Time was when National Geographic meant only one thing to kids: Big piles of yellowing magazines in your grandmother’s basement. Good magazines. Interesting magazines. Maybe you were one of those kids who actually had a subscription. But the idea that they would parlay their natural non-fiction tendencies into the children’s book publishing world was unknown to me as a young sprout. Kids today are lucky. They’ve a wide array of fantastic, fantabulous, downright cool titles to choose from, depending on their interests. History, animals, weirdo facts, it’s all here!
I sat down with Jeff Reynolds, Director of Marketing for National Geographic Children’s Books to get a sense of what these crazy kids have coming out in the upcoming year. For the record, these are all middle grade and up, unless I indicate otherwise.
For starters, there’s Liberty or Death by Margaret Blair. Blair’s already done a fair amount of books for kids in the past, including The Roaring 20: The First Cross-Country Air Race for Women (which came out in 2006 and I’m ashamed to say I completely missed), Now she’s tackled a pretty complex subject for kids, but one that’s been raising its head a couple times in the past few years. Liberty or Death: The Surprising Story of Runaway Slaves Who Sided with the British During the American Revolution is just that. Our history books have been so gun shy of discussing the point of view of the Loyalists in the first place that maybe it’s taken this much time to tell this story for a reason. Yet with the prominence of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains as well as other insightful looks at the period, I think we’re finally ready for this book. Ms. Blair is active with the Children’s Book Guild of Washington D.C., an organization I did not know much about until now, but that I’ll be actively seeking out at the next ALA Conference.
One of the biggest children’s non-fiction trends right now is to take a book for adults, winnow it down to the interesting stuff, and then present it to children. I just finished Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by Charles C. Mann, which is excellent and also a younger version of his 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Whenever there’s a book with new content for young readers, I’m apt to think that it was written for adults first. That’s a pretty unfair attitude when you consider the primary research done on books like the recent National Book Award winner in the Young Person’s category Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice or even a new book by Rick Bowers called Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement.
Spies of Mississippi does something few books for kids dare. It takes spies, those often cool subjects of books like Secrets, Lies, Gizmos, and Spies or Spyology and rips away the phony glamour. The book shows how the Governor of Mississippi spied on citizens in an attempt to destroy the Civil Rights movement any way he could. In the book (as the catalog says) "Author Rick Bowers has combed through primary-source materials and interviewed surviving activists named in once-secret files, as well as the writings and oral histories of Mississippi civil rights leaders." Bowers also happens to be the head of creative projects for the AARP. I am very much looking forward to this one, you bet.
Stonehenge is good stuff for kids. Ancient stones, miles from their original source = fabulous. Truth be told, most of what I know about Stonehenge is summed up best by Eddie Izzard. "Help you push it along? All right. It’s not far is it?" At any rate, there’s a new book on that old henge we love so well, and it’s If Stones Could Speak: Unlocking the Secrets of Stonehenge by Marc Aronson, Mike Parker-Pearson, and the Riverside Project. The book sounds neat, but neater still is the last minute add-on of additional discovered information. I don’t know if you saw it in the news, but recently scientists discovered a mile from the original Stonehenge a little site that they are now calling Bluehenge. Why hasn’t it been discovered before? Well, the stones aren’t there anymore, for starters. Instead there are "holes of 27 giant stones set on a ramped mount." That information has been incorporated into this book so that it really will be THE most up-to-date title on Stonehenge available to kids (and adults, for that matter). There is a theory out there that there was even a third henge called Woodhenge as well. Evidence suggests that The Big Bad Wolf got to that one early in the game, though. Moving on.
Alas, the countless books dedicated to the Apollo moon landing will no longer be filling our shelves now that the 60th anniversary has passed. Don’t believe that the era of space flight-inspired children’s literature has passed, though! From Gloria Skurzynski we have This is Rocket Science: True Stories of the Rick-Taking Scientists Who Figure Out Ways to Explore Beyond Earth (National Geographic is fond of their elaborate subtitles). The book tackles the question of how human beings will be able to propel themselves into deep deep space. Will we use solar power? Entirely new technologies? Where does Mars fit into all this? It touches on the history of space flight, of course, but also will please budding rocket enthusiasts. Might be a good, if slightly older, companion piece to You Are the First Kid on Mars, actually.
And speaking of space, what’s National Geographic if not good at ye olde photos? Super Stars: The Biggest, Hottest, Brightest, Most Explosive Stars in the Milky Way (remember what I said about subtitles?) by David Aguilar. Aguilar, by the way, was one of those guys who decided the ultimate fate of Pluto’s planet status. In this book there are fantastic glossy full-color photographs of everything from brown dwarfs to star nurseries. Purdy.
Switching gears now, we turn to picture book biographies. There’s really only one on the Spring 2010 list, but it’s pretty cool. She Sang of Promise: The Story of Betty Mae Tiger Jumper: Seminole Tribal Leader is the true story of America’s first female elected tribal leader (that we know of). Written by J.G. Annino, the book is illustrated by Lisa Desimini. You know Ms. Desimini, even if you don’t recognize her name right off the bat. Just look at all the books she’s done! In any case, this book is a rather fascinating story. Born the daughter of a white guy and a Seminole woman, Betty Mae left her tribe, became a nurse, and then came back. Eventually (after filling in for her husband on his alligator wrestling job… this is true) she was elected the Seminole tribal leader. Once in a while I have a kid come in with an assignment and says, "I need a biography of a woman who isn’t dead." Insofar as I can tell, Ms. Tiger Jumper is still around. Noted.
Almanacs. Kids love almanacs. Considering that almanacs often tend to just be collections of facts, you’d think kidlets would avoid them like the plague. But the National Geographic Kids Almanac 2011 is a good example of why they like the darned things. More than 500 photos. Tons o’ cool facts. Plus the book is coming out in Canadian and international editions.
Much along the same lines is the book Weird but True: 301 Outrageous Facts. In the magazine National Geographic Kids this is apparently a regular column. It was then easy as pie to simply collect those facts into a nice and tidy little book once they had enough. Think of it as a Snapple cap fact book (only more accurate). Besides, where else are you going to find out that peanut butter can be converted into diamonds? Seriously.
A child and its money are soon parted. Too bad since kids love cash. So I like the old "How to Get Rich" series National Geographic started before. They’ve already done How to Get Rich on the Oregon Trail and How to Get Rich in the California Gold Rush. Now they’re all about teaching you How to Get Rich on a Texas Cattle Drive: In Which I Tell the Honest Truth About Rampaging Rustlers, Stampeding Steers, and Other Fateful Hazards on the Wild by Tod Olson, illustrated by Scott Allred. Ladies and gentlemen, I declare this to be the winner of the loquacious subtitle award of the day. The books apparently employ a running ledger of gains and losses, which is clever. I haven’t been able to see one yet, but they’re clever ways to get kids interested in the reality of American history.
And then there are the series. On the younger side of things are the books written for emerging readers. They’re still non-fiction but they cover broader topics like Race Day (for race car enthusiasts), Pandas, or Dolphins. Not a lot of words, so they’re good for new readers, and the pictures are, as ever, purdy. The Face to Face series is along the same lines but older. I like these books. This season we’re seeing Face to Face with Manatees, which is good because my library’s manatee section is a touch paltry. Face to Face with Butterflies will be joining the hundreds of other butterfly books I have, but it’s not like teachers aren’t constantly doing units on them. Finally I see that the National Geographic Countries of the World series is coming to its conclusion. So expect Spain and United States to be out soon. In fact . . . I love how their covers complement one another. Lookee here:
Awesome. Probably unintentional, but awesome.
And that, as they say, is the end of that. A pretty interesting looking year. We’ll see what rises to the top.