Pick of 2015’s Non-Fiction

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

most dangerous


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.

drowned city

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.

rhythm ride(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.

child soldierMichel 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.”

boys who 2(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.


With a Dog By My Side

Dogs I like” is one one of my book shelves on Goodreads, and I feel a tremendous delight each time I get to add a new book to the shelf. These books are not necessarily about dogs (although some certainly are); rather, these are the books where the author has included a dog in the story in a way that makes me think: Yeah, she really understands dogs. More importantly, the author includes a dog in a way that makes me feel: I like that dog.

For those readers who love not only dog stories, but stories where people love their dogs, this slide show features 10 middle grade books for readers who not only love dog stories, but also love stories about people who love their dogs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here’s a list of the titles featured above:

  • The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon
  • The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart
  • Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson
  • Dash by Kirby Larson
  • A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean
  • A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
  • Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
  • Waiting for the Magic by Patricia MacLachlan
  • Lara’s Gift by Annemarie O’Brien
  • How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor







The Four P’s Pep Talk

My name is Mike and I love stories. Okay, my secret is out. I confess. The truth is told. I LOVE STORIES!. Always have, always will. Reading them, thinking about them, making them up, telling them, and now writing them down to try and sell. Stories and the ability to tell stories help define us as human beings.

In my sports coaching life, we used the philosophical tenets of the Four P’s—purpose, pride, passion, and persistence—to become a better program. We called the Four P’s the bricks of our sports program’s foundation. I think these four things can be applied to about any endeavor, including writing, at any age, place, or time.

So, as we head into the heart of winter, fight our way through NaNoWriMo, and/or work keep the writing demons at bay, how about a little pep talk to light the creative fire?

“Commitment to Excellence” – Organizational theme of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders

The story needs a purpose. The story needs to know what it is and where it is going. Those ideas rattling about in one’s head are just random flashes of complete brilliance until purpose and direction are applied to them. Use the four-part story structure (Inciting Incident, First Act Turn, Second Act Turn, and Ending) to help establish a structure to story ideas.

Move your story forward with a purpose and logically by using cause and effect. Simply put, move the story along by setting up problems and solving them. Logical, meaning to stay within the story logic you have created. Example: Your cannibalistic pink fluffy bunny attacking and eating a colony of chocolate bunnies may not be logical in the real world, but since you have created a dystopian world of warring inanimate bunny factions, it works.

“I wanna have pride like my momma has, and not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.” -The Perfect Space, The Avett Brothers

Everybody wants to do well, everybody wants to be a winner, everyone wants to write a winning book. I doubt anyone who writes wakes up every morning and says, “Today, I am going to write the crappiest stuff I can possibly write.” Pride in one’s work and pride in one’s reputation is essential. Quality comes from drive and drive is fueled by pride. Taking pride in the product, either on the field or on the page, takes commitment, drive, and dedication. There is no way around doing the work.

Hard work is the magic.

“The path to such success is punctuated by failure, consolidation, and renewed effort. It is wet with the tears of emotional breakdown. Personal reconstruction is art. Discovering one’s self, one’s talent and ambition and learning how to express it is a creative process so may not be rushed.” -Mark Twight, Gym Jones

A writer’s passion molds creative ideas into stories. Emotional involvement, enthusiasm, and intensity are all part of creative passion. Love what you do, love what you attempt and love those ideas bouncing about in your head. Make them the best they can be.

Passion sustains the writer through and over the walls of doubt. Face it, writing is tough. Every locked door you open leads to three more locked doors that you must find a way to enter. Doubt lurks over every writer’s shoulder, laughing at your sentences, mocking your manuscripts and snickering each time a rejection arrives. The emotional involvement and the passion of the writer help keep doubt at bay, sitting on its stool in the corner.

“The skills and confidence spawned by failure allowed me to progress instead of repeating myself, and personal evolution is the ultimate goal of my participation in sport.” -Mark Twight, Gym Jones

“Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it.” -Neil Gaiman

Persistence. Be prepared to fail. Be prepared to take risks and challenges. Be prepared to take a face plant in front of the huge, boisterous crowd. If you expose yourself and your writing to the scrutiny of the publishing business, you will get kicked in the teeth. When this happens, get up off the floor ASAP. Don’t give up. Never forget there is somebody out there is waiting to read your book. Show up every day, plant the buttocks squarely in front of the page and tell your story one word at a time. Hard work truly is the magic. Simple in theory, but it’s so hard in practice.

Like the Fifth Beatle, there is a Fifth “P”…Performance.

Performance is the culmination of everything. It is the Friday night football game. It is the pitch session, the query process, the submission, and, hopefully, the publication of your book. All the work, all the preparation, and now it is game time. Take a deep breath, remember your lines and walk into the spotlight. Time to perform.

I will leave you with one of the great life quotations from the sports world. It is the one quote I put on everything from my laboratory office wall to my writing desk, to the locker room, to playbooks and condition manuals. Everywhere. It is from legendary NFL football coach Vince Lombardi. This quote probably sums up everything I presented above. (I guess I could have just posted this quote and saved you a lot of reading, but what fun is that?)

Winning is not a sometime thing, it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in awhile; you don’t do the right thing once in awhile; you do things right all the time. Winning is a habit.” – Vince Lombardi

Keep writing stories. We can never have too many good stories.

And above all else, write YOUR story. The world needs it.