February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

SLJ Best Books 2013 Nonfiction

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Beginning with a list of several hundred books that have earned stars throughout the year, SLJ‘s book review editors commenced the grand task of winnowing down the best of the best. In this year’s selection of nonfiction titles, historical giants as well as little-known figures are profiled through the use of rich primary sources, engaging narrative style, and sophisticated design. From classroom connections to research assignments to pure pleasure reading, these titles will educate and inspire.


See Also:
Best Books 2013 Picture Books
Best Books 2013 Fiction


BERNE, Jennifer. On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein. illus. by Vladimir Radunsky. Chronicle. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780811872355. LC 2011004026.

Gr 2-6 –Spare text full of telling detail illuminates the life, intellect, and personality of one of the 20th-century’s greatest scientists in this richly imagined, impressionistic biography. Cornmeal-yellow pages flecked with fibers provide a canvas for distinctive pen-and-ink images that highlight Einstein’s fertile, always-questioning mind; the investigations that occupied his career; and his endearing quirks. (Apr.)

BOLDEN, Tonya. Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty. Abrams. RTE $24.95. ISBN 9781419703904.

Gr 5-9 –Alternating perspectives, abundant primary sources, and a plethora of illustrated archival material draw readers into the maelstrom of one of the most polarizing debates in our nation’s history, and the adoption of one of its most important documents. A commanding story in a beautifully designed volume. (Jan.)

BROWN , Don. Henry and the Cannons: An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revolution. illus. by author. Roaring Brook. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781596432666. LC 2012013450.

Gr 2-5 –Huddled outside Boston in 1775, Washington’s troops had no weapons and little chance against the Redcoats. Enter Henry Knox, who despite preferring “a good meal to a good fight,” trekked 300 miles to Fort Ticonderoga, and back, with 58 cannons in tow. Henry’s indomitable spirit and improbable journey are rendered in elegant line-and-watercolor art. (Jan.)

BRYANT , Jen. A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. illus. by Melissa Sweet. Knopf. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780375867125; lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780375967122. LC 2012003209.

Gr 3-6 –This picture-book biography about a self-taught painter is as dynamic and expressive as the man himself, incorporating his words, his spirit, and his resourcefulness in both the text and the images. The vibrant mixed-media art–inspired by Pippin’s deep, rich colors–brings this marvelous talent to life. (Jan.)

FLOCA, Brian. Locomotive. illus. by author. S & S/Atheneum/Richard Jackson Bks. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781416994152; ebk. $12.99. ISBN 9781442485228.

Gr 3-5 –A family’s 1869 journey from Omaha to Sacramento aboard the just-completed transcontinental railroad provides a compelling and fact-packed look at history. A strapping narrative powered by bell-clanging onomatopoeia coalesces with dynamic artwork to portray the engine’s workings, the majesty of the passing terrain, and the full-steam-ahead expansion of a young nation. (July)

FREEDMAN, Russell. Becoming Ben Franklin: How a Candle-Maker’s Son Helped Light the Flame of Liberty. Holiday House. RTE $24.95. ISBN 9780823423743. LC 2012002971.

Gr 4-8 –Enlightening anecdotes and rich details enliven this biography of the colorful, civic-minded American original who rose from humble origins to become one of our greatest scientists, inventors, and statesmen. Lavishly illustrated with quality reproductions of paintings, engravings, sketches, and maps. (May)

GREENBERG, Jan & Sandra Jordan. The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781596438101. LC 2012047601.

Gr 5-8 –An eccentric Mississippian who claimed to be the greatest art potter on Earth, George Ohr was also a relentless self-promoter whose stunning legacy proved him correct. This fascinating introduction to his life and art features an engaging narrative, numerous quotes, period photos, and close-ups of his famed “mud babies.” (Sept.)

KIDD, Chip. Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design. Workman. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780761172192.

Gr 5 Up –Design informs what we play with, consume, read, and purchase. From candy wrappers and book covers to newspaper ads and labels, this eye-opening exploration considers the concepts and decisions that guide visual problem solving. Both ubiquitous and unfamiliar images come under discussion, illuminating basic design theory for young creatives. (Oct.)

LEWIS, John & Andrew Aydin. March. Bk. 1. illus. by Nate Powell. (March Series). Top Shelf. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781603093002.

Gr 8 Up –In this riveting graphic-novel memoir, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, Congressman John Lewis, recounts his childhood in Alabama and entry into early activism. From depictions of nonviolent protests to Lewis’s office on Capitol Hill, Powell’s black-and-white illustrations convey the turmoil and hope of the times. (Sept.)

MARKEL , Michelle. Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909. illus. by Melissa Sweet. HarperCollins/Balzer & Bray. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780061804427.

K-Gr 2 –Clara Lemlich and her family came to the U.S. for a better life, but the only job available for Clara was as a badly treated garment worker. She convinced the factory girls to form a union and organized her coworkers to go out on strike, the largest in U.S. history. Markel and Sweet stitch together vivid words and images to create an uplifting and empowering slice of American history. (Jan.)

MARKLE, Sandra. The Long, Long Journey: The Godwit’s Amazing Migration. illus. by Mia Posada. Millbrook. lib. ed. $26.60. ISBN 9780761356233; ebk. $19.95. ISBN 9781467710510. LC 2012020915.

Gr 1-3 –An absorbing look at a bar-tailed godwit, from her first wobbly steps in the Arctic summer to joining the flock of other young birds as they instinctually make their way to the New Zealand mudflats 7000 miles away. The naturalistic cut-paper collages are rich and textured in detail and showcase the beauty and endurance of these long-distance fliers. (Mar.)

MARTIN, Jacqueline Briggs. Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table. illus. by Eric-Shabazz Larkin. Readers to Eaters. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780983661535. LC 2013937817.

Gr 3-6 –Martin introduces readers to former basketball player turned urban farmer Will Allen, who teaches children about composting, container gardens, and “growing power.” Larkin’s thickly textured illustrations complement the energetic and upbeat verse. A timely topic for eco-minded youngsters and future agriculturalists. (Dec.)

PINKNEY, Andrea Davis. Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song. illus. by Brian Pinkney. Little, Brown. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316070133. LC 2012005499.

Gr 2-4 –Melodious text and soaring illustrations applaud two civil rights trailblazers who raised their voices in a soul-stirring symphony to spread a message of peace, freedom, and hope. Informative and affecting, multifaceted and meaningful, this visually compelling book parallels the paths of Dr. King and gospel-singer Jackson, culminating with the historic 1963 March on Washington. (July)

RAPPAPORT, Doreen. To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt. illus. by C. F. Payne. Hyperion/Disney. RTE $17.99. ISBN 9781423124887.

Gr 2-5 –Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was a Rough Rider, the 26th president, and a trailblazing conservationist. But this powerful biography makes clear that he was also “Teedie,” a sickly boy who loved nature and dreamed of being fearless. Payne’s artwork is, in turn, exuberant, humorous, and profound. (Dec.)

ROTH, Susan L. & Cindy Trumbore. Parrots Over Puerto Rico. illus. by Susan L. Roth. Lee & Low. RTE $19.95. ISBN 9781620140048. LC 2012048195.

Gr 3-6 –Puerto Rico’s native parrots were facing extinction in 1967. The persistence of scientists enabled the colorful fowl to make a slow but triumphant return. Intertwined with the birds’ plight are descriptions of the island’s human history and diaspora. Roth’s vibrant paper collage illustrations give life to the rainforest setting and enhance the tone of hopefulness in this environmental story. (Oct.)

RUBIN, Susan Goldman. Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People. Abrams. RTE $21.95. ISBN 9780810984110. LC 2012010022.

Gr 5-8 –Told through the lens of his art, Rivera’s love of Mexican culture, and the development of his own artistic style, is presented in this stunning biography. Attention-grabbing quotes, a sensuous design, and the straightforward narrative make for a visually pleasing and compelling read. (May)

RUSCH, Elizabeth. Eruption!: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives. photos by Tom Uhlman. (Scientists in the Field Series). Houghton Mifflin. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780547503509. LC 2012034055.

Gr 5-9 –“Predicting the unpredictable” is how scientists describe the work of monitoring the more than 1500 potentially explosive volcanoes worldwide. A dramatic narrative follows volcanologists on high alert in the shadow of Indonesia’s Mount Merapi in 2010. Mesmerizing photos place readers into the middle of the action. (Aug.)

THIMMESH, Catherine. Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How Do We Know What Dinosaurs Really Looked Like? illus. by John Sibbick et al. Houghton Harcourt. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780547991344.

Gr 5-7 –Juxtaposing early-20th-century renderings with modern reconstructions, Thimmesh discusses how information gleaned since the 1960s from fossilized skeletal remains, skin and feather impressions, nests, minute amounts of color pigmentation, and technological advances have aided the work of the paleoartists spotlighted in this fascinating forensic study. (Oct.)

TURNER , Pamela S. The Dolphins of Shark Bay. photos by Scott Tuason. (Scientists in the Field Series). Houghton Mifflin. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780547716381.

Gr 5-9 –Filled with stunning color photos and fascinating anecdotes, this title profiles scientist Janet Mann, who has spent more than 25 years studying dolphins in Shark Bay off Australia’s western coast. Mann and her colleagues’ groundbreaking discoveries will enthrall budding marine biologists. (Nov.)

By SLJ Book Review Editors: Kiera Parrott, Trevelyn Jones, Luann Toth, Marlene Charnizon, Daryl Grabarek, Chelsey Philpot, Shelley Diaz, and Joy Fleishhacker.

Headline lettering by Melissa Sweet.

This article was published in School Library Journal's December 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Sue Bartle says:

    I am sure there was a book left out between the “R” and the “T”

    This would be Tanya Lee Stone’s Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers

    The photos, the research, the author notes – the compelling story weaves insight into the service of African Americans in World War II beyond the Tuskegee Airmen.
    From the opening page with great quotes to the finish line – you learn so much about this courageous group of men.

    I have carried this book to every workshop (over 30 and counting) I have done on the Common Core and Nonfiction this past year and when I get done booktalking it – I can see that everyone is paying attention.

    And at one workshop someone walked away with it by accident so I bought another copy:)

  2. Dionne Turner says:

    I’ve read very few of those so thank you for the recommendations. I’ve bookmarked this page to bump up my reading list next week. If I could make just one addition to the list I would included What’s Next? from Joy Chudacoff http://whatsnextthebook.com/.
    Terrific step by step advice for getting your business and life back on track when you are feeling a little trapped or stuck in a rut. Especially helpful for women in middle age like myself who find themselves wondering how to take the next steps towards career goals or what the next steps even are. It’s a fascinating and very powerful read that has the potential to be a life changer.