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.
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.
Sweep Up the Sun by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder (InfoSoup)
The pair who created Step Gently Out return with another gorgeous book connecting young readers to nature. This picture book focuses on birds and flight, using the metaphor to encourage young people to “fly” themselves and spread their own wings in life. The poem at the heart of the book is simple and lovely, creating a sense of wonder and opportunity. The photographs dynamically capture eleven species of birds in flight and in their natural habitats. There are wide-mouthed babies in the nest and incredible pictures of birds in full flight, like the one on the cover. This is a book that inspires both in words and images.
Frost is a gifted poet who has written novels in verse for older readers as well as picture books for younger readers. Her words here create a positive feeling of strength for the reader, showing them what is possible. At the same time, her poem is also beautifully written, creating imagery that is tangible and that will make sense for children. One of my favorites is that wings are “stitching earth to sky with invisible thread.”
Lieder’s photographs are simply stunning. He has captured birds in poses that are dramatic and amazing, leaving plenty of dappled light and green on the page for the poetry to shine next to his images. I found myself leaning into the book to look even more closely at the structure of wing and feather on the page.
I hope there will be more collaboration between these two since their first two books are so noteworthy. This vibrant picture book will be at home equally in units on birds and poetry. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Sand Swimmers: The Secret Life of Australia’s Desert Wilderness by Narelle Oliver
Set in the ferocious center of Australia, this book looks at one of the harshest climates in the world and the animals that not only survive there but thrive there. The “Dead Heart” of Australia can appear completely uninhabited at first, but this book has us look closer and see what the Aboriginal people have known for thousands of years. The huge salt lake has lizards, shrimp and frogs if you know where to look. The mulga scrublands have tangled timber but that is also shelter for spiders, ants, geckos, and birds. Down deep under the earth, there are even more animals sheltering. Even the oceans of rock and sand have animals living there. Explore an amazing ecosystem along with early explorers of Australia who failed to see the creatures hiding around them.
Oliver takes readers on an amazing journey through various regions of the center of Australia. Even the rocks and sand and plants themselves are wild and different from other parts of the world. Everything seems to combine to make the most uninhabitable ecosystem in the world, but that’s not true if you look deeper. Oliver takes readers deeper into the desert and readers will discover the beauty and life hidden in this desolate landscape.
Oliver’s illustrations combine line drawings of the creatures with smudged drawings of the early explorers. The combination of the crisp line drawings with the more smudged ones is very successful, giving readers a taste of both the animals themselves and the history.
A brilliant look at a fascinating habitat, this book goes far beyond the stereotypical kangaroos and koala bears of Australia. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Here in the Garden by Briony Stewart
Released March 1, 2015.
This import from Australia tells the seasonal story of a boy and his garden. A boy spends time in his backyard, but is missing someone. The wind blows, he plants seedlings in the garden, and dreams of his special someone joining his side. When the rain comes, he watches from the back steps, still missing the one who would love to see the garden turn so green. Summer comes with its sunshine and heat and the boy continues to feel his loss but begins to realize that he can still be in touch with the one he misses by being out in nature and enjoying the same things they used to do together.
Stewart beautifully allows the book to speak to anyone who has experienced loss. In the end though, this book is clearly about the loss of a pet rabbit, the same one who is pictured at the boy’s side throughout the story. That reveal is done tenderly and gently, clearly tying the boy to nature and to his memories of all the times they had together. It’s beautifully and caringly presented.
Stewart’s art is washed in watercolors, colors that sweep and blow across the page, evoking the movement of air and the freshness of outdoors. Though the book is filled with loneliness, the art remains resolutely lovely and cheery. Even the one in the dark of night is filled with a light that illuminates.
A quiet story of grief, loss and the healing power of nature, this is a lovely little foreign title. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Kane Miller.