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Best Middle-Grade Nonfiction of 2015

Wonderfully odd and cleverly informative.

THE QUEEN'S SHADOW

A STORY ABOUT HOW ANIMALS SEE

When a queen, looking severe in her ball gown, suddenly misses her shadow at her own ball, the visual capabilities of her guests are put to the test in this mystery infused with natural science.

The Royal Detective, a mantis shrimp, confronts each guest to determine which might have taken advantage of the chaos following a thunderclap and momentary loss of light to steal the shadow. Each—chameleon, shark, snake, goat, dragonfly, colossal squid, pigeon—has an alibi, however: His or her attention and sight were focused elsewhere during the moments in question. By the time two young (sea) urchins provide the amusing solution, readers will have encountered multiple definitions of sight. Double-page, digitally worked pen-and-ink illustrations offer a look at the scene from each guest’s perspective and provide visual explanations for unique ways of seeing. Areas of light and dark, perspectives from above and the side, washed-out and saturated color are used to reveal the scope and limits of specific types of sight. Inset text boxes provide descriptions of how sight works for each creature. The slightly formal prose and zany details and dialogue accentuate the silliness of the narrative. Backmatter includes an overview of the mechanics of sight in humans, more about each animal and a glossary; there is no resource list.

Wonderfully odd and cleverly informative. (Informational picture book. 7-10)

Pub Date: March 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-894786-60-7

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Kids Can

Review Posted Online: Dec. 10, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

Compelling and informative for a broad readership and a good addition to STEM collections.

THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND

The author and his collaborator have condensed the original memoir of the same name, a story of an innovative and compassionate boy coming of age during an era of extreme hardship in Malawi.

This newest incarnation of Kamkwamba’s tale is as absorbing as its predecessor and still delivers with equanimity facts both disturbing and inspiring. Kamkwamba describes his early life in Masitala, a tiny rural village where, typically, large families of subsistence farmers lived in huts without electricity or running water. Until December 2000, Kamkwamba’s life reads like an African parallel to the idyllic, early-20th-century scenes in Sterling North’s Rascal: soccer with balls made from plastic bags; juicy mangoes and crunchy grasshoppers; storytelling by the light of a kerosene lamp; experiments with old radio parts; loyal friends and faithful pet. A perfect storm of deforestation, governmental changes, flooding and drought creates a sudden famine. The text does not spare readers the effects of starvation and grinding poverty on humans and animals. However, there are also many descriptions of how and why power-generating inventions work, and the passages about creating tools from almost nothing are reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. Against astounding odds, Kamkwamba’s eventual creation of a windmill to bring lighting to his family’s home is nothing short of amazing. 

Compelling and informative for a broad readership and a good addition to STEM collections. (map, prologue, photographs, epilogue, acknowledgments) (Memoir. 11-16)

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8037-4080-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

Science in the field at its best.

THE OCTOPUS SCIENTISTS

EXPLORING THE MIND OF A MOLLUSK

From the Scientists in the Field series

An international team of scientists with varied focuses work together on a remote South Pacific island to study octopus behaviors.

Two weeks on Moorea, in French Polynesia, snorkeling and diving around the reefs off the coast, admiring the abundant life, and learning about octopuses. What could be nicer? In her latest observation of scientific fieldwork, Montgomery doesn’t ignore the downside—there's more searching than studying, here, and it’s often physically uncomfortable—but she dwells on the joys of admiring the endless variety in the underwater world and learning about these reclusive, intelligent, surprising creatures. With ease that comes from long practice, she weaves a narrative full of fascinating detail, helpful comparisons, direct quotations, and personal reactions that bring readers into the experience. Chapters of action, with smoothly integrated explanatory background, are interspersed with informative passages about octopuses, the field station, and coral reefs. She describes the team’s daily explorations in the water and their inside lab work, identifying the food remains they’ve collected from neat piles outside the octopuses’ dens. This is an account of a successful expedition, although it raises more questions than it answers. “The field is about serendipity,” expedition leader Jennifer Mather reminds readers. Amazing photographs reveal the octopuses’ remarkable shape-changing abilities and help readers visualize this experience.

Science in the field at its best. (Nonfiction. 10-16)

Pub Date: May 26, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-544-23270-9

Page Count: 80

Publisher: HMH Books

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2015

Fascinating and heartfelt.

A YEAR WITHOUT MOM

Tolstikova offers an illustrated memoir of her 13th year: it's the year the Soviet Union falls, but more importantly, it's the year she stays in Moscow with her grandparents while her mother studies abroad.

Cataclysmic though the end of Soviet rule is, it occupies just a few pages of this heavily illustrated book: "one morning we wake up and Gorbachev...is taken prisoner by some bad people," Dasha writes, then "good guy Yeltsin...comes to the rescue." Of far greater moment than seismic political activity are the everyday concerns of a middle school girl. She develops a crush on charismatic Petya, hangs out with chums Masha and Natasha, attends after-school art classes, excels in math and physics, has a falling-out with her friends, and applies to a magnet school, all the while carving out a life without her mother. Soviet-era Russian realities are only hinted at, backgrounding Dasha's story but never overwhelming it. Scribbly, childlike pencil drawings are filled in with gray wash and accentuated with red and the occasional pop of blue. They are deceptively simple, but with great narrative sophistication, they capture both the specificity of Dasha's experience and the universality of her emotions. The text is likewise unadorned and effective: "I don't care about anything anymore. It's cold and dark out. I am not cool. Petya will never like me. School is boring. Everything sucks."

Fascinating and heartfelt. (Graphic memoir. 10-14)

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-55498-692-7

Page Count: 168

Publisher: Groundwood

Review Posted Online: Aug. 12, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

Following on his Sibert Honor–winning Separate Is Never Equal (2014), Tonatiuh further marks himself as a major nonfiction...

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FUNNY BONES

POSADA AND HIS DAY OF THE DEAD <I>CALAVERAS</I>

Tonatiuh’s Mixtec-influenced illustrations make an apt complement to this picture-book biography of one of Mexico’s most beloved artists, José Guadalupe Posada.

Don Lupe, as he was called, used the printing techniques of lithography, engraving, and etching. Each technique is summarized in four-panel layouts, and sample images of his calaveras and calacas (skulls and skeletons) are liberally incorporated into the illustrations. Many of the iconic images associated with Día de los Muertos were created by Posada as integral elements of his world-renowned political satire, particularly during the Mexican Revolution. Tonatiuh skillfully blends his own distinctive style of digital collage and hand drawings not only to highlight events in Posada’s life, but also to add whimsical elements by introducing contemporary calaveras. He incorporates amusing, thoughtful exercises for young readers into the narrative, prompting them to interpret the messages behind Posada’s artwork. Also included is an in-depth author’s note on the history of the Day of the Dead and an extensive glossary. In addition, a bibliography, list of art credits, and venues where Posada’s art is displayed are provided for further exploration of Posada’s life and work. Phonetic pronunciation is, unfortunately, only sporadically and unevenly sprinkled throughout the story.

Following on his Sibert Honor–winning Separate Is Never Equal (2014), Tonatiuh further marks himself as a major nonfiction talent with this artistically beautiful and factually accessible offering that effectively blends artistic and political content for young readers. (Picture book/biography. 7-13)

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4197-1647-8

Page Count: 40

Publisher: Abrams

Review Posted Online: June 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

An excellent chronicle of the tragedy for a broad audience; children, teens, and adults will all be moved.

DROWNED CITY

HURRICANE KATRINA AND NEW ORLEANS

Following the stellar The Great American Dust Bowl (2013), Brown tells the story of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans, beginning with “a swirl of unremarkable wind” in “early August, 2005” and ending with the observation that “By 2012, only 80 percent of New Orleans’s residents had returned.”

Artwork with the high quality of early Disney animation—strongly drawn figures against electrically charged watercolor backgrounds—seamlessly co-tells a dramatic tale with text that ranges from simple, factual sentences to quotations from an extensive collection of books and media. The text and artwork clearly reveal two separate but inextricably connected horrors: devastation caused by a high-category hurricane and the human responsibility that lay behind the nightmarish scenarios. The book is fast-paced and hard to put down, sequential panels used to perfect advantage. A couple is shown in rising water in their home, scratching a hole through their roof to safety. Later, a crowd of 15,000 waits, without supplies, in a fetid convention center, for impossibly slow help to arrive. “Mayor Nagin is never seen there.” The final frame of that series depicts a woman on her knees, crying out, “Help us!” In addition to quoting and contextualizing such now-infamous sayings as, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” the book pays homage to the heroism of many, both professionals and volunteers.

An excellent chronicle of the tragedy for a broad audience; children, teens, and adults will all be moved. (source notes, bibliography) (Graphic nonfiction. 12 & up)

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-544-15777-4

Page Count: 96

Publisher: HMH Books

Review Posted Online: April 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2015

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