December 2009

Colleen Mondor


Nonfiction Books for Curious Readers

When it comes to gift giving for the age-ten-and-up crowd, unless you have a teenage girl who is rabid for all things Twilight (and honestly probably owns all things Twilight), it can be tough for the aunts, uncles and grandparents (let alone parents) to figure out what to buy. While I love a novel as much as the next person, I think there is a wealth of exemplary nonfiction available for kids and teens that must be seen to be believed. If you have a curious reader there is no reason not to indulge their favorite subject this time of year. Buy a book that makes them think and lets them dream and then sit back and see what good things come to pass about the real world. (Because last time I checked, chasing sparkly vamps was not a way to make a living.) 

First up is a doorstop of a title, Prehistoric Life: The Definitive History of Life on Earth from DK. With a wide group of contributors and a staggering number of full color illustrations and photographs, this 500-page monster is what all other coffee table books wish they could be. With timelines, fossils, healthy discussion of what we know for sure and what we think, mini-biographies of significant figures in the world of natural history and paleontology, plus more discussion on more dinosaurs then any Jurassic Park fan can stand, this is the book to beat when it comes to the subject. What’s really nice is that the younger set (and we’re talking down to dino lovers of the six- and seven-year-old variety) will love the pictures, while older readers will find the information to be equally dazzling. It is not a book that can be outgrown, however, so while it has a hefty price, it should be viewed as an investment. This is the book that all others can spin off from -- if you find a creature or person or period that interests you after reading Prehistoric Life, you can look deeper in that direction elsewhere. In the meantime, though, your interest will have been piqued by the gorgeous presentation here (from the cover to the endpapers, beauty is the standard) and readers will likely move on to places they never knew existed as they read about creatures they can barely imagine.

DK just keeps raising the bar when it comes to big books on nature and science and I remain deeply impressed by the hard work they do to get things both right and aesthetically pleasing. Science should be something we love, not dread (banish all memories of my seventh-grade earth science class, please) and Prehistoric Life is another way to celebrate a young person’s interest in what came before. 

Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field series continues to be one of the first I recommend to middle school and teen readers, and their recent releases are no exception. From hurricane hunting to studying the impact of a widely used pesticide on frogs to the search for the elusive snow leopard, there is some thing for everyone in the 2009 titles. Anyone unsure of what to get their curious readers with an interest in general science need look no further than these heavily illustrated books and the series’s impressive backlist for more ideas. For homeschoolers they are a no-brainer, and any library without them is sorely lacking, as far as I’m concerned.  

Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature’s Mysteries from Perilous Places by Donna Jackson looks at three scientists engaged in unusual research. From tracking hurricanes in turbo-prop aircraft flown straight into the storm’s eye to a caver looking for microbes in some of the most inaccessible places on earth to “skywalkers” studying the ecology of redwoods from the crowns of the old growth forest, Jackson provides three vastly different and unique viewpoints on what the job of a twenty-first century scientist can be. There is danger to be found for sure, but also an enormous amount of intelligence and care in every step these people take as they pursue answers to nature’s questions. The title does not exaggerate; this is truly “extreme science,” but it is also exciting on both an Indiana Jones and Charles Darwin scale. In this title, Jackson makes clear that scientists must bravely engage in the world but also carefully bring information back to assess and investigate in the lab.

Series founders Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop would certainly agree with Jackson as they took to the field in Mongolia to pursue the snow leopard with scientist Tom McCarthy and his team in Saving the Ghost of the Mountain. The snow leopard is one of the most elusive creatures on earth, capable of blending into the background of its mountainous home in a way that very nearly defies gravity, let alone the five senses. McCarthy’s determination to not only better understand the snow leopard, but also save it, is the heartbeat of Montgomery’s story, and combined with Bishop’s glorious photographs of the landscape and people who live within it, readers gain a true measure of just how difficult a task he has embraced. More than just the snow leopard itself, however, Saving the Ghost of the Mountain is also about the people who live near the animal and their struggle to accept the predator even though it occasionally kills their livestock. This is as much a story about living with the snow leopard as it is about protecting it, something that is critical to successful wildlife conservation. Montgomery includes information on the Snow Leopard Trust and ways in which readers can support the animal through buying the crafts of those who live near it, and are now dedicated to keeping it alive in the wild. 

Pamela Turner and photographer Andy Comins look much closer to home to tell the story of biologist Tyrone Hays in The Frog Scientist. Hays is involved in ongoing research into the effects of atrazine on frogs. Atrazine is the most commonly used pesticide in the United States, but Hays has discovered that exposure to atrazine causes “some of the male frogs to develop into bizarre half-male, half-female frogs.” His careful development, both in the lab and the wild, of experiments researching diminishing frog populations is an example of science at its best. Turner shows the control Hays and his assistants exert over their experiments so there can be no questions when their results are determined. For this real-world example of textbook standards alone, The Frog Scientist would be a winner in my book, but the fact that Hays is African-American, and that Turner makes his personal story key to the book’s narrative, raises it above similar titles in the field. His story is in fact just the latest example of the Scientists in the Field series showing diversity among the science ranks. In all three of these books, the work of both genders is celebrated, and the team tracking the snow leopard is peopled with a number drawn from the region, while Hays’ laboratory is full of students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Teens will also appreciate that Hays and McCarthy have their children join them in their research and all are actively involved in their fathers’ work. So regardless of gender, ethnicity or economic status, the Scientist in the Field titles will resonate with all readers. It's nonfiction writing (and photography) at its best, and incredibly inspirational to boot.

Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past by James Deem is a combination of science and adventure that is hard to resist. Deem presents several reports here of bodies found in melting glaciers, from the famous, like mountaineer George Mallory, who might have been the first man to summit Mt. Everest, to the unbelievable, like two tourists who discovered the body of a man who lived 5,300 years ago. Deem shows these remarkable stories preserved in the ice and snow. Heavily illustrated with photographs and all kinds of neat forensic info, Bodies from the Ice combines a very cool and underreported subject with eye-catching illustrations. It’s also pretty neat how Deem drops matter-of-fact bits into the text, such as when he explains that initially authorities weren’t too excited about the Copper Age discovery of “Otzi” because they thought the tourists had found the body of long-missing music professor from 1938. Finding a body in a glacier is not such a startling thing for the locals -- although Otzi certainly rocked everyone’s world. 

There is a side bar on Louis Agassiz, the “father of glaciology” and an interesting historic report on women which discusses the first woman to climb Mont Blanc, around 1808 (she was on her way home from work and agreed to join some mountaineers on an adventure -- can you imagine?). There are the mummified remains of children sacrificed in the Andes during the 17th century, and of course, a detailed report on Mallory and his still missing companion, climber Andrew Irvine. Deem provides several consistently compelling examples of science in action and will certainly inspire any reader intrigued by mountaineering. He also discusses glacier preservation and provides graphic photos showing how far glaciers have receded in recent years. This is an unassuming title that will be a big hit with certain readers and is an obvious choice for any child over ten with a forensic bent. 

Pamela Turner has another recent title out, Prowling the Seas: Exploring the Hidden World of Ocean Predators, which highlights the work of scientists involved in the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) project. Split over four chapters, Turner shows how TOPP tracks leatherback turtles, bluefin tuna, white sharks and shearwaters, a small yet greatly traveled seabird. The object of TOPP is to understand where these ocean predators travel and what they eat in an effort to better understand and protect them. Along with photographs of the animals and scientists at work, Turner also includes maps showing where the specific wildlife traveled to. One particularly interesting story involves the great white whose tag came loose and washed up in a California tidal pool, where it was found by a five-year-old boy. His grandparents used the still visible contact information on its side to report the discovery and collect a $500 reward. The data was still good and what it showed about the shark’s journey across the Pacific proved to be immensely valuable and also, quite frankly, downright cool. 

Prowling the Seas includes web site info for TOPP so readers can see the paths of other animals they track and Turner also provides significant information about the declining populations of all the predators she covered. The bluefin have suffered the most dramatic declines due to overfishing but with the hard work of the TOPP crew perhaps they will come back before it’s too late. It’s something to think about and future environmentalists are going to enjoy very much seeing the active research that is going into saving some of the ocean’s most threatened creatures. 

History buffs will fall big time for all the drama in Martin Sandler’s Secret Subway. This story has it all: a clear-eyed inventor with a dramatic idea, a greedy and controlling villain determined to stop him at all costs, and the city that never sleeps -- even in the mid-nineteenth century. Alfred Ely Beach, who is woefully unknown today, wanted to alleviate New York City’s chronic congestion by building a subway system powered by pneumatic tubes. It was a clean and perfect solution to the problems found on the crowded city streets (just try to imagine how much horse manure was present in Manhattan in 1860 on a daily basis). Beach got as far as building a demonstration tunnel and elegant waiting station (including fountain, grand piano and chandelier) with a working subway car before his dream was destroyed partly through the political machinations of Boss Tweed, one of the most powerful and corrupt politicians in US history. Tweed’s problem was that Beach was doing all this without paying him off first; he didn’t bow down to Tweed and his cronies, and because of this, Beach and his invention had to be stopped. (If you wonder just how much of a jerk Tweed was, check out The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley and find out what he did to that poor man, and what ended up being buried in Central Park because of it.)

As Sandler recounts, it was not really Tweed but the financial panic of 1873 that brought an end to the subway project and Beach sadly did not live to see the construction of the city’s subway system. The author recounts how it did eventually come about, however, and the part played in its development by the catastrophic Blizzard of 1888. (More than 400 people died and thousands were trapped as the streets and rail lines were covered in snow.) In the construction of the system, Beach’s original line was discovered one last time, and Sandler includes photos of his original tunnel as it was seen in 1912. “Beach’s subway car was still on the tracks… the magnificent waiting room fountain still stood tall.” Nothing was recovered, unfortunately, and the whole amazing experiment remains buried under city streets, waiting to be found again and hopefully, finally, celebrated.

With dozens of photographs to accompany the text, Secret Subway is candy for history buffs and fans of underground cities. Whether you long to know more about New York, or invent an underground world of your own on the page, Martin Sandler is the guide you want, and the author who has finally brought a bit of limelight back to the irrepressible Alfred Beach.

For Christmas my final year in high school, my grandmother gave me a dictionary which I still have (and use) today. Not to get all Rory Gilmore on you, but I find that certain fundamental reference books are still quality choices for kids, regardless of the overall awesomeness of the internet. While I can sort of understand bypassing dictionaries (actually I can’t understand, not really) the acquisition of a decent atlas is really mandatory, and for my money if you’re going to go for maps, then you could do a lot worse then steer yourself in the direction of National Geographic. Their new Student Atlas of the World (Third Edition) is a decent size to give you all the full-color maps you want without being the kind of backpack killer that intimidates as much as it informs. There are several useful spreads, like time zones, plate tectonics and environmental hot spots, but it is in the continental sections that the book really sings. There are physical, political, climate, precipitation, population, economics and elevation maps for continents and some countries. The state, province, country and capitols are easily found here along with natural hazards across the continents, and specific regions are highlighted (such as the Amazon Rain Forest). Lots of color is present on each page along with helpful charts covering tons of different subjects. From an adult perspective this has the whole package but none of that matters until you consider the number one issue for kids -- how easy is this book to understand? On that score, National Geographic clearly knows what they are doing and the Student Atlas of the World lives up to its name. For reports, research papers and test studying you couldn’t ask for anything better. And beyond that, for the real fun of just figuring out where you are in the greater world, this is the book to reach for (and the perfect thing for grandmothers everywhere to wrap up for their aspiring explorers). 

The final few pages of the Student Atlas of the World includes flags and statistics for all the independent countries recognized by the National Geographic Society in 2008. While this overview is very nice, if you have someone interested in a continental breakdown of the flags, with a nice dose of history and trivia thrown in, then Flags of the World by Sylvie Bednar is the choice of flag geeks everywhere (and of every age). The book’s rectangular design lends itself well to its subject, and the full-color illustrations of the flags (along with country name and in most cases other basic stats) show up well on the pages. Bednar provides a lot of nice extra information as well, such as why Guatemala, Honduras, El  Salvador and Nicaragua all have two blue stripes and one white one on their flags. (The reason dates back to the 19th century.) You can also see Libya’s completely green flag (just one big old block of green), Tonga’s red cross (not to be confused with The Red Cross) and the repetitive use of red, green and yellow on many African flags (for the record, Ethiopia was first).  

Flags are rarely given the sort of attention they deserve, but in this nicely presented package, Flags of the World manages to put all the flags on equal footing and provide a ton of interesting stories about a lot of countries. Swaziland celebrates its warrior history with their flag, while Lebanon honors its bloody sacrifice for independence and the cedar tree which is revered by both Christian and Muslim religions with theirs. Countless stories of national heritage, religion and even creative competition are shared here. Again, this is an excellent resource for reports and research papers that also invites hours of personal study. Vexillologists everywhere, rejoice!  

Finally, after reading Anastasia Suen’s Wired, I was reminded yet again of how valuable nonfiction picture books truly are. This patiently written step-by-step overview of electricity’s journey from dam to living room light switch is truly a brilliant book. Suen completely demystifies the process making it clear to even the least technologically inclined. There is a lot of new vocabulary here, but no word is casually used. Readers will easily understand atoms, electrons, generators, power plants and transformers. Suen makes sure you “get it” before she moves on. Paul Carrick’s three dimensional illustrations help as well by providing inside views of critical points, literally following the text (and the electrical journey) each step of the way. It’s so easy to understand what’s going on here that I found myself getting excited about a book on electricity. (Something I honestly never would have believed was possible.) No bells and whistles or cute characters can be found in Wired, just straightforward solid science. It will work for readers of any age (and I mean that -- confused adults can learn a lot here), but for that specific child already intent on taking apart small appliances, it will be a treasure. As for homeschoolers, it’s a no-brainer. If ever there was a book for a curious child, this is the one.