Stephanie Roth Sisson takes a well-known figure and deftly turns her back into a child in her new picture book biography of Rachel Carson. Spring After Spring starts at dawn with a young Rachel lying in bed listening to the sounds of the birds. It follows her explorations in nature through the seasons as she listens and looks at the world around her. Sisson playfully gives the animals in the story speech bubbles, allowing the readers to live inside of Rachel’s head as they hear the same sounds. She takes Rachel’s passion indoors in the winter and draws her cozied up like the animals reading books in order to learn more about them. These are the seeds of her writing, which launches the second part of the story. As Rachel grows up, the complexity of the story and the text grow with her. She looks beyond her small observations to see what is going on in the world around her and begins to think about what she can do about it. And then she succeeds in making a change that matters not only to her, but also to the natural world and all of the other people living in it. This is a lovely tale to share with children who can feel empowered by the path that Rachel Carson took from learning and caring about something to helping to protect it and change it for the future. With no other prodding aside from reading this book, my two seven-year-old girls set off to make posters about plastic pollution and were determined to organize a town cleanup. I was already a Rachel Carson fan, so I certainly sought out this book, but now I am eager to look up Sisson’s other books. There’s one about Carl Sagan’s fascination with stars, also published by Roaring Brook Press that may find its way into a review soon. You can find out more about Sisson’s writing and art on her website: https://www.stephanitely.com/.
Suggested Ages: The word choice at the beginning of this book is fairly simple and will work well with pre-readers as well as early readers. As the story progresses, it will be more interesting for slightly older readers in the middle elementary grades who can understand the problem-solution arc of Rachel’s life.
Is there a child who isn’t fascinated by the moon? In If You Were the Moon, Laura Purdie Salas leads the reader through an imaginative journey of the parallels between a child’s life and the life of the moon. The primary text is simple and lyrical as the moon “spin[s] like a twilight ballerina” and “tease[s] the Earth”, while the parenthetical text provides factual details that explain various aspects of the moon’s behavior. From the simple explanation of how the moon “catches” the sun’s light to the description of meteorites whizzing through space, Salas playfully teaches the reader about some tricky concepts with a light touch. Jaime Kim’s illustrations are bright and sparkly, boldly showing the facial expressions of the moon and the earth as they interact. Her illustration of the phases of the moon is particularly clear in showing the shadows upon its “face” as it waxes and wanes. This is yet another of Salas’s picture books that sneaks the science into a story, letting the reader choose how much detail to take in. Her website (http://laurasalas.com/) will lead you to other books like her Water Can Be, A Rock Can Be, A Leaf Can Be series as well as her lovely collections of poetry and myriad resources for both teachers and authors. Her books can also be found on the Millbrook Publishing website (https://lernerbooks.com/Pages/Millbrook-Press), a wonderful source for many educational picture books.
Suggested Ages: While this books is designed for readers ages 5-8, the sidebar material expands its readership to include older readers interested in more of the technical information about the moon. However, younger readers will still enjoy the simple storyline as well as the bold illustrations.
When I’m feeling out of options for a particular challenge with my girls, I often head to the library to look for something humorous to spark a new approach. The picture on the cover of Louis Thomas’s Hug It Out! said, “Check me out!” It was likely end of the school year/early summer fatigue that led to an increase in the number of squabbles between my girls. Regardless, my Zen-like approach to the sometimes-sticky dynamic was getting decidedly un-Zen like! So, I found Thomas’s illustration of the bug-eyed mother with fingers followed by one of the siblings cowering in fright at the punishment she was about to inflict upon them particularly funny. Thomas stretches the anticipation of “You’re going to have to . . . “ over two page turns until you get to the “HUG IT OUT” decree. Their bewildered response is perfect. “Hug it what? Hug it who? Hug it how? Hug it huh.” After some fierce hugging between Annie and Woody, they end up coming up with their own solution (aha, the real intent of parenting) of giving each other a little space. And then . . . they found that they wanted to play together again. And, their mother stands back, arms crossed with a knowing smile watching them happily hug. I was disappointed to read that this is Thomas’s first picture book, as I immediately went to look for another. So . . . I’ll have to wait for the next one. Or spend more time exploring his website (louist.blogspot.com), which has a fantastic array of illustrations and other projects he has worked on.
Suggested Ages: This is a fun read aimed at children ages 3-6, but is equally enjoyable for their parents! The facial expressions on all the characters will amuse young children who have not yet started to read. Early readers will enjoy the simple text and refrains throughout as well as the well-placed ellipses that lead to quick page turns.
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.