Informational Books for Younger Readers

Best of the Best

February 4, 2013

Dorsey Chambers



Low, William. Machines Go to Work in the City.

If you have ever read the book Machines Go to Work, this is its eagerly anticipated sequel, Machines Go to Work in the City. Both books are written and illustrated by William Low and published by Henry Holt & Company.

Machines Go to Work in the City is the perfect book for curious toddlers through 2nd graders who are interested in big city machines and their important functions in city neighborhoods. This title features a garbage truck, an elevated train, a giant vacuum truck, traffic lights, a bucket truck, a tower crane, an airport baggage carrier and a plane.

Rather than simply explain each machine and how it works, Low weaves in onomatopoeia, large flaps to be lifted and opened and a curious question to engage the reader or listener.

For example, “Psssshhhh! In the train yard, the engineer checks the brakes. The train is ready to go. Uh-oh! Yellow flags ahead. The train slows down. Is something wrong on the tracks? (When you fold out the flap) No! Flags mean caution, workers are busy laying new track.”


“Beep! Beep! Honk! Honk! Cars and trucks stop when the traffic lights are not working. A police officer moves the traffic along. Will the officer fix the broken light? No! When the bucket truck arrives, the signal crew will fix the traffic light.”

Some of the flaps lift horizontally, some vertically, some up and some down. The illustration on the last flap of the book shows an airplane taking off. The flaps lift both up and out to reveal a 4 page cityscape with the text “Night time falls in the city below. Tired workers return to their homes. It’s been a busy day for the city machines and tomorrow they will go to work again.”

The last three pages of the book show the machines up close, named and labeled, with brief explanations of their functions. An example is “Train Crane.” “Train cranes have two sets of wheels – one set for the road and a second set for rails. This crane is used for lifting track sections, moving gravel and digging holes.“

You may already be familiar with Low’s other books, including Chinatown and Old Penn Station. Low is a pioneer of digital painting techniques. He uses Adobe Photoshop to access a myriad of palette colors and brush types that Photoshop offers. He uses a pressure sensitive screen overlay to draw right on a touch-screen monitor to draw thin or broad strokes, depending on the pressure he applies. Using the computer enables Low to take risks he would not normally be willing to take using acrylics and oil paints. If Low makes a mistake, removing it is just a click away or he can choose to revert to a previously saved version of each painting. Using “Painter”, Low can even insert oil brushstrokes on top of the art to produce highlight, shine, color blends, smears and even transparency of color to give the illusion of watercolors. His integration of art and technology give him both freedom and flexibility to experiment with design.

Some applicable common core standards for reading informational text in this book include the kindergarten standard:

RI.K.4:With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about unknown words in a text. Words like vacuum truck, landfill, commuter, engineer and hydraulic jacks are all used in context with brilliant illustrations to help readers understand the new vocabulary.

First graders can use the addendum to learn about using text features to locate key facts or information in a text – Common Core standard RI.1.5.


Hale, Christy. Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building.

Keeping with the engineering theme, our next book is Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building by Christy Hale and published by Lee and Low. This book is best suited for grades K-3. It features illustrations of children playing and building architectural forms with readily available materials, such as Legos, blocks, cardboard tubes and sand. A concrete poem in shapes reminiscent of the structure accompany each illustration. The words in the concrete poem about domed shelters are arranged on the page in the curving shape of a dome. On the facing page of each illustration is a photograph of a real architectural work of art similar in design to the child’s creation.

The photographs, biographical information and quotes in this outstanding book all relate to the theme of architecture and building. For example, the form of the concrete poem, “cup on cup, stacking up, smaller, smaller and growing taller!” mimics the architectural style of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The illustration of children playing with colorful stacking cups on the page facing the photograph, gives a relatable context for the bold architectural design of the towers. Accompanying background gives short biographies of the featured architects and a quote from each architect along with information about the featured buildings.

This book leads you to consider how joining toothpicks together in a sphere can resemble the Montreal Biosphere or how Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater (a private residence) resembles children’s creations from wooden blocks.The accompanying poem to Fallingwater

is “Touch wood, fingers learn each form. Hanging shapes on air, explore new directions. Every block anchored with care.” The stunning curved lines of Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is likened to the soft sculptural forms of children building living room forts out of couch cushions.

Can you imagine how your students might be inspired to use research and classroom materials to re-interpret Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate, the Hancock Building, Marina City or the Field Museum?

This book aligns with College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard R.5“Analyze the structure of texts, including how sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text relate to each other and the whole.”

Or, the grade 2 literacy standard W.2.7: Participate in shared research and writing projects. Students can be asked to use the design of the book to inspire research on favorite Chicago buildings and structures. There is a comprehensive and student friendly website of Chicago Landmarks and Chicago Architects accessible from the Chicago History Museum website to help students with their research.


Holub, Joan. Zero the Hero.

2.7 R.L., 450 Lexile,

Zero the Hero, written by Joan Holub and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld is a graphic depiction of counting numbers using sassy dialogue balloons and visual asides to explain mathematical principles through text about an atypical hero, a bullied and unappreciated zero. It is best suited to grades 1-4 with a 2.7 reading level and a lexile number of 450. You may recognize Lichtenheld’s illustrative style from Shark vs. Train or “Duck! Rabbit! The style of Zero the Hero is reminiscent of the adorable book Arnie the Doughnut by Laurie Keller.

Poor Zero the Hero couldn’t catch a break with a butterfly net. He was often mistaken for various circular objects: Froot Loops, donuts… even the letter o. Other numbers used to make fun of him since he didn’t seem to count for anything when adding math problems such as 3 + 0 =3. In fact, the number 5 in this book said to Zero, “Okay, let me take a wild guess here, the sum of You and Me is going to be ME! That’s pretty much a sure thing, right?” The number One bragged, “Yes it’s true, I’m number one – the number everyone wants to be. I take first place in every contest. I’m the number one line leader.”

When subtracting, the same thing happened. 4-0 = 4, 6-0 = 6

“You are soooo zilch!” said the number 2 to poor Zero.

Another number said, “Hey diddly squat, any way I figure it, me take away nothing equals me!” Division had the same result. Zero didn’t make a numerical difference at all….until … dumdadumdumduuuummmm…

MULTIPLICATION came along…1 X 0 = 0, 2 X 0 = 0. The other numbers went running for the hills fearing extinction! “Don’t go near the times tables if Zero is around!” they cried. Zero’s confidence was shaken because a real friend wouldn’t multiply his friends into oblivion.

Zero left the other numbers and bolted away. At first the other numbers didn’t even notice Zero was gone, happily adding and subtracting without him until one day when they needed him for rounding up or down or for answering problems like 5+5 = …

In a strange twist of fate the numbers were taken captive by Roman Numerals who didn’t need the numbers at all and saw them as a threat. From far away, Zero the Hero heard the cries of the numbers and set off to rescue them. He threatened the Roman Numerals with his power of multiplying numbers into nothingness and sent them scurrying. Zero the Hero was now a celebrated hero and was no longer mistaken for a giant cheerio, a chariot wheel or a flying bagel.

A free Teacher’s Guide for Zero the Hero is available from illustrator Tom Lichtenheld’s webpage that includes discussion questions, math curriculum connections, related books and suggestions for reader’s theater performance and a Zero the Hero mask template for students to wear during the reading.


Davies, Nicola. Just Ducks.

RL 4.1 AD940L (Adult-directed Lexile)

Just Ducks is written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino. Just Ducks is a Book Links Lasting Connections Winner and was awarded the Booklist Top 10 Science & Health Books For Youth 2012 distinction.

Just Ducks is a charming fictional story for first through third graders, written in first person narrative about a young girl’s observations through the course of a day of mallard ducks that live in the river that runs through her city.

“Quack quack, quack quack quack…It’s the first sound I hear every morning,” says the narrator. “I open my bedroom curtains. Who could be making all that noise? Ducks ---just ducks, down the river that flows through town.” The little girl and her mother eat their breakfast while the ducks eat theirs. She observes the ducks preening and upending as she walks to school and on her way home. She feeds them bread and distinguishes the differences in coloring and habits of male and female mallards. “The boys, called “drakes”, have glossy green heads, neat white collars and a cute little curl on their tails. They both have a secret patch of blue on each wing, which I see when they stretch or fly. I like it when a drake shows off his handsome feathers to the lady ducks, trying to get one to be his girlfriend.,,. When I close my curtains on the frost stars, the ducks have disappeared. The bridge is quiet, and there’s just the sound of rushing water and the stillness of the night. But in the morning, they’ll be there…ducks, - just ducks, down on the river that flows through the town.”

Much like the narrator of the story, the book’s illustrator Salvatore Rubbino prepares to paint by observing and sketching his subjects. The watercolor paintings evoke a calm gentle background highlighting the expressive ducks featured in the text.

Smaller print in a different font is interjected on many pages of the book to give additional information about mallards such as : “Male mallards, called drakes, don’t sit on the eggs the ducks have laid, so they don’t need to be camouflaged like the female mallards,” further explaining the observations of the narrator. An index at the back of the book helps students quickly find information about the life of mallards, including “dabbling”, “predators” and “preening”.

Chicago students may be surprised to learn that mallards have a strong presence all around Chicago. They can be found in Humboldt Park, Montrose Harbor, Columbus Park on Chicago’s West side, a courtyard in Northeastern Illinois University’s campus, the garden center of a Home Depot retail store, and many other places that are in or near water.

Teachers can ask students to create questions for their peers using the index to address the Third grade Common Core standard R.L.1 Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.


F Walker, Sally. Freedom Song: The Story of Henry Box Brown.
3.9 R.L. AD570L (Adult-directed Lexile)

The historical fiction title Freedom Song: The story of Henry Box Brown by Sally Walker and illustrated by Sean Qualls is a picture book for grades 1-4 with a reading level of 3.9. Illustrator Shawn Qualls is the Coretta Scott King Honor illustrator of Before John Was a Jazz Giant. You may already be familiar with Henry’s Freedom Box by Author Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. It is the true story of a remarkable slave who succeeds in escaping slavery by mailing himself to the North.

Sally Walker’s perspective of the story of Henry Box Brown’s life comes from her research that uncovered that Henry “Box” Brown was a member of his church choir for many years and her knowledge that music played an important role in the lives of slaves. As she wrote the book, she incorporated poetic songs into the description of Henry’s everyday life to help her to tell this amazing story.

“Mama’s cooking grew Henry tall. Papa’s stories grew Henry smart. The whole family’s love grew Henry strong, even though they were slaves on Master’s plantation.” As Henry grew and began working, he sang his workday song, “It’s lift, tote, toss the sack words sent strength to his arms.” In the garden, Henry sang his gather up song. It’s “twist, snap, pick a pea” words rang loud and clear. Henry’s favorite song was his quiet Freedom Song. It’s “think freedom-land, family, stay all together” words soothed Henry’s greatest fear –- that his family would be separated some day.