Category Archives: Non Fiction

Nonfiction Monday: National Geographic Biographies: Anne Frank

Anne Frank: The Young Writer Who Told the World Her Story by Ann Kramer is part of National Geographic’s World History Biographies Series. The biography is marketed as an introduction to Anne’s story for readers who might not yet be ready to read her diary. The format of the text is very visually appealing, with excellent balance of text and images, numerous photographs of the Frank family and the Secret Annex, and a timeline that runs along the bottom of the pages throughout the entire book. You feel like you are getting a real glimpse into Anne’s world and experiences. The background of some of the pages is the same plaid pattern found on Anne’s actual diary itself, which I think is a lovely design touch. The text is divided into manageable sections focusing on Anne’s early years, the period of hiding in the Secret Annex and the family’s discovery and deportation. Interspersed throughout are several sections to provide background information or context on the historical period (Jews In Europe, Kristallnacht, The Holocaust). The writing is straightforward and accessible.

National Geographic is pitching this book for the 8-12 range. I don’t think most 8 year olds are ready for the intensity of the content here, not to mention the strong images related to concentration camps in the section on The Holocaust. As always, presenting a text with this type of content means that you have to really know the child who will be reading it. In fact, I think that in some ways, if a child isn’t ready for Anne’s actual diary, they might not be ready for this book. I first read the Diary when I was about 11 or 12, and I would have really been interested to have this book at my side. It would be a good companion text for Anne’s beloved book.

You will find a listing of the other titles in this series at National Geographic.com.

Nonfiction Monday: Elephants and Golden Thrones

Elephants and Golden Thrones: Inside China’s Forbidden City, by Trish Marx, is a captivating inside look at the largest museum in the world. Anybody – child or adult – with even a passing interest in Chinese history and culture will sink right into this book. Marx covers a lot in only 48 pages, beginning with the story of Emperor Yongle, the ruler known as the Black Dragon, who was responsible for commissioning the Forbidden City. Each subsequent section of the book begins with a story of an Emperor or Empress as a lead in to many amazing glimpses of what life might have been like inside the palace during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The book is quite text heavy, but the informative sections are broken up nicely by the mini-narrative interludes which offer more personal insight into the rulers themselves. The text is very accessible too. It is not too complex for a younger reader, and yet it doesn’t oversimplify the content.

Part of the appeal of Elephants and Golden Thrones is the photography by Ellen Senisi. The pictures are quite beautiful, conveying the majesty, mystery and richness of the Forbidden City. Along with “never before published” photographs of the rooms, gardens and architecture of the palace, there are pictures of many artifacts and artworks to complement the text.

Good timing on the part of Abrams, as the book is released in July, just in time for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. It will be a lovely addition to classroom/school and public libraries, and I expect that children who happen to be studying Chinese culture will find it both informative and engaging.

Nonfiction Monday: I Found a Dead Bird

41777zcbt0l_ss500_.jpgJan Thornhill’s book, I Found a Dead Bird: The Kids’ Guide to the Cycle of Life & Death, is just the kind of nonfiction title that many kids will find cool. It’s an up close look at death through a mostly scientific lens, how it happens and why it happens. This is a fascinating – and potentially controversial – book, as I can imagine some parents finding it too grim or too graphic for their kids. Thornhill addresses the fact that death is a taboo topic for many humans early in her book, and suggests that avoiding the subject will likely just add to fear and anxiety.

The matter-of-fact tone established at the outset continues through the whole text, which helps to normalize the subject matter to a certain extent. I like how Thornhill explains her reason for writing the book in the first pages:

“I found a dead bird. It made me sad. But I also had a lot of questions, like: why did it have to die? how did it die? what would happen to it now it was dead?”

She then proceeds to look at death from just about every angle: food chains, lifespans of different species, predation, the negative influence of humanity on ecosystems, war, forensics, medical research, cloning, grieving, funeral customs. Naturally, the text can only touch on these topics and likely spark further questions in kids’ minds, leading to more reading and learning and questioning. In certain cases, I don’t think that it’s a smart (or sensitive) move to offer such a fleeting analysis of potentially disturbing images: “Oh, yes kids, and another way people die is in wars” (insert image here). Don’t get me wrong, I know that kids see many images of war these days, but I don’t think that this means they understand these images or find them normal or are unaffected by them. I would be hesitant to put this book into just any kid’s hands, as I’m not sure that all children who had recently experienced a loss would handle the text and images easily.

The book has a lot of kid appeal in its design, bright colours, arresting digital illustration and a look similar to Guinness Records in the way that lots of facts appear all over the pages in small bites. And then there’s the “Yuck Factor.” Take the series of pictures of the decomposing piglet, for instance. It’s gross, but interesting. I like how Thornhill encourages kids to say “Yuck,” stating that this reaction is totally natural. But then she encourages them to learn about it anyway. Say yuck, and move on. Good lesson.

I found a dead bird has won numerous awards and is one of the titles in the running for a 2008 Ontario Library Association Silver Birch Award . It’s sure to start many a conversation in the classroom and around the dinner table.

Non Fiction Monday: Graphic Library Series

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Here’s a simple way to test a book for kid appeal in the classroom:

1) Buy book.
2) Hide in classroom library amongst older, non-flashy titles.
3) See how long it takes for the kiddies to locate new book and fight over it.

By this measure, Capstone Press’s Graphic Library Series has significant kid appeal. I can’t slide one of these puppies into the classroom library bins without a bookworm finding it within minutes. At the moment, I have just a few Graphic Library titles in my class and I would be happy to have more.

If ever you needed to convince someone of the educational merit of the graphic novel genre, I can imagine that these books might be just the back up you need. The amount of information in the texts is considerable, and it is conveyed in a completely accessible manner. There’s a lot of supplementary material that will serve to deepen kids’ understanding of the subject matter and head them towards further investigations: a timeline, glossary, bibliography and list of related websites comes at the end of every book. The graphics are dynamic, bright and the layout is clean and pretty slick looking.

There’s nice diversity in the subject matter (heavily American, but hey, what can ya do). The series seems to have a fairly decent multicultural focus overall, and many of the texts address issues of social justice and equity and would offer a starting place for more discussion and learning along these lines.

I found a link at The Graphic Classroom that describes how Capstone is bringing out Interactive CDs as companion pieces to some of these texts. They sound pretty cool, with animation and sound effects and other features too. If only every school could have equal access to resources such as these. If only…

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood

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I’d certainly heard a lot about this title in advance of picking it up. Fuse 8 sung its praises in a review in the fall, and at the end of her review, offered many excellent related links that anyone who has read the book will enjoy: SLJ author interview, video links, even a link to book-inspired recipes. The memoir is also an MG/YA Nonfiction Cybils Finalist this year.

In brief, Ibtisam Barakat is a Palestinian writer, and in Tasting the Sky, she recounts her childhood in her war-torn country. She writes about the Six-Day War and its aftermath, and describes so many unbelievable hardships that she and her family experienced during this time. Barakat’s writing has been described by many reviewers as poetic, spare and eloquent, and I must agree. This is an easy memoir to read for its accomplished prose, which is a blessing, as the subject is at times desperately sad. I could name many features of this text that were moving and powerful, however, I especially believed in the childlike perspective Barakat crafted here. I put down her story feeling as if I had seen what a child had seen in war. Barakat manages to write in the voice of her childhood self. This makes her story all the more compelling and quite heart-breaking.

You would be forgiven for imagining that this is not an easy read for a young person. This is true, but I found a great deal of hope in Tasting the Sky. In spite of living during terrible circumstances, this family does know contentment and love. Barakat grows up to become an advocate for social justice, and this fact demonstrates her profound belief and faith in humanity’s power to change injustice to understanding. This is not a story of despair.

Barakat’s story is also about the power of writing to mend broken pasts. At the end of her memoir, she writes an ode of sorts to Alef, the first letter in the Arabic alphabet. I loved this stanza:

Alef knows
That a thread
Of a story
Stitches together
A wound

At the end of her book, Barakat offers a collection of resources for readers who wish to learn more about the issues related to her story. All of her suggestions interest me, but I took a look at one in particular, the website for the film: “Promises”. I’m going to try to seek out this documentary because it looks incredible. I imagine that it covers a lot of the same ground as Deborah Ellis’s controversial book, Three Wishes.

I didn’t read books like this when I was a kid, other than The Diary of Anne Frank, which affected me more powerfully than perhaps any other childhood book. I didn’t grow up in a family where politics or world issues were talked about around the dinner table. The opportunity for young people to glimpse the challenges that other children face, and the courage and fear that they feel in such circumstances, is one that kids deserve. Tasting the Sky is a book I would like many young people to read and to talk about together.

The Twelve Little Cakes

8331082.jpg When I was working at The Flying Dragon Bookshop I used to joke that if someone locked me in a room and told me that to win my release, I would have to sell The Twelve Little Cakes to the next 10 people who walked through the door, I would consider it a fair bargain. Boy did I sell a lot of this book, and for good reason. It’s one of few books that every so often, floats up to the surface of my memory, and makes me want to put down whatever I’ve got on the go, and reread it, cover to cover.

Dominika Dery’s memoir is as charming as they come. It traces her entire childhood, beginning in the years just after the Prague Spring, through the 1980s. Dery writes as if she were a child again, experiencing all of the things that she lived as she grew up. And it’s her voice that draws you in. You feel that you are being led through a strangely beautiful fairy tale by a wise and wonderfully impish little girl. Her parents were political dissidents, and needless to say, this set them at constant odds with their Communist neighbors. It’s this permanent state of discord that creates some of the most comic and poignant moments in the memoir. This is a rich tale, and surprisingly, an uplifting one. It reveals the incredible strength of family, and certainly made me think about what we need in order to be happy. This book is like the quirkiest and loveliest of foreign films, making you feel that you have lived for a short while in the shadows of a former time and place.

I know you’ve probably got lots of books to read just now, but think of The Twelve Little Cakes as a New Year’s treat to yourself. I am jealous of everyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading it yet.

Dominika Dery now lives in Australia, and I remember reading somewhere that she has been working on a sequel to this book. You can find an interview of her here.