THE NIGHT FLOWER: The Blooming of the Saguaro Cactus
By Lara Hawthorne
(Big Picture Press; $16.99, Ages 3-7)
The Sonoran desert is busy with all sorts of activity. Lara Hawthorne’s 32-page nonfiction picture book, The Night Flower: The Blooming of the Saguaro Cactus invites the reader to explore this lively world. The book’s rhyming lines are upbeat and evocative: “Around the saguaro, in the shining moonlight, the desert is festive and thriving tonight.”
Facts bookend the text, deepening a reader’s understanding about the wonderful saguaro cactus’s spectacular bloom which occurs only one night each year. “During this short period, their strong scent and brilliant white petals attract rare pollinators, including bats, moths, and doves.” For a few hours in the morning, the pollen’s shared with day creatures such as birds and bees.
Kids will like the “Did you spot . . .?” section at the end which encourages them to connect the descriptions of ten animals back to the story. The colorfully illustrated saguaro life cycle and glossary are in kid-friendly language to engage even the youngest child. I enjoyed the fresh perspective on animals such as the grasshopper mouse, a “fierce, furry hunter” which is “known to stand on its hind legs and howl at night.”
Hawthorne’s watercolor images introduce whimsy and beauty. This glimpse at something rare is educational and fun. I may have missed the saguaro’s amazing bloom, but, if our travels take us to the desert, I’ll keep a lookout for the gorgeous rainbow grasshopper.
NATURE’S FRIEND: THE GWEN FROSTIC STORY
Written by Lindsey McDivitt
Illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 6-9)
One of the best parts about reviewing children’s books is learning about someone or something new. That’s exactly what happened after readingNature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Storyby Lindsey McDivitt with illustrations by Eileen Ryan Ewen. You may have noticed that there aren’t a lot of traditionally published picture books about people with disabilities, but there are more now than there used to be and that’s a good thing. Authors like McDivitt are making a difference by writing about diverse individuals and topics which I truly appreciate and why I jumped at the chance to review Nature’s Friend.
This inspiring debut picture book biography introduces children to the art and writing of Gwen Frostic, someone about whom, as I mentioned above, I knew nothing prior to reading the book. And now I’m eager to see her art in person and you will be, too. Born in Michigan in 1906, Frostic contracted an illness as an infant that left her physically disabled. But with the positive influence of her mother, Gwen never avoided doing all the things that her brothers and sisters did. “I never knew I couldn’t do something,” is the overarching message of Nature’s Friend, a quote in McDivitt’s book that captures the essence of who Gwen was—a bright, creative and resourceful woman who never let perceived obstacles hold her back. She clearly was ahead of her time.
Gwen’s mother, a former teacher, could have taught her daughter at home because in the early 20th century it was more common for disabled children to stay at home. Instead, Mrs. Frostic “sent Gwen to school and pushed her to learn.” While the bullying might have painful, the young girl chose to focus on her academics and was an adept student. In fact, it was also due to her mother’s encouragement and guidance that Gwen’s weak hands grew stronger as her mother had her practice sketching. Gwen, who had embraced nature at an early age, would find later in life that this experience greatly influenced her career path.
At age 12, Gwen’s family moved to Detroit. It was there in high school that she learned mechanical drawing and other skills not typically part of a girl’s curriculum. Someone wrote in her yearbook, “Her brush, her pencil and her pen will make this world a better place!” But pursuing a career in art wasn’t necessarily going to provide for her. The tides turned in her favor when wealthy and influential people began purchasing her designs. What joy and satisfaction it must have been for Frostic when her art was chosen to be exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair! Soon though her grand plans were put on hold due to WWII. She went to work at the Ford Motor Company to help the war effort by designing “tools for building the airplanes.”
In addition to Gwen’s airplane construction work, at home she remained drawn to art, eventually purchasing a printing press and starting her own business. Frostic called it Presscraft Papers Stationary Company and based it first in Frankfort, Michigan and then on the Betsie River to be closer to nature. The back matter states that Frostic created greeting cards and books that “celebrated Michigan plans and wildlife.” She was awarded countless honors in her lifetime and worked in her shop well into her 90s.
Ewen’s serene artwork conveys Frostic’s love of nature on every page. I also felt the movement and emotion as Gwen clenched her sketching pencil, smelled the fresh Michigan air in the beautifully rendered outdoor scenes and watched the changing fashions go by as Gwen matured. The illustrations, coupled with McDivitt’s honest and uplifting prose that applauds determination and individuality, promises hope and invites creativity (there’s a craft included at the end), make this a wonderful and worthwhile read for not only kids, but for adults too who may be unfamiliar with Frostic.
Everything about Gwen Frostic was unique, from her art to her attitude. Rather than let society define what she could and couldn’t do as a woman and as a person with disabilities, she wrote her own rules and lived happily and successfully by them. Considering the era she lived in, it’s especially encouraging to read about female trailblazers like Gwen Frostic who forged ahead with their talents allowing their heart to guide them.
“As long as there are trees in tiny seeds … there will be miracles on earth.” – Gwen Frostic, A Walk With Me
Fascinated by reptiles from an early age, Joan Procter followed her childhood passion for slithery, scaly, unusual animals to an internationally renowned career at London’s Zoo and the Natural History Museum. Valdez introduces us to young, curious Joan, holding tea parties with reptiles while her peers preferred dolls. As Joan grew, her interest did not wane, so at 16 years old she received a pet crocodile as a birthday gift!
In due time, Joan chatted up the director of Natural History museum about his work with reptiles. She began working there, surveying the museum’s vast collections, publishing research papers, and creating detailed, realistic models and drawings for the reptile exhibits. Given her enthusiasm, experience and extensive knowledge, Joan eventually became the Curator, an unusual role for a female scientist at the time.
When invited to re-design the London Zoo Reptile House, Joan fell in love with a new and exotic creature, the Komodo dragon. This so-called fierce, man-eating lizard was “rumored to be…Thirty feet long! Faster than a motorcar! Stronger than an ox!” Joan, undeterred, could not wait to study the dragons first-hand. Her deep connection with one Komodo called Sumbawa led to some of the most stunning and innovative work of her career.
Valdez keeps the paces of this fascinating story lively by introducing wonderful vocabulary woven carefully and completely within a child-friendly framework and perspective. She highlights her heroine’s passion and determination in an understated yet direct manner, giving Joan relevance and timeliness that transcend her time period. Joan Procter, Dragon Doctoris an essential addition for collections on women in STEM fields, with the broad appeal of reptiles and science for many young readers boosts this title to the top.
Salas illustrates dramatically, choosing with vibrant, rich colors for the settings, the tropical plants, and the starring-role reptiles. Joan is elegant yet serious, portrayed close to and interacting with her creatures, focused on them with great intensity, delight and passion. The reptiles themselves are marvelously textured and stylized, creeping, curving and twisting with dignified realism. Throughout the story, Salas provides tantalizing glimpses of early 20th century London through architecture and fashions of the era.
Valdez includes additional biographical information on Procter as well as on Komodo Dragons. A bibliography with primary and secondary sources is a helpful resource for young readers who wish to explore more. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn about this impressive scientist, her beloved ‘dragons’ and her trailblazing career in a book that is as beautiful and brilliant as it is important.
Where obtained: I reviewed an advanced reader copy from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
ABOUT JOAN PROCTER, DRAGON DOCTOR
For fans of Ada Twist: Scientist comes a fascinating picture book biography of a pioneering female scientist–who loved reptiles!
Back in the days of long skirts and afternoon teas, young Joan Procter entertained the most unusual party guests: slithery and scaly ones, who turned over teacups and crawled past the crumpets…. While other girls played with dolls, Joan preferred the company of reptiles. She carried her favorite lizard with her everywhere–she even brought a crocodile to school!
When Joan grew older, she became the Curator of Reptiles at the British Museum. She went on to design the Reptile House at the London Zoo, including a home for the rumored-to-be-vicious Komodo dragons. There, just like when she was a little girl, Joan hosted children’s tea parties–with her Komodo dragon as the guest of honor.
With a lively text and vibrant illustrations, scientist and writer Patricia Valdez and illustrator Felicita Sala bring to life Joan Procter’s inspiring story of passion and determination.
★Starred Reviews: Booklist, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
MOTH AND WASP, SOIL AND OCEAN:
Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong’s Work for Sustainable Farming
Written by Sigrid Schmalzer,
Illustrated by Melanie Linden Chan
(Tilbury House Publishing, $17.95, ages 6-9)
is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
A farm boy in China relates the tale of Pu Zhelong, a scientist and conservationist, and introduces readers to early research in sustainable agriculture practices in MOTH AND WASP, SOIL AND OCEAN.
Through a series of flashbacks, author Sigrid Schmalzer reveals how invasive moths and beetles were destroying precious village crops. When villagers try to defeat the pests, their methods repeatedly fail. As the threat of famine looms, Pu Zhelong, an outsider, arrives bearing new, untested scientific ideas. Can Pu Zhelong save the rice crop without using harmful and ineffective pesticides?
With patience, restraint and deference, Pu Zhelong eventually wins over the skeptical villagers. His innovative methodology, introducing parasitic wasps to destroy the crop-consuming moths, led to a successful and sustainable victory for the farmers. Schmalzer’s imaginative and informative text weaves a tale that will engage young scientists with its ingenuity and sophistication while celebrating this little-known environmental hero.
Debut illustrator Melanie Linden Chan pairs intricate and multi-layered images with the factual content, making this book a pleasure for young readers to pore over. Structuring the narrator’s flashbacks in a journal format, Chan cleverly weaves scientifically precise illustrations against a lush agricultural setting. Elements of Chinese art, history and culture frame the narrative in an engaging, pictoral manner that both delight and inform.
An extensive endnote provides additional information on the history of the story, as well as suggestions for further reading. Also included is a detailed explanation of the decorative Chinese folk art papercuts utilized by the illustrator, and referenced to the pages where they appear in the text.
MOTH AND WASP, SOIL AND OCEAN offers a unique, child-friendly perspective on a earliest origins of agroscience. Add this STEAM selection to your school or classroom library to add depth to collections on organic farming, sustainable agriculture and Chinese history.
Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where obtained: I reviewed a digital advanced reader copy from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
Hannah Viano dedicates her new alphabet book to “…all of those who let children run a little wild, climbing trees and splashing in puddles. It is worth all the laundry and lost mittens.” It is a delightful sentiment for a book that will inspire a strong appreciation for the natural world in readers both young and old.
The illustrations in B is for Bear are perfectly stunning. Although they appear to be woodcuts at first glance, the process is even more interesting. Viano uses a graceful papercutting technique, carving thick outlines from black paper with an X-ACTO knife. She then adds soft pastel colors digitally in a rich range from gold to olive to amethyst. The look is at once classic and contemporary, as the bold lines capture the energy and motion inherent in her natural subject matter.
The alphabet letters, upper and lowercase, are suspended at the top of each page, punched in a white font onto the thick black border around each illustration. The natural keywords that she selects range nicely from animals (J for Jackrabbit) to natural objects (P for Pebble). Below the bottom border Viano provides clear but poetic descriptions as well as a few additional fascinating facts. For example, from L for Lightning Bug, “Call them fireflies or lightning bugs or Lampyridae. They fill a summer night with magical lights.”
Viano adeptly shows natural objects of all sizes, from massive mountains and soaring waves to tiny dandelion puffs and Queen Anne’s lace florets. The variety keeps the A to Z alphabet format interesting and surprising, with a fair mix of unusual versus familiar subjects for children. The book as an object itself is lovely, with sturdy proportions perfect for small hands. The pages are printed on thick, smooth, semi-matte paper that lends a sophisticated, organic feel.
B is for Bear, and for book, beautiful and breathtaking!
Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where Obtained: I reviewed a copy of B IS FOR BEAR from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.