skip to Main Content

Nonfiction Picture Book Review – A River of Dust

 

A RIVER OF DUST

Written by Jilanne Hoffmann

Illustrated by Eugenia Mello

(Chronicle Books; $18.99, Ages 5-10)

A River of Dust cover North Africa to Amazon.

 

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly
A Junior Library Guild Selection
An ALA 2024 Notable Picture Book

 

Before even opening up A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, I was dazzled by the dusting of gold on the title that I hadn’t noticed in photos.

Told from an engaging personified point of view, this picture book’s narrator introduces itself in the third spread. “I am dust, the dust of North Africa.” Readers are told that this dust connects continents and I, for one, was eager to find out how. The concept fascinated me; dust describing what an important role it plays in the ecosystem as it makes its way from “a ribbon of land spread between the Sahara Desert, to the north, and tropical savanna, to the south. Land that stretches from the Red Sea, in the east, to the Atlantic Ocean, in the west.” Wow! I never thought about dust this way before.

 

A River of Dust int1 millions of years ago.
Interior spread from A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

 

The flow of Hoffmann’s lyrical prose shares just the right amount of information for young readers to absorb. The warm muted desert tones of Mello’s illustrations rendered digitally and filled with flora and fauna, combine with the text to convey the importance of dust in our world. Each spread shows movement as the dust is carried across the pages. Older kids will pick up details that may not necessarily resonate with Kindergartners yet there is still so much for them to glean.

 

A River of Dust int2 I come from the Sahel.
Interior spread from A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

While all readers learn that much of the dust disappears in myriad ways along the journey from North Africa to the Amazon, they’ll also find out how crucial the remaining dust is. Its cargo, precious phosphorus, is vital for the “rain-washed, depleted soil.” It will nourish the trees and help maintain the ecosystem.

 

A River of Dust int3 I fly across the Atlantic.
Interior spread from A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

I wanted to know more about this layered, lush, and poetic picture book because of the wide age range. I asked Hoffmann how she feels the book can meet the differing needs and interests of the youngest to oldest audience members. What she told me would be helpful for parents, caregivers, teachers, and librarians to incorporate into any reading. Its broad reach is what makes the book so appealing.

“I think that kindergarten through 5th grade can get things out of the book, at different levels of comprehension. When I read it to younger kids, I focus on how we’re all connected, and how two continents maintain their connections, despite being separated for a LONG time, something that littles understand, because they miss people in their lives who may live far away, or they remember what it was like to be left by a parent on their first day of school. And how they stay connected through phone calls, or letters, or even Zoom calls. I also talk simply about phosphorus, and how dust carries it, and how it’s a mineral like calcium and iron, things that their bodies need to grow and be healthy (and how every living thing on this planet requires those things).”

 

A River of Dust int4 the dust of North Africa
Interior spread from A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

Info-packed pages of backmatter complete A River of Dust with facts for the oldest and most curious of readers. Even if you’re not scientifically minded, there is something in these six pages for everyone. Hoffmann explained this to me.

“The older kids get more info about how scientists figured this out through satellites, info about plate tectonics, how scientific understanding continues to change/evolve, etc. So the book can be understood simply or in a more complex way. My educator guide provides a ton of different activities across the curriculum for K-5, including a PE game.”

Be sure to check out the helpful and detailed learning resources available on Hoffman’s website to access the impressive educator’s guides, activities, and more. Pick up a copy today and let your kids be armchair travelers on this illuminating journey alongside dust that never ceases to amaze as it educates.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Share this:

STEM Picture Book Review – Good Night, Oppy!

 

GOOD NIGHT, OPPY!

Written by James McGowan

Illustrated by Graham Carter

(Boyds Mills Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

 

Good Reads With Ronna is thrilled to be the third stop on the Good Night, Oppy! Blog Tour. I didn’t hesitate to join in when I heard that James McGowan’s debut picture book was about the Mars rover, Opportunity. I live less than a mile or so from NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) where the rovers are created, maintained, and communicated with so I was eager to learn more about Oppy. She was first launched in 2003 when I still lived abroad and was raising children, with little time to think about planetary exploration.

 

Good Night Oppy! int1
Interior spread from Good Night, Oppy! written by James McGowan and illustrated by Graham Carter, Boyds Mills Press ©2021.

 

 

In McGowan’s story, he’s anthropomorphized the rover and introduced us to Oppy, one of two rovers on the Red Planet in 2004 searching for signs of past life. He blends the fictionalized narrative of hard-working and fun-loving Oppy, a solar-and-battery-powered robot roaming Mars and reporting back to her handlers on Earth, with fascinating scientific facts on most spreads. Plus, the onomatopoeia of the sound effect “Ping! Ping!” before a command from Earth adds an extra atmospheric touch that kids will enjoy repeating.

Readers learn that Oppy, as an Interplanetary Detective, remained in daily contact with “Teams of scientists and engineers …” who command and operate spacecraft using the Deep Space Network (a system of huge antennae throughout the solar system).  I always wondered how that worked! In fact, my friend’s husband was one of those JPL experts who, among other key responsibilities, received Oppy’s real-life signals on Earth. Equipped with cameras and other equipment for info transmission, Oppy’s job was to photograph and navigate Mars, report back and explore, explore and explore. In fact, over her lifetime she trekked twenty-eight miles providing invaluable information about the Red Planet for scientists and engineers.

 

 

Good Night Oppy! int2
Interior art from Good Night, Oppy! written by James McGowan and illustrated by Graham Carter, Boyds Mills Press ©2021.

 

Having successfully dodged many potential disasters, things changed for Oppy in June of 2018 when she went to recharge her battery. She needed a place where the sun could reach her solar panels unobstructed, but a powerful dust storm approached. Getting a message to Earth was impossible as layer upon layer of dust covered her panels. Oppy’s power was running low. With the sun obscured, she’d be unable to recharge. She managed to outrace the worst of the storm and transmit one last time to Earth before losing power forever.

What a game changer the rovers have been! Some of Oppy’s finds have been groundbreaking including her discovery of the mineral hematite on the surface of Mars meaning that at one time there had been groundwater. Another time Oppy got stuck in a sand dune and the process of getting her out required clever commandeering (see art above). That unfortunate experience also helped future rovers and technicians know what areas to avoid! Oppy was productive and persevered well beyond what the teams had ever expected. McGowan’s Author’s Note explains that both Opportunity and her sister rover, Spirit, were designed for ninety-day missions yet Spirit worked for six years while Oppy “worked for almost fifteen years!”

 

 

Good Night Oppy! int3
Interior spread from Good Night, Oppy! written by James McGowan and illustrated by Graham Carter, Boyds Mills Press ©2021.

 

 

Carter’s expansive illustrations in an array of red tones depict the vastness and dryness of Mars. Spreads are never stagnant and present an expressive Oppy on the go, investigating, soaking up the sun, and receiving commands from Earth that dictate which activities to pursue. I like how several times we’re transported to JPL command central for a different perspective of Oppy’s daily life. And, as the massive storm that ultimately ended Oppy’s career bore down on Mars, I felt sad when Oppy fell silent. By humanizing the rover, McGowan’s made Oppy’s contributions feel that much more important than they already are. Presenting Oppy’s story in this way makes it more compelling to younger readers and those more reluctant to pick up a STEM book. I learned so much and children will too. Such a great way to make kids care about our universe. Thank you and good night, Oppy! If you want to read more about Good Night, Oppy!, check out the other bloggers on the tour listed below.

 

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Click here for coloring pages.

 

Oppy Blog Tour

Share this:

The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas

THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A PET BLACK HOLE
Written and illustrated by Michelle Cuevas
(Dial BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

“The story began on an afternoon the color of comets, with a girl dressed all in black. A sad girl. A girl with a hole in her heart, and darkness on the horizon.” The year is 1977 and eleven-year-old Stella Rodriguez, the protagonist in The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas, loves science. She’s fascinated by the upcoming Voyager launch and visits NASA to give Carl Sagan a recording to take to space—one of Stella and her (deceased) father, laughing and telling jokes. The Voyager will carry all the “wonderful sounds of Earth” but Stella’s younger brother, Cosmo, asks “Are there sad sounds too?”

Stella’s turned away at NASA, but a black hole who seems to want to be her pet follows her home. She names him Larry, short for Singularity, a place of infinite gravity at the heart of a black hole. Using puppy training books, Stella learns to care for and train her black hole. When, like all unruly pets, Larry consumes inappropriate things, Stella realizes he could serve as a repository for items she wants out of her life along with their corresponding memories. Maybe nothingness is better than the pain of remembering.

Cuevas’s illustrations intersperse her text, adding visual interest. When Stella enters the black hole, the pages turn black. The interstellar adventure inside Larry is riotous fun involving the kids, their puppy, the smelly classroom hamster, an assortment of discarded things, and the family’s bathtub. The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole is an entertaining and lighthearted story surrounding the gravity of Stella’s aching grief.

Eventually, Stella realizes even if she has a hole in her center “that’s okay, because it’s full of such beautiful, beautiful things.” In the clever appendix, “A Beginners Guide to the Care and Feeding of Black Holes,” Stella Rodriguez graciously summarizes all she has learned.

Have a look inside …

 

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com

@WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

Share this:
Back To Top