Monthly Archives: January 2009

On What Subjects Do We Need More Non-Fiction?

Alison Morris - January 11, 2009

To finish off our week of non-fiction recommendations, I’m wondering what holes you think exist in the world of children’s and young adult non-fiction.

I, for one, was happy to see Amulet Books publish Linas Alsenas’ Gay America: Struggle for Equality last November, as gay men’s and women’s history is one topic that has CERTAINLY been overlooked in non-fiction for young adults.

What else have we been missing? Are there topics you see explored too little or too infrequently (if at all)? Perhaps ones that need "updating"? Are there age groups for whom you think particular types of non-fiction books are lacking? If so, please share those thoughts here. (The non-fiction writers of the world eagerly await your responses!)

Your Favorite Non-Fiction About… WHATEVER!

Alison Morris - January 10, 2009

Your task for today is to name ANY of your favorite non-fiction books that you haven’t already praised here during our week-long run of books answering the questions "WHO?," "WHAT?", "WHEN?", "WHERE?", and "HOW?".

At the start of the week I mentioned one book that I think fits all of these questions in equal measure — The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004, edited by the wonderful Melanie Kroupa). This is without a doubt one of my favorite non-fiction books for any group, EVER. Through it I learned WHO was responsible for the decline of one great bird species, WHAT major and minor events and/or actions led to the destruction of that species’ habitat and its subsequent decline, WHEN the species’ population was in abundance (and when it wasn’t) in addition to WHAT the world looked like at that time, WHY people have long admired and sought out this bird (or any bird for that matter), and HOW a species can (and possibly was) wiped out of existence. What do sewing machines have to do with woodpeckers? I learned that here. What was it like to have been the last living person (or so he thought…) to see an Ivory Billed Woodpecker on the wing? I learned that here too.

I picked up this book not so much because I was interested in the topic but because I thought I "should" read it, based on the rave reviews it was getting from other book lovers whose opinions I trust. I soon found that I couldn’t put it down and by the end I was deeply, passionately invested in the subject about which I was reading. I came away from it with a better understanding of our planet, its species, and the difficulties we face in our role as the protectors of both.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, what one little book can do for us, its readers? Help me celebrate that by adding to the list of recommendations we’ve been compiling over the course of this week. Sing the praises of your non-fiction favorites here — whatever their subjects may be.

Your Favorite Non-Fiction Answering "HOW?"

Alison Morris - January 9, 2009

HOW does a man’s personality change after a six-foot long iron tamping rod has just been shot the entire way through his head — entering through his left cheekbone, exiting from the top of his skull, and landing some 30 yards away? HOW does he not lose consciousness when this happens? HOW does he not die of infection? HOW did the experience of what happened to Phineas Gage in 1848 shape what we know today about the human brain? These are just a few of the many "HOW" questions that were answered or at least raised for me when I read John Fleischman’s fascinating book Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). It’s one of my favorite non-fiction books that answers the question "HOW?" (and "WHO?" and "WHAT?" and "WHEN?" and "WHERE?" and definitely "WHY?" — but mostly "HOW?").

On a lighter note, HOW is it possible that trout are "made of" trees? To answer that question you’ll have to read April Pulley Sayre’s book called (you guessed it) Trout Are Made of Trees, illustrated by Kate Endle (Charlesbridge, 2008). It’s another one of my "HOW?" book favorites because it explains the connection between plants and animals in such clear, easy-to-follow fashion.

HOW about you? What non-fiction books that tell you HOW something works or happened or came to be are on your list of favorites? 

(One more thing: If you’re a fan of Phineas Gage and you want to be creeped out in the best of fashion, go to the Warren Anatomical Museum on the fifth floor of the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School’s Longwood Campus. There you will find Phineas’ skull on display, as well as the famous tamping rod that DIDN’T do him in but… didn’t do him any favors. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. And, yeah. It’s creepy cool.)

Your Favorite Non-Fiction Answering "WHERE?"

Alison Morris - January 8, 2009

It’s a non-fiction filled week here on ShelfTalker. We’ve so far done WHO? books, WHAT? books, and WHEN? books. Today is WHERE?, and I invite you to be creative with your answers to this one, as "where" does not, of course, have to be a physical place, nor does it have to be a place on Planet Earth if it is.

One of my (VERY new) favorite books that answers the question "WHERE?" is Brian Floca’s forthcoming Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (Atheneum, April 2009). The answer to "where?" is obviously space, and Brian Floca really does take you there on these pages, with a lightness and care and human touch that draws readers right into this story, right up in the shuttle, right ONTO the moon. Holy heck do I ever love this book. When my Simon & Schuster spring kit arrived I carried the F&G back and forth from work to home so that I could be prepared to show it to anyone I met in either place who might ask me what I’d been reading and enjoying lately. I’ve read multiple Apollo books coming out this spring, but this one trumps them all. The illustrations, the writing, the remarkable attention to detail in both make this a picture book that will and should receive plenty of awards attention in 2009. (I’m knockin’ on wood, though, JUST in case. Let it never be said that I jinxed this wonderful piece of non-fiction out of its just deserts!)

Another WHERE? book on my list of favorites is The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story by Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2007). Like Moonshot, this book is a superb blend of science and history. The "WHERE?" in this book is "inside a cave," specifically a cave in Ukraine where 38 Jews hid from the Nazis over the course of what was almost an entire year — earning them the unofficial record for the longest time a human being has spent underground. The account of their survival is fascinating. And the explanation of how their story was discovered in the first place is equally so. Interviews with survivors and photos (both historical and contemporary) bring this story to life for the reader and make this one VERY memorable book.

What "WHEN?" books do you love? Please comment!

Your Favorite Non-Fiction Answering "WHEN?"

Alison Morris - January 7, 2009

We’re on Day 3 of a 7-day non-fiction stretch! Yesterday was "WHAT?" Monday was "WHO?" Today is "WHEN?" which means it’s your turn to rave about your favorite non-fiction books about history. OR about the subject of time, I suppose. (Though I might call that "WHAT?" or "HOW?" or "HUNH?" because it’s such a mind-bending concept. Read Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman if you know not of what I speak.)

Let me briefly remind you that tomorrow is WHERE? and Friday is HOW? and Saturday is WHATEVER! (meaning any non-fiction, period) and Sunday is HOLE DAY, when we fill the non-fiction holes of the publishing world.

For those of you wondering where "WHY?" is in all this, the honest to goodness truth is that I FORGOT TO INCLUDE THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION when I laid out the plan for the week and wrote the week’s first post!! (Picture me smacking my own forehead. HARD.) But, we can pretend that the reason "WHY?" doesn’t appear here is because EVERY book should speak to that question or at least leave readers asking it. Right? Doesn’t that make sense? Therefore EVERY book belongs in the "WHY?" category — even those that leave us wondering WHY they were published in the first place!

Now back to "WHEN?". Once again I could list some ridiculous number of favorite books but I will instead list TWO and let the rest of you list as many as your little non-fiction-loving hearts desire!

First I choose… a NEW favorite.

‘Twas the Day Before Christmas : The Story of Clement Clarke Moore’s Beloved Poem by Delana Bettoli, illustrated by Brenda Seabrooke (Dutton, September 2008)
I was unexpectedly charmed by this new holiday-themed non-fiction book, which turns out to contain a captivating story depicting, of all things, THE WRITING PROCESS! (Huzzah!) In this story we learn what prompted Clement Clark Moore to write his classic Christmas poem, and watch as the ordinary bits and pieces of his day become key words and images in the final product. Seabrooke’s bright, folksy illustrations beautifully evoke the world of Manhattan Island in 1822.

Next I choose… a newISH favorite.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson (Hyperion, January 2008)
We knew the man could paint like nobody’s business, but isn’t it humbling to observe that Kadir Nelson can also write with such precison? I love the engaging tone of this book, the interesting facts in this book, the very human way it expresses the voices and thoughts and beliefs of a chapter in history and an empire in American sports. And then there are the paintings. OH, the paintings. I would have bought this book for those alone. But how nice that all the non-illustrated pages in this book are more than worth having too!

And now it’s your turn! So far this week there have been relatively few folks chiming in with suggestions, but let me just say that those of you who have been commenting have been supplying some truly great suggestions. I hope those of you NOT commenting have at least been taking notes!

Your Favorite Non-Fiction Answering "WHAT?"

Alison Morris - January 6, 2009

This is "Your Favorite Non-Fiction Week" here at ShelfTalker. Yesterday I asked you to tell the world what non-fiction books answering the question "WHO?" (i.e. biographies) are on your list of favorites. Today, I’m inviting you to tell the world about your favorite non-fiction books that answer the question "WHAT?" What is this, what is that, what are we made of, what are we doing, what is is all about? Tell me WHAT you are thinking!

Just to remind you of the themes still remaining this week (in case you’ve forgotten), tomorrow (Wednesday) = WHEN? Thursday = WHERE? Friday = HOW? Saturday = WHATEVER! (A non-fiction free-for-all.) And Sunday is HOLE DAY, when you tell the publishing world (plus the rest of us) what non-fiction holes need filling.

Now back to today’s topic: "WHAT?" Again, I’ll kick off the discussion with two "WHAT?" favorites of my own:

Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin, 2000)
This book straddles both WHO and WHAT and HOW, but it’s the "WHAT" — the inventions — that make this book so interesting. From things as seemingly mundane as chocolate chip cookies and Wite-Out to the "space bumpers" that make NASA’s work a lot safer, we learn how a number of important inventions and the girls and women who created them.

How Big Is It? A Big Book All About Bigness by Ben Hillman (Scholastic, 2007)
My inarticulate six-word review of this book is this: "This book is so freakin’ cool." Yes, the title contains the word "HOW" but it qualifies for "WHAT" because its photocomposite illustrations allows readers to better conceptualize the idea of size, thereby answering for them the question, "What would X actually look like?" Imagine that X is a tsunami, for example. If I tell you a tsunami can be 1,720 feet high, you might look at me blankly. But if I show you the photo in this book in which a 1,720-foot tsunami towers over a city of tall buildings, you’ll get the idea. And wait’ll you see how easy it would be for a 12-foot-tall polar bear to sink a basket! So cool!

Okay, those are my "WHAT?" books for today. What are yours?

Your Favorite Non-Fiction Answering "WHO?"

Alison Morris - January 5, 2009

Susan E. Goodman recently wrote a post for the I.N.K. (Interesting Non-Fiction for Kids) Blog in which she observed that in response to my "Build a Bookstore" posts last month, many of you (and I!) failed to include many non-fiction suggestions in our short lists of "must-have" titles for bookstores.

I think there are several possible reasons for this — at least FOUR, which is the number I’ll enumerate here. The first is the simple fact that I limited the number of titles you could recommend (just five each!), thereby limiting the possible slots that could be occupied by non-fiction. (Notice how much more effective that was, though, than when I allowed people to list up to 10 books for the adult category…!) The second is the fact that the first books we "expect" to see on any store’s shelves are often either "hot" titles or classics, and there are far fewer non-fiction than fiction books that fall into either of those categories.

The third reason I’ll suggest hinges on the fact that I asked readers to list books that they’d expect "any decent bookstore" to carry, when I’m not sure the average reader expects even most "decent" bookstores to have a fantastic selection of children’s non-fiction, because I don’t think such selections are the norm. How many bookstores do you know that have a truly STELLAR children’s and YA non-fiction section? Probably not that many, unless you’re lucky enough to live in an area with great independent bookstores with a real emphasis on children’s books. The lack of children’s non-fiction in any given store, though, is probably less often a statement about a buyer’s preferences, than a statement about what’s selling in that store’s market. In my observation (and from what I’ve heard from bookseller after bookstore) children’s and YA non-fiction generally sells less well than fiction, at least to the average bookstore customer.

For this reason most stores’ children’s non-fiction sections contain an odd hodge-podge of titles — ideally enough to satisfy people looking for books on a few specific subjects but not so much non-fiction as to bog down their inventory. Children’s bookstores tend to do much better than we general bookstores do in this area, but nevertheless, non-fiction for kids and teens is the area where we crown the libraries king. A decent library has an infinitely wider and deeper non-fiction selection than any bookstore could dream of carrying.

My observation is that the average adult customer rarely browses the children’s non-fiction shelves unless they’re a.) a teacher or librarian, b.) an adult reader who tends to stick to non-fiction, or c.) a parent who’s very involved in their child’s education (be it as a homeschooling parent or otherwise). The average customer (child or adult) WILL go pointedly to the children’s non-fiction shelves when they need a book about a specific subject (i.e. sharks or Abraham Lincoln), but otherwise? Most of them spend considerably less time browsing the non-fiction section of a bookstore than they do the fiction. (To my endless frustration as a buyer!!)

And HERE we have my FOURTH suggestion for why there were so few non-fiction titles to emerge during "Build a Bookstore Week": I think it’s easier to conjure up a list of favorites if we compartmentalize things a bit. Just as, when it comes to movies, I find it easier to name the year’s "Best Comedy" and "Best Drama" (thank you, Golden Globes) than lump everything together and name one "Best Picture," I find it much easier to tell you my favorite non-fiction books about nature, or my favorites about the arts, or sports, or… name a subject.

With these things in mind, and because I really DO want to give non-fiction its due, I’m proposing another week-long swath of sharing. We’ll call this one "Your Favorite Non-Fiction" and it’ll work like this: Today you’re invited to share your favorite children’s and YA non-fiction books that answer the question "WHO?". In other words, today is biography day. And, yes, autobiographies and memoirs are also welcome here.Yes, I’m giving biographies their own day and not lumping them in with history ("WHEN?") on Wednesday, because there are just soooo many good books that fit the "WHO?" bill!

I am NOT limiting you to a number of titles on any of these days, because I think there will be less overlap here, and really — I want to know what non-fiction books you think are the best, be there two of them or twenty-two! If you’ve got time to give a reason beside each of them, so much the better. If not? Then just a list of titles + authors will do.

Tuesday’s list of books will answer the question "WHAT?" which is probably the week’s most open-ended category, but it saves me having to do one day of science, one day of nature, one day of sports, one day of art, one day of music, and so on through every topic under the sun. Any book that answers "WHAT?" to you is welcome here. (Note that you may have to think hard about whether something is more "WHAT?" or "HOW?" which is Friday’s subject.)

Wednesday is (you guessed it) "WHEN?". That means history books belong here — specifically world history, which isn’t specific at all. (And world history does include American history, you realize.)

Thursday’s theme will be "WHERE?" This is your chance to tackle geography, world cultures, maps, atlases, and so on.

Friday, as I’m already mentioned, will feature books that tell us "HOW?" which can mean how things work, how people work, how things in this world came to be, how someone did something, made something, said something. And HOW!

Saturday (yes, we’re going all the way into next weekend) will be reserved for WHATEVER! That means Saturday will be a non-fiction free-for-all. Any books that don’t conveniently answer one of the week’s five questions or that speak equally to all of them (The Race to Save the Lord God Bird is one of these beauties) can go here.

And finally, SUNDAY. Sunday is HOLE DAY. No, not Holy Day (though for some of you it might also be that), but HOLE Day. This is where I invite you to tell the world the specific topics on which you think we desperately need (or would just do well to have) MORE non-fiction books. There are definitely holes in the non-fiction world. Name them on Sunday so that the writers of the world may be inspired to start filling them.

Now, without further ado (and I realize there was a LOT of "ado" before you got to this point) let’s move on to your favorite non-fiction books about "WHO?". To get the ball rolling I’m going to name a few of my own. I could go on for pages and pages here but I’ve already done that today, so… SIX. I’m stopping at SIX. (ugh!)

This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge (Viking, 2002)
I had little interest in the life of Woody Guthrie when I started reading this book and by the end I was buying his CDs in bunches plus reading lengthier "adult" books about the guy (which, I might add, were not half as good as this one). To me the BEST sort of non-fiction is the kind that does this — makes you care, flips a switch, lights a spark;leaves you wondering. My brain felt larger and more open when I finished reading this book, which is one of those feelings I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine (Albert Whitman, 2003)
I love the unusual structure of this book, which unravels like a mystery. Two parallel plotlines, revealed in alternating chapters, eventually converge at a point that answers the book’s central question: what ever happened to Hana? I’ve had great success recommending this one to kids in grades 5 – 9.

Chuck Close, Up Close by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan (DK Ink, 1998)
It pains me (PAINS ME!!!) that this book is out of print, as I think it’s such a valuable tool for discussions of so much MORE than just art. For one thing it’s a great book about living with a disability, be it a learning disability or a physical disability, as Chuck has lived with and risen above both with astonishing success. Oooooh do I ever love this book!! BRING IT BACK!

Rocks in His Head by Carol Otis Hurst, illustrated by James Stevenson (Greenwillow, 2001) 
This is one of my favorite, favorite books to give as a graduation gift. This is the heartwarming, oddly inspiring story of a man whose passionate love for and knowledge of one subject (geology) ultimately landed him a wonderful job and a formal education, though he’d never gone after either. I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it.

Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Calef Brown (Atheneum, February 2009)
I love the playful tone of this ode to writer Gertrude Stein by Jonah Winter whose books just keep getting better (as if they weren’t already good enough). It is wonderful to read a book that makes non-fiction (and writing non-fiction) seem FUN, and this one certainly accomplishes that, while introducing young readers to a woman they’d have been unlikely to encounter until much later in life had Jonah not decided to change that.
Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard by Mawi Asgedom (Little, Brown, 2002)
Mawi’s memoirs about his family’s move, as refugees, from rural Ethiopia to suburban Ohio is eye-opening, moving, entertaining and inspiring. This is one of those books that should be read by both kids (grades 5 and up) and their parents, all of whom are likely to find it speaking to them.

It is TORTURE to stop at just six but I don’t want to steal from any of your picks, so… Go! Write! Fill the comments with great WHO? books. Introduce the world to great biographies and who knows? Maybe all bookstores’ non-fiction sales will improve!

Name a Bookish Breakfast Cereal

Alison Morris - January 2, 2009

Is your new year off to a good start? With a healthy breakfast? (If not, it doesn’t bode well for that "eat better" resolution you made after a couple of beers on New Year’s Eve.)

Gareth and I are big cereal eaters, for convenience sake, more than anything else. Perhaps that’s why CEREAL (of all things) came to mind for me when Gareth and I were having a recent conversation about how he could best merchandise his graphic novels (both current and future). Imagine the fun of pouring yourself a bowl of Odyssey-O’s every morning! I’m picturing little sticks of bran fused together to resemble wooden rafts with marshmallow sea monsters added to the mix. Yummm… classic goodness.

Apart from Count Chocula, which presumably owes its inspiration to Dracula, I can’t think of any cereals with names derived from classic books. This despite the fact that the word "cereal" owes its origins to Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain, which suggests to me that the classics really should have a place in the cereal aisle.

With that in mind, Gareth and I tried to come up a list of bookish breakfast cereal names, only to find this task SURPRISINGLY difficult. But ridiculously fun.

Here’s the complete list of what we came up with:


Scarlet Letters

A Raisin in the Sun Bran

Agatha Crispies

Branna Karenina

Bran of Green Gables

As You Like ‘Ems

O Cap’n My Cap’n Crunch

But after that short list we ran out of ideas, which is why I am turning to all of YOU! You, YOU clever people have more great cereal suggestions, don’t you? You are DYING to coin the names of some bookish breakfast cereals! I can tell! So, please do so. Give us all a good laugh to start off the new year.

AND… because good, really commercial, sugar-filled cereal boxes often include prizes, I’m going to offer a sort of "prize" here too, which will hopefully make you all the more inclined to participate in this exercise. Gareth and I will, together, design and do a drawing of the cereal box for the suggestion that we like the best. I’ll post that drawing here and credit you with the name of the cereal, and everyone will get yet another hearty laugh out of this ridiculous exercise. (We hope!)

If you need some cereal names to refer to for inspiration check out the very lengthy list (with photos of cereal boxes) on If you need book titles to work from, peruse the selections in "Fiction, Youth and Adults" at

Now get cracking. Or crackling. Or snapping and popping.