Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis

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 Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis
with illustrations by Gilbert Ford
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99, Ages 4-8)

* A Junior Library Guild Selection

MrFerris-Wheel-cvr.jpgBefore I read this fascinating nonfiction picture book about the history of the first Ferris Wheel, I had no idea of the backstory; the competition to find and build a structure for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that would be taller than the Eiffel Tower, the lack of financial support for its construction, the grueling work on the foundation in the dead of winter, the tight timeline in which to complete it, and the lack of faith professionals and the public had in the project. I’m thankful to Kathryn Gibbs Davis for opening my eyes to innovator, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.

“George had an idea, an idea for a structure that would dazzle and move, not just stand still like the Eiffel Tower.”

What wonderful feats of engineering and willpower enabled Ferris to prove all the naysayers wrong! Over 1.5 million naysayers to be precise, the amount of people who rode on the wheel at 50 cents apiece in the “nineteen weeks” that it was in operation. And they said it couldn’t be done. Not only did Ferris change the public’s mind, but he changed history by building out of steel, what is now a staple of amusement park rides.

“George knew something the chief did not. His invention would be delicate-looking and strong. It would be both stronger and lighter than the Eiffel Tower because it would be built with an amazing new metal — steel.”

On almost every spread, Davis has managed to weave in assorted facts about the wheel’s invention in a way that will keep youngsters as engaged and enthralled as I was. The story itself flows easily and the artwork is simply lovely to look at. Ford‘s fabulous jewel-toned illustrations of 19th century Chicago took me back in time to an era in the industrial age when even electricity in homes was not yet commonplace. But as the sun set each evening, Ferris’s wheel, with is 3,000 electric light bulbs, lit up the night sky and was visible “as far away as forty miles.” I was happy to learn that after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, in 1894 “the next Ferris wheel appeared in California on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.”

How sad I was to discover in the back matter (where sources are quoted, and a bibliography along with helpful websites are provided) that a New York Times obituary says Ferris passed away on November 23, 1896 while still in his thirties. I can just imagine all the other innovative contributions he could have made to society had he lived longer. As it is, the enduring popularity of his ride is a testament to Ferris’s genius, and Davis has done a terrific job conveying that in a most readable, enjoyable way.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Click here for a link to a reading guide.

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The Mayflower by Mark Greenwood

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The Mayflower written by Mark Greenwood
and illustrated by Frané Lessac
(Holiday House, 2014. $16.95. Ages 4-8)

A Voyage to the First Thanksgiving

The-Mayflower-cvr.jpgIn 1621, a group of nearly 100 people, many of whom experienced religious persecution, left England to find a place where they could worship freely. After an arduous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean–which included violent storms and the birth of a child, they sighted land and eventually founded a settlement near Plymouth Harbor.

Their troubles were not over. Arriving late in the year, they faced a cold and difficult winter. Many were ill. However, in early spring, Squanto, a native from a local tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and fertilize the fields with fish. That fall, Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, and 90 of his warriors joined the Pilgrims for a harvest celebration, our first Thanksgiving

Greenwood’s narrative in this picture book can be read aloud to young children to introduce them to the traditional Thanksgiving story. Complex issues, such as religious persecution and the Mayflower Compact, are briefly, but clearly expressed in language young children can understand. The hardships the Pilgrims faced are not overdramatized and the author weaves in interesting “kid friendly” facts about daily life aboard the ship: food, sleeping arrangements, entertainment, etc.

Lessac’s colorful gouache illustrations, reminiscent of folk art, enliven the narrative and create a vivid and dramatic visual of the journey and the settlement. A stunning two-page spread of a beautiful, calm night at sea, the sky full of stars sparkling around a full moon, belies the dangers the ship would soon face on its journey to the new world. Sure enough, a month later, the Mayflower and its passengers and crew sail into the stormy season, which Lessac stylistically portrays with a pinkish sky dotted with dark storm clouds. Jagged bolts of lightning and torrents of rain fall from the clouds. The image of the ship rolling in the rough sea further demonstrates the ocean’s frightening power and the hardships the crew and passengers faced on their way to the new world.

An excellent and colorful read aloud to introduce younger children to the origins of our Thanksgiving celebration.

Visit Australian author Mark Greenwood’s website for more information about his books.

Illustrator Frané Lessac’s website is a must-see for her artwork and a video about how the illustrator works.

Click here for Holiday House’s Educator’s Guide for this book.

Enjoy this dramatic book trailer for The Mayflower.


– Reviewed by Dornel Cerro


The Hunted: Polar Prey by Sara Louise Kras

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Bundle up Because Sara Louise Kras is Taking us
to the Arctic in her new Fiction Book, The Hunted: Polar Prey

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The Hunted: Polar Prey by Sara Louise Kras, Speeding Star, 2014.

Sara Louise Kras, a local L.A. author, makes it easy for kids to forget the warm California sun when she transports them to below zero weather “way up north in the Arctic on the Hudson Bay” in The Hunted: Polar Prey (Speeding Star, $14.95, ages 8-9). With over 30 non-fiction books under her belt, Kras has now forayed into fiction, quite convincingly so, with this early chapter book. I have no doubt that even the most reluctant of readers will find it hard to tear themselves away from The Hunted: Polar Prey with its 21 short, fast-paced chapters and a story inspired by an article Sara once read (see Author’s Note in the back matter to find out more!). The action revolves around the “Global Warming Research Station,” a place that Kras has actually visited in Canada, and where the book’s main character, Jeremy, lives with his scientist parents.

The story is brought to life by alternating four characters’ perspectives. The book opens with the first chapter devoted to the polar bear, low on nourishment, and waiting by an air hole to catch a seal. He grows frustrated when the seal first eludes capture. Kras sets the tone immediately by introducing us to one very angry bear. Readers then meet Jeremy, the story’s 12-year-old protagonist. Kids will get a sense early on, of not only what the main character is thinking, but also what the polar bear is thinking. They’ll learn about fascinating polar bear behavior without even realizing it. The other chapters share viewpoints of Paula, Jeremy’s mom and Felix, Jeremy’s Inuit friend.

Chapter Two of The Hunted: Polar Prey has Jeremy getting a cell phone call from his mom alerting him to a crisis. The ice floor she was getting samples from cracked sending her drifting out into the Arctic sea. She quickly gives Jeremy her coordinates so he can organize a rescue. But how? His father’s away in Churchill stocking up on supplies and, at age 12, what can Jeremy possibly do to save her? One of Sara’s talents, evident from Chapter One, is her economy of words. She never puts in too many or too few words, again something reluctant readers will appreciate. The story’s the thing here and it moves along as quickly as a snowmobile. Kras also provides the right amount of drama and description to keep it moving forward without over-embellishment.

Once Jeremy learns his mom is floating away and facing imminent danger without provisions or a weapon, and limited cellphone battery power, he knows he must face reality and figure out a plan. The only possibility is enlisting the help of Felix, Jeremy’s Inuit friend along with his dad, Mr. Tugak, to help. The catch is, that even if Mr. Tugak has access to a helicopter, he has stopped flying since a crash shook his confidence and spooked him enough to believe that a horrible curse had been cast over him. Things continue to get interesting as Paula’s piece of ice cracks some more and the polar bear we read about in certain chapters has begun to smell fresh meat. He gets closer and closer as fear begins to envelop Jeremy’s mom.

Kras cleverly incorporates Inuit words like tuvag, or sea ice, into the story and readers learn the immense power of tuvag and how it can kill, hence the urgency in finding Jeremy’s mom. She also explains that, since Mr. Tugak believes an evil spirit haunts him, a shaman advises him to change his name so the spirit can no longer find him. Somehow though, this is not enough to get him back into the helicopter. Fortunately, it’s the thought of not helping his son and his son’s friend that drives him to take action. As the threesome attempt first to locate Paula before they can even try to rescue her, it becomes apparent that this is a life or death situation, a race against time and nature.

Rather than spoil the story by giving away the ending, I will say I was very satisfied with the outcome and the realistic touches Kras did not hesitate to include. These elements are what will pull your reader in and keep him reading. The Author’s Note in the back matter gives details about the inspiration for the book and also gives some insight into polar bears’ behavior and how to find out more.

Come back next week to read my interview with Sara Louise Kras and learn more about polar bears, what else Kras has written and what we can expect to read next.

– Ronna Mandel


Walk This World: A Celebration of Life in a Day by Lotta Nieminen

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TRAVEL THE WORLD WITHOUT A PASSPORT
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Walk This World: A Celebration of Life in a Day (Big Picture Press, $17.9, Ages 5-8), illustrated by Lotta Nieminen and written by Jenny Broom, is reviewed by Rita Zobayan.

Your child can visit ten countries from the comfort of home. Walk This World: A Celebration of Life in a Day is a large-sized, lift-the-flap (more than 80 of them!) book that presents splendid art and joyous prose. Children and parents will discover clues for each country and an adventure on each page. Can you spot flags, foods, animals, and landmarks? Who is hiding behind the window and door flaps? What are they up to?

The adventure begins in New York City and continues in France, Russia, Brazil, and India to name a few of the locations.  Although the narrative is sparse, it provides descriptive information about the countries.

Sunny streets and tilting towers, a waiter stops to mop his brow. From the water, gondoliers greet me with a friendly, “Ciao!”

Teaming streets and bhangra beat, rhythm moves me side to side. Brilliant saris can’t outshine the vibrant smile of the bride.

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The true feat in Walk This World: A Celebration of Life in a Day is the artwork, and that’s really what Big Picture Press is all about. There are dozens of details on each page: simple portrayals of everyday life that celebrate our planet.  Walk This World: A Celebration of Life in a Day is truly a celebration.