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Recovering what was lost

CHILDREN’S BOOKS OF THE YEAR—NONFICTION | Co-winners tell of ancient seeds and an exploited elephant

Recovering what was lost
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IN 2023, children’s publishing produced a raft of outstanding nonfiction—and that put our WORLD selection committee in a bit of a quandary about our top award. With our first-place votes split between two contenders, we decided not to break the tie, but instead to honor both stories.

The first is The Miracle Seed by Martin Lemelman (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers 2023, for ages 7-14).

In A.D. 70, Roman Gen. Titus savagely put down the last Jewish revolt against the empire, destroying the Temple and scattering the people of Judea. The last Jewish holdout, the mountain fortress of Masada, was overrun in A.D. 74. Two thousand years of dust and sand covered clothes, coins, weapons, and household items, including a jar of Judean date seeds from a tree long prized for the sweetness and medicinal value of its fruit. By A.D. 1000 the Judean date tree was extinct.

In 1964, a team of archaeologists trekked up the narrow path to Masada and uncovered its long-buried treasures, including the jar of seeds. Forty years later two women, a medical researcher and a botanist, began to wonder if the Judean date tree might be resuscitated. After 2,000 years, it was highly unlikely—but worth a try.

This little-known incident illustrates the “ordinary miracle” of organic life. While making no direct reference to God or His creation, the text includes quotes from classical Judaism, the Psalms, and C.S. Lewis. It also underscores the outsized contributions Jews have made to science, medicine, and technology in the modern age. This is a story worth knowing, told in an engaging graphic-novel format.

OUR OTHER WINNER is Saving H’Non: Chang and the Elephant by Trang Nguyên and Jeet Zdũng (Dial Books for Young Readers 2023, for ages 8-15).

Who doesn’t love elephants? But Chang, a volunteer at the wildlife ­rescue center near Yok Don National Park in Vietnam, knows too well their exploitation by careless humans. One 60-year-old female named H’Non is a prime example: Years of hauling timber and concrete, followed by carrying tourists in a heavy and ill-fitting howdah, have broken her health.

Chang is thrilled when the center director purchases H’Non from her greedy owner, but rehab has its problems—chiefly finding a suitable mahout, or trainer, to help H’Non forage for herself. Wat, a hyperactive and distractable boy, seems an unlikely candidate, yet he proves perfect for the job of adjusting H’Non to her new freedom.

“Chang” is the much-younger alter ego of author Trang, and H’Non’s story is true, from her capture at age 4 to forced labor in construction and tourism. Readers will be fascinated by the process of teaching an elephant how to be an elephant: to forage for food, cool and groom herself, and finally interact with others. The text grants that elephants can serve humans usefully if treated with respect and care. Our responsibility for stewardship is clear, and the graphic-novel art ranges from slapdash humor to beautifully detailed animal portraits.

Nonfiction runners-up

Attacked! Pearl Harbor and the Day War Came to America

Marc Favreau

(Little, Brown 2023)

The author puts a fresh spin on a historical milestone by viewing the event through the eyes of those directly involved. Attacked! begins with a Japanese spy on the islands, systematically gathering information for a purpose he didn’t know. We also see the Japanese squadron leader (who later converted to Christianity), two American women who rose to the challenge of the day, a native farmer, and an American B-17 pilot, as well as sailors aboard the doomed ­battleships. Little-known details, such as the Japanese submarine attack that failed, add to the drama. Note: three incidents of mild quoted cursing. Ages 10-15

The Mona Lisa Vanishes: A Legendary Painter, a Shocking Heist, and the Birth of a Global Celebrity

Nicholas Day

(Random House Studio 2023)

On a sweltering day in August, a nondescript character in a white smock walked into the Louvre with the other visitors. Early the next morning he walked out with a painting tucked under his smock and ­disappeared, leading to a sensational news story involving some of the world’s most notable thieves, detectives, and artists. By the time she was recovered, the Mona Lisa had become the most famous painting in the world. The author brings turn-of-the-­century Paris to life, as well as 15th-century Florence, where an experimental painter named Leonardo plied his trade. Both budding art lovers and true-crime aficionados will enjoy this fascinating historical sidelight. Ages 10-15

Nearer My Freedom: The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano by Himself

Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge

(Zest Books 2023)

Born in Benin (now Nigeria) in the mid-18th century, Equiano was captured at age 11 by a rival African tribe, traded throughout Africa, and herded aboard a slave ship bound for Barbados. That was only the beginning of his globe-­spanning adventures. His memoir, published in 1789, forms the source text for “found verse” narrative, a technique that arranges original phrases and sentences in verse format to create rhythm and emotional impact. Olaudah’s account of his conversion to Christianity, his zeal for spreading the gospel, and his critique of the slave trade (in which he sometimes participated) make for a compelling story. Ages 12+

Chinese Menu: The History, Myths, and Legends Behind Your Favorite Foods

Grace Lin

(Little, Brown 2023)

Anyone who has headed to the buffet to dish up egg rolls or General Tso’s chicken will enjoy this culinary tour. The table of contents is displayed like a menu, starting with tea and ending (of course) with fortune cookies. Though some dishes, like said cookies and the despised “chop suey,” were invented in the United States, all have roots in the homeland. Each comes with a story, whether mythical, historical, or personal, told in an engaging style. Enhanced by the author’s illustrations and personal reflections, it’s a refreshing and tasty introduction to Chinese culture. Ages 10+

Please read Part 2 of this issue’s Children’s Books of the Year special section: “Laboring through grief

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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