Category Archives: nonfiction

Open your eyes

“I felt like a newborn whose eyes have just opened to the light,” said Wilma Mankiller about finding a home at the Oakland Indian Center, making connections with other tribal communities, going to traditional dances, and listening to traditional stories.

So much of her life is accessible to many kinds of people – having a kind of funny name that kids at school mock, not fitting in to the community your parents move to, ending up in relationships that don’t match who you really are, finding your place among a community you love.  Her life is full of experiences all kids can relate to, even if they don’t match their own perfectly.

And it’s a life that should be lifted up as ground-breaking and powerful.  Wow.

Wilma’s Way Home: the life of Wilma Mankiller by Doreen Rappaport and Linda Kukuk

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Other ways in

Not long ago, a library patron who’s trying to read outside of her normal zones asked me about graphic novels.  She seemed to think that if she tried something there, she’d probably have to read about superheroes or slog through comic strips or something along those lines which would not interest her one bit.

But the sky was blue, and the sun was shining that day!  I love, love, love to tell people about all the alternatives in graphic novels.  You can find inspiring biographies, stories of refugees fleeing persecution, the lives of artists, and so much more.  Graphic novels can be a way into a complicated or beautiful story that reaches out to readers in different ways.

Oddly enough, another patron  – not someone you might imagine as the stereotypical comics reader – had just been telling me about this book, a graphic version of Anne Frank’s diary.  It’s a piercing reinvention of Anne Frank’s life and world, with her words (although some are left out – see the adapter’s note) and art that grabs at you in a kind of sneaky way sometimes.  Definitely worth a look.

Anne Frank’s Diary: the graphic adaptation, adapted by Ari Folman, illustrated by David Polonsky

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Of zooxanthellae and radiolaria

secrets of the seaAnd also moon jellies and sea angels and so much more.

Looking out at a snowy day and a driveway that still needs to be plowed, thinking of the sea and beautiful colors and shapes and patterns and weird-looking creatures is the perfect, perfect escape.  The illustrations are so detailed and lively and interesting that your mind travels away to somewhere silent and deep and isolated from the chaos of the human world, and you almost forget that long list of things you need to do.  A gift.

Secrets of the Sea by Kate Baker and Eleanor Taylor

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Pies for equal rights

pies from nowhereBaked goods and resistance?  Well, yes.  If you’re Georgia Gilmore and you’re trying to find a way to help out, yes, you just might bake some pies.  And then bake more pies.  And then make some other food.  And then organize others to help out.

Over time, things that seem small at first contribute to big, big change.

Pies from Nowhere:  How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Dee Romito and Laura Freeman

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Blinding me with science

Doesn’t everyone love science, at least once they’re past having to dissect things and classify things and pass some unnecessarily difficult final chemistry exam?  I do.  I love reading kids’ books about all kinds of science and scientists.  I’ve been known to dip into adult books, too, about birds and trees and labs and even geology.  Who knew this could all be this amazing?

There is something beautiful about the rhythm and patterns of the earth and those who live on it, and these three are perfect illustrations of how wonderful it all is – especially because their art grabs you and drags you in, whether it’s the Big Bang, a jaunt through the solar system, or some super-detailed plants and insects.

Ah, nature.  Ah, science.


Tiny Little Rocket by Richard Collingridge

Once Upon a Star by James Carter and Mar Hernández

A Web by Isabelle Simler

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Potato kings and other fancy titles

no small potatoesJunius Groves is one of those people who should be showing up in history more — a not-so-average average person who works really hard and sends good (and also potatoes) into the world.  For all of his hard work, he becomes known as the Potato King, first of Wyandotte County, then of Kansas, and in 1902, of the world.  The world!

I have a certain fondness for such titles –being a Potato King is an honor, but you have to admit that it’s a little like being a Pork Queen in Iowa.  It makes you think for a minute.  However, being the daughter of a former Wheat Man of the Year, also in the great state of Kansas, I’m all for Potato Kings.

No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and his Kingdom in Kansas by Tonya Bolden and Don Tate

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A happy break on a new day in a new year

art mattersYour imagination can change the world, Neil Gaiman says.

Because of the conversations I have every day a public library, I know this is true.  Sure, the world is full of distractions and screens (some of which have stories on them) and ugliness.

But take a moment and remember how powerful words can be – that time you almost couldn’t put a book down and get to class or work, the writer whose characters made you feel so strongly that you wept or laughed out loud or raged at your roommate about something, the quiet moments you spent with a child talking about characters’ problems or some great illustrations.  And if you are a creator of stories yourself, it’s a reminder that what you do is special and much needed in this world.

Also, Neil Gaiman loves libraries.  So we love him.  Happy New Year!

Art Matters by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

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A long span of history with much work left to do

Isabella was born into slavery but seemed to always see a path out.  When she was promised her freedom and then that promise was broken, she found a way to take it.  Later she used the law to force her former owner to get her son back after he was sold into the South.  And she was tall, so tall.

The woman who became Sojourner Truth, that same Isabella, used her voice to question and speak out, as did Clara Luper in Oklahoma many, many years later.  Clara Luper encouraged her students to use their voices, and eventually Katz drugstores all across the country integrated their lunch counters.  She continued to speak out against injustice for the rest of her life.

Wonderful stories about the power we all have to create change.

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom by Gary Schmidt and Daniel Minter

Someday is Now:  Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-ins by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Jade Johnson


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Those new scanners just mean I have to check out more books…

We recently got new circulation tech at our library that isn’t exactly like the old stuff — is it ever?  I am one of those people who doesn’t mind winging it on a lot of things, but I just know that if I don’t know really how tech stuff works, that’s the day I’m going to have five patrons ask me to help them navigate it.

So to avoid personal confusion next weekend when I work at a different branch which has slightly different new tech stuff, I decided to go peruse the new picture books at that branch so that I’d have an excuse to try out their machines in advance.  But really, that trip was all about was finding new picture books I’ve somehow missed in my own bubble.  It happens, friends.  All the bases just can’t be covered sometimes.

And what did I find?  At least 12 new books to look at.  Woo hoo!  Among them were these four really great picture book biographies, all about completely different kinds of people.  Even better!

Sewing the Rainbow: the story of Gilbert Baker and the Rainbow Flag by Gayle Pitman and Holly Clifton-Brown

Not only does this book actually look glittery (oh my!), but it turns out that Gilbert Baker, the creator of the rainbow flag for the LGBT community was originally from Kansas.  While Kansas mostly did not work out for him, he found a home and a career in San Francisco.

Thirty Minutes Over Oregon:  a Japanese pilot’s World War II story by Marc Tyler Nobleman and Melissa Iwai

What’s really wonderful about this story is what happened many years after Nobuo Fujita bombed (somewhat unsuccessfully) the Oregon coastline.  It’s a sweet story of forgiveness and the power of international relationships and friendship.

Hammering for Freedom by Rita Lorraine Hubbard and John Holyfield

Another amazing story, about William Lewis, an enslaved man who finds a way to free himself and his entire family, while also building a business and breaking boundaries.  The illustrations are especially wonderful.

Eliza: the story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton by Margaret McNamara and Esmé Shapiro

Do you have any Hamilton fans in your life?  We have one young patron who is a little obsessed with anything Hamilton these days, and while this isn’t a Ron Chernow biography – it’s several hundred pages shorter for one thing – it is packed with information and gives a fuller picture of Eliza’s fascinating life after Alexander’s death.


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Come for the illustrations, stay for the story

eye I really can’t gush enough about the illustrations in this one.

I’m not sure I’d even try to read it to a group of kids; there’s just too much to see that calls for a closer look.  (There’s also enough text on the page that it would work better with an older child or in one-on-one reading.)

It’s an interesting peek into history and brings the time period to life in a way you don’t often see in picture books.  We’ll learn about Allan Pinkerton and his network of detectives, including the first female detective, Kate Warne.  And we’ll also learn a little about the history around Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration and the fears that he would be assassinated.

And all the while, we’ll have those cool illustrations to enjoy.  Yay!

The Eye that Never Sleeps:  How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln by Marissa Moss & Jeremy Holmes

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A girl and her formulas should not be parted…

nothing stopped sophieSophie Germain was not a girl (or later a woman) to be stopped when it came to her love of math.  Her parents tried to dissuade her, thinking there was no way in France during the revolution she’d ever be able to live a “normal” life, getting married to someone appropriate, having a life that others could understand.

Sophie had other plans, however.  She had persistence in astronomical qualities, never giving up despite the fact that male mathematicians were only interested in her ideas until she turned out to be a woman.  But she loved math and the challenge of figuring out how things worked so much that we was revolutionary in her own way.

The story is fascinating, and the illustrations just add to the interest – numbers pop up everywhere, formulas and patterns flow across the pages.  Wonderful.

Nothing Stopped Sophie :  The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe and Barbara McClintock

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A little narrative nonfiction fangirling

the-library-book-9781476740188_lgOh, Susan Orlean!  You have managed to combine two of my very favorite things–  really great narrative nonfiction and libraries!

There is tragedy – a horrible library fire!  There are awesome and quirky librarians – past and present!  There is a mystery man – arsonist or overly chatty attention-seeker?!  There is history and books and social activism and wonder!

It’s hard for me to look at this book objectively, really, which is why I might overdo it a bit on the exclamation points here and there or all over the place.  I have loved libraries my whole life, since spending Saturday mornings checking out the maximum of ten allowed at my hometown library.  I worked in the high school library and loved my college libraries for their classic quiet reading rooms and quirky corners and amazing research help.  For many years, I was a regular public library patron and also took the kids I worked with to its programs.  I was lucky enough to find my way to working at one after a whole career in social services and still help out in a school library several years after my son moved on to middle and high school.  I sometimes visit libraries on my vacations.  So I have no perspective – ZERO – on libraries.

And knowing all of that about me, you can know that if I love this book, there is much to be loved in it.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

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The particular sadness of the news cycle

unwantedNot long ago, our government announced that it would again cut refugee admissions, following the whole ridiculous farce last year about needing to make an already multi-year process more difficult.  Do I have strong feelings about this?  Yes, yes, I do.

As this book notes in the postscript, “There are about 5.7 million Syrian refugees.  In the first three months of 2018, the United States has accepted eleven for resettlement.”   Eleven!  When I wrote the White House about the issue, the reply I got back was a full page of what a wonderful job ICE agents are doing on the border.  I wasn’t at all surprised, but it was a little depressing.

I look at all that refugees I have personally known have done to make this country, state, and city a better place, and I am appalled that our government feels like it’s ok to do so little in the face of unspeakable horror and tragedy.   But that’s the news cycle for you.  It’s as if it isn’t even happening anymore.

Do yourself a favor and read this book.  It’s probably not ideal for younger kids –there are some visuals suggesting executions, bombings and other violence – but it would be eye-opening for teens (and adults).

The Unwanted: stories of the Syrian refugees by Don Brown

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Have we learned anything? Do we ever learn?

1947It’s easy to feel like the world is in chaos, but hasn’t it always been a little that way?

1947: where now begins  is a reminder, not just of how much can happen in one year – a lot – but that some fights we think we’ve won really just putter on, hiding out or growing or morphing into some new awful thing over weeks, months, years.  People in power make dumb decisions that hurt people all the time and frequently lose little sleep over it.  Justice can be more about keeping people in their places than fairness or democracy.

I wouldn’t call it a fun read, but it is a powerful one.

1947: where now begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink

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Book girl. Supreme Court Justice.

turning pagesReading was like lighting candles, each book a flame that lit up the world around me.

No library worker  or lifelong reader could come across this book and not like it.  Really.

Sonia Sotomayor’s story is one any immigrant can relate to – the power of becoming a part of your new home, the pull of what you loved in your previous home, the power of knowledge and working hard and overcoming – whether an illness or a new language or poverty or whatever.

What holds this book together is her inspirational story of reading, how it added to her young life, and then supported her life as a judge, too.

The art draws you in and adds to the story’s arc.  Wonderful.

Turning Pages: My Life Story by Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Lulu Delacre

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What to read while planning your personal resistance

Need tips on what to read, where to begin, what you need to know to resist, change, or protest?  These (very different) books will open your mind to any number of issues and actions you might not have thought about, especially if you are privileged in some way.

Do not miss Tony Medina’s “One Day Papí Drove Me to School” or Margarita Engle’s “All Nations are Neighbors.”  Dip into essays on climate change, racial justice, intersectionality, LGBTQIA issues, women’s rights, and how to be an ally.  Think about Patrice Khan-Cullors’ “Black Ancestry and Artistry Wielded Against the Police State.” Educate yourself.  Share with friends and family.   Make your voice heard.  And vote if you can.  Please vote.

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson

Steal This Country by Alexandra Styron

Nevertheless We Persisted: 48 Voices of Defiance, Strength, and Courage, foreword by Amy Klobuchar

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Meet my new BFF

youre on an airplaneYou have to like someone who subtitles their book a “self-mythologizing memoir.”  Or maybe you don’t, but I do.  Especially if it’s Parker Posey.  She’d probably have a hoot talking with me and Dolly and all my other imaginary friends.

Such a memoir is probably not for everyone, because it really is like sitting next to someone chatty on an airplane.  Someone who launches into slightly snarky stories about family members and celebrities.  Someone who makes their own mistakes part of the whole ridiculous parade.  Someone you tell your friend picking you up from the airport about and then fondly recall several years later when you’re trapped in an airport with a toddler and your ex-boyfriend’s new wife and a three-hour delay.  Well, something like that anyway.

When I mull it over at length (and I have), imaginary Parker has been there for any number of important life moments – wandering around New York, cackling through Party Girl, in the hospital after my son’s birth (Best in Show), musicals of all kinds (Waiting for Guffman).

It’s really not for everyone, but I loved it, the whole crazy, disjointed flow, the break from a turbulent world with a little drama thrown in.  Maybe a lot of drama.  But also excellent yoga tips, a few recipes, and a perimenopausal puppet troupe.

You’re on an Airplane by Parker Posey

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Borders and who we are

northlandWe spend a lot of time looking at the southern border of the United States these days, but there is much to learn looking in the other direction as well.  Northland does this, following the U.S.- Canada border from the east to the west, traveling by boat, car and foot, and meeting folks of all kinds of backgrounds and opinions along the way.  The history of the border is also fascinating, full of twists and turns and war and quirky personalities.

It’s a fascinating trip to follow, and well worth the 4,000 miles.

 Interested in some other great travel literature? Try one of these:

In Patagonia  by Bruce Chatwin

Journeys  by Jan Morris

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon

Great Plains by Ian Frazier

Notes from a Small Island  by Bill Bryson

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes


Northland by Porter Fox




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Love and curiosity meet nature – Rachel Carson

SAS_JCKT_03a.inddIt’s got to be hard to simplify any person’s life into a picture book.  There are ups and downs and whole years you’d have to leave out.  But adding extra information in author notes helps a lot, and if a reader wants to find out more, they can always use a life story to launch into chapter book level biographies and go on from there.

Spring after Spring brings you right into the life of Rachel Carson, her lifelong love of nature, and the early movement to care for the environment.  It’s colorful and informative and has you thinking about the questions scientists ask and how “regular” people can ask those same questions.  Super.

Spring After Spring: How Rachel Carson Inspired the Environmental Movement by Stephanie Roth Sisson

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Come for the cursing. Stay for the grief.

calypsoDavid Sedaris is the prince of dysfunctional families, or maybe, like Prince, he is more of an unpronounceable symbol.  One you enjoy.  (Also like Prince.)

If anyone can make death humorous, he’s your guy.  Dysfunctional families?  He’s on it.  Tumors on turtles?  Got that covered, too.  Need to know how to curse bad drivers in other languages?  It might take a few minutes, but it’ll be worth the wait.

Is he the perfect person?  Clearly not.  He’s kind of awful, but also kind of wonderful.  And he’s got that niece who’s kind of vicious at Sorry.  Is she sorry?  Is he?

I don’t know if you’ll laugh out loud, but I did.

Calypso by David Sedaris

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