Nancy Brashear and Carolyn Angus
Although our access to new releases has been curtailed somewhat during the COVID pandemic, as we have done in previous years, we have made the identification of outstanding trade books with curriculum connections a priority in looking back at the bounty of nonfiction published in 2020. Here are our best-of-the-year picks.
Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball. Jen Bryant. Illus. by Frank Morrison. (2020). Abrams.
A lyrical text and stunning oil paintings tell the life story of African American Elgin Baylor (1934- ), whose unique style on the basketball court influenced how others played and helped popularized the game. And when Baylor did not suit up and sat down before the crowd one night in 1959 in protest of racial discrimination, the fans, the press, and the NBA commissioners noticed. Elgin Baylor changed basketball and helped change things off the court, too. (Gr 3-5)
All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team. Christina Soontornvat. (2020). Candlewick.
On June 21, 2018, a hike through the cave system at Tham Luang Nng Non Forest Park in northern Thailand by twelve young soccer players and their coach turned disastrous when they were trapped by flood waters. Soontornvat’s clear, detailed account of the eighteen-day ordeal of the boys and the work of an international team of rescuers includes photographs, diagrams, maps, and text inserts on related topics. (Gr 6-8)
The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A Tale of the Genius Ramanujan. Amy Alznauer. Illus. by Daniel Miyares. (2020). Candlewick.
In 1887, Ramanujan was born in South India. Alznauer’s expressive narrative and Miyares’s ink-wash illustrations show how this inquisitive boy viewed the world through the lens of mathematics. Ramanujan experimented with numbers until they made sense to him and devised explanations for their properties, asking questions and creating new ways of looking at mathematical patterns. Today, this number theorist is celebrated for his original, conceptual contributions to math and science. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival. Amra El-Rayess (with Laura L. Sullivan). (2020). Bloomsbury.
Amara, a sixteen-year-old Muslim was living in Bihać, Bosnia, with her beloved family and an abandoned cat she called Maci (cat) when the Bosnian War broke out in 1991. This survival memoir recounts the horrors of the Bosnian genocide and how the cat she never named gave Amara hope for the future. In the back matter, El-Rayess provides information about Bosnia and Herzegovina today, talks about writing this memoir, and lists resources. (Gr 9-12)
Chance: Escape from the Holocaust. Uri Shulevitz. (2020). Farrar Straus Giroux.
In this captivating memoir, celebrated children’s book author-illustrator Uri Shulevitz, whose Jewish family fled Warsaw after the German invasion of Poland in 1939 when Uri was four years old, chronicles their ten years as refugees in war-torn Europe before settling in Paris in 1946 and then immigrating to Israel in 1949. Shulevitz’s black-and-white drawings and family photographs help illustrate the importance of family and a love of drawing in his survival. (Gr 3-5)
Condor Comeback (Scientists in the Field). Sy Montgomery. Photos by Tianne Strombeck. (2020). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
When the last wild California condor was captured in 1987 and joined the only twenty-six condors in captivity, the species was critically endangered. Montgomery introduces readers to the California condor and reports on the ongoing efforts of researchers and volunteers in zoos and wildlife refuges that have brought the majestic vulture back from the brink of extinction and led to its reintroduction to the wild. (Gr 6-8)
Crossings: Extraordinary Structures for Extraordinary Animals. Katy S. Duffield. Illus. by Mike Orodán. (2020). Beach Lane.
Around the world, structures built for human travel impede the safe movement of wild animals. Double-page spreads with exquisite illustrations, a simple lyrical narrative, and text blocks with related facts present twelve examples of how people have also created crossings that help animals traverse their habitats, including an underpass beneath a highway used by Florida panthers and rope bridges suspended above a road in Costa Rico for monkeys. (PreK-Gr2)
The Fabled Life of Aesop. Ian Lendler. Illus. by Pamela Zagarenski. (2020). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Lendler tells the life story of the “fabled” Aesop, a slave born in ancient Greece who told entertaining and instructive stories with hidden “codes” teaching survival skills in an unjust world, followed by retellings of thirteen of Aesop’s fables which have lasted through centuries. Zagarenski’s illustrations— watercolor paintings and mixed media collage art for the biographical section and acrylic paintings on wood panels for the section of fables— are beautifully-crafted. (Gr 3-5)
Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Story. Duncan Tonatiuh. (2020). Abrams.
With his signature style Mixtec codex-inspired, digitally collaged artwork, Tonatiuh retells the story of how Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent, travels through the nine regions of Mictlán (the underworld) during the fifth sun to retrieve the sacred bones needed to create humankind. Back matter includes an author’s note providing background on the myth, a glossary (with pronunciation guide), and a selected bibliography. (Gr 3-5)
Grow: Secrets of Our DNA. Nicola Davies. Illus. by Emily Sutton. (2020). Candlewick.
“All living things grow. Plants . . . animals . . . and humans.” After exploring the diverse ways in which living things grow, Davies’ child-friendly text, complemented by Sutton’s expressive watercolor illustrations, explains how, as is true for every living thing, each human’s growth is based on the unique pattern of their instructional DNA code. (PreK-Gr 2)
Guardians of Liberty: Freedom of the Press and the Nature of News. Linda Barrett Osborne. (2020). Abrams.
Osborne chronicles key challenges to the principle of free expression of news and opinion guaranteed under the First Amendment to the Constitution from the time of partisan newspapers during the American Revolution to President Trump’s labelling of the media he disagrees with as “enemies of the people.” The final chapter addresses the importance of individuals’ judging on their own the accuracy of news in the media. (Gr 6 Up)
Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera. Candace Fleming. Illus. by Eric Rohmann. (2020). Neal Porter.
A lyrical text and realistic, close-up oil paintings tell the life story of a worker bee of the species Apis mellifera. After emerging from a cell of the honeycomb, she grows and does a series of different jobs in support of the hive until, on the twenty-fifth of her life, she flies from the hive to begin collecting nectar. Ten days later, her job as a forager is over; she drops to the ground and dies. (PreK-Gr 2)
If You Take Away the Otter. Susannah Buhrman-Deever. Illus. by Matthew Trueman. (2020). Candlewick.
Through a brief lyrical narrative accompanied by beautiful mixed-media illustrations and additional information in smaller print, young readers learn that all living things in the ocean are connected. When sea otters, which feed on sea urchins, almost disappeared through over-hunting, the population of sea urchins exploded and nearly destroyed the kelp forest ecosystem. Fortunately, after the signing of the 1911 International Fur Seal Treaty, the balance of flora and fauna slowly began to be restored. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Lion Queens of India. Jan Reynolds. (2020). Lee & Low.
Rashila Vadher and a team of female forest rangers in the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary in western India care for and protect the world’s last remaining wild Asiatic lions. Jan Reynolds’ brief, informative text and close-up color photographs provide an inspiring profile of the “lion queens of India” and their efforts to save the Asiatic lion from extinction. (PreK-Gr 2)
Nonsense!: The Curious Story of Edward Gorey. Lori Mortensen. Illus. by Chloe Bristol.
Young Edward Gorey had trouble figuring out what he wanted to do in life. While working in the art department of a publisher, this eccentric genius finally decided to write and illustrate his own stories. At first, no one was interested in his stories with their “sweet and sinister style” and unfortunate endings. This playful picture book biography of Edward Gorey (1925-2000) is illustrated in a style reminiscent of Gorey’s artwork. (Gr 3 Up)
Packs: Strength in Numbers. Hannah Salyer. (2020). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Salyer introduces packs, prides, herds and other animal groups with visually splendid double-page illustration (rendered in paint and cut paper and finished digitally). These are followed by pages of spare text with information about actions (such as hunting, nurturing, and defending) of different species exemplifying the importance of togetherness to their survival. A final double spread shows a diverse community of people engaged in outdoor activities. “All together . . .we are better!” (PreK-Gr 2)
The Radium Girls: The Scary but True Story of the Poison That Made People Glow in the Dark (Young Readers’ Edition). Kate Moore. (2020). Sourcebooks explore.
Moore tells the story of the young women working in the factories of the U.S. Radium Corporation and the Radium Dial Company doing the delicate job of painting glow-in-the-dark watch dials during the first half of the twentieth century. As the women began to suffer mysterious illnesses (traced to radium poisoning), they courageously fought years of legal battles against the corporations which denied that their illnesses and deaths were work-related. (Gr 9 Up)
The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh. Candace Fleming. (2020). Schwartz & Wade.
In this well-researched biography of Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974), Fleming goes beyond his celebrity as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and the tragedy of his son’s kidnapping and murder to develop a full picture of this contradictory American. Lindbergh was a family man (with three secret families), an aviator, military officer, and inventor. He also was a Nazi sympathizer, anti-Semite, isolationist, and eugenics devotee. (Gr 9 Up)
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi. (2020). Little, Brown.
The conversational tone and inviting format of Jason Reynold’s “NOT a history book” adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning (2016) offers today’s young people an engaging and accessible history of racism in America. Covering key figures, organized movements, and policies of anti-black racism, segregationism, and assimilationism as well as anti-racism in the past, Reynolds and Kendi challenge the reader to think critically about their personal stance toward stamping out racism now. (Gr 6 Up).
Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery. Meeg Pincus. Illus. by Vas Imamura. (2020). Sleeping Bear.
“Where do they go?” Double spreads with an informative narrative and bright, detailed drawings showing monarch butterflies streaming through the skies of North America describe how a serendipitous team (scientists, citizens, a teacher, villagers, and others) uncovered the answer. With monarch numbers plummeting since 1976, the urgent question now is “How will monarchs survive?” Back matter includes “More About the Monarch Migration Discovery” and “How to Help the Monarchs” sections. (Gr 3-5)
Nancy Brashear is Professor Emeritus of English from Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, California. Carolyn Angus is former Director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).