Book List

Best Middle-Grade Nonfiction of 2019

Informative and entertaining throughout for readers undead or otherwise.



Eight renowned monsters of film, fantasy, and folklore offer gateways to scientific fields and enquiries.

“The real magic is science,” writes Beccia (They Lost Their Heads!, 2018), and to back up the claim, she surrounds introductions to familiar fantastic creatures, from Dracula to Bigfoot, the Kraken, werewolves, and King Kong, with excursions into diverse scientific topics relevant to each. After leading off with a look at the chemical bases of fear and other emotions, for instance, an account of Mary Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein’s monster serves as entree for discussions of electricity, the experiments of Galvani and others, how defibrillators work, glowing pigs and other products of genetic experimentation, lobotomies, head transplants, and how certain breakfast-cereal dyes turn poop pink. Moreover, later chapters invite readers to sink their teeth into a vampiric timeline from ancient Babylonia and the Twilight saga, weigh King Kong’s unlikely mass ratio (“Did Beauty or Math Kill the Beast?”), glimpse a deep-sea “bone-eating snot-flower worm” chowing down on a dead whale, and assemble an official Centers for Disease Control zombie-preparedness kit that would, uncoincidentally, be just as useful in a pandemic or other natural disaster. The monsters are more comical than scary in the author’s painted illustrations, and though her (living) cast defaults to white, she does include some brown-skinned figures.

Informative and entertaining throughout for readers undead or otherwise. (index, glossary, large bibliography) (Nonfiction. 10-13)

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5124-4916-7

Page Count: 148

Publisher: Carolrhoda

Review Posted Online: July 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

An exceptionally well-researched and impressively crafted tale of desperation, tragedy, and survival.



Heiligman recounts the little-known World War II maritime disaster of the sinking of the passenger ship City of Benares, which was evacuating children from England to Canada.

In 1940, with German air raids reducing many of England’s major cities to smoldering ruins and a threatened invasion looming, thousands of British parents chose to send their children to safety in Canada through a program called the Children’s Overseas Reception Board. On Sept. 13, 1940, the passenger liner departed Liverpool in a convoy bound for Canadian ports. Onboard were 90 CORB children, their chaperones, crew, and paying passengers. Their Royal Navy escort left it on Sept. 17, and that night, unaware of the refugee children aboard, the commander of German submarine U-48 ordered three torpedoes launched at the Benares, the third hitting its target with devastating effect. Heiligman makes the story especially compelling by recounting the backstories and experiences of several of the children and their chaperones. These characters are presumably white; Heiligman takes care to note that the overwhelming majority of the crew were South Asian Muslims whose stories were not collected after the disaster. It’s a customarily masterfully paced and beautifully designed book, with reproductions of archival photographs and documents complemented by original pencil art by Lee that captures the action aboard the Benares and afterward. Expansive backmatter includes interviews conducted with Heiligman’s sources, several by her.

An exceptionally well-researched and impressively crafted tale of desperation, tragedy, and survival. (bibliography, notes, index) (Nonfiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62779-554-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Godwin Books/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Aug. 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

Mummy books cram the shelves, but this one won’t stay buried for long.


From the Creepy and True series , Vol. 1

Hollihan unwraps the skinny on human mummies of both the distant past and more recent times.

Leaving few if any double-entendres unturned, the author highlights prominent examples of both artificially preserved corpses and those that have survived (so to speak) due to natural causes. The roster includes the familiar likes of King Tut, Lenin, and China’s Lady Dai as well as lower-profile remains such as the tattooed Altai Princess, the “Moche muchacha” Lady of Cao, and the 262 former residents of Vác, Hungary, found during a church renovation in 1994. In introducing her subjects, she recounts initial encounters, describes sites and physical states in “easy queasy” detail, and clearly explains the techniques researchers use in field and lab to reconstruct each discovery’s life, demise, and culture. Complex issues of cultural appropriation raised by disturbing and removing the dead versus preserving the safety of ancient sites, particularly in the face of climate change, also receive respectful notice. Along with an array of boxed side notes—a bulleted list of the stages of decomposition (“The skin turns blue-green”) being typically informative—and numerous close-up color photos of variously decomposed bodies and body parts, generous chapter-by-chapter sets of endnotes and of print and web resources add further layers of interest and value to this series opener.

Mummy books cram the shelves, but this one won’t stay buried for long. (index) (Nonfiction. 10-13)

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4197-3167-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Abrams

Review Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

Though laced with toxins, this is anything but toxic.



If every dish on your table was poisoned, would you be so quick to jump at the call to dinner?

In posing this question via an extended opening scene, Jarrow vivaciously draws readers into a world of horrors hiding in plain taste. The first half of the book plunges into the story of U.S. Department of Agriculture chemist Harvey Wiley, who devoted the majority of his working life to combating food adulteration. After he conducted a series of studies designed to illustrate the “highly poisonous and injurious” nature of preservatives, his subjects, dubbed the “Poison Squad,” gained national fame. A nearly Dickensian display of Congressional stalling was subverted when renowned magazines corroborated Wiley’s findings, and the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle finally pushed into effect the ineffectual but seminal Food and Drugs Act of 1906, which marked the first tangible progress toward improved food safety. The book’s second half traces a thorny path to the workings of the modern FDA, and Jarrow doesn’t hesitate to point out ongoing limitations alongside advances. Maintaining a matter-of-fact, conversational tone throughout, she presents a tantalizing flood of anecdotes and facts, text peppered with old magazine adverts, photographs, and gory details aplenty; extensive backmatter encourages further research into a subject more than fascinating enough to warrant it. Revolting and riveting in turns, Jarrow’s masterfully crafted narrative will fundamentally alter how readers view their food.

Though laced with toxins, this is anything but toxic. (Chemical descriptions, glossary, timeline, info links, author’s note, source notes, bibliography, index) (Nonfiction. 10-17)

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62979-438-9

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

A thrill ride punctuated with spectacular failures—but also spectacular successes.



Twelve harrowing episodes in the history of space travel.

Beginning with the hatch that prematurely blew off Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 capsule, Kluger (To the Moon!, 2018) offers a truly terrifying tally of catastrophes or near catastrophes—basing each incident on authoritative sources and relating each with melodramatic flair: “It can be oddly peaceful inside a dying spacecraft.” To requisite accounts of the Apollo 1 fire, the Apollo 13 thriller, and the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger, he adds the less-well-known tragedies of the Soyuz 1 crash and the asphyxiation of the three cosmonauts of Soyuz 11 as well as such near misses as Gene Cernan’s first extravehicular venture (“The Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Space Walk”), the lightning bolt that struck Apollo 12 as it was taking off, and the space-suited Italian astronaut who (ironically) narrowly escaped drowning outside the ISS when his helmet filled with water. The author analyzes the causes of each explosion or snafu, and his view of early spacecraft as exciting but chancy death traps riddled with flawed, often hastily designed technology will be an eye-opener for readers schooled on blander space-program narratives. Sharp black-and-white photos at the chapter heads depict the actual disasters or earlier views of the affected spacecraft or astronauts (where faces are discernible, all present white).

A thrill ride punctuated with spectacular failures—but also spectacular successes. (sources, glossary, index) (Nonfiction. 11-14)

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-9848-1275-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Philomel

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

An outstanding case study in how science is actually done: funny, nuanced, and perceptive.



How does a new, truly revolutionary idea become established scientific fact?

Lendler spins his account of how the awesome age and significance of fossils came to be understood into a grand yarn that begins 168 million years ago. He fast-forwards to 1676 and the first recorded fossil fragment of what was later named Megalosaurus and builds on the premise of “The Blind Men and the Elephant” to trace the ensuing, incremental accretion of stunning evidence over the next two centuries that the Earth is far older than the Bible seems to suggest and was once populated by creatures that no longer exist. It’s a story that abounds in smart, colorful characters including Mary Anning, Richard Owen (a brilliant scholar but “a horrible human being”), and Gideon Mantell, “a dude who really, really loved fossils.” Along the way the author fills readers in on coprolites (“the proof was in the pooing”), highlights the importance of recording discoveries, and explains how the tentative suggestion that certain fossils might have come from members of the “Lizard Tribe” morphed into the settled concept of “dinosaur.” Though he tells a Eurocentric tale, the author incorporates references to sexism and class preconceptions into his picture of scientific progress. Butzer’s illustrations add decorative and, sometimes, comical notes to sheaves of side notes, quotations, charts, maps, and period portraits and images.

An outstanding case study in how science is actually done: funny, nuanced, and perceptive. (bibliography, index) (Nonfiction. 10-15)

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5344-2700-6

Page Count: 224

Publisher: McElderry

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

This compelling story of determination and persistence can’t help but inspire today’s readers.



The struggle to achieve voting rights for women in both the United States and the United Kingdom is told in this illustrated book first published in the U.K.

Readers who may be skeptical that a man—as author/illustrator Roberts is—can do justice to the story of women’s suffrage will be happily proved wrong. Not only does Roberts bring his well-researched story to life, but his Edward Gorey–like watercolor portraits (some based on period photographs) both enlighten and entertain. Though primarily focused on the struggle in the U.K., the narrative in this large, sumptuously illustrated book nonetheless inserts U.S. suffrage activities in a natural way. Young readers will be amazed to learn that women’s suffrage in both countries took decades of organizing, demonstrating, marching, and educating—and that it was not a completely unified endeavor. The schism in the U.K. between factions who believed in peaceful demonstration and those who subscribed to more violent (although not against human lives) measures is presented factually, as is the discrimination in United States suffrage organizations that discouraged or denied participation by women of color. This cleareyed, evenhanded presentation gives the overall story a veracity that lets shine the bravery of all the women (and men) who were ridiculed, imprisoned, force-fed, and beaten for their determination to win the franchise.

This compelling story of determination and persistence can’t help but inspire today’s readers. (foreword, introduction, bibliography) (Nonfiction. 8-14)

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5362-0841-2

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Walker US/Candlewick

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019



The co-authors of Turtle Island: The Story of North America's First People (2017) team up again, this time addressing encounters between the Indigenous people of North America and European invaders.

A standout overview of Indigenous struggles, this slim volume highlights the scope of influence Europeans had on this continent by going beyond the standard story of English Pilgrims to include the Vikings and Spanish. The book follows a series of nonconsecutive events that highlight the resistance strategies, coping mechanisms, and renewal efforts undertaken by Indigenous nations primarily in present-day Canada and the U.S. Visually engaging, with colorful maps, drawings, photos, and artwork, the book includes modern moments in Native culture as well as history based on archaeological findings. Young readers will be introduced to an Indigenous astronaut and anthropologist as well as musicians, social activists, Olympians, soldiers, healers, and artists. The chapter titled “Assimilation” is a fine introduction to Indigenous identity issues, covering forcible conversion, residential schools, coercive adoption, and government naming policies. By no means comprehensive in their approach, Yellowhorn (Piikani) and Lowinger have focused on pivotal events designed to educate readers about the diversity of colonized experiences in the Americas. Sections in each chapter labeled “Imagine” are especially powerful in helping young readers empathize with Indigenous loss.

Essential. (author’s note, glossary, selected sources, image credits, index) (Nonfiction. 10-13)

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-77321-328-6

Page Count: 132

Publisher: Annick Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

More Book Lists

The Magazine: Kirkus Reviews

Jenn Shapland reclaims a queer icon in My Autobiography of Carson McCullers.

  • The Kirkus Star

    One of the most coveted designations in the book industry, the Kirkus Star marks books of exceptional merit.

  • The Kirkus Prize

    The Kirkus Prize is among the richest literary awards in America, awarding $50,000 in three categories annually.

    See the 2019 winners.

Great Books & News Curated For You

Be the first to read books news and see reviews, news and features in Kirkus Reviews. Get awesome content delivered to your inbox every week.

Thank you!

Looks good !! Please provide a valid email.