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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

31 Days, 31 Books: 2021 Nonfiction Picture Books

All right, folks. This is a big one. A whopper. You’ve seen me slowly leading up to it this month. Now I’m presenting to you the cream of the crop, as it were. These are the Nonfiction Picture Books of the year that I just feel went above and beyond the call of duty. Many you’ve seen on previous lists. Some will be entirely new to you (see immediately below). Whatever the case, they’re all marvelous and worthy of housing on any bookstore or library shelf.

2021 Nonfiction Picture Books

African Proverbs for All Ages by Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, ill. Nelda LaTeef

Proverbs from a wide range of African nations and cultures are brought together in this clever compendium, illustrated adroitly with gorgeous art. But to be honest, when I first glimpsed it, my little warning lights were piqued. We all want to avoid just lumping the different nations and cultures of Africa together. Don’t worry. You’re in safe hands with Dr. Cole, who’s an anthropologist (and who has known artist Nelda LaTeef for many years). As I went through this book it turned out to be entirely fascinating. The origins of each proverb are cited, when possible. It also proves to be a study in how proverbs can not only be used with kids but also how well they can be paired together. There are usually four proverbs, two per page, presented with every page turn. Additionally, LaTeef has lived in a variety of different countries in Africa over the course of her life and really brings that knowledge to the fore. All told, this is an accomplished, fascinating book. 

All Kinds of Families by Sophy Henn

[Previously Seen on the Science and Nature List]

Families are as different in the animal kingdom as they are amongst humans. Come see which families display same-sex, sibling, solo, grandparent, and group parenting (and more!). Wow! That was a huge surprise! I was not expecting to feel any sort of affection for this book at all. I thought it was going to be one of those million or so “different families are good” titles. And it is, but what it does that’s so clever is back up that statement with the fact that different kinds of families, those that challenge the nuclear family structure, are common in the wild kingdom. So you have orangutans tending their kids into adulthood, daddy emus that raise the kids alone, long-tailed tits where the older siblings take care of the younger, grandparent orcas, albatross all-female couples, and (most surprising to me) the fact that two male cheetah will adopt lost cubs together. A book that upends the notion of the “natural”.

Animals! Here We Grow by Shelley Rotner

[Previously Seen on the Photography and Science and Nature Lists]

Everything grows but how do growing things change? Beautiful bright photography shows everything from frogs to puppy dogs getting older. Perfect for the youngest of readers. There you go. Like I always say, it’s the children’s books that make you wonder, “Why has no one thought of doing this before?” that are most deserving of your love. With this book Rotner has figured out how to do nonfiction for really young kids AND do it in an original way. And it’s so simple! Basically, she names off animals and then shows them at different stages at growth. The beginning has the usual all-stars like frogs and butterflies, but when she takes it down a notch and starts covering mammals I get seriously impressed. She includes information on baby animal names and then ties it all together with a baby human turning into a kid (not an adult) at the end. I just think she did a stellar job here making something new for, what I’d consider, the hardest age range to write for. If they don’t turn this into a board book in two years then they’re missing an opportunity.

Banksy Graffitied Walls and Wasn’t Sorry by Fausto Gilberti

[Previously Seen on the Biography List]

A peek at the world’s most mysterious, anonymous artist. This strange and wonderful encapsulation of Banksy’s most famous works is bound to intrigue budding artists everywhere. Moreover, I knew I kept reading this series for a reason. Phaidon’s been publishing these Fausto Gilberti “Wasn’t Sorry” books for a while. So far there are Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein, and Yayoi Kusama titles out. This book is the best of the batch. There aren’t a lot of children’s books about Banksy out there, which seems a real shame since his work is sometimes tailor made for kids. I love Gilberti’s bug-eyed stick figure style and the summary of not just what Banksy has done but what Banksy stands for. One of the rare books about an artist that makes you immediately want to look up what else they have done.

Be a Tree! by Maria Gianferrari, ill. Felicita Sala

[Previously Seen on the Science and Nature List]

Can you pretend to be a tree? It’s not as easy as it looks, so learn all you can about how they appear, act, and even communicate with one another. There’s a lot more to trees than initially meets the eye. Man. I’m just a softie for trees. For the first few pages of this book I was all set to write it off as perfectly nice but unnecessary for this list. Then the dang thing started talking about all that new research that’s been coming out about tree communication and it was all over for me. We’ve seen books touch on that topic before but this is the first that I’ve seen that really manages to make the “Wood Wide Web” comprehensible to younger readers. That image of the root systems exchanging food and information just put the nail in the coffin. I’m a big time fan of this book. Betcha you might be too.

The Beak Book by Robin Page

[Previously Seen on the Science and Nature List]

Did you know that a bird’s beak has a job to do? Marvelous cut paper art depicts 21 birds, their wildly different beaks, and why those beaks are designed the way that they are. Yeah, man. It’s a big old big beak book. I’ve read a lot of Steve Jenkins and Robin Page books over the years. And frankly, after a while they all kind of blur together. The thing about this book, though, is that Page keeps everything really crisp, clear, and simple. Her gorgeous portraits of the birds in cut paper (check out those marbelized colors!) zero in on the beaks specifically. Each one has a job that can be described in a single word. “Probing”. “Ripping”. “Clutching”. So you get the big picture with the big words (making the book is appropriate for younger ages) and then a small description with a small image of them using their beaks for what they were designed to do (for the older ages). The end result is that I couldn’t tear myself away. A very clever method of art and design, and a gorgeous (and educational) end product.

Begin With a Bee by Liza and Martin Ketchum, Jacqueline Briggs and Phyllis Root, ill. Claudia McGehee

[Previously Seen on the Science and Nature List]

Every bumblebee colony begins with just a single queen, waking in the spring, doing everything herself. Colored woodcuts highlight one of the more peculiar tales in the insect kingdom. First off, I should admit that I might find this as interesting as I do because I had only just recently discovered from some other children’s book published this year that bumblebees start every year with just one single, solitary queen. That is INSANE! And now this book is telling me that not only that but the queen has to single-handedly tend to her workers, raising them as her own, until they’re big enough to serve her? I can see why some folks find the art cluttered. I like the woodcuts, though. Please don’t compare this last year’s Honeybee since the focus is completely different. A fascinating look at a truly weird way of promulgating your species. 

Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme by Melissa Stewart, ill. Steve Jenkins

[Previously Seen on the Rhyming and the Science and Nature List]

How can fourteen different kinds of monkeys all live in the same area? Come to the different heights of the Manú National Park and let this rhyming bouncy text introduce you to its furry little residents. A couple points that you need to consider here. First off, that monkey on the cover is eating orange mushrooms off a tree. I just happen to find that particularly cool. This also goes far beyond the usual Steve Jenkins catalog of things. There’s an aspect where you can see which part of the canopy each different kind of monkey lives in and a two-page spread at the end that shows the different layers (emergent, canopy, understory, etc.). The additional facts about the monkeys in the backmatter are almost as interesting as the front matter (and involve a LOT more urine), and check out that killer Bibliography! You can read the rhyming portions for younger children and the more wordy nonfiction for the older ones. And, as ever, Steve’s art is killer.

How to Find a Fox by Kate Gardner, ill. Ossi Saarinen

[Previously Seen on the Photography, Caldenott and Science & Nature Lists]

A book of pure photography has never won a Caldecott Award, but this one could have had a shot. Alas, photographer Ossi Saarinen is inconveniently Finnish. Breathtaking photography instructs young readers on where and how one might spot a fox in the wild. YES! This book shoots on all cylinders! The art here isn’t just beautiful. It illustrates the simple text well and is also just a ton of fun. It’s like the photographer knew how to shoot for a children’s book specifically. I loved the simple text for readalouds and younger kids, and the smaller more in-depth info on foxes and their lives. I think any kid who sees this title is going to be instantly obsessed with foxes for the rest of their natural born lives, so take that as a warning. This book is engrossing.

How to Make a Book (About My Dog) by Chris Barton, ill. Sarah Horne

[Previously Seen on the Autobiographies List]

Remember that old Reading Rainbow sequence from back in the day where you learn how a book gets made? It featured the Aliki book named (appropriately enough) How a Book Gets Made. I suspect that book is still on a lot of library shelves, even though its 1986 copyright date means that it is incredibly out of date now. Maybe it’s time to get something just as charming but a little more contemporary? When Aliki made her book, digital editing was a glimpse into the future. Now we have Chris Barton to the rescue, killing two birds with one stone. Kids always ask him about how he creates his books, and kids also always ask him when he’s going to do a book about his dog. Why not combine the two things into one very clever nonfiction text? This book is a nice (and surprisingly accurate) look into all the people and work that goes into bringing a book to life. Visually, it’s an eye-popper. Sarah Horne was clearly the right artist to pair with this text. And as an author myself, my favorite two-page spread was the list of questions everyone involved in book production must keep asking. I appreciated that Chris fills the book with dog jokes, so that those kids who aren’t quite as intent on a future career into authorship have something to keep them engaged as well. All told, a marvelous update to the kind of book teachers everywhere will find useful. 

I Am an American: The Wong Kim Ark Story by Martha Brockenbrough and Grace Lin, ill. Julia Kuo

[Previously Seen on the American History and Biography Lists]

Wong Kim Ark was born in America in 1873 and that’s a fact. But could the government take away his rights just because his parents were Chinese? An inspiring story of one man that changed the nation for the better. Okay. There you go. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about good picture book biographies. This is an expertly crafted bit of modern storytelling about a historical incident. Notice how Brockenbrough and Lin work in references to the displaced Indigenous tribes, keep the focus on Wong, and yet are also able to show what happens to the people in his family. The art too looks simple initially but I was very impressed with Kuo’s use of red on Wong throughout the story. It’s just the right amount of text, never too much or too little on a page. Great backmatter (if he wasn’t already dead I’d want to wring the neck of that Holmes Conrad) and it’s just a really uplifting story.

I Am Smoke by Henry Herz, ill. Mercè López

[Previously Seen on the Science and Nature List]

Smoke speaks in mesmerizing riddles: “I lack a mouth, but I can speak…. I lack hands, but I can push out unwanted guests…. I’m gentler than a feather, but I can cause harm…”. This rhythmically powerful narration is complemented by illustrations in which swirling smoke was captured on art paper held over smoky candle flames, and the dancing smoke textures were then deepened and elaborated with watercolors and Photoshop finishes. With this unique method, Merce López “let the smoke decide how the idea I had in mind would dance with it, giving freedom to the images.” The resulting illustrations are astounding, and they resonate with the otherworldly text. On a reread I discovered how careful Herz is to credit each Indigenous tribe as they appear. Essentially this book shows that water isn’t the only one that gets a cycle. Smoke cycles too, and in this era of forest fires everywhere, it’s nice to see a book that doesn’t demonize the smoke itself. Would be an excellent book to pair alongside When Cloud Became a Cloud (see below).

Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston by Alicia D. Williams, ill. Jacqueline Alcántara 

[Previously Seen on the American History and Biography Lists]

There once lived a girl “who was attracted to tales like mosquitoes to skin.” Hear the tale of one of our greatest American writers, and see how it was stories that buoyed her up, even in some of her dark times. Right off the bat I’m going to confess to you that I think we can trust the dialogue in this book. If I don’t miss my guess, it’ll have been taken directly out of some book of hers about her own life. Why do I think that? Because some of it is written in a southern Black dialect. And when it comes to dialect, that’s a tricky way to go. For a lot of parents, they’re not going to like seeing it on the page, even if it is word-for-word replication of stuff Zora wrote down. The art is fantastic (yay, local Evanstonian Jacqueline Alcántara) and I was impressed with how Williams was able to take Zora’s haphazard life and give it form and structure and meaning. It gives free reign to Zora’s spirit, without sugar coating everything. The kind of book that leaves the child reader wanting to know more about the subject. What could be better?

King Sejong Invents an Alphabet by Carol Kim, ill. Cindy Kang

What a delightful surprise! I’ll confess that my hopes were not particularly high when I read the title of this book. The claim that a king ever invented something, let alone something as complicated as a new alphabet, seemed unlikely at best. Yet as I read this book about the ruler of fifteenth-century Korea, I found that Kim makes a pretty strong case. She also does a very good job of diving down into the greater implications of making common people capable of reading. There’s a lot of social justice action at work in this story, and that’s no accident. I myself had no idea about this alphabet, called Hangeul, and the backmatter is thoroughly engrossing. This book would pair beautifully with last year’s graphic novel Student Ambassador: The Missing Dragon by Ryan Estrada, ill. Axur Eneas, lettered by Chas! Pangburn. After all, that book showed kids how to write in Korean, using this very alphabet. Two books that complement one another perfectly.

A Life Electric: The Story of Nikola Tesla by Azadeh Westergaard, ill. Júlia Sardà

[Previously Seen on the Biography List]

How did one of the 19th/20th century’s most brilliant men end up dying penniless and alone? The life of Tesla is told with all the good, some of the bad, and a whole lotta pigeons. I may not be the most neutral party to read this book since I often find the art of Sardà to be an instant win for me (though, not always). That said, I love the writing in this book too. I was fond of the fact that all the quotes are sourced, to say nothing of how Westergaard cleverly finds ways of telling Tesla’s story without devolving into bitterness. The pigeon element is particularly interesting in this respect. It gives his end a lightness that you need in a picture book bio. A clever method of telling a story that doesn’t have a happy ending.

Make Meatballs Sing: The Life and Art of Corita Kent by Matthew Burgess, ill. Kara Kramer

[Previously Seen on the Biography List]

Art and justice go hand-in-hand in this retelling of the life of artist, educator, and civil rights activist Corita Kent. And now for the heroic nun portion of our evening. I read this entire book before getting to the end and realizing it was by Matthew Burgess a.k.a. the fellow that did that fantastic picture book biography of Keith Haring last year (Drawing On Walls). I went into this book not knowing a darn thing about Ms. Kent in spite of the fact that she is wildly celebrated in the art community. Burgess breaks down her life very well, and this title could easily win the 2021 award for Most Positive Portrayal of a Nun in a Children’s Book. Love the way the colors pop and the sheer ridiculousness (and sense of humor) behind its title. And, if you like this, good news. There’s a second picture book bio of her out this year by Jeanette Winter called Sister Corita’s Words and Shapes. True story.

The Message: The Extraordinary Journey of an Ordinary Text Message by Michael Emberley

[Previously Seen on the Science & Nature List]

One might easily be fooled by its cover, thinking this a boring nonfiction dive into the intricacies of communication. I probably should have noticed early on that Michael Emberley was involved. Emberley is a master at the breakdown. I mean, when it comes to complex subjects, I just want my own pocket Michael Emberley that I can pull out whenever I need someone to explain something like, I dunno, cryptocurrencies or stock market price-earnings to me. In this book he does this infinitely clever thing of not only explaining the science behind how a text message travels across the world, but also how it travels from one brain to another. I guess I’d always assumed that texts bounced off of satellites or something. For me, The Message is a kind of wake-up call. Also, it sort of confirms that my faith in “the cloud” is misplaced, which I truly appreciated. This book? A delight.

Mornings With Monet by Barb Rosenstock, ill. Mary GrandPré

[Previously Seen on the Biography List]

How would you like to wake up at 3:30 in the morning to paint? You wouldn’t? Well, meet Claude Monet, a man who found a pretty unique method of painting a single place at different times of the day. Now here’s the kicker. Rosenstock and GrandPré have both, I would argue, created the best book that either of them has ever produced. GrandPré in particular is to be lauded here. I can’t imagine how one would approach the challenge of illustrating a picture book bio of Monet. You have to evoke his artistic style while, at the same time, not trying to look like you’re replicating it. On a practical level this book also solved for me the mystery of how he was able to paint certain things at certain times of the day. And then that shot of him coming home to his family? There is nothing about this book that I dislike.

Nano: The Spectacular Science of the Very (Very) Small by Jesse Wade, ill. Melissa Castrillón

[Previously Seen on the Science & Nature List]

Do you want self-washing windows, stronger and lighter airplanes, and cleaner water? Learn about nanotechnology and what it’s doing to help the world! I guess I’ve never really sat down and thought through the implications of nanotechnology and, I dunno, how it actually works? Wade does such a lovely job of breaking it down to the atomic level and then working the reader up from there. And there is SO much cool stuff in here! Like the number of most common elements in the human body (11), and how scientists took graphite and made graphene, which is stronger than steel, and how super-sieves might make water drinkable. This is such a cool book and the art is just spectacular. Worth a gander.

Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued by Peter Sís

[Previously Seen on the Biography List]

“I was not a hero… I only saw what needed to be done.” The story of a man who saved 669 Jewish people during WWII, beautifully rendered by a picture book master. After I read this during my lunch I tweeted, “Doggone book. Why are you making me weep quietly in the lunchroom? Not cool, book.” And while I’ll admit that it doesn’t take much to make me tear up, I wasn’t actually expecting to be moved by this latest from Sís. I love his style but I take his books on a case-by-case basis. I walked into this one knowing absolutely nothing and found his unique way of using his art to conduct visual storytelling alongside the text so inventive! Look how he transitions from Nicky’s tale to Vera’s in the art. It’s incredibly careful and clever (two words that describe his books to a tee). Also, is it just me or is Sís pulling the occasional Peter Max imitation in his art? Regardless, when you get to the book’s end it’s powerful. I’m not crying! You are!

Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd, ill. Christian Robinson

[Previously Seen on the American History and Biography Lists]

When history demands you speak, what happens when you sing? The story of Nina Simone’s life, from child prodigy to voice of multiple generations. Uh-oh. If it comes down to my having to decide between which of the two Christian Robinson books of 2021 I like more, this or Milo Imagines the World, I’m going to be completely torn. In large part because he’s doing his best work here. Robinson began his career with picture book bios, after all. Stuff like Harlem’s Little Blackbird and Josephine. But he’s pulling out all the stops with Nina. Somehow, he makes the art really kid-friendly, and then manages to pull in all these adult ideas. He incorporates the history into the day-to-day of Nina’s life. There’s this shot of the piano with the March on Washington featured on its top that’s stunning. And then you have Traci N. Todd retelling Nina’s life so well, and using phrases like “politeness had gotten her people nothing”. This is award-winner material. Right here. Read this stellar Eric Carpenter explanation on Calling Caldecott if you don’t believe me.

The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art by Cynthia Levinson, ill. Evan Turk

[Previously Seen on the American History and Biography List]

A finely wrought telling of the life of a boy who went from shtetl to tenement apartment to becoming an artist who would always fight for the oppressed. I feel like last year we had only a small sample of children’s books with Jewish content to include on our lists. 2021, in contrast, bestows on us a plethora of amazing titles. I was unfamiliar with Ben Shahn, his story, and his work prior to reading this book. So after reading this I looked him up and came to the realization that Evan Turk has seamlessly incorporated Shahn’s work into the illustrations of this book so well that you’d miss them if you weren’t looking. The storytelling is amazing and 20 points for that kicker of a last line. Turk’s art is, as ever, absolutely some of the best coming out these days. There’s even great backmatter, including this Timeline that pairs “Snapshots of Ben Shahn’s Life” in context with “The Bigger Picture” (that’s where the American history comes into play). It’s a beautiful idea and I wish every picture book bio had something similar. All told, this is a picture book bio done exceedingly well.

Pura’s Cuentos: How Pura Belpré Reshaped Libraries with Her Stories by Annette Bay Pimentel, ill. Magaly Morales

[Previously Seen on the Biography List]

What do you do when your library contains none of your stories? Pura Belpré broke the rules to bring the tales of Puerto Rico to life for kids What do you do when your library contains none of your stories? Pura Belpré broke the rules to bring the tales of Puerto Rico to life for kids everywhere! Now I’ve read a lot of Pura Belpré picture books in my day and I gotta say, this one is my favorite. Maybe because I worked for NYPL and dealt with an administration that was not all that different from the one in this book. Maybe because illustrator Magaly Morales didn’t make the mistake of other Belpré bios and actually may have looked at the inside of a New York library branch at least once. Or maybe it’s the writing, which has such a great arc, showing how and why Ms. Belpré became an author. Of course, after seeing all those picture books of her that are out of print in the endnotes, I secretly hope some publisher brings them back with contemporary artists’ work.  

Robo-Motion: Robots That Move Like Animals by Linda Zajac

[Previously Seen on the Science & Nature List]

Robots mimic nature in remarkable ways. From tiny RoboBees to surgical octopuses to Nano Air Vehicle spies that look like hummingbirds, prepare to be astounded! If you’ve ever been creeped out by those YouTube videos of headless dog-like robots (like the one I’ve inserted below) then this may not be the book for you. But if you’ve ever been creeped out AND intrigued, then I think you’ll really enjoy the collection that Zajac has gathered here. I honestly don’t think I’d ever seen these particular robots before. The photos are fantastic and the text light but informative. It’s nice to have something for our robot fans on this list, don’t you think? Can’t all be bios and animals.

Rosie the Riveter: The Legacy of an American Icon by Sarah Dvojack

[Previously Seen on the American History and Biography Lists]

Dvojack is an utterly fascinating illustrator to watch. I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of books for kids coming out with cameos by people from the past. This book sorta jacks up that idea to another level. First off, allow me to introduce you to the endpapers. I had every intention of just skimming on past them, convinced that I’d be seeing the same old, same old. Then my eye alighted on Bernadette Devlin and Ching Shih and that was it. I was hooked. Those women led to a look at the equally intense and fascinating back endpapers (Chipeta (White Singing Bird), Chien-Shiung Wu, Boudicca, etc.). And don’t even get me started on pages 16-17! There’s a very handy guide at the front of the book that could really help you out of you’re curious. Oh. And have I mentioned at all that the book itself is quite good? It runs down the context around Rosie’s existence, and also how she shaped history for women. No fake dialogue. Great text. This one’s a winner through and through.

Runaway: The Daring Escape of Ona Judge by Ray Anthony Shepard, ill. Keith Mallett

[Previously Seen on the American History and Biography List]

Sometimes I’ll read through a load of perfectly decent and unexciting picture book biographies and think that maybe I’m too picky. I mean, how many great bios do you even get in a given year? And then I’ll read something like Runaway and it all comes flooding back. THIS is how you write something that’s original and exciting and simple and has an epic point. Shepard’s book is an exercise in restraint. He takes the “best” possible slave situation and shows just how awful it can be. This feels like the answer to the problem that was A Birthday Cake for George Washington. A much needed corrective.

Sharice’s Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman by Sharice Davids with Nancy K. Mays, ill. Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley

[Previously Seen on the Autobiographies List]

How did a Bruce Lee-obsessed Native American kid grow up to become one of the first Indigenous women in Congress? Sharice Davids tells her inspiring tale. An interesting one! I’m not crazy about picture book bios of congresspeople as a general rule, but Ms. Davids at least did some work on this one herself. She’s a Ho-Chunk Nation member, gay, and a woman, elected to represent Kansas. The book has the usual peppy vibe, but the story’s interesting and I do like the art of its Ojibwe Woodland artist. Plus there is some killer backmatter going on about the history of the Ho-Chunk, written by Jon Greendeer, the Ho-Chunk Nation’s former president. All told, this is some of the strongest Indigenous content I’ve seen in 2021 and I think it deserves some serious consideration.

Shirley Chisholm Dared: The Story of the First Black Woman in Congress by Alicia D. Williams, ill. April Harrison

[Previously Seen on the American History and Biography List]

Thank God for Shirley Chisholm. Not just in real life, but in children’s books these days. You ever noticed that when people do group shots of famous women of the past, Shirley always has the best clothes? Like, consistently the best. She just pops too. The hair, the glasses, you recognize her. Now this isn’t the first Chisholm picture book bio we’ve seen and it certainly won’t be the last, but I like its style. It’s one of those all-encompassing bios that starts in childhood and really nails Shirley’s personality from day one. It talks about her childhood in Barbados and has this nice way of punctuating the book with types of things people said about Shirley (but never in quotation marks, thank god). It ends with her election to Congress and then mentions her run for the presidency in the Author’s Note, which I also found a smart choice. Harrison’s art works. Though her colors are a bit muted, I thought she really gave the characters personality in each of the scenes. My sole, teeny objection to the art is that Harrison never captures Chisholm’s trademark gap between her teeth. As a gap-toothed gal myself, I was missing that detail. Otherwise, spot on.

The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story by Maria Popova, ill. Ping Zhu

[Previously Seen on the Science & Nature List]

Is a snail born with its organs on the wrong side of its body doomed to a life of solitude? Not if Doctor Angus has anything to say. A luscious, lovely dive into snail habits and genetics. Popova does what I wish every nonfiction picture book author could do. She manages to stay well within the range of accurate informational fiction while also managing to make her story read as fluidly and beautifully as any work of fantasy. There’s no fake dialogue. No jumping into the mind of the snail to get its perspective. She does linger on the idea of Jeremy the snail being lonely a bit too long, but it’s a minor point. And the art is just stunning and strange. Wordless gatefolds appear for what appears to be no other reason than to just be pretty. There’s also a strange bit of art accompanying the section on mirror-image bodies that seems to say as much about loneliness as science. Top notch science. Could have used some backmatter, but at this point I do not care.

Song for Jimi: The Story of Guitar Legend Jimi Hendrix by Charles R. Smith Jr., ill. Edel Rodriguez

[Previously Seen on the American History and Biography List]

From Jimmy to Jimi. A young motherless boy goes on to become a rock and roll legend in this eye-popping deep dive into the Jimi Hendrix life and legacy. It’s not the first Jimi Hendrix bio I’ve ever read and it won’t be the last but this book is a truly gorgeous piece of work. What Smith has done here that’s so good is to really pair different moments of Jimi’s life with different types of music. The most obvious of these is when he’s young and sad and the text is written with the cadence of the Blues. Smith’s a poet himself so this makes perfect sense, but less obvious are the moments when he takes the rhythm from songs like “Crosstown Traffic”. Meanwhile Edel Rodriguez has just outdone himself with some of this art. The psychedelic 60s never looked so good. As for why it’s on today’s list, watching Jimi serve in Vietnam (something I knew nothing about) and then change the landscape of American music… that’s good enough for me.

Strange Nature: The Insect Portraits of Levon Bliss by Gregory Mone, photos by Levon Bliss

[Previously Seen on the Photography and Science and Nature Lists]

Glowing, pulsating, iridescent Microsculpture photography introduces you to insects as you’ve never seen them before. A book to make bug lovers of us all. Photography is my first love, so photography that utilizes Microsculpture to stitch together thousands of photographs into a single image? This book may as well just stamp “For Betsy” on the cover cause that’s how much I like it. You’re going to overwork the word “luminous” when you describe what’s in these pages. I was less enchanted by Mone’s jokes but even that definite dad humor isn’t enough to turn me off of the glorious facts on these pages. Now can someone please explain to me how scarabs are in both Egypt and Peru?

13 Ways to Eat a Fly by Sue Heavenrich, ill. David Clark

[Previously Seen on the Science & Nature List]

I am a huge fan of this book. Like, seriously, there were a lot of things I didn’t know going in. Wood frogs use their eyeballs to push flies down their throats? Bats use their tail membranes to flip flies and mosquitoes into their mouths? And is that actually how a fly emerges from a maggot? Just the right amounts of gross and informative all mixed together. I particularly loved the Non-Human’s Guide to Fine Dining at the back, featuring the edible parts of the fly.

Two Grooms On a Cake: The Story of America’s First Gay Wedding by Rob Sanders, ill. Robbie Cathro

[Previously Seen on the American History List]

The true story of the first same-sex couple in America to marry legally. A tale of law, love, and what you need to build a strong relationship. In most cases I am not a fan of inanimate objects telling stories about their roles in historical moments. Books from the p.o.v. of Rosa Parks’ bus or the tree outside the window of Anne Frank make me shudder. But somehow or other, Rob Sanders manages to pull of a story narrated by the two male cake toppers on the first legal gay wedding in America. And the story is really fascinating. Not just what’s on the page for kids (I adore the 70s vibe in the barn where Jack and Michael met) but also the backmatter. This telling gets the tone right and the art works too. Sweet and smart.

Unbound: The Life and Art of Judith Scott by Joyce Scott with Brie Spangler, ill. Melissa Sweet

[Previously Seen on the Biography List]

The triumphant story of an artist with Down syndrome who went on to conquer the art world, as told by her twin sister. Magnificent colorful art brings Judy’s story to vibrant life. This story doesn’t shy away from harsh realities either. All the more remarkable that it is capable of making Judy’s life ultimately triumphant. There is a LOT to discuss with a kid when you put it down, particularly how we’ve treated the differently abled in the past and what more needs to be done. I thought the portrayal here was sensitively done, if not downright eloquent. As ever, Sweet’s art is in peak form, and I honestly think there may not be any other illustrator that could have brought this story to life half as well. Engrossing and challenging by turns.

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Floyd Cooper

[Previously Seen on the American History List]

Once in Tulsa, Oklahoma there was a thriving Black community of successful businesses, churches, libraries, and more. Then a terrible violence was perpetrated on those residents. This is that story. I think I needed time to properly process this book. Once I was able to, I found it without compare. There’s a distance in the art that is completely necessary considering the horror of the subject matter. Plus, I just cannot get that image of the older girl with her arm wrapped protectively around her little sister out of my head. This is probably the book that may finally get Floyd Cooper that Caldecott he’s been courting for so many years. With repeated reads I’m also really appreciating the tone Weatherford took with the book. An incredibly tricky story and task that got handled exactly right.

When Cloud Became a Cloud by Rob Hodgson

[Previously Seen on the Science & Nature List]

On a hot day a little cloud forms over a lake. What follows is a robust series of adventures backed up with clear science in a marvelous introduction to the water cycle for younger readers. Oh, that is delightful. I love it when someone takes a concept that’s been done a million times, but never particularly well, and then just blows it out of the water. And let us not put aside the fact that this is a really smart way of selling the science. I wish there was backmatter (doggone Europeans) but it’s so charming and fun that I can’t begrudge it a spot on this list. Hooray!

The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom by Lita Judge

[Previously Seen on the Science & Nature List]

They provide food, shelter, shade, oxygen, wood, and more, but did you know they could also communicate, send out alarms, nurture their young, and tend to the less fortunate? The mysteries of trees, accompanied by small poems, are revealed.  I agree that this is not a poetry book, but as a work of NF it’s enormously appealing. Judge really dives into the intricacies of trees, but still makes the writing understandable to kids. For sheer kid-friendliness, the book Be a Tree comes off as younger. Then again, it had some text oddities that might cancel it out. In any case, this book certainly deserves more reads. I guarantee you’ll find something you didn’t know before, and it really breaks down what the Wood Wide Web is capable of. Kinda explains why a box elder tree in my neighbor’s yard continues to live, against all odds.

Interested in previous years’ Nonfiction Picture Book titles? Try these:

And here’s what else we have happening this month:

December 1 – Great Board Books

December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations

December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books

December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds

December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books

December 6 – Funny Picture Books

December 7 – CaldeNotts

December 8 – Picture Book Reprints

December 9 – Math Books for Kids

December 10 – Books with a Message

December 11 – Fabulous Photography

December 12 – Wordless Picture Books

December 13 – Translated Titles

December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales

December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books

December 16 – Middle Grade Novels

December 17 – Poetry Books

December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books

December 19 – Older Funny Books

December 20 – Science Fiction Books

December 21 – Fantasy Books

December 22 – Informational Fiction

December 23 – American History

December 24 – Science & Nature Books

December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*

December 26 – Biographies

December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers

December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books

December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids

December 30 – Comics & Graphic Novels

December 31 – Picture Books

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. […] How to Make a Book (About My Dog), which Millbrook Press/Lerner published this past October, made it onto a couple of lists — first, Betsy’s inaugural collection of Autobiographies for Kids, and then onto the trusty ol’ (and much longer) listing of Nonfiction Picture Books. […]

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