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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Out of The Blue

 

OUT OF THE BLUE:
How Animals Evolved from Prehistoric Seas

Written by Elizabeth Shreeve

Illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon

(Candlewick; $17.99, Ages 6-9)

 

 

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus and School Library Journal

 

Before the text begins, Elizabeth Shreeve’s nonfiction picture book cleverly has readers guess, among hippos, dolphins, and sharks, which two animals are the closest relatives? For the answer, you’ll have to read Out of the Blue: How Animals Evolved from Prehistoric Seas.

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OUT OF THE BLUE. Text copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Shreeve. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Frann Preston-Gannon. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

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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.)

 

 

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OUT OF THE BLUE. Text copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Shreeve. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Frann Preston-Gannon. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

 

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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.

 

 

NOTE: I received the book for free from Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

 

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Nonfiction Picture Book – A Brief History of Underpants for National Underwear Day

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNDERPANTS

Written by Christine Van Zandt

Illustrated by Harry Briggs

(becker&meyer!kids; Paperback $9.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

A Brief History of Underpants cover

 

 

Let’s talk tushes, well what goes on them to be precise.

Before I do though, and for the record, debut picture book author Christine Van Zandt is a long-time reviewer for this blog. But even if she weren’t, I’d still have to gush about A Brief History of Underpants because I think what she’s uncovered about underwear is fascinating. More important than what I think is what kids will, and I don’t know how they’ll be able to resist getting the low-down on undies or all the punderful facts Christine points out that’ll crack kids up. Plus the cool cover reveal-wheel is simply hard to stop spinning, even for an adult.

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Interior spread from A Brief History of Underpants written by Christine Van Zandt and illustrated by Harry Briggs, becker&meyer!kids ©2021.

 

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This entertaining, informative, and fast-paced 48-page nonfiction picture book is compact and perfect for kids to bring along on a trip or give as a gift. Conveniently broken down into four accessible chapters, and an Extras section (to be read in one go or slowly to be savored like a treat), A Brief History of Underpants makes learning about this topic a jaunty journey through the ages then back to the present day. 

Chapter One, “Crusty Old Buns,” is brief but interesting as it addresses the need for underpants (see photo above) that we may take for granted while also shedding light on some discoveries that confirmed how far back in time the garments were worn. Chapter Two, “Underpants Around the World” is my favorite. Travel the globe and back in time for a glimpse of the usually unglimpsable “unmentionables” while finding out how various cultures viewed the value of underpants. Whether one’s interested in what King Tut put on his “royal rear” or what Genghis Khan wore to avoid getting himself killed by a poison-tipped arrow, it’s all there and more.

 

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Interior spread from A Brief History of Underpants written by Christine Van Zandt and illustrated by Harry Briggs, becker&meyer!kids ©2021.

 

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Christine’s also peppered fun facts throughout the book such as how a person’s age or social status could be reflected in the “fabric, style and decorations on their loincloth” or how making red dye in Ancient Egypt involved using sheep poop! We even learn how pee mixed with ashes was used in the cleaning process of undergarments in Europe. Chapter Three, “Cheeky Inventions” shows just how far undies’ technology has come. For example, buttons were made in Pakistan thousands of years before buttonholes evolved in 13th century Germany! The sewing machine meant home-sewn underpants could be replaced by multiple store-bought ones and the invention of elastic made keeping on one’s undies so simple. Chapter Four introduces readers to “Tushes Today Worldwide” covering the 1980s to now and why this post was scheduled for today. It’s National Underpants Day in the U.S.A. so we can celebrate how far (including the International Space Station) these “unmentionables” have come.

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Interior spread from A Brief History of Underpants written by Christine Van Zandt and illustrated by Harry Briggs, becker&meyer!kids ©2021.

 

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The “Extras” chapter features a craft for making Japanese fundoshi, a long strip of cloth worn by Samurai warriors, some jokes, and further reading. I know I’m ready to read more about King Tut and the 145 pairs of underpants that he was buried with. Christine’s well-researched text, coupled with Harry Briggs’s outlined, doodle-style, hilarious art has just the right kid appeal for this age group. I give this book a resounding bottoms (okay thumbs) up and hope your children find it as enjoyable and educational as I did. Not only will this be a looked-forward-to nonfiction read for kids, but teachers and librarians can welcome the heightened interest this most delightful delve into a fashion staple provides.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Click here for a cover reveal of this book with some insights about the inspiration from Christine.

 

 

 

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Kids Picture Book Biography – The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

 

 

 

THE POLIO PIONEER:
DR. JONAS SALK AND THE POLIO VACCINE

Written by Linda Elovitz Marshall

Illustrated by Lisa Anchin

(Knopf BYR; $17.99; AGES 4-8)

 

 

The Polio Pioneer book cover art of Jonas Salk

 

A topic on everyone’s tongues these days is vaccinations. When she wrote this book, Linda E Marshall likely 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 Vaccine written by Linda Elovitz Marshall with illustrations by Lisa Anchin.

 

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Interior illustrations from The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine written by Linda Elovitz Marshall and illustrated by Lisa Anchin, Knopf BYR ©2020.

 

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.”

 

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Interior illustrations from The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine written by Linda Elovitz Marshall and illustrated by Lisa Anchin, Knopf BYR ©2020.

 

 

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.

 

 

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Interior illustrations from The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine written by Linda Elovitz Marshall and illustrated by Lisa Anchin, Knopf BYR ©2020.

 

 

  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.”

 

 

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Interior illustrations from The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine written by Linda Elovitz Marshall and illustrated by Lisa Anchin, Knopf BYR ©2020.

 

 

“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. 

  •  Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
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An Interview with Anna Crowley Redding – Author of The Gravity Tree

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH 

ANNA CROWLEY REDDING

AUTHOR OF

THE GRAVITY TREE:

THE TRUE STORY OF A TREE THAT INSPIRED THE WORLD

Illustrated By Yas Imamura

(HarperCollins; $17.99, Ages 4 to 8)

The Gravity Tree cover

 

 

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews 

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

The Gravity Tree: The True Story of a Tree That Inspired the World

Written by Anna Crowley Redding and illustrated by Yas Imamura

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.

 

INTERVIEW:

 

Colleen Paeff: Hi Anna! Congratulations on the release of The Gravity Tree: The True Story of a Tree That Inspired the World. What sparked the idea for this book?

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!

 

 

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Interior art from The Gravity Tree written by Anna Crowley Redding and illustrated by Yas Imamura, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

 

CP: Your books Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World and Google It: A History of Google are for Young Adult readers. Black Hole Chasers: The Amazing True Story of an Astronomical Breakthrough (coming in September 2021) is for a middle-grade audience, and Rescuing the Declaration of Independence, Chowder Rules, and The Gravity Tree are all picture books. Is your research process different for picture books, middle grade, and YA? 

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!

 

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Interior spread from The Gravity Tree written by Anna Crowley Redding and illustrated by Yas Imamura, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

 

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.

 

CP: You co-lead a couple weekly audio chat rooms for writers on Clubhouse, and I’m always so impressed with how welcoming and encouraging you are to new writers who join in. As I read your incredibly moving blog post, If Not for Tom Ellis: The Mentor Who Changed My Life and the Lessons he Leaves Behind, I found myself wondering if part of the appeal of Clubhouse for you is that it allows you to play a mentorship role for aspiring authors. Do you think that’s true?

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.

 

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Interior art from The Gravity Tree written by Anna Crowley Redding and illustrated by Yas Imamura, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

 

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?

ACR: Do you actually know Colleen Paeff?

ACR: Yes, she is incredibly talented, a very nice person, and everyone should buy The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem and follow her on Instagram. (Seriously, you will not be disappointed.)

 

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 Photo credit Dave Dostie
Anna Crowley Redding      Photo Credit: Dave Dostie

BRIEF BIO:

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.

 

 

 


LINKS:

Website: annacrowleyredding.com

Instagram: @annacrowleyredding

Twitter: @AnnaRedding

 

FOR MORE ON ANNA CROWLEY REDDING:

Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb

Epic Achievements and Fantastic Failures

Kidlit411 Author Spotlight: Anna Crowley Redding

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (available August 31, 2021, from Margaret K. McElderry Books) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books). Click here for more info.

 

 

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Kids’ Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Becoming a Good Creature

BECOMING A GOOD CREATURE

Written by Sy Montgomery

Illustrated by Rebecca Green

(HMH BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-7)

 

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Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal

 

Sy Montgomery’s New York Times best-selling memoir, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, inspired the picture book, Becoming a Good Creature. Herein she conveys her beliefs that we can—and should—learn from animals. Montgomery’s fundamental messages include “respect others,” “find good teachers,” and “see for yourself.” She encourages us to take a closer look at the world and everything inhabiting it. In doing so, we are bound to “love little lives” and find ways to nurture them because we’re all in this together.

 

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Interior spread from Becoming a Good Creature written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BYR ©2020.

 

While naturalist and adventurer Montgomery has led an extraordinary life, traveling the world and living with animals, we don’t have to fly far away to find something worth exploring.

 

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Interior spread from Becoming a Good Creature written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BYR ©2020.

 

During the pandemic, my family has discovered and interacted with previously overlooked insects in our garden. Becoming a Good Creature reinforces such behavior. It also shows that women can make their own families and forge their own paths.

 

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Interior spread from Becoming a Good Creature written by Sy Montgomery and illustrated by Rebecca Green, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BYR ©2020.

 

Rebecca Green’s paintings, full of delightful animals, depict Montgomery from girl through woman and showcase how curiosity inspired her positive interactions with animals around the globe. For example, alongside the beautifully poignant illustrations of an octopus, a young Montgomery wonders what could we possibly have in common with them; the answer is playing! This uplifting book stresses the importance of communication and caring—much-needed actions for successful coexistence on our planet.

  • Click here then scroll down the page to learn more about Rebecca Green’s artwork.
  • Read a review of another picture book about animals here.

 

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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity

 

THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY:
A Tale of The Genius Ramanujan

Written by Amy Alznauer

Illustrated by Daniel Miyares

(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 5-9)

 

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Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

 

Did you know Srinivasa Ramanujan was one of the greatest mathematicians the world has seen? I didn’t, but was thankful to come across The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity by Amy Alznauer and learn a little bit about this man whose amazing accomplishments are still studied today.

 

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THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY. Copyright © 2020 by Amy Alznauer. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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Born in a small South Indian village in 1887, Ramanujan began questioning the world at an early age: “What is small? And what is big?” He spent endless hours writing and erasing on his slate, trying to capture his thoughts about numbers and size. “Ramanujan was a number theorist, a person who studies the properties and patterns of numbers.” This book’s examples make these large concepts easy to understand such as when Ramanujan takes food to the man by the river who claims to see odd creatures that aren’t there. To this, Ramanujan says, “Sometimes even invisible things can be real.” Kids can relate to this while their parents have a greater understanding of what Ramanujan meant.

This self-taught genius felt alone with his thoughts until reaching out to Cambridge University in England because of its great mathematical center where he finally connects with top mathematician, G. H. Hardy (whose pamphlet on infinity Ramanujan had recently discovered). Just six years after making that connection, Ramanujan died in 1920, at the age of thirty-two. “The profound originality of his ideas has been a source of inspiration for mathematicians ever since.”

 

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THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY. Copyright © 2020 by Amy Alznauer. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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Daniel Miyares’s lovely illustrations show us Ramanujan’s India blended skillfully with the boy’s thoughts. One of my favorite scenes discusses how numbers whisper to Ramanujan in his sleep; he tries catching ideas before they disappear. The accompanying art has multiple images of Ramanujan leaping and climbing on numbers, set against a night sky. Get this book for the kid in your life with big thoughts—whether anyone else can see them or not.

 

 

  • Click here to order a copy of The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity.
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    Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/19/20

 

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Picture Book Review – The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box

THE BOY WHO THOUGHT OUTSIDE THE BOX:
The Story of Video Game Inventor Ralph Baer

Written by Marcie Wessels

Illustrated by Beatriz Castro

(Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 5 and up)

 

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I like the play on words in the title, The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box, written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, which you’ll understand after you read the review of this interesting and recommended nonfiction picture book.

The book’s main character, Ralph Baer, was born in Cologne Germany and enjoyed doing things other kids his age did, like riding his scooter or playing stick hockey. Wessels doesn’t mention specific dates, but adults and older readers will know the action was unfolding in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power, which is mentioned. Around that time, readers are told, Hitler began making life difficult for the country’s Jewish people. And, since Ralph was Jewish, “Even former friends became enemies.” He was bullied, and attacks by the Nazis were not uncommon.

 

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Interior spread from The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, Sterling Children’s Books ©2020.

 

“With no one to play with, Ralph spent more time indoors, tinkering with his construction set.” Not only was Ralph able to complete all the models in the manual, he also came up with many clever ideas of his own.

 

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Interior spread from The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, Sterling Children’s Books ©2020.

 

Restrictions on Jews didn’t stop Ralph from learning even despite being kicked out of school at age 14 for being Jewish. In 1938 Ralph and his family fled Germany. Once in America, his inventiveness proved invaluable. When he saw a way to speed up handiwork that he, his sister and his mother were doing to help make ends meet, Ralph created a prototype machine. Soon they doubled the amount of projects being completed, increasing their earnings. Always industrious, Ralph took a radio repair course which led to “… fixing radios for the entire neighborhood.”

In the army, since necessity is the mother of invention, Ralph constructed a radio for his barracks from whatever bits and pieces he could find. Then, after WWII he learned how to build a TV set (the box in the title I referred to earlier). The advent of television heralded in a new era in family entertainment and Ralph saw immense “possibilities.” I was impressed with how Ralph’s career anticipated or paralleled the rise of home technology.

While Ralph saw the TV as a vehicle for playing games, his ideas were initially disregarded. He eventually held jobs building equipment for the U.S. military and for NASA. In fact “he embedded a radio transmitter in the handle of the video camera that astronaut Neil Armstrong took to the moon.” As time passed Ralph still envisioned the potential of TV and imagined “using an external box to control the TV to play games.” With the blessings and funding from one of his bosses, Ralph secretly created a home gaming system and “… the Brown Box, was born!” After numerous rejections, Magnavox took on Ralph’s invention and in 1972, the first iteration of the Odyssey went on sale. As we all know, the video game industry would grow in leaps and bounds over the decades and Baer can be credited with being one of its pioneers.

Wessels has made the story of Ralph Baer’s innovations an accessible and fascinating one. She’s managed to take a lifetime of Baer’s ingenuity and whittle it down to just 48 pages. While the book may read quickly, it definitely invites revisiting to let the scope of Baer’s achievements sink in. When children read the book or have it read to them, they’ll learn about more of Baer’s inventions and can find further sources for information in the back matter. Castro’s comic-like art wonderfully complements Wessel’s words. There is just enough realism to the illustrations when detailing the technology. She also conveys the right mood with the red palate during the dark days of Hitler. I’d love to see her do a graphic novel and could easily see Wessel’s story succeed in that format, too. The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box is a motivating STEM bio that will definitely resonate with unconventional thinkers and could very well inspire kids to pursue exciting new paths in learning.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Ten Children’s Books for the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

TEN+ TERRIFIC MOON-THEMED CHILDREN’S BOOKS
TO CELEBRATE THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY
OF THE APOLLO 11 MOON LANDING

 

 

 

Future Astronaut Book CoverFUTURE ASTRONAUT
Written by Lori Alexander
Illustrated by Allison Black
(Cartwheel Books; $8.99, Ages 0-3)

With its catchy opening line of Ground Control to Major Baby, a play on popular David Bowie lyrics, Future Astronaut is off and running! You want cute? This is cute! Twenty-four pages playfully pit Alexander’s prose plus Black’s whimsical side by side illustrations of what it takes to be an astronaut against whether or not baby has what it takes to join NASA. Note its logo emblazoned on several uniforms worn by the adults. Healthy hearts, good eyes, and strong teeth are needed. Check! Baby’s passed that test. Astronauts swim and so does baby. Looks like baby’s on track so far! What about two astronauts working together as they float in orbit? Astronauts live and work in small spaces. On the opposite page are two friends playing inside cardboard boxes. Small spaces are Baby’s favorite places! My favorite illustrations show first an astronaut eating from her plastic dehydrated food packs while baby clearly enjoys playing with plastic too, though not as neatly! But cleverly, once space travel involves leaving home to visit “far-off places,” baby’s not quite ready to take the next step and Alexander wraps things up beautifully with a blissful baby ready to travel as far as dreamland.

Look There's a Rocket! Book CoverLOOK, THERE’S A ROCKET!
Text by Nosy Crow
Illustrated by Esther Aarts

(Nosy Crow; $7.99, Ages 0-3)

Another fun interactive book in Aarts’s “Look, There’s a … ” series of board books, this one’s ideal for little hands of Moon and Mars minded toddlers. Ten sturdy die cut pages let youngsters peek through the holes to see what’s next while answering easy questions in the rhyming text. Look, there’s a star and some planets outside. / Can you see three comets? / What a bumpy ride! Here’s a chance to introduce space travel in a colorful way that rocketeers will find hard to put down.

Moon's First Friends Book CoverMOON’S FIRST FRIENDS
Written by Susanna Leonard Hill
Illustrated by Elisa Paganelli
(Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

The Moon has always held such a fascination for mankind. What is it like up there? Is the Moon affecting our mood in addition to our tides? How long will it take to get there? But Hill’s picture book, Moon’s First Friends, turns that curiosity on its head by presenting a story told from the Moon’s point of view.

This Moon, friendly and a bit lonely, is watching Earth and its inhabitants evolve. From dinosaurs to caveman, from bicycle riders to hot air balloonists, from early rocket engineers to the Apollo 11 crew, the Moon sees everything, hoping, waiting … until one day in July it happens. Earth men blast off into space towards the Moon. Hill’s lyrical language here capture’s not only Moon’s joy, but everyone on Earth’s too. “At thirty stories high and weighing six million pounds, the rocket rose into the air amid an explosion of flames.” Several days later the mission makes it to the Moon. Then the most amazing thing occurs in Moon’s lifetime (and it’s my favorite part of the story), men emerge from the module and walk on Moon’s surface. Nothing would ever be the same after that visit. Young readers will share the delight felt by the Moon as expressed through welcome gifts of rocks and moon dust offered to the visitors. The astronauts bestow a token of their friendship as well by leaving a plaque that reads: HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON / JULY 1969, A.D. / WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND. They then plant an American flag and zoom back to Earth. The Moon is now confident others will follow suit.

Paganelli’s artwork is charming and cheerful, breathing life into the Moon and all the events leading up to July. Readers can find a selected bibliography in the front of the book as well as back matter about the Apollo 11 voyage plus a couple of photos. Another cool thing that’s been included is a scannable QR code so kids can listen to a recording of Neil Armstrong’s historic first words on the Moon!

ALIANA REACHES FOR THE MOONAliana Reaches for the Moon book cvr
Written by Laura Roettiger
Illustrated by Ariel Boroff
(Eifrig Publishing; $9.99, Ages 4-8)

Add Aliana Reaches for the Moon to your assortment of Moon books because, while this one’s not about that historic time in July 1969, it is about the Moon’s influence on one clever young girl.

Aliana is creative and observant, great qualities for an aspiring scientist. She tells Gustavo, her little brother, that she’s planning something secret to present him on his upcoming birthday. A calendar in the illustration that accompanies her dialogue shows that there will be a full moon on May 26, Gustavo’s big day. What is Aliana up to that involves making such a mess at home? Thankfully, her parents don’t complain because they know that whatever she’s creating will be worth it. Inspired by great women of science before her, Aliana wants to invent something unique for Gustavo but that  requires a lot of reading and preparation so she takes out a ton of library books to begin researching.

When the full moon arrives at last, Aliana shares the glowing result of her experiment. Behold an amazing “magical birthday cake!” And all it took was the ingenuity of gathering up five (Gustavo’s turning five years old) vases and glasses, filling them with marbles, coins, pieces of quartz and topping them “with a crystal from her collection … ” and waiting for the full moon to shine. Roettiger’s story shows readers what’s involved in inventing with the goal of motivating children to experiment themselves. By using the moon as her source, Aliana has harnessed the lunar light to bring her invention to life. Boroff’s jewel toned illustrations complement Roettiger’s prose as they convey the joy and satisfaction transforming a dream into reality can bring. An author’s note at the end explains the moon cycles for budding inventors.

I am Neil Armstrong book coverI AM NEIL ARMSTRONG
Written by Brad Meltzer
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
(Dial BYR; $14.99, Ages 5-8)

The fifteenth book in Meltzer’s best-selling “Ordinary People Change the World” series is like Armstrong himself, it doesn’t fail to deliver. Kids as well as adults will learn so much from the 40 pages of Armstrong’s biography. I didn’t know that even as a young child, the future first man on the Moon exhibited astronaut-worthy traits such as patience, bravery, and intelligence (he loved to read). He was obsessed with airplanes too. He worked hard from an early age to earn money for flying lessons, earning his pilot’s license even before his driver’s license!

After joining the navy and “flying in seventy-eight missions during the Korean War,” Armstrong went on to become a test pilot after college. He eventually heeded President Kennedy’s challenge of “… landing a man on the Moon” and applied to NASA and was accepted into their astronaut program. The rest as they say is history, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. A double gate-fold in the center of the book shows the Apollo 11 astronauts’ glorious view of the Moon and Eliopoulos’s other cartoon-style artwork playfully depicts the space journey with the Eagle ultimately landing on the Moon’s surface. Parents can remind children to keep an eye out for a picture of Meltzer hidden somewhere in this and all his other books in the series. I love how both astronaut John Glenn and mathematician Katherine Johnson are also featured in one of the illustrations because their contributions to our successful space exploration deserve recognition. As a humble individual, Armstrong always credited the entire team that helped put a man on the Moon.

When Armstrong took his first steps, “One-fifth of the world’s population was watching on TV.” Children love to learn facts like that which are not easily forgotten. I am Neil Armstrong provides age appropriate and always interesting information conveyed in a kid-friendly fashion that demonstrates how one man’s determination and humility changed the world forever. Meltzer mentions what Armstrong’s family said after he passed away: “Next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the Moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.” Back matter includes a time line of the space race and several color photos including ones of the Apollo 11 crew.

Moonstruck! Poems About Our Moon bk cvrMOONSTRUCK! POEMS ABOUT OUR MOON
Edited by Roger Stevens
Illustrated by Ed Boxall
(Otter-Barry Books; $16.99, Ages 7 and up)

Moonstruck!’s over 50 fab poems not only help children reflect on the momentous occasion from 50 years ago, but also touch upon so many different aspects of the moon orbit, landing as well as the mystery and majesty of the Moon itself. “The Lonely Side of The Moon” by Laura Mucha is about Michael Collins’ radio silence when he was separated from Armstrong and Aldrin for 48 minutes while Doda Smith’s “Dear Mr. Astronaut” features a child requesting some moon dust to add to his amazing collection of things. James Carter’s concrete poem, “The Moon Speaks!” is told from the moon’s perspective and B.J. Lee’s rhyming “Moon Marks” considers how long a dozen spacemen’s footprints will remain, frozen in time.

Classic poems from Emily Brontë and Robert Louis Stevenson join new ones from Catherine Benson and Celia Warren and many more. Not only is this an awe-inspiring anthology of moon-themed poetry from internationally known poets, it’s got interesting facts when they can add to the appreciation of a particular poem’s topic. Boxall’s beautiful black and white linocuts add another delightful dimension to what’s already an out of this world anthology. Keep this one on hand for National Poetry month!

Rocket to the Moon! Book CoverROCKET TO THE MOON!
Big Ideas That Changed the World #1
by Don Brown
(Amulet; $13.99, Ages 8-12)

Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal

If you love graphic novels, don’t miss picking up a copy of Brown’s Rocket to the Moon! because it’s an excellent way to experience the trajectory of space exploration in cartoon format. It’s also the first in what promises to be a super new series, “Big Ideas That Changed the World.” This fast yet engaging read taught me more than a thing or two about the history of rockets with its attention to detail both through the text and the illustrations. Celebrating “the hard-won succession of ideas that ultimately remade the world” the novel uses a narrator drawn from real life named Rodman Law to share the ups and downs of rocketry. We’re pulled into the story by this American daredevil’s attempt to launch a homemade rocket in the early 20th century.

Contrasting the entertaining introduction to the subject matter, Law takes us back in time to first century China where gunpowder was invented then fast forwards many centuries to explain how the British used rockets to bombard Fort McHenry in the War of 1812, hence Francis Scott Key’s lyrics in our national anthem, “… And the rockets’ red glare … ” We also find out how Jules Verne’s prescient science fiction novel, From the Earth to the Moon, influenced rocket scientists from Russia, Germany and the U.S. and how his vision translated into actual technology used during WWII. When the war ended, several German scientists surrendered to American authorities. Not long after, the space race began when the Soviets launched the first satellite and America, not be outshone by the Soviets, created NASA and the quest for U.S. travel beyond Earth began.

Brown goes above and beyond in recounting and depicting in his illustrations exactly how the competition played out which is what I’m sure tweens will enjoy. From sending dogs, mice, monkeys and chimpanzees into space (with some humorous and sad asides) to the ins and outs of peeing and pooping in a spacesuit, Brown doesn’t hesitate to illuminate us. But he manages to perfectly balance the funny facts with the serious ones including failed launches and devastating disasters resulting in death. About a month before President Kennedy announced the plan to land a man on the Moon, the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin into space on the first manned trip. So, with the clock ticking, NASA’s planning began. We see and read about how many missions prior to Apollo 11 led the way for America’s historic achievement but it wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight. It took dedication, smarts, teamwork, billions of dollars and eight years to get a man to the Moon. Yet Brown poignantly shows us how also, after all that had been accomplished, the last astronaut to walk on the moon was Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan in 1972, which is when Brown’s novel ends. Throughout the book, Brown’s artwork seamlessly succeeds at pushing the narrative forward and only adds to the emotional connection readers will feel with the subject matter. Ten pages at the end offer a helpful timeline, info about Rodman Law, Notes, a Bibliography and an Author’s Note. Needless to say, I devoured all 136 pages of Rocket to the Moon! It was carefully researched and presented in such an exciting format making it an invaluable and must-read graphic novel for middle grade kids.

Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon book cvrCOUNTDOWN: 2979 DAYS TO THE MOON
Written by Suzanne Slade
Illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez
(Peachtree Publishers; $22.95, Ages 10 and up)

The title of this middle grade nonfiction book, Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon, refers to the amount of time it would take to land a man on the moon starting from May 25, 1961, the day President Kennedy first made his historic challenge. This clever date-driven concept, presented in winning free verse by Slade, combines with Gonzalez’s dramatic illustrations to give a well-rounded account of that critical time in our nation’s history. Black and white as well as color photos add to the energy that emanates from Countdown.

Readers will find they soar through the book as Slade deftly describes the missions from Apollo 1 through Apollo 11 including the tragic Apollo 1 fire that killed astronauts, Grissom, Chaffee and White. The sacrifice made by those three courageous men on January 27, 1967 was not in vain and resulted in life-saving improvements in subsequent missions. Following the fire Apollo 2 is grounded and “NASA decides there will never be a mission called Apollo 3.” Apollo 4 and 5 are unmanned and successful. “The dream is still alive.” Following that triumph, Apollo 6 fails and fears about the future loom large. Soon Apollo 7 is manned for space travel and will circle Earth. The crew even make TV appearances then return home jubilant. “It’s time for Apollo to head to the Moon!” Tweens may recognize the names of the Apollo 8 crew, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. They become the first humans to fly above Earth orbit and to reach lunar orbit. I cannot imagine how it felt when they could see the Moon!

Slade intersperses actual astronaut dialogue which heightens the impact of these mind-blowing moments. She gets into more technical detail than I will here, but suffice it to say kids will learn the lingo and understand who and what’s involved in getting a mission off the ground. Apollo 9 and 10 are also monumental achievements, with their advanced space technology put into action with a space walk, a lunar and command module separation and re-connection, and flying the lunar module just miles from the Moon surface. Look out Moon, here we come! Of course Apollo 11 is given no short shrift but I’m out of space (no pun intended) so get this book and experience the excitement this 50th anniversary is celebrating. When the book ends, 18 astronauts will have braved the risks of space travel and fulfilled President’s Kennedy’s dream. On July 20, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon said of the Moon landing, “For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride in what you have done, and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.”

This inside look at the Apollo missions confirms the contributions of a vast team of individuals (400,000) whose dedication to the shared vision “never wavered.” Slade and Gonzalez have clearly worked hard to brought that vision to every page of this beautiful book. Enjoy additional info in the Author’s and Illustrator’s Notes plus more photos in the back matter.

To The Moon and Back book cover TO THE MOON AND BACK: MY APOLLO 11 ADVENTURE
A Pop-up Book
Written by Buzz Aldrin with Marianne J. Dyson
Paper Engineering by Bruce Foster
(National Geographic Children’s Books; $32.00, Ages 8-12)

Prepare for liftoff, lift up (pop-up and pull really) then prepare to be wowed by the impressive and brilliantly executed paper engineering along with a fascinating first hand account by astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon in To The Moon and Back.

Kids even younger than eight will enjoy the design element of this book but the text truly is geared for an older reader who will appreciate the candid and detailed commentary Aldrin has contributed to the book. In just 16 pages, readers are filled in on all that was involved in beating the USSR to a Moon landing and having the first men walk on its surface. I like how we’re pulled in immediately by the first spread showing photos of a newspaper headline, President Kennedy and the Apollo 11 crew positioned on top of a powerful image of the lunar module floating in space near the Moon. “Historians have called this story humanity’s greatest adventure” and I agree, especially considering how much was at stake.

The second spread and first pop-up depicts Aldrin’s space walk on the last Gemini flight, 12, juxtaposed against an enormous shot of Earth. It’s definitely the first “Wow!” moment but not the last! Here we learn Aldrin was nicknamed Dr. Rendezvous because of his excellent abilities at docking, a crucial element of the Moon mission. This page also features a recollection by Jan Aldrin, Buzz’s daughter about the day that Gemini 12 took off for space. Additional exclusive reflections can also be found on other pages. Filled with an insider’s anecdotes, this book is not only a great way to learn about Moon exploration, it’s also a fast, entertaining read.

What works in an interactive book like To the Moon and Back is how the story of Apollo 11 comes alive. By learning from Aldrin himself how he first came to join NASA in 1963 all the way through to his ultimate achievement of reaching the moon is inspiring. At the same time looking closely at the the pop-ups and other interesting images along with Jan Aldrin’s recollections, make this a powerful educational tool for kids. The engaging nature of the book means space enthusiasts can easily follow along on the successive missions, while reading about which astronauts were involved and what new goals were accomplished or sadly, sometimes not. Before that decade had ended, America had achieved what had once seemed impossible, confirming the “endless endurance of the human spirit.”

A bonus paper model to build is included. Tweens can assemble the Apollo11 Lunar Module and go to natgeokids.com/to-the-moon for additional step-by-step and video instructions.

Space Race Book CoverSPACE RACE: THE STORY OF SPACE EXPLORATION
TO THE MOON AND BEYOND

by Ben Hubbard
(B.E.S. Publishing Co.; $18.99, Ages 10-13)

There’s more to this book than simply a comprehensive history of “humanity’s journey into space.” It’s actually a book that’s been enhanced with augmented reality (AR). All readers need to do is download the Space Race AR app to be able to see detailed 3D spacecraft and vehicle models appear right on the pages of the book! Kids can also “watch videos come to life on the page, including real-life footage from NASA. How cool is that?

From Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Union’s chief rocket designer whose identity was kept top secret “for fear the Americans would assassinate him,” to the search for alien life (aka SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), it’s all here to soak up in 96 fantastic pages. 

The book is broken up into six accessible chapters averaging between 13-16 pages: “The Race for Rockets”, “Humans in Space,” “The Moon in View”, “Space Stations and Shuttles,” “Probing the Planets,” and “Into the Future.” Tweens can choose to read the book in order or pick their favorite topic and indulge themselves. What’s wonderful is that even without using the AR app, I found the illustrations absolutely gorgeous. There are also a tremendous amount of photographs that capture important moments in time, and quotes such as one from Gus Grissom before his tragic death on Apollo 1 when killed by fire, If we die, do not mourn for us. This is a risky business we’re in and we accept those risks.” One of my favorite spreads in Space Race is the one where we get a peak inside the Apollo spacesuits. Its designers really thought of everything and I’m sure Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were grateful! For readers eager to learn more about living in space, the space station section offers detailed info on life aboard MIR.

This book will be a hit in classrooms, libraries and at home. Pick up a copy to be up-to-date on what’s happening in outer space and beyond the solar system.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS:

HELLO WORLD! MOON LANDING
by Jill McDonald

LUNA: The Science and Stories of Our Moon
by David A. Aguilar

BUZZ ALDRIN
National Geographic Early Reader Level 3
by Kitson Jazynka

A COMPUTER CALLED KATHERINE: How Katherine Johnson
Helped Put America on the Moon
by Suzanne Slade
Illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison

Read a fascinating article about Katherine Johnson called “The Path to The Moon” written by Joseph Taylor in Cricket.  Johnson, who worked at NASA “helped figure out the mathematics behind space travel—specifically the path astronauts would take to make it to the moon and back.”

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Kids Book Review: Best Poetry Picture Books for National Poetry Month

APRIL IS NATIONAL POETRY MONTH
Share a Poem Today!

It may be the last day of April, but I hope that won’t stop anyone from bringing poetry into the lives of children. Here’s a roundup of some recommended reads not just for National Poetry Month, but for every day of the year. Let the joy of a wonderful poem inspire kids. I know many people, myself included, who still can recall poems from their childhood. What a testament to the power of a great poem!

 

Home Run, Touchdown, Basket, Goal! book cover artHOME RUN, TOUCHDOWN, BASKET, GOAL!
Sports Poems for Little Athletes
Written and illustrated by Leo Landry
(Godwin Books/Henry Holt BYR,; $17.99, Ages 3-6)

I chose Home Run, Touchdown, Basket, Goal! because the title was just so good, plus the idea of poetry for young athletes also seemed like a clever concept. The twelve poems, all rhyming, range from baseball to tennis and include others about biking, gymnastics, karate, ice skating, soccer and swimming and feel appropriate for the recommended age group. There are some super, energetic lines that kids will relate to, in this example, about football: Go long! I shout. You get the hint. You’re headed for the end zone—sprint! The sports selected are as diverse as the children participating. Every illustration shows both girls and boys, children of color and I even spotted one bald child although no child with a visible disability was depicted. Landry uses a pale palate of watercolors in simple spreads that each bleed off the page and convey movement and emotion. My favorite illustration is of three girls, mouths wide open, as you’d imagine, arms linked in friendship and for fun, cannonballing into a pool. Score!

book cover art from Clackety Track: Poems About TrainsCLACKETY TRACK:
Poems About Trains

Written by Skila Brown
Illustrated by Jamey Christoph
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 5-8)

I remember when my children were into all things ‘train.’ That meant playing with toy trains, reading train stories and traveling on trains too. Clackety Track is an ideal pick
for youngsters already loco for locomotives or eager to learn more about them. A variety of Brown’s poems, rhyming and not, cleverly cover interesting types of this transportation mode. “Steam Engine” for example, pays homage to the powerful granddaddy: Biggest beast you’ve ever seen. Gobbling up a coal cuisine. One hundred tons of steel machine. Belching out a steam smoke screen. Other poems tell of snow plows, zoo trains, underground trains, sleeper trains and more. Handy train facts at the end add to the book’s appeal and I like how they’re presented in the body of train. Christoph’s engaging, retro-style illustrations bring a cool look to the book. I especially liked the Swiss electric train spread because it reminded me of the ones I used to travel on when I lived in Europe. Kids are going to want to study every detail included in the artwork just like my children used to and then compare them to the real deal when they next travel by rail.

The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog book cover illustrationTHE PROPER WAY TO MEET A HEDGEHOG:
And Other How-To Poems
Selected by Paul B. Janeczko
Illustrated by Richard Jones
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 6-9)

New and old poems by powerhouse poets from Kwame Alexander to Allan Wolf, all selected by the late Paul B. Janeczko, fill this fabulous collection that will inspire young readers. Have your child or student write their own How To poem and see where it takes them. You may laugh, cry and be surprised just like the emotions the poems in this anthology evoke. Kids’ imaginations will be fed by this feast of words and subjects. This 48-page picture book opens with “How to Build a Poem” by Charles Ghinga, Let’s build a poem made of rhyme with words like ladders we can climb, … Then 32 more follow including the humorous “Rules” by Karla Kuskin, “How to Bird-Watch,” a Tanka by Margarita Engle, “On the Fourth of July” by Marilyn Singer and proof how so few words can say so much, the book ends with April Halprin Wayland’s “How to Pay Attention.” Close this book. Look.

I absolutely adored the artwork by Richard Jones, too, and find it hard to pick a favorite because like the myriad poems, there are just too many great illustrations to note. But I’ll try: the expansive shades of orange image with a solo astronaut suited up in white that accompanies Irene Latham’s “Walking on Mars” is one I keep revisiting; the tail end of a dog in the scene of two friends making snow angels complements “How to Make a Snow Angel” by Ralph Fletcher; and Pat Mora’s “How to Say a Little Prayer” features a girl and her cat asleep on her bed that could be in a forest or her bedroom and reflect’s the poet’s lines, Think about a sight you like—yellow flowers, your mom’s face, a favorite tree, a hawk in flight—breathing slowly in and out. Pick your faves to read-aloud before bedtime or devour The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog in its entirety. A Junior Library Guild Selection

Superlative Birds book cover artSUPERLATIVE BIRDS
Written Leslie Bulion
Illustrated by Robert Meganck
(Peachtree Publishing; $15.95, Ages 8-12)

Leslie Bulion’s Superlative Birds succeeds by having that re-readability factor because of its poems, its subject matter, its facts and its artwork. While it’s not a grammar book, the superlative refers to the trait or characteristic that a certain bird has demonstrating “the highest or a very high degree of a quality (e.g. bravest, most fiercely ). Headings give a clue. For example the “Most Numerous” would have to be the queleas bird whose adult population is an estimated 1.5 billion! The bird with the widest wingspan is the albatross and the jacana, with its long, long toes can actually walk on a lily pad and not sink! And which bird has the keenest sense of smell? Why it’s the turkey vulture. A charming chickadee leads readers on the journey with informative speech bubbles and science notes for each bird helps us get the inside scoop on what makes the bird tick, or sing or scavenge. The gorgeous illustrations introduce us to the bird and there’s always something extra like an action or a funny expression to note in each image whether that be a mouse in a rowboat, a fleeing lizard or frightened rodent. Kids will LOL at the skunk covering his nose from the repulsive stink of the hoatzin, the smelliest bird. I noticed as I read that Bulion incorporated many different forms of poetry into the book and in the poetry notes in the back matter she describes what form of poem she used. There’s also a glossary, resource info and acknowledgements. And if you’re like me, you’ll check out the end papers because the ones in the beginning of the book are slightly different in one particular way than the ones at the end. If you’re keen on finding a new way to foster a love of birds and poetry coupled with crisp art and tons of detail, this may be the best book out there. Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

book cvr art from The Day The Universe Exploded My HeadTHE DAY THE UNIVERSE EXPLODED MY HEAD
Poems to Take You Into Space and Back Again
Written by Allan Wolf
Illustrated by Anna Raff
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

As I read the first poem in The Day The Universe Exploded My Head, a humorous and enlightening picture book, ideal for middle graders, I thought of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Sympathy for the Devil” and the line Please allow me to introduce myself because that’s exactly what the character of Sun does in the first poem called “The Sun: A Solar Sunnet, er, Sonnet.” In this 14 line poem Sun introduces itself to readers in a more serious tone than its title and illustration, yet manages to convey the “gravity” of its existence. Wolf’s 29 poems always educate but entertain too so they are sure to grab and hold the attention of even the most reluctant of tween readers. Raff’s whimsical artwork that accompanies each poem gets it right by often anthropomorphizing planets, moons and stars who rock accoutrements and accessories from sunglasses and skirts to bow ties and baseball caps. It also includes cartoon-like images of astronauts, children and even Galileo.

Kids will learn while getting a kick out of poems that range from concrete “Black Hole”; sonnet, “Mars”; and rap, “Going The Distance” and many more that guarantee enthusiastic read-aloud participation. Wolf’s poems cover the universe and space exploration and share facts in such a fun and rewarding way. I think if I had to memorize facts about space, using poetry would be an excellent way. “Jupiter”: I’m Jupiter the giant. The solar system’s mayor: I’m gas and wind and clouds wedged into thick lasagna layers. Other poems pay tribute to “The Children of Astronomy,” those who died throughout the history of spaceflight, the moon, and eclipses. Four pages of back matter round out this explosively enjoyable book that’s truly out of this world.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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The Diamond and The Boy by Hannah Holt

THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY:
THE CREATION OF DIAMONDS AND THE LIFE OF H. TRACY HALL
Written by Hannah Holt

Illustrated by Jay Fleck
(Balzer & Bray; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.

 

The Diamond and The Boy book cover art

 

Starred Review – Booklist

Holt’s debut nonfiction picture book digs deep into family history, introducing readers to natural and industrial diamond creation with an engaging dual narrative structure.

Cleverly designed, THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY: THE CREATION OF DIAMONDS AND THE LIFE OF H. TRACY HALL is engineered to compare graphite, a common gray rock, and young Tracy Hall, an inventor and the author’s grandfather. Free-form poetry on facing pages invite easy associations between the rock and the boy, subjected to physical and societal pressures respectively, which transform them over time.

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.”

 

int spread rock boy from The Diamond and The Boy by Hannah Holt
Interior illustrations from The Diamond and The Boy written by Hannah Holt with artwork by Jay Fleck, Balzer & Bray ©2018.

 

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.

 

int artwork small gray meager from The Diamond and The Boy
Interior illustrations from The Diamond and The Boy written by Hannah Holt with artwork by Jay Fleck, Balzer & Bray ©2018.

 

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.

 

interior artwork from The Diamond and The Boy Waiting
Interior illustrations from The Diamond and The Boy written by Hannah Holt with artwork by Jay Fleck, Balzer & Bray ©2018.

 

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.

  • Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
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Earth Verse by Sally M. Walker For Earth Day and National Poetry Month

EARTH VERSE: HAIKU FROM THE GROUND UP
Written by Sally M. Walker
Illustrated by William Grill
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 7-9)

 

A Junior Library Guild Selection

 

Earth Verse: Haiku from the Ground Up book cover

 

At the intersection of Earth Day and National Poetry Month is Earth Verse: Haiku From the Ground Up written by Sally M. Walker with illustrations by William Grill. Let these 32 pages of unique 17 syllable poems fill you with awe and respect for planet Earth. From her place in the solar system to her “molten magma stew,” from her “fossil family” to her “sky shenanigans,” Earth is at once a marvel and our home.

 

“a flat stone, skipping,
casts circles across the lake,
lassoing the fish.”

 

Earth Verse celebrates the planet in all its majesty and mayhem. In other words, not only are the oceans and rivers written about, so are storms and tsunamis. We read about fog, volcanoes, glaciers and icebergs. We travel underground to see stalactites and stalagmites because there’s so much more below the surface, both in the verse and on our planet. Grill’s colored pencil artwork conveys just enough of a reference point while leaving lots to our imaginations. Nine pages of STEAM-themed back matter round out the book and make this picture book appropriate and desirable for both Earth Day and National Poetry Month though it can truly be enjoyed year round, just like our precious planet.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez

JOAN PROCTER, DRAGON DOCTOR
Written by Patricia Valdez,
Illustrated by Felicita Sala
(Alfred A. Knopf BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Cover illustration from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor

 

Lovely language and engaging illustrations energize Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles, an amazing picture book biography about a trailblazing scientist from debut author Patricia Valdez and illustrator Felicita Sala.

 

Interior illustration of young Joan from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor
Interior spread from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez with illustrations by Felicita Sala, Knopf BYR ©2018.

 

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!

 

Interior illustration spread from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor
Interior spread from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez with illustrations by Felicita Sala, Knopf BYR ©2018.

 

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.

 

Interior illustration of tea party from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor
Interior artwork from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez with illustrations by Felicita Sala, Knopf BYR ©2018.

 

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 Doctor is 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.

 

Interior illustration from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor
Interior artwork from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez with illustrations by Felicita Sala, Knopf BYR ©2018.

 

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

 

 

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Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean written by Sigrid Schmalzer

 

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.

 Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean cover image

 

 

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.

 

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Outdoor Math: Fun Activities for Every Season by Emma AdBåge

OUTDOOR MATH:
FUN ACTIVITIES FOR EVERY SEASON
Written and illustrated by Emma AdBåge
(Kids Can Press; $15.95, Ages 5-8)

 

Outdoor Math cover image

 

I am so glad I had the chance to read Outdoor Math and have only positive things to say about it. This delightfully illustrated book is super fun and packed with hands-on activities that focus on going outdoors and playing. The book starts off with an introduction to numbers 0-10 with real world examples, then there are numerous math activities for each season of the year, followed by a brief explanation and examples of plus and minus, then multiply and divide. There’s even some science that can be learned especially when engaging in the seasonal-themed activities.

 

Outdoor Math Pg 11
Outdoor Math: Fun Activities for Every Season, written and illustrated by Emma AdBåge, Kids Can Press ©2016.

 

The majority of the book is divided into the four seasons, each with five to seven outdoor math activities so the book provides year round entertainment and education. All of the activities listed looked interesting so of course I had to try a few. My daughter and I enjoyed bouncing a ball for a minute. She was so good at bouncing the ball it was hard to keep track, but we managed to count 135 bounces in one minute. Then we played Tic-Tac-Toe from the book’s Autumn section. We had such a good time playing with our placeholders–seedpods and bits of mulch. After three tied games, I was the lucky winner!

 

Outdoor Math Tic Tac Toe photo by L. Ravitch
Photograph of Outdoor Math inspired activity – Tic Tac Toe by Lucy Ravitch ©2016.

 

The counting and tossing outdoor activities are sure to be a hit with kids even as young as three years old. I felt the rest of the activities could work for almost any age. There are timed activities with counting, as well as activities with maps and shapes, and some games that require coordination. What I love about the book is how many of the activities have kids exercising while they’re doing a math skill. Outdoor Math: Fun Activities for Every Season gives great examples of educational play with simple rules for young kids.

 

Image of Outdoor Math Winter Math Activity Pg 17
Outdoor Math: Fun Activities for Every Season, written and illustrated by Emma AdBåge, Kids Can Press ©2016.

 

Although I live in sunny southern California where it’s summer almost all year long, the activities can be done anywhere. The book is a wonderful STEM resource because it’s easy to substitute objects depending on the time of year and where you live. For example, Pine Cone Math where you collect pine cones can be substituted with shells, rocks or toys instead. I feel confident recommending Outdoor Math as it’s a terrific book for kids and their parents/teachers/grandparents that’s certain to get everyone moving outside while doing math activities. It goes to show that math is all around us and almost any activity can be a math activity! Thank you Emma AdBåge for making a playful and hands-on book for kids.

After playing Outdoor Math, your kids might just find other ways to incorporate math into play too. I was surprised and happy to see my kids making designs from the objects we used. In fact, as you can see below, there is even math to be found in neat designs!

 

Image of Outdoor Math nature inspired design by L Ravitch
Photograph of Outdoor Math inspired activity – design from nature by Lucy Ravitch ©2016.

 

  • Reviewed by Lucy Ravtich
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A Roundup of TanTan Publishing Math Concepts Picture Books

A ROUNDUP OF TANTAN PUBLISHING
MATH CONCEPTS PICTURE BOOKS
featuring:

Could You Lift Up Your Bottom?,
Math at the Art Museum, and Ruffer’s Birthday Party

 

cover_Could-You-Please-Lift-up-Your-BottomThe first book in my roundup is called Could You Lift Up Your Bottom? by Hee-jung Chang with illustrations by Sung-hwa Chung. (TanTan Publishing; $16.95)
This book piqued my interest with its funny title, so I chose to make it my first read of the three math stories books I received. It has a relatively simple story of a frog whose hat has blown away and an elephant who sits on it. Stubborn and greedy Elephant will not move one inch, demanding different shaped food to eat. Frog fulfills the elephant’s requests in hopes that Elephant will lift up his bottom and get off of the hat. Love it! Eventually Frog is able to get Elephant to eat part of a honeycomb in a beehive. He then runs off due to the bees going after him. Could You Lift Up Your Bottom? reminded me a bit of Jon Klassen’s, I Want My Hat Back but teaching shapes along the way. The illustrations are unique and should appeal to kids because they can duplicate the simplistic art style. This book would be a good one to borrow from a library or have in a classroom. It has some nice information and suggested activities in the back of the book as well.

Understanding math concepts
Shape and space
Explaining the basic concept of space and three types of plane figures: triangle, quadrangle (tetragon), circle

 

cover_Math-at-the-Art-MuseumNext, I read Math at the Art Museum by Group Majoongmul and illustrated by Yun-ju Kim. (TanTan Publishing; $16.95)
This picture book is about a boy visiting an art museum with his family. The museum is having a special “Discover Math in Art” exhibit. Numerals, colors, shapes, direction, perspective, symmetry, and time are discussed as the family looks at different paintings from Seurat, Picasso, Degas, and more. I found this to be an enjoyable read that would engage children 4-9. In addition to liking the story, kids would like looking at the artwork presented in the book. Again, the publisher gave information in the back matter with suggestions for activities, but my favorite part was this quote, “Because math is not a field that deals only with numbers and calculations, it’s important to encourage children to look for and learn from mathematical concepts in unexpected places, including in artwork.” I wholeheartedly agree–we should be showing children that math is all around us and isn’t just a stand alone subject to be shared only in school. I’m happy to discover these kid-oriented math stories that strive to make math concepts accessible to all.

Understanding math concepts
Patterns and problem solving
Introducing mathematical concepts that are found in our surroundings to give children a fresh perspective on math: math in art

 

cover_Ruffers-Birthday-PartyMy final read from this group of books was Ruffer’s Birthday Party by Soon-jae Shin and illustrated by Min-jung Kim. The concepts emphasized are addition and subtraction, but a lot of other math concepts were shown in this book! I know kids will love it with the hands-on math examples. Ruffer is Nora’s pet dog and it’s his birthday in four days. They make invitations (to three friends and their pets–which they have to add up since they want to give an invitation to each of them), count down to the birthday party, bake a special cake (and since they are short on eggs they have to buy more at the store), they go to the store for last minute items (and there is a sale so we have to figure out the full price minus the discount and eventually figure out the total of the sale). Then, at the party Ruffer gets presents (and makes a chart to organize them–bones, stuffed animals, and balls) and everyone plays a ring toss game (in two teams with a few simple rules). It’s a fun read for kids who already love birthday books too!

Understanding math concepts
Numbers and operations
Dealing with operations with mathematical signs (÷, ×, +, -): addition and subtraction

 

  • Reviewed by Lucy Ravitch
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