reading log: non-fiction

Non-fiction picture books

The Stuff of Stars, written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Bauer, Marion Dane and Ekua Holmes, illustr. The Stuff of Stars. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018.

The Stuff of Stars is a lyrical look at the Big Bang, paired with abstract marbled illustrations. Written as one long poem, the text explains in plain language the scientific beginnings of the universe, paralleled with the story of the arrival of a new born child. From the Big Bang, to the formation of stars, to the creation of Earth, the text accessibly balances complex vocabulary (“Perfect for turning that starry stuff into mitochondria”) ideas, with simpler imagery that children will love, (“into daisies and galloping horses”). That imagery meanwhile, is subtly reflected in the illustrations, where horses, butterflies, songbirds, and the birth of planets can be found collaged against the marble. From nothing to everything, this text is exploding with meaning and the idea that kids are made of matter and that they matter. It sis a wholly beautiful picture book that plays with color and lyricism to convey a universe of wonder and might.

This rich text can be used to explore STEM topics with students, such as the origins of life and the universe. Students could write their own origin stories, or create artwork in the vein of Holmes, who won a Coretta Scott King Award for these very illustrations. In the past, I have had students just listen to the words and draw what comes to their imagination before reading again with the illustrations to accompany it. The text can also be used as a basis to ask “wonder questions” and then, using imaginion or research, answer the question in the form of a poem, echoing the style of the text.

We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade

Lindstrom, Carole and Michaela Goade, illustr. We Are Water Protectors. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2020.

We are Water Protectors is a history, an ode, and a call to action from two indigenous creators. Inspired by the Standing Rock protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Lindstrom’s words pays tribute to mother Earth and the water that gives all on Earth life. Goade’s illustrations, which won the Caledcott Medal in 2020, are the perfect backdrop to a lyrical, repetitive text that takes readers through the story of how the Earth takes all life from water, and how the dreaded Black Snake (a metaphor across time for oil pipelines) threatens to corrupt all that is pure and alive in the environment. Young readers will love how the metaphor is clearly revealed thorugh the illustrations. Through a little girl chronicling how her people and village have worked to steward the land and how they are fighting to protect the Earth’s sacred resources, especially water, this story portrays a strong and important message, especially for kids today growing up at the crossroads of environmental justice.

The text is a great starting point to talk about activism and environmentalism. Students can learn about current social justice movements that intersect with protecting and conserving the environment. Students might think of natural wonders and places in nature nearby that are dear to them that they would like to protect (as detailed in the publisher’s activity kit). They can learn about

reading log: fantasy

The Casket of Time by Andri Snær Magnason. Translated by Björg Árnadóttir and Andrew Cauthery

Magnason, Andri Snær and Björg Árnadóttir, trans., and Andrew Cauthery, trans. The Casket of Time. New York: Yonder, Restless Books for Young Readers, 2019.

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The Casket of Time, translated for young audiences from the Icelandic, is a sweeping, ethereal fantasy. The world around them is falling apart and humans are taking refuge in the latest technological escape, TimeBox, a weird and cringeworthy device that let’s humans hibernate until the world has sorted out its own problems. A young kid, whose family has partaken, finds that her TimeBox has opened too early, and she wakes up to a city where nature has run it’s course and reclaimed most spaces. The girl, Sigrun, finds a group of kids who have similarly awoken (escaped) and a wise storyteller/research, Grace. Grace weaves a tale within a tale and readers, along with the listening kids, are transported to an ancient kingdom of Pangea, where an eager and greedy king devices a similar system to protect his daughter Obsidiana from pain, sadness, and even age by trapping her in a magical silk casket that keeps out even time itself. Within the book, the line between Sigrun’s world and Pangea, and thus reality and fantasy becomes blurred. Much of the story takes place in Obsidiana’s world, where she has become the Eternal Princess, experiencing only one day a year out – sometimes not even that – with the King orchestrating an elaborate presentation at each opening so that she barely realizes what is happening. Pangea evokes a medieval, feudal system that has started to crumble as the people go hungry and the power of the King’s empire wanes for forgetting to respect the natural world. Obsidiana, with the help of a newfound beloved, and Sigrun – presumably centuries later – realize that meddling with time forsakes dire consequences and race to reverse the effects.

With magic, intrigue, and adventure, The Casket of Time reads like a cute new fairy tale, a sort of high fantasy (Pangea) within a low fantasy world (Sigrun’s). Left without the dominance of machinery and steampunk, the few basic elements of science fiction (time travel) are more ephemeral and so the novel feels much more fantascial than sci-fi. Sigrun’s world is presumably the same as ours, bordering on a post-apocalyptic, dystopia, yet different enough that readers can feel a sense of escape from this. Set without explicitly stating in a society like the author’s native Iceland we are to assume that none of the characters are coded as POC. The trope of purity associated with the femme protagonist’s “skin as white as snow” is growing old. There are elements of tragedy following adventure, just enough romance to further remind of classic fairy tales (Snow White / Sleeping Beauty), and most of all a deep warning to kids growing up in the Anthropocene. As in the fokltales, we are reminded to respect the unknown forces of nature that shape the world more than any human-invented economy.

Check out the book’s page from the publisher here.