Category Archives: Nonfiction

Day 180 – Emmanuel’s Dream

emmanuel“Emanuel’s Dream” is the amazing and inspiring true story of Emanuel Ofosu Yeboah, a young boy from Ghana born with only one leg who managed to ride his bike all around his home country.

When Emanuel was born his father left home, and everyone thought that with only one leg, Emmanuel would be useless, or even worse: a curse! Everyone that is, except his mother, Comfort. Mama Comfort told Emanuel he could have anything, but he would have to get it for himself.

When Emanuel went to school, his mother carried him at first; when he became too heavy, he hopped. He saved his money and bought a soccer ball, and played with the other boys on crutches. Then, Emanuel learned to ride a bike with only one leg(!).

When Emmanuel was thirteen, Mama Comfort became very sick, so Emmanuel moved to the  capital city Accra to earn some money to care for her. When Mama Comfort died, she told Emanuel, “Be respectful, take care of your family, don’t ever beg. And don’t give up.” Emanuel wanted to prove that being disabled did not mean being unable, so he resolved that he was going to bicycle around Ghana. When no-one in his town was willing to help, that did not deter him; Emanuel instead wrote to the Challenged Athletes Foundation in San Diego California, and they sent him the things he needed. He received a blessing from the king of his region, hired a taxi to drive after him and film him, and Emanuel rode all the way around Ghana with only one leg wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word “Pozo” (meaning “The Disabled Person”) on his jersey.

We absolutely loved this story, as did I think everyone else who’s read it – based on the reviews we’ve seen. Emmanuel represents true grit and strength and his story is full of so many wonderful messages about never giving up on your dream or on the people you love.


Day 161 – Manfish (a Story of Jacques Cousteau)

June is our month to read about the beach and the ocean, and it also happens to be National Scuba-diving Month. What better time, then, to read a picture book about Jacques Cousteau, the world’s most famous scuba diver, who also happens to have been born in June (June 10, 1910). “Manfish” by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Eric Puybaret is a lovely book, with poetic prose, attractive full-page illustrations, and an inspiring story about the explorer and inventor whose many films (over 115!) introduced the world to the wonders of the ocean.manfish

Ms. Berne introduces us to Jacques as a little boy in France – a little boy fascinated with the ocean who dreams that one day he will be able to “fly” and breathe under water. He is also fascinated with machines and with films – which he begins creating with a small home-movie camera he bought by saving his allowance “penny by penny.”  After finishing school, he travels the world as a member of the French Navy, filming everything he sees. Then, one day, wearing a pair of goggles given to him by a friend, he wades into the ocean and his eyes are opened to the wonders below the surface. Driven by a passion to explore the deep as a “manfish”, Jacques eventually invents the “aqualung” – and for the first time a person is able to swim for an extended time below the surface of the ocean. Success! With his cameras, his new invention, his best friends, and his ship (Calypso), he sets out to explore the oceans and to share the experience through his films. Along the way, he discovers amazing creatures the world has never seen and continues to innovate – improving his diving apparatus and even inventing cages for him and his crew to be able to film sharks without being eaten!

We really enjoyed learning more about Jacques Cousteau, including the extra details provided in the Author’s Note at the back and the surprise pull-out page. The story is informative without being dry – this is no “laundry list” of events in the life of a famous explorer. This story is about a little boy’s dream that grew into a man’s passion to become a manfish and fly beneath the waves – and how he worked to share that passion with the world. I think Ms. Berne does a wonderful job of conveying the feeling of wonder that the ocean inspired in Jacques, and which he hoped to inspire in everyone else.


Day 155 – Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea

I have always enjoyed looking at maps, committing historical charts to memory and covering my bedroom walls as a teenager with political maps swiped from my dad’s National Geographic magazines. I still have a world map covering a wall in my office; I think understanding political borders and geographic proximity helps immensely with understanding what is happening in the world around us. Of course, all of that fascination with maps is focused mostly on land masses, which only cover about 30% of the Earth. What about the over 70% of the world that is covered in water – mostly oceans? With beaches and oceans being our focus for June, what better time to “dive a little deeper” into the subject of mapping the oceans…so tonight we read a book called “Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea” by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Raúl Colón, a fascinating and beautifully decorated biography of Marie Tharp, who was the first person to map the ocean floor.puzzle

When Mary was young, her father was a cartographist, and her love of maps began while watching her father do his work. His job took him and his family all over the country, and by the time she graduated high school, Mary had attended 17(!) different schools. When she went to college, Mary realized that scientists really know very little about the seafloor. When Mary graduated, she was ready to research the ocean, and be a scientist, but science wasn’t ready for Mary (me: c’mon science!). One firm told her they did not need any more file clerks when she tried to apply for a scientific position, and scientists at the Oceans Studies lab at Columbia University in New York told her it was bad luck to have a woman on a ship (so she could not go out on the research ships). Fortunately, Mary was not easily discouraged. She “bit her tongue” and with the help of a friend at Columbia, she decided to try and map the ocean floor anyway. She began to collect data from soundings taken by the lab’s research ships. As she pieced the puzzle together, Mary realized that – yes – there were in fact mountains (and valleys) under the ocean. She also found a deep crack running down the middle of the Atlantic (the Mid-Atlantic Ridge), supporting the theory held by a minority of scientists that the Earth’s surface was covered by a series of interlocking plates (Plate Tectonics). Using different colors for different depths, and engaging the services of a landscape painter from Austria, Mary finally had her masterpiece – the first map of the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Mary had always tried to think big, and in the end it paid off: her maps changed the way people looked at the world.

We really enjoyed this book – beautiful artwork, maps, an inspirational life story, maps, and an amazing woman who bucked the status quo to forever change the world for the better. With two girls, that last item is particularly important to us. Our oldest was especially inspired – her soul fired by anger at the closed-mindedness of the scientific establishment when Mary began her quest, and filled with intense admiration at Mary’s perseverance. It really is a wonderful book (whether you have daughters or not). Also – don’t forget to read the passage in the back of the book, which shines more light on Mary’s life.


Day 153 – Down Comes the Rain

For June, we chose a theme of sea creatures and beaches – but to start the month off, we thought we’d try another book on rain and the water cycle. Hey – the sea is a pretty big part of the water cycle, to say the least, so I think it works. Plus it’s been monsoon season around here for what seems like months.down comes the rain

So, where was I? Ah, yes: we are starting June and for our first book of the month, we picked an entertaining and informative volume from the “Read-and-Find-Out-Science” collection: “Down Comes the Rain” by Franklyn Branley. As with several of our other water-cycle books so far this year, “Down Comes the Rain” manages to address the subject in a concise, engaging and accessible way.

The book follows four children who alternately narrate (through speech bubbles) and appear in various stages of the water cycle – including, strangely, talking about hail. I say “strangely” because with all the books we have read on the water cycle, I think this is the first time that we have read about hail…in a book that did not talk about snow. Interesting – and a reminder that each book in a particular theme may be similar to others we have read, but each has something unique to offer.

Day 138 – Did a Dinosaur Drink This Water?

In keeping with our seasonal theme, tonight it was water cycle time again. This evening’s book, “Did a Dinosaur Drink This Water?” by Robert E. Wells, was another great example of Storybook Year “info-tainment”: an engaging and accessible picture book that sheds a little more light on how the world really works. Laid out much more like a comic book than a science text, Mr. Wells’ book grabs your attention with an intriguing premise and then imparts a lot of great information about the water cycle and about conservation. It’s a message that would have fit quite well with Earth Day just two days ago, but we enjoyed it just as much today nevertheless.dino water

Now, I’m a sucker for a good (or even a mediocre) dinosaur storybook – but this particular volume isn’t really about dinosaurs. In truth, Mr Wells spends about one page talking about my favorite prehistoric creatures – but the book was entertaining enough that the dearth of dino-discussion didn’t bother me. The question on the cover actually refers to the fact that the Earth recycles water – meaning that the same water molecules we have today have been on the planet for millions and millions of years. It’s a fascinating concept to ponder.

The book follows two children who I presume are a brother and sister, travelling around the globe in what looks like an oversized, glass-domed drone. They stop along the way and learn about the water cycle, the way the earth recycles and cleans water (evaporation, running over rocks in streams, seeping through the soil to underground aquifers), the way that people use the movement of water from river to sea to help generate electricity, and plenty of other great facts. The message about conservation comes right at the end and is presented as a set of common-sense suggestions for using water mindfully.

With pages full of colorful and active illustrations, plenty of great knowledge about the real world, and a flow to the pictures that draws your eye around each page, this is a great book to read aloud or to have laying around for aspiring readers to pick up and peruse on their own.


Day 136 – What Makes it Rain? The Story of a Raindrop

It’s raining, it’s pouring, being stuck inside is boring…unless…you have a good book to read…and we have plenty to suggest! Today, if you haven’t been keeping up with your water cycle studies (or even if you have), we are happy to propose another wonderful learning opportunity: “What Makes it Rain? The Story of a Raindrop” by Keith Brandt, and illustrated by Yoshi Miyake. Part of the “Learn About Nature”, series “What Makes it Rain?” is a remarkably comprehensive and engaging overview of the water cycle complete with gentle watercolor illustrations apropos of the subject matter.

what makes itMr. Brandt manages to cover a lot of ground in this book. He introduces the reader not only the stages of the water cycle, but to the journey that water takes from mountain to sea (and even into your own home!), and the importance of water in sustaining plant and animal life. While there is a lot of text it is not at all cumbersome; the language is accessible for younger listeners, and (for those to whom this matters) there is no heavy-handed lesson on environmentalism. “What Makes it Rain” is straight-up edu-tainment! We found it to be quite an enjoyable read-aloud…and it is a book we are happy to have available in our own collection.


Day 114 – William Shakespeare and the Globe

On April 23, 1616 William Shakespeare died at the ripe old age of 52, after establishing himself as perhaps the greatest writer in the English language. We celebrated his life on the 23rd – since no one is quite sure of his birthday – by reading “William Shakespeare and the Globe” by Aliki. The book provides an entertaining high-level look at Shakespeare’s life, and the efforts long after his death to restore his famous theater to its former glory. With colorful illustrations and informative insets that fill the margins of every page, Aliki’s book is an engaging and accessible introduction to the “Bard of Avon” for younger listeners.
Bill Shakespeare
Although the pages of the book are sprinkled with quotations from Shakespeare’s works, Aliki does not go into great detail regarding the content of Shakespeare’s writing. She focuses instead on the timeline of Shakespeare’s life and the historical context within which he penned and staged his many plays. Readers are introduced to important historical figures from Shakespeare’s England, and to key rivals like Christopher Marlowe and his acting troupe – the Admiral’s Men. For younger listeners I think this approach is appropriate, providing just enough information to pique curiosity without confusing things by trying to delve into the intricacies of Shakespearean prose.

The book is not just about old Bill Shakespeare, though. Roughly a third of the story is about American stage actor Sam Wanamaker and his tireless work (and infectious dream) to see The Globe Theater reborn so that Shakespeare’s plays could be “performed as they once were”. Aliki succeeds at conveying just how involved and difficult a task Mr. Wanamaker took on – and just how much help and luck he needed to make his dream come true. The only disappointing thing about what is otherwise an inspiring tale is that Mr. Wanamaker didn’t live to see his work completed. Ahh, well… I guess all’s well that ends well (sorry, I had to). As Aliki reminds us at the end of her book, just like Mr. Shakespeare lives on through his plays, Mr. Wanamaker lives on through the reconstructed and active Globe Theater.

We really enjoyed this book, and it certainly whet our appetites to read some Shakespeare together as a family. I think we may still be a year or two away from being able to do so, but this book almost had me thinking we could give it a try tomorrow.


Day 88 – Circle of Seasons

Today’s book, Gerda Muller’s “Circle of Seasons”, is a simple and soothing introduction to the seasons, complete with playful and captivating illustrations in Ms. Muller’s characteristic style. While paging through this lovely book, we kept feeling as though we wanted to be inside each of the seasonal scenes, and we could feel a love of nature and of natural beauty shining through each of the drawings.

Circle“Circle of Seasons” is actually a compilation of four “Seasons” board books that were individually published in 1994. The four original books have no text, just Ms. Muller’s charming pictures. This “Circle of Seasons” compilation adds only minimal prose to these illustrations, and does a really nice job of maintaining a slow and inviting pace. After reading the cover page for Spring, (“You know it’s spring when…”) the reader is presented a wordless 2 page bucolic scene of a little country house with flowers in bloom, buds on the trees, baby sheep in the field, and many other sweet details that children can come to associate with the season. Each wordless spread, two per season, presents a welcome invitation to stop and explore the illustrations, to discuss what is happening in the picture and to pick out the details that might be associated with the season depicted. I love the timeless nature of the seasonally-appropriate games and activities taking place in each scene, and I thought it was neat that Ms. Muller included both Christmas and Hanukkah as representative of winter.

We have had Ms. Muller’s Seasons books in our collection for several years, and they have been solid favorites with our youngest for quite a while. I had a bit of a hard time locating a copy of this compilation, but I am so thankful we found one to add to our Gerda Muller collection.

 


Day 82 – An Egg is Quiet

I had a feeling just from looking at the cover of this evening’s storybook that we were in for a treat, and I was not disappointed. “An Egg is Quiet” by Dianna Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long, is a beautiful combination of science, poetry, and art.quiet

The simple but elegant text introduces the reader to the wide variety of characteristics an egg can exhibit: not only can they be quiet, but they can also be “clever”, shapely, artistic, and fossilized…just to name a few. Each two-page spread presents a new characteristic complete with stunning watercolor illustrations that are well complemented by the choice in fonts; the production quality is excellent. There are notes scattered around each page providing additional information and letting the reader know what animal belongs to each of the eggs shown. One review I read had what I thought was a particularly apt description of the overall effect: it is like reading a naturalist’s journal.

We read the book through once to get a sense for the flow – the “big picture” if you will – before going back to soak in and discuss all the wonderful details. I really enjoyed being able to identify some of the more unusual eggs from the labels, and was fascinated to learn (for example) that seabird eggs are pointy on one end so that they “roll around in safe little circles, not off the cliff.”

We originally selected Ms. Aston’s book for this week because of the approaching Easter holiday. While not, strictly speaking, an Easter book, “An Egg is Quiet” still fits in nicely – presenting a natural variety and beauty to eggs that outshines the colorful plastic egg decorations we see everywhere this time of year. It seems like the kind of book that would be nice to have on the shelf for little ones to pull out periodically and pore over and I was happy to discover that Ms. Aston and Ms. Long appear to have published several similarly attractive collaborations. I expect we will be reading more of their work this year.

 


Day 74 – Pi Day and Einstein’s Birthday

In honor of Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday today we had another “holiday bundle”. (A brief aside: one of my favorite things about A Storybook Year is how many new holidays we have to celebrate. I think I’ve mentioned this fact before, and I apologize ahead of time for the fact that I will doubtless say it again). Our bundle included several entertaining books, and I will attempt to give each its due here.

Pi Day

The Blueberry Pie Elf

elfOur feature selection today was “The Blueberry Pie Elf” by Jane Thayer and illustrated by Seymour Fleishman. It is a darling little book about an elf named Elmer who loves blueberry pie and whose taste for this delicious confection causes him to go to great lengths to make his love known.

Elmer lives in a house with “some people” who don’t know he’s there because, as Ms. Thayer informs us, “no one can see an elf, no one can hear an elf, and no one can feel an elf.” One day, Elmer helps the people pick blueberries and roll dough for a blueberry pie. After the people go to bed that evening, Elmer jumps into the pie dish and eats “till his elfin stomach bulged.” He then cleans his feet out of courtesy to the people, and curls up in a tea cup to sleep. When he wakes, however, he finds to his dismay that the rest of the pie is gone; consumed by the people for breakfast(?!?). Elmer has a new purpose in life: to find more blueberry pie. Since Elmer can’t be seen, heard, or felt, he begins to take care of chores around the house (sweeping, cleaning dishes, making the bed), hoping that his kind deeds for the people will cause them to make another blueberry pie. However, while they appreciate the efforts of this unseen individual, the people have no way of knowing what it is that Elmer wishes them to do in return. Elmer is distraught; he paces, closes his eyes tight, even hides his head under a pillow trying to block out visions of blueberry pie…to no avail. Meanwhile, the people do bake pies – but not the right ones: apple (yuck), pumpkin (he turns up his nose), and cherry (too sour). However, after sampling the cherry pie, he forgets to clean his feet and leaves tiny footprints on the table. Aha! When the people find the footprints later, they realize at last that they have an elf in the house – that is who has been so helpful lately! If only they knew what to do to thank him…suddenly, while admiring his cherry footprints, Elmer has an epiphany! He jumps into the pie dish and uses his cherry-covered feet to write “Blueberry Pie Please”.  At long last, Elmer’s wish is answered – the people make him a blueberry pie, and the book ends with a heart-felt “Thank You” spelled out on the table with blueberry pie filling.

We found a lot to appreciate about this book. Mr. Fleishman’s vintage illustrations add a significant amount of charm to this quaint parable, and what parent wouldn’t appreciate Elmer’s attempt to “earn” more blueberry pie by working hard and being helpful. Elmer is not only hard working, but considerate: until his happy mistake with the cherry pie, he is has the good manners to wipe his feet whenever he helps himself to some dessert, and he remembers to use his polite words (“please” and “thank you”). He is the quintessential model of good behavior! I fear this message was lost on our oldest, unfortunately; when we later discovered that some of her oatmeal from breakfast had dribbled down the cabinet drawers onto the kitchen floor, she seemed unperturbed and simply suggested that perhaps Elmer had been enjoying the oatmeal. Oh well, we shall take our own lesson from this book: don’t give up. Elmer wouldn’t.

How to Make An Apple Pie and See the World”

apple pie“How to Make an Apple Pie And See the World” by Marjorie Priceman is an exuberant and silly tale about the great lengths one COULD go to in order to make an apple pie. You see, the recipe is rather simple: “get all the ingredients at the market…mix them well, bake, and serve…unless, of course, the market is closed.” When one door closes, another opens, however – and Ms. Priceman takes us on a humorously extreme alternate route to gathering the necessary ingredients which involves a trip around the world in planes, trains, and automobiles, stowed in a banana boat, plopped unceremoniously in a bicycle basket, carried on the end of an elephant trunk, and dropped from a plane into a Vermot apple orchard before heading back home.

Ms. Priceman’s tale is funny and entertaining, and her trip around the world is also informative. The book actually provides a little geography lesson, not only in terms of where certain countries are around the world, but in terms of the kinds of food you would want to gather there (e.g., semolina wheat from Italy, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, and sugar cane from Jamaica).

Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi

sir cumference“Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pie” by Cindy Newuschwander and illustrated by Wayne Geehan is a mathematical fairy tale decorated with rich pastel drawings and full of all sorts of Pi-related puns. The story centers on Radius, the son of Sir Cumference, who inadvertently turns his father into a dragon when he brings him the wrong remedy for his heartburn. Alerted to the presence of a dragon in the kingdom, knights begin gathering from all across the countryside and Radius is in a race against time to turn his father back to human form before he is slain. There is a remedy, but Radius must be careful to give just the right dose, a dose which is the same as the ratio between the circumference of a circle and the diameter. With some help from his mother (Lady Di of Ameter) and the Metry brothers (Geo and Sym), Radius eventually determines that all circles have the same ratio – and he administers a dose of 3 1/7 spoonfuls to his grateful father who parades his son back into a town for a celebratory helping of pie.

We love math (see our dorky reason for picking “Waiting” by Kevin Henkes) and I am particularly fond of bad puns – so this book was perfect for us. It’s not just silliness, however. The expression on the face of the dragon that dominates the cover of the book is the only hint that the characters are in on the joke. There is some real math education here in the context of an engaging story; I actually became pretty invested in Radius and was really pulling for him to figure things out.

Albert Einstein’s Birthday

I Am Albert Einstein

albert“I am Albert Einstein” by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos was a lot of fun to read. Mr. Meltzer’s books are sized just right to be attractive to little hands, and he presents his subjects in a very accessible way – with a combination of simple text and amusing comic strip vignettes (aided significantly by Mr. Eliopoulos’ expressive and playful style of illustration). We read one of Mr. Meltzer’s other kid-centric biographies for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, but I did not read the little comics out loud at that point – which appears to have been a mistake. I did fortunately read the comics out loud in this evening’s Meltzer selection, and the exchanges therein between Albert and other characters from his life were consistently the funniest parts of the book; did you know that Albert Einstein had awesome hair?

The idea that you could be so misunderstood by everyone around you as a child, or even as a young adult, and yet go on to become widely acknowledged as one of the smartest men ever to have lived, is tremendously appealing. Yes, Albert Einstein’s life story is an inspiring one, and Mr. Meltzer’s book is a great introduction to that story for younger kids.