May 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Just the Facts: Reader-Ready Nonfiction for Secondary Students

Thoroughly researched, well-written, and visually appealing, these recently published informational titles are sure to reel in readers from the get-go. Tantalizing topics and accessible formats make them ideal choices for students. Use them for booktalking and displays, as standards-aligned supplements to classroom studies, and to satisfy fact hounds and curious minds.

BordenThe Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century. By Sarah Miller. Schwartz & Wade. 2016.(Grade 7 Up)

Did she or didn’t she? The brutal, never-solved double homicide of Andrew and Abby Borden that occurred in the quiet town of Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 4, 1892, still has people talking more than a century later. Blending the suspense and excitement of a police procedural with in-depth research and a carefully balanced approach, Miller provides a vivaciously written account of events that will mesmerize readers. Reconstructed from court documents and other primary sources, the narrative opens on the day of the murders, when Lizzie (1860-1927) discovered her father’s body in the blood-splattered sitting room and frantically summoned the family’s live-in maid to go for help (Lizzie’s stepmother’s body would later be found in the upstairs guest room). Riveting chapters describe the often bungling police investigation, the arrest of Lizzie, the dramatic trial, the case’s aftermath, and the accused’s later years. Never flinching away from gruesome details and writing with a sense of immediacy, Miller makes events accessible by deftly depicting the personalities and interpersonal relationships of the individuals involved, demystifying the mores and sensibilities of Victorian society, clarifying the workings of the court system, and discussing the often sensationalized contemporary newspaper coverage and its effect on public opinion. After turning the final satisfying page, readers can weigh the sometimes conflicting testimony, consider the evidence, pore over the contemporary photos and other ephemera, and digest the author’s thoughtful research notes before coming to their own conclusions.

bubonic panicBubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America. By Gail Jarrow. Calkins Creek. 2016. (Grade 5 Up)

Jarrow sets the scene with an explicit description of this stealthy killer’s modus operandi (complete with gruesome full-color photos) and a brief look at centuries-past pandemics, before zooming in on the reemergence of bubonic plague in China in the 19th century and its eventual arrival in the United States. The thrilling text describes how scientists, employing cutting-edge techniques in the fledgling field of bacteriology, raced to crack the secrets of this deadly scourge. After striking down a man in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1900, the disease spread quickly throughout the community’s crowded and often unsanitary quarters. While public health doctors worked to contain the plague by imposing a quarantine, Chinatown leaders complained about discrimination and local officials vehemently tried to keep it under wraps (California Governor Harry T. Gage denied its very existence). And just when the epidemic seemed to be finally under control, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake left the city ripe for another outbreak. Jarrow clearly explains scientific topics and research processes while deftly incorporating social history, including prejudice against Chinese immigrants, contemporary news coverage, and jaw-dropping political maneuvering. Period photos, reproductions of newspaper headlines and political cartoons, and full-color modern-day photos—as well as an update of on this as-yet undefeated malady—round out a real page-turner. Steer interested readers toward the other volumes in the author’s “Deadly Disease” trilogy, Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat (2014) and Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary (2015, both Calkins Creek).

plot to killThe Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero. By Patricia McCormick. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Sept., 2016. (Grade 5 Up)

It’s April 1943 in Berlin, Germany, and, with the Gestapo expected to arrive momentarily, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes his final preparations for his long-anticipated arrest, planting fake files on his desk, hiding his real diary in the rafters, and tucking his deceased brother’s cherished Bible under his arm. McCormick delves deep into the character and formative experiences of a compassionate, peace-loving pastor (1906-1945) who willingly became part of a conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler. On the younger end of eight energetic siblings in a well-off family, young Dietrich was a timid dreamer who early on wrestled with questions about eternity and what happens when we die, queries that hit home when his older brother Walter was killed while serving in World War I. Also strikingly highlighted are the many epiphanies that informed his faith and career as an adult, including a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; studies in New York City where he visited Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and got a firsthand look at segregation in America; teaching a confirmation class to underprivileged teenage boys in a seedy Berlin neighborhood. Meanwhile, as Nazi control over the country tightened like a noose and persecution and violence began to escalate, Bonhoeffer not only spoke out against the regime, but also took on roles as spy, double-agent, and conspirator. This stirring tale of courage and conviction balances historical happenings with timeless themes about ethical dilemmas (how can a pacifist justify murder?), speaking out against injustice, and what it means to be a hero.

samurai risingSamurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune. By Pamela S. Turner. illus. by Gareth Hinds. Charlesbridge. 2016. (Grade 7 Up)

This tale brims with family betrayals, political intrigue, do-or-die camaraderie, passionate romance, bloody battle scenes, and unexpected twists of fate. No, it’s not the latest season of Game of Thrones, but an extremely well-researched and vibrantly written biography of 12th-century Heian warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189), true-life inspiration for many a heart-pounding legend and samurai ideal. The action starts in 1160, before Yoshitsune could even walk. When his father, Yoshitomo, leader of the Minamoto samurai, initiated a war with rival samurai lord Taira Kiyomori, a resounding defeat resulted in Yoshitomo’s severed head tied to a sandalwood tree. Exiled by Kiyomori, young Yoshitsune was sent to a Buddhist temple to be trained as a monk, but ran away at age 15 and presented himself to a northern lord for samurai instruction. Reunited later on with his half-brother Yoritomo, who was masterminding a rebellion against the Taira, Yoshitsune proved himself a brilliant general by pulling off amazing military feats that would make him famous, but remained tragically unaware of the lengths to which Yoritomo (a man “capable of six nasty things before breakfast”) would go to ensure that the Minamoto samurai were ruled by a single leader. Writing with descriptive language and approachable humor, Turner successfully teases out truth from myth, and Yoshitsune emerges as a passionate, dynamic man capable of great acts of courage and honor. Gareth Hinds’s atmospheric paintings introduce each chapter and work along with the narrative’s details of day-to-day life, armor and art forms, and even the horse-trampled landscape to bring this truly epic story to vivid life.

VietnamVietnam: A History of the War. By Russell Freedman. Holiday House. 2016. (Grade 6 Up)

The book begins in year seven of the war, with an April 1971 protest march on Washington, D.C., staged by 2,000 veterans who, “in a defiant act of protest, ripped off the medals they had received for their service in Vietnam and hurled them onto the Capitol steps.” Was the war, as these veterans and many other Americans now believed, “a tragic mistake? Or was it, as President Ronal Reagan would claim, ‘a noble cause’?” Readers can grapple with this question while perusing Freedman’s evenhanded text and well-chosen period photos and ultimately form their own opinions. A brief look at the Vietnamese and their more-than-2,000-year history of resisting rule by foreign invaders, the rise to power of Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, and the 1954 French surrender to Vietminh forces and Geneva Conference enhances understanding. Beginning with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “domino theory” (if Vietnam fell to the Communists, other nations in Southeast Asia would soon follow) and culminating with the fall of Saigon, chronological coverage of U.S. involvement covers a vast amount of territory with detail and insight. A final chapter highlighting recent events (such as the 2015 meeting between the leaders of both nations) incorporates thoughtful reflections about the war, underscores lesson learned, and chronicles a journey toward reconciliation. Clear, concise, and absorbing, this overview masterfully distills a complex historical period into a narrative that is incredibly readable and enlightening.

what's really happening to our planetWhat’s Really Happening to Our Planet? By Tony Juniper. DK. 2016. (Grade 7 Up)

Utilizing an array of colorful and clearly presented graphs, charts, and diagrams, British environmentalist Juniper provides an accessible and eye-opening look at our planet at this moment in time and the choices that must be made to manage and sustain the future of our world. The book’s first part, “Drivers of Change,” explores trends that impact earth’s natural systems—population explosion, economic expansion, growth of urban centers, surge in demand for fuel, escalating agricultural production, increase in need for fresh water, and rise in consumerism. The next section addresses “Consequences of Change,” both positive (the interconnectedness of the global age, improvements in health) and negative (the impacts of climate change, pollution, and land degradation). The final chapter, “Bending the Curves,” looks at initiatives already in place to deal with global challenges and dramatically underscores the fact that much more will need to be accomplished if we are to attain a sustainable future. Each two-page spread treats a specific topic with introductory text and a mix of visuals (pie charts, pictographs, bar graphs, flowcharts, maps, and more) carefully chosen to convey information with clarity and impact. Throughout, the graphics help readers understand a wide variety of complex trends and issues and how they interconnect. This fact-packed tome is perfect for browsing, research projects, and figuring out where to get started to bring about change.

 For a selection of recent informational picture books for younger readers, see Joy Fleishhacker’s “Otter, Emus, and Sharks, Oh My!”

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.



  1. Mary Clare O'Grady says:

    What a great list! I am ordering every one of these. Thanks for such an informative column.