Sometimes you just want to get your hands on some reliable nonfiction. The other day I was in the office and we’d spread out the vast quantities of nonfiction samples we’d been sent from a variety of publishers (all of whom shall remain nameless). And while some things were okay and other things were tolerable, so little of it was of the “Wow! Awesome!” variety. It would be disheartening if we didn’t have folks like Lerner to fall back on. And I’m not saying this to be all chummy with them. I honest-to-goodness really like their books. Are all Lerner books created equal? Of course not! But they fill gaps in my collection while at the same time providing books on subjects it would never have occurred to me to buy. And it tends to be reliable.
So! With that in mind, here’s how the Spring ’14 season is looking for ole Lerner Books these days.
First up, the Lightning Bolt Books series and their latest topic: “Animals in Danger”. We’re talking Endangered and Extinct Bird, Endangered and Extinct Mammals, even Endangered and Extinct Invertebrates. The lure is that a lot of these contain a heartening comeback story at the end of each book of some animal or critter that nearly went belly-up and then was saved at the last minute. I know plenty of kids that have to do endangered animal units for school, so it seems to me this makes for a much needed topic and category.
Speaking of requests I hear a lot, this is one that I wish to high heaven would go away and yet it never will. I’m talking about “character building” books. Books that by dint of even being read will miraculously transform your child into a better person through their cheery texts. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad books of this ilk are assigned to children every day in schools. So while I loathe and abhor them, I am infinitely grateful to Lerner for at least doing a couple decent ones on the topics we’re used to being asked for. Case in point, the “Show Your Character” series. They’re multicultural and act as a slightly older version of Stuart J. Murphy’s “The Way I Act” series.
So here’s the deal with Common Core. I’ve nothing against it myself. Just the way it’s implemented some of the time. But even as I say that, there are aspects to CCSS that are difficult to deal with. I’m thinking in particular of the areas that are required and need written material, but where there’s very little in the marketplace. Particularly in the case of early civilizations. Second and third graders are supposed to be learning about China or Mesopotamia, but where the heck is the series written at an earlier reading level? Meet the new Searchlight Books series “What Can We Learn from Early Civilizations?” Each book is written on a easier level than a lot of books out there, and they cover everything from how these civilizations influence us today to folklore beliefs associated with those civilizations. Plus anything that touches on Ancient Egypt is all good with me.
In the biography part of the world, finding stuff on contemporary scientists is a bit slapdash. The “STEM Trailblazer Bios” series covers a range o’ folks, from robotics developers to game designers. And there are even some women! I don’t usually write out all the titles when I cover a series, but in this case I’ll make an exception. In this series you’ll find the books:
- Alternate Reality Game Designer Jane McGonigal
- Flickr Cofounder and Web Community Creator Caterina Fake
- Google Glass anId Robotics Innovator Sebastian Thrum
- iPod and Electronics Visionary Tony Fadell
- YouTube Founders Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim
- And FINALLY, after all these years, Astrophysicist and Space Advocate Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’ve been waiting for a Tyson bio for years and years and the fact that no one has done one yet just baffles me. Glad to see someone somewhere picked up the slack!
I’ll confess to you that in many ways this round-up is mighty NYC-centric. Because New York kids care diddly over squat about monster trucks and rally cars, I have chosen not to mention series like the “Dirt and Destruction Sports Zone” series. By the same token, kids in this city have a thing for fashion. Go figure. All the more reason then that they might like the “What’s Your Style?” series coming out. Basically everything from boho to edgy to pretty to streetwear gets its own book. Knowing next to nothing about fashion myself, I trust Lerner to do right by my kids.
Have you guys seen that Blue Apple Books series where you follow a single object, be it a sphinx or dino bones or an asteroid from discovery (or in some cases, rediscovery) to their place in museums? How the Sphinx Got to the Museum is one such example. Well full credit to the upcoming book Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey, since it takes a similar, if distinctly more biological, trip. Starting in El Boxque Nuevo in Costa Rica we see a place where farmers grow butterfly pupae. Why? To ship to museums around the world, of course. What, you think those butterfly exhibits grow themselves? Written by Loree Griffin Burns with photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz, we follow a single butterfly pupae, and then go through all the requisite butterfly lifecycle details. In a market where all the butterfly books kind of blend together, this one’s going to stand out.
We all love the Scientists in the Field series, bar none. I love that series. You love that series. But let’s fact it, they’re not the only scientists out there with books to their names. Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Patricia Newman (photos by Annie Crawley) at first sounded nothing so much as Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion. The difference is the focus. In this book we follow a research expedition studying the accumulation of plastic in the Pacific. Through this story we see a lot of prepwork, including how to live on a ship, sea sickness, cooking, etc.
I’m a big fan of children’s or teen books that do original research not found in adult titles. It’s unclear to me, but this may fall into that category. Secrets of the Sky Caves: Danger and Discovery on Nepal’s Mustang Cliffs is written by Sandra K. Athans. The focus, however, is on her brother, Pete Athans, the mountaineer. Pete’s the kind of guy who climbs Mt. Everest on a regular basis (seven times as of this post) but this book focuses on what happened when he decided to explore the caves of Mustang (pronounced moo-stang). Apparently they’re near impossible to get into, located in remote Nepal. In this book you get to see his discoveries including (and here I’ll quote the catalog text) “murals to ancient texts to human remains”. And they say there’s nothing left to explore anymore . . .
When I was in high school I had an English teacher who let us in on a little secret. Certain movements of the body could be translated to explain what a person was thinking or feeling (God only knows what this had to do with English literature). He showed how showing a palm might mean one thing or where your eyes automatically go when you’re lying. I felt like this was the secret to the universe and if I just knew all these secrets I could rule the world (or, at the very least, become the next Sherlock Holmes). Sadly, there was no book I could find that explained these things. Now Lerner has produced Every Body’s Talking: What We Say Without Words by Donna M. Jackson. It is PRECISELY the book I wanted when I was young. For librarians, this will be the world’s easiest booktalk. Hey, kids! Want to know how to effectively lie to your parents? It’s all here! My co-worker Amie, upon hearing about this book, pointed out that it might actually be of a lot of use to autistic kids or those on the spectrum, since decoding physical bodily clues make up a lot of their existence. Smart thinking there.
So you know how I continually vow that I’m not going to report on any YA these days in these previews? Well, that lasts just about as long as it takes to discover awesome YA nonfiction. After that point I’m a puddle. I melt. I am helpless in the face of awesome YA nonfiction. Probably has something to do with the fact that there’s so little of it to choose from. Or, it could be that Lerner comes up with the BEST ideas for books.
Example A: The World Series: Baseball’s Biggest Stage by Matt Doeden. The World Series has a century long history, so it’s fitting that there should be a book out there that looks into it in depth. It covers everything from the wacky moments (“the bloody sock” may mean something to some of you) to the heroic ones. Baseball on the field has pretty much remained the same over the decades. But off the field? The climate has completely changed for the players. Watch the changes take place here.
Example B: Chasing the Storm: Tornadoes Meteorology, and Weather Watching by Ron Miller. Ron, for the record, actually traveled with a group of storm chasers to figure out how they did their work. We’ve tons of fiction in our collections that talks about storm chasers (the “Storm Runners” series by Roland Smith comes to mind) but very little in the nonfiction department. This book shows you not only how to become a storm chaser, but includes information on things like making your own weather station in your backyard. Nicely done.
Example C: When a big event takes place and you wonder which major publisher will produce the first really good title on the topic, Lerner’s usually the first to come to mind (check out how quickly they made a book about the latest Pope when he was named last year). In Curiosity’s Mission on Mars: Exploring the Red Planet by (again) Ron Miller, the book looks at Mars from a cultural perspective. Chock full of diagrams and images as well as mentions of past and future missions, this’ll make a nice little companion to books like Cars On Mars and other Mars-centric selections.
Example D: K-Pop: Korea’s Musical Explosion by Stuart A. Kallen. This is one of those cases where you don’t notice a phenomenon until it’s pointed out to you. If you’d asked me prior to the publication of this book to name the top South Korean performers out there, I would have been hard pressed to answer. But there’s Psy and, of course, Rain (whom I think of every time I hear someone mention that current CW show Reign). Historically The Korean War was how American soldiers with their rock and roll introduced the form to the nation. Now it’s huge, and has a book of its very own.
Example E: Years ago I saw this great documentary of found footage called The Atomic Cafe. Oddly, it was the very first place where I learned about the Bikini Islands and what we did to them post-World War II. No books in school ever touched on the topic and no textbook mentioned it. Now Bombs Over Bikini: The World’s First Nuclear Disaster has been written by Connie Goldsmith thanks in large part to a information that was just recently declassified. Between 1948-1956 the United States released 67 nuclear bombs. This is the book that discusses what happened and the accidents that occurred as a result.
Example F: Traumatic Brain Injury: From Concussion to Coma by Connie Goldsmith (who, for the record, is a nurse) is probably as timely as timely could be. But this isn’t just another book about the wide and wonderful world of football related concussions. This book has a much broader approach, looking at the science behind what a concussion is and the different types that occur. Since 52,000 die each year from them (not including all the unrecorded traumatic brain injuries), 1.7 million Americans have been diagnosed with TBI each year. This is the book that looks into what happens and why.
Okay. Enough of that teen stuff. Let’s get some firm footing in the world of children’s books instead.
There is a legend that surrounds the 18th-century composer Scarlatti (which, in and of itself, is a marvelous name). The story says that his most famous melody was created after he heard his cat walk across the keys of his harpsichord. Scarlatti’s Cat by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer (illustrated by Carlyn Beccia) follows the legend to its logical end. Pulcinella is the cat in question and she dreams of playing her own compositions. It’s not until the timely appearance of a mouse, however, that she gets her big chance. There’s a nice twist at the end on who gets the cat after Scarlatti gives her away. Cute and musical.
2014 appears to be the year of Mumbet. Next year Harper Collins will produce the young reader’s edition of Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies by Cokie Roberts (illustrated by Diane Goode) and there is a brief mention made in that book of Mumbet, a woman I’d never heard of before. Now in Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle (illustrated by Alix Delinois) we hear her story. In 1781 a slave in Massachusetts just named Mumbet went to court for her freedom (and her daughters’ for that matter). The amazing thing is that she won the case! Here’s her story.
In the past I’ve said that fairytales and folktales are the hardest books to find in a given year. Well, thanks to the efforts of small publishers I no longer believe that to be the case. Now I lament the lack of poetry on our shelves. Poetry, good poetry, is danged hard to find so whenever I hear of something I take note. Lerner has just started the Poetry Adventures series, and they’re kicking off with Brian P. Cleary’s If It Rains Pancakes: Haiku and Lantern Poems. It’s a continuing series, so we’re bound to find more than just these, but they make for a good start. The rules are clearly stated for each poem and the pictures keep things fun.
Laura Purdie Salas and Violeta Dabija paired together back in 2012 to make the soft and simple A Leaf Can Be . . . Now they’re back with Water Can Be . . . which follows much along the same lines. This goes through the roles water plays and since it’s incredibly simple (“Water can be a . . . Tadpole hatcher / Picture catcher”) it’s ideal for very early units on water. Basically it does for water what Picture a Tree did for trees. They’ve also paired with Water Aid, so that’s where some of the profits will go.
Poetry is hard to find. Graphic novels? Less so. Yet I’m still amazed that more time isn’t spent trying to find great ones for the kiddos. Granted, the good ones can take years and years to make. Still, there are ways around that. I was then very happy to see a new GN series coming out of Lerner. Tao, the Little Samurai by Laurent Richard (illustrated by Nicolas Ryser) is basically a very young Naruto. A boy who excels in pranks and jokes dreams of someday becoming a martial arts master. My only question? How do you pronounce the hero’s name? Is it Tao or Dao? Questions, questions . . .
We have lots of middle grade books featuring deadbeat parents, but it can be hard to find just the right balance between stupidity/slime and real affection for their kiddos. The new series “The Berenson Schemes” by Lisa Doan (illustrated by Ivica Stevanovic) takes an interesting tack. In Jack the Castaway a boy has two parents obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes. Perfect. Ideal for fourth graders, it reminds me of nothing so much as “The Unseen World of Poppy Malone” series (parent-wise anyway). Oh. And Jack ends up shipwrecked on a tropical island avoiding a shark. So there’s that too.
Last but not least, here’s a smart idea for a very different fiction series. Called “The Cryptid Files” these books by Jean Flitcroft, these stories are of cryptozoology, much as you’d find in Suzanne Selfors’ “Bigfoot Terror Tales”. In each book (starting with The Lock Ness Monster) our heroine Vanessa globe trots trying to finds and prove that cryptids exist.
And that’s the long and the short of it folks! Many thanks to Lindsay Matvick for sitting down with me and showing me her wares. Here’s a long and nonfiction heavy 2014!