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Jul/Aug 2008 Reviews & Interviews

Nonfiction for Young, Curious Minds

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! I am a very big fan of Barbara Kerley and consider her Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins (illustrated by Brian Selznick) one of the better picture book biographies ever. Her new book What To Do About Alice? is one that little girls in particular need to embrace, as it salutes a truly exceptional American woman: Alice Roosevelt.

As Kerley explains, Roosevelt was the endlessly curious and always fearless daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. Way way way ahead of her time (you could argue she was ahead of modern times), Alice was homeschooled and largely self-taught in a way that closely emulated the intellectual achievements of her father. To get a good idea of just what type of person she was, consider Kerley's own description:

From the time she was a little girl, Alice ate up the world.

I can not imagine a better way to live life, or a more relatable character to introduce to young readers. On each page Alice just becomes more delightful, as she is let loose in her father's library, delights her younger siblings and travels the world. (Oh, and the bit about her pet snake, Emily Spinach, is not to be missed either.) With Edwin Fotheringham's colorful, bombastic illustrations providing a slightly vintage feel that suits Alice's era perfectly, Kerley has created a marvelous addition to any library or book collection. This is one of those books that celebrates individualism and personal bravery on every page and will prompt adult readers to immediately pass it on. The world needs more Alice Roosevelts; in every significant way, she was as much of a national treasure as her father. Highly highly highly recommended.

Author Jennifer Berne focuses on the filmmaking aspect of Jacques Cousteau's career in her gorgeously rendered biography of the oceanographer, Manfish. This beautiful, almost romantically illustrated book (kudos to illustrator Eric Puybaret who somehow manages to make the pictures look French, if that makes any sense—I think it is because they are so elegant) is a wonderful way to learn about Cousteau's childhood and how his early interest in the sea translated into a world-changing career. Consider this all too common observation from Berne, and then realize how Cousteau's pursuit of answers to it is so unique:

From the very beginning little Jacques loved water—the way it felt on his hands, his face, his body. And water made him wonder. He wondered why ships floated. Why he floated. And why rocks sank.

This is not so unusual for any child and yet Cousteau's early curiosity was clearly supported by those who loved him. Childhood questions became adolescent hobbies and then, when he adapted a camera to go underwater, an adult calling that he never abandoned. Berne shows how Cousteau's pictures and films changed the way everyone saw the sea and the creatures who lived there. She concludes with an overview of his dedication to environmentalism and commitment to saving the oceans. Young readers are then invited to explore the seas themselves in a delightful spread showing children of all colors going down to the ocean and following in Cousteau's footsteps. The author has a note on the final page with information on some of Cousteau's movies and books and how to become a "Cousteau Kid".

Manfish is a very appealing package and while it is clearly perfect for children already in love with the sea, the introduction of Cousteau from a young age will make his adult adventures that much more appealing. This is very nicely done and an excellent biography for younger ones.

In his very interesting chronicle of building a house, folk artist Maxwell Newhouse takes young readers where they are rarely invited. The House That Max Built is a step by step look at the construction of Newhouse's new home. Rather than gloss over the specifics though, the author/illustrator starts at the very beginning, with site selection and architectural plans, before commencing with the arrival of heavy equipment and construction workers. Even then, he explains why certain things are being done. "I want a view of the lake," he states, to explain why the site is cleared in a certain way, and he continues, "I will need a basement," to explain the laying of the cement foundation. Newhouse uses correct building terms throughout: the house is "framed", the porch "erected", the bricklayers "spread the mortar". And on each page with his clear and colorful illustrations he shows not only the action described in the text, but the slow evolution of his home.

The House That Max Built is one of the most refreshing picture books I've read in ages. The story is inviting and easy to follow (the text is only a sentence or two on each page) but it is informative and relevant and does not talk down at all to its young audience. Kids will learn about building houses from this book (my son wanted to know about insulation and drywall after our reading) but they won't feel overwhelmed. This book is a classic sleeper—it's not as flashy as many picture books, but it is significant and should not be overlooked. An absolute must-read for block builders and construction mavens; The House That Max Built is one of my favorite picture book reads this year.

Scholastic is now reissuing the delightful "Adventures of Riley" series, starting with Safari in South Africa. Amanda Lumry and Laura Hurwitz have done a fantastic job with this series, combining reader-friendly stories about young Riley and his adventures around the world with his Uncle Max, a "famous conservation biologist," Aunt Martha and cousin, Alice. Each book opens with Riley receiving an invitation to join his uncle's expedition somewhere as he works to save animals and their habitats. Riley quickly travels to his destination and begins learning, both via conversation with the other characters and attractively positioned "sidebars" from real experts. In South Africa, the story is about tracking and counting baby animals so they can give the wild animal population a "checkup". Riley's family ends up going on a photo safari with local experts and running into nyalas, cheetahs, and African wild dogs, among many other creatures.

One of the really fabulous things about the Riley series is the unique combination between illustrator Sarah McIntyre's art and actual photographs of wild animals. They blend together in seamless collages that fill the pages from corner to corner and seem startling at first, but then very pleasing to the eye. I love how they do this with these books and it certainly is a winner with young readers I've exposed the titles to.

Safari in South Africa includes a wealth of information about all sorts of animals (such as the difference between black and white rhinos, why hippos spend most of the day in water and what the leopard has in common with monkeys) distilled through an engaging adventure story about a fun kid and his very cool family. In the end Riley always heads home to suburbia where he shares what he has learned (by tracking house pets, for example) and looks forward to Uncle Max's next letter. It's a great premise, wonderfully executed and perfect for its target audience. Wildlife books for the young just don't get much better than this one.

Karen Patkau has done a nice job of bringing fossils to life with her innovative title, Creatures Yesterday and Today. On one full-page spread she offers a brief four-line poem about an ancient animal, such as Diplodocus, and then follows with a modern animal, the Skylark, who might very well be "a living dinosaur." Patkau also includes mollusks, reptiles, fish and many others in Creatures with informative and scientifically correct text simply addressing each one. Here is an example for Phorusrhacos:

I was called Terror Bird! An awesome,
flightless bird of prey, I would charge over
vast plains. Could you guess my immense
bones were hollow and lightweight?

Patkau follows the Terror Bird with the Bird of Paradise, both drawn in glorious full color and posing opposite in a perfect example of evolution.

Creatures Yesterday and Today is a nice title for dinosaur enthusiasts; it will be familiar enough to engage early readers right away but will also introduce a lot of new information that dino-fans might not have learned yet, making it an excellent bridge book for moving into animal titles and even Charles Darwin. Nicely done.

There are two excellent new bird books out for young readers that really dazzle in quite different ways. Sparrows by Hans Post and Kees Heij is a very elegant, beautifully written and illustrated (by Irene Goede) look at the lives of the much-ignored suburban bird. This is a friendly but very informative title that includes all aspects of the sparrow's life, from nesting to avoiding enemies to foraging for food. Post and Heij take readers through the seasons along with their subject and show the many ways in which sparrows have adjusted to their environment and found ways to thrive in all sorts of circumstance. Goede's pictures are similar to field guide drawings but also playful and really quite lovely. This book is an understated stunner that is a nice bridge to guidebooks for budding naturalists.

In contrast, Hudson Talbott's boisterous United Tweets of America is a boldly hysterical look at our country's fifty state birds. Talbott has such a good time with this book—his sense of humor is evident on every page—that readers will be swept along with the infectious manner of each delightful entry. From Hawaii's Nene, pictured surfing and yelling, "Aloooohaaaa!" to the partying Brown Pelican in Louisiana and ball playing Baltimore Oriole, Talbott manages to incorporate specific information about each state while saluting its bird. The Massachusetts Black-Capped Chickadees are shown enjoying a Pilgrimesque dinner and the Mississippi Mockingbird, known as the "King of Song" looks awful lot like Memphis's most famous resident. But along with the silliness are depictions of state trees, mammals and insects and intriguing bits of information, such as the history of Missouri's "Show Me" slogan and the reason why Nevada salutes a seabird as a hero.

The illustrations in Tweets are ingenious and closely tied to the theme for each entry. Talbott has just done a lot of good things with this picture book and quite artfully combined dry facts with a lot of laughs. I had no idea so many states admired the Northern Cardinal (is it so hard to be unique when choosing state birds?); thanks to Talbott I'll appreciate Alaska's creativity (the Ptarmigan!) that much more.

Finally, Mary Lankford has written a fascinating historical title, Mazes Around the World. The author aims high with this one, introducing Herodotus on the first page as she writes of the Egyptian Labyrinth. From there she recounts the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, the religious labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral and explains the difference between the words "maze" and "labyrinth". With Karen Dugan's illustrations providing full color depictions of the text, the author describes Swedish stone mazes, British turf mazes and North American maize (otherwise known as corn) mazes. She discusses Pima legends, quotes Shakespeare and name-drops Anne Boleyn. In a relatively short number of pages, Lankford manages to take readers on a dizzying trip around the world and across history as she skims across the surface of a truly fascinating subject. This is an excellent title for puzzle lovers and curious minds looking for more of history's secrets. It's a jumping-off point for literally dozens of different places, people and periods. Mazes Around the World is a real nonfiction discovery and one that homeschoolers in particular will adore.

 

What To Do About Alice?
By Barbara Kerley
Illus by Edwin Fotheringham
Scholastic 2008
ISBN 0-439-92231-3

Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau
By Jennifer Berne
Illus by Eric Puybaret
Chronicle 2008
ISBN 0-8118-6063-5

The House That Max Built
By Maxwell Newhouse
Tundra Books 2008
ISBN 0-88776-774-6

Adventures of Riley: Safari in South Africa
By Amanda Lumry and Laura Hurwitz
Illustrated by Sarah McIntyre
Scholastic 2008
ISBN 0-545-06827-4

Creatures: Yesterday and Today
By Karen Patkau
Tundra Books 2008
ISBN 0-88776-833-0

Sparrows
By Hans Post & Kees Heij
Illustrated by Irene Goede
Lemniscaat 2008
1-59078-570-6

United Tweets of America
By Hudson Talbott
Putnam 2008
ISBN 978-0-399-24520-6

Mazes Around the World
By Mary Lankford
Illustrated by Karen Dugan
ISBN 0-688-16519-2

 

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