Small Wonders: Jean-Henri Fabre and His World of Insects by Matthew Clark Smith, illustrated by Giuliano Ferri (InfoSoup)
In a small French village lives a strange man who is interested in the smallest of creatures, the insects around us. He lures flies with dead animals that he pays the children in the village to find. His home is filled with specimens. No one realized that he was one of the greatest naturalists of his time. Jean-Henri Fabre grew up in the countryside where he was fascinated by the natural world around him. No one else seemed interested in the same things that he was, but that didn’t deter him from investigating them. Henri became a teacher and studied hard, but not about insects. It was not until a book rekindled his interest that he started to study them in a serious way as an adult. He discovered things about insects that no one else had ever seen and he documented them fully. So when scientists in France nominated one of their own for a tremendous national honor, they voted for Fabre.
Smith writes with a gentle tone throughout, documenting Fabre’s entire life from his childhood to the great honor he received from his peers and his nation. The story starts with the arrival of the president of France for the award and then shows how Fabre’s fascination with insects started as a boy. The period of time when insects were not a focus is clear but also brief and then the book grows almost merry as it documents the many accomplishments of this humble man who followed his own interests in science.
The illustrations are pastoral and lovely. They capture the beauty of the French countryside and also the wonder of the insects, showing them in great detail. There is a playfulness to the illustrations that also reflects the childlike joy that Fabre found in his wonder about insects.
A lovely book about a scientist who followed his own dreams and interests to great acclaim. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
It’s an Orange Aardvark! by Michael Hall
Five little ants are woken up by the sound of rain outside their tree stump. In order to figure out what is making the noise, they drill holes in the stump to look outside. One ant explains that aardvarks are gray and sneaky, and of course hungry for ants! But when they drill the first hole, they see orange not gray. Perhaps it’s an orange aardvark come to eat them! They drill another hole and that one shows blue, so they think it’s an orange aardvark wearing blue pajamas. As they drill more holes, more colors are shown and their story about the orange aardvark gets more and more elaborate. Savvy young readers will know what all of these colors mean, but the pleasure of this book is seeing just how silly the little ants become.
Hall is the author of My Heart Is Like a Zoo and continues to display his skill with bright colors, large formats and die cuts in this new title. The mix of surprise, guessing and silliness makes this book great fun to read. Add in identifying different colors and the book becomes almost a game to read aloud. Even better, there is wonderful suspense with each page turn as the ants come up with their next spectacular speculation.
Done in large format and pops of bright colors, the illustrations have the same appeal as Lois Ehlert and Eric Carle with their sharp edges and cut paper format. The die cuts are used just enough to make the book more suspenseful and fun. They also all line up, consistent throughout the book.
A jolly picture book that is full of fun, this is a colorful and witty way to learn about colors and aardvarks. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from copy received from Greenwillow Books.
The Fly by Elise Gravel
The Worm by Elise Gravel
The first and second books in the new Disgusting Critters series of nonfiction picture books, these books take a humorous look at the biology of a specific creature. The first book deals with flies, specifically the common house fly. Inside are all sorts of interesting facts like the fly being covered in hair and information on eggs and maggots. More disgusting aspects are played up, which should appeal to young children, like the diet of flies and how germ filled they are and why. The second book is about worms and focuses on their unique anatomy, such as having no eyes and no limbs. There is also a focus on habitat, diet and reproduction. Throughout both books, humorous asides are offered, making this one of the most playful informational book series around.
Gravel combines both humor and facts in her book. She keeps the two clearly defined, with the animals themselves making comments that add the funniness to the books. The facts are presented in large fonts and the design of the book makes the facts clear and well defined. These books are designed for maximum child appeal and will work well in curriculums or just picked up by a browser in the library.
The art in the books, as you can see by the covers, is cartoonish and cute. The entire effect is a merry romp alongside these intriguing animals. I know some people believe that books about science for children should be purely factual, but Gravel’s titles show how well humor and touch of anthropomorphism can work with informational titles.
Information served with plenty of laughs, these science titles will be appreciated by children and teachers. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copies.
Superworm by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
The creators of The Gruffalo return with a silly new book that features one incredible worm. Superworm is super-long and super-strong. So when baby toad hops into the road, Superworm becomes a superworm lasso. The bees are bored and moping? It’s Superworm to the rescue with a game of jump rope. When Beetle falls into the well, Superworm turns into a fishing line to get her out. Everything seems to be going so well for Superworm, until a villain enters the story. Wizard Lizard sends his servant crow to capture Superworm and then uses magic to force Superworm to dig for treasure underground. But the others saw Superworm carried off and now it is up to them to be the heroes and save Superworm!
Donaldson writes in rhymes in such a playful and engaging way. The result is a book that reads aloud beautifully and begs to be shared with children. With the examples of the rescues that Superworm performed coming first, I was happily surprised when a villain was introduced and at the turn of events towards the end of the story. It makes for a very dynamic picture book that is sure to be a hit at story time.
Scheffler’s illustrations hit just the right tone. They are bright colored and he takes the rescues and the action to the perfect funny extremes. He also capitalizes on the kid-appeal of bugs, worms and toads.
Add this to your spring time stories, it is sure to be a delight with young readers and listeners. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner
The masterful Wiesner returns with another near-wordless picture book. Mr. Wuffles is a cat who disdains most of the toys his master gets him. Then one object gets his attention, a little metallic spaceship. But this is not a toy! It is filled with tiny aliens who are battered by being flung around by Mr. Wuffles. Their equipment is damaged and they have to leave their ship and head out looking for help. But Mr. Wuffles is close behind them and who can the aliens turn to for aid?
This is a magnificent picture book that turns from a normal cat picture book into something much more interesting. Wiesner has created a book that bridges genres effortlessly. He also has created a wordless picture book that never seems to be missing them. His story flows organically and is never forced. It has touches of humor throughout especially where Mr. Wuffles himself is concerned. I particularly enjoy the rows of untouched toys with price tags still attached that he walks past.
Wiesner’s art is as strong as ever. He pays attention to details both in the human home and later when the aliens arrive. The juxtaposition of the aliens with the insects of the home is particularly well done. The addition of cave paintings as communication is a delight.
Beautiful and funny this is a wordless masterpiece. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Stephen and the Beetle by Jorge Lujan, illustrated by Chiara Carrer
This very simple story explores philosophical areas while still remaining a picture book that is accessible to very young children. Stephen was walking in the garden and sees a beetle. He took off his shoe and was about to smack the beetle. The beetle continued on its way, unaware of the threat. Stephen raised his shoe higher, but then started to wonder about what the beetle was doing and where it was walking to. So Stephen set down his shoe and put his head on the ground. The beetle came closer, reared back on its back legs and seemed about to attack, but then seemed to think about it and instead just continued on its way. The parallel pieces of this story make it all the more thought provoking and should get children thinking in a new way about even their smallest decisions during their day.
Lujan’s writing is simple and pure. He tells the story and what is happening with a straight-forward tone and allows the story itself to create the points of discussion. The only point where the writing gets complex and lush is when the beetle is about to attack. Suddenly the tone changes and the rhythm gets wild. But then, it is back to the simple tone to finish the story.
Carrer’s art is done in mixed media that includes collage, paint, pen, chalk and ink. She very successfully plays with dark and light images that mirror one another. The beetle is shown to be just as complex a creature as Stephen himself.
This is a book that will certainly generate discussion. There are etchical implications here, the question of impact of our decisions, and the aspect of choice. And yet, there is also a small boy playing in a yard with a beetle. It is a perfect example of a small scene that speaks to much larger issues. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
Step Gently Out by Helen Frost, illustrated by Rick Lieder
This picture book celebrates looking closely at the small things in the world around us. Through a poem that focuses on the insects that you can notice if you slow down and take the time, Frost quietly reminds us all that there is another world beside our own that we often ignore. Ants are climbing up stems, honeybees buzz past, crickets leap and spiders spin webs. Children will get to see these insects up close, larger than life in the gorgeous photography that accompanies the poem. It’s a perfect invitation to take a closer look.
Focusing on the more common insects in our gardens, the poem celebrates the ants, bees and moths that surround us. Frost speaks about them very poetically, bathed in golden light or shining with stardust.
Her gentle poem pairs beautifully with the artistic photography that features close ups of the insects in the poem. The images are stunning and lovely, each focusing closely on an insect. The morning dew image alone is a breathtaking photograph, but there is one after another that are exceptional.
Combining nature and poetry, this book celebrates both. It also inspires mindfulness and a slower pace, so that children can make discoveries like this of their own. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
Bugs by the Numbers by Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss
The creators of Alphabeasties and Other Amazing Types return with a bug book where it is all done by the numbers. After an energetic introduction, readers turn pages to see bugs made up of numbers. The numbers have special reference to that insect, whether it is the number of legs, number of eyes, or how far they can jump. The design of the book is eye-catching and very engaging. The ground is bright colors that change from page to page and the bulk of the numbers are explained there. But other pages have large flaps that open: wood for the termites, a tree for the walking stick, and leaves for the caterpillar. This is a vibrant book that will have everyone engrossed in learning facts about bugs.
The typographical design is truly amazing with the insects fully rendered in numbers, used in different sizes and amounts of boldness. The backgrounds are primarily white with large areas of color, leaving the detail to the insects themselves. It is a strong design that is intriguing and great fun.
This book worked particularly well read-aloud, which is something I had not expected. The facts read naturally and provide lots of opportunities for further discussion. There are facts that are well known and others that are strange and intriguing. It makes for a great book for kids to nod along that they know the information and then in the next sentence to be learning something new.
A great bug book, this deserves a place in every public library. I know it will be one of my picks for holiday presents for any nature-loving kid. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
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Jam & Honey by Melita Morales, illustrated by Laura J. Bryant
This quiet, gentle book tells the story of a visit to an urban berry patch from two points of view, a girl and a bee. The girl is headed to the berry patch to pick berry to make into jam. Her big worry is running into bees, which she does. But she remembers what her mother told her about staying still and that the bee was interested in nectar not in her. The bee is heading to the berry patch for nectar to make into honey. He is worried about running into a human there, which he does. But he remembers that humans are interested in the berries, so he just flies past. This parallel story offers a glimpse of urban gardening and emphasizes the importance of our food and other creatures.
Morales has written the book in a verse format that has enough rhyme to make it friendly and bouncy. There is a rather jaunty tone to the book, making the encounter with the bee less scary than it could have been. The emphasis is on making food, whether it is by the girl or the bee. The two halves of the book are written in very similar verse, often repeating patterns from the earlier one. This ties the two stories together even more firmly.
Bryant’s art makes sure that the reader knows that the book is set in an urban setting without covering it in graffiti or garbage. Instead, we see a warm friendly neighborhood filled with flowers, pigeons, and bees. She imbues the illustrations with a natural feel, always having the reader look past greenery and through plants.
A great pick for insect units or story times or ones about food. It could also happily be used as a late summer story when the berries are plump and ripe. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House.