This year was a great one for middle grade non-fiction. So was last year. And the year before. Something wonderful is going on!
Here are a few of the books I’ve enjoyed this year, some of which are the subject of serious award-season talk. I know I’ve left out plenty. Please add your favs!
All book summaries are from Indiebound.org
This captivating nonfiction investigation of the Pentagon Papers has captured widespread critical acclaim, including features in “The Washington Post “and on NPR, and selection as a 2015 National Book Award finalist.
From Steve Sheinkin, the award-winning author of “The Port Chicago 50” and Newbery Honor Book “Bomb “comes a tense, narrative nonfiction account of what the Times deemed “the greatest story of the century”: how whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg transformed from obscure government analyst into “the most dangerous man in America,” and risked everything to expose years of government lies during the Nixon / Cold War era.
On June 13, 1971, the front page of the New York Times announced the existence of a 7,000-page collection of documents containing a secret history of the Vietnam War. Known as The Pentagon Papers, these files had been commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Chronicling every action the government had taken in the Vietnam War, they revealed a pattern of deception spanning over twenty years and four presidencies, and forever changed the relationship between American citizens and the politicians claiming to represent their interests. The investigation that resulted–as well as the attempted government coverups and vilification of the whistleblower–has timely relevance to Edward Snowden’s more recent conspiracy leaks.
A provocative and political book that interrogates the meanings of patriotism, freedom, and integrity, “Most Dangerous “further establishes Steve Sheinkin as a leader in children’s nonfiction.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s monstrous winds and surging water overwhelmed the protective levees around low-lying New Orleans, Louisiana. Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water. Property damages across the Gulf Coast topped $100 billion. One thousand eight hundred and thirty-three people lost their lives. The riveting tale of this historic storm and the drowning of an American city is one of selflessness, heroism, and courage and also of incompetence, racism, and criminality.
Don Brown’s kinetic art and as-it-happens narrative capture both the tragedy and triumph of one of the worst natural disasters in American history. A portion of the proceeds from this book has been donated to Habitat for Humanity New Orleans.
(FYI: You heard it from the MUF grapevine: don’t miss this one!) From award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney comes the story of the music that defined a generation and a movement that changed the world.
Berry Gordy began Motown in 1959 with an $800 loan from his family. He converted the garage of a residential house into a studio and recruited teenagers from the neighborhood-like Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross-to sing for his new label. Meanwhile, the country was on the brink of a cultural revolution, and one of the most powerful agents of change in the following decade would be this group of young black performers from urban Detroit. From Berry Gordy and his remarkable vision to the Civil Rights movement, from the behind-the-scenes musicians, choreographers, and song writers to the most famous recording artists of the century, Andrea Davis Pinkney takes readers on a Rhythm Ride through the story of Motown.
Michel Chikwanine was five years old when he was abducted from his schoolyard soccer game in the Democratic Republic of Congo and forced to become a soldier for a brutal rebel militia. Against the odds, Michel managed to escape and find his way back to his family, but he was never the same again. After immigrating to Canada, Michel was encouraged by a teacher to share what happened to him in order to raise awareness about child soldiers around the world, and this book is part of that effort. Told in the first person and presented in a graphic novel format, the gripping story of Michel’s experience is moving and unsettling. But the humanity he exhibits in the telling, along with Claudia Davila’s illustrations, which evoke rather than depict the violent elements of the story, makes the book accessible for this age group and, ultimately, reassuring and hopeful. The back matter contains further information, as well as suggestions for ways children can help. This is a perfect resource for engaging youngsters in social studies lessons on global awareness and social justice issues, and would easily spark classroom discussions about conflict, children’s rights and even bullying. Michel’s actions took enormous courage, but he makes clear that he was and still is an ordinary person, no different from his readers. He believes everyone can do something to make the world a better place, and so he shares what his father told him: “If you ever think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.”
(Full disclosure: Hoose is one of my all-time favorite non-fiction writers. Also check out his “Claudette Colvin” and “The Race to Save the Lord God Bird”) At the outset of World War II, Denmark did not resist German occupation. Deeply ashamed of his nation’s leaders, fifteen-year-old Knud Pedersen resolved with his brother and a handful of schoolmates to take action against the Nazis if the adults would not. Naming their secret club after the fiery British leader, the young patriots in the Churchill Club committed countless acts of sabotage, infuriating the Germans, who eventually had the boys tracked down and arrested. But their efforts were not in vain: the boys’ exploits and eventual imprisonment helped spark a full-blown Danish resistance. Interweaving his own narrative with the recollections of Knud himself, here is Phillip Hoose’s inspiring story of these young war heroes.