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Oct/Nov 2011 Reviews & Interviews

Coffee Table Books that Transcend Age

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! I am continually amazed by the high quality nonfiction titles that are released every year for children. It's easy to dismiss these books as science or history "light," and in a lot of bookstores you would be hard pressed to find any of them on the shelves, but more and more often I find myself marveling at how much I learn while reading these titles, and more importantly, how much I enjoy the learning process. I've taken to leaving these books out on the coffee table when adults are visiting so I can see how long it takes them to flip through the pages. Drawn both by the subject matter (everything from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to Komodo Dragons) and the glossy design with full color pictures, it doesn't take much to get anyone to pick them up. Once they open the cover, I know that I have them, and a conversation on books for kids versus adults quickly ensues. They are always impressed by these titles and always filled with wonder by all the things they missed by not having such books when they were kids.

Which brings me to three more fascinating nonfiction titles I recently enjoyed.

In Mysteries of the Komodo Dragon, Marty Crump manages to place readers not only up front and personal with these animals, but she also provides a wide array of historical information about their discovery and study. Young readers will likely find her inclusion of 15-year old Kurt Auffenberg's story as particularly compelling, as they will likely identify with him and also, not surprisingly, wish they could involve themselves in an up close and personal research project at such a young age. (Frankly, I felt the same way.) Crump accomplishes with Mysteries exactly what Kathryn Lasky and Christopher Knight do with their title Silk &Venom: Searching for a Dangerous Spider: she takes a relatively unknown and exceedingly dangerous creature and makes it something familiar. While most of us will never see a Komodo Dragon (let alone the Loxoceles taino of Lasky's title), readers will nonetheless fall under the spell from the many photos and easy-to-understand text. This is how you find success for the general reader with science (and clearly from the evidence of these two books, publisher Boyds Mill Press knows what they are doing).

Crump and Lasky can not resist the attraction of the creatures they are writing about, and obviously it is reptiles and spiders that are the initial appeal for both books. (We want to look away perhaps, but we can't.) But it is the scientists and the work they do that keep readers in the text. When you see Greta Binford, biologist and arachnologist (!), crawling around in the dark corners of a Dominican Republic marketplace on the hunt for her spiders, the image of staid desk-riding scientist stuck peering over a microscope (although Binford does plenty of that, too) is completely blown. While comparisons to Indiana Jones would be a stretch, the same sort of emphasis on field activity can not be denied. Crump and Lasky want to make sure young readers see that science means getting outside, finding things, watching things, studying animals where they live and how they live, and not just hanging out in the quiet of a library or laboratory. I would say they make science sexy if I wasn't afraid that could be taken the wrong way. That is what they do, though, and they do it brilliantly.

Kenneth Mallory took the extra step of going to an extreme environment for his look at scientists at work in Adventure Beneath the Sea: Living in an Underwater Science Station. Along with photographer Brian Skerry, he spent a week 60 feet below the surface in Aquarius, an underwater laboratory off the coast of the Florida Keys. In Aquarius visiting scientists are able to study the residents of Conch Reef and also tag fish so they can track their movements and learn from them how to design marine protected areas. But because of the unique location, Adventure is as much about what Mallory and Skerry have to do before they join Aquarius, and what life is like living on it, as it is about the research. What I found most interesting was how scientists actually go about tracking fish (they have to be caught, tagged, and released without incurring any harm) and Mallory does a great job (like Crump and Lasky) of asking all the questions any young reader would want answered. Mostly, though, he marvels at where he is while Skerry photographs it all so we can very nearly place ourselves in the same environment (like in a diving bell near the base).

Not to get all Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea here (although I really really want to), but Aquarius is very cool, and while studying Komodo Dragons and deadly spiders is undeniably interesting, Mallory does interesting stuff underwater! Pretty hard to beat that one—not that we are doing a science book smackdown or anything. The main thing each of these titles reinforces is the broad appeal of children's and teen nonfiction. I am asked all the time to recommend books for young readers, and nearly every single time I bring up nonfiction, the response is that adults don't know if the kids will enjoy it. Trust me, when I'm talking about books like Mysteries of the Komodo Dragon, Silk & Venom, and Adventure Beneath the Sea, I know you are talking success. (Even for those who might be spider-squeamish.) For reluctant readers or teens reading below their age level especially, these titles are pure gold and should not be missed.

Not everything is about the latest novel after all. Sometimes the real world is plenty exciting enough.

 

Adventure Beneath the Sea
By Kenneth Mallory
Photographs by Brian Skerry
Boyds Mill Press 2010
ISBN 1-59078-607-9

Mysteries of the Komodo Dragon
By Marty Crump
Boyds Mill Press 2010
ISBN 1-59078-757-1

Silk & Venom
By Kathryn Lasky
Photographs by Christopher Knight
Candlewick 2011
0-7636-4222-8

 

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