Award-Winning Nonfiction for Children

    by Pamela Little

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annually chooses outstanding children’s nonfiction to receive the Orbis Pictus Award, named for the first children’s nonfiction book by Johannes Comenius. Read about the award and its selection criteria at the NCTE website. If this issue of The Wire inspires you to expand your nonfiction collection, you could do worse than to start with this year’s winner and honorees. These books are all appropriate for Independent readers.

2004 Winner of Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy
Jim Murphy has once again created a masterful and impeccably researched book that both enthralls and horrifies the reader. In 1793, Philadelphia, then the U.S. capital, was devastated by an incurable disease: yellow fever. Murphy draws on firsthand accounts to bring all of Philadelphia’s residents to life, from the pauper in the street to George Washington to the selfless members of Philadelphia’s free black community who courageously tended to the sick and buried the dead when no one else would. This book illustrates conditions in American cities in the 18th century and is replete with medical detail. It includes archival prints, portraits of key players, and pages from newspapers printed during the months when the plague held Philadelphia at its mercy.

2004 Orbis Pictus Award Honorees

Empire State Building: When New York Reached for the Skies by Elizabeth Mann
Empire State Building tells the story of the construction of this enduring symbol of New York (and America), 1929-1931. It’s not all engineering and construction, though concrete and steel play an important part in the story. But Elizabeth Mann also tells the human stories of the tycoons who paid for the building and the laborers who built it. Alan Witschonke's paintings are bold and luminous, and his diagrams dazzlingly clear. Photographs by early 20th century master Lewis Hine take the reader up high into the heady, dangerous world of the steelworker on the edge of girders way above the city streets.

In Defense of Liberty: the Story of America’s Bill of Rights by Russell Freedman
Freedman’s history of the Bill of Rights is as timely as today’s headlines. The civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are as important—and sometimes controversial—today as when they were enacted and throughout the intervening two hundred years. Each of the 10 amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights gets its own chapter in this book. Each chapter covers the span from the origin of the amendment through changing interpretations (almost always on the side of more extensive rights for more people) down to present controversies such as abortion or the tension between personal liberty and security in the wake of 9/11. This beautifully designed book includes archival prints, including one of the original Bill of Rights, as well as photographs.

Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer by Robert Byrd
Robert Byrd gives the reader a well-rounded and complex, yet accessible, picture of Leonardo da Vinci as man, artist, and inventor. There seems to have been very little that da Vinci did not study or write about, that he did not question or wonder. He created paintings and statues, designed buildings, invented machines, dissected and studied and drew human and animal bodies. Incredibly detailed and beautiful full-page illustrations, often annotated, provide a wealth of information, as do quotations from Leonardo’s own writing. This biography also provides an in-depth and colorful picture of Leonardo’s time period. The book, which is appropriate for Transitional as well as Independent readers, includes a timeline and bibliography, suggested websites, and further reading for children and adults.

The Man Who Made Time Travel by Kathryn Lasky (Author) and Kevin Hawkes (Illustrator)
Tracking latitude at sea was easy, but an accurate method of determining longitude eluded sailors and scientists for centuries. This book tells the story of the 18th-century clockmaker, John Harrison, who discovered the answer. The shipwreck that opens the book dramatically illustrates that this was no mere academic problem. Harrison’s elegant solution involved use of an accurate timepiece rather than traditional navigation instruments. The human drama of this book is more compelling than the scientific aspects, which are less well explained—but every reader will be drawn to Hawkes’ rich illustrations. The book’s large format seems specifically designed to accommodate these paintings.

Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880-1924 by Deborah Hopkinson
More than 23 million immigrants came to New York City from southern and eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. This book tells the stories of five who immigrated as children or teens, describing not only their lives and achievements but also the conditions they left and the conditions they found in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. Pauline Newman from Lithuania, for instance, started as a child laborer but became a labor organizer, one of the first women to do so. Photographs by Jacob Riis and others document the conditions in which such immigrants lived and worked.


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