Oct/Nov 2009 Reviews & Interviews

Nature Titles for Middle Graders (and Maybe Younger)

Review by Colleen Mondor

Buy now from Amazon! Alex Beard takes the perennial slumber party classic "telephone" and transports it to an African Waterhole for the very funny (and slightly subversive) The Jungle Grapevine. (Alas, there is no jungle in the book.) With gorgeous pastels filling the pages, Beard shows what happens when you don't really listen to what someone is saying. Bird misunderstands Turtle and then spreads an alarmist message to Elephant where it escalates to Snake, gets flipped around and spreads to Crocodile who really freaks out (this is an awesome double spread picture), and a flock of flamingos goes crazy, Gazelle wigs out, Lion gets disappointed, Hippo gets bored and the voice of wisdom grumbles "Don't believe everything you hear." Then Bird misunderstands Turtle yet again and well, you know where the story is headed after that.

What you have hear is a subtle message book (always listen carefully and don't spread rumors) that is so funny and over the top that readers won't mind learning the lesson. The art is fantastic (no surprise as that is Beard's forte) and the border additions expand the story to creatures not included in the main narrative (monkeys, fish, lizards, etc.) It's a perfect read-aloud bedtime book but will likely engage animal lovers far more often than that and because of its humor has staying power beyond the early ages. I also think artistic children would embrace this one on the draw of accessible artwork. Beard has a deft touch when it comes to his animal characters yet he imbues each of them with a clear personality which future illustrators will find quite instructive. Mostly though I just thought it was funny as all get out and a great way to depict the social nature of the watering hole.

When it comes to interesting animals the armadillo has to be pretty high up on the list. While it certainly is not as majestic or dangerous or famous as many other nature special stars it has a lot of qualities that make it stand out, once you take the time to notice them. Stephen Swinburne's close look at the life of this animal, Armadillo Trail: The Northward Journey of the Armadillo allows readers to follow a little armadillo pup (one of four identical quadruplets which we learn is the standard birth) from its arrival to foraging out on her own and ultimately finding her own mate. What's really fascinating is how far armadillos roam, in this case from Texas, through Oklahoma and into Kansas. The journey involves crossing roads, fields and ponds. (Armadillos can apparently hold their breath for six minutes and walk underwater.) This odd little creature, hero of no stories or poems, walks miles further than we could imagine, faces death on numerous occasions and makes a home in the simplest of environments. By the book's end readers will have found it quite endearing and certainly have gained a newfound respect for the armadillo.

The Armadillo Trail is an obvious choice for young animal lovers even if they have not expressed an interest specifically in this animal. Illustrator Bruce Hiscock's big realistic pictures fill the pages with color and easily draw the reader into the armadillo's adventurous life. If you're lucky, this is a book that will lead to a larger fascination with armadillos—having seen them in a local zoo I can attest to just how cool they truly are.

I've been following Amanda Lumry and Laura Hurwitz's Adventures of Riley series for some time now and continue to be charmed with each new entry. In Outback Odyssey the family is off to Australia to learn more about the shrinking koala population. From the jumping off point it becomes clear that the Riley stories are becoming more environmentally aware and also the tension has increased—in the past while the books were certainly informative and fun, in Outback Odyssey there is a underlying current that this environmental business is serious stuff. There is discussion of soil erosion and over grazing, development of wind powered energy and smart planting of trees that will protect rivers. For all the extra environmental information however, there are still exciting moments such as learning to be a "jackaroo", saving a poddy lamb and visiting Uluru. As usual a lot of new animals are introduced with the effective inclusion of "information boxes" from real experts in the field. The blending of illustrations and photographs continues as well and is part of what makes this series so unique and memorable.

With Riddle of the Reef the authors continue on the formula but this time focus on the Great Barrier Reef itself. (Interesting that we have two Aussie settings in a row here, but I'm not complaining.) Riley learns about coral bleaching, the impact of the crown-of-thorns starfish and why triton poachers must be stopped. There are a few moments with a Great White Shark but wisely, the drama is kept to a minimum—sharks are just one more animal in the ever popular cycle of life. The really interesting addition here is the artist and activist Wyland who is the key member of the party at the reef and joins in on the adventure from start to finish. As noted on the "Further Information" page, Wyland has a worldwide reputation, not only for his marine life murals and sculptures but also his longtime conservation work for the world's oceans. In the end Riley learns a valuable lesson about the importance of water and fragility of reefs, even one as big as the Great Barrier.

I have to say that Outback Odyssey and Riddle of the Reef continue to prove the endless effectiveness of the Adventures of Riley formula. Readers like this kid, and his family (which includes cousin Alice, always a fearless and very smart cohort in Riley's fun) and they like seeing where he goes and what he learns. As an adult I appreciate the multi cultural makeup of the group and the introduction of so many different scientists as experts—I'm sure nature-minded kids will find the possibilities of who they could be when they grow up to be quite exciting. The Riley books are just a perfect package—fun, thrilling, informative and in these titles in particular, increasingly environmentally aware. Homeschoolers simply must seek them out and I think they are an excellent choice for reluctant readers in particular.

Teaching evolution is always fraught with worrisome questions, not the least of which is the eternal issue of the chicken and the egg. Author/illustrator Sandro Natalini takes this one head-on with the interesting What Came First. It's hard to pigeonhole this title for a specific age group and I can't help but think that it is more subject specific than grade. If you have someone in your life intrigued by evolution then Natalini's title will work, whether they are six or sixteen. While older kids will already know the answers here (or suspect they do) the artwork and unique presentation will engage them while the younger set will simply want an answer to that chicken question. Fortunately, on that score, the author does not disappoint.

Chickens are introduced to the reader in the very beginning and they take up the "once upon a time" story that starts with the Big Bang and moves into primordial soup and a series of geologic period descriptions. Natalini discusses Pangaea, Sir Richard Owen's coining of the term Dinosauria, the extinction of the dodo and Charles Darwin, of course. For a short picture book there is a ton of information presented and the artwork—the spectacular, gorgeous, colorful, collage-type artwork, can not be ignored. I didn't find a straightforward narrative with What Came First however but more a friendly exposition on all things evolution. Every page drops another part of the evolution story into the mix and every picture gives you examples, big and small, of creatures that have evolved. I'm not sure that What Came First will explain everything, but it is so beautifully designed and rather cheeky in the telling (jokes abound) that it won serious points from me. This is lyrical science—truth and beauty and fun—that makes a good addition to the more academic approaches to the topic. Nicely done.

In the wake of his wildly popular Animal Planet television program, wildlife explorer Jeff Corwin is now writing a fiction series for elementary school readers starring the Baxter siblings, Lucy and Benjamin. In the first book, Your Background is Wild, they visit New York City with their parents and spend some quality time in the backyard of a relative's home. Although initially the kids looked forward to seeing the more traditional sites (and did indeed enjoy a tourist destination or two), circumstance leaves them housebound. Although it seems that there would be little wildlife to enjoy in a Brooklyn neighborhood, a careful evening of observation proves that nature is everywhere if you look out for it and soon the Florida Everglades natives realize that the wild can come to you in the most unexpected places.

I'm not surprised to see Corwin doing a good job here—his television shows have been all about connecting with young viewers and he proves just as adept in print as he was on film. Lucy and Benjamin are classic nature buffs, curious, confident and more than willing to make a mistake or two in the process of discovery. Their New York cousin Gabe is proud of his city's natural life, and happy to point it out—and also learn what he's been missing. The three play off each other well, the parents are patient and wise and all in all the book celebrates kids figuring things out on their own and noticing life around them—a looking and listening approach that is key to all nature studies.

With accompanying black and white illustrations, Your Background is Wild is a solid read for the seven and over set and I look forward to more titles. One caveat though—thus far there is nothing multicultural about the Baxter's world. Hopefully that will be rectified in the future books and the Junior Explorer Series will truly reflect all of Corwin's many fans.


The Jungle Grapevine
By Alex Beard
Abrams 2009
ISBN 0-8109-8001-3

The Armadillo Trail
By Stephen Swinburne
Illustrated by Bruce Hiscock
Boyds Mill 2009
ISBN 1-59078-463-1

Adventures of Riley: Outback Odyssey
By Amanda Lumry and Laura Hurwitz
Scholastic Press 2009
ISBN 0-545-06845-2

Adventures of Riley: Riddle of the Reef
By Amanda Lumry and Laura Hurwitz
Scholastic Press 2009
ISBN 0-545-6847-9

What Came First
By Sandro Nattalini
Tundra Books 2009
ISBN 0-88776-910-8

Your Background is Wild: Junior Explorer Series #1
By Jeff Corwin
Puffin Books 2009
ISBN 0-14-241404-0
96 pages


Previous Piece Next Piece