YA Nonfiction

FREEDOM’S CHILDREN: YOUNG CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS TELL THEIR OWN STORIES by Ellen Levine

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Ellen Levine compiled the stories of over a dozen African American civil rights activists, all of whom were children and teenagers during the Civil Rights Movement in the American South.  The stories these activists tell about their childhood struggles are at times shocking but always inspiring.  Readers will learn about some of the major events in the Civil Rights Movement (such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott), as well as small victories with hometown sit-ins and day-to-day struggles with segregation.  Intended for older school-age children and teens, this book includes frank and occasionally graphic discussions of the violence during that time period, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

I used this book as the basis for a library program for children ages 7 & up and their parents.  I discussed the violence selectively–as an introduction for the younger kids that would not be traumatizing.  I did share one picture of protesters being attacked with fire hoses when we talked about peaceful protests and talked about how African American students were bullied at first when integrating schools.  I focused on the children and how they had used peaceful means of protest to help change attitudes in their country.

This program was very well-received by students and their parents.  Students were surprised to learn that children their age (and sometimes younger than they) were arrested for peaceful protests–and shocked to learn that some “colored” schools didn’t even have bathrooms or outhouses!  After the presentation, we had time for students to write or draw a reflection on what they had learned.  I gave them the following prompts:

  • One story that inspired me today was . . .
  • One time I saw injustice when . . .
  • One time I stood up for someone else when . . .
  • One time I stood up for myself when . . .
  • One time I was brave when . . .
  • If I were alive in 1950, my life would have been different because . . .

I was so impressed with their observations about injustice and bullying in their own school environments and their insights into how segregation would have impacted their lives–no matter what their race.  While the children wrote and drew, parents began a conversation about racism they had witnessed or experienced in their lifetimes.  A parent from South Korea discussed her experience with injustice and protests during her childhood and how it compared to the American Civil Rights Movement.  It was a very thoughtful and productive conversation.

This was one of the best-received programs I have ever done, and I found it personally inspiring, as well.  I highly recommend the book, and if any librarians/educators would like more information about the program, just shoot me an email!  I would be more than happy to share my presentation.

BLIZZARD: THE STORM THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Jim Murphy

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The blizzard that hit the east coast of the United States in March 1888 took the country and the fledgling National Weather Service completely by surprise and claimed hundreds of lives.  Though it was not the most devastating natural disaster the United States has ever faced, it drastically changed the way our nation viewed disaster preparedness and meteorology.  Jim Murphy tells the story of the great blizzard through the eyes of the people who experienced it–some who survived to tell the tale, and others who perished–while weaving in the science behind the storm and the big picture of the political and social climate that affected the responses of individuals and the government.  Although it is targeted for middle grade and teen readers, this fascinating and fast-paced book may be of interest to adults, as well!

QUIZ WHIZ: 1000 SUPER FUN, MIND-BENDING, TOTALLY AWESOME TRIVIA QUESTIONS by the National Geographic Society

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Get your thinking caps ready because the quizzes in this book are far from easy!  Whether you’re a kid who is interested in strange-but-true facts or an adult preparing for trivia night at your local bar, you will learn a lot of interesting things from this book.  The quizzes cover a broad range of categories, including geography, science, animals, pop culture, statistics, and weird fads.  If you enjoy testing your knowledge or just want to learn something new, this is a great book to check out!

THE SCARY STATES OF AMERICA by Michael Teitelbaum

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Michael Teitelbaum has gathered urban legends from each of the 50 states and put them together in this creepy and intriguing book. In addition to some standard urban legend classics, Teitelbaum brings in some local legends that I had never heard before. Some of the stories are scary.  Others are just weird–and a few are kind of lame. But most of these legends will appeal to kids and teens who love ghost stories and “strange but true” tales.

FORTUNE’S BONES: THE MANUMISSION REQUIEM by Marilyn Nelson

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Commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum in Connecticut, The Manumission Requiem mourns the death and celebrates the life of a man named Fortune, a slave owned by Dr. Preserved Porter who—after Fortune’s death—dissected his body and hung his skeleton for display in his office.  Fortune’s bones passed through many hands, finally coming to rest in the Mattatuck Museum, and Fortune’s identity was only recently rediscovered.  The collection poems with which Marilyn Nelson remembers Fortune is short but powerful; it is a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book.  I would recommend Fortune’s Bones to teens and adults who are interested in reading stories about slavery or who enjoy thought-provoking poetry.

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. 

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.