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Originally published Monday, February 20, 2012 at 9:30 PM

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Award-winning nonfiction books for young readers

Kids' books: The Sibert winners for excellence in nonfiction include "Balloons Over Broadway," "Drawing From Memory," "Black & White" and "The Elephant Scientist."

Scripps Howard News Service

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If you have a young reader who loves nonfiction, check out the 2012 winner of the Robert F. Sibert Medal, and the four 2012 Sibert Honor books.

There's something for every reader in this year's choices. Kids can meet the man responsible for the enormous balloons at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, journey to Africa with a scientist studying elephant communication, travel back in time to the Salem witch trials, explore the human dynamics of the 1960s civil-rights battle in Birmingham, Ala., and peek into the memorable youth of artist/author Allen Say.

The Sibert Medal was established in 2001 to honor the most distinguished "informational," or nonfiction, book published each year for children from birth through age 14.

The award is administered by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, and named for Robert Sibert, the longtime president of Bound to Stay Bound Books, Inc., which specializes in pre-bound books for the library market.

Each year, a committee composed of librarians and other children's-book experts chooses the Sibert winner and any honor books. I served on the 2012 Sibert Medal panel, and I'm thrilled about our choices.

Here's a closer look at the winning books:

2012 Sibert Medal Winner:

In "Balloons Over Broadway" (Houghton Mifflin, $16.99, ages 4-8), author/illustrator Melissa Sweet combines a kid-friendly text with colorful, detailed illustrations to create a truly distinguished picture-book biography.

It tells the story of Tony Sarg, who decades ago created the forerunners of the gigantic character balloons that are the trademark of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

Sweet focuses her story on Sarg's fascination for tinkering; she opens her book with the story of how the 6-year-old Sarg developed a rope-and-pulley system for feeding his family's chickens while staying snug in his bed.

The adult Sarg became famous for his marionettes, which caught the eye of Macy's executives looking for someone to devise a parade for Macy's employees. As the parade crowds increased each year, Sarg eventually developed the technology for the huge balloons that float overhead and allow all watchers to enjoy the spectacle.

Sweet's text is filled with evocative vocabulary, as she writes that the balloons "sailed past Central Park" and "sallied down Broadway." With her illustrations, done in gouache (thick watercolors), collage and mixed media, Sweet spotlights Sarg's passion for play; he once said: "I have never done a stroke of work in my life."

"Balloons Over Broadway" is definitely fun to read, but it's also a model nonfiction book for young readers. Sweet includes a bibliography, sources for her quotes, an author's note with more information about Sarg and a brief explanation about her artwork.

"Sweet's book rose above all others this year by brilliantly showing and telling the story of one person's ideas with passion and panache, demonstrating the very best of what an informational book can be,"said Sibert Medal Committee Chairman Andrew Medlar.

2012 Sibert Honor Books:

• In "Black & White" (Calkins Creek, $16.95, ages 12 up), author Larry Dane Brimner masterfully describes how the enmity between two influential men — one black and one white — exploded into a confrontation that changed the course of civil-rights history.

On one side was the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, an African-American minister who refused to accept the anti-black status quo in 1950s and '60s Birmingham, Ala. On the other side was Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, who firmly believed that blacks were inferior to whites and used his police power to quell any uprisings.

The book's strong design — black and white, with sidebars printed in red — also underlines the high-stakes clash between two powerful and stubborn men.

• Scientist Caitlin O'Connell transports readers to Africa's Namibian desert, where she studies the secrets of elephant communication in "The Elephant Scientist" (Houghton Mifflin, $17.99, ages 10-14).

Co-written by Donna Jackson, "The Elephant Scientist" allows young readers to experience the thrill of O'Connell's discovery that elephants communicate with each other through low-frequency vibrations they sense in their feet.

Dozens of color photographs, taken by O'Connell and her husband Timothy Rodwell, add color and perspective to the text, showing readers both the glory and the nitty-gritty of scientific fieldwork.

• In "Drawing From Memory" (Scholastic, $17.99, ages 9 up), Allen Say engagingly details his early training as an artist, including the family obstacles he faced and his apprenticeship to Japan's leading cartoonist.

Say, who won the 1994 Caldecott Medal (the top award for children's-book illustration) for "Grandfather's Journey," combines elegant text with various types of illustrations: watercolor art, black-and-white sketches, photographs (some appropriately faded with age) and comics.

The overall effect is a book brimming with interesting facts and visual delights that will appeal to a wide variety of readers.

• Even readers who think they know all about the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s will be riveted by "Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem" (National Geographic, $16.95, ages 12 up).

Written and illustrated by Rosalyn Schanzer, the prayer-book-sized "Witches!" reads like a novel, as Schanzer shows how the hysteria over unseen spirits literally took over a town. She includes a helpful picture gallery of the major players as well as a lengthy bibliography for those who want to delve further into the topic.

Schanzer's artwork, done in black and white with patches of red, perfectly captures a dark period in American history.

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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