October 19, 2017

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History with a Hook | Nonfiction Booktalker

Famous mysteries that have endured for decades will delight kids

A strand of hair, a broken bone, and a girl who hid from the sunlight for two years. They all represent mysteries that have endured for decades, even centuries. Three fascinating new books detail these mind-twisters and will delight kids who love a good puzzle.

Most people regard Ludwig Beethoven as one of the world’s greatest classical composers. But did they realize that he didn’t always hear the music he […]

For the Love of Art: The Road to Fame Was Long and Hard for Some of the Best Artists | Nonfiction Booktalker

The words “starving” and “artist” are a too-familiar pair. Some creators are willing to suffer whatever it takes. But the grit and sweat that challenge artists also make them fascinating, compelling, and unforgettable. Children in grades 2–5 will be charmed and intrigued by a trio of stunning author biographies.

Kathleen Krull’s The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum (Knopf, 2008) tells the story of one of America’s most beloved writers. Baum grew […]

Conversations with Dead People | Nonfiction Booktalker

Mysterious deaths always seem to delight

Murder. Mysterious deaths. Mummies. They all add up to a “can’t miss” booktalk. “Delicious death,” as Agatha Christie used to call her favorite subject. Some recent and gloriously illustrated books about historical bodies serve up a tantalizing spread.
     Like Christie, Sibert Award-winner Sally M. Walker knows how to hook a reader. The cover of her Written in Bone: Buried Lives in Jamestown and Colonial Maryland (Carolrhoda, 2009) displays the skeleton of a boy whose life […]

Happy Birthday, Abe: Celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s big 2-0-0 with these fun books | Nonfiction Booktalker

On February 12, we celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and publishers, like the rest of the country, are rushing in to mark the big day of this bigger-than-life-size man. Lincoln probably already commands a goodly portion of your bookshelves, but take a look at some of these wonderful new titles, which make for fine booktalks.

Judith St. George’s Stand Tall, Abraham Lincoln (Philomel, 2008; Grades 3–5) reminds us that Abe had a tough childhood. Although Abe worked hard on the farm, his […]

In a League of Their Own | Nonfiction Booktalker

The Negro Leagues raised the bar and broke many barriers

Most kids won’t believe it if you tell them that African Americans were not welcome in major league baseball for much of its history. They’ll think you’ve gotten your facts mixed up. But, of course, you don’t. Booktalks on the not-always-so-wonderful olden days of our country’s national pastime make for an entertaining and educational session.

Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Jump at the Sun, […]

Women of Extraordinary Vision | Nonfiction Booktalker

You’ve heard of Helen Keller, of course, but who came before her?

This past March, a previously unknown, 130-year-old photo of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy made front-page news. I stared at the photo in wonder: How many people, dead for decades, still attract our fascination? “Certainly Helen Keller makes the cut,” I told myself. Fortunately, a recent burst of books on Helen, and on women like her, attest to that fact. And all make for captivating booktalks.

Start with Emily […]

History’s Secrets Revealed | Nonfiction Booktalker

Four great booktalks to uncover the past

On Memorial Day weekend last year, I suddenly became intrigued and then obsessed by genealogy. As I followed the twisting roots and branches of my family tree, I was delighted by the surprises I got by peeking into the past. It’s the same delight we all get by digging into history.

Four books—all hugely appealing, all bristling with insight into how our forebears lived—make great booktalks for middle-grade audiences.

First off, Mark Kurlansky’s The Story of […]

Talkin’ Trash | Nonfiction Booktalker

How shoes floating in the Pacific pointed to a scary environmental problem

The scariest book I’ve read this year isn’t about terrorists, serial killers, or zombies. It’s about a pair of Nike shoes floating in the ocean. Bone-chilling, huh? Well, it is, according to Loree Griffin Burns. Her absorbing Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion (Houghton, 2007) starts placidly enough, describing ocean currents. Sailors have known about them for centuries, using them as fast lanes in the […]

Seriously Scary Stuff | Nonfiction Booktalker

Nothing appeals to young readers like fear, horror, and gore

When the young man who is my new neighbor dropped in to use the phone, there, perched upon on my footstool, was Joshua Gee’s Encyclopedia Horrifica: The Terrifying TRUTH! about Vampires, Ghosts, Monsters, and More (Scholastic, 2007). The book has a compelling cover and lots of illustrations, including “actual” photos of ghosts, photos of the giant squid which may have been the basis of the legend of the kraken (a horrible, […]

They Love to See That Bite! | NonFiction BookTalker

When animals eat other animals, kids savor the gore

Yuckkkk! Eyeewww! Half-delight and half-disgust, these are the sounds young voices make when children confront something grandly gross: photographs of animals eating other animals. Yowwww! Young readers relish this stuff. And publishers seem ever eager to dish up more. Sandra Markle’s three series for Lerner Publishing Group, “Animal Prey,” “Animal Predators,” and “Animal Scavengers,” provide fine reading and tangy, titillating information for little fans of big bites.

In Octopuses (2007), Markle describes […]

Gross Them Out | Nonfiction Booktalker

Body functions—yuck!—can lure even the most reluctant readers

When he found out about my booktalking, the businessman next to me on the plane asked that I recommend titles for his home-schooled kids. The nine-year-old boy read voraciously, but the 12-year-old girl wouldn’t touch a book. So I offered my sympathies. Then I pulled out my laptop. Catching sight of some of the eye-catching book covers there, the businessman stared in fascination. “My daughter,” he exclaimed, “would love those books about gross […]

Unsolved Mysteries | Nonfiction Booktalker

Unexplainable events of the past tantalize and delight young readers

I remember reading Julius Lester’s Sam and the Tigers (Dial, 1996) to a group of kindergarteners. At the book’s end, the group sighed happily when Sam triumphed over hungry tigers by consuming 169 pancakes. Then one little boy tentatively asked, “Is it true? Do tigers really turn into butter when they run fast?” I started to explain that this was a story, when another boy loudly burst in. “It’s true! I’ve […]

Think You Can’t? | Nonfiction Booktalker

In these tales of remarkable people, where there’s a will, there’s a way

Imagine you're a kid who wants to be an Olympic diver, but you're not allowed near the water. In 1932, that was the case for Sammy Lee, a Korean-American kid only allowed to swim in his California town's public pool one day a week, when nonwhites were permitted to use it. So instead, Sammy learned to dive in a sandpit. As you'll find out in Paula Yoo's Sixteen […]

Hidden Shadows | Nonfiction Booktalker

Students will be riveted by these compelling accounts of the Holocaust

Children are naturally adventurous, imaginative, and boisterous. It would take a fearful force to throw a dark shadow over their exuberance. That’s what happened in Europe during World War II. Young victims during the Holocaust faced capture, imprisonment, illness, and starvation. Most of them died. Some of them hid.

Children may hide, but they don’t stay hidden. Isaac Millman’s Hidden Child (Farrar, 2005) shows the photograph of a seven-year-old boy set […]

I See Dead People | Nonfiction Booktalker

Mummies, corpses, and other gross things never fail to delight

Last year was a good year for ancient corpses. Three new titles from 2005 aimed at fourth- through eighth-grade readers, and all filled with fantastic photographs, make compelling booktalks on a topic that never fails to delight—dead bodies from long ago, frozen in time.

Zahi Hawass’s Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Boy King (National Geographic) focuses on the man behind the mummy. “King Tut” wasn’t an important king, but he had […]

Gorilla of My Dreams | Nonfiction Booktalker

Slithering snakes, long-legged spiders, and endangered apes entice readers

When I was a kid, my image of a scientist was a nerd who wore a lab coat, worked indoors, and spent all day looking through a microscope. Any discoveries he made did not rank high on my excitement meter. Mercifully, my childhood preconceptions have been blown to smithereens.

A number of eye-opening blasts have come from publishers like Houghton, whose Scientists in the Field series, with its riveting writing and great […]

The Young and the Parentless | Nonfiction Booktalker

The Baudelaire kids have nothing on these real-life orphans

My good friend Michael, who writes children's fiction, tells me he learned long ago that the first rule of storytelling is to get rid of the parents. Clearly, getting rid of those loving adults has proved a bonanza to children's storytellers like E. Nesbit and J. K. Rowling. But in real life, what could be more nightmarish? To live at the mercy of strangers, with no love, control, or power, is the […]

The Mystery of History | Nonfiction Booktalker

There’s nothing like an eternal puzzle to pique kids’ curiosity

When I was a kid growing up on the prairie in Walnut Grove, MN, a group of nuns came down from the Twin Cities every summer to teach the children the basics of Catholicism. To us, the sisters were exotic creatures. One of them made a lifelong impression on me when she declared that upon our arrival in heaven, God would answer all of our questions.

I had a long list for […]