The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Kate Sessions is the woman who made San Diego into the green city that it is today. She was a pioneering female scientist who grew up in the forests of Northern California. After becoming the first woman to graduate with a degree in science from the University of California, she moved to San Diego to be a teacher. San Diego was a desert town with almost no trees at all. So Kate decided to change all of that and began to hunt for trees that survive and thrive in a desert. Soon trees were being planted all over San Diego, but that was not enough for Kate who then worked to fill entire parks with her trees and gardens. Kate Sessions was a remarkable woman who helped San Diego become the great city it is today.
Hopkins takes a playful approach to this picture book biography. From the beginning he uses a format that ends each new event in Kate Session’s life with “But Kate did.” Not only does this create a strong structure for the story, but it shows Session’s determination to not be swayed by what others thought was possible. From the beginning, she was a unique person with a unique vision. It is that vision and her strength in the face of societal opposition that made her so successful.
McElmurry’s illustrations add a beauty to the book. She captures the lush green of the California forests and then allows readers to experience the transformation of San Diego from a barren desert to the lush green of Session’s many trees. She also shows all of the hard work that it took to make that transformation possible.
Sessions will be a newly found historical figure for most of us, and what an inspiration she is! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.
Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger, illustrated by Robert Byrd
Based on a real person from history, this fictionalized account is told through the eyes of Margru, one of the few children aboard the Amistad. Due to a famine in Mendeland, West Africa, Margru’s father was forced to pawn her out to feed the rest of the family. From there, Margru is taken captive and put upon a slave ship with many other people heading for a plantation in the Caribbean. But on the journey, the captive men rebelled against their captors and took over the ship, attempting to sail it back to Africa. Deceived by the ship’s navigator, they landed in Long Island, NY and the adults were put on trial. The children were kept as witnesses to the crimes aboard the ship. Margru longed for her African homeland but also ended up learning not only to read but graduating from college as a teacher. This is Margru’s story of fear, bravery, slavery, captivity and freedom.
Edinger beautifully captures this famous moment in history from Margru’s point of view. The use of the first person perspective makes the book read as easily as fiction, but throughout the reader can also feel the weight of the historical research behind the story. The use of historical information throughout the book is very helpful and combined with that first person view it is a book that is compelling reading with a heroine who is equally fascinating.
Byrd’s art is stunning. He uses moves gracefully between historically-accurate images that capture important historical moments to more stylized pictures that flow with lines and dream of Africa. He starkly contrasts the worlds of the greens of Africa and the cold, formality of the United States.
Beautifully written and illustrated, this book gives a first-person account of the Amistad, looking beyond the revolt into the trial and what happened to one little girl caught in history. Appropriate for ages 8-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin
Will Allen is a farmer who can see the potential where others can’t. When he sees a vacant lot, he sees a farm with enough to feed everyone. When he was a boy, he grew up helping care for a large garden that kept their family fed. But Allen did not want to spend his life weeding and digging in the dirt, so he decided to become a basketball player, and he did. But then living in Milwaukee, he saw empty greenhouses standing vacant and realized that he could feed people who had never eaten a fresh vegetable. First though, he had to clear the land and then figure out how to improve his soil so that something could grow there. That was the first time that the neighborhood kids helped out, bringing compost items to feed the worms. Slowly and steadily, a community garden emerged and Will Allen taught others to be farmers too. His Milwaukee farm now gets 20,000 visitors a year so that others can learn to grow gardens where there had only been concrete.
I had seen the documentary, Fresh that includes Will Allen as part of the film about new thinking about food. So I was eager to see a picture book about this inspiring figure. It did not disappoint. Martin captures the natural progression of Allen’s life from child eating from the garden to farmer giving other children that same experience and spreading the word about what is possible in an urban setting. Martin’s tone throughout has a sense of celebration of Allen and his accomplishments. She captures his own inherent enthusiasm on the page.
Larkin’s illustrations are striking. Each could be a poster for farming and urban gardens on their own. Combined into a book, they become a celebration of this large man with an even larger dream. The colors are bright, the textures interesting and the image backgrounds evoke farming and nature.
This picture book biography is a visual feast that invites everyone to its community table. Librarians and teachers in Wisconsin should be particularly interested in adding this to their collection, but it will hold interest in urban and farming areas across the country. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Readers to Eaters.
How Big Were Dinosaurs? by Lita Judge
Whenever you think of dinosaurs, they are like the one on the cover of the book. Huge, green and either placid plant eaters or ferocious meat eaters. This nonfiction picture book takes a look at dinosaurs that are quite different. There is the microraptor who is the size of a chicken. The long-named Leaellynasaura stood as tall as an emperor penguin and lived in that same climate. Of course there were bigger dinosaurs too. The akylosaurus stood as tall as an SUV. There were dinosaurs with huge claws that ate plants, ones with armor and still others with odd parts of the body that no one understands yet.
Judge carefully chooses her dinosaurs in this book. Understanding that the littlest dinosaurs lack the vibrant punch of the huge ones, the book quickly changes to the more imposing creatures. She shares just enough about each dinosaur to make the book readable. In fact, this is one nonfiction picture book about dinosaurs that could be shared at a storytime or aloud in a unit. Judge packs lots of fascinating facts into the book. It ends with the science behind figuring out what dinosaurs used to look like and a fold-out page with all of the dinosaurs in the book shown next to each other with lots of numbers and facts.
Judge’s playful illustrations are great fun. Throughout the book, she uses humans to show the scale of the dinosaurs as well as other animals. The humans don’t just stand next to the dinosaurs, they interact and react to them. I particularly enjoyed the image of the woman batting at a dinosaur with a broom. It’s those little touches of humor that suit this book so well.
Readable, fun and filled with science, this book on dinosaurs will be a welcome addition to those crowded shelves. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore
This exceptional nonfiction picture book tells the story of the Puerto Rican parrot. It is a bird that has flown over Puerto Rico for millions of years but almost became extinct in the 1960s. The book tells of the changes that came to Puerto Rico and its environment thanks to settlers, wars, hunting, and foreign invasive species. Forests began to disappear too, so the parrots were limited to living in just one place. By 1967, only 24 parrots lived in Puerto Rico. With them almost extinct, people started trying to save the parrots. The book tells the story of rescued parrots, storms and the dedicated scientists who figured out how to save this species from disappearing entirely.
Roth and Trumbore tell this story deftly. They focus on what was almost lost, a sky crowded with these blue and green birds. The book explores the history of Puerto Rico, tying it closely and innately into the story of the parrots themselves. The entire book is fascinating and becomes even more compelling when the story turns to the rescue efforts. Small victories such as saving a young parrot’s wings are celebrated, while the larger effort is also looked at in detail.
Roth’s collages are exquisite. She captures the beauty of the birds, as you can see from the cover image above, but also the beauty of Puerto Rico itself with all of its lush greens. The book is beautifully designed as well.
A dazzling nonfiction book that will be welcome in classroom discussions and units about conservation and environment. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Lee & Low and Edelweiss.
Snowcial: An Antarctic Social Network Story by Chelsea Prince, photography by Keoki Flagg and Robert Pittman
This nonfiction book follows the journey of a family to visit the Antarctic Peninsula. They travel aboard an icebreaker ship that has an ice breaking hull but sails only in warmer temperatures. Along the way, the children in the family, Anna and Rory explore the ship. They watch the different birds that follow the ship and find out information on their habitat and how they survive out at sea. Soon they are seeing icebergs, glaciers and lots of snow and ice. They also get to visit places where penguins and seals live. They even spot some killer whales hunting in the ocean. A mix of science and exploration, this book invites readers along on a journey to an icy world that is full of life.
Price sets just the right tone with her book. She writes with a merry voice, one that invites children reading the book to learn right alongside her and her characters. Throughout the book there is a sense of adventure and a strong tie to information and science. This is a book that teaches in an easy and welcoming way.
While Price sets the tone, the incredible photography from Flagg and Pittman truly capture the setting. Their close ups of wounded penguins, hunted seals, and the activity of a penguin colony truly allow readers to see Antarctica up close. Their photography is visually beautiful but also a way to learn more about this incredible place.
Brilliant science nonfiction, join the journey to Antarctica with this gorgeous book. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Chelsea Print and Publishing.
See What a Seal Can Do by Chris Butterworth, illustrated by Kate Nelms
This nonfiction picture book follows a gray seal through its day. The seal starts off on shore where it is flumping along the sand, seeming slow and sleepy. Then it enters the water and what seemed awkward on land makes it able to swim with incredible grace. As the seal swims, readers learn about their different anatomy, including their ears, whiskers, fins and blubber. At the bottom of the ocean, the seal eats fish and then eats more on its way up to the air again. Returning to the beach, the seal is ready for another nap.
Butterworth truly celebrates this animal in her book. She writes with a mix of prose and poetry, making sure that readers understand how fascinating seals are. Throughout, she uses metaphors to make sure that children relate to the animal. Blubber is compared to a warm blanket. The seaweed at the bottom is a forest. The seal swims like a rocket in the water.
There are many science picture books that use the format of larger text for the basic story and then smaller text for more details. Perhaps best about this book is that Butterworth uses both sections of the book to share scientific information, too often the science is left mostly to the smaller text and younger readers miss out on the fascinating facts.
The artwork by Nelms is simply exquisite. Just like the seal, the book really comes alive in its underwater scenes. Nelms manages to offer lots of small details to look at, but also to capture the wavering light and softness of water. There are illustrations throughout that have a beautiful depth to them, inviting us to hidden places under the water.
A beauty of a science book, this celebration of seals gets my enthusiastic seal of approval. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Locomotive by Brian Floca
This book thoroughly celebrates the days of steam trains when rails were just starting to bridge the nation. It begins with the building of the railroad, coming from east and west and meeting in the middle. Filled with the sounds of building and the sounds of trains, this book fairly sings with the noises of the railroad. Your trip starts on a quiet platform waiting for a train. Once aboard, readers learn about the way steam powers the engine and the jobs of different people aboard. Readers ride aboard the train, visit the bathroom which is basically a hole in the floor, and sleep along the way. On the way west, you can see the landscape change, cross fragile bridges and enter black tunnels. This entire book is a stirring testament to steam engines and the people who worked them.
Floca offers so many details here. One might think that would slow the book down, but it is really all about those details and the entire experience of travel by steam train. He keeps the interest level high by being very selective of the facts he shares. It makes the reading fascinating and even young train buffs should learn a thing or two.
Floca’s illustrations are beautiful. He lingers over details in his images as well as in the text. Readers get to see mechanisms close up, feel the speed of the train as it moves forward, and see the light reflecting off of the tight tunnel walls. He creates an experience here that speaks to the time period clearly with his choice of fonts and the design of the entire book. His illustrations are sometimes front and center, other times serving more as diagrams of interesting facts.
Gorgeous illustrations, fascinating facts and a clear love of the subject make this a riveting read whether you are a train buff or not. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
Eat Like a Bear by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Released October 22, 2013.
Can you eat like a bear? It means you will wake up very hungry in early spring and have to dine on sandy plants and frozen dead bison meat. In May, you will have dandelions and cow parsnips to munch but you will still be hungry, so you eat some ants. You will also eat clover and fish in icy streams for a meal of trout. In July you will catch a squirrel you dig out of the dirt and in August you will have moths to munch. September brings berries and October pinecones. Then it is time to sleep for the winter, full with all of the various meals you have eaten for the rest of the year.
Sayre makes this book such fun to read. She takes scientific information about what bears eat and makes it very accessible for a preschool audience. She uses repetitive structures throughout the book, having the bear dig and pull to find food again and again. This doesn’t just create a friendly structure for small children, it also underlines the fact that animals are in constant search for food. Sayre also makes the book inviting by using the second person format, asking children if they can really eat like a bear. I suspect many will stop saying yes when the ants, squirrels and dead bison appear in the diet.
The art of Jenkins is always beautiful, but he outdoes himself with the depiction of the bear. I shared this book aloud with my son and we both spent time lingering over the first image of the bear. Jenkins has managed to use the torn paper as fur, not only along the edges of the bear’s body but on its body too. The result is fur so plush that you feel like your hand should sink into the page.
A glorious look at bears, this book is a fantastic introduction to a creature, its habitat and its diet. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt & Co.
Rotten Pumpkin: A Rotten Tale in 15 Voices by David M. Schwartz, photos by Dwight Kuhn
A dynamic mix of story and nonfiction, this book follows the life of a pumpkin. He has his shining moment as a jack-o-lantern lit for Halloween, but then is put into the compost. That is where the story gets interesting. First he is chewed on by mice, squirrels, slugs and vomited on by flies. Now he looks a lot different and has fungi growing. The various molds introduce themselves, explaining what they do, including the fascinating Penicillium. Sow bugs, earthworms, slime mold and yeast work on the pumpkin too. It is left as just a pile of seeds and little else. Until spring arrives!
Schwartz shows readers just how fascinating science is with his in-depth descriptions of the decomposition process. Children will adore the explanation of how flies taste and eat, the process of earthworm poop, and all of the molds seen up close. But this book goes far beyond the gross and takes the reader right through the entire process, detailing it with interesting moments throughout.
The photographs by Kuhn are particularly useful in a book like this. Capturing the changing face of the pumpkin as it molds over adds real interest visually to the title. At the same time, the close up images of yeasts and slime mold are grossly gripping.
Perfect for autumn and Halloween, this book will have kids looking at their slumping pumpkins with new eyes. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.