Baker’s Dozen: Recent Nonfiction Picture Books

I am developing a great affection and enjoyment for nonfiction picture books. The picture book seems well-adapted to the telling of a short episode from history or a scientific breakthrough or observation in concise prose with pictures to illuminate the story. The following narrative picture books would be great for “doing history” or “doing science” with elementary age children, and each one is a good introduction to an historical events, famous person, or scientific concept for even older students.

Impossible Voyage of Kon-tiki by Deborah Kogan Ray. Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft has been required reading in many schools for more than a generation. I was assigned to read it more than 40 years ago. But I didn’t finish it because, frankly, at the time, I was bored by the minute by minute account of Heyerdahl’s voyage across the Pacific. This picture book account of the journey could be a doorway into the story of Mr. Heyerdahl’s experiment to see if ancient South American inhabitants could have voyaged by raft to the islands of the Pacific.

The House That George Built by Suzanne Slade. The building of the White House. See my review here.

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower, or John Howland’s Good Fortune by P.J. Lynch. Candlewick, September 2015. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’m told it’s an absorbing account of the Mayflower immigrants and their journey to the HNew World.

Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens by Nina Nolan. Amistad, January 2015. This picture book biography of the great gospel singer is limited in informational value, but quite lovely and inspiring. The book should inspire children to listen to Mahalia Jackson’s music, and that in itself self makes the book worthwhile.

Ira’s Shakespeare Dream by Glenda Armand. Lee & Low, August 2105. Ira Aldridge dreamed of becoming a great Shakespearean actor, but in the early 1800’s, for a black man, it seemed impossible. Nevertheless, with determination and perseverance, Mr. Aldridge was able to become a celebrated and accomplished actor, even though he had to emigrate to England to make his dream a reality.

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton. Eerdmans, April 2015. John Roy Lynch was a field slave who became a photographer, then Justice of the Peace, then Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, and then a U.S. Representative. His climb from slavery to Congress is chronicled in Chris Barton’s book. Semicolon review here.

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music by Margarita Engle. Newbury honor winner Margarita Engle writes a poem-story about 1930’s and 40’s Cuban jazz drummer Millo Castro Zaldarriaga. The book makes lovely use of words and phrases to evoke drums and music and a Caribbean atmosphere.

Spic-and-Span! Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen by Monica Kulling. Illustrated by David Parkins. Tundra Books, 2014. If you’re a fan of Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel Belles on their Toes, this picture book biography of the mother of the clan, Lillian Gilbreth, will certainly be a welcome addition to your reading list. Semicolon review here.

Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King by Bonnie Christensen. Elvis’s boyhood and early career are the focus of this picture book biography, with a long, tall two page spread illustration of Elvis and his guitar placed at the climax of the story when Elvis recorded his first hit song, That’s All Right. The book emphasizes Elvis’s youth, summarizing the bulk of Elvis Presley’s career with these words at the end: “With echoes of gospel, country, jazz, and blues, Elvis’ voice touched the hearts and souls of millions, then, now, and always.”

Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh by Sally M. Walker. A delightful lead-in or accompaniment to a read or re-read of Winnie the Pooh, which is always a good thing at any age.

Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews by Kathleen Benson. Benny Andrews, African American painter, illustrator, and printmaker, provides a role model and an example for aspiring young artists. His story is told succinctly, but expansively, in this biography, and the illustrations from Mr. Andrews’ own work make the story even richer.

A Nest Is Noisy by Dianna Hutts Aston. Ms. Aston, the celebrated author of A Seed Is Sleepy and An Egg Is Quiet, is back with a treatise on nests of all sorts and sizes for young naturalists to savor.

Emmanuel’s dream: the true story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson. Cybil’s nonfiction finalist. Emmanuel, born with only one leg, shows Ghana, and then the world, how people with disabilities can do important, world-changing work.

Baker’s Dozen: Best Nonfiction I Read in 2015

I made a special effort to read more nonfiction this year, and I discovered some gems while doing so. These are my favorite nonfiction reads from 2015. Not all of these were published in 2015, but I did read them this past year.

1. Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis by Tim Townsend. Such a good book about Henry Gerecke, the Lutheran chaplain who ministered to the high-ranking Nazi prisoners at Nuremberg.

2. Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior. I was captivated by “extraordinary life” of this woman of God, “best-selling poet, novelist, and playwright, friend of the famous, practical philanthropist, and moral conscience of a nation.”

3. Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink. Deeply disturbing, dare I say scary, story of the events at a hospital in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina.

4. Caught Up in a Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books & Imagination with Your Children by Sarah Clarkson. I didn’t review those, but it’s an excellent book about the power of story in the lives of children and adults.

5. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming. This young adult nonfiction title raised a lot of questions about the ability of religious practice and conviction to actually change our actions and subvert our cultural sins. The Romanovs were devout, but extremely misguided in many ways.

6. She Is Mine: A War Orphan’s Incredible Journey of Survival by Stephanie Fast. The almost unbelievable and harrowing story of a Korean war orphan, abandoned by her mother and unknown to her American GI father, She is Mine is an amazing testament to the courage and endurance of the author, but even more to the grace of God in her life.

7. I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman’s Encounter with God by Bilquis Sheikh. Classic testimony of a well-to-do Muslim Pakistani woman, Bilquis Sheikh, who came to faith in Christ at the age of sixty-five through a series of dreams and visions and through comparison of the Koran to the Christian Bible.

8. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman. 1997 story of a Hmong family from Laos and their difficulties with the medical system in Merced County, California, as it related to their epileptic daughter, Lia Lee.

9. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. Again, disturbing and riveting, this time concerning opioid abuse in the United States.

10. Sacred Marriage: Celebrating Marriage as a Spiritual Discipline by Gary L. Thomas. I didn’t review this one, but I did give my copy to my daughter who got married on January 2nd. Excellent exposition of the meaning of Christian marriage.

11. The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II by Alex Kershaw.

12. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson. Finalist for the Cybils award in Young Adult Nonfiction.

13. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski. I finished up 2015 with this book about the Inklings I was reading it on New Year’s Eve and into 2016. Review coming soon, the book was dense, but fascinating.

Baker’s Dozen: 13 Nonfiction Books of Spiritual Encouragement to Read in 2016

I’d like to read the following books in 2016 as a part of my commitment to grow in my faith in God and my walk with Him:

1. Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More, Regret Less, Stare Down Your Greatest Fears by Margaret Feinberg. This is actually a Bible study workbook that goes along with a video series that we did at church this past fall. However, I wasn’t able to be there every week, nor was I able to actually complete the study in the workbook. So, I’m planning to borrow the DVD’s and make some time to do this study at home, maybe with some of my family.

2. Becoming a Woman of Grace: A Bible Study by Cynthia Heald. My Bible study group is studying this book starting in January, so I’ll be doing two Bible studies at once? And I hope to get an infusion from the Holy Spirit of both joy and grace.

3. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore. I am intrigued by Mr. Moore’s writing on the internet. He seems to be a man who is closely aligned with my views, both politically and theologically. Anyway, I’d like to learn how to “engage the culture without losing the gospel.”

4. Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren Winner. I am not so sure that Ms. Winner and I would agree on all things, but her first book, Girl Meets God, was both challenging and engaging. I’m optimistic that this one would be also.

5. From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty through Church-Centered Microfinance by Brian Fikkert. I’m interested in creative thoughts about alleviating or even ending poverty.

6. Christian. Muslim. Friend: Twelve Paths to Real Relationship by David W. Shenk. Seems timely.

7. George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father by Thomas S. Kidd. Also timely, even though Whitfield lived over 200 years ago. We need a fourth(?) great awakening/revival in this country.

8. 7 Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas.

9. The Woman Who Was Chesterton by Nancy Carpenter Brown. I love Chesterton and wonder who could have managed to live with him. Eccentric to the max.

10. The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus by Dallas Willard. I’ve seen accolades for this book everywhere. I wish I were gentle.

11. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski. I’m getting this book for Christmas (not here yet).

12. Restoring Beauty by Louis Markos. I started this book by one of Drama Daughter’s favorite professors at HBU, and then I got distracted by life. I want to go back and finish it.

13. The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. I’ve been meaning to read this one for a long time.

So there’s the plan. One book of spiritual encouragement per month, plus an extra. I can’t wait to get started.

Christmas in Oregon, 1843

From the book, Westward Ho! Eleven Explorers of the West by Charlotte Folz Jones, “Mapping the Path for Manifest Destiny, John C. Fremont.”

“A week later, on Christmas morning of 1843, they camped beside another lake, which Fremont named Christmas Lake. It is either present-day Hart Lake or Crump Lake. By this time, they were in the desert. Fremont described it as ‘a remote, desolate land.’ Having to spend Christmas in such isolated, barren, and forbidding land, the men’s spirits were low, so Fremont poured everyone a drink of brandy to toast the day. Louis Zindel fired the cannon and the rest of the men fired their pistols. They had coffee with sugar, then continued their journey.”

The eleven explorers in this rather lovely book are: Robert Gray, George Vancouver, Alexander Mackenzie, John Colter, Zebulon Montgomery, Stephen Harriman Long, James Bridger, Jedidiah Strong Smith, Joseph Reddeford Walker, John Fremont, and John Wesley Powell. I would imagine between the eleven of them there many, many Christmases spent in “remote desolate lands.”

I’m feeling as if my Christmas is shaping up to be rather remote and desolate, too, in spite of all the loving people around me and all the many blessings I have to be thankful for. The problem is not my surroundings or my circumstances. I just feel remote and not ready to celebrate Christmas. If you’re feeling the same way, maybe this post from singer and songwriter Audrey Assad will speak to you as it did to me.

Christmas in Maine, 1858

Earmuffs for Everyone! How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs by Meghan McCarthy.

Chester Greenwood was born on December 4, 1858. He allegedly had large, cold ears and invented earmuffs to protect those ears at the age of 15. Well, according to author Meghan McCarthy, Chester at least improved the idea of earmuffs and got a patent for his new, improved earmuffs.

Ms. McCarthy’s illustrations are not my style, bug-eyed people with big heads and little beady pupils. But others might find the cartoonish people set in simple scenes to be just right. To each his own.

I do think Ms. McCarthy does a good job of telling Chester Greenwood’s story, the story of an inventor and an entrepreneur who didn’t “change the world” but did make his own small mark on it. In 1977, the Maine legislature declared Dec. 21 (the first day of winter) as Chester Greenwood Day.

The House That George Built by Suzanne Slade

The House That George Built is a beautiful nonfiction picture book about the building of the White House, the U.S. president’s home in Washington, D.C. Although George Washington was instrumental in planning and building the White House (which wasn’t officially called the White House until 1901 when President Theodore Roosevelt renamed it), Washington never lived in the house he helped build. John and Abigail Adams moved into the President’s House at the tail end of Adams’ presidency and lived there for about four months.

This book tells about the planning, the building, and the first occupants of George’s house with prose on one page and verse on the adjoining or following page.

This is the design,
that would stand for all time,

that was drawn for the lot,
that grand, scenic spot
for the President’s House that George built.

The illustrations, by Rebecca Bond, spread across both facing pages, and give a sense of the expansive growth of the new house along with the new nation. The verse, of course based on The House that Jack Built, grows, too, and at the end a full poem complements a nearly finished grand house. (The staircase wasn’t quite finished, and the roof leaked.)

I have a couple of more prosaic, factual books about the building of Washington, D.C. and the building of the White House, but this books is so much more fun and “living”, while still providing children with information about the House that George Built. There are even more factoids, interesting tidbits about the history of the White House in the back of the book on a page called The Changing President’s House and on the facing page entitled simply Author’s Note.

I’m quite pleased to add this relatively new book, published in 2012, to my library.

Lad, a Dog by Albert Payson Terhune

What books do you recommend to fans of James Herriot’s wonderful animal stories about a veterinarian in Yorkshire? I’m not much of an animal lover or an animal story reader, although I do like the Herriot books, so I had only a very short list in my head of books that might appeal to animal-loving readers. Now, I can add Lad, a Dog to that short list.

The stories in Lad, and they are, like those in the Herriot books, separate stories tied together by continuing characters, are about a collie dog owned by a gentleman farmer in New Jersey. Lad, a sort of composite of all of the collies owned by Terhune over the years, lives on The Place and follows The Law of obedience and loyalty to The Master and Mistress. When he’s not being brave and clever, Lad likes to chase squirrels and lord it over the other collies on The Place. The stories in the book are sometimes a little repetitious, about the evils of dog shows and the intelligence and doggy excellence of Lad the collie, but each story showcases a little bit of a different aspect of Lad’s character and of the joys of owning a superlative dog like Lad.

Mr. Terhune wrote in the early part of the twentieth century. Lad was first published in 1919, and it’s set during World War I. But the stories are timeless, appealing to dog lovers and even to animal-averse people like me. (I like my pets safely penned inside books where they can’t poop or pee in my house. Unfortunately, my children have foisted upon me two cats and a dog who all reside in my domicile.)

My favorite animal stories (other than James Herriot’s books, which are the best ever) are:
The Incredible Journey by Sheila Branford. (two dogs and a cat)
Born Free by Joy Adamson. (a lioness)
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. (dog story)
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. (horse racing)
Rascal by Sterling North. (a raccoon)
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. (horse)
Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. (falcon and other woodland creatures)
Rain Reign by Ann Martin. (dog)
That’s nine, plus one I think I want to read: H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.
No talking animals or fantasy animals included, and I prefer books in which the dog doesn’t die, although some of the above break that rule.

What true or true-to-life dog stories or animal stories would you recommend for children or adults?

Noah Webster: Man of Many Words by Catherine Reef

One of my pet peeves about contemporary nonfiction books for teens and tweens is that the authors seem compelled to share all the interesting tidbits and rabbit trails from their research in sidebar boxed text or sometimes even entire pages of boxed text asides. These text boxes break up the flow of the narrative, and they annoy the heck out of me when I’m reading. I can’t resist reading them to see what I might be missing, and I’m almost always sorry that I did because I lose track the story at hand.

Catherine Reef’s biography of Noah Webster avoids the text box pitfall, and she includes all the extra material she researched on the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution and early American life and politics in the narrative itself. I could read about the ratification of the U.S. Constitution as I read about Noah Webster’s opinions about the Constitution. And no text boxes were inserted to aggravate and sidetrack my reading. So, score one for this biography.

The narrative itself was well-written and interesting, and the illustrations were well-placed in old-fashioned frames which complemented and didn’t interrupt the story. Unfortunately, the size of the book itself, about 8″ x 10″, was awkward and made it somewhat difficult to read in bed or even in a comfortable chair. This size seems to be popular these days for nonfiction tomes, but I’m not a fan.

This biography for young adult and middle school readers is 171 pages long and gives a full picture of Noah Webster and his times and his influence on the American language, education, and government. The author mentions Webster’s conversion, as an adult, to a renewed, or perhaps new, faith in the God of his forefathers, but she does seem rather perplexed and detached about the meaning of all that religious talk on Webster’s part.

“Noah blocked himself off from the din of life by packing the walls of his study with sand. Yet there was one voice he found impossible to keep out: the one he believed belonging to God.
One morning in April 1808 , he was alone in his study. ‘A sudden impulse upon my mind arrested me,’ he said. ‘I instantly fell on my knees, confessed my sins to God, implored him pardon, and made my vows to him that . . . I would live in entire obedience to his service.’ The next day he called his family together and led them in prayer, as he would do three times a day for the rest of his life.”

One can almost hear in the background the biographer’s thoughts of “how quaint and colonial–believing that one can hear the voice of God!” I would have liked to know more about how Noah Webster’s April awakening and commitment to obey the voice of God impacted his life and changed his actions, other than prayer three times a day. The book does tell us that his new found faith caused a rift in his friendship with one Joel Barlow, an old crony who was also an atheist and a poet. Webster reneged on his promise to review Mr. Barlow’s latest poem because the poem was not in keeping with Noah Webster’s newfound Christian convictions. And late in his life, Noah Webster attempted a revision of the King James Version of the Bible, but the Webster version was not a commercial success. That’s about all we learn from this biography about Mr. Webster’s faith and his practice of that faith. Maybe that’s all there is to know.

At any rate, I find that juvenile biographies are a wonderful introduction to people and events of the past. I am inspired to read more about Noah Webster and perhaps get answers to the questions I have left after reading this biography. Ms. Reef’s bibliography lists other biographies of Mr. Webster:

The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and Creation of an American Culture by Joshua Kendall.
Noah Webster and the American Dictionary by David Micklethwait.
Noah Webster by John S. Morgan.
The Life and Times of Noah Webster, an American Patriot byy Harlow Giles Unger.
Noah Webster, Schoolmaster in America by Harry R. Warfel.

I am intrigued enough that I might want to try one of these five biographies. Any suggestions as to which one?

Called for Life by Kent and Amber Brantly

Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic by Kent and Amber Brantly, with David Thomas.

I’ll start out by telling what I missed in this story by Ebola survivor Kent Brantly and his wife, Amber. There’s nothing in the book about how Mr. and Mrs. Brantly came to know the Lord, nothing about their childhood, or their growth as Christ-followers, except in relation to their missionary commitment. I would have liked to have read more about each one of the couple’s initial salvation experience as a sort of a background to their experiences in Liberia. However, this book is not the book for that.

What this book does do well is tell the story of how Kent and Amber Brantly ended up in Liberia on the frontline of the fight against the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. And it tells in detail how Kent Brantly contracted Ebola himself and how he survived the virus that killed so many people in Liberia and in other West African countries. In the book, Brantly also gives God the credit for saving his life, while acknowledging that many people and circumstances came together to make it possible for him to receive expert medical care and treatment.

I was intrigued learn of the many factors that converged to make Mr. Brantley’s survival and healing possible and of the heroic actions of many missionary doctors and nurses and Liberian national doctors and healthcare workers in their team effort to combat the Ebola outbreak. It’s a good, inspiring story, and it made a good antidote to the darkness of the news story of death and destruction in Paris that dominated this past weekend’s newsfeed. I admire Kent Brantly and his fellow Ebola survivor, Nancy Writebol, even more than I did before reading this account of their faith in God and their tenacious fight against Ebola.

I recommend Called for Life. I needed some contemporary heroes to restore my hope, and I imagine you do, too.

Three More Words by Ashley Rhodes Courter

The sequel to the inspiring memoir, Three Little Words.

I think I would have enjoyed this memoir more if had read Ms. Rhodes-Courter’s first book, about her life as an abused foster child and then as an adopted child in a loving family. I found out what her “three little words” were: “I guess so”, spoken in response to the judge’s question at her adoption hearing about whether or not Ashley wanted to be adopted by her prospective parents. I never did figure out what the “three more words” were. I love you? I forgive you? I’m all grown?

Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. While the stories in the book about Ms. Rhodes-Courter and her husband, Erick, and their adventures as foster parents were interesting, the rest of the book, about the ongoing drama with Ashley and her birth family felt a little self-indulgent, as if the author were trying to work out her psychological baggage by spilling it all in a book. Heaven knows, as a blogger, I’m not one to begrudge anyone the space and the words to write out their angst and issues, but I did feel by the end of the book as if I knew kind of more than I needed or wanted to know about Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s dysfunctional birth family.

However, the parts about the foster care system and the foster children that Ashley and her family were able to care for (and sometimes return to their own dysfunctional or abusive families) were both fascinating and heart-rending. It seems to me that no matter how many new, well-intentioned laws and rules and regulations we put into place to try to protect children and place them in safe and loving homes, it’s very difficult for bureaucrats to take care of children. Either there are too many fingers in the pie or not enough. And every one is protecting his or her own turf, has his or her own interests and opinions, wants what’s best for the child, yes, if it follows the rules and makes me look or feel good. I don’t have the answers, but I do see the problems.

And a BIG elephantine part of the “problem” involves drugs and alcohol. I don’t drink alcohol or take any drugs, and although I don’t think you’re a bad person if you have a drink once or twice a week, I do fail to see the attraction. Why wouldn’t our entire society be better off if God had never given us the “gift of wine, to make the heart merry.” (He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. Psalm 104:14-15) I just don’t think I’ve missed much in not drinking alcohol, and I really think that a lot of the child neglect and abuse would be non-existent if there were no such things as intoxicating and mind-altering substances.

It’s one of those questions I’m going to ask the Lord someday in heaven. Like, why did He create cockroaches?

Anyway, good memoir, if you like that sort of book, but you’ll probably wan to read Three Little Words first.