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Best Middle-Grade Nonfiction of 2014

Worthy of a superhero.

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EL DEAFO

A humorous and touching graphic memoir about finding friendship and growing up deaf.

When Cece is 4 years old, she becomes “severely to profoundly” deaf after contracting meningitis. Though she is fitted with a hearing aid and learns to read lips, it’s a challenging adjustment for her. After her family moves to a new town, Cece begins first grade at a school that doesn’t have separate classes for the deaf. Her nifty new hearing aid, the Phonic Ear, allows her to hear her teacher clearly, even when her teacher is in another part of the school. Cece’s new ability makes her feel like a superhero—just call her “El Deafo”—but the Phonic Ear is still hard to hide and uncomfortable to wear. Cece thinks, “Superheroes might be awesome, but they are also different. And being different feels a lot like being alone.” Bell (Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover, 2012) shares her childhood experiences of being hearing impaired with warmth and sensitivity, exploiting the graphic format to amplify such details as misheard speech. Her whimsical color illustrations (all the human characters have rabbit ears and faces), clear explanations and Cece’s often funny adventures help make the memoir accessible and entertaining. Readers will empathize with Cece as she tries to find friends who aren’t bossy or inconsiderate, and they’ll rejoice with her when she finally does. An author's note fleshes out Bell's story, including a discussion of the many facets of deafness and Deaf culture.

Worthy of a superhero. (Graphic memoir. 8 & up)

Pub Date: Sept. 2, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4197-1020-9

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Amulet/Abrams

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

Overall, this impressive survey will surprise and please its visitors.

ANIMALIUM

From the Welcome to the Museum series

Part oversized album and part encyclopedia, this “museum” of the animal kingdom showcases its variety and diversity with numerous examples from around the world.

What distinguishes this collection from similar overviews is its presentation. The illustrations look like nature prints from long ago, but unlike those old engravings and lithographs, these fine-lined drawings began with pen and ink and were colored digitally. Each image is labeled with a number or letters keyed to a gloss that includes identification (including Latin name and size) and a general explanation, usually on the opposite page. Section dividers and the endpapers employ an intriguing reversal with groups of drawings shown as white silhouettes against a dark background. The use of “dissection” images, the groupings and the lack of environmental background contribute to the gallery effect. After introducing the tree of life and the theory of natural selection, this exhibition begins with invertebrates and continues through fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, pointing out evolutionary developments along the way. Each basic group includes several spreads offering examples from subgroups within the class as well as a spread with a connected habitat: coastal waters, coral reefs, rain forest, deserts, woodlands and tundra. No information sources are given, but there are good suggestions for general websites for further learning.

Overall, this impressive survey will surprise and please its visitors. (index) (Nonfiction. 7-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7636-7508-0

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Big Picture/Candlewick

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

For every dreaming girl (and boy) with a pencil in hand (or keyboard) and a story to share. (Memoir/poetry. 8-12)

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BROWN GIRL DREAMING

A multiaward–winning author recalls her childhood and the joy of becoming a writer.

Writing in free verse, Woodson starts with her 1963 birth in Ohio during the civil rights movement, when America is “a country caught / / between Black and White.” But while evoking names such as Malcolm, Martin, James, Rosa and Ruby, her story is also one of family: her father’s people in Ohio and her mother’s people in South Carolina. Moving south to live with her maternal grandmother, she is in a world of sweet peas and collards, getting her hair straightened and avoiding segregated stores with her grandmother. As the writer inside slowly grows, she listens to family stories and fills her days and evenings as a Jehovah’s Witness, activities that continue after a move to Brooklyn to reunite with her mother. The gift of a composition notebook, the experience of reading John Steptoe’s Stevie and Langston Hughes’ poetry, and seeing letters turn into words and words into thoughts all reinforce her conviction that “[W]ords are my brilliance.” Woodson cherishes her memories and shares them with a graceful lyricism; her lovingly wrought vignettes of country and city streets will linger long after the page is turned.

For every dreaming girl (and boy) with a pencil in hand (or keyboard) and a story to share. (Memoir/poetry. 8-12)

Pub Date: Aug. 28, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-399-25251-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books

Review Posted Online: June 25, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

An important chapter in the civil rights movement, presenting 50 new heroes.

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THE PORT CHICAGO 50

DISASTER, MUTINY, AND THE FIGHT FOR CIVIL RIGHTS

On July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, an explosion—the largest man-made explosion in history to that point—killed more than 300 men, leading to the largest mass trial in United States history.

“[B]efore Brown v. Board of Education or Truman’s executive order, before Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson—before any of this, there was Port Chicago.” At Port Chicago, Navy ships were loaded with bombs and ammunition. All of the officers were white, and all of the sailors handling the dangerous explosives were black, with no training in how to do their jobs. When the huge explosion flattened the base, 320 men were killed, 202 of them black sailors who had been loading the ammunition. When it came time to resume work, 50 black sailors refused to work under the unsafe conditions on the segregated base and were charged with mutiny, with the possibility of execution. In this thoroughly researched and well-documented drama, Sheinkin lets the participants tell the story, masterfully lacing the narrative with extensive quotations drawn from oral histories, information from trial transcripts and archival photographs. The event, little known today, is brought to life and placed in historical context, with Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson figuring in the story.

An important chapter in the civil rights movement, presenting 50 new heroes. (source notes, bibliography, acknowledgments, picture credits) (Nonfiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59643-796-8

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Roaring Brook

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

A wonderfully charming tale of family and sisters that anyone can bond with.

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SISTERS

Two sisters who are constantly at odds take a family road trip that covers more ground—both literally and figuratively—than they expect.

After begging her parents for a sister, Raina gets more than she bargained for once Amara is born. From the moment she was brought home, Amara hasn’t been quite the cuddly playmate that Raina had hoped. As the years pass, the girls bicker constantly and apparently couldn’t be more unalike: Raina spends her time indoors underneath her headphones, and Amara loves animals and the outdoors. The girls, their mother and their little brother all pack up to drive to a family reunion, and it seems like the trip’s just going to be more of the same, with the girls incessantly picking on each other all the way from San Francisco to Colorado. However, when the trip doesn’t go quite as planned—for a number of reasons—the girls manage to find some common ground. Told in then-and-now narratives that are easily discernable in the graphic format, Telgemeier’s tale is laugh-out-loud funny (especially the story about the snake incident) and quietly serious all at once. Her rounded, buoyant art coupled with a masterful capacity for facial expressions complements the writing perfectly. Fans of her previous books Smile (2010) and Drama (2012) shouldn’t miss this one; it’s a winner.

A wonderfully charming tale of family and sisters that anyone can bond with. (Graphic memoir. 7-13)

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-545-54059-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Graphix/Scholastic

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2014

Readers are often promised unforgettable protagonists—this memoir delivers one.

ON TWO FEET AND WINGS

Abbas and his mother are about to board a plane for Turkey when authorities order her to remain in post-Revolution Iran with his father, Karim; Abbas, at Karim’s insistence, flies alone to Istanbul to stay and apply for a British visa—he is 9.

Abbas doesn’t speak Turkish; a promised helper fails him; the fleabag hotel he’s deposited in is in a dangerous neighborhood. His intelligence, resilience and cocky charm help (though he owes more to luck and the kindness of strangers). He survives—barely. Karim’s lessons (be wary of strangers, change currency on the black market, eat just one meal a day to save money) go only so far. Here, everyone’s a stranger. Abbas must learn to tell friend from foe. Kazerooni doesn’t dilute harsh events or assign them benign meanings retroactively—there’s no “everything happens for a reason.” Abbas’ anguish and fear, his repeatedly dashed hopes are wrenching. Yet whether he’s crushed or elated, the story itself is uplifting; readers will feel exhilarated when he solves a problem or makes the important discovery that what terrifies him—his vulnerability—is his biggest asset, bringing him notice from kindly adults who offer help. Other accounts of displaced children—China’s “paper sons,” young Central American refugees—have borne witness to ways human-generated calamities harm their weakest victims, but seldom this convincingly. Although Abbas’ account can be harrowing, it is told plainly, and these are not, regrettably, uncommon experiences for children, making this both accessible to and suitable for a middle-grade audience.

Readers are often promised unforgettable protagonists—this memoir delivers one. (author’s note) (Memoir. 9-14)

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4778-4783-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Skyscape

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

Move over King Tut. Lady Dai is in the house.

AT HOME IN HER TOMB

LADY DAI AND THE ANCIENT CHINESE TREASURES OF MAWANGDUI

Debut author Liu-Perkins’ infectious curiosity shines in this exploration of a Han dynasty burial chamber excavated in 1972.

The “best preserved body in the world.” This honor goes to no ordinary mummy. It belongs to the remains of one Chinese woman known as the Marchioness of Dai, or Lady Dai. Buried beneath two hills called Mawangdui, Lady Dai’s tomb held three nobles: the marquis Li Cang, his wife, Lady Dai, and apparently one of their sons. As archaeologists dug through layers of white clay and charcoal, they uncovered more than 3,000 “astonishingly well-preserved” artifacts. Most amazing of all was Lady Dai’s body. After being buried for almost 2,200 years, her skin remained moist, her joints were movable, and her finger- and toeprints were still discernible. Other rare finds included an elaborate silk painting called a feiyi and the oldest and largest stash of silk books ever discovered in China. Based on 14 years of extensive research, the author’s storytelling is clear, inviting and filled with awe, as if she’s right there alongside the dig experts. Fictionalized vignettes of Lady Dai’s life that introduce each chapter add charm and perspective. Artifact photographs and illustrations heighten the fascination. In particular, Brannen’s illustration of Lady Dai’s chamber of multiple, nested coffins demonstrates the creative ingenuity of these ancient embalmers.

Move over King Tut. Lady Dai is in the house. (historical note, author’s note, glossary, selected bibliography) (Nonfiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: April 8, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-58089-370-1

Page Count: 80

Publisher: Charlesbridge

Review Posted Online: Jan. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2014

Timely, important, appropriately focused and interesting.

THE NEXT WAVE

THE QUEST TO HARNESS THE POWER OF THE OCEANS

From the Scientists in the Field series

Scientists and engineers from around the world work to harness the power of ocean waves, testing their ideas in an Oregon research lab and the stormy seas off the Oregon coast.

Here’s another well-written science title from an author whose previous contributions to the Scientists in the Field series introduced researchers studying volcanic eruptions on Earth and exploring Mars. After explaining the world’s need for renewable energy sources and the force of ocean power, Rusch focuses on three different approaches to harnessing this power that were underway at the time of her writing. She draws in young readers by introducing two engineers as young tinkerers, following their work through college to the development of a company testing an energy-capture device that sits on the ocean floor. An Oregon State University faculty member has equipped a testing ground offshore to monitor different approaches; some of her students are now building a device that uses the up-and-down motion of the waves. A third company has created working wave-powered buoys using a different design. A center spread describes other approaches from around the world. Lively design, clear explanations, text boxes, photographs and diagrams all contribute to an informative look at how people are working right now to find ways to use a previously inaccessible energy source.

Timely, important, appropriately focused and interesting. (extensive chapter notes, sources, suggestions, index) (Nonfiction. 10-15)

Pub Date: Oct. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-544-09999-9

Page Count: 80

Publisher: HMH Books

Review Posted Online: Aug. 27, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

Richly illustrated, this deserves a place alongside other important depictions of this story.

BECAUSE THEY MARCHED

One of the most decorated nonfiction writers in the field brings his style to a well-told story of the struggle for voting rights in the American South.

Fifty years ago, as the civil rights movement took hold, the attempts to ensure African-American access to the vote increasingly took center stage. A newly passed Civil Rights Act did not guarantee voting rights, so activists in the South continued to press for them at both the state and federal levels. The barriers to voting—poll taxes, literacy tests, limits on registration—were difficult to overcome. Physical abuse and financial intimidation also kept people from the polls. Activist churches were subject to firebombs and burning. Selma, Alabama, became a flashpoint. As Freedman begins his narrative, student activism had propelled teachers and other middle-class blacks to get involved. The death of an unarmed demonstrator drove organizers to plan a march from Selma to the state’s capital, Montgomery—an attempt that resulted in “Bloody Sunday,” one of the single most violent moments of the movement, and served to prod action on the Voting Rights Act in Congress. Freedman’s meticulous research and elegant prose brings freshness to a story that has been told many times. Familiar figures populate the account, but they are joined by many lesser-known figures as well.

Richly illustrated, this deserves a place alongside other important depictions of this story. (timeline, bibliography, photo credits, source notes, index) (Nonfiction. 12-16)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8234-2921-9

Page Count: 83

Publisher: Holiday House

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2014

As immigration continues to be a major issue in America, this introduction to the Angel Island experience is overdue and,...

ANGEL ISLAND

GATEWAY TO GOLD MOUNTAIN

Writing with clarity, Newbery Medal winner Freedman (Becoming Ben Franklin, 2013, etc.) explores a lesser-known period in U.S. immigration history, when the San Francisco Golden Gate was anything but welcoming.

Opened to enforce exclusion laws, the Angel Island Immigration Station, often called the Ellis Island of the West, served as the primary gateway to the Pacific Coast between 1910 and 1940. Over half a million people from more than 80 different countries were processed there, the majority of them from China. In telling the history of Chinese people in the U.S., the author doesn’t hold back on the racial discrimination these immigrants faced, including the passing of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Despite that, immigrants came, but they faced interrogations and long periods of detention on Angel Island. Here, the experience is made most vivid and poignant when Freedman weaves in the recollections of detainees, including “picture brides” and refugees, taken from books and videos. The historical photos of Angel Island life, notably the poems expressing frustration carved in Chinese calligraphy into the barracks walls (gracefully reproduced as design accents on front- and backmatter), bring depth and perspective to a dark period in American history. In this case, the walls do talk.

As immigration continues to be a major issue in America, this introduction to the Angel Island experience is overdue and, most of all, welcome. (source notes, selected bibliography, acknowledgments, picture credits) (Nonfiction. 9-14)

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-547-90378-1

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Clarion

Review Posted Online: Oct. 9, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2013

Accessible, erudite, aesthetically appealing: a must-have.

A WOMAN IN THE HOUSE (AND SENATE)

HOW WOMEN CAME TO THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS, BROKE DOWN BARRIERS, AND CHANGED THE COUNTRY

It is no small task to create a book that summarizes over a century of U.S. history, gives a crash course in civics, and provides succinct, pithy biographies of numerous women who have served in the legislative and judicial branches of government. Cooper pulls it off.

She sets her tone with the introduction: “Guess how many women served in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives from the first Congress in 1789 until the 65th Congress began in 1917. / 200? 100? 50? / Zero. Nada. None…. / What’s up with that?” Vigorous prose and well-chosen anecdotes, enhanced by elegant design, make for a continually engaging read. A double-page spread featuring a 1914 photograph of suffragists superimposed with a feisty Susan B. Anthony quotation precedes some general history of the suffrage movement, followed by short biographies of key women. Each subsequent chronological section similarly captures an era, with appropriate artwork. (Doves and flowers adorn the introduction to the 1960s). Throughout the cataloging of legislative triumphs—in a spectrum of issues far beyond women’s rights—there are documented anecdotes of struggles against racism and sexism, such as the day in the 1970s when a committee chairman insisted that the sole female representative and the sole African-American representative share a chair, as their votes “were worth only half of one regular Member.”

Accessible, erudite, aesthetically appealing: a must-have. (foreword, appendix, endnotes, bibliography, acknowledgments, index) (Nonfiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: March 11, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4197-1036-0

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Abrams

Review Posted Online: Jan. 8, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2014

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