Books about kids tackling a problem and succeeding are always a hit at my house. In Bees in the City, Andrea Cheng tells the story of Lionel, a little boy living in a Paris apartment, who convinces his neighbors to help the city’s bees. He spends the summers tending bees with his Aunt in the countryside and she tells him that the bees have been dying. “What can we do,” he asks. He returns to his apartment building, which looks whimsically a bit like a beehive when an idea flies into his head. These fun phrases pepper Cheng’s storyline in a playful way. Then, their mission begins – to ask all the residents if they can keep bees on the roof. It isn’t easy, but they get the support of everyone there and soon bees are buzzing around the building’s window boxes, pollinating their flowers. Cheng celebrates the diversity of those living in a Paris apartment building by including neighbors from all over the world. And the bees celebrate too by creating “Around the World” honey made from everyone’s gardens. The airy watercolor illustrations are evocative of Paris and Sarah McMenemy’s use of bright bursts of color in her images is striking. The swirling paths of bees across the pages lend a sense of motion and excitement to the story. Finally, the “Honeybees and Urban Beekeeping” section at the end of the book has some great information on bees, bee keeping and bee gardening. Bees in the City is another of Tilbury House’s lovely books about nature. Others I’ve enjoyed include Before We Eat: From Farm to Table and My Busy Green Garden, which I recently reviewed and wrote about along with this book as part of an article about bees for the Horn Book’s Family Reading Blog.
Suggested Ages: Preschool listeners will enjoy the bright illustrations and a story about a familiar backyard animal. Elementary students will be attracted to the can-do attitude of Lionel who makes a difference in a big city. Those interested in learning more about bees will appreciate the inclusion of the section at the end.
I love reading My Busy Green Garden out loud. It reminds me a bit of “The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly” except this story centers on a butterfly. Sorry if I gave away the punch line. The story begins with a mystery – a “surprise in a clever disguise” waiting in “my busy green garden”. Each page brings another animal, which builds the rhyme – a ladybug, a honeybee, a hummingbird, etc. until we reach the end of the story where surprise “wriggles and writhes, then stretches and flies” away as a butterfly. It is a good game of memory for listeners who have to pay attention to each animal so that they can repeat the refrain with the new addition. Terry Pierce does a nice job of telling the story through repetition and rhyme without it feeling forced or sing-song. This is also true of her book Mama Loves You So, a lullaby book for newborns. This book’s illustrations are wonderful too. Readers can search for each animal as they turn the pags, some of which are well-hidden amidst Carol Schwartz’s exquisite illustrations. The illustrations are quite detailed, showing the patterns in the leaves and textures in a dragonfly wing. As in the other wonderful Tilbury House Nature Books like The Secret Pool and The Very Best Bed, the story is interwoven with natural history information in an elegant way. The section at the end of the book, “Your Busy Green Garden” includes additional facts about each of the animals in the garden.
Suggested Ages: This book is great for young pre-K children who will enjoy listening and repeating the text. Kindergarteners and early readers can practice reading skills as they read the same lines again and again. Older elementary students and parents will appreciate the scientific information at the end of the text.
This is such a fun idea – a book to take on the trail that helps keep kids motivated and teaches them about many of the things they might see in nature. In Storey Publishing’s Backpack Explorer: On the Nature Trail, you can earn patches when you see things like leaves, birds, or butterflies. Once you’ve found them on the trail, you then get to find the page in the book where you can put your sticker and learn more about those plants or animals. Each page has a “Take a Look” section that prompts readers to us the magnifying glass that comes with the book to look more closely at a detail about that type of plant or animal. In addition to following the visual scavenger hunt, readers can use their other senses like smell and hearing to notice other things as they go. There are activities to do along the way as well like moving like an animal, making music with an acorn cap, or making art with items found in nature. I like the addition of practical information like the pages for trail etiquette and safety as well as a packing list for your adventure. Finally, the make your own map at the end was a big hit with my girls. There are stickers for direction signs and things you see so that you can map your favorite trail and decorate it with detail. Much like other books by Storey Publishing , this book has a unique combination of information and activities and provides a nice guide for parents and kids to use to enhance their trail experiences. Owling, Farmer’s Market, and Mason Jar Science are a few of Storey Publishing’s books on other topics that are also worth checking out.
Suggested Ages: This is a great book for children ages 4 and up. Younger children can explore the book and activities with their parents, while upper elementary grade students can use this guide independently.
With national poetry month coming up in April, I have been excited to read poetry again and to think about the process of writing poetry. When I came across Jen Bryant’s book A River of Words about William Carlos Williams, it was a perfect fit for this exploration. I have always loved Wiliams’s poetry for its simplicity and for his courage to break the mold of patterned, rhyming poems. His story is fun to share with children who, while they love rhyme, are sometimes stymied by creating poems with rhythm and rhyme. A River of Words is another collaboration between Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet whose interplay between illustration and text is so tight that it is hard to believe they came from two separate people. Quotes from Williams’s writings are interspersed with the story and are often part of the illustrations. His poetry also adorns the inner and outer covers of the book for those eager to read more. Bryant hooks her young readers in by starting with Williams’s life as a boy and tracing his interest in nature and writing from a young age. She writes, “Like the water that sometimes ran slow, smooth, and steady, and other times came rushing in a hurried flood, Willie’s lines flowed across the page.” How lovely! Bryant also makes a point of how Willie writes in “a new way,” letting “each poem find its own special shape on the page.” That’s a great freeing example for children to follow in their writing. Like the interspersing of his words and the text of the story, the timelines in the end pages of the book draw parallels between the events of Williams’s life and his publications as well as world events. This is a wonderful reference for students studying biography and history. Bryant and Sweet’s notes at the end provide further insight into their process, which is helpful for students writing their own stories. The pair’s other books, A Splash of Red about artist Horace Pippin, and The Right Word about Roget’s Thesaurus are equally delightful and worth seeking out.
Suggested Ages: This book is well suited to children in the middle Elementary grades that are studying biography and history. They will appreciate the level of detail as well as the personal story of Williams and can draw additional information from the end pages for further research.
It just keeps snowing here in Maine, so I figured I might as well take some time to find out more about snow! Mark Cassino and Jon Nelson’s book, The Story of Snow, is a perfect introduction to the science of snow. They strike that delicate balance between being scientifically accurate, but not too detailed. While I knew the old adage about no two snowflakes being alike, I didn’t know the extent of the variety of flakes or even that each flake is made up of many crystals. From stars to plates to columns, the intricacy is astonishing. Cassino took the photographs and Jon Nelson is a crystal-studying Ph.D. physicist who provided the scientific expertise. Nora Aoyagi’s detailed drawings are full of sparkle and light. I used this book recently in a lesson I taught for my girls’ first grade class on patterns and it was the perfect primer to get them started in creating their own snowflakes both on paper and with their classmates. The simple primary phrase of each page leads the reader along from, “Snow begins with a speck,” to “6 is the magic number for snow crystals.” Beneath each of these lines is a simplified explanation. Then, next to the photographs and detailed drawings you can go learn even more. I always appreciate a book with an activity included, and the “How to Catch Your Own Snow Crystals” pages at the end are perfect. They take a common lesson and turn it into a true investigation.
Suggested Ages: This is a great book for grade school students. The younger readers will enjoy the primary text and older readers can learn more from the detailed blurbs. There is much to be explored further that is lightly introduced in this book and would satisfy older students.
The title of this story sounds like many of our afternoons. Even if it is just a small diversion on the walk home from the bus stop, my girls are always eager to get Out of School and Into Nature. And, while I feel like I’m familiar with many figures in the environmental world and particularly those involved, I had never heard of Anna Comstock, one of the first people to make the case for kids getting outside to learn. In yet another of her wonderful picture book biographies, Suzanne Slade tells the story of Anna Comstock in a way that is both simple enough for young readers but with enough detail to be compelling. She intersperses quotes from Anna with the storyline, making her voice come alive. Jessica Lanan’s naturalistic illustrations beautifully mirror the drawings that Anna did and show us the detail that she observed and captivated her – “caterpillars changing into graceful butterflies” and “water freezing into six-sided snowflakes”. Kids will love reading about how she shared her passion by encouraging schools to take students outside to learn. The “More About Anna” section tells her story in more detail and shows actual engravings she did of butterflies.
Suggested Ages: This is a great book for elementary students who will be engaged by the illustrations as well as her curiosity as a child. They will also be inspired by a story that has impacted the way schools have changed as a result of her efforts. Older students studying biography can delve in further with the end section.
In this ethereal picture book, Michelle Cuevas paints a portrait of a lonely figure whose job it is to deliver the messages found in bottles tossed into the sea. What child hasn’t thought about the magic of messages in a bottle? The Uncorker is dedicated to his task, but wishes that someday someone might send him a message. But he thinks that this is “about as likely as finding a mermaid’s toenail on the beach” – what a great phrase. Cuevas never gives “The Uncorker” a name, which is a clever way of making his loneliness even more poignant. Erin Stead’s illustrations are misty and magical and I love the circular format of several of them. It makes the reader feel as if he or she is peering into the top of a bottle. When The Uncorker finds himself with an undeliverable invitation to a party that then leads him to an unexpected gathering of friends, his heart is “like a glass vessel filled to the brim.” Even so, he assumes the invitation was not for him and continues on his quest to find its proper recipient. This is such a sweet story of a solitary but earnest soul who finds friendship. You can look forward to a new book by Cuevas set to come out this spring: The Town of Turtle, and also check out another of her picture books, Smoot: A Rebellious Shadow.
Suggested Ages: This is a lyrical storybook aimed at young children in early elementary grades. They will be captivated by the art, the fresh descriptions, and the emotionally driven story.
While many of the biographies I’ve been reading lately have been about people I hadn’t heard of, Louis Braille was already a familiar name. But, I had no idea that he didn’t start his life blind. This is just one of the many things I didn’t know about him that I learned Jen Bryant’s book Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille. She tells his story in a playful way using dialogue with many people important to young Louis. The story is also told in first person, which helps the reader to feel as he felt as a little boy. The play of the senses between the words and illustrations is clever.
Boris Kulikov’s illustrations alternate between dark and light as Louis loses his sight and then gains some kind of new understanding through his other senses, and then becomes frustrated again. One can imagine lights going on and off in Louis’s head. In the text, Bryant describes the sounds Louis hears as he learns to find his way around without sight. Bryant follows Louis’s determination to become “just like my papa” from the beginning when an accident with his father’s leatherworking tools leads to his blindness to the end when he uses a similar tool to punch braille and feels like he has finally achieved his desire. The inclusion of the braille alphabet and pronunciation guide at the beginning of the story helps to set the tone for the story. And, the author’s note at the end provides great context for his invention and also points out that Louis Braille was a rare child inventor, coming up with a solution to his frustration at such a young age. The lengthy Q&A section at the end is also packed full of interesting tidbits. And, if there isn’t enough there, the bibliography provides further references. Bryant’s other books A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, and The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus are also wonderful picture book biographies worth looking up.
Suggested Ages: This book is geared towards students in grades 1-4. But, the additional information at the end gives it plenty of meat for older readers interested in learning more.
As we approach Black History month, I have been reading many wonderful picture book biographies about African-Americans. I am particularly drawn to those about women, as I have two little girls who are always eager to hear stories of other triumphant girls. Vashti Harrison’s collection, Bold Women in Black History, celebrates 40 outstanding women and provides a snippet of their lives in a fun an accessible way. Her sweet, cartoon-like illustrations give a taste of each of these women’s character to accompany her lively descriptions. From those I was familiar with like Sojourner Truth and Ella Fitzgerald to those I didn’t know of like filmmaker Julie Dash, and tennis champion, Althea Gibson. The women are arranged chronologically from the mid 1700s through present. In addition, I enjoyed Harrison’s “More Little Leaders” section at the end of the text, which challenges readers to find connections between these additional women and the women featured in the main text. This is a wonderful introduction to these women and amazing to have them collected in such an accessible way.
Suggested Ages: This is a great book for upper elementary and middle school students studying biography. She does such a nice job encapsulating the shining points of each of these women’s lives, which sets a good example for students assigned to do the same in their coursework.
Having planted a butterfly garden myself with my girls (though sadly in a spot with not quite enough water for it to thrive), I was drawn to Butterfly Park with its inviting cover illustration. I also sympathized with a park for butterflies that had no butterflies. In Elly Mackay’s beautifully written and illustrated story, a little girl moves to a new town and is sad to lose both the friends and the butterflies that were in her old town. Through a series of both social and natural exploration, she discovers new friends in her neighborhood and also discovers where the butterflies have gone. Together, they make a new home for the butterflies and turn their grey town into a gorgeous, lively place full of butterflies. The story is a bright example of how inquiry leads to new knowledge and to a beautiful result. The culmination of the story with a foldout illustration revealing then newly planted Butterfly Park is magical. I wish I knew more about how Mackay did her collage-like illustrations. They have the elegant feel of a turn-of-the-Century paper doll set. Her other books, If You Hold a Seed and Fall Leaves, as well as her newest, Waltz of the Snowflakes, also published by Running Brook Press, are all beautifully written and illustrated as well.
Suggested Ages: Her books are designed for students ages 4-8 or grades preK-3. The story line is simple and she does a wonderful job of building up suspense. Her illustrations are both complex and naturalistic and will captivate any reader including adults.