have it wriggle away? The text as a whole is thoughtfully laid out and proceeds in an orderly and reasonable fashion through a variety of topics, from where frogs live, to what they look like, how their bodies are constructed and adapted, their eating habits, means of escaping predators (camouflage and those incredible legs and jumping skills), the sounds they make, reproduction, and much more.

In the back matter, Bishop devotes two pages to describing his love for his work, the process of photographing frogs, and the interesting experiences he had along the way. Kids will love learning about how he captured the images on film almost as much they will love learning about the frogs.

So, there you have it. These works of nonfiction are sure to spark curiosity and delight many young readers. And by the way, the teenage boy had difficulty stopping at 10 too! Settling on one Nic Bishop book was struggle, as was deciding which Jenkins' books to leave off the list, or which dinosaur book to choose. All in all, he did a fine job. I hope you love these as much as he does. I know I do.


  1. I appreciate Will's lists SO MUCH, and your blogging commitment to nonfic. I have The Wees, my nephews (They're the "Wees" to differentiate them from the Littles, my youngest sibs - twenty and twenty-three now. Erg) to shop for now, and they are six and eight, almost seven and nine (How. Did. That. Happen.) and - bonus! - real readers, in a family of mostly non-readers. My eldest sister and I ply them with books as often as possible, and I want to feed their curiosity.

    Nic Bishop is our GUY, btw. He's awesome.

    Also, how is your son fifteen? He was eleven just the other day and had lost his first pet...

    1. I wish I knew! He's just over 6 feet tall, has recently had his braces removed, and his voice is so deep I don't recognize him on the phone. And he'll be driving in 6 months! I can't fathom it.

  2. I found some new to me, Tricia, like Jurassic Poop (I shared a poop book, too) and Vulture View, so thanks very much for Will's list. I love the Lita Judge dinosaur book, think it's awesome.

  3. I love that your list was selected by your son. High praise indeed! And most of these are new to me. Off to request a few!

  4. I like this guy's taste! some of these are my favourites too like Can We Save the Tiger and Volcano Rising.

  5. I'd add my book of poems (with Jason Stemple's photos: BUG OFF, with amazing photos of bugs, beetles, arachids up close and personal.

  6. The title for Bubble Homes and Fish Farts is making me smile. I'll look for it. Thanks.
    Apples with Many Seeds

  7. Fish Farts and Jurassic Poop are two phrases I burst out laughing at. I love that your son pulled this collection, he obviously likes Steve Jenkins. I'm going to have to ponder getting some of his recommendations for my boys and girls. Thanks for joining us.

    1. Mandy, we adore Steve Jenkins. As much as I love the books William chose, I would have selected entirely different Jenkins' titles. I don't think there's a bad one in the bunch.