Elementary teachers in search of an entertaining nonfiction author study need look no further than Meghan McCarthy. Not only does this author/illustrator have a knack for choosing compelling events and subjects to write about, but her accessible books, injected with humor and wit, cover a wide range of curricular areas. With her thorough research in evidence, McCarthy delivers the facts to readers in engaging narratives told in a storyteller’s voice. The result is intelligent nonfiction with a clear point of view—just what the CORE Curriculum prescribes. While each of McCarthy’s titles stand on its own as a valuable read aloud, her body of work, coupled with her extensive website, is a model of what quality nonfiction should do—generate interest and curiosity.
No doubt your students will agree that Aliens Are Coming! (Knopf, 2006) is out of this world. In it, the author takes readers back to Orson Welles’s infamous radio broadcast adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel War of the Worlds (1898) on Halloween Eve 1938. A radio announcer opens with “Hey, kids! Did you know that in the 1930s most Americans did not own TVs?” He proceeds to explain that the radio provided both entertainment and news—“…and because Americans believed what they heard, they were easily fooled by a radio play that sounded like an actual news bulletin.” Excerpts from the dramatic broadcast slowly unfold a horrifying alien army invasion reminiscent of the 1996 blockbuster film Independence Day. “Radio listeners across the country were in a state of panic! Operators were flooded with phone calls…frantic drivers clogged the highways.”
McCarthy’s signature illustrations offer nostalgic images of radios, costumes, automobiles, and newscasters of the 1930s juxtaposed against eerie red spreads of comical antennae-eyed aliens and their wacky spaceship. Share this fascinating title on Halloween to spark a discussion about the power of the media or the genre of science fiction. Introduce multimedia through the author’s website, which offers art activities as well as a link to the original broadcast and wonderful first-person accounts of listeners who actually heard it.
For another out-of-this-world experience, check out the Astronaut Handbook (Knopf, 2008) in which readers follow four would-be astronauts in training. Youngsters learn that people have dreamed of exploring space as far back as ancient Greece, where astronauts were aptly referred to as “star sailors.” Despite the lighthearted cartoon illustrations, McCarthy offers a viable introduction to the career: the rigorous road to becoming an astronaut, what different types of astronauts do, eat, and even what they wear. There is a detailed, labeled diagram of the suit and backpack, which “…will be fitted to your exact measurements. Over one hundred measurements will be taken of your hand alone.” Cluster this title with Buzz Aldrin and Wendell Minor’s Look to the Stars (Putnam, 2009) or Reaching for the Moon (HarperCollins, 2005), Faith McNulty and Steven Kellogg’s If You Decide to Go to the Moon (Scholastic, 2005), and Brian Floca’s Moonshot (S & S/Atheneum, 2009). Share the author’s website with your students to watch an interview with Sally Ride, see a panoramic view of the surface of Mars, and get instructions on how to build a cardboard rocket.
City Hawk (S & S/Paula Wiseman Bks., 2007) tells the story of another high-flyer—Pale Male—the red-tailed hawk that chose New York City as its home. “After Pale Male was sighted near a pond in Central Park, flying over the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and by a hot-dog stand, it was clear that he was there to stay.” A crew of devoted fans observed when the bird took a mate—Lola—and later when the two built a nest “on the 12th floor cornice of 927 Fifth Avenue,” they eagerly awaited the arrival of hatchlings. Their story’s charm lies in the unexpected juxtaposition of the natural and urban worlds; as one journalist remarked, “The idea that a feathered friend could find home amid stone and steel.”
One endnote tells the history of New York’s Central Park; the second offers more details about Pale Male and his family’s housing issues in the Big Apple. “By 2004 the nest had become eight feet wide and weighed as much as four hundred pounds….” The co-op finally hired an architect to construct a new platform for the nest…for a mere $40,000…not bad for a permanent home on 74th and 5th! Students can watch several fascinating video clips about the bird McCarthy’s website. Cluster this title with Janet Schulman’s Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City (Knopf, 2008), Jeanette Winter’s The Tale of Pale Male (Houghton Harcourt, 2007), or Brad Matsen’s Go Wild in New York City (National Geographic, 2005). Encourage students to keep a wildlife journal or sketchbook to record and research the animals they observe in their neighborhoods.
Hawks are not the only surprising things that soar above us—in the 1940s Betty Skelton made a name for herself as a stunt pilot or aerobat. Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton (S & S/Paula Wiseman Bks., 2013) begins, “While most girls played with their dolls, Betty Skelton played with her metal plane.” Born in 1926, Betty grew up near a large naval base in Pensacola, Florida. Though she got her pilot’s license at the age of 16 and hoped to become a commercial or naval pilot, women were not allowed to do either in the 1940s. Still, stunts like her inverted ribbon cut drew crowds. She flew with her dog, Little Tinker, in a little red-and-white plane she named “Little Stinker.” In the early 1950s this adventurous daredevil abandoned flying for race cars and then boat jumping. In 1959, …“she was invited to be the first female to train with male astronauts and…they were going to space!” Though she did go through the endurance testing and training, NASA ultimately decided they weren’t quite ready to send a woman into space. Still, she had paved the way for others like Sally Ride, who became the first American woman to fly into space in 1983. Fun facts, quotes, and a time line accompany a lengthy selected bibliography. Readers can view a photo album of the subject, an interview she gave in 1999, video clips of stunt plane maneuvers, and primary source archival newspaper articles. Pair this title with Julie Cummins’s Flying Solo: How Ruth Elder Soared into America’s Heart (Roaring Brook, 2013) or Marissa Moss’s Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee (Tricycle, 2009) during women’s history month.
Another picture book biography, The Story of Charles Atlas, Strong Man (Knopf, 2007) tells the story of a small boy who landed at Ellis Island from Italy more than 100 years ago and became known worldwide for his strength and fitness routines. Youngsters read of the scrawny youth’s “tough Brooklyn boyhood”; he was badly beaten one night and years later humiliated on the beach by bullies in front of his girl. Struck by a statue of Hercules on a museum school trip, Charles fashioned weights from sticks, stones, and rope to no avail. Yet, after observing a lion at the zoo, he created a fitness routine that mimicked the beast’s muscle-building stretches by “pitting one muscle against another.” Soon the skinny fellow was transformed into a Herculean muscleman, earning him the nickname “Atlas.” He became a strong man at Coney Island and hosted a televised fitness course that advocated more than just exercise. Atlas advised young fans to eat right, get up early, and keep their bedrooms neat and clean. Four fun exercises that teachers can do with students are illustrated at the back of the book. Pair this title with Anthony Browne’s Willy the Wimp (Knopf, 1984), turn on the disco music, and get fit. Introduce Strong Man for units on biography, famous immigrants, health, or how-to books.
The Incredible Life of Balto (Knopf, 2011) is life story of the canine variety. McCarthy takes readers back to 1925 when a diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska resulted in a 20-team dogsled relay that would go make it into the history books. “Some dogs died on the way because their lungs burst,” in the freezing blizzard with 50 degrees below 0 temperatures that rendered air travel too risky. Musher Gunnar Kaasen chose Balto to lead his team in one of the last legs of the race. While many accounts celebrate the devoted canine’s record-breaking run, few detail his later life. Though initially exploited as if he were a Hollywood star, Balto was eventually sold to a vaudeville act, then a sideshow where he was chained in a room, all but forgotten. A charitable Cleveland businessman created the Balto fund, which—thanks to the help of thousands of people, many of whom were children—raised the money needed to buy the entire team. “Kimble donated Balto and his teammates to the Brookside Zoo so that all of the people who had helped rescue them could visit.” An excellent endnote, “Detective Work,” describes the unique challenges of being a nonfiction author. “I needed to know what color to paint Balto. I needed to know what really happened. This is when a nonfiction author becomes a detective…No matter where information comes from, it gets filtered through many perspectives over time.” McCarthy suggests that students play the game “Telephone” to understand this phenomenon. On her website they can view a short animated movie of the beginning of the book, which includes artwork and primary source documents and photographs as a pre-reading activity. Not only does it provide background and create interest, but it also begs the question, “whatever happened to Balto?” Cluster with Robert J. Blake’s Togo (Philomel, 2002), an unsung hero of the same rescue effort or Debbie. S. Miller’s The Great Serum Race (Walker, 2002) to offer students other perspectives on what really happened.
Kids will gobble up McCarthy’s Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum (S & S/Paula Wiseman Bks., 2010), a history of how Dubble Bubble came to be. “Today 40 million pieces of bubble gum are sold daily. American kids spend about a half billion dollars on gum each year.” The story begins in the Fleer gum and candy factory in Philadelphia in the 1920s, though readers learn that people have been chewing gum for centuries. It was actually a factory accountant, Walter Diemer, who was responsible for the first successful bubble gum. Readers will appreciate the endnote trivia culled from some 20 books and articles. McCarthy’s signature bug-eyed characters rendered in bright acrylic paints are irresistible with large pink bubbles coming out of their mouths; scenes in the lab lend a covert, mad scientist quality to the invention. The author’s website includes links to videos of people blowing enormous bubbles, instructions on how-to blow impressive ones yourself, and amazing photographs of bubble gum art sculptures from all over the world. Use this flavorful pick for units on inventions, chemistry, and how-tos… and pair it with Lee Wardlaw’s Bubblemania: The Chewy History of Bubble Gum (S & S/Aladdin, 1997) or Bubble Gum Science (Klutz, 1997). Students can conduct some food experiments of their own, use their imaginations to illustrate and describe their own inventions, or write how-to instructions on something they know and do well.
What McCarthy does well is write nonfiction. Whether she is telling stories of people, animals, inventions, or past events, McCarthy’s easy way with words, eye for interesting details, and bold, original illustrations make learning fun.
Barbara Auerbach is the librarian at P.S. 217 in Brooklyn, NY.
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