Monday, October 13, 2008

“Lots of kids who think they hate reading are actually avid nonfiction lovers”

First of all, can we all get t-shirts made with the above quote? Credit for it, along with the prize in our INK contest, goes to Lelac Almagor, the inspirational English teacher at the KIPP DC: AIM Academy of inner-city Washington, D.C. Every day that my package to her procrastinated on my desk, I added another book for the amazing KIPPsters.

It’s surely the nonfiction event of the year—David Macaulay’s The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body. No wonder he won a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, which in part allowed him to complete this 336-page event, I mean book. Really, all you can say is “wow”—at the structural magnificence that is the human body and at Macaulay’s dramatic, clear drawings conveying every detail. Like a 21st-century Leonardo da Vinci, though presumably without the real corpses, he gets inside us and dissects like mad, and not for his own edification (like Leo), but ours. This tome has tremendous amounts of info, boiled down to its essence, and obviously thoroughly vetted by experts. Kids who persist with the somewhat textbook-y text, co-written with Richard Walker, will learn how we pick up an apple, breathe, think, blink, digest, reproduce, and everything else the body does. To me the most interesting of the seven chapters was “Battle Stations,” about the way we try to fight off flu and other threats. I would think this book would be of special interest to kids who have had anything go wrong with their bodies, but it's also a gift for budding biologists, and anyone who likes to browse (Walter Lorraine/Houghton Mifflin, ages 10 and up).

I love everything about this next book except the title: Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat. Edited by distinguished poet Nikki Giovanni, stylishly illustrated by various artists, and with a genuinely collectible CD of great poets reading their own poetry, this is another nonfiction Event. Alas, the title seems clunky, I don’t know what it means, and as Kelly Fineman points out, not all of the 51 selections have much to do with hip hop. Most of all, the title misses the boat in trumpeting what a rare jewel this is—a treasury and history of African-American rhythms. The anthology honors poets of the past (W. E. B. DuBois, Gwendolyn Brooks), more current voices (Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr.), and up-to-the-minute stars like Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and Tupac Shakur. A teeming treasure that has something for everyone and will get any kid dancing—and rhyming (Sourcebooks, ages 7 and up).

A third book for browsing around in is The Raucous Royals. After delighting us with her first book, Who Put the B in Ballyhoo?, Carlyn Beccia here collects a motley crew of famous historical figures suspected of weirdness. Was Prince Vlad Dracula really a vampire? Was Napoleon all that short? Did King George III indeed go mad? Did Marie Antoinette actually say, “Let them eat cake”? Plus a big bunch of rumors swirling around Henry VIII and his relatives. A book with wickedly appealing art and layout, little quizzes, juicy historical tidbits. It even attempts a moral, with specific tips about how to play “history detective” and sort out fact from rumor. But really this is a frothy book for fun, educational fun, all about one of my favorite things—gossip (Houghton Mifflin, ages 8 and up).

And who is this kindly gent glowing against this startlingly green background? Except for excelling as a husband and dad, he pretty much failed at everything until the age of 44. His mother-in-law threw up her hands—but also prodded him to write down those unusual tales he spun for his four beloved sons each night. So was born The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Harry-Potter-like sensation of 1900. And here is the author’s little-known story in my newest book, The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum. The beautiful paintings are by Kevin Hawkes, and do look for a piece of his original art at the Society of Illustrators show, opening this week in NYC (Knopf, ages 6-10).

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