Tracey’s Favorite Nonfiction of 2013
Here’s my second of three lists of my favorite 2013 titles. Check back tomorrow for my favorite picture books.
Though this picture book biography of the artist Matisse starts with his interest in drawing and painting as a boy and a young man, it focuses on his later years. When Matisse was an old man, he fell ill—the author’s note says that he had cancer—and he was too weak to paint…until one day he picked up a scissors and started cutting out shapes from painted paper and making collages…collages that started out small and grew until they were room sized. The lively text and illustrations are interspersed with quotations from Matisse.
Travel with a mother and her two children from Omaha to Sacramento on the brand-new Transcontinental Railroad. Free-verse text and detailed illustrations describe the journey out of the city, across the plains, and over the mountains. Floca also integrates information about the building of the railroad, the workings of the train, and the jobs of the crew members. Locomotive would be great for units on U.S. history and transportation, as well as for kids who just like trains.
Author-illustrator David Macaulay has long been known for his “building” books: Castle, Cathedral, Mosque, and more. In 2012 he turned his considerable skills to a younger audience in this easy reader series by Macmillan, which this year includes a book on toilets. Readers will find out how a toilet flushes, as well as why humans need toilets, where their waste ends up, and how septic systems and sewers work. Eye : How It Works also was published in 2013, but I get weirded out by pictures and descriptions of eyes, so I did not review; however, Castle : How It Works and Jet Plane : How It Works, both published in 2012, are also excellent nonfiction readers.
MIDDLE SCHOOL NONFICTION
Volcanoes are quirky, and forecasting an eruption is tricky. Will it really erupt? When? How will it erupt—with slow lava flow, mud slides, or a blast of ash and gases? Will the eruption affect only the volcano or will it reach nearby towns—or even a major city? After a 1985 eruption in Colombia killed 23,000 people, a team of scientists determined that they must learn how to predict volcanic eruptions, before another tragedy occurred. This title from the Scientists in the Field series reads like a survival story.
During World War II, African Americans showed their patriotism by joining the armed forces, but found to their dismay that military policies were very racist. Blacks and whites were segregated, and African American soldiers are relegated to service positions like cooking and cleaning. Stone describes the injustices, focusing on the soldiers training at the Paratrooper School in Fort Benning, Georgia. Though black soldiers were initially assigned as guards, their courage and persistence resulted in their becoming America’s first black paratroopers, the 555th Parachute Infantry Division, or the “Triple Nickles.”
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, anyone with Japanese ancestors was looked at with fear and distrust, resulting in the removal of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. Using interviews and oral histories, Sandler chronicles the lives of Japanese-Americans before, during, and after their imprisonment. He also describes the big picture, from American prejudices in the first wave of immigration to the internment camps to the issue of redress. Sandler handles this delicate topic with honesty and sensitivity.
Sidman’s mastery of wordplay and her accessible style have again combined to inspire and charm readers in her latest book. She focuses on the fact that some words have always had power, and these poems blessings and chants and praise and laments. All are about everyday things; frustration over lost pencils or glasses, nostalgia for an old teddy bear, the mending of a broken friendship, a prayer for bravery “to face the lions,” and even a reflection on the inevitability of death.
HIGH SCHOOL NONFICTION
Thousands of years ago people discovered that certain plants could make them feel better—and “herbs” is the first entry in this book of 250 drugs that were ground-breaking in their day and that have improved our health and extended our lives. “Drugs” here does not mean only medicine, but also poisons, drugs of abuse, recreational substances, and chemicals intended to improve our quality of life. He provides information about each drug’s discovery, the scientists who studied and developed it, how it works, whether it is still in use today, and where research on drugs might take us in the near future.
Roach chronicles how early doctors and scientists studied the gastrointestinal system of animals and people and what sort of research today’s scientists are doing. Then she describes how everything works, beginning with the role of the nose in tasting the food we eat and following the path of food through the body. The ever-curious Roach asks questions that no one else will, such as, why don’t the acids in our stomach digest the stomach itself; what flavors do dogs and cats like the most; can you really eat so much that your stomach bursts; and just what exactly is a fecal transplant—and why would you ever want one! (Read more about Mary Roach’s books here and here.)
Bill Bryson turns his abundant curiosity and his eye for detail to one season in America’s history, and tells all about it in his delightful witty voice. The events of the summer of 1927 changed the image of America to a country that not only influenced world culture, but dominated it. I knew of many of the events related by Bryson, but I did not realize that they all took place in this one exciting summer. As always, Bryson’s writing holds the reader in suspense, even though the outcomes of the events are already known.