I'm a Round 1 Nonfiction judge so I'm reading as many of the nominated books in my triple category as I can. There's the picture books, the middle grade books, and the high school books, all clamoring for my attention. And I'm having problems concentrating, which I completely blame on COVID. And stuff.
High School Nonfiction
The Spectrum Girl's Survival Guide, Sienna Castellon. Written by a high school woman with autism, this is a inside look at how to navigate adolescence as a girl on the spectrum. Chapter cover specific details ranging from make up and dating to dealing with bullying from students or teaching staff. I liked the organization; it was pleasant to read cover to cover but would have been easy to zero in on specific concerns if I need that. And there were many brief cartoons pulling out specific issues or strategies, and these did a great job of representing many different kinds of girls.
Since it's written from a specific point of view, it also works a bit like a memoir, and a lot of time it seemed the advice would be vague and general before zeroing in on exactly what did and didn't work for Castellon's specific situation. Which makes sense since that is what she knows about but makes the book less handy for the general case. Not everyone will face the same kind of bullying, and although the book points out there are different ways to respond there isn't really any good guide for what those other ways might look like in practice.
Jane Against the World, Karen Blumenthal. Still reading. For some reason I'm having problems reading about how casually people are horrid to women in the past; maybe because they haven't really stopped in the present. So I shall jump to more human positive stories to carry me through.
Middle Grade Nonfiction
Screaming Hairy Armadillo, Matthew Murrie. A collection of animals with loudly interesting names, silly or cute or scary. Each animal gets a picture and an explanation of how it got that name and some interesting facts about it, followed by its habitat and a fun fact. The tone is breezy and light hearted. This is the kind of list book that kids enjoy.
Wild Girl: How to Have Incredible Outdoor Adventures, Helen Skelton. I think Skelton is a mini-celebrity; she was on Blue Peter in the UK for years and is a BBC person who does a lot of sports? And gardening? I've never heard of her, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. Apparently a lot of her job is finding things to do for charity, and the bigger the thing the better. Nice work if you can get it, and definitely better her than me, as the things she found to do included running an ultramarathon through a desert, paddling a kayak down the entire Amazon river, tightrope walking between two buildings, and biking to the South Pole. For each one she brings her amazing enthusiasm. She's willing to do almost anything except quit, and she acknowledges how much she needs her support team to make things work but also how far she goes on sheer stubbornness and a bit of luck. One challenge she includes involves a failure -- she didn't manage to carry the pack the whole walk when she did the final march with the British Special Forces trainees, and she's still mad about quitting (and not training for!) that. The pages are quick and breezy, and she follows a similar format for each of her adventures -- what she did, how it worked and felt, the problems and successes, with sections for Best and Worst for everything, and then the chapters end with suggestions for readers to do for adventures and a group of amazing women and what they have achieved in that area. Then on to the next gig -- cold adventures? Water adventures? City adventures?
I didn't get much of a sense of her as a person beyond a gritty stubbornness and I wondered exactly how these adventures worked and how she assembled the support teams, but I'm not sure kids care about that. It's not a very deep book but it's a fun one and may inspire kids to go outside a few times.
A Sporting Chance: How Paralympics Founder Ludwig Guttmann Saved Lives With Sports, Lori Alexander. I really enjoyed this book about the history of the Paralympics, or a biography of Ludwig Guttmann and how he revolutionized the treatment of spinal injuries. The illustrations really made it work for me; there were photographs and text boxes, but most of them where cheerful light cartoons that somehow made reading about war injuries and the Guttmann's flight from the Nazi's not overwhelming. Sometimes they were illustrating a piece of the text and sometimes they were doodles in the side, but I thought the overall design worked really well. And the topic was fascinating.
I'm a bit leery of savior narratives, but this one tried to avoid that by starting with a man getting injured (he ends up as one of the first patients in the new treatment center) and ending with a collection of athletes, with photos showing their strength and glory. So it's a story of people dealing with their lives, not of a doctor who saves the pathetic victims.
Women's Art Work: More Than 30 Female Artists Who Changed the World, Sophia Bennett. I think this is put out in some way by the Tate? It does what it says on the tin -- gathering together many artists with an essay on their lives and art and its influence. If the artist was still alive there was often a short interview about what they see as their influence or inspirations.
I wasn't terribly keen on the format. There was often only a small picture of the artist's work, but a lot of decorations around which made it hard to appreciate. The interviews were done in alternating cursive fonts, which to made them less accessible -- they looked dull and honestly, they probably are less accessible since a lot of kids today don't learn cursive very well. And I wasn't really sold on how all of the art changed the world. I'm a curmudgeon.
Resist! Peaceful Acts That Changed Our World, Diane Stanley. This is a collection of short essays accompanied by a lovely but static portrait of the people being celebrated. There's a wide variety of people and types of resistance, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Gandhi to the Tank Guy in Tiananmen Square. Some were successful, some just laid groundwork for future success. Some chose their work, some had their path thrust upon them.
I'm a bit worried about the text-picture ratio; it's definitely a book with big pictures in it rather than a picture book. But it's a good showcase of many peaceful people who have fought hard for a better world.
The Very Oldest Pear Tree, Nancy I. Sanders. The story of Endicott pears, or especially the tree that originated them. Planted by an early Massachusetts governor, it lasted through the American Revolution (they sent John Adams some pies from it), through the Civil War, through the Civil Rights Movement (some vandals tried to murder it by chopping off branches) and into the present day, where it's still giving pears to make pies and jelly. A fun angle for history.
A Ben of All Trades, Michael J Rosen. The apprenticing of Benjamin Franklin, shown as he rejects all the trades his father finds for him but keeps inventing new swimming techniques that would come in handy if he were allowed to go for a sailor. From each trade he does learn something that he is clever enough to put into practice, but eventually settles from the interestingly varied life at a printing shop, and from their to fame.
I like the afterward where Rosen talks about building the story around known pieces of history, and what is definitely fact, what is probable, what is likely, and what is possible.
Marie Curie and the Power of Persistence, Karla Valenti. This history of the Nobel Prize winning scientists introduces a supervillain and a minion who recognize her potential and strive to foil her, but her persistence defeats them. It kinda works for me as a metaphor for the misogyny that held her back as she worked to get education and opportunities, except that she converts the minion to her side by the end of the book. But it gives a fun twist to the story of her life, and gives some more action to the illustrations as the minion is in there somewhere discouraging reading or making commutes more onerous or whatever it can attempt t o do.
Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, Candace Fleming.This large, richly illustrated (painted? with a large image on each page) book follows the life of a bee from emerging from its pupa-cell through its death. I hadn't realized that hives aren't specialized by task; instead a bee cycles through each job as it matures so that its wings have a change to develop and strengthen before it goes on its nectar quests. So we see Apis tending eggs, building honeycomb, tending the queen, etc. before it flies off to find flowers and bring back sisters to harvest their nectar. And then to die of exhaustion, just as the next bee emerges. It's a good balance between not personifying the bee but still having a strong narrative.
The back matter includes a large diagram of bee parts and further information and resources.
The back matter includes a large diagram of bee parts and further information and resources.
Let's Fly a Plane!, Chris Ferrie. An eager but clueless red kangaroo wants to fly, so he goes to an aerospace engineer for advice. Kids following along get to learn about the four forces (lift, thrust, weight, drag! I remembered them, so it worked!) and how they work together to end up with a plane flying (one hopes). Not quite Kangaroo's original plan, but something that works!
I liked the backmatter, which includes good comprehension questions (probably why I remembered the forces) and some activities that demonstrate the principles covered in the book with paper airplanes and straw rockets. But I found the kangaroo an annoying and slightly condescending audience stand in. I think the book is from Australia; maybe it reads differently there.
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read, Rita Lorraine Hubbard. Wow. Born into slavery, then living through Jim Crow, Mary Walker never had the opportunity for school, although she treasured the Bible she received during Reconstruction. But she treasured the times her children would read to her. When her last child died she decided it was time to learn herself; she was over 100 at the time. It was a good call -- she had 20 years left to enjoy her new skill.
The illustrations are appealing, and I liked the way squiggles on store fronts in early pages eventually turned into words after Walker learned to decipher them. They are collage-y in tone and fun to explore. But I have to admit I was distracted from the inspiring literacy story by the amazing age Walker reached. OK, she was the oldest student, but she also the oldest everything! It's hard to imagine that we overlapped; that I was born while a woman could tell me about her experiences in the Civil War, although she died before I would have paid attention.
Ruth Objects, Doreen Rappaport. This picture book biography moves quickly past details of her private life (childhoom, death of mom, marriage to Marty) to concentrate on her career, showing her work as a lawyer arguing before the supreme court, her nomination as judge, and her elevation to the supreme court. It doesn't mince facts about the barriers to women but addresses those as part of a wider focus on human rights; Ginsberg was as likely to take cases where men were disadvantaged because of it (women's spouses often weren't eligible for military or retirement benefits) then ones where women were the plaintiffs.
It's a bit text heavy, and the illustrations are attractive but not very dynamic. They are like portraits that accompany the text. But I think a good reader could make this interesting either to individual kids or in a class setting. Of course, reading it now after her death and the ugly Republican rush to replace her with someone they hope will repeal most of her work is a bit bittersweet.
Caribou, Dorothy and David Aglukark. An appealing animal picture book with details of the Canadian animal's habits, anatomy, and relationship with First People. The illustrations are photo realistic drawings, appealing, easy to understand and relatable. Every page spread covers one or sometimes two topics. I have some quibbles with the organization but it's definitely the kind of book that young animal lovers enjoy; this is the kind of thing I matched kindergarteners with for about 60% of my time as a library volunteer.