2013 Nerdy Awards for Nonfiction Announced by Justin Stygles

Need a New Year’s resolution?  An addendum to #nerdlution, perhaps?  Try non-fiction (to be a bit vague). This year’s Nonfiction winners are breathtaking, heartbreaking, and mesmerizing. Two books will remind a reader they are reading non-fiction by topic and layout.  The other three, however, may trick the reader. Somewhere in the middle of reading, the reader, delightfully entranced in smooth flowing narratives, may need to ask, “Can you really make this stuff up?”


The Animal Book by Steve Jenkins

This is the only science book in this category. Here is a book that the reader has to “be with” for a while, meaning, the reader should forget all concepts of space and time when this book is opened; Just turn pages, read the captions, admire the artwork, and assimilate the incredible information contained within. Jenkins discusses animal characteristics, evolution, and adaptions (and so much more!) with breadth and scope. Captions indulge the reader with obscure and intriguing facts about known and unknown animals that exemplify the expanse of the Animal Kingdom. The Animal Book may be the perfect anchor children to marvel the curiosities of the world, one readers wont put down until they have memorized every factoid possible!

Animal Book

Interesting Takeaway: One of the last charts in the book suggests the human race began at 11:59:57, if the time on our planet converted to a 24 hr. clock. Allowing students to explore such an idea, related to the information within the text, will invite hours of pondering (… and more reading?)

The Boy on The Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

Leon Leyson takes his readers through his lost teenage years, from the simplicity and innocence of childhood to a single-focused commitment on survival. Leyson discusses his time in concentration camps, occasionally sharing his distressing moments (i.e. flogging), and but mainly focusing on good fortunes, such as evaporating water in a cup to ingest the potato remnants, working, and family. Leyson also ponders why the Nazis engaged in the genocide and continued mistreatment following the war.  A question readers may come away with is, “What leads someone to survive?”  From the hardships of labor, to cold, to fate, the idea of  surviving Leyson’s life is almost incomprehensible.

boy on the wooden box

Interesting Takeaway: Leyson mentions his time in basic training and briefly connects his experience to his time in the labor camp.  That is a topic I’d like to read more about: Holocaust victims who came to the States for a new life and then served in the U.S. military from basic training into combat.

Locomotive by Brian Floca

All aboard!  Have you ever wanted to ride on the transcontinental railroad in the first few years? The lone picture book of the award winners, the outstanding writing and rich incorporation of fonts/letter styling, evokes emotions and memories of an exciting period in history. Floca writes as if you are on a train ride with him. He is telling you the story, much like a father or grandfather may tell a young cherub to pass the time. There are harrowing moments such as climbing mountains or traveling through tunnels.  How were those rails made? How does a train go through them?  What about The cover flaps are laden with information on the history of the railroad and how steam locomotives worked.


Interesting Takeaway:  If you read this book just after reading Donner Dinner Party, you might leave wondering, “What was it like for last fleets of conostoga wagons to venture, mile by mile, as the first train sailed past.” If you think about the family car ride to Disney World, imagine the feeling watching the train move effortlessly across the landscape.

Lincoln’s Grave Robbers by Steve Sheinkin

Sheinkin is the only repeat winner (to date) of a Nerdy Award in the Nonfiction category (Bomb, 2012).  At quick glance, one might associate this book with James L. Swanson’s series.  The book starts with a guy jumping off a train in chains followed by an intriguing history around counterfeiting. Of course, right about the time the readers asks, “What does any of this have to do with grave robbing?” Sheinkin reveals the plot was an attempt to con the government out of cash and bail a man out of jail.  Sound funny?  Read about the attempts to literally steal Lincoln dead body. For a while, a reader may really wonder if the story is fact or fiction, a crime story or an elaborate hoax.  Just remember, the 1870’s were a much simpler time, not the era of Ocean’s 11.

lincolns grave robbers

Interesting Takeaway: Tidbits in this book, such as the poor tragedy of Mary Todd Lincoln or the history of the secret service add facts that might go unnoticed.  Sheinkin is a bit whimsical about how the Secret Service came to be.

Courage Has No Color by Tanya Lee Stone

Reading this book along side The Boy On the Wooden Box can be troubling to some readers. Both deal with racism and pose the question, “How could America be fighting to end tyranny inflicted upon one race but force African-Americans to endure racist attitudes, violence, and inequalities back home?” (Not to mention the forced internment of the Japanese, which is briefly covered in the book.) Courage Has No Color is a great documentation of lesser known military history.  Readers may tag the book under World War II, but there are so many other topics this book could fit, such as integration, freedom, and even Stone’s interviews with members of the Triple Nickles and the number of pictures, separate this book from others because of its basis in primary documentation.  The author leaves plenty of space for questions about the military’s true intent, political motivations, and a soldier’s purpose, not only with the 555th, but other African-American battalions.

courage has no color

Interesting Takeaway:  Did Sarah Aronson  incorporate smokejumping into Beyond Lucky because she is friends with Tanya Lee Stone? I hope so.  That would explain the odd reaction I had when reading Beyond Lucky. The reader will also learn how the name Buffalo soldiers came about.

Thank you Donalyn, Colby, and Cindy for your support, camaraderie, and dedication to Nerdy Book Club over the past two years.  Thank you for providing me the opportunity to write about the Nonfiction Nerdy Award winners.

Here’s to looking forward to 2014 Nonfiction and enjoying the treasures mentioned above as we cross the threshold of the new year! If you haven’t allowed yourself to visit nonfiction in the past, you may want to start your reading resolution there. Seriously. Otherwise, you may miss out some of incredibly quirky tidbits of history and amazing facts.

Happy New Year!!

Justin Stygles teaches 5 & 6 grade ELA/Humanities in Norway, Maine. He helps his students revisit the role of reading in their lives to develop lifelong reading habits, healthy reading relationships, and a sense of peace when reading. You can find him on twitter @JustinStygles or on the monthly IRA Inspire e-newsletter.