Have you ever heard of a barking spider or a yeti crab? Which is tougher: a honey badger or a tardigrade? Is a blobfish uglier than a hagfish? These are just a few of the 50 unusual creatures that Hearst includes in Unusual Creatures. Mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, insects, arachnids, even microbes are included. The book does not pretend to provide encyclopedic coverage of any of its creatures, but it does give the reader enough of an introduction to each to invite further inquiry.
I think Unusual Creatures will lure reluctant readers into its pages, as well as provide more committed readers with a lightly amusing informative treat. The author starts out by explaining the system of biological classification from kingdom through family and down to species, and gives the formal Latinate classification for each of his creatures, but this is not at all off-putting, since he presents the information simply, clearly, and quickly. Besides, it only takes up two pages which you (or your reluctant friend) could easily skip. He then dives into the axolotl for his first creature, and the fun begins. For some of the entries, he provides a brief poem to supplement the facts, for others he provides amusing true-false or multiple-choice quizzes, and sly bits of humor are scattered throughout the book.
Each creature illustration is nearly full-page with a ruler alongside to get a sense of the animal’s actual size (from hundredths of an inch to feet). The creature’s territory/distribution is also shown, and usually some other odd fact or two is illustrated.
The author gets perhaps a little preachy in two pages at the end, where he addresses the environmental issues inherent in discussion of rare and unusual animals. Again, this is a section that could be skipped or emphasized depending on the interests of the reader.
My initial reaction to this book was ambivalence, but the more I think about Unusual Creatures, the more I like it. It is a smorgasbord, where reluctant readers can pick and choose the weirdest or cutest or most disgusting creatures to read about, and more advanced or eager readers can enjoy the whole book and perhaps use it as a jumping-off point for further zoological investigations.
If you have or if you are an upper-elementary student or older, give Unusual Creatures a try. You will undoubtedly make a few new friends in the animal kingdom.
—Steve Mudd, author
If there was a book award for sly fun, the 2012 winner would have to be Noah Webster & His Words.
Don’t think that the typical readership of ages 4-8 are the targets for this deceptively-smooth picture book. Start at the end to see that the back cover proclaims:
BI-OG-RA-PHY [noun: a written history of a person’s life]
This isn’t some new surgeon general’s mandate for truth in labeling. Much older readers are getting a clue to pick up this charming dictionary parody.
And why not? This is the tale of one defining pioneer of the English language. While Noah’s father was harvesting crops, he decided to start harvesting words.
Nearly every page is filled with a dictionary entry, defining a word used in describing Noah’s life and career. Amazingly, the definition comes immediately, as an announcer interrupting the TV program. This droll, innovative approach doubles the appeal of this book. Older readers amused by the channel-flipping style of going from narrative to dictionary won’t realize all the definitions they’re digesting.
Author Ferris provides a great backstory for America’s first dictionary. “I will write the second Declaration of Independence,” Noah wrote to a friend. “An American spelling book!”
Ferris spotlights Noah’s motivation, explaining that 1781 America was free from England. Why should Americans spell the way they did in England? Besides, Americans were content to spell a word any way they wanted. Imagine “mosquito” spelled 10 different ways in the same text. Ferris does.
“Noah thought Americans should spell every word the same way, every time, everywhere. This would U-NITE [verb: make one] the new United States.”
Teachers and parents will cheer, knowing that a book encourages students to link proper spelling with patriotism.
The author allows Noah’s scholarly journey to keep its humor intact. She points out that after proofreading the 2,000 pages he worked on for almost 20 years, he needed to find just the right publisher. “Last, he needed to take a nap.”
The end material is an ideal finale to Noah Webster & His Words. A two-page timeline contrasts American historical happenings with Noah’s writing and research progress.
Kirsch’s illustrations evoke the spirit of the Saturday morning cartoons of Schoolhouse Rock. It’s obvious that Ferris found a kindred spirit in the illustrator. He notes on the copyright page that his art was made with “ink, watercolor, and graphite. And love.”
Combining American history with spelling and grammar lessons seems daunting. Not for Ferris and Hirsch. With a strong, defining humor, the pair make Noah Webster & His Words truly informative fun.
—Tom Owens, author
During World War II many Jews were sent to concentration camps. Many of them went into hiding so they would not be sent to the horrible camps. Anne Frank and her family are one of the most well-known families to go into hiding. While the Franks were in hiding, their youngest daughter Anne kept a diary of her experiences. She describes what it is like to be living in a strange place away from home, what it is like to hide from the government, what it is like to live with seven other people in a cramped space, and how restricted they were.
I really enjoyed The Diary of a Young Girl because of its truth and its great descriptions. Anne is writing to an imaginary person named “Kitty” and it seems as if she is writing to a good old friend. After reading this young girl’s journal you will have a different perspective on what it was like for Jews during that time. I know I did.
—Megan Zamow, 7th Grader
Olympic fever may not have subsided in many young readers. A likely cure could be Major Taylor: Champion Cyclist.
Long before Lance Armstrong, Marshall Taylor sparkled in the sport. The latter never tasted Olympic glory, but glorified America wherever he competed.
The husband-wife team learned of Taylor when watching Olympic cycling TV coverage, prior to their 2004 title. Taylor earned a World Championship, becoming America’s first black world champ.
Taylor’s childhood was anything but typical. His father worked as a coachman for a wealthy family in Indianapolis. Marshall was hired to be the live-in companion for the family’s only son. Among his many benefits was a new bicycle.
A local bike repair and sales shop offered Taylor a job cleaning up and demonstrating bike tricks. The store owners dressed Taylor in a military uniform, sparking the nickname of “Major.”
Taylor became a professional racer at age 18. The author is subtle in discussing the discrimination challenges he faced. “Whites only” hotels and restaurants didn’t care about Taylor’s winnings.
Being the only black rider admitted in the Legion of American Wheelmen, Taylor faced a variety of scheming white bikers trying to keep him from winning. “The Black Whirlwind” never gave up. “I simply ride away” was his explanation of escaping hateful foes.
Credit Simon and Schuster for keeping the eight-year-old Major Taylor in print. The 10-by-12 format showcases James Ransome’s breathtaking oil paintings. Author Lesa Cline-Ransome deserves applause for ending her action-packed narrative on a high note. A one-page postscript for older readers will show how Taylor’s post-racing life was a dismal contrast to the glory he found on two wheels.
Before the Olympics. Before Tour de France. Major Taylor gave the world a bicycling hero and role model in 1899. The Ransomes have given us a timeless tribute to this overlooked cycling star.
—Tom Owens, author
Life is not an either/or proposition. Day goes with night. Love goes with pain. And science goes with poetry.
Nature inspires both poetry and science, and Nature is at the heart of Laura Purdie Salas‘s A Leaf Can Be . . . . Beginning, like a leaf itself, in Spring, the book shows a leaf’s many purposes in four-word, rhyming couplets.
Some evocative phrases— “Tree topper . . . rain stopper—” scarcely need illustration, but we are glad of Violetta Dabija’s colors that are soft but intense, clean-edged shapes that sprawl or cuddle, details bold or tiny, full-page backgrounds that make each word pair its own world in its own ocean of color.
Some phrases are more difficult, like the first: “A leaf can be a soft cradle . . . water ladle.” And here, too, we’re glad of this picture/word pairing. Dabija shows, on the left-hand page, scattered leaves holding egg sacks, and moths that have left them: “soft cradle.” The facing page has a scallop-shaped sheep drinking matter-of-factly from a water-filled leaf: “water ladle.”
For those who want verbal confirmation, Salas capably provides it. Succinct end material expands on what we’ve seen, with relevant phrases conveniently listed in the order that they appear. For example, the second definition (Water Ladle) begins: “Animals don’t use bowls or spoons . . .”
The most difficult words are repeated on the last page, words like “cocoon” or “concealer.”
The book shows us leaves all over the world, in many seasons, in many contexts—but, as the author begins and ends, “A leaf is a leaf.”
How lovely to be reminded of the complexity of simple things—and the simplicity of complex things.
—Diana Star Helmer, author
Double-crossing a business partner. Plagiarism. Are those uplifting themes or storylines appealing to young readers?
Author Marc Tyler Nobleman defies the odds on both counts in his stellar, surprising Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.
Bill Finger thought he was collaborating with artist Bob Kane on a new series for DC Comics in 1939. Kane sold the premise, taking all the credit. His contract allowed him to be recognized as sole Batman creator. Finger worked in frustrated anonymity, an angry ghostwriter.
Ironically, Nobleman discovered that Kane called the prolific Finger “the boy wonder” for all his input on the storylines. The nickname became the famed description for Robin, Batman’s youthful sidekick.
All comics need heroes. In this book, Nobleman details how Batman fans kept Finger’s little-known contributions preserved in comics history.
Nobleman’s writing style reflects comic book drama. He uses punchy puns, enjoying the names of Batman and comic writer Finger. At the same time, he infuses character into the picture book, recounting how Finger kept a “gimmick book” of facts and trivia bits for future comic books. As a jaw-dropping complement to Nobleman‘s work, pair his super-heroic writing with the pitch-perfect illustrations of Ty Templeton. Templeton’s art looks worthy of a Batman comic book, complete with action-packed layouts. Ironically, Templeton’s extensive comic book credits include none other than Batman.
Nobleman distinguishes himself as a four-leveled talent with the book’s postscript. He sparkles as an author. Avid comic fans will agree that Nobleman is a solid historian, analyzing background art in a 1943 Batman issue for a surprising discovery. His detective work in finding sources to interview (Finger died in 1974) is an exciting as any crime-solving.
What’s left? One noble feat of activism. Nobleman finds out if Finger left any heir, and if there’d be a way that the comic co-creator’s possible offspring could receive some kind of compensation.
Be sure to read to the last page. The revelation is a true-to-life happy ending that would make even the Caped Crusader smile.
Young readers will take new pride and ownership in their own creations after reading this book. Even more, they might wonder who some of the unsung heroes were as their favorite stories were born.
—Tom Owens, author
Hooray for U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis. His title could be a burden to some, seen like a crown to be knocked off one’s head.
The responsibility hasn’t stopped Lewis from remaining a working poet. He’s kept creating, and creating well. His latest is a series of 14 interconnected poems, allowing young readers to ponder the characteristics of different creatures. Other riddles let us appreciate the relationships nature offers.
Lewis rhymes with effortless joy. To comment on dragonflies, he avoids the obvious. His take is anything but medieval:
Skimming ponds and county lanes,
Whizzing wings of windowpanes.
Look, a pair of fairy planes.
The perfect end to the book comes in speculating on humans being animals, too. Are the stars of the book reading about themselves or us?
Renee Graef paints personable illustrations for each poem, allowing children to both recognize and like each featured animal. The typography for each two-page spread becomes a co-star for Graef’s art. Words curve, dip and move to complement the antics of each animal.
Best of all, Lewis offers a welcoming read-aloud for adults to share with young listeners. No multi-syllabic tongue twisters to derail a reader. Sound like a star when you’re reading this effort from one of our starring poets.
—Tom Owens, author
“I don’t like to read—it’s boring.” “I hate history—it’s boring.” “Science and lots of facts and details are boring.”
If the preceding statements apply to you, your children, your students, or anyone else you care about, boy do I have the book for you! How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous is perhaps the most entertaining book I have ever read that is all about history, biography, and a little bit of science and medical information. Amazon says it is for ages 10 and up, and I can personally attest that readers many decades older than 10 can not only enjoy this book immensely, but also learn a thing or two.
The subject makes this book especially attractive to reluctant boy readers, since the subject matter is death in all its icky, gory details—it’s the literary equivalent of catching crayfish in your bare hands or dropping a frog down someone’s shirt (but in a good, educational way). Croaked describes the lives and especially the deaths of 19 famous personages, from King Tut to Albert Einstein, and in each case includes a couple of extra pages of related facts about the manner of death, medicine at the time, the society of the time, and just plain interesting trivia. The chapters average only around 8 pages in length, so the reluctant reader gets plenty of chances to catch his (or her) breath before moving on.
The book’s tone is engaging—a bit snarky at times, a little tongue-in-cheek, slightly irreverent—just the sort of thing to make reading it more fun than work. It’s not stuffy enough to scare readers away! The illustrations reinforce that tone, as epitomized by the skeleton doctor on the book’s cover.
I’ve stressed the “reluctant reader” appeal of Croaked, but I also urge anyone who enjoys a good read and a plethora of fascinating facts to pick up this book—it’s to die for! You won’t be sorry.