Apr/May 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Great Outdoors for Younger Readers

Review by Colleen Mondor

Jason Chin has written a very straightforward nature title about trees and then given it the most amazing fantasy twist in Redwoods. From the opening pages, where a young boy discovers a book on a bench at a train station, Chin has crafted a nature title that manages to be solidly factual while also absolutely magical. As the little boy travels and then leaves the station, all the while reading the book, he finds himself transported to the area he is reading about. He reads about fire in the forest and finds himself racing away from flames; he takes refuge in a tree trunk as "even if a fire penetrates a redwood's bark, the tree can still live." He uses a bow and arrow to pull himself up the tree, just as researchers do, and enters the world of the canopy, where there is animal and insect life that never sees the forest floor. In the end he returns to the city, leaves the book on a bench and it is quickly found by a little girl who begins her own magical journey into the forest.

It is hard to believe how much information Chin packs into Redwoods or how effective his fantasy twist remains throughout the text. This is a very good nature title and a source for information that should find a lot of classroom use. But its readability soars to new heights through the twist of "falling into a book." Ultimately you have a fun book about trees which is quite a nice surprise.

James Prosek has won much deserved acclaim for his adult titles on fishing, among them Trout: An Illustrated History and A Connecticut Yankee Follows in the Footsteps of Walton. His latest picture book, Bird, Butterfly, Eel is an outstanding nature title that looks at the wide story of migration through three different creatures with very different needs. As expected from Prosek, the paintings are stunning, but it is the three-part story, and how well it fits with those illustrations, that will capture readers' attention.

In the opening pages Prosek introduces the Monarch butterfly who lives in the meadow, the eel who lives in the pond and the bird who lives in the barn. Their daily life is portrayed on succeeding pages; all include richly painted illustrations which cover each corner. As the weather changes "with the cool winds of autumn," the animals and insect leave the farm to migrate. Prosek provides a two-page spread with a map to show just how far they travel with the bird, traveling eight thousand miles, the true winner. In divided pages he shows them at their destinations and then documents their returns, or the returns of their progeny, to the same farm. In the final pages the reader also has a glimpse of the artist's table as he awaits their return during the winter months. The last two-page spread has a wealth of facts about the three specific creatures and a small note from Prosek on the importance of protecting migration routes.

Bird, Butterfly, Eel is a gorgeous book telling a fairly simple story in a majestic way. Prosek makes migration a sumptuous, miraculous thing with his paintings but also keeps it very personal with the introduction of three creatures. The inclusion of his own desk (and cat) further brings the book home as readers can see how closely the bird, butterfly and eel were observed by the author. This is a simple, direct nature story that is grandly told; I look forward to seeing what Prosek does next for young readers (perhaps an early field journal?).

When I was young I often pored over an encyclopedia of dog breeds which my parents collected at a book sale somewhere and although the pictures were small and the descriptions dry, it still filled my dog-loving heart with joy. Jeff Crosby and Shelly Ann Jackson clearly know what I was longing for back then as Little Lions, Bull Baiters & Hunting Hounds provides the perfect balance of history and charm about dozens of dog breeds (many quite unique). The illustrations are generally action-oriented as when they depict a Saint Bernard saving someone lost in the snow, Dachshunds cornering a badger underground and Samoyeds herding reindeer. The authors do not shy away from some of the animals' less savory pasts, as English bulldogs, originally bred "for a violent sport called bullbaiting" and Boxers, who fought in rings for the enjoyment of a crowd, are both described and visually depicted.

Little Lions is organized around types of dogs: hunting, herding, working and companion breeds. Readers will likely know Labrador Retrievers, Poodles and Dalmatians right away but breeds such as Vizlas, Neapolitan Mastiffs and Komondors will likely be new. Small boxed maps show where the dogs are historically from and there are interesting or funny notes in addition to each breed's history. This is one of those reference titles that reads as a series of short stories and both entertains and informs. Consider it a staple for most home libraries.

Jane Yolen has a new collection of nature poems out in A Mirror to Nature. The twist here is the subject, animals in reflection, matched by Jason Stemple's illustrations of the same. The poem "Swimming with Raccoons" appears opposite a photo of a raccoon in the water while a group of gorgeous blue wood storks are on a spread with "How the Wood Stork Population Might Grow." The rhymes are compelling and alternately sweet or alarming: "Oh dear, oh deer, don't stand—reflecting. Run on your swift feet." (This one ends with the reminder that standing deer can end up, sadly, as "meat"). While the poems would certainly stand on their own (we are talking about Jane Yolen after all), coupling them with the photos makes this book really engaging. Children will enjoy matching the descriptive words to their subject and also considering how Yolen plays with the idea of reflection in so many of these poems: "The only way the snail/Can multiply its pace/Is when its numbers double/Upon a water race." Each page also has a short factual note about the featured creature, sharing such information as cockles are not clams (although they certainly look like them) and a running coyote can reach up to forty-three miles per hour. A Mirror to Nature is poetic elegance from start to finish; a perfect blend of subject, words and pictures.

Jane Hammerslough creates a fictional narrative to frame a reference title on the animals of Indonesia with The Search for Vile Things. Introducing herself on the opening pages as "Ephemera Churlyshe" the clearly globe-trotting adventurer of Churlyshe Hall, the author then shares her 19th century field guide/diary of a trip taken with her niece and two nephews to the East Indies in search of some truly disturbing and vile wildlife. What follows is the best sort of British family humor (the Durrells, if all of them were like Gerald and they lived in a far more dangerous locale than Greece) combined with information on dozens of animals and other creatures (as well as plant life) found in the region. With the book's sepia toned pages and collaged design, coupled with Marilyn Scott-Waters' illustrations of man, beast, skeletons, plants and everything else you might find in a 19th century explorer's book, this is more like peeking into Allan Quartermain's personal papers then any encyclopedia I've ever seen. There are also cartoons drawn by the children and the occasional side-splitting poem chronicling the family's increasingly dire (but oh so cool) encounters with the locals (both human and otherwise). You will learn a lot here—the details are all 100% true—and you will have a very fun time doing it. Hammerslough has subtitled this "Volume One"; I for one can't wait to see where the Churlyshe clan heads to next.

Finally, Bob Graham's much acclaimed How to Heal a Broken Wing is not a nonfiction title but it does present a very poignant look at something all too common in the lives of many children: the compulsion to save a wounded animal. Many of us have been there with turtles (check), birds (check), snakes (check) and far too many runaway dogs (check). In Graham's gentle story, accompanied by his lightly washed illustrations, a bird is found in the midst of a busy city sidewalk by a boy and his mother. No one else notices the bird, or cares enough to stop and save it. Will however "...saw a bird with a broken wing" and he and his mother take it home, nurse it back to health and against all odds are able to return it to life in the wild. The compassion of Will and his parents makes all the difference; it changes the world for that little bird and in no small way, changes their own world as well. It's a simple story but one that needs to be told, and retold, so we can remember it. Notice what is around you, Graham is saying, notice it and then do something. If we all saved one bird, one turtle, one little lizard, think of how much we would accomplish. Think of how much more we could do once we got started.


By Jason Chin
Roaring Brook 2009
ISBN 1-59643-430-9

Bird, Butterfly, Eel
By James Prosek
Simon & Schuster 2009
ISBN 0-689-86829-4

Little Lions, Bull Baiters & Hunting Hounds: A History of Dog Breeds
By Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson
Tundra Books 2008
ISBN 0-88776-815-6

A Mirror to Nature: Poems About Reflection
By Jane Yolen
Photographs by Jason Stemple
Wordsong 2009
ISBN 1-59078-624-6

The Search for Vile Things Vol. 1
By Jane Hammerslough
Illus by Marilyn Scott-Waters
Scholastic 2008
ISBN 0-439-90888-4

How to Heal a Broken Wing
By Bob Graham
Walker Books 2008
ISBN 1-4063-0716-0


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