Kids Nonfiction

CANDY BOMBER: THE STORY OF THE BERLIN AIRLIFT’S “CHOCOLATE PILOT” by Michael O. Tunnell

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After World War II, the Western Allies (Britain, France, and the United States) and the Soviet Union (now Russia) divided Germany between them.  Although located entirely in Eastern Germany, the capital city of Berlin was divided between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies.  But the Soviets were unhappy with this arrangement.  Since they controlled all of the land and water routes to the city, the Soviets began a blockade and would not allow any food or supplies to reach the West Berliners.  The Soviets thought that after a short time, the people would be so hungry that they would beg the Soviet Union to take over West Berlin and give them food.  But the Soviets didn’t count on the bravery and determination of Lt. Gail Halvorsen and the many other British and American Air Force pilots who flew almost continuously all day long for over a year carrying literally tons of food and fuel into West Berlin.  The Berlin Airlift would ultimately prove so successful that the Soviets would give up the blockade.

After sharing two sticks of gum with some German children on one of his trips, Halvorsen realized how much a little bit of candy meant to these children who had suffered so much in the war and its aftermath.  He decided to begin collecting candy donations from the other men and tossing them out of his plane with little handkerchief parachutes for the children to collect.  The gratitude of the children was so great that the air force decided to make the candy project an official, full-scale operation: Operation Little Vittles.  Halvorsen and the pilots who dropped candy from the sky became a symbol of hope for the Berlin Airlift.

In Candy Bomber, Tunnell provides a glimpse of what life was like for people living in the Berlin Blockade, but he focuses on the community of hope and happiness that Operation Little Vittles created on both sides of the Atlantic, as the sharing of something as universally valued as chocolate connected and inspired people in different parts of the world.  Personally, I found this book fascinating and uplifting.  I would highly recommend it to middle grade readers who like learning about history.

UNEXPLAINED: DISAPPEARANCES by Rupert Matthews

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What happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste?  To the three men tending the lighthouse on an isolated Scottish Island? To Amelia Earhart and her plane? To an entire army in the Egyptian desert?  They all disappeared without a trace, and to this day, no one knows what happened to them. 
 
Rupert Matthews examines all of these famous disappearances and more in this nonfiction book.  He shares the facts about each case and the speculations that attempt to explain the disappearances.  For kids who are interested in strange-but-true tales, this is a fascinating read!

TITANIC: VOICES FROM THE DISASTER by Deborah Hopkinson

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On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in the deaths almost 1500 people (over 2/3 of those on board).  Deborah Hopkinson brings the Titanic’s tragic story to life by focusing on the stories of individual survivors.  Using their memories and words, she reconstructs the narrative of the Titanic from its initial departure to its sinking and the aftermath for the 700 survivors—most of them women and children whose husbands and fathers perished in the wreck.  Titanic: Voices From the Disaster is engaging, horrifying, and informative.  Although the book is marketed to upper-elementary school-aged children, I highly recommend it to anyone (children, teen, or adult) who is interested in learning more about the Titanic or who enjoys survival stories.   

If you liked Titanic: Voices From the Disaster, you might also like Revenge of the Whale.  

THE CROSSING: HOW GEORGE WASHINGTON SAVED THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Jim Murphy

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How did George Washington save the American Revolution?  Basically, by sneaking around in the dark a lot.  Jim Murphy tells the story of Washington’s ragtag army–how they survived when all odds and even the weather were against them and how Washington’s brilliant leadership (and quite a bit of luck) led them to victory over the British.  This short, well-illustrated chapter book would be ideal for upper-elementary readers, both for school research and for recreational reading.

THE GIANT AND HOW HE HUMBUGGED AMERICA by Jim Murphy

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In 1869, a farmer in upstate New York unearthed a giant–a ten-foot-tall stone man who seemed to have lain in the ground for centuries.  Was it an ancient statue? Or a petrified human from an age of giants?  Coming in the midst of a flurry of discoveries of dinosaur bones and fossils, people were thrilled by the discovery of what could be a real giant’s body and the giant became a money-making sensation.  But some scientists questioned the stone giant’s origins.  It wasn’t long before they uncovered the truth about one of the biggest scams in American history. 

If you like “strange but true” tales or stories about con-artists and swindlers, you’ll love The Giant!  For more true stories about con-artists of the past, check out Duped! by Andreas Schroeder. 

EXTREME SCIENTISTS: EXPLORING NATURE’S MYSTERIES FROM PERILOUS PLACES by Donna M. Jackson

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What would it be like to fly an airplane to the center of a deadly hurricane?  To squeeze through a tiny crevice hundreds of feet below the Earth’s surface?  Or to dangle from a tree branch hundreds of feet above the ground?  Donna M. Jackson describes the work of three scientists (hurricane hunter Paul Flaherty, microbiologist Hazel Barton, and ecologist Stephen Sillett) including the extreme perils of their missions and the scientific discoveries that make the danger worthwhile.  Readers who enjoy survival stories (like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, Peg Kehret’s Earthquake Terror, or P.J. Petersen’s White Water) or readers interested in science should definitely check out this nonfiction book!

If you liked Extreme Scientists, you may also enjoy Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland and Phineas Gage: a Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science. 

NONFICTION PICTURE BOOKS

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Here are a few engaging titles on a variety of topics!

alex_the_parrotAlex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird by Stephanie Spinner

People once believed that birds were unintelligent because their brains were so small.  But scientist Irene Pepperberg changed that with her experiments with the African grey parrot, Alex, who was capable not just of repeating words and phrases but of learning and using language and completing language and math tests at the same level of intelligence of a young child.

5-11-Ballet-for-MarthaBallet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham revolutionized the art of modern dance.  American composer Aaron Copland is famous for bending the rules of the nineteenth century to create unique twentieth century orchestral compositions with an American flare.  Together they collaborated on a musical suite and ballet that became a Pulitzer Prize winning sensation that is still well-loved today.

5502_LGThe Boy on Fairfield Street: How Ted Geisel Grew Up to Become Dr. Seuss by Kathleen Krull

This biography of Dr. Seuss focuses on his interests as a child and what led him to choose a career as a children’s book author.

Boy-Were-We-Wrong-about-Dinosaurs-9780142411933Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs! by Kathleen V. Kudlinski

Were dinosaurs dragons?  Did they slither and crawl like lizards or stand upright?  Did they have scales or feathers?  This book examines historical understandings of dinosaurs as well as the current scholarly opinions about how these great creatures looked, lived, and died.

dinosaur mountainDinosaur Mountain: Digging Into the Jurassic Age by Deborah Kogan Ray

In the late nineteenth century, dinosaur bones were discovered in America.  Thus began the Bone Wars, the race of paleontologists to the American West to try to discover and name new species of dinosaurs.  For years, Earl Douglass failed to make any big finds, until he stumbled upon an exposed dinosaur bone in a ravine in Utah.   Further excavation led to the discovery of ten different species of dinosaurs.

duelDuel! Burr and Hamilton’s Deadly War of Words by Dennis Brindell Fradin

Although many people contributed to the creation of an independent American government, not all of them got along.  Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were two of them.  Their public insults of one another’s philosophies and abilities as statesmen eventually led to a violent duel that resulted in Hamilton’s death and the end of Burr’s political career.

mutinyMutiny on the Bounty by Patrick O’Brien

On a return voyage from their trip to Tahiti, the crew of the British ship The Bounty, decided that they’d had enough of their demanding and disrespectful captain.  Led by the first mate, the sailors rebelled, taking control of the ship and leaving the captain and all of the sailors loyal to him adrift in a life boat.  Miraculously, the captain and some of his crew members survived and returned to England.  The mutineers, hiding from the British law, began a new society on a nearby island.

caveThe Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux by Emily Arnold McCully

When a group of school boys in France were playing in a cave, they stumbled upon a cavern full of prehistoric artwork.  Their discovery was hailed as “sacred” by archaeologists and has become a great tourist attraction.

worstWorst of Friends: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the True Story of an American Feud by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain

Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were best friends.  They did many things together–including helping to found an independent nation of the United States.  But when a disagreement about presidential power turned them against each other, it seemed that Jefferson and Adams had lost their friendship for good.  Could they forgive each other and resolve their differences before it was too late?

WRITTEN IN BONE: BURIED LIVES OF JAMESTOWN AND COLONIAL MARYLAND by Sally M. Walker

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Skeletons speak to forensic anthropologists, the scientists who study the bones found in archaeological digs.  Simply from looking at bones which have spent hundreds of years buried underground, forensic anthropologists can determine the age, sex, race, and sometimes even profession of the person to whom they belonged.  By comparing to historical records the information gleaned from the bones, they may even be able to pinpoint the skeleton’s name.

Sally M. Walker describes archaeological digs in Colonial Virginia and Maryland that uncovered a number of graves from the 17th and 18th centuries.  She frames her story almost as a mystery, as the scientists seek to uncover the identity of the person whose bones they have rediscovered, and she describes both the science and the history that surround their process.  Written in Bone is a fascinating and engaging nonfiction story.  I highly recommend this book to middle grade and teen readers who enjoy science and/or history.

If you liked Written in Bone, you might like Phineas Gage: a Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science or Extreme Scientists. 

THE LONGITUDE PRIZE by Joan Dash

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By the eighteenth century, the world had made great advances in science and technology.  Yet no one had a scientific way of calculating the exact position of a ship at sea, a problem which resulted in thousands of deaths in shipwrecks around the world.  Desperate to prevent future tragedies like the Royal Navy shipwreck off the Scilly Islands in 1707, British Parliament offered a £20,000 prize (roughly equivalent to £3 million or $4.8 million today!) to anyone who devised an accurate way of measuring longitude at sea.  The world’s finest astronomers rose to the challenge, but a quick-tempered village carpenter and clockmaker set his mind to the task, as well, and created an invention that would revolutionize ocean travel for years to come.

Readers who are interested in ships, sea-faring stories, or inventors should definitely check out this fascinating non-fiction book which uses a blend of history, science, and biography to tell the story of John Harrison’s amazing clocks and his race against all odds to win the longitude prize.  I would recommend The Longitude Prize especially to readers in grades 4-8. 

If you liked The Longitude Prize, you might like Revenge of the Whale, Phineas Gage, or Black Hands, White Sails.

GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES!: VOICES FROM A MEDIEVAL VILLAGE by Laura Amy Schlitz

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What was life like for children growing up in Medieval times?  Some were peasants, tied to the land they farmed, so poor they had to trick and steal from their lords and masters just to make sure they had food to eat.  Others were apprenticed to tradesmen in the village, working as blacksmiths or falconers.  And others were children of the lords living in luxury inside their palace halls. 

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! tells the stories of over twenty Medieval children and their variety of dreams, fears, pranks, mistakes, and achievements.  The stories are written as monologues and dialogues which could be read aloud as a play.  They can also be read silently as short first-person narratives.  The monologues are interspersed with more information about each of the time periods to keep readers informed about the history and culture surrounding the characters.  A Newbery Award winner, these plays are a fun read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.  If you would like a more dramatic experience, listen to the audio book which has each character read aloud by a different actor! 

If you liked Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! you might like Crispin by Avi.