Sequoia by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Wendell Minor
This is a poem about Sequoia, a giant and ancient tree and how he lives through the year. As the seasons change, Sequoia opens his arms and gathers different things to him. He gathers owls to him in the springtime when he is cloaked in green. When fires come in the heat of summer, he gathers flames to him. As the birds fly away in the autumn, he gathers one last crow. In the winter, he gathers snow. He also listens quietly and deeply to the nature around him and shares stories that he has gathered over time with the smaller cedars. This picture book is a celebration of ancient trees and this one sequoia in particular.
Johnston uses repetition very skillfully in his poem. It is enough of a structure to allow children to have something to lean on when reading, but the poem is also free too. It’s a strong mix of structure and freedom that is perfect for a tree poem. As the seasons change, children will see nature change as well. There is a joy to this work, a dedication to preservation of trees like this, and a thrill in the wildness of nature. Johnston uses gorgeous imagery throughout that further ties the wild to this tree and how he feels.
Minor’s illustrations are exceptional. They carry the beauty of the verse to new heights as readers get to see the glory of this single sequoia standing so tall above everything else. Yet Minor also makes sure that Sequoia is part of the nature around him. The light is beautiful in these images streaming through the trees in beams, bright dawn on other pages, and the softness of twilight at others.
A wild and beautiful poetic celebration of a tree, this book is less about the facts of sequoia trees and more about the experience of one. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
Winter Is Coming by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Jim LaMarche
A stunningly gorgeous picture book about the changing seasons, this is a perfect way to welcome winter even when you don’t want it to arrive. The book begins on a cold day in September with a girl out in nature watching the animals. She has along her drawing pad and climbs into a tree house to see even better. From that platform, she sees a red fox stealing the last wrinkled fall apple from a low branch. A mother bear and her cub are also in the woods searching for food. As fall progresses, she sees different animals: a family of skunks, rabbits, woodpeckers, a lynx, chipmunks, deer and geese. All are preparing for the approaching winter in their own way. As winter gets closer, the animals stop appearing until the day the snow arrives when the red fox is out to see it too.
Johnston has created a book that truly shows children what it is like to be surrounded by the wonder of nature during one changing season. Her poetry sparks on the page, showing not only the different animals but also explaining what is beautiful and special about each one. Even more mundane animals like the chipmunks get this honor. Young readers will be inspired to get outside and sit still and just watch.
The art from LaMarche is stunning. He takes advantage of the length of the pages and creates wide landscapes that embrace the changing colors of the seasons. They turn from the bright yellows of early fall to the deeper reds and browns and then to the chill grays of winter. He uses light beautifully throughout and various perspectives that all center around one tree and one girl. It is extraordinary.
Perfect pick for just this time of year, get your hands on this beautiful picture book and then be ready for adventures outside, hopefully with your own pen and paper along. Appropriate for ages 4-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by CaTia Chien
This is a stellar autobiographical picture book written by and about a wildlife conservationist. Alan was a boy who could not speak clearly. He battled stuttering all of the time except when he talked with animals. When he visited the great cat house at the Bronx Zoo, he could whisper fluently into the ears of the cats. He also spent a lot of time with his pets at home, speaking to them and telling them that if he ever found his own voice, he would serve as their voice since they had none and would keep them from harm. Alan became the first person to study jaguars. In Belize he felt at home in the jungle. He worked to protect the jaguars and eventually had to speak for them in front of the President of Belize, hoping to save their habitat from destruction. But can he speak clearly in the short 15 minutes he’s been given?
This book is made all the more compelling by the fact that it is true. It gives readers a glimpse into the world of a child struggling with a disability, one that mars every verbal interaction he has. And thanks to his ability with animals, readers quickly see beyond the stutter to the boy himself and to the gifts that he has to offer. Even better, once Alan becomes an adult, readers get to see a man who is taking advantage of his uniqueness to make a difference in the world and for the animals he cares for so much.
Chien’s art is rich and varied. She moves from backgrounds of wine red to brilliant yellow to the deep greens of the Belize jungles. She shows an isolated boy, alone that contrasts beautifully with the man working happily alone in the jungle – so similar and yet so very different.
An extraordinary autobiography, this book shows readers not to judge anyone by how they speak but rather by what they do. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins
Explore different types of animal eyes in this gorgeous nonfiction picture book by the amazing Steve Jenkins. In this book, Jenkins not only talks about the different kinds of animals eyes, explaining them in just the right amount of detail, but also looks at specific animals and their unique eyes. Jenkins shares lots of facts, carefully chosen to be fascinating and fun. One never knows what will be found on the next page and whether it will be looking right at you.
Jenkins makes sure that children will learn about evolution in this picture book. His emphasis throughout is on the evolution from simple light-sensitive eyespots to the complex camera eyes of humans and hawks. As always, his information is well-chosen and interesting. It is accompanied by large-format images that are paired with smaller images that show the animals entire body. This is science information at its best.
The eyes have it! This is a book that belongs in all public libraries. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox, illustrated by Brian Floca
This is the true story of Elizabeth, an elephant seal, who decided she wanted to live in the warm waters of the Avon River near the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. People are happy to have Elizabeth in the river, often spending time watching her swim. Then Elizabeth decides that her favorite place to sun is the middle of a two-lane road. It is flat and warm and perfect, except for the dangers of the cars to both Elizabeth and the people. So Elizabeth is towed out to sea, to live with the other elephant seals. But Elizabeth returns. She is removed to the sea over and over again, each time taking her farther away from Christchurch. But she still finds her way back to those warm river waters.
Cox, a famous long-distance, open-water swimmer, has written her first children’s book here. One would never know that it is her first. She writes with a grace and simplicity that make her book entirely readable but also poetic too. She incorporates imagery that will help children understand Elizabeth better: “Moving up the soft shore like a giant inchworm.” She also uses descriptive language to draw contrasts between the waters in the river and those in the cold sea.
Floca, winner of the 2014 Caldecott Medal, uses his fine-line drawings to show the merry spirit of Elizabeth both when she is in the warm river waters and upon her amazing returns after being towed away. Floca’s illustrations of Elizabeth on the warm road and her surprise but lack of alarm when the cars approach are beautifully done.
A winning story that tells the story of one unique elephant seal and the town that she decided was her home. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
Galapagos George by Jean Craighead George, illustrated by Wendell Minor
A story of evolution and extinction, this picture book explores the incredible life of the famous Lonesome George a tortoise who was the last of his kind. The book begins by explaining how a million years ago a tortoise was driven from South America and carried to the island of San Cristobal near the equator. There she laid eggs, used her long neck to reach food, and passed on her genetics. Thousands of years later, all of the turtles looked different with long necks and shells that curved back to give their necks more room. When humans discovered the Galapagos Islands, they quickly decimated the turtle population which dwindled down to only a few thousand from the hundreds of thousands that had lived there. A hundred years later, the giant tortoise population had reduced even further, so that one lone turtle remained. He was moved to the Charles Darwin Research Station and protected but no other turtle of the species was ever found.
George creates a vivid story of the power of evolution in our world and the effects of humans on animal species. She steadily shows how weather forces and natural disasters impact animals as well, moving them from place to place and changing their habitats. As the animals change slowly, George keeps the text clear and factual, making for a book that moves quickly and is filled with fascinating scientific information.
Minor’s illustrations are lush and lovely. They are filled with the light of sun, bursting on the horizon in tropical colors. He also shows the barren landscape of the Galapagos clearly and the frank regard of a tortoise looking right at the reader. There is a sense of loneliness for much of the book both when the book is about the first tortoise and then later when there is one left. That connection between the two lone turtles is made clearly in the illustrations.
Fascinating, distressing and yet ultimately hopeful, this nonfiction picture book will work well in science classrooms as well as library collections. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth
Join Koo, a panda, on an exploration of the seasons through haiku poems. The book begins with fall and haikus about fall leaves, wind, and rain. Winter comes next with poetry about snow and ice. Spring is bridged into with a glimpse of crocuses and then grass, insects, and birds. Summer arrives with fireflies, flowers and water. In 26 poems, this is a lovely celebration of the small things that make each season special.
Muth has created haikus that are beautifully written. They capture small moments in time and also point to the larger importance of these moments. They continue Muth’s Buddhist focus in his picture books, offering children a way to see these times of mindfulness as important and worthy of exploration.
Muth’s watercolor illustrations have a wonderful spirit to them. The palette changes colors as the seasons change with spring bouncing in green especially after the white cold of winter. He captures the seasons so well that your attitude changes with each season as well.
A stellar collection of haiku, this book will invite young readers to see nature and seasons in a fresh new way. Appropriate for ages 5-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.
Plant a Pocket of Prairie by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Betsy Bowen
Prairies used to cover vast swaths of the United States, but are almost entirely gone now. In this nonfiction picture book, young readers are invited to create their own small prairies at home. Root offers ideas for what native prairie plants should be planted first and then ties each plant to a type of wildlife that will arrive along with the plants. Butterfly weed invites monarchs to your yard. Asters and rough blazing star bring even more butterflies. Toads, birds, mice, bumblebees, and more may appear in your little garden. And who knows, if lots of people plant a little prairie, eventually we may have prairies back across the nation.
Root has written this book in poetry that rhymes at times and others not. There are rhymes at the ends of lines, then internal rhymes within a line, and other times it is the rhythm and flow of the words themselves that create the structure. It has a strong organic feel to it, the names of the plants flowing into those of the animals they will bring to your yard. The book ends with information on all of the plants, animals and insects mentioned in the book as well as further information on the state of prairies in the United States and where you can go to see a prairie.
The illustrations by Bowen are light and free. They focus on the plants and animals, showing them clearly. Along the way, one bird moves from page to page, planting seeds that grow into the garden and building her own nest in the new habitat. There is a sense of the garden expanding and building as the book continues, yet that light feel continues throughout.
A song of the prairie, this book will inspire young gardeners to try native plants and is a great addition to curriculums in schools doing their own garden programs. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from digital galley received from University of Minnesota Press and NetGalley.
Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Told in rhyme, this book explores the many different ways that birds create nests for their eggs and babies. The jaunty rhyme is accompanied by informational text on each species and their habitats and nest building style. Bird species range from penguins to falcons to flamingos. There are also more unusual birds like weaverbirds as shown on the cover of the book.
Ward’s rhyme works well here, offering a playful feel to a book filled with scientific information. She has also selected a great mix of species with familiar birds mixed in with more exotic ones. Each has its own unusual way of creating a nest, making this a book where turning the page is part of the adventure.
As always, Jenkins’ cut paper art is spectacular. He manages to create so much life with textured paper and different colors. From the subtle colors of a cactus plant to the feathers on an owl’s wing, this art is lovely and makes this book very special.
Intelligently and beautifully presented, this nonfiction picture book will entice young readers to learn even more about birds. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane 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.