June 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Much More Than a List | Editorial

SLJ’s year-end picks point to the power of curation.

This article was published in School Library Journal's December 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Best Books 2014: Brown Girl Dreaming | Nonfiction

This rich and nuanced memoir in verse captures the tenor of the times and the specifics of Woodson’s family roots in Ohio, the Deep South, and Brooklyn, NY. The poems tie together the author’s personal experiences, shared memories, and understanding of the past to tease out the many forces and influences that contributed to her becoming a writer. An accessible and engaging tour de force.

Best Books 2014: Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation | Nonfiction

When eight-year-old Sylvia, an American citizen of Latin American heritage, was denied enrollment in her neighborhood school and sent to a much inferior “Mexican school,” her family initiated a lawsuit that ended segregation in California and paved the way for progress nationwide. An important story told with lucid text, expressive, Mixtec-inspired folk art, and in-depth end matter.

Best Books 2014: Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos| Nonfiction

Roth Sisson’s first book as author and illustrator adeptly captures the wonder and curiosity that drove young Carl Sagan to become the well-renowned and much-beloved astronomer, science writer, and eventual TV show host ofCosmos. The simple and engaging text is accompanied by star-filled, imagination-infused, and vibrant images that vary in design—from scrapbook to comic book-style. A stellar offering for STEM enthusiasts.

Best Books 2014: The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry| Nonfiction

Saint-Exupéry came of age in the early years of aviation, and flying became his lifelong obsession, which he did professionally, for the military, and for pleasure, when he wasn’t writing about his adventures. Sís’s signature pointillistic artwork perfectly suits his subject both in precision and in panoramic vision, blending realism, surrealism, and imaginative dreamscapes. A thrilling adventure between the covers of a book.

See our profile of Sís.

Best Books 2014: Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold| Nonfiction

As cold creeps into northern climes, sleeping tundra swans dream of their soon-to-be journey, snakes slither underground to “tranquil bays” to wait for spring, and a snowflake spins to earth, “arms outstretched,/lace sprouting from fingertips.” Twelve distinctive poems pair with magnificent frost-bedazzled illustrations and fact-filled sidebars to eloquently encapsulate the season’s ecology and ambiance.

Best Books 2014: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights| Nonfiction

In July 1944, after a massive explosion killed 202 of the African Americans assigned to load ammunition onto ships and injured hundreds more, 50 survivors refused to resume the dangerous work and were charged with mutiny. Incorporating quotes from the sailors, the trial transcripts, and information on government policies, this powerfully told story explores the blatant injustices surrounding the event and its aftermath and the future lives of the men involved.

Best Books 2014: Little Melba and Her Big Trombone| Nonfiction

Born in Kansas City in 1926 with the “plink,” “hum,” and “thrum” of music dancing in her head, Melba Doretta Liston befriended a “long funny-looking horn” at age seven and taught herself to play. Euphonious text and kinetic oil paintings introduce a jazz virtuoso who faced down discrimination and wowed the world with her divine sound.

Best Books 2014: Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands| Nonfiction

Debut author Roy takes on the herculean task of presenting sharks in a fresh new light and succeeds with this gorgeous picture book. Featuring intensely vivid watercolors, this thoroughly researched examination of one of the ocean’s most efficient predators covers feeding habits, anatomy, and field research with ingenious use of visual metaphor and simple yet inventive prose.

See our profile of Roy.

Best Books 2014: The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy Is Enlightening| Nonfiction

Jazz musician Herman P. “Sonny” Blount aka Sun Ra gets his due in the acclaimed Raschka’s psychedelic picture book biography. With spare, kid-friendly text; vivid watercolor-and-ink illustrations; and the creator’s characteristic black line, this work heralds the iconic African American composer and pianist born in Birmingham, AL, in 1914 and shines a light on his avant-garde talent. A brilliant performance.

Best Books 2014: Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker| Nonfiction

Effervescent text and paintings that shimmy with pizzazz spotlight a talented performer and boundary-breaking civil rights advocate. From impoverished childhood in segregated St. Louis to later trials and triumphs on and off the stage, this biography informs readers while trumpeting Baker’s innovative, uninhibited, and indomitable spirit.

Best Books 2014: Hello, I’m Johnny Cash| Nonfiction

This affectionate tribute to country icon Johnny Cash focuses on pivotal moments, such as the loss of a beloved brother and early glimpses of future wife June Carter. Written in beautifully crafted verse that echoes Cash’s own downhome lyrics and featuring expressive oil paintings, this picture book biography lets the Man in Black shed his larger-than-life image, becoming a still-inspiring but incredibly relatable figure.

Best Books 2014: A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery| Nonfiction

Fascinating details about the life of a man some called a martyr, others a fanatic, and the highly charged debates surrounding slavery in mid-19th-century America set the stage for this absorbing examination of the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. The questions raised by a God-fearing individual who was willing to kill and to die “to right a moral wrong” still haunt us today. Abundant black-and-white photos and reproductions support this articulate, well-researched history.

Best Books 2014: All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom| Nonfiction

A moment in history—Emancipation Day in coastal Texas—is made palpable for modern readers through Johnson’s elegant prose and Lewis’s sun-drenched and evocative watercolors. The book provides quotidian details of this date in June 1865 as a family wakens at dawn to work the cotton fields until the news reaches them and joyous folks gathered to eat, laugh, and tell stories as free people for the very first time.

Best Books 2014: Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World| Nonfiction

Through visionary author and illustrator Jenkins’s clear prose and strikingly bold trademark torn-and-cut paper illustrations, readers get up close and extremely personal with the visual organs of myriad creatures. Jenkins doles out fun and unexpected facts about different animals and presents an easily digestible, incredibly informative overview of the evolution of the eye that readers won’t soon forget.

Best Books 2014: Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat| Nonfiction

With this expertly researched exploration of pellagra, a potentially fatal illness characterized by an alarming red rash, Jarrow offers not only a persuasive argument for the importance of the scientific method but a rich, sociocultural explanation for the—now eradicated—disease’s prevalence. Replete with primary source photos, the design oozes kid appeal, while the narrative is brimming with compellingly presented information.

See our Q&A with Jarrow.

Best Books 2014: Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems| Nonfiction

Thirty-six poems carefully selected by Janeczko and organized by season are given the Sweet treatment. Kaleidoscopic colors, playful compositions, and a sense of whimsy help support and extend the short poems. Williams Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson are joined by more contemporary poets like Joyce Sidman. Pick a poet or pick a season; readers will be delighted no matter how they approach this luminous work.

Best Books 2014: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia| Nonfiction

An utterly captivating, brilliantly researched look at one of the most (in)famous royal families. Fleming offers an intimate exploration of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and the tragic fate of his offspring, set against the larger history of the Russian Revolution. Peppering each section are primary source accounts detailing the destitute lives of common peasants, tellingly juxtaposed against the conspicuous wealth of the Romanovs. A superb work of history that will be devoured like fiction.

See our Q&A with […]

Best Books 2014: Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines| Nonfiction

This aptly named work is a call to arms that will shatter teens’ preconceived notions about the environment. Fleischman drills down to the heart of the matter, using psychology, economics, and politics to explain the difficulty of tackling these issues. This explosive title urges readers to question everything and will inspire them to become informed, active members of society.

See our Q&A with Fleischman.

Best Books 2014: On the Wing| Nonfiction

A sweeping and elegant look at the avian world is delivered via artful gouache paintings and astute and witty verses. Elliott distills the essences of these birds, from tiny flitting hummingbirds to dancing Japanese cranes and soaring Andean condors, in lush and lyrical language.