four mini reviews, four informational picture books

These aren’t quite capsule reviews, or even lightning reviews, but they are a series of short book reviews of informational kids’ books that I read on Friday—because, as a librarian who works with children’s literature a lot so I can serve preservice teachers and preservice speech therapists, I need to know that lit. And preservice teachers really need informational texts.

Before I launch into these mini-reviews, I’m going to add a brief corollary: I’ve had people say that kids won’t understand, say, subjects of class or labor or work. I strongly disagree. It first assumes that the default Kid is an upper-class white child whose existence is so sheltered that they don’t understand work or labor or whatever. It assumes that kids aren’t intelligent enough to learn, and aren’t compassionate enough to care. And, finally, I think that at the end of the day it’s because we, as teachers or librarians or parents or whatever, don’t want to deal with the uneasy questions that come of discussing topics like labor or class or race. And that’s our problem.

Sakamoto’s Swim Club

Sakamoto’s Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory, written by Julie Abery and illustrated by Chris Sasaki, is an informational picture book about Hawaiian science teacher Soichi Sakamoto, the kids he trained to be swimmers, and their eventual victory at the Olympics.

But Sakamoto’s Swim Club is so much MORE. Abery’s poetic text is very simple and also very complex. The story she tells is one of triumph, yes, but also of racism and classism, and she doesn’t shy away from acknowledging it. The people working the fields are “Migrant workers / cutting cane.” Their work keeps them constantly busy and leaves kids to fend for themselves: “Dawn to dusk / they toil away. / Children left / alone to play.” Those words can be understood by any kid around, for sure—but they can lead to some really deep conversations, too, a thread which runs throughout the book.

Sasaki, himself an author/illustrator, has provided lush, vibrant illustrations filled with kids of color trying their hardest to live, even when the cops come to chase them out of drainage ditches—and, finally, following Sakamoto (who apparently was a lousy swimmer himself) as he trains them to become champion swimmers using those very same drainage ditches.

Sakamoto’s Swim Club can, I think, lead to discussions about class, race, occupation, and learning. One could also use it as part of a discussion about Hawaii, or about the U.S. before and during WWII—and particularly its treatment of Japanese Americans. It’s a gorgeous book, one which goes far deeper than its simple text and verdant illustrations might seem.

Hey, Water!

Hey, Water! written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis is incredibly simple, in all the best ways. The reading age is given as four to eight, although Portis’s text and illustrations are simple and straightforward enough that I think a much younger kid could get at least the rudiments of water from it as well.

The illustrations are engaging and are a great compliment to the text, another way it will draw in a younger crowd. Portis, who is essentially illustrating the water cycle, goes into significantly greater depth (ha) in her author’s note, providing lots of fodder for anyone hoping to utilize this book as part of their water-related lesson plans. There were a few places where I admit I snickered—calm lake, hahahaha—but this is a great book, a gentle, easy introduction to the life of water that pretty much all kids can enjoy.


Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer, written by Traci Sorell (Cherokee) and warmly illustrated by Natasha Donovan (Métis), tells the story of a woman whose life and work have been very much hidden: Mary Golda Ross, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s first female engineer—and, one assumes, also their first Indigenous American engineer. It’s fairly simple, as informational texts go: we follow Mary from her girlhood (when she decides that math is where it’s at) through her career (as she constantly moves onward and upward, because she’s a badass) and to her life as an older woman, mentor and trailblazer to so many who have come after.

The text is never overwhelming, and I think it’s engaging as all hell. Sorell writes that “When the boys refused to sit next to the only girl in math class, Mary felt motivated to get better grades than they did.” Donovan’s illustration, meanwhile, shows a determined young Mary, sitting alone as boys (most of them white, in this picture) gawp at her from behind. Now, I don’t know about you, but I have often been motivated to excel out of sheer malice. I found Mary’s determination quite inspiring, and I think a lot of other folks will find it glorious as well—especially since we see, in the following pages, that she not only does better but blows all those bros out of the water.

Ross’s life is an incredible one, and, though much of her work is still classified, we know enough to know that she was brilliant and hella good at her job. This book would be a fantastic addition to any discussion about STEM or STEAM; it’s a good fit for Women’s History Month, and for Native American Heritage Month, and, really, for pretty much any time someone wants to add a good solid bit of information and discussion about some of the things mathematicians can do in this world of ours.

Lerner provides classroom guides and additional resources to accompany Classified.


Nina: A Story of Nina Simone, written with verve and elegance by Traci N. Todd and vibrantly illustrated by the one and only Christian Robinson, is a picture book biography of Eunice Kathleen Waymon, whom we all know as Nina Simone. This, like Hey, Water! is listed as a book for the four to eight year olds—and, while I think that’s legit, I think it skews either older than Hey, Water! or at least to a more advanced attention span. Todd’s elegant text provides a lot of information, both about Simone and her art and about the world in which she lived (and in which WE live, too, let’s admit it). Robinson’s gorgeous art, meanwhile, can be a bit of a scavenger hunt: what wonders can be find, in its depths?

Simone’s life was one of complexities and contradictions, jazz with her dad when her mother was out, gospel and religious songs when her mother was home, segregation and racism even as she scaled the rungs of the musical world. Todd doesn’t shy away from those contradictions, or from the difficulties Simone faced. Robinson, meanwhile, illustrates them, showing Simone’s feelings (and her anger) in his illustrations. This is a book that belongs in every classroom, and every library. It can spark conversations about the importance of music, and its presence in our daily lives; I think we can also use it to talk about the ways in which culture more broadly is present, and how we define “good” music. (Whose definitions are we using, anyway? And why?) It’s also an incredible exploration of the Civil Rights movement.

Penguin Classroom has some great resources for those looking to use Nina in their classrooms.

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