Thursday, March 15, 2007

Nonfiction Fan!

I absolutely love nonfiction books. ALA/ALSC (that's the American Library Assocaition/Association of Library Service to Children) has an award for the best nonfiction books of the year. The award is called the Robert F. Sibert Award (named after the president of Bound to Stay Bound Books, Inc.) and has only been around since 2001.

This past weekend I gave a presentation about the great books that were winners this year. The medal went to a book I've written about in these pages: Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon by Catherine Thimmesh. I loved the book when it came out, and frankly I was sure this book would win something this year. The pictures are incredible as is the story. I am a child of the sixties, so I grew up with the space program. I remember where I was when Apollo 11 lifted off (the Campus Center of UAlbany) and I remember where I was when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon(my living room floor). But my children are not interested or invested in this "history" story. I see this as an American ingenuity story, and a scientific phenomenon. There were many challenges to get Apollo 11 on the moon and this book tells the story of the challenges and the men and women that dared to experiment and dream.

I was unfamiliar with the three honor titles, but I have since read all three and am impressed with every single one. The common thread of all these titles is great writing and a spirit of accountability to every life. I think a lot of people do not read nonfiction because of the many books written specifically to help students write reports. How boring!

Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement by Ann Bausum. This book tells the story of the Freedom Rides of May 1961; about a band of courageous Americans who rode the interstate buses in order to bring about the end of segregation. Bausum begins the book by explaining the background of the two protagonists, how they met, and then why they chose to put their lives on the line for the civil rights movement. John Lewis is currently serving Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives and he plainly states that today's young people should find their passion and make a difference in our world. One does not need to get your head bashed in (as these two young men did) to make a difference. But committment and passion can bring about change. If someone had watched me read this book, I wonder if my mouth would have been opened in awe and shame. This is a very important book that I hope teachers discover and use in their classes. Reading some passages would certainly spark major discussions.

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop. This book is part of Houghton Mifflin's "Scientists in the Field" series, one of the best group of science books I have ever seen. Each book follows a scientist in their job, explaining what the scientist does, what influenced their choice of work, and the importance of what they are doing to all of us. Another important part of each book is the photographs that accompany the text. You stare in wonder at creatures, landscapes, and laboratories. I had never heard of a tree kangaroo until reading this book. We follow Lisa Dabek to Papua New Guinea (and we know where it is because there are maps in the front of the book) with a group of scientists and support staff into the cloud forest to trap and place radio transmitters on the few tree kangaroos that can be found. It is a difficult trek, three weeks of hard work under rainy, drizzly conditions, high above sea level (where it is hard to breathe). We learn that there are so many species of plants and animals that are still waiting to be discovered in places like this. This book gives hope to young people that there are fascinating jobs working with animals and careers besides vet and zoo keeper for those that want to travel and work with animals in the field. The author captures Lisa's passion for her work, and encourages children with their passions.

To Dance: A Ballerina's Graphic Novel by Siena Cherson Siegel, drawn by Mark Siegel. I do not love graphic novels, but I admire them (especially since my son wants to illustrate them). This book is charming, beautiful to look at, and a perfect medium for this story. Siena Cherson was born in Puerto Rico and knows that she loves to dance. When the family moves to Boston, she begins formal lessons in the ballet. She adores the dance. The family moves back to Puerto Rico and Siena has an opportunity to try out at the most prestigious ballet school in the country. She is accepted, but must move to NYC. She and her mother leave Puerto Rico, but her father remains there for work. She describes the hard work of ballet, school, and more ballet. She misses her father very much, and her family is torn apart by the separation. The drawings are spectacular and artful. You feel the grace in the dance, in the line of the bodies, even the movement in the arms. The colors are lovely. And the story moves from panel to panel with ribbons connecting the memories. One may not think of reading graphic novels out loud, but this should be shared with children who love ballet. It does not give false hopes to dancers, and it is honest about the hard work. SPOILER ALERT: DO NOT READ THE NEXT LINE IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE END! I was so crushed when I reached the last two pages. She wraps up the story very fast as we learn of an injury to her ankle, and her decision not to continue with ballet. She goes to college and gets a job. Eventually she goes back to the barre and we realize that music and dance will always be a part of her life, just not her career.

I highly recommend all four of these books. You will find inspiring stories of passion and activism that should be shared with our children. Joyce Laiosa