The Story of Life: a First Book about Evolution by Catherine Barr and Steve Williams, illustrated by Amy Husband (InfoSoup)
Starting before there was life on earth, this nonfiction picture book takes readers on a journey from 4.5 billion years ago to today. Volcanoes and black ocean water with some areas that were warm from underwater volcanoes created the tiny bits that formed the basis of life. Cells started growing, some using sunlight, water and oxygen that changed the very earth itself. Over millions of years, cells developed into different forms of life and became the first animals. The seas became full of life and animals and plants started to expand to the land. Then an unknown disaster hit and most of the life on earth was destroyed. It became cold and dark, giving a chance for huge dinosaurs to emerge and take over. Millions of years passed again and insects and mammals appeared. A meteor hit the world though, and then it was time for the mammals to survive. Humans evolved from those mammals and spread across the world, bringing us to the present day.
This basic look at evolution offers a sense of the length of time that it has taken to get us from basic cells to humans today. On each two-page spread there is information on how long ago this scene was taking place. The text on the page has lots of information on the changes happening, the progress towards new life, and also the series of disasters that has caused sudden death on the planet. This is a fascinating look at evolution that is appropriate for even preschool children to begin to understand the science that created life on earth.
The illustrations by Husband are playful and fun. They add a lighthearted touch to the serious scientific information. At the same time, they are have scientific labels for important objects and ideas that let children better understand the progress of evolution that they are learning about.
A strong picture book that explores evolution and will inspire children to learn even more about prehistoric times. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.
The Stranded Whale by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Melanie Cataldo (InfoSoup)
In the fall of 1971, Sally and her brothers were walking home from school along the dunes in Maine. Sally spotted a big gray thing on the beach and realized that it was a stranded whale. The children grab their sweaters and use them to keep the whale wet. One of the brothers ran off to call for help and people from the community arrived with buckets. They tried rocking the whale to get it back to the ocean, but she was too big and they were too weak and small. Sally stayed by the whale’s huge eye, even as it breathed its final breath. The children were seen as heroes for what they did that day, but Sally knew that it would be so much more wonderful to have been able to see the whale return to the ocean.
Yolen writes with such poetry about nature that you are right there and experiencing it alongside Sally and her brothers. Yolen captures the world of the beach in her poems, showing all of the small living things that Sally dashes by on her way to the ocean with her sweater. Most evocative are the scents of the whale, who smells “of fear and deep water” at first. Then the whale last breath:
The sigh smelled like seaweed,
like lobsters in Dad’s traps,
like gutted fish on the pier.
Such imagery that captures in a subtle way the scent of death too.
Cataldo’s illustrations make sure to keep the scale of the enormous whale consistent from one page to the next. On some pages there is an expanse of grey flesh with one huge eye looking out. The effect is humbling, showing that nature is both bigger than us and also a part of us too. The illustrations are beautifully done, playing light and dark against one another as the whale slowly perishes.
A brave book that does not shy away from grief or wonder. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Something Extraordinary by Ben Clanton (InfoSoup)
A little boy has lots and lots of different wishes that he hopes come true. He wishes to be able to fly, to breathe underwater, that the robot he drew could come to life. Then they could play together in the rain that would come in seven different colors and flavors. He wishes for fangs and a tail. He wishes to be able to talk to animals and to have lots of wild and strange pets. But in the end, he mostly wishes that something extraordinary would happen to him. Something real. And suddenly, it does!
Clanton excels at taking very simple premises for his books and making them into something engaging and intelligent. In this book, it is all about wishes and dreams with a big dollop of imagination too. The bulk of the book is spent with the boy and his wild wishes that he only hopes could come true. In the end though, the book comes down to earth and the boy just wants something amazing to happen in real life. He takes a moment then to look around himself and realizes that there are wonderful things happening right there, especially out in nature.
The artwork here is understated and subtle. Even during his wildest and most colorful wishes, the colors are muted and subdued. It isn’t until the ending when the boy realizes that there is wonder around him in real life that the colors lose their subtlety and start to really sing.
Big dreams and wild wishes may not come to fruition here, but reality is certainly “something extraordinary” in the end. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event by Rebecca Bond (InfoSoup)
Inspired by a true story, this picture book tells of the author’s grandfather’s life in Ontario, Canada in 1914. Antonio lived with his family in a hotel run by his mother. He spent his time with the hotel workers since there were no children around. He helped the cooks, the maids, and watched as others hauled wood and repaired buildings. The hotel had three stories with a space to feed crowds of people, individual rooms for travelers and then a large open dormitory space for others. He loved spending time in the forest around the hotel too. Then one year when Antonio was almost five, it was dry as could be. When smoke was spotted in the distance, everyone knew they were in real trouble. All of the people fled the building and stood in the lake watching the fire come closer. Then something amazing happened and the animals too left the forest and entered the water, standing near the humans and close to one another, predator and prey alike. When the fire ended, the hotel was still standing and the animals returned to the burned forest, but Antonio never forgot what he witnessed that day.
Bond captures the time period, allowing readers to really explore the hotel that Antonio lived in, showing us all of the floors and the hard-working men that the hotel served. The text offers details such as describing Antonio’s room as a place that was off the kitchen and had once been a pantry. Even small things are noted like the travel bags men carried and the fact that they sometimes had guns along too. Through these details, the entire hotel comes alive on the page.
The illustrations in the book also add to the details from the long distance view of the hotel on the lake to the finely drawn images showing the interior. Small details are captured in sepia tones and fine ink lines, allowing us to get a glimpse into the past and a way of life. The same details continue even as the fire rages and the animals come into the water. Realistic and lovely, the animals’ body language shows how wary they are and yet how desperate too.
A true story brought to life through details and wonder. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
My Wilderness: An Alaskan Adventure by Claudia McGehee
This nonfiction picture book tells the story of Rocky and his father, painter Rockwell Kent, who spent a winter in 1918-1919 on Fox Island, just off the coast of Alaska. Rocky was nine years old at the time. He and his father repaired an old shed and turned it into their cabin. While his father spent time painting, Rocky drew a bit and explored the island a lot. He saw wildlife in the woods, collected shells and stones and the beach. Evenings were spent in the cabin, eating dinner and sharing stories. When the winter came, days filled with different activities like taking snow baths, making snow houses. They took trips to a larger island in their dory, rowing when the weather was good. They faced one large storm when returning home, barely making it to land. All too soon, their time in the wilderness was done. It was a time that Rocky always felt was the best in his life.
McGehee takes readers along on an epic journey to Alaska. The mountains are huge, the water freezing, the woods thick and the animals are everywhere. Told from the point of view of Rocky, the book allows young readers to see Alaska through his eyes and marvel along with him at the wonder of nature. As he walks the woods and explores the shore, he dreams that there may be monsters or pirates around, but looking again he always sees something that fits into the natural scene. The days are filled with exploration and evenings spent together, one gets the sense that there was more than enough adventure to fill their days.
The illustrations are done on scratchboard giving the feel almost of woodcut prints on the page. The result is a very organic feel with thick lines and an interplay of bright colors and deep black. The more natural feel works very well with this Alaskan subject matter, creating an old fashioned feel that enhances the book as well. McGehee captures nature with an ease that makes one want to enter the deep green woods alongside Rocky.
Explore the Alaskan wilderness in all of its wonder in this historical picture book. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (InfoSoup)
Callie returns in triumphant fashion in this second Calpurnia Tate book following the Newbery Honor-winning first novel. Calpurnia continues to study science and nature at her grandfather’s side. Together they begin to dissect worms and insects, moving upwards towards vertebrates. Callie develops several scientific devices to measure latitude and barometric pressure. When the barometric pressure drops seriously low and an unusual gull shows up in the yard, Granddaddy heads to the telegraph office to sound the alarm for coastal areas, but there is little to do in places like Galveston Texas where tens of thousands of lives are lost. Meanwhile, Callie’s brother Travis is continuing to bring home stray animals like armadillos and raccoon, leaving Callie to help hide the evidence. Their cousin who survived the hurricane in Galveston comes to live with them, moving into Callie’s room and bearing secrets of her own. Through it all, Callie struggles with the expectations for girls around the turn of the century, trying to find a way forward towards education rather than marriage.
Kelly writes of science in a way that will have any reader eager to start looking at the writings of Charles Darwin, reading about health issues of cows and horses, dissecting their own grasshoppers, and heading outside to find the North Star. She turns it all into an adventure, filled with outdoor excursions, smelly animals, and rivers to explore. At the same time, it is also a look at the expectations of a girl from a good family and the difference between her future and that of her brothers. Callie’s struggle with this inequity speaks to her courage and her tenacity, two parts of her character that are evident throughout the book. This dual nature of the novel adds lots of depth to the story, allowing fans of nature and fans or strong heroines a shared novel to rejoice about.
Kelly’s characters are wonderfully well rounded. Callie is not perfect and is far more interesting and human for that. She is not patient, hates to play the piano and sew, and speaks up at times that would be unseemly. At the same time she is wonderfully wild, brazen at times, and heroic at others. She stands by those who support her and thwarts those who oppose her. She cunningly uses people’s self interests to promote her own and is constantly learning from those around her. Even the secondary characters are well drawn and have depth. From Granddaddy to Callie’s mother to her cousin Aggie, all can surprise because they are crafted as full human beings.
This romping novel is a fitting and fabulous follow-up to the first. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.
High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs by Lisa Kahn Schnell, illustrated by Alan Marks (InfoSoup)
The annual spawning of the horseshoe crabs serves as a way to speak about the life cycle of this fascinating creature. As the crabs come to the shore, they ride the high tide to get far enough up on the beach for their eggs to be safest. Following the crabs are the shorebirds who are looking for a feast. Humans are coming too, scientists who study both the crabs and the birds. The horseshoe crabs begin laying their eggs, their bodies piled high at the edge of the shore, all trying to reach the sand to deposit their eggs. The scientists tag the crabs, allowing them a better way to study how these creatures live and where they travel. The eggs that survive the birds feasting start to grow and the adult crabs return to the sea. A few weeks later, the baby crabs hatch and make their way down the sand to the sea too.
Schnell has created a book that celebrates the horseshoe crabs and highlights not only their life cycle but their impact on the larger habitat as well. Tying the human scientific element into the book as well informs young readers that there are interesting natural studies happening all around them. The final pages of the book offer many additional details on the horseshoe crab and how they function in the food system. Readers will also find more resources on the crabs including websites and books to explore.
Marks’ illustrations are beautiful and functional. He shows the wonder of life under the water as well as the gorgeous moonlit night that the crabs come to shore. The mix of underwater, sea and sky create a palette of blue that celebrates life.
A strong nonfiction picture book that highlights a fascinating and unique creature. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
Water Is Water: A Book about the Water Cycle by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin (InfoSoup)
A poetic look at the various stages of water in the water cycle, this book moves logically from one to the next as water evaporates, condenses and changes. Seen through the lives of two siblings, the book begins with pages where the children are down near the lake and then rain drives them back home. Once home, they get a glass of water then water is boiled for a cup of cocoa out on the porch. Clouds come out in the evening, lit by the setting sun. Then autumn arrives with its foggy school mornings. Rain falls down as the school bus reaches school and then there are puddles to jump in at recess. Winter arrives with ice and snow and then spring returns with more puddles and mud. Apples are picked and turned into cider that the children drink up.
Shown through seasonal changes and a very personal view, this water cycle book makes everything very tangible and real. At the end of the book children can learn more about evaporation, condensation and precipitation which are tied directly to the forms of water that they experienced in the bulk of the book and the story. Keeping the focus on the ways that children themselves experience the water cycle makes this book particularly accessible.
The illustrations by Chin are done in watercolor and gouache. They are filled with nature and beauty from the wonder of the sky in evening to the bright colors of the fall leaves to the brisk cool colors of winter. The illustrations capture the beauty of weather and forms of water in a vivid way.
A dynamic and personal book about what can be an abstract theory, this book on the water cycle is exactly the sort of science book that will inspire additional investigation in the world and science. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
Daylight Starlight Wildlife by Wendell Minor (InfoSoup)
Explore the world of animals in your own backyard that come out either in the day or at night. Shown in pairs, the various animals are awake at opposite ends of the day. Hawks fly the skies in the bright sunlight while owls glide the skies after dark. Rabbits and their babies are active in the fields and meadows in the day while opossum mothers and their babies come out and forage the same areas at night. Even the butterflies of day are replaced by the moths of night. The book moves from bright page to dark page, each equally lovely and equally celebrated. This is a nice beginning book that looks at animals of all sorts that can be spotted in backyards across the U.S.
Minor provides brief comments on each of the animals that he highlights. He smartly chooses not to make the pairings rhyme, creating instead a natural flow with his prose that makes the book easy to share aloud and a pleasure to explore. His use of only backyard animals makes for an accessible read for young children who will delight in recognizing many of the daylight animals and may be very surprised by some of the nighttime ones.
As always, Minor’s artwork is stunningly lovely. He captures both the sun yellow of the daylight pages but also the glowing blues of night. Both are presented with loving detail and care, each page as lovely as the next. Thanks to his art, this book reads as a celebration of these animals and of the different times of day. Minor’s skill with light and shadow are on full display in this book.
A beautiful look at everyday animals that are active either in the day or the night, this picture book will inspire visits to dark backyards and sunlit ones. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Nancy Paulsen Books.
Woodpecker Wham! by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins
In brief stanzas of rhyme, this nonfiction picture book looks at the habitats and lives of a variety of different species of woodpecker. Starting with finding food, the book explores woodpeckers eating insects and sap. Then woodpeckers bathe and preen. They create homes by digging holes in the bark of trees. They hide from hawks. They lay eggs and the chicks hatch, forcing the adult birds to scrounge for food for them. The fledglings start trying to fly and then fall comes and once again woodpeckers are searching for food and shelter to get them through the winter.
Sayre and Jenkins continue their partnership that started with Eat Like a Bear in this new book. Sayre writes with a light hand, creating a sense of exploration and wonder around these backyard birds. Children will learn some things from the brief poetic text and there is a lot more information to be found on the back pages where individual species are identified and all of the subjects are expanded upon.
Jenkins continues to create illustrations that amaze. With his cut paper collages, the illustrations pop on the page as the birds fly, hide, peck, eat and reproduce. I love that the color of the sky changes from one page to the next, creating moments in time rather than one continuous time period. The result are illustrations that stand on their own in terms of beauty and the incredible detail that they offer readers.
Beautiful and informative, this nonfiction picture book will have children gazing out of their windows to try to see the birds in their neighborhood. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.