December 2007

Colleen Mondor

features

Curious Minds

I’m always bothered by the stress placed upon the proper literary books for young people. It seems in a rush to make children and teens read more (and a deep seeded fear of all NEA reports) many adults toss aside nonfiction for all but book reports and endeavor to focus their children’s efforts on those all important (and long ago determined) classics.

Oh how I do hate the classics sometimes.

In an effort to strike a blow for the interests of children who love forming questions and finding answers (among other nonfiction sorts of things) I’ve found some well written titles that will produce delight and joy in all the right sorts of ways. They may not lead to a love of Austen and Fitzgerald, but they will make certain readers very happy. And that, when it comes to books and young people, is really the only point that ought to matter.

For younger dinosaur fans who have left preschool behind but are still fascinated by all things prehistoric, Nigel Marven’s Dinosaurs is an excellent way to bridge the gap from picture books to encyclopedias. Marven, a naturalist who has made numerous wildlife specials for the BBC, stars in two of the best series out there on dinosaurs, Chased by Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Park. (Both of these are available on DVD and I can’t recommend them enough.) He has put together a solid oversized hardcover that is full of big colorful illustrations while also providing an easy to follow overview of dinosaurs and current discoveries. By the end readers will understand all sorts of things about the subject such as how dinosaur families are genetically separated, the new discoveries in the realm of feathered dinosaurs, and how many of the beasts hunted. There’s a lot here on fossils and fossil hunters and small boxed entries on many of the pages introduce experts in the field who are on the cutting edge of dinosaur discoveries. For any child who one day hopes to become a paleontologist, learning about these people will prove the profession is both vibrant and significant and certainly build their interest.

Along with the brief but insightful entries are numerous different animals (flying reptiles, marine reptiles, Hadrosaurs, Titanosaurs, etc.) there are also discussions of dinosaur teeth and families and dinosaurs by region. At the end of each chapter the author also provides three short columns of links with books, web sites and collections around the world that are open to the public. There is also a very useful glossary that should answer any questions on terminology. Published by Kingfisher, Dinosaurs has high quality photography and an easy layout and is a delight for the dino-mad from beginning to end. This is where you should start with kindergarteners and early elementary schoolers who want more than easy readers on their favorite subject.

For the older kids, Dinosaurs by Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. is the most dynamic title on the subject that I have seen for this age group in awhile. Also packed full of gorgeous illustrations (by the very talented Luis V. Rey), Dinosaurs is much heavier on text and provides an enormous amount of detail on multiple dinosaur families. It is the very original extras that really put this one over the top however, as it also includes contributions by over thirty of the world’s leading paleontologists. This means that readers will not only find a few paragraphs on dinosaur skeletons being put together in museums but will also be treated to Jason Poole, of the Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia, explaining just who fossil preparators are and how they do their jobs. “A fossil collection is like a library of fossils for scientists to learn from,” writes Poole, which provides a whole new image when thinking of the T-Rex in the Museum of Natural History.

In all of the best ways, Dinosaurs is a big general encyclopedia celebrating dozens of different creatures, including both the popularly known and obscure. There are also helpful charts comparing dinosaur age and discussions of how fast dinosaurs grow, how males and females can be told apart and just what daily life might have been like for them. There is even a most interesting contribution from Dr. Robert Bakker, a dinosaur detective, who along with his crew determines how dinosaurs died -- and what killed them -- hundreds of millions of years before. Bakker’s explanation of his profession is just one more reason why this book is so compelling. His passionate interest brings long dead creatures alive and makes it easy to see just why some young dinosaur lovers never give up their passion. I’m certain after reading this book he and the other paleontologists involved will have many new fans. (I should also point out that at over 400 pages this is a worthy read for adults as well.)

For animal lovers, Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field series had three excellent titles come out recently: Quest for the Tree Kangaroo by Sy Montgomery, Emi and the Rhino Scientist by Mary Kate Carson and The Whale Scientists by Fran Hodgkins. Each book focuses not only on a different type of animal, but a different type of studying animals. In Tree Kangaroo, Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop (whose photos have accompanied several of the series’ titles), follow scientist Lisa Dabek into the Cloud Forest of New Guinea to locate, study and track the elusive Matschie’s tree kangaroo. The work Dabek and her associates are doing will help understand the animal better and increase its chances to survive. Tree Kangaroo is about conservation science in the bush and includes descriptions of hiking and camping in a remote location. There is also a great deal of the text (and photos) about the native peoples who live near the tree kangaroo and the ways in which they are contributing to its protection.

Emi and the Rhino Scientist focuses on the efforts of Terri Roth and her long term goal to breed the highly endangered Sumatran rhino in captivity. Working from the Cincinnati Zoo, Roth tries to decide the best way to introduce Emi to Ipuh, the resident male, and after they successfully mate Carson follows Roth’s struggle to understand and prevent Emi's multiple miscarriages. Her calf Andalas was the first Sumatran rhino born in captivity in over 100 years and changed everything scientists know about the species. Accompanied by Tom Uhlman’s engaging photos of the animals, Carson goes beyond Emi’s experiences to also cover other types of rhinos and how they are faring in the wild and what is being done to save them worldwide.

Finally, Fran Hodgkins took a different tack in The Whale Scientists and looks at the big picture of whale strandings around the world and the many different people who are working to discover how to prevent this phenomena. She goes back to prehistoric times to discuss the mammal’s evolution and also provides an excellent overview of whale hunting’s history. The many different reasons behind why whales strand, from hearing damage, to confusion, illness and even group behavior (healthy whales do not want to leave an ill one behind) are all discussed along with specific examples of different strandings and what scientists learned from them. Whale Scientists is a interesting look at an ongoing tragedy in marine biology and the efforts to try and solve the mystery.

There are many other Scientists in the Field titles ranging from The Wildlife Detectives to Swimming with Hammerhead Sharks. (Next spring brings The Mysterious Universe!) With so many of today’s kids captivated by Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel, these books look to be an excellent way to expand their interests and show them even more ways they can learn about not only wild creatures, but the people who work with and research them. This is how future scientists are born after all -- by finding out just what it is that they want to do.

The animal world converges with other sciences in the title Cold Light: Creatures, Discoveries and Inventions That Glow by Anita Sitarski. This look at how some creatures make light and not heat introduces all sorts of unusual animals like dragonfish, anglerfish and cucujo beetles, as well as the much more familiar fireflies. Scientists are studying these bioluminescent creatures so they can learn how to make cold light useful in other ways. (Light sticks for example use chemiluminescence or cold light created by chemicals.) Sitarski uses humor and a “can you believe it” attitude in writing on this relatively weighty subject and she not only makes it easy to understand but also makes readers want to understand. From a glowing chicken out of the freezer (covered in bioluminescent bacteria of course) to casual discussion of the historic and modern research on the subject, Sitarski makes readers just as interested as she is. For certain readers this will be a lot of fun to read and is likely one of the few books on the subject that middle grade readers are going to find. Give credit to the author and Boyds Mill Press for treating kids like the smart creatures they most certainly are. (Note that the book is liberally illustrated with photographs, especially of the creepy creatures.)

For the younger set who are animal crazy, David Schwartz and Yael Schy have teamed up with photographer Dwigh Kuhn on Where in the Wild?, a title that explores camouflaged creatures. With poems providing the initial spark, (“Grayish, greenish, blackish tree/The colors you see are the colors of me”), Kuhn’s photos fold out of each two-page spread revealing the obvious that is often impossible to detect otherwise. It’s a trick of a title that will solicit more than a few surprises and leave an impression as to just how smart wild things can be. The authors also provide a solid description of each of the animals along with the picture which will answer questions about their specific habits and spark further discussion.

Switching gears, there are always several groaning shelves in your local bookstore with titles on how to write for the adult wanna-be. Although these have met with varying degrees of success in the market place, (Stephen King’s On Writing still stands out as one of the best in my book), it doesn’t matter how poorly written or ill experienced the authors are; there are always eager future novelists who will buy whatever pitiful advice is out there. (SARK has a new book out on writing, okay? Enough said.) For teen writers the pickings are a lot slimmer and so I was quite pleased to see David Bidini’s For Those About to Write: How I Learned to Love Books and Why I Had to Write Them. Both an excellent source of information on terminology and publication process, For Those About to Write is also a memoir of Bidini’s writing life from childhood to his current professional career. In short paragraphs he writes about teachers who helped him, early jobs, and sources of literary guidance. Along the way he also reflects on books he loves and offers intriguing tidbits about some well known authors. Consider the difficult childhood of Jeanette Winterson:

This acclaimed British novelist had deeply religious parents who forbade her from reading or writing literature, even though she was encouraged to compose sermons, which she was doing by the time she was eight. Young Jeanette was forced to hide books under clothes and do most of her reading behind a locked bathroom door (her parents only owned six books, two of them Bibles). She took to stashing books under her mattress -- she’d hidden seventy-seven of them -- and the plan worked quite well until her mother noticed that Jeanette’s bed was slowly rising, at which point her mother tore the mattress apart and burned everything. This early demonization of literature probably fed Jeanette’s sense of adolescent rebellion and resulted in a successful, well-regarded career.

This sort of information is imparted so quickly and casually that the narrative never slows or gets side-tracked. In other words, teens won’t feel like they are suddenly reading the biographies of great authors instead of the book they want, which is about how to try and become a great author. Bidini makes no promises but he does explain what an agent is and how to get one, different ways to try to get published and offers up a look at one of his own pages after being severely edited. This is a book of solid, concrete information on the work of writing that also salutes books and book lovers along the way. I was delighted with For Those About to Write and highly recommend it for all would-be writers over the age of ten.

For art and history enthusiasts, Jan Mark has written a unusual history of museums with The Museum Book: A Guide to Strange and Wonderful Collections. She begins with a cheeky scenario where she suggests someone walking into a museum with no idea why it exists. All the strange things they encounter seem to point to a collection of some sort but what does it all mean? From those first questions she travels back to the Greek muses and the first museum in Alexandria, Egypt. That is followed by a discussion of collectors of all kinds and the establishment of the second museum in history, which is still functioning, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.

What you really have here, in this beautiful book, is the story of a lot of eccentric people and places. It is about individuals with a burning desire to know as much as they could about something or everything, and how that curiosity fueled the collecting of piles and piles of stuff that eventually ended up in museums. Mark writes about Peter the Great who was mad but determined, the Fifth Baron Pitt Rivers who was the first archaeologist, and Lord Elgin who took a whole lot of Greece back home with him to London (and now the Greeks would like it back, please). Hoaxes, marvels and oddities are mentioned just as the very nature of curiosity is celebrated. The Museum Book is really a unusually fun book about a usually academic subject and while Mark deserves a lot of credit for writing about what seems a staid subject in a fresh and modern way, illustrator Richard Holland deserves a boatload of credit for his fantastic accompanying illustrations. Adopting a “mixed media approach using print and collage” he has created some wonderful images here. Every page is a designer’s joy and art lovers will relish seeing what Holland has done to bring Mark’s text alive. The combination of famous artwork, witty typography and backdrops ranging from a sepia tinged view of the Acropolis to a brilliant celestial sky, makes this book a dazzler from start to finish. I didn’t want it to end and I dearly wish Mark was still with us so she and Holland could work together again on another book like this one. The Museum Book is ageless; get a copy for anyone who ever enjoyed a visit.

Finally, Stones, Bones and Stitches: Storytelling Through Inuit Art is an introduction to the art of the North, featuring works from the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Several Inuit artists both past and present are featured along with full color photographs of some of their work (which ranges from carvings to fabric wall hangings). Curators Shelley Falconer and Shawna White provide personal histories on the artists which will particularly interest readers keen to know more about indigenous peoples. Quite frankly I’ve never seen such a beautifully put together book on art for young people before; this is an excellent resource for those looking to know more about the art history of indigenous peoples.

Stones, Bones and Stitches is a somewhat simplified version of an adult art book but it does not talk down to its audience; rather it lifts them up with its well written and illustrated passages on a most worthy subject. We could do better with more titles like this on all matter of North American artists; it is a rich way to learn about how people of all kinds can express themselves in beautiful and lasting ways.