We Don’t Need to Wait Until Earth Day to Pay Attention to Our Environment
If you’re looking for a nonfiction book that reads like a story, you’ve found it! Narrated by a rubber ducky, this picture book by author-illustratorMarkus Motum, Ducks Overboard!: A True Story of Plastic in Our Oceans, explains how 28,000 ducks ended up in the middle of the ocean. The reader adventures along with the ducks in unknown territory as they encounter sea creatures and garbage. Viewing it from the duck’s perspective reinforces how animals are endangered by plastics in their environment, eating them or becoming entangled.
A world map clearly explains how the ducks traveled on ocean currents to various destinations. Our duck, however, becomes stuck in the swirling Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a mass of trash about twice the size of Texas—until, finally, freed. Though this duck’s story has a happy ending, much is learned in the process that gives us cause to think about how our everyday choices are hurting our planet.
The mixed-media illustrations are done in beautiful ocean blues which showcase the bright yellow duck(s). Back matter includes “Lost at Sea” (about other missing shipping containers) and “Ocean Currents” (explaining ocean movement and gyres). “Plastic Facts” and “How You Can Help” reminds us that 40 percent of plastic is single-use and, because most cannot be recycled, those items break down into smaller and smaller pieces causing far-reaching damage. I appreciate how this book handles such a dire topic in a manner that feels as lightweight as your bathtub ducky.
Cynthia Argentine’s picture book, Night Becomes Day: Changes in Nature is such a great idea for a children’s book. Through lovely, lyrical prose coupled with stunning photography, this nonfiction book takes readers on a kind of before and after look at nature’s wonders which youngsters might take for granted or do not have time to notice during a day at the beach, a walk in the woods, on a wilderness adventure or a national park visit.
Children will learn that “nature is always at work, transforming.” Some of the changes detailed are small, subtle even and others are large. And the results can be so different. A footprint in the sand washes away with the first wave and yet over time, the Colorado River has worn away the stone, carving out a massive space we know as the Grand Canyon.
Some changes can be witnessed quickly while others cannot. They can occur in just a few minutes like when “A pumpkin tendril wraps around a rope in minutes.” Or slowly over time as an acorn grows into a majestic oak. Argentine notes that change brightens—such as when desert flowers bloom following rain and change dulls—such as when a fallen leaf becomes mulch supporting “new life.”
One of my favorite changes in nature depicted is how diamonds are formed over eons making them ancient as compared to a snowflake or sparkling new ice crystal. “Everywhere on Earth—from shore to mountain, field to forest, surface to sky—nature is at work, TRANSFORMING.”
The power of observation and the beauty of nature are in focus in this wonderful ode to change that should get kids taking more time to notice what’s around them. Argentine has created a clever study in contrasts that is enjoyable to read aloud and to admire since the photos are breathtaking.
The author’s note in the three pages of back matter highlights how some things like a healing wound or out-growing a pair of shoes are examples of change or metamorphosis. And things don’t have to be alive to change—think rocks, waves, caves. Changes that occur at the intersection of living and nonliving things, Argentine explains, are called ecology. This helps children understand their impact on the world and how important that is.
Kids can read through page 29 for the more poetic portion of the book or carry on through page 32 for additional scientific notes Argentine’s included that refer back to each section: Beaches and Canyons – Geology; Pumpkin Tendrils and Oak Trees – Botany; Deserts and Forests – Biology; Clouds and Caverns – Chemistry and Geology; Volcanoes and Glaciers – Geology; and Diamonds and Snowflakes – Chemistry, Geology, and Physics. Whether reading for pleasure or for a class project, this STEM book is an engaging and accessible introduction to the science of change that will be welcomed by parents and teachers alike.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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In 2021 malaria is a preventable and treatable disease but it wasn’t always the case. Hundreds of thousands used to die from it annually but the mortality rate has declined since the medicine to cure it was approved. That’s why I was curious to read about Tu Youyou, the woman whose determination led to finding a cure for malaria and becoming the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize.
InTu Youyou’s Discovery written by Songju Ma Daemickewith art by Lin, readers are brought back in time to Beijing, China in the 1930s. Youyou attended school when most girls her age stayed home but contracted tuberculosis as a teenager and had to drop out.
Fortunately, she survived due to antibiotics prescribed by her physician but was greatly weakened. A steady diet of “her mother’s herb soups slowly nursed her back to full strength.” This sparked her interest in how both “modern and traditional” medicines had helped her get well. Always a compassionate person, Youyou chose to pursue a career in science in order to help save lives. Little did she know then what a major contribution she would ultimately make when in 1969 malaria, like Covid-19 now, swept across the world bringing death in its path. After graduating from Peking University, “in 1955” she “became a researcher at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing.” As part of a research group, Youyou was determined to find a cure for malaria and was in the right place at just the right time.
Youyou traveled around the country to document cases in hopes of gaining new insight into the disease. She found it when she met a farmer who had cured his own high fever by eating a local plant called qinghao, known in English as sweet wormwood. In her lab, she and her team tried various methods to create a cure using the qinghao, but nothing worked. However, Youyou did not give up. Despite little to no funding for the latest equipment, Youyou’s team performed experiment after experiment with no luck.
Then what appeared to be a breakthrough came from an unexpected place. Studying her family’s indispensable “A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies, an ancient Chinese remedy book,” Youyou revisited the qinhao remedy only to realize that the book recommended just soaking the herb in water when all along her team had been boiling it. Perhaps the healing part of the plant had been destroyed during the experiments. Much to her dismay, this too yielded no results. Again, Youyou persevered. Many male colleagues had questioned her commitment to traditional medicine but “After 190 unsuccessful experiments, the test result of sample 191 stunned the team.” Sample 191 completely killed the parasites and so in 1971 a successful cure had been found. And while Youyou initially credited her entire team in research papers, over time “other scientists finally realized how involved she had been in the discovery.” In October of 2015, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine at a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Her commitment to finding a cure for malaria has saved millions of lives and continues to do so to this day.
I’m so glad Songju has introduced Tu Youyou to me and to children in such an accessible way. I felt as if, despite knowing the outcome, that I was right alongside a detective solving a mystery. This nonfiction picture book bio provides engaging STEM reading for budding scientists, doctors, and inventors and puts Youyou’s name up there alongside other women in STEM history makers such as Marie Curie, Marie Maynard Daly, and Ada Byron Lovelace. Lin’s nice use of contrasting flat color palettes creates bright illustrations that have a print-making quality to them. Songju shares how labor-intensive the six steps of the scientific method are (see back matter for this info) but also how crucial. While not all experiments yield life-changing results, Youyou’s story is a great example of how teamwork and not giving up can make a difference. I was surprised to learn in the Author’s Note that although the first clinical trials for the malaria medicine known as artemisinin took place in 1972, it wasn’t until 1986 that the drug gained approval from the Chinese government and started being used around the globe.
Shreeve impressively chronicles life on Earth from its beginning until present. Yet, for such an intricate topic, her kid-friendly text is easy to follow. Readers wanting more data can reference the time periods (noted at the bottom) or learn from the notes accompanying various creatures. The back matter includes sources and further reading.
The illustrations by Frann Preston-Gannon add drama and dimension showing lava-flowing eruptions and the starkness of what scientists call the Great Dying when temperatures soared and life perished. However, most of the art depicts brightly colored celebrations of the wonderful creatures that have inhabited our planet. I like how sketches are used in the sidebar to demonstrate, for example, the size of a prehistoric dragonfly in comparison to a human. (These insects grew huge because of the abundant oxygen levels.)
Information is conveyed in an exciting manner, encouraging page turns to discover the changes of life on Earth while also learning the answer to the opening question. This comprehensive reference book will engage curious young readers.
A topic on everyone’s tongues these days is vaccinations. When she wrote this book, Linda E Marshalllikely had no idea how relevant her book would be today and how once again, an innovative vaccine is saving lives around the world.
The book opens with four-year-old Jonas Salk sitting on top of his father’s shoulders during the victory parade celebrating the end of World War I. But Jonas doesn’t understand the cheering when all he sees are injured soldiers. Jonas, readers learn, sees things differently. Find out about the man and the story behind the life-changing vaccine he developed in THE POLIO PIONEER: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccinewritten by Linda Elovitz Marshallwith illustrations by Lisa Anchin.
Anchin’s art brings a warmth to the subject of science painting in soft colors of oranges and blues as the reader walks through the life of the main character Jonas. Whether that’s refereeing his friends’ games when not reading because he knows the rules or helping his Yiddish-speaking mother learn English after his Jewish family migrates to New York City. The kindness and love of the Salk family are depicted with each page turn as the family celebrates Shabbat with freshly baked Challah and Jonas’ inner thoughts are shown “when Jonas prayed that he might someday, help make the world a better place.”
Marshall writes about the financial difficulties the Salk family faced, but Jonas kept moving forward “attending the City College of New York where tuition was free and where, unlike at many other colleges and universities, Jews were welcome.” With a grin on his face and apron tied around his neck, Jonas discovers chemistry while mixing liquids amongst classmates in the college lab. Salk is determined to gain a better understanding of science so that he can make medicines to help people and decides to become a doctor. Illustrated wearing glasses and a white lab coat, Jonas enters medical school where he befriends his teacher Dr. Thomas Francis and the pair team up with an idea as the flu is killing millions. “What if … a person was given some flu virus that was killed by chemicals so it could not cause disease?” Dr. Salk and Dr. Francis thought this could be a way of fighting the flu. And they were right.
With men, women and children lined up on the streets, dressed in their Sunday bests, a nurse in white stands next to one of Anchin’s realistic illustrations with a chalk-written sign reading FLU VACCINE CLINIC. “Since then, flu shots have saved thousands of lives each year.”
“But another disease was raging … Polio”. Readers see Franklin Delano Roosevelt sitting in a wheelchair in the oval office, as others are lined up in beds, victims of this new disease. People are shown hiding in their homes, just as we all have done these past fifteen months from COVID, and the similarities are not unnoticed. Today’s scientists learned a lot from Dr. Salk. “He and his team of scientists labored day and night, night and day.”
“On April 12, 1955, Dr. Francis joins the team and announced to the world: “The vaccine WORKS!” POLIO could be CONQUERED!” Dr. Salk continued his studies by establishing the Salk Institute for Biological Studies where they have worked on cures for cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many other problems.
Marshall writes in a way that makes a tough topic easy to follow with her understandable language and flowing sentences, while Anchin’s drawings transport the reader to 1918 and beyond. The timing of the release of this book last year during the pandemic could not have been more prescient and still resonates today with over 49% of the population vaccinated for Covid-19. As for polio, America has been free of the disease since 1979 due to the amount of participation. Maybe a picture book about our current pandemic will be next to teach future kids about what we have been experiencing. Marshall’s book is fabulous for elementary-age children and higher. In the Author’s Note, Marshall heartwarmingly explains the backstory behind her reasons for writing the book and how Dr. Salk is her hero. She thanks the Salk family for sharing family stories and photos, including writings from Michael Salk, grandson to Jonas. Dr. Salk, as Marshall tells, was a Mensch, the perfect Yiddish word to describe a man whose good work, kindness, and dedication helped make the world a better place. And he did.
From Emmy Award-winning journalist Anna Crowley Redding comes a captivating nonfiction picture book that explores the fabled apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. From a minor seed to a monumental icon, it inspired the world’s greatest minds, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. This tale is an ode to the potential that exists in all of us to change the world
“A sweet windfall of history and inspiration.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“This picture book may resonate with science-minded children.” —Booklist.
ACR: I came across an article that not only mentioned Isaac Newton’s apple tree, but mentioned there were descendants of the tree on every continent except Antarctica. Then I found out the original tree was still alive. It blew my mind!
CP: I love the way you start and end with the idea that something small can change the world. Was that story structure there in your early drafts or did it develop over time?
ACR: Thank you! Those were the first words I actually wrote because that’s what really struck me about this particular tree … that a tiny seed could indeed change everything. I loved the truth of it.
CP:Were you particularly surprised by anything you learned as you conducted your research?
ACR: I did not originally know that Albert Einstein had visited the tree until I stumbled upon a newspaper article written at the time of his visit. I could NOT believe it. I was literally jumping for joy in front of my computer. There was even a picture!
CP: What was your reaction when you saw Yas Imamura’s wonderful illustrations for the book?
ACR: Her work is just stunning. The texture, the layering, and the contrast. She uses these elements to really drive the visual storytelling. What surprised me is how her work has an innovative edge and yet feels very classic. I love that!
ACR: My process is really the same in terms of learning as much as I can about a topic. With a longer format piece, I’ll dig way more into the details whereas picture books I’m constantly honed in on the heart of the story with every single word.
CP:Can you tell me three favorite research tips or resources that you wouldn’t want to be without?
ACR: The ability today to access primary sources from your computer is an unbelievable gift. And I love reading old newspaper articles, research papers, photos, contemporaneous drawings, and maps. But I also love talking to people and experts and asking lots of questions. That really helps with context. Eeep! I think that was more than three!
CP: No problem! The more the better. How do you decide which age level is most appropriate for a story idea?
ACR: Sometimes the amount of information available and the scope of a story will dictate that. But if ever I am debating it, I’ll check in with a librarian and look for books that handle similar material. And I will also talk to my agent and bounce these ideas and questions off of her. She has a sharp eye for this!
CP:Do you find it easier to write for one age group or another?
ACR: No! Each type of book comes with its own challenges and sweet spots!
CP:In addition to being a talented author, you’re an Emmy Award-winning investigative television reporter! Tell me about how you won that Emmy and what it felt like.
ACR: I was covering an ice storm in North Carolina and as my photographer shot video of line workers trying to restore power on the main lines. And there was a house nearby. And in the window was a little boy with his flashlight absolutely loving every minute the whole show… the ice, the workers, the trucks, the power outage, the flashlights… all of it. We found him just four hours before deadline and put together a story that celebrated the childhood joy of ice storms. I loved everything about it. Winning an Emmy for that story was really an honor. It was a difficult category to win. But as a little girl, I never dreamed that such a thing was possible for me. And so it felt really rewarding. And I was sure to mention that little boy by name in my acceptance speech!
CP:Wow! It really sounds like you were meant to tell children’s stories! What are some skills you used as an investigative television reporter and news anchor that have served you well in your career as an author of books for children?
ACR: The research skills have come in super handy and not quitting. Becoming a TV News Reporter can be as impossible as becoming a published author … so not giving up is super important. In both fields you need to put your work in front of people who know more about it than you do and get their feedback and learn from it. It’s scary, humbling, and SUPER helpful. So having a thick skin or ability to receive criticism is useful.
CP: Do you think you’ll ever go back to reporting the news on television?
ACR:No plans for that at this stage. I love writing for children and young adults. There is a freedom and creativity to it that I just adore.
ACR: Thank you for reading that post.Tom Ellis was a superstar Boston TV anchor who was so generous to me with his time, talent, and expertise. And I think we all need someone to remind us that we can accomplish difficult things and then give us some tools to get there. So, yes, having been the recipient of enormous generosity in both of my careers makes me so excited to hopefully be that little beacon of light to others who may need it. It’s also wonderful to join with other authors, illustrators, and agents to do that together, as a group. It’s been very moving and rewarding for me.
CP: I know you love visiting schools. Can you tell me about a school visit activity that’s been especially successful and fun?
ACR: I love handing kids a clipboard, magnifying glass, some primary sources that relate to a particular book or story, and then asking them to prove or disprove the story based on their research. It’s so much fun and the kids love it!
CP: What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you on a school visit?
ACR: I got a migraine headache midway through. The teacher had Excedrin on hand. I took it. It did not touch this headache. I was leading a super hands-on writing exercise and I was starting to sweat from the pain. There were just twenty minutes left of the clock. I was desperate–begging God to get me through it. Finally, the school bell rings. YES! And then the active-shooter alarm is activated. We had to hide in the dark library. Thirty minutes later the police cleared the school. All was well and I grabbed my special tote Macmillan gave me and started to drive for home. But at a stoplight I was overcome with migraine nausea. Quickly dumped the books out of my special tote … and threw up in it!
CP: Oh no!!! That’s terrible! At least you made it out of the school before you threw up. Haha! Let’s move on to a happier topic. What’s the best part about being a children’s book author?
ACR: I think when you have the opportunity to enter the sacred space of a book being held by a child … it’s like being the honored host of a critically important conversation, a special experience that could shape this young person by inspiring them, or seeing them, or making them laugh, or regain hope. I mean, how awesome is that?!
CP: Is there anything else I should have asked you?
CP:Aw! Thank you! That’s very kind. What’s next for you?
ACR: I’m working on a couple of picture books right now that I am wild about. And I’ve decided to try my hand at memoir writing and have to say, I really love it.
CP:How exciting! Based on what I know about your life so far that is a memoir I will definitely want to read. Thanks for chatting, Anna, and best of luck with The Gravity Tree and all your upcoming projects.
ACR:Thank you so much! This was so much fun and such a thoughtful conversation and I really appreciate it!
Anna Crowley Redding is the author of Chowder Rules!, Rescuing the Declaration of Independence, Google It, Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World, and Black Hole Chasers. The recipient of multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards, Crowley Redding uses her Emmy award-winning investigative reporting skills to dig into compelling topics that are shaping our world. Her works have been translated into multiple languages, garnered national news coverage, and been recognized by the National Association of Science Teachers for excellence. Crowley Redding lives outside of Portland, Maine with her family.
THIS IS A SEA COW
Written and illustrated by Cassandra Federman
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
This Is a Sea Cow, the debut picture book by Cassandra Federman, will have kids laughing out loud at story time especially at the lines about how much a sea cow weighs, how her milk “squirts out of her armpits!” and the size of their brains. Federman knows how to quickly pull her readers into this funny and informative story about the popular underwater mammal perhaps better known as a manatee. The titular sea cow actually prefers to be called a manatee for multiple reasons kids will learn about. Fact: Happy faces plastered with huge grins will appear throughout the duration of this book.
One thing I particularly adore about This Is a Sea Cow is the format Federman uses. The story unfolds as a child’s school book report about sea cows. Soon, however, the sea cow, who is the subject of the report, begins responding to the facts presented. This interactive approach is certain to engage young readers. I’m guessing they’ll start talking back to the book much like the audience does in an English pantomime.
At first the adorable blue-crayon-colored sea cow disputes most of what the student writes when it’s not complimentary. Fact: weight of 1,000 pounds. Response: “Hey! That’s personal information.” With each eagerly awaited page turn, youngsters will note how the student author highlights a fact or two the sea cow cannot disagree with. There’s the small size of its brain (see bottom illustration) and how small-brained explorers thought sea cows were mermaids. The report’s flattered blue subject basks in being considered the mythical water nymph. Those irresistible illustrations are some of my faves.
The book’s colorful, kid-like artwork cleverly incorporates a variety of features guaranteed to keep a child’s interest. There are speech bubbles (just some of the bubbles they’ll read about … the others being gassy ones), hand lettering, hand drawings, and paper cutouts. Interspersed with these are photos of real objects such as scissors, crayons, shells, staples, paper clips and a backpack.
The pleasing twist at the end will charm children who, like the second grade writer, easily fall for the sea cow, small brain, gassiness, toenails and all! And if that’s not sweet and silly enough, several other cute creatures chime in after being mentioned. Federman’s adept use of kid-friendly prose in this light-hearted look at the much-loved manatee will make this a regularly requested read for animal lovers.
Helpful back matter provides kids, parents and teachers with additional interesting info about sea cows like where they live and how fast they can swim. The names of several websites where readers can adopt a manatee or help injured ones are also included. Head over to your local independent bookseller to pick up a copy today and make a manatee (and me) happy.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Find This Is a Sea Cow activities for children on the Albert Whitman website here.
The dynamic duo of Fishman and Greenberg, who created the award-winning picture book A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars, partners again for Power Up: Your Incredible, Spectacular, Supercharged Body. This time, the focus switches from the amazing universe to the world within. Bite-sized explanations help bring such immense topics within reach. The text centers around the fact we’re made of energy and everything we do takes energy. “You are a fireball,” “Look at your pinkie. That little finger has enough energy to light up one of the biggest cities in the world for an entire day.”
Greenberg’s art brings fresh perspectives to what could be boring textbook images such as the skeleton and muscular systems. Positive messages help kids learn that they need to care for their supercharged bodies by eating, sleeping, and exercising.
Kids who like numbers will get into their groove with the many statistics. Did you know we’re born with 300 bones, but as some fuse we eventually have only 206? Or that the calf’s seven muscles help you point your toes? Nonfiction has come a long way with interesting books such as this one that makes learning fun and reminds us that we can (literally) “light up the world.”
Fishman’s upcoming local appearances include two 11:00 a.m. Barnes & Noble Storytimes: Saturday, March 23rd in Encinitas (1040 N El Camino Real Drive) and Saturday, March 30th in Manhattan Beach (1800 Rosecrans Avenue).
Tension builds naturally through Holt’s lyrical mirrored text. Of the graphite; “Mighty, unyielding, brilliant. The rock would dazzle if it had any light to reflect, but it doesn’t.” She writes of the boy; “Mighty, unyielding, brilliant. His inventions dazzle classmates, But Tracy is still penny poor, with so many ideas floating just out of reach.”
The tale celebrates Hall’s perseverance and resolve in the face of poverty and bullying. These obstacles ultimately build his resilience as he develops an invention to produce industrial diamonds. For those interested in learning more about diamonds, Holt provides backmatter on the mined diamond industry including the DeBeers monopoly and “blood diamond” conflict in Africa. A timeline and bibliography are also appended.
Fleck’s color-saturated illustrations are digitally enhanced and multi-layered, keeping the focus squarely on the man and the gem. Clever use of the color palette, alternating between the echoing narratives, helps balance the book visually. The contrast nicely reinforces the natural comparison of Hall’s and the diamond’s transformations. Fleck makes excellent use of angular elements such as the striations of the earth, books shelved in the library, diamond facets and kite strings, while occasional red-orange ‘explosions’ emphasize dramatic changes.
In THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY, Holt offers a personal and noteworthy celebration of a man deep in substance and character. This book is a different and delightful choice for readers of history, industrial manufacturing, or STEM classroom libraries. The intersection of science and personal character development is a unique and rich format that will engage a variety of readers and potential young inventors.
Where obtained: I reviewed either an advanced reader’s copy from the publisher or a library edition and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.