Category Archives: Non-fiction

Your Pet Train: How to Train a Train

It’s no secret that train books are hugely popular with boys, including the many Thomas the Train titles as well as lots of other great picture books, both fiction and non-fiction.  Here’s a new one that’s unique in perspective, with excellent artwork:

train-a-trainHow to Train a Train, by Jason Eaton (lexile: NA; AR book level: 3.0; 48 pp)

“So you want a pet train?  Well, of course you do!”

So begins the pith-helmeted young narrator of this delightful new picture book, a guide to finding and training your very own pet train!  He starts with suggestions for catching a wild train (offer it some coal), continues with ways to calm a nervous train (a warm bath), help it get to sleep at night (a story or some locomotive music), and teach it tricks.  The suggestions are absurdly funny, but what really makes this book are John Rocco’s outstanding illustrations.  The trains are big, with mechanical faces that give them personality and emotion, and the kids show obvious love for their big iron pets.

There are plenty of great non-fiction train books for young readers, but here are two in our library that I really like because the photography is so good:

steam-train-rideSteam Train Ride, by Evelyn Clarke Mott (lexile: NA; AR book level: 2.7; 32 pp)

Take a fun trip with preschooler Christopher on a steam train.  Amply illustrated with photos, the story follows Christopher as he meets the engineer, learns a bit about how the engine works and what the signs mean along the track, buys a ticket, and takes a trip through the countryside on the train.

all-aboard-abcAll Aboard ABC, by Doug Magee (lexile: NA; AR book level: NA; 43 pp)

A typical ABC book, with something about trains for each letter of the alphabet.  The excellent photos take up most or all of a page, and portray items from a variety of perspectives.  Young train enthusiasts will especially enjoy the close-ups of mechanical parts like the coupler, springs, and switches.  The text provides simple, clear explanations in an easy-to-read font.  This would be great to read with a child preparing for a train trip or visit to a railway museum.


Adventure Underground: Caving Books


In Shiloh Cave, Indiana

I may be “That Library Guy” when hanging out at the Decatur Public Library, but away from there I do have other identities.  I am sometimes Camping Guy (and have even written a book  about that) and Hiking Guy.  And for quite a few years I’ve been a Caving Guy.  I love exploring caves, crawling, climbing, hiking underground, getting wet and muddy, wondering if each new passage will lead to beautiful formations, a cool waterfall, or just a place few people have ever been.

Caving is great fun, and even a bit adventurous — so how about some books that include caving?  You don’t have to be a caver to enjoy these.

One of the great cave explorers of history was Stephen Bishop, a slave who was among the first tour guides at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, in the early years when it was commercialized.  With just a hand-held lantern (and none of the fancy gear cavers use today), he discovered and mapped miles of passages by himself.  Two recent historical fiction books about him:

bottomless_pitJourney to the Bottomless Pit: The Story of Stephen Bishop & Mammoth Cave, by Elizabeth Mitchell (lexile: NA; AR book level: 5.3; 99 pp)

The year is 1838, and 17-year-old Stephen Bishop, an African-American slave, has been assigned a unique job by his master, Franklin Gorin: to learn the tour routes and lore of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, so he can guide tourists through the cave.  Gorin has just purchased the cave, and hopes to make money from it.  Bishop soon learns the limited area of the cave that was then known, but his relentless curiosity leads him to discover miles of new passages, exploring by himself areas no one had dared to go before.   I’ve been to most of the places in Mammoth Cave described in the book, but it was still exciting to walk, crawl, and climb with Stephen as he became the first human being to ever set foot in many of them.  Lots of caving action in this historically accurate portrayal of a true adventurer.

undergroundUnderground, by Jean Ferris (lexile: 770; AR book level: 4.6; 167 pp)

Ferris tells the story of Charlotte Brown, a slave assigned to work at the Mammoth Cave hotel.  She eventually meets and falls in love with the guide Stephen Bishop, and they are married, all of which is historically accurate.  At the same time, the Underground Railroad was helping escaped slaves flee to the north, and Ferris adds the story of Mammoth Cave serving as a stop on the way.  Though there is no evidence for that, it’s an intriguing idea, since the cave would have been an ideal place to hide slaves — no one knew it better than Bishop and the other African-American guides.  At the end of the story Stephen and Charlotte make a daring trip through Mammoth Cave and out neighboring Flint Ridge to help a slave escape.  Though the connection between those two cave systems wasn’t discovered until 1972, the author notes that conditions would have made it possible for Bishop to discover that route himself.

If you like the books, you should see the real thing:  Mammoth Cave National Park.  There are excellent cave tours of varying lengths, including “wild” caving tours for kids and adults.  You can even see Stephen Bishop’s grave in the old guide’s cemetery.

Want to know more about caves and caving?  Here are some great non-fiction titles in our library system:

Mammoth Cave: The World’s Longest Cave System, by Brad Burnham (24 pp)
The Creation of Caves, by J Elizabeth Mills (64 pp)
Caves, by Isaac Nadeau (24 pp)
Radical Sports: Caving, by Chris Howes (32 pp)
Caving, by Maeve Sisk (24 pp)

The biggest, the tallest, the fastest … TRIVIA!

The Guinness Book of World Records is one of the most popular titles among boys in our library.  No one really reads it, of course — not like you’d read a novel.  The beauty of the GBOWR is that you can browse it:  flip through until  a picture grabs you (like the world’s longest fingernails), read that little bit, and move on to something else.

Here are some other collections of odd and interesting facts that boys are sure to love browsing.

How BIG is it?  A BIG Book All About BIGNESS, by Ben Hillman (lexile:  1000; AR book level: 6.0; 48 pp)

Even younger kids not ready for the GBOWR will dive into this BIG picture book portraying 22 of the biggest things ever in their respective categories.  Each two-page spread has a side bar with cool facts, but the centerpiece of each is a sharp digitally-composed photo in which the object in question — be it asteroid, giant spider, or longest snake — is placed in an everyday context for perspective.  It’s one thing to read that the biggest polar bear ever seen stood 12 feet tall — it’s much more striking to view him standing head and shoulders above a basketball goal and the puny NBA players gathered around.  The tallest tree in the world, a redwood of 378 feet, is really impressive when pictured towering over the apartment buildings of Brooklyn.

The other titles in the series use the same format, and are just as fun:

How strong is it? : a mighty book all about strength (lexile: 1050; AR book level:  6.4; 48 pp)
How fast is it? : a zippy book all about speed (lexile: NA; AR book level: 5.7; 48 pp)
How weird is it? : a freaky book all about strangeness
(lexile: 870; AR book level: 5.6; 48 pp)

Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember, by Steve Jenkins (lexile:  920; AR book level:  6.3;  32 pp)

Would-be explorers-of-the-wild know that it would be foolish — downright life-threatening — to try to ride a crocodile or wrestle a tiger.  But here are 18 other seemingly innocuous creatures which can be dangerous and even deadly.  Did you know you should never pet a platypus?  Never jostle a jellyfish?  Jenkins issues an alliterative warning about each exotic animal, explaining how it can poison, sting or attack.  Each is illustrated with Jenkins’ signature cut-paper collages that look three-dimensional.  The descriptions are just a paragraph or two, but the curious can find more details at the end of the book.

Here are some other cool collections of interesting facts by Jenkins, done in the same style:

Hottest, Coldest, Highest, Deepest (lexile: 920; AR book level: 4.9; 32 pp)  Brief description and illustrations of some of the extreme places on Earth, including the deepest lake, most active volcano, highest falls, and driest desert.

Biggest, Strongest, Fastest (lexile: 840; AR book level: 2.3; 32 pp)  Extremes of the animal kingdom: fastest, slowest, longest lived, and 11 others.

Actual Size (lexile: 1080; AR book level: 2.8; 34 pp) In this BIG book, Jenkins’ illustrations portray each of 18 animals or insects — or a part of their body — in actual, real-life size, from the full 36-inch length of a giant earthworm to just the eye of a giant squid.

Prehistoric Actual Size (lexile: 1130; AR book level: 6.1; 36 pp) Just like Actual Size, but this time featuring prehistoric creatures — would you like to look into the mouth of a Giganotosaurus?

What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? (lexile: 580; AR book level: 4.0; 32 pp)  Fascinating and unique ways in which wild animals escape or defend themselves from predators, from the bombardier beetle that squirts boiling liquid from its bottom to the basilisk lizard that runs across water.

You can find more books written and/or illustrated by Steve Jenkins here.

Make Things that GO: Project Books

We guys are a practical bunch.  Sometimes we just want books that will help us DO stuff — like fish, or play ball, or collect coins, or MAKE things that DO STUFF!

If your boy is a builder, here are a couple of project books I’ve used and recommend for kids aged 8-12 or so.  I suggest getting them from the library first, but if they’re a good fit for your child, either might be worth buying.  Combine the book with an assortment of the materials needed, and you’ve got a cool Christmas present.

While it’s true you can find fancier kits and toys than those described here, there’s something very satisfying about building your own from scratch and discovering that it really WORKS!

Amazing Rubber Band Cars: Easy-to-
Build Wind-Up Racers, Models, and Toys
, by Mike Rigsby

I discovered this book advertised in Boys Life* magazine, and thought it sounded so cool that we had to order it for the library.   I have not been disappointed.  I’ve used it 5 times to make cars with groups, including a bunch of boys and their dads.  It’s fun, the projects work, and the instructions (accompanied by lots of pictures) are clear.

The projects range from easy to complicated, from a simple rubber band car to a dog with a wagging tail, and even a car big enough for a person to ride in.  None require expensive materials: corrugated cardboard, rubber bands, pencils, push-pins, old CDs (for wheels) — mostly stuff you’ll find around the house.   Most grade-school-aged boys will need an adult to lend a hand, but that makes these fun do-together activities.  And you can tinker with them — change the length of the rubber bands, or the size or weight of the wheels, add a spoiler, or try to make them go faster and further.   Note that all the projects include photocopiable templates of the parts to cut out, and some need to be enlarged.

And a suggestion:  The book says to use white glue — very frustrating!  Go out and buy a low-temp hot glue gun with a bag of glue sticks (available in the Wal-Mart craft section, as well as other stores).  They’re not expensive, and beyond saving lots of time, your projects will be much sturdier.

*P.S.  You don’t have to be a Boy Scout to enjoy Boys Life magazine, and you don’t even have to subscribe to it, because it can be checked out from lots of libraries, including ours!

Electric Gadgets and Gizmos: Battery-Powered Buildable Gadgets that Go! by Alan Bartholomew

What about making gadgets that buzz and light and move on their own power?   You’ll need to invest in a bit more stuff for the projects in this book, but nothing too expensive: popsicle sticks, wooden clothespins, batteries, wire, bulbs, buzzers, small DC electric motors, and a few tools like a hot glue gun, wire cutter/stripper, and needlenose pliers.  (I’ve been able to find all the special items at Radio Shack.)

The step-by-step instructions are clear and well-illustrated.  You should start with the first projects, which are the easiest, and build to the later ones.   Most will require some adult help.  Projects include a flashlight, buzzer, pop-bottle boat, a sign that lights up when you step on a mat, a “rumble box” that buzzes and shakes when you pick it up, a car, and glasses with wipers (pictured on the cover).  (And if you don’t want to bother making the “battery pack” for each project, you can purchase cheap battery packs at Radio Shack.)

Though I’ve not seen it, a second book by the same author is available in area libraries: Electric Mischief : Battery-Powered Gadgets Kids can Build.