2019 Gift Guide: Nonfiction Favs for Ages 4-14

December 5, 2019 § 8 Comments

Our children are blessed to be growing up at a time when kids’ nonfiction is being published almost as rapidly as fiction—and with as much originality! On this comprehensive list you’ll find new books for a range of ages on a range of subjects, including geology, biology, astronomy, art, World War Two, American History, survival, current events…and even firefighting. (Psst, I’m saving nonfiction graphic novels for the next post, just to give you something to look forward to.) Hooray for a fantastic year for nonfiction!

The Crown Jewel of Books (for ages 7-12)

This is my coffee table book for the foreseeable future. Written by Ben Hoare, with illustrations by Angela Rizza and Daniel Long, The Wonders of Nature (Ages 7-12) is 216 pages of gorgeousness, packaged in a decorative foil cover with gilded pages and a silk ribbon for keeping your place (according to my kids, it’s not a gift book unless it has a ribbon bookmark). Divided into four sections—Rocks and Minerals, Microscopic Life, Plants, and Animals—each double page spread features a blown-up photograph of a single natural wonder, flanked by smaller illustrations and a few narrative paragraphs about what makes it—and its natural history—so special.

Though the wombats and armadillos and chimpanzees are undeniably adorable, it’s the other sections which really set this book apart. Familiar plant species like the maple and ginkgo tree (the latter being my favorite tree of all time) are interspersed alongside the corpse flower and protea (the latter having no shortage of tricks up its petals for surviving South African bush fires). The close-ups of marble and sandstone and amber are enough to make geologists out of anyone. And the microscopic life? Well, did you know that one of the most beautiful shells in nature is smaller than a grain of salt? (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)

Adventure Awaits (for ages 9-13)

If my kids were invited to a birthday party this year, chances are I sent them with this gift. Would any child not welcome an adventure guide that comes with the warning, “this book contains a number of dangerous activities that should be done under the supervision of an adult?” How ’bout if I tell you that The Lost Book of Adventure (Ages 9-13) is a facsimile collection of tattered journals and sketchbooks by an Unknown Adventurer, discovered four years ago in an abandoned hut deep in the Amazon? Accompanying the found treasures was this letter: If you are reading this, it means my notebooks have been found[…]In them you will find detailed instructions—from how to build shelters, to raft building, wild camping, and much more—along with a few tales of my own adventures.

With entries titled “An Eye for an Eye—A Finger for a Fin” (in which the author tells of losing his pinky finger to a black piranha) and “Soaring Above Paradise” (where he studied tree house design deep in the Papuan rain forest), those with a fondness for the wild will find plenty to get them excited when adventure beckons. (See my Instagram post for interior shots soon.)

Everything You Need to Know to Become a Firefighter (for ages 4-8)

WOWZA. Where was this book during the years my son and I spent hovering around our neighborhood fire station in Chicago?! Where was this book when all my son wanted to read about were firefighters and all we had was Richard Scarry? In her fantabulous Firefighters’ Handbook (Ages 4-8), Meghan McCarthy has packed an astounding amount of research into an insider’s look at what becoming a firefighter entails. “The training is hard, but the job is harder, so be prepared!”

From training drills to the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), from detailed diagrams of trucks and equipment to the challenges of different terrain, obsessed kids will eat this up. Equal emphasis is given to mental agility, and kids are even asked a few interview questions of their own. McCarthy’s vibrant illustrations pop on every page, and, for those who can’t get enough, the book’s back matter is packed with even more information, including an interview with a retired Fire Department Battalion Chief. Seriously, what are you waiting for? (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)

Evolution Has Never Looked Prettier (for ages 4-8)

One of the most stunning science-based picture books I’ve ever seen. From its silver-plated cover, Moth: An Evolution Story (Ages 4-8), by Isabel Thomas and Daniel Egnéus, highlights the beauty of the peppered moth, one of the most famous examples of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In clear, enticing text, children will follow a species whose adaption was directly and dramatically impacted by human activity. Until the early 1800s, most peppered moths were light with speckled wings. But fifty years later, after the Industrial Revolution had smogged up the air, the opposite was true: most peppered moths had dark wings, allowing them to camouflage against the soot-filled landscape.

Egnéus continues to slay me with the arresting power of his mixed-media illustrations (remember Lubna and Pebble?). Here, the moths’ delicate, paper-thin wings hover effortlessly over a boldly shifting palette of light and dark. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)

When Wartime Enemies Turn Friends (for ages 6-9)

Last year, my son was taken by Marc Nobleman’s picture book, Thirty Minutes Over Oregon, a true WW2 story about forgiveness and reconciliation. So, when I came across A Meeting in the Sky (Ages 6-9), another true WW2 story of two wartime enemies turned friends, by Rina Singh and Jordi Vila Delclòs, I had to buy it. Beautifully illustrated and stirringly narrated, the story tells of two young pilots, American and German, whose shared passion for flying sends them into combat on December 20, 1943, though on opposing sides. When the American bomber’s plane is riddled with bullets, destroying his engine, radio, and guns, he prepares for certain death. The fact that a German fighter pilot is tailing him only confirms his worst fear.

But the German fighter pilot does something unexpected. Despite that shooting down his enemy’s plane would earn him his country’s highest medal, he remembers his father’s words: “Always do the right thing, even when no one is looking.” To the utter bafflement of the American, the German escorts his enemy’s crippled plane to safety. But the story doesn’t end there. For the next 45 years, amidst wrestling with PTSD, the two pilots wonder about their chance meeting in the sky, trying every avenue possible to learn each other’s identity. Until a letter arrives in the mail and sparks a friendship which sees both men through to the end of their lives. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)

When Ordinary People Become Heroes (for ages 10-14)

In full disclosure, I’m only halfway through Deborah Heiligman’s Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship” (Ages 10-14), but I knew after the first chapter that I’d be wrapping it under the tree for my twelve year old to open on Christmas morning (I have a hunch Dad will make a play for it after that). World War Two buffs will devour this richly researched account of what happened when the passenger liner SS City of Benares was torpedoed in the North Atlantic by a German submarine in September 1940. On board the ship were one hundred children, mostly British evacuees whose parents were sending them to Canada in an attempt to keep them away from Hitler’s bombs.

My son devoured Lifeboat 12 earlier this year, Susan Hood’s riveting novel-in-verse inspired by survivors of the same tragedy, and he emerged wanting more. In Torpedoed, factual details and historical context abound, broken up by black and white photographs and sketches. And still, the text is every bit as suspenseful. What sets Heiligman’s account apart are the numerous acts she uncovered of heroism, bravery, and altruism, all by ordinary people—many of whom were part of the teenaged crew—who performed extraordinary measures in the aftermath of the attack. If this book doesn’t make a nonfiction reader out of your kid, then my name isn’t The Book Mommy.

Discovering the World’s Largest Dinosaur (for ages 6-9)

“I might want to be a paleontologist when I grow up.” This from my daughter who likes to tell me she hates science. SCORE! Thank you, paleontologists Dr. José Luis Carballido & Dr. Diego Pol, for sharing your incredible story in the new nonfiction picture book, Titanosaur: Discovering the World’s Largest Dinosaur (Ages 6-9; Spanish edition here), realistically illustrated by Florencia Gigena and enhanced with occasional photos of actual events.

It’s rare that kids get to hear history from the very people who made it. Here, Carballido and Pol take us behind the scenes of what happened after a Patagonian gaucho wondered into a Natural History museum and announced he had found a giant bone sticking out of the Argentinian desert near his ranch. The discovery led to an unprecedented dig, unearthing more than 180 titanosaur bones and the largest dinosaur discovered to date—over 120 feet long and heavier than ten African elephants! (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)

To Stay or Run: The Predicament of the Enslaved Family (for ages 6-9)

Technically, James E. Ransome’s The Bell Rang (Ages 6-9)—a gorgeous and powerful portrayal of slavery and emancipation—is historical fiction; and yet, in a category dominated by straightforward picture book biographies, this is a beautiful choice for those who seek more open-ended historical storytelling. Beginning on a Monday, the story spans one week in the life of an enslaved family, with a free-verse poem for each day presented from the perspective of the family’s daughter. Through carefully chosen words and repetition, we are exposed to the discipline and tedium of the young girl’s daily routine, framed by the ringing of the plantation’s bell—a monotony abruptly broken when her older brother makes the decision to run.

What happens to those who run? And what happens to those left behind? The observations of our young protagonist highlight just how fraught both sides had it—and how utterly heart wrenching it must have been to have to define your existence under such duality. Stay in bondage, or risk everything in escape. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)

The Impossible Cave Rescue (for ages 7-10)

Like so many around the world, our family was riveted in June 2018 by the seemingly impossible rescue of the 12 young soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave in Northern Thailand. My older son went on to read Marc Aronson’s YA chapter book, Rising Water, so I was thrilled when a picture book for my daughter’s age came out.

Taking as its focal point the youngest member of the team, Titan and the Wild Boars: The True Cave Rescue of the Thai Soccer Team (Ages 7-10) is jointly written by firsthand reporter Pathana Sornhiran and children’s author and poet Susan Hood, with illustrations by Dow Phumiruk. Once the young boys become trapped by rising water levels, the story moves back and forth between the drama unfolding inside the cave—where “morning was as black as night” and boys cried out for food in their sleep—and the extensive, internationally-coordinated rescue effort outside the cave’s entrance. On both sides, themes of perseverance and teamwork are displayed in abundance. The lifelike illustrations; maps of the cave; actual letters exchanged between Titan and his family by way of the Thai Navy SEALS; checker games between the boys and the SEALS while they wait for divers; and, of course, the harrowing escape through narrow passages: one thing is more riveting than the next. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)

The Best Moon Landing Book Just Got Better (for ages 4-8)

This year’s 50th anniversary of the first moon landing saw no shortage of new kids’ titles, but the best was actually a makeover to what is still the most beautiful and poetic picture book on the subject. After consulting with numerous new primary and secondary sources, Bran Floca expanded his masterpiece, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (Ages 4-8), with eight additional pages of breathtaking art and in-depth information, including an important nod to the women and minorities (thank you, Hidden Figures) who worked behind the scenes “sewing suits, assembling ships, and writing codes for computers.”

If you haven’t added this treasure to your nonfiction collection, there has never been a better time. Floca does the seemingly impossible: delivering a technical narrative about the historic, nail-biting moon landing through lyrical language which lifts us into the black starless expanses right alongside Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin. (For those ready to take kids beyond the moon, I also highly recommend Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet, which I reviewed on Instagram here.)

Because the Pluto Controversy Never Gets Old (for ages 4-8)

It’s strange, right? Our kids weren’t even around when Pluto was considered a planet—and yet they still act outraged by the shift in its classification. Adam Rex and Laurie Keller go right after this indignation, letting us hear it straight from the mouth of Pluto himself in Pluto Gets the Call (Ages 4-8). Wait, you didn’t know planets could talk? Pluto is happily introducing us to his place in the Kuiper Belt of our Solar System (“It’s this huge ring around the Sun that’s full of frozen stuff. It’s kind of my neighborhood, no big deal”)—when he gets a phone call from “some mean scientists” on Earth, informing him he’s not a planet anymore.

As Pluto visits each of the eight planets (which are still planets), he vacillates between giving us helpful information about them and unloading his own resentfulness at his demotion. Told entirely through speech bubbles, this book is guaranteed to elicit chuckles, as it delivers a surprising amount of factual information about our Solar System (and the evolving definition of a planet). Can Pluto find his silver lining? (Also, let’s pause a moment and remember Adam Rex’s contribution to last year’s Gift Guide.)

An Animal Book Unlike Anything You’ve Seen (for ages 7-10)

When Beastly Puzzles: A Brain-Boggling Animal Guessing Game (Ages 7-10) first came out, our entire family got into it. (Nothing like a little friendly family competition.) Written by Rachel Poliquin and illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler, this book is guaranteed to make you think about animals in an entirely new way. In thirteen different spreads, we are given six everyday objects and then asked what animal you could make if you put them all together. What animal could you make with two paddles, snowshoes, 300kg of fat, a fishing gaff hook, steak knives, and a transparent raincoat? (Fair warning: this is one of the easier ones.) Opening the flap page gives the big reveal—the polar bear!—and then details how each object corresponds to a unique attribute of that species. (See my Instagram post for interior shots.)

My Favorite Picture Book Biography of the Year (for ages 7-10)

And the winner is…It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way (Ages 7-10), by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Julie Morstad. Many of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s lost hours in the vibrant pages of Gyo Fujikawa’s bouncy, playful, frolicking babies of all skin colors. I was eager to share with my own daughter the story of her revolutionary contribution to racial diversity in picture books. But would she care? Yes! Because this isn’t just a poignant account of Fujikawa’s struggle to advocate for herself as the daughter of Japanese immigrants and against the prejudicial backdrop of World War Two. And it isn’t just an explanation of why it became so important to her to celebrate diversity on the printed page.

Above all, this book is an attestation to the power of the creative process to transform and even save a life. Maclear and Morstad have taken extraordinary pains to seamlessly weave Fujikawa’s personality and artistic style into each of the glorious pages, and the result is a master class on form, line, color and the power of white space. A must for the artist in all of us. (Keep an eye on Instagram, as I’ll post interior shots soon.)

When You Look Like the Enemy (for ages 10-14)

For those ready for longer biographies, I was riveted by Enemy Child: The Story of Norman Mineta, A Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese-American Internment Camp During World War Two (Ages 10-14), meticulously researched by Andrea Warren in cooperation with Mineta, and replete with black and white photographs and quotes from Mineta himself. The awkward trim size and textbook-look of the cover do it no favors: the text is far more accessible and engaging than the exterior suggests. With few middle-grade books about this deeply troubling slice of American history, this feels like essential and timely reading: a testament to Mineta’s enduring belief that hate and injustice should have no place in our country, and that our children must learn from the wrongs committed before they were born.

Long before he became a ten-time American congressman and presidential Cabinet appointee, Norman Mineta was a carefree fourth grader who loved Cub Scouts and baseball and lived in San Jose, California. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mineta’s family, like thousands of others with Japanese ancestry, was rounded up and imprisoned at the Heart Mountain Camp in rural Wyoming. The book does an exceptional job, not only of depicting Mineta’s day-to-day life as a child coming of age in isolated, often inhumane conditions, but also of his bafflement at being suddenly viewed through a lens of distrust by his countrymen, simply because he “looked like the enemy”—and despite the strong patriotism displayed by his parents and neighbors, even inside the camp’s walls. This same patriotism would eventually inspire Mineta to believe that America could do better. He grew up to become a distinguished statesman, where he successfully fought for the reparations of internees and, later, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

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