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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Thanks Jeannine, What A Great Idea

Your Own Favorite Nonfiction Books

I hereby open this blog to a discussion of Your Own Favorite Nonfiction Books of this past year. You are free to roam down to concept books — Betty has often spoken eloquently about the greatness of Byron Barton’s My Car, stray over to pop-ups, range through middle grade, up to YA. I suppose, in honor of the Alex and BBYA, I would even say you can include adult books that you think have a special reason to be included in this list. And as a subset, yes, historical fiction is allowable — and, if you have seen the Lucy and Steven Hawking book, George’s Secret Key to the Universe, you might call that science fiction, but not in the space opera sense, more fiction than includes real science, the way historical fiction is (often) fiction meant to recount real history. Same with any book that is, in a way, about math, but includes fictional elements.

I only ask one thing – since we are overcoming resistance to NF, and since, I hope, some of those fiction readers may stray over here to eavesdrop on us, please take a moment to talk about what makes the fave (or faves) you have selected special. Book talk the selections — give us a great quotation, describe some terrific art, wax eloquent about an appealing use of design — help us to envision what is so exceptional about this book.

I like the idea of making this an annual selection, just like the ones over at CCBC and elsewhere. To add a twist to our discussion, some of the most interesting NF I saw this year were a series of books I looked at in France this summer — books that opened up philosophical questions — what is freedom, what is liberty, what is equality — to primary school readers. I loved how the books stayed close to the intended reader, yet stretched the reader’s mind, pushed the reader, invited the reader to question, compare, contrast ideas. So range as widely as you want, and — to follow yet another suggestion of Jeannine’s feel free to gush.


  1. Jeannine Atkins says:

    Marc, thanks for the thanks. Of course now that I suggested it, I’d better come through with some choices. I’m iced-in today, so the books I’m listing are ones I have around. Like most authors, I love to read about topics I write about, so you’ll notice the focus on women in history. (and apologies to paragraph lovers, of which I am one, that the format won’t allow them)

    Marie Curie by Kathleen Krull from her Giants of Science series is one favorite. I think her balance of showing a unique personality with simple, clear, but not condescending explanations of Curie’s achievements in chemistry and physics is exquisitely handled. She gives highlights without falling prey to that biographer trap of “because I researched long and hard to learn this, you’re going to have to read about it, too.” And what gossip-loving person can resist (not me) an introduction that ends: “As for publicity that focused on scientists as human beings, (Marie Curie) had this to say: “In science, we must be interested in things, no persons.” So would she have liked this book? Probably not.” But I sure did.

    I wrote about Jo Peary in How High Can We Climb? The Story of Women Explorers, but there’s much more to say about her and her daughter, Marie Ahnighito Peary. I admired The Snow Baby: The Arctic Childhood of Admiral Robert E. Peary’s Daring Daughter by Katherine Kirkpatrick. Who can resist a wide-eyed baby in furs (from an era before Arctic animals were endangered) or her mother in a snow-length dress ready to hunt walrus. Not only are the black and white photographs enchanting, but the text marches swiftly from one dramatic event to another and suggests the heroic silences that family members of explorers are sometimes asked to keep.

    Different Like Coco, a picture book by Elizabeth Matthews is as charming and clever and thin as its subject. The illustrations say a lot with a few perfectly placed lines. That orphanage, those nuns – yikes! – but it’s here that Coco learned to sew and developed a taste for black and white. A picture of her telling lies in a confession booth highlights her wrinkled stockings and confident face. For me, the book ends a bit too happily-ever-after for the subject and her era, otherwise depicted in some complexity, but a simple relevant timetable and bibliography lead on intrigued readers.

    Tuttle’s Red Barn by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Mary Azarian is a picture book I wish I had written because I was married in Dover, NH where it’s set and used to buy carrots and apples at that farm. But what confidence it took to cover more than 300 years in what I assume is 32 pages, and it’s a triumph. Details in both writing and illustration are well chosen to suggest both the period and personalities. Each generation gets a page or two, and there’s just enough rhythmic repetition (the candlesticks brought from England and passed down, the attitudes toward hard work) to keep you from feeling overwhelmed by change and enjoying the varied looks of the farm Azarian depicts in her splendid woodcuts.

  2. Jeannine Atkins says:

    As far as nonfiction books for adults go, I’d like to mention The Canon by Natalie Angier, who often writes for the science section in the New York Times. I think it’s relevant to some of the discussions here since Angier was partly motivated to write this book, which distills some important current issues in probability, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and physics, because she is frustrated by the science illiteracy she finds. I wish educators would get a chance to read at least the introduction, in which Angier quotes scientists who think of their jobs as fun, and talk about how science is fun for little kids, and what are we doing to wreck that sense of fun by the time many students reach middle school? They stress that science is about discovery, which means they deal always with uncertainty, while some curriculums present science as a bunch of unalterable facts to be memorized. Angier brings a quirky humor to her subject and lots and lots of examples so that a former English major like me can get –enough? half? well, I’m glad there’s no quiz — of what she’s talking about.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    Jeannine stepped up and knocked it out of the box, a wide ranging list that clearly also reflects her taste and personality; informed and critical yet enthusiastic — others?

  4. GraceAnne LadyHawk says:

    Susan Goldman Rubin’s DELICIOUS, a book about the artist Wayne Thiebaud. Written with energy and verve, it lucidly offers a biograph and an insight into why people make art and what art does. It is also brilliantly designed, with font, layout, and image all working with the text. I cannot help but think children reading this will want to run right out and see a Thiebaud for themselves.

  5. Marc Aronson says:

    I have not seen it, but now I want to.

  6. Nancy I. Sanders says:

    Two publishers come to my mind of their great line of nonfiction books for kids. Alphabet books by Sleeping Bear Press seem to be everywhere! But these aren’t your typical alphabet books–each letter features a rhymed text in the center page saying A is for…and B is for… and along the sides of each page are fascinating facts that kids are excited about discovering (and adults, too!) The other publisher is Chicago Review Press who does a great line of historical activity books for kids. Really in-depth source of information plus primary sources–unusual for such great detail at a kid’s level. I wrote nonfiction books with both publishers that recently came out this last year–and both lines of books can be found everywhere it seems–libraries, museums, classrooms! Kids and adults alike seem to love them.

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    I don’t know Sleeping Bear, but I agree about the Chicago Review books, I have seen several of their books and was impressed.

  8. Nancy I. Sanders says:

    Sleeping Bear’s alphabet books are nonfiction–their biggest series covers the 50 states–one per state! They even have companion NF number book for each state. My book is part of their multicultural series: D IS FOR DRINKING GOURD: AN AFRICAN AMERICAN ALPHABET. (Illustrated by Caldecott Honor award winner E. B. Lewis) I’ll be hosting a Virtual Book Tour on my blog starting Feb 1, 2008 to celebrate its release at Until then, I’ll be posting occasional tips on how to set up a successful Virtual Book Tour yourself. It’s been a lot of fun. Have you had much experience with Virtual Book Tours before? And if so–any tips?

  9. If it’s not too late, I’ll add a few non-fiction favorites: “The Wall” by Peter Sis is a fun and informative personal history. The illustrations create a distinct visual world, and the narration is refreshingly lighthearted at times, given the dire events. “Tracking Trash” by Burns has a very appealing story that carries a bunch of fascinating information about science and the scientific process. Lynn Curlee’s “Skyscraper” is a great introduction to the subject with text and paintings both contributing. And “Another Book About Design” by Gonyea presents a complicated topic in a way that’s easy to grasp, and does almost the whole thing with pictures.

  10. JG Annino says:

    Thanks for this idea.

    I hope a reader has suggested from National Geographic Children’s Books,
    Ann Bausum’s
    FREEDOM RIDERS: John Lewis& Jim Zwerg?

    Her research & depth in her topics makes her an exemplar for writers such as myself, working to bring new NF topics, often regional in geography but wider in scope, to young readers.

    JG Annino